The Trouble with Critical Theory

If you are not a Marxist and you get into an argument with a Marxist about justice, you will become annoyed.  You might make a very reasonable-sounding argument such as "Of course some wars are just, and it is right for a state to compel its citizens into fighting them!  Just look at the United States’ involvement in World War II.  We had to stop the Nazis."  And, of course, the Marxist will reply with some very reasonable-sounding comments that will seem to miss your point.  He might, for example, tell you that the people who were fighting on both sides of the Atlantic were mostly workers who were fighting and dying so that the owning class of their respective states could compete for economic dominance, that the Holocaust was willfully ignored by the United States until it was politically advantageous to declare war and then used as a justification for military invasion ex post facto, and that the definition of Fascism is the conglomeration of military and corporate interests.   If you are stubborn or if you have no background in Marxism, you may try another example (or even several of them) to make your point, and become increasingly shocked and frustrated as the Marxist responds to each apparent knock-down example with a list of reasons for why each supposed act of justice was either a political spin or an inconsequential afterthought in a reality of exploitation and persistent battles for class dominance.  It’s not your fault, and it’s not really the Marxist’s fault either.  You are just going to talk past each other.  The reason for this is simple, but it is evasive to many people:  You want to show that justice is a real and achievable goal, and the Marxist has been trained to interpret the use of the term as play for political power.

Now, despite the way I have started out, I do not intend to continue picking on Marxism or Marxists in this post.  As far as the philosophy that came out of Continental Europe after Kant goes, I think Marx is among the best, and arguably the most influential.  And, even if you reject the labor theory of value, and doubt the historical inevitability of the coming communist revolution, it is likely that some of the things (maybe most of the things) that Marx said about the relationship between property and power make a lot of sense to you.  If you think that that money buys power and worry about the honesty and legitimacy of any politician who denies the influence that finance has had upon his campaign, then you owe a debt for your skepticism to Karl Marx.

It is this skepticism which I would like to examine further.

First, I would like to begin with (what I hope are) a few uncontroversial generalizations.  Marxism is one of many critical theories taught in humanities and social science classes in contemporary university classrooms in the Western world.  Specifically, some version of Marxism (and probably also Feminism, and Post-Colonialism, Queer Theory, and any number of other critical theories) will be introduced to the student of literature, history, sociology, and/or anthropology (and possibly psychology) in the context of a broader discussion about the relationships between power, language, and moral norms (e.g. how a group defines ‘justice’) within a society.  In this context, it seems absolutely appropriate for the student asking questions about the nature of justice to seriously consider the skeptical objections raised by critical theory.   Unfortunately, though this is the implicit context in which critical theory is introduced, that context- the question of how power influences our conceptual understanding of justice- is often not made explicit to students.  The consequence of not framing that question explicitly is that many students of the liberal arts graduate from universities with confused and contradictory ideas about the very topics in which they sought an education.

Instead of having a general theory of justice or morality, to which they can apply skeptical criticisms, many students of the liberal arts exit the university as naïve nihilists, certain of very little besides the power dynamic implicit in claims of moral value.  This is especially troubling in light of the fact that many of these students simultaneously participate in campaigns for social justice (e.g. rallying to protest the IMF or World Bank, to protest genocide, to protest the political oppression of women and minorities, etc.).  Ironically, these students are often inspired to participate in various forms of political activism by the same professors who have instilled in them this naïve brand of nihilism.  And it is this background in critical theory that leaves these students in the perverse position of reactionaries, unable to articulate, let alone defend, a positive justification for political action.  If they are self-aware enough to reflect upon their positions, they may realize the paradox of their situation, which is (in loose paraphrase of Jacques Derrida) that they must do justice, but that they do not know what justice is.

Now, it is beyond the scope of this post to answer the critical theorists and other Continental skeptics with a robust account and defense of justice, but, fortunately, I don’t think that kind of response is needed here.  The paradox of moral obligation without moral knowledge is at least as old as Socrates, and it’s something that every serious philosophy student must confront, but it not the starting point of practical philosophy, or of any academic discipline.  Indeed, the assumption that knowledge is impossible is a literal non-starter for any field of inquiry that purports to bring us some understanding of the truth.  So, what we must do instead is bracket this possibility, so that we can make sense of the best arguments and information that we have available to us.   In practical terms, my not-so-novel recommendation is that every liberal arts college student needs at least one introductory course in Classical and Enlightenment philosophy which will serve as a basic foundation for debate and defense of ethical principles.

From this foundation in ethics, the student will be able to make a convincing positive argument for why political equality is more just than exploitation and slavery.  But, inevitably, at some point he will still run into a skeptical Marxist who will point out to him that his own perception of political equality may simply be the result of manipulation of the term by an economic oppressor.  With a solid background in the history of philosophy, this student will not become annoyed with the Marxist, nor will they talk past each other.  Instead, the student can appropriately respond by asking the Marxist to explain his own meta-ethical commitment which is implicit in his use of terms such as “oppression” and “exploitation.”  Then the critical dialogue can begin.

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2 Responses to “The Trouble with Critical Theory”

  1. pastormack Says:

    Forgive me, for philosophy is not really my area, I have only dabbled, but I must ask a question. Why a course on Classical and Enlightenment philosophy? It seems that these two are opposed, on at least one level. I believe this argument comes for Alasdair MacIntyre, but I may butcher it:

    the notion is, as follows: Enlightenment modernity and classical virtue ethics are essentially incompatible. Because modernity (at least, its worst vestiges) has been so concerned with sloughing off all commitments of tradition and community, it stands at odds with the classical notion of the virtuous individual in society.

    I am skeptical about the use of college philosophy courses, at least apart from a return to the classical model of education all together. Of course I am biased, but I think philosophy and theology belong together, and help make one another comprehensible. Those, along with history and literature are in danger of making us a nation of technophiles as deep as a Twitter post.

    I don’t have much use for critical theory myself. In seminary, it seemed a useful tool, especially for doctoral students and feminists who wanted to sound quite intelligent without really saying anything at all. But perhaps I am, again, being cynical.

    Thanks for your help in these matters – I explored this stuff in a religious environment, so I’d appreciate the chance to engage in a different context.

    • Liza Says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful question.

      I am sorry to say that I haven’t read much MacIntyre, and so I won’t be able to respond to his arguments directly. But, from your description, I take it that the incompatibility between Enlightenment and Classical thought has to do with their opposing accounts of moral value. If this is the case, then I think it is still appropriate (for my purposes) to group Classical and Enlightenment philosophy together as the appropriate starting place for an education in ethics. This is because both Classical and Enlightenment philosophers put their emphasis on Reason as the necessary method through which we can attain Knowledge of the world, including Moral Knowledge. This comes in contrast to the critical theories that came after Kant, where the objectivity and validity of Reason itself was called into question. My point is that students ought to be able to make sound positive arguments for ethical principles (e.g. “Slavery is wrong because of X, Y, and Z”) BEFORE they start studying the critical theories that undermine confidence in the objectivity of those principles.

      Also, on a side note, I am amused and pleased that a pastor would stumble upon this page and decide to comment. I hope you can appreciate the fact that we hold in common the desire to Know the Truth and seek the Good, even if we fundamentally disagree on all the particulars.

      -Liza


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