It is not easy to give up on a tradition that promises to rationalize, explain, and thereby ultimately help improve, society. This article narrates the history of Critical Theory in three stages, following the dynamics of its own self-criticism during distinct historical periods and within different societies. Horkheimer/Adorno, Habermas and Honneth are read as participating in a philosophical project of societal rationalism which can be criticized by appeal to a pragmatist view of social theories, and specifically the ‘pragmatic maxim’. In spite of its post-metaphysical announcements, Critical Theory overextends itself when it seeks to reconcile fully the normative and the empirical. An alternative, and more explicitly ethical and empirically controllable, scheme for critical theories (plural!) is suggested.