Against Critical Theory

It can be tremendously motivating to learn what you are, what you believe in . . . and what you do not. It’s especially liberating, I think, when you’re able to drill down into what it is that a lot of other people around you believe in — that really turns you off.

For a number of years now, perhaps since 2014, but certainly since the Trump era really began to sink in (2017), I’ve witnessed with growing alarm a movement whose underlying philosophical assumptions worry me. That movement, broadly speaking, is called Social Justice.

But it’s not Social Justice per se that I disagree with. I agree, of course, in a broad sense, with the goals of the Social Justice movement (although even with those, I have some reservations about the utopianism of such goals, and with many of the movement’s specific goals when it comes to education).

But the part I don’t agree with — that thing that really gets inside my head and speaks to me and says, “This is not how I view the world” — is the underlying philosophy that buttresses much of the Social Justice movement.  That philosophical approach is, as I am starting learn, called Critical Theory.


A lot of my initial opposition to Theory grew out of my growing discomfort with the increased calls on the Left for censorship starting around 2014 at the complex intersection of racial sensitivity and free speech.  It seemed to morph and condense into something I began referring to as the “harm principle”: the idea that the effects of hearing unwanted speech constituted harm (or sometimes “trauma”) on par with physical violence — and that therefore, rather than encourage hearers to withstand or to rebut such speech, we should employ censorship in order to protect hearers of it (usually “marginalized” ones).  

This whole censorship/harm argument, which I do believe was and is one component of the Social Justice movement, was (and is), in my view, fairly easy to understand and not hard to rebut.  Opposition to this whole position was outlined quite nicely, for example, a number of articles and books published in the last five years from centrist or even center-left thinkers and writers, especially Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s bestselling “The Coddling of the American Mind,” but also Nadine Strossen’s book “Hate.” 

But there’s something deeper underneath it, some deeper philosophical argument. It’s the difference between saying that we should allow for prosecution of group defamation — versus saying that the whole idea of neutral principles or viewpoint neutrality embedded in the legal system is a white or western belief that — at best — masks inequalities and — at worst — actively participates in them by allowing the powerful to maintain their power under the guise of impartiality. Those deeper, underlying suspicions toward basic liberalism were what I was starting to pick up on back in 2017, and somehow seemed like they ran quite a bit deeper than the censorship debate.

I remember being at a conference in 2018 and hearing a well-known educator raise her hand and say with a straight face, “The traditional grading system is a tool of white supremacy.” This was a day before we would all, the educators of Vermont, hear the Critical Theorist Robin DiAngelo end a speech imploring us to adopt a Critical approach toward education by saying something along the lines of, “If you disagree with any of what you have heard, ask yourself, what right do you have to disagree with me?”

Those two comments bookended what was unsettling to me about what I was starting to see in the Social Justice movement: the combination of hyperbolic, moralistic statements, all said with a complete confidence, even arrogance.  It had a deeply utopian vibe: get rid of all hatred. It all had a weirdly religious vibe, too: people all around me it seemed were “getting woke” and “admitting their white privilege” — the closest thing I had ever seen up close to people having religious awakenings and testifying to admissions of sin.  They were reacting to smaller and smaller statements, even jokes, with the same horrified looks (“deeply problematic!”) that I’d imagined the Puritans would have had for an exposed wrist or ankle.  The whole thing seemed to give people a kind of deeper meaning and moral guidance in their lives that felt weird to me.  The level of guilt was extremely high, and so was the need for penance.  That all of this was happening among deeply secular people on the progressive left, the kind who were at least one or two generations removed from any kind of formal religious involvement, the sort of people who scoffed at Baptists and evangelists, made it particularly odd.  

The whole thing deeply unnerved me, both on a political level — I wanted more than anything some strong, principled political Left to circle the wagons and double down on institutionalism, liberalism, and democracy against the Trumpian Right — but even more than that, on a philosophical level.  The idea of tearing up the system — the idea of tossing due process, neutral principles, and freedom of speech at precisely the moment when it all was most under attack by the worst demagogue our nation has ever seen — seemed to me a profound misreading of what was necessary, an overreaction of the worst kind.

This was something beyond just arguing for hate speech restrictions.  It wasn’t just about protecting “vulnerable groups” from the wrath of the populist Trump right.  And it wasn’t just about “centering the lived experiences” of “marginalized” populations.  It was about something deeper.  It was about a deep, deep suspicion that any one “way of knowing” — science, for example, but also liberal inquiry itself — could truly understand reality.  It was about saying that any of the systems of liberalism — due process, neutral principles, “liberal science” (aka the marketplace of ideas) — were created by oppressive white Westerners as a way of institutionalizing their own power, and that the system today — rather than being truly open and democratic — maintains the power of white Westerners and oppresses other “ways of knowing” — and really doesn’t get at the truth as a result.  

