Ted Wrigley's response is an excellent characterization of the historical and ontological differences between the two philosophical movements you invoke in your question. Both movements are characterizations of the tensions which might be viewed in a Hegelian dialectical lens: rational and empiricism, analytical and continental philosophy, objectivity and subjectivity, etc.
Both the Berlin and Vienna Circles did a lot to advance the state of knowledge about the philosophy of science. Carl Hempel, for example, in his Aspects of Scientific Explanation particularly with his Deductive-Nomological model attempted to create a rigorous philosophical basis to clarify aspects of the philosophy of science like what is scientific explanation and how it relates to more developed practices in science such as the use of intuition, deduction, induction, and abduction. Logical Positivism can be viewed as part of a greater arc throughout history to demand certainty in inference which goes back to at least Aristotle and emerged as a symbolic concern in the 1960's in modal logic.
The Greek philosophers including the Presocratics were interested in correspondent, coherent, and pragmatic aspects of truth from the beginning. Euclid is celebrated because the axiomatic method extends certainty to reason. The Scholastics sought it, and by the time science developed and matured, so too did the scientists who are empiricists by nature, who look to use rationalist techniques, to increase the certainty of what is often thought of as an inductive process: the scientific methods. So Logical Positivism sought to separate meaningful scientific discourse from metaphysical speculation and sought to do so with a program that examined the foundations of reasoning in science, to attempt to characterize it in the language of mathematics and logic in order to subject it to analytical rigor.
According to Borchert's entry on Logical Positivism, Ernst Mach rejected the label philosopher, and that Rudolph Carnap wanted to reject all philosophical questions including those of ethics and epistemology citing a hostility between German idealism and science. In fact, the article says that the positivists rejected ethical and metaphysical assertions as mere emotional associations devoid of ontological information entirely.
Critical theories on the other hand are not concerned with the certainty in science at all. The Frankfurt School explored themes regarding society and its transformation, and was interested in the social origins and practices of reason, capitalism, and political equality. Where as the positivists of the day were driving towards greater objectivity, critical theorists were interested in subjectivity and intersubjectivity and explored phenomenological themes.
Again, according to Borchert's entry on critical theory, the two generations of critical theorists beginning with Max Horkheimer look to Kant, Hegel, Weber, and Freud as a "renewal of Marxism" noting the original program was a "version of Karl Marx's Aufhebung of philosophy". In fact, they presumed that they were struggling for a better world by critically examining "instrumental rationality" which served as a "core of domination" paralyzing positive social change.
Think of for instance, of the attempts of the Nazis to "prove" scientifically their racial superiority. While positivists would have rejected these conclusions as not meeting the analytical criteria of science, critical theorists would have approached scientific racism from a perspective recognizing how the institutions of science which supported these conclusions were transparently engaged in political struggles of the Bourgeoisie to oppress the Proletariat from within a Marxist framework. (And on this point, the rejection of scientific racism as non-scientific, the two schools agreed.)
Can somebody point to discoveries / methodologies put forward by proponents of critical theory which are clearly superior to logical positivism? From my current viewpoint it seems that logical positivism is the school of thought which yielded all the progress in the natural science and technology today, while critical theory is more of a programmatic ideology.
As with the other commentators here, I think your question is framed in a way to expose your lack of familiarity of both schools. Both critical theorists and logical positivists proper failed in their direct mission, and fell by the wayside as philosophies. But both schools also influenced the next generation of thinkers of the last 50 years. It's hard to compare a methodology that purports to reach objective, positive truth that rejects ethics as meaningful with one that is normative and is concerned primarily about the ethical implications of a political power structure defining objectivity to its political advantage. Pursuing "what is", and "what should be", after all are two very different goals, and in a sense neither is prima facie more important than the other.
Could you include a passage about the positivism dispute? Is it true that critical rationalists wanted to improve society stepwise while Critical Theory argued that this is not possible and demanded a radical revolution of society? This is the main point I have problem with Critical Theory denying that methods of science should be used to improve upon society.
