Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

A Critique of “Critique”: What Is Still Wrong with the Academic Left

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There is a recurring form of argument on the academic Left that I believe deserves more critical scrutiny. I will call the form of argument “critique,” although I obviously mean something more specific than the ordinary meaning of the term. The peculiar structure of this “critique” is arguably a defining feature of the contemporary academic Left, yet it is rarely acknowledged as a specific gesture — as something that the academic Left characteristically does, and is virtually alone in doing.

When I say “critique,” what I have in mind is the following simple structure of argument, which can be, and has been, executed with countless variations:

  • Step One: Begin by identifying something — especially a powerful institution or idea — that the mainstream liberal political culture assumes to be largely a good thing, such as human rights, the language of rights in general, the rule of law, foreign aid, peacekeeping, or free speech.
  • Step Two: Identify something — especially some pathology involving inequalities of power — that the mainstream liberal political culture views as a bad thing, such as global poverty, war, sex trafficking, or gender discrimination. Often, from the perspective of the mainstream liberal political culture, the problem here will be endemic, and susceptible to no easy solution, although the mainstream liberal political culture views itself as committed to finding better solutions.
  • Step Three — and here is the conjuring trick, where the leftist scholar really has a chance to display intellectual virtuosity: Reveal that the institution or idea from Step One is in fact responsible for the perpetuation of the evil in Step Two. What the liberal thinker assumed to be a good thing — is in fact complicit in what he agrees is a bad thing! For example, it is revealed that the liberal “rule of law” is only a smokescreen for the imposition of exploitative neoliberal economic policies on less powerful countries and communities. Or one discovers that liberal “human rights law,” far from opposing cruelty and promoting the equality of all people, perpetuates racist, colonial-imperialist, extractive-capitalist, patriarchal, and ableist assumptions and power-structures — and moreover, through its emphasis on rational autonomy, attempts to deprive the cognitively impaired of human dignity!

There is no Step Four. The academic Left is defiantly unconcerned with proposing less-worse alternatives to the status quo. Rather, the aim is critique, and critique alone.

This is, in other words, a profoundly unpragmatic mode of argument — as the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty recognized already in his late-1990s criticisms of the spectatorial academic Left. It does not live in a world of better and worse practical alternatives. It is not interested in what reforms might be possible, or how to get from where we are to some better state of affairs. It denounces the status quo in the righteously indignant tone of someone who knows of a better alternative and is outraged that this alternative continues not to be realized — but without specifying what that alternative might be, or indeed showing any interest in the question of alternatives.

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Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Wittgensteinian philosophical history

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One of the remarkable features of Wittgenstein’s thought is its startling lack of concern for or interest in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein apparently stated with pride that he had never read a word of Aristotle, and his occasional references to Heidegger and Kierkegaard suggest that he read them more as sources of poetic insight into the human condition than as sources of contestable philosophical theses.

When Wittgenstein writes critically of “philosophy” in his later writings—that is, when he is not using the term “philosophy” to refer to his own preferred mode of therapeutic problem-relief—he almost always seems to have in mind the kind of analytic-style philosophical problem-solving practiced by Cambridge philosophers such as Russell and Moore. It is unclear how he would criticize, or indeed if he would criticize, the sort of philosophical writing produced by other philosophical traditions, whether ancient or modern—or for that matter, non-Western or Western.

So, following up on previous posts on this topic (“Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?“), one way forward from the later Wittgenstein might simply be to ask: what would it be like to read other philosophical traditions through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later works? What would an encounter look like between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods and the dialogues of Plato, or the science of logic of Hegel? What might a therapeutic Wittgensteinian think about Heidegger’s ontological claims, or Derrida’s playfully evasive transcendentalist moves? What might Wittgenstein have to say about various figures in, say, Chinese or Indian philosophy?

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Literature

Why are defenses of the humanities so weak?

Every few weeks, I’ll come across an article diagnosing or lamenting the decline in the humanities, or the crisis in the humanities, or the collapse of English departments.