This, I began to realize, was something entirely different than the “harm principle.” This, I began to realize, is Critical Theory.


It took me a long time to start to learn what Critical Theory really is. It’s sort of roughly parallel with the debate about what Critical Race Theory is — there’s always an easy recourse for supporters to just say, “You haven’t read the literature.” But as time went on, I began to chip away at understanding just what Critical Theory is. 

One of the books that has helped most in this process has been “Cynical Theories,” by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, two of the three authors involved in the notorious “Grievance Studies Affair.” It’s interesting to note that neither of these authors is a formal academic.  In fact, they’re both, from what I can tell, members of the so-called “Dark Web” — the group of thinkers and writers, some conservative, but many not, who comprise a kind of hidden resistance to what they see as Social Justice orthodoxy.  Pluckrose is affiliated with Quillette, for example, one of the outlets for this “movement.” Both authors, Lindsay in particular, seem to see themselves as outsiders or castaways from the traditional academic establishment, truth-tellers to power.  Perhaps as a result, or perhaps the cause for this itself, both authors carry something of a feel of being conservative provocateurs rather than legitimate scholars or researchers, which is interesting.  Their book is well-grounded in the literature, however, and is anything other than unserious.  Yes, there does seem to be some perverse glee taken (particularly in Lindsay’s online presence) from tweaking the Social Justice left, but I’ve tried not to let this distract me from the rather urgent and penetrating analysis of their book itself.

I bought the book when it came out last year, but I had to put it down at first.  I just wasn’t ready  yet.  Cynical Theories (CT) seemed to trace the origins of whatever-it-was I didn’t like about Social Justice — aka Critical Theory — to Michel Foucault, starting back in the 1960s.  I wanted to start back even earlier, with the thinkers who developed the notion of a “critical theory” — the Frankfurt School of philosophers from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  I spent some time reading about this movement, and only then, this past month, did I pick up CT again.  And this time I let myself read it — and how illuminating it was.  

The argument of “Cynical Theories” is that modern Critical Theory is really more about the postmodern movement than the Frankfurt School.  Yes, there are important aspects of the Frankfurt School in the modern Critical Theory.  Yes, the Frankfurt guys developed the idea of a critical theory as one that provides a normative vision of what society should be, and then critiques society based on that; and even though the Frankfurt guys were neo- or cultural Marxists, who subscribed to the Marxian idea that all of life is the oppression of one group by another in a zero-sum game for power, with the dominant group creating hegemonic ideas that they use to keep everyone else in their place, and the Frankfurt thinkers carried this idea from pure economic class to the cultural institutions of the West.  Yes, they discovered and promoted all of this, and yes, these guys were deeply influential.  But there’s something more there, something even more closely connected with modern Social Justice — and that something is postmodernism.

For Pluckrose and Lindsay, postmodernism, which they largely trace back to several French philosophers, chief among them Michel Foucault, all centers around several concepts.

The first is what the authors term the Postmodern Knowledge Principle.  This is defined as, “Radical skepticism as to whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.” For postmodernists, the Enlightenment notion that objective reality can be discovered in a fashion approaching truth via experimentation, reasoning, and falsification is all a fiction.  Postmodern thought takes one small truism — the idea that each of us is limited in our ability to know and must express knowledge through language, categories, and concepts — and “inflates it” to say that all claims to truth are culturally constructed.  

The authors give the example of our “objective” belief that the Earth orbits the sun.  For cultural constructivists, even this belief is a product of our cultural frameworks and ways of thinking.  We believe the Earth orbits the sun because of our belief system regarding orbiting.  A different culture, perhaps, would conclude that the sun orbits the Earth.  Instead of an objective reality discoverable to any person, regardless of their culture, group identity, or background, postmodernists focus instead on the cultural biases and assumptions that create our understandings of reality, evincing a strong skepticism that truth is findable.

Here the authors cite the work of Foucault, who believed that each culture has only one “episteme” which defines what can be known and how, which he believed was supported by the language we use to talk about truth itself — what Foucault broadly called “discourse” — our ways of talking about things.  For Foucault, so-called “dominant discourses” determine what can be considered true, and even how we talk about what can be considered true.  These discourses are put in place and maintained by the powerful, not because they are the best ways to determine what is true, but in order to maintain power over society.  Such conditions restrict the potential of human beings, and quash other forms of determining truth.