The following is drawn from Richard Kearney's Modern Movements in European Philosophy. My biases are more analytically empirical than continental, but here's my response:
Technocracy and positive sciences began to become popular in European philosophy in the 20th century and threatened to reorient human meaning in life
as well as aid oppression threatening the perspectives of those who advocate a worldview on the basis of Hegelian and Marxist thinking because positivism in general advocates an objective and neutral analysis and claims that critical examination of social situations is meaningless. Totalitarian and authoritarian governments who had been responsible for two global wars championed empiricist approaches to philosophy as reductionist approaches that manifest an ignorance of ulterior human, structural, and historical facts which actually are the determinants of meaning. Hence, critical theory alongside other anti-positivist continental philosophies like phenomenology and structuralism sought to expose the illusion of neutrality and the harms of attacking metaphysicality as meaningless, both key precepts logical positivism in particular advocated. (p. 2)
Critical theory approached this problem by appealing to Hegelian and humanist Marxism particularly in the Frankfurt School where the importance of philosophy as an activity was defended as being important to defend the ultimate, universal meaning of our world by defending the importance of political and historical analysis of all things. The fusion of Hegel and Marx was to overcome Marx's "narrow economic determinism" (p. 4) which itself dehumanized. One of the leading proponents of this approach and cofounder of the School was Herbert Marcuse who seized on the 1932 publication of Marx's 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to show Marx had gone beyond the views of orthodox 'scientific' Marxists and lent to an important tension between Marxism and the Hegelian dialectical and German Idealism. Labor was reinterpreted not just a concrete practice, but also a form of understanding and development of critical consciousness necessary for overcoming mechanistic economic exploitation. Dialectical humanist Marxism was further developed by Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Juergen Habermas. (pgs. 4-5)
Marcuse criticized positivism as "rationalized irrationalism" since denying the Marx-Hegelian perspective was tantamount to condoning the oppression by conforming to the imperative to think uncritically, and maintained that positivism was complicit in authoritarianism (which he saw as a transformation of capitalism in regards to control from the public to state spheres). Positivism in essence aided authoritarianism by replacing "critical rationality with technological rationality" and excluded the possibility of philosophical consciousness required to enable a revolution. In fact, neo-positivism was in fact reactionary in its rejection of the metaphysical, poetic, and dramatic. The language of positivism sought to "mystify the terms of ordinary language by leaving them in the repressive context of the established universe of discourse" and "curbs the capacity for change". (pgs. 212-213)
In the sake of brevity, I'll make the following assertions given not only the paraphrases above, but a wider reading of the material. You have two issues at hand:
- The nature of the dispute with an interpretation of science consistent with logical positivism.
- The nature of the dispute between two interpretations of Marxism regarding a gradualist and punctuated approach to overcoming economic repression of the proletariat.
On the first question, it depends on your definition of 'science'. Of course, by modern analytical standards, science is no longer divorced from our emotional and irrational impulses. Demasio have essentially used science to show that science can not be truly objective, at least as the logical positivists proclaimed. In this sense, critical theory has been validated. As long as their is economic disparity in the world, a critical theorist would maintain that everyone who participates in very narrowly built version of science entrenched in dominant political ideologies of economic control is in essence disregarding their ethical duty to emancipate the proletariat. Of course, where critical theory seems to have failed is accommodating for the fact that science, technology, and capitalism as practices have lifted billions out of poverty. And the critical theory interpretation of capitalism itself rests on philosophies that are old, and may not adequately capture the modern nature and understanding of capitalism. Norwegian state capitalism would be an obvious example of modern egalitarian power structures.
As far as the divide in how best to achieve the elimination of economic repression inherent in capitalism, critical rationality and critical theory are not at odds, since the former is a type (as far as my brief reading of it is concerned) of the later, but rather critical rationality is at odds with scientific Marxism and it's doctrine of economic determinism which ultimately degenerates into a pragmatic ideological form of social oppression itself. This is why Marcuse and the Frankfurt school advocated not becoming involved in politics, because politics bends the critical theorists mind from the long-term theoretical potential to the short-term practical gain ultimately leading to a degeneration of practice. Marcuse was highly critical of the Soviet Union and Stalin precisely because the practice of Soviet communism wasn't communism at all, but rather absolute totalitarianism. In this way, any efforts to compromise or attempt to gradually create communism would fundamentally corrupt the process. George Orwell, too, made this observation in Animal Farm when the pigs ousted the farmers and became the new oppressors of the rest of the animals.