I’m sure there are already good, strong defenses of the humanities out there. But it seems to me that many of the ones I read are extremely wishy-washy. They’ll refer to the value of shaping the soul, or something like that—which is no doubt a good general label for the kinds of valuable things that humanistic study can offer, once one already understands what these things are. But it’s not a helpful label, because it’s too abstract. If you don’t already know, concretely, what the study of literature, history, philosophy, etc. can do for a person, saying that they can help shape young people’s souls will shed little light. No one who doubts the value of reading novels and poetry and Plato will be at all persuaded by someone saying things like: “They’ll make you a complete person, someone who is able to critically reflect upon her place in the world…”

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ll sometimes come across defenses of the humanities that fail by being too narrowly specific, or specific in the wrong way. To say that the world needs departments of English, Philosophy, or Art History because they help teach students how to write critically invites obvious objections such as: if the goal is teaching critical writing, why not just teach critical writing? Why spend so much time reading Milton? Similarly, the argument that the humanities teach the valuable skill of how to critically analyze cultural objects invites well-founded objections such as: what is the value of critically analyzing all of these cultural objects, in such great depth? Why do we need so many people to learn the history of film, or of medieval lyric? Sure, you might enjoy Bertran de Born, but a lot of people enjoy a lot of things. What is the value to society, or to yourself, of indulging and refining your enjoyment of aesthetic objects for four years?

(Actually, the argument that studying the humanities is valuable because it refines our aesthetic perceptions—makes us able to perceive subtle differences that we would otherwise have been blind to—isn’t an entirely worthless argument. But standing alone, I’m not sure it’s strong enough to justify the kind of commitment to humanistic study that defenders of the humanities wish to preserve.)

Also, combining these two justifications under the banner of “cultural literacy” doesn’t solve the problem. As J.M. Coetzee noted: “[i]f critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself?”

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Politics

Interlude: the academic left, imaginary politics, and the Reagan era

So the story goes that in the two decades before Reagan’s election, the conservative movement spent its time in the electoral wilderness laying the intellectual and institutional groundwork for vengeance—that is, for a resurgent attack on the New Deal. When Reagan came to power, he was able to draw on the conservative movement’s plans and institutions, and he began to turn their ideas into actual policies.

What did the American left do during its equivalent decades in the wilderness? What did it do beginning in the 1980s, as it became increasingly clear that the American public was not on its side?

Rather than preparing the groundwork for a return to power, many of the members of the intellectual left, especially those within academia, viewed “power” itself with hostility and suspicion. Professors and students who possessed the leisure and training to participate in an ideological reformation of the American left did not do so.

Instead, they actively rejected engagement with electoral politics and committed themselves to intellectual projects that eventually came to be grouped under the banner of “theory.” This was not “political theory” as traditionally understood, not a new episode in the conversation stretching from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Rawls and Nozick. Rather, “theory” as practiced by the academic left during the Reagan era largely consisted of a variety of speculative philosophical projects with their roots in the French left’s response to German thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Heidegger. (Much of Derrida’s mid-career work, for example, can be seen as a French leftist synthesis of the linguistic structuralism of Saussure with Heidegger’s idea that human finitude makes meaning possible. Much of Foucault’s work derives from Nietzsche’s concept of “geneology.” And so on. )

The primary focus of the academic left since the 1980s has been relentless, jargon-intensive critique of existing social power relations, such as the relationship between man and woman, straight and gay, white and black, or colonizer and colonized. These critiques have been valuable in reshaping widely held cultural assumptions about marginalized groups. There is no doubt that they played an important role in advancing the goals of the women’s rights and gay rights movements.

For several reasons, however, the critiques made by the academic left during the Reagan era failed to offer an effective challenge to the economic presuppositions of that era, much less to the electoral outcomes that effectively allowed the conservative movement to define American foreign and domestic policies for three decades.

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