In summary, as the authors write, “sociopolitical power is the ultimate determiner of what is true in Foucault’s analysis, not correspondence with reality.” In other words, power determines truth, not correspondence with reality.  Foucault even began to refer to knowledge as “power-knowledge.” The difference here with the concept of Marxist hegemony seems to be that Foucault did not see a single group at the top of society maintaining this power; instead he felt that it flowed through everybody.  Meanwhile, Foucault — in a term the authors call “anti-foundationalism” — argued against notions of objective truth, thinking in “regimes of truth” instead, which change according to each culture’s concept of truth and its “episteme.” All knowledge, for Foucault, was “local to the knower” (34).

Let’s pause for a moment and consider this.  Foucault’s belief that there is no objective truth that can be got at or empirically known, that each culture or group has its own episteme and discourses, which in turn shape what they can learn of reality and inherently limit their ability to either talk to each other about what’s true and which limit their ability to determine truth, sounds a great deal like the tribal societies that Jonathan Rauch describes in his most recent book, The Constitution of Knowledge, as existing prior to the modern liberal science.  In Rauch’s view, this period, during which there was no single system to sort through truth and error, led to endless “creed wars,” a great deal of real bloodshed, and limited ability to understand reality.  With the advent of liberal science, with the Enlightenment notion of truth being eminently accessible (though difficult for any one person to understand on his or her own) to individual actors, all of whom are part of the same human race observing the same reality, we developed a way to sort truth claims and to test which ones were correct.  

The understanding, of course, is that reality is very complex and hard to know, especially for any one person.  As a result, we must pool our resources, and use all of humanity to “check” each other’s answers in an open, democratic process.

This is a very different response than Foucault’s.  Both views take for granted that humans are inherently limited in their ability to know the truth.  But while the liberal answer is actionable, self-correcting, and universal, Foucault’s version seems tribal, futile, and ultimately — as the title of the book indicates — cynical.  I agree very much with Rauch that the liberal system is revolutionary and remarkable.  I think Foucault’s idea just leads us back to the creed wars.

The one thing you could say about Foucault’s theory is that it doesn’t seek to marginalize anyone.  Yes, the liberal system does marginalize certain ways of knowing.  Rauch analyzes this objection to liberalism at length in his classic 1993 book, “Kindly Inquisitors.” The system of knowledge generation that is liberal science (or physical science) does marginalize certain beliefs — Rauch here cites the fundamentalists on the right and the Afro centrists on the left as groups whose beliefs have been pushed out of respectability.  But at the same time, Rauch reminds us in his recent book, without the liberal system, we would never have gotten a COVID vaccine so quickly.  One could easily use the “other ways of knowing” argument to justify anti-vaxxer attitudes, presumably — why insist on the supremacy of medical science as a healing agent?  Or why insist, as the authors allude to later in the book, on the supremacy of “health” at all?

In response to the postmodern objection that any truth claims about reality are socially constructed and therefore all claims deserve equal legitimacy (an attack on liberalism that Rauch calls not postmodern, but the “Humanitarian Principle”), or in response to the claim that the perspectives of historically oppressed groups’ claims to knowledge deserve special precedent (which Rauch calls the “Radical Humanitarian Principle”), Rauch responds with this devastating passage:

“The only-minorities-can-understand argument is anti-intellectualism at its most rancid.  It is the age-old tribalist notion that, as Popper put it, ‘we think with our blood,’ ‘with our national heritage,’ or ‘with our class’ . . .  Accept their credo and you have a race war or a class war where liberal inquiry once was” (146).

Later on, he’s even more blunt:  “One of liberal science’s great social advances was to reject the idea that races or tribes have perspectives” (146).

Here Rauch plays up the political advantages of liberalism: it substitutes criticism of ideas for actually bloodshed.  Yes, pointed critiques can be brutal — words really do hurt — but they’re a lot less bad than actual bullets or clubs.  

So in essence, liberalism replaced the endless creed wars but now, with the postmodern knowledge principle — that all truth is socially and culturally constructed and therefore all groups have equally valid claims to truth, particularly minority or oppressed groups — an appeal to a universal ability of human beings to arrive at a single truth, and a lack of a system to determine what truth really is — we are in a sense in danger of returning to rampant tribalism.

And when I step back and think about it, perhaps it is just that sense of cynical tribalism, that same anti-intellectualism, that I see in Theory which bothers me so much — particularly as a kind of all-hands-on-deck response to Trumpism.  Because at the end of the day, the way to combat tribalism from Trump is not to create more and better tribes.

I’ll write more in a subsequent post about Pluckrose and Lindsay’s fascinating book.