Cynical Theories

Another important aspect of the difference between liberalism and postmodernism is in the notion of skepticism.  Pluckrose and Lindsay are good on this point.  They term postmodern skepticism “radical skepticism” — the suspicion that there is no objective truth, only culturally constructed truth, compared with “reasonable doubt” — the liberal skepticism that holds all truth as provisional until it is proven otherwise.  In other words, the liberal view holds that knowing reality is hard, but the best we can do is set up a huge, open system of “checkers” to validate all claims, and the best ones are accepted as true, provisionally, until someone discredits it and provides a better claim.  This is, in the authors’ view, a “productive and actionable” system, as opposed to the postmodern system, which sets up competing yet irresolvable claims.  It is also a system that has a built-in method of self-correction for its own errors.

There is, of course, a real debate to be had about, to use the postmodernist term, which “ways of knowing” are superior.  This goes back to the ancient tension between reason and revelation — between Athens and Jerusalem, as Leo Strauss has written.  That is a fair critique: to what extent is our society too rationalistic?  And yet, the liberal system for creating knowledge is not the same as the simple physical science system.  Personal experience (“lived experience”) *does* matter in making persuasive arguments — it’s the old Greek concept of “ethos”: an appeal to the speaker’s credibility.  Plus, it’s simple context.  Someone who doesn’t work in education is going to have a hard time making their opinions into accepted knowledge if they don’t have the experience on the ground in the field of education.  I can’t possibly expect to be listened to if I start bloviating about architecture.  

The Madisonian answer is to productively pit competing perspectives against each other, and the more informed argument likely makes the better case and becomes accepted as knowledge.  Knowledge, after all, is not just some form of abstract reasoning.  It’s comprised of experience, and personal, first-hand (dare I say “lived”) experience is the most valid kind.  

That said, just because one has experience does not mean one knows the truth.  Local knowledge — what Foucault values — is often inherently limited in its perspective.  My “lived experience” teaching in just one small, rural high school in Vermont necessarily limits my understanding of the teaching profession as a whole compared to those of colleagues who’ve taught in many different settings.  

Yet it’s important to remember that the liberal system is predicated on the idea of two heads being better than one; the system encourages and even requires the widest participation possible.  Personal experience is certainly heavily valued in this process, not just abstract reasoning.


The second main principle that Pluckrose and Lindsay put forward is called the “Postmodern Political Principle.” It states, “society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”

Scientific knowledge, the Enlightenment, and Marxism, for example, are all considered “metanarratives” by thinkers like Jean-Francois Lyotard, another French postmodernist.  Metanarratives are simply stories that cultures tell about what is true and what is not, and are therefore inherently reflective of existing power structures and therefore political, not objective.  Lyotard expressed his doubt as “skepticism toward metanarratives,” which the authors cite as a particularly influential definition of postmodernism itself.

The main argument here seems to be a familiar one to anyone who has read Marx: “that the powerful have, both intentionally and inadvertently, organized society to benefit them and perpetuate their power.  They have done so by legitimating certain ways of talking about things as true, which then spread throughout society” (36).  These discourses then channel what can be seen as right or wrong — for example the norm of asking for civility or reasoned discourse — even rules of grammar and syntax.  

Examples of controlling discourses include due process of law, which calls for reason and evidence and is open to false testimony, or the scientific publishing industry, which acts as a gatekeeper on entering scientific conversations and thereby excludes certain voices from the conversation.  

Once again, the argument is that these systems are inherently favorable to the already-powerful and therefore serve the needs primarily of the white, male, and Western.  Science, in its appeals to reason and logic, somehow favors the heirs of those who first established the system, or of those who are wealthy and powerful enough to have access to the credentialing systems it requires.  


Here one arrives at the real crux of the issue: the ethical imperative to take political action.  The authors write that “throughout postmodern Theory runs the overtly left-wing idea that oppressive power structures constrain humanity and are to be deplored.  This results in an ethical imperative to deconstruct, challenge, problematize . . .  and resist all ways of thinking that support oppressive structures of power . . .” (37).

This also supports what Rauch cited — namely the impulse to prioritize the “narratives” or truth claims of marginalized or oppressed groups — what is often termed nowadays “centering the experiences of marginalized peoples” or “amplifying marginalized voices.”

On the one hand, getting more participants of diverse experience into the arena of liberal science is important.  But on the other hand, if this amplification comes with the stipulation that these voices are exempt from the sort of public “checking” (as Rauch terms it) — or criticism — that must exist to sort truth from error in a liberal system, then it is wrong.  No one is deemed to have special authority based on who they are.  And if this “straight to the head of the line” amplification comes as an attempt to undercut the institutions that have been built up to support liberal inquiry, that too is damaging to liberalism’s ability to sort truth from error.  If the idea is that the whole notion of blind, peer reviewed scholarship is inherently discriminatory, that’s an attack on the carefully calibrated liberal institution that allows for impersonal criticism.  

Either way, this, according to the authors, is the ethical imperative inherent in postmodernism, and where it merges with the notion of a normative “critical theory” implied in the work of the Frankfurt School.  It is the mission of Critical Theorists, to critique society on behalf of the “oppressed” — particularly the language and the discourses — and to point out the many ways in which knowledge itself has been constructed by the powerful to perpetuate its own power via systems of power which unconsciously reproduce themselves.  In this sense, access to power is the main “political” issue for Critical Theory.  Where liberalism says that man naturally wants power for himself and for his tribe, and therefore does everything possible to mitigate that selfish pursuit, Critical Theory seems to imply a normative vision of Utopia in which everyone has equal levels of power and legitimacy, equal outcomes by identity group rather than basic equal access.


It’s one thing, I believe, to insist that the liberal system does not include enough diverse voices and therefore the people in the system are prejudiced or at least culturally different and therefore the system is prejudiced or at least does not recognize a certain group of people enough.  That I can understand.  If you have a school staffed with prejudiced teachers or even of teachers who do not understand the local context of the students, chances are, those teachers will not understand how to teach their students.

It’s another thing entirely to make the claim that the system itself, even if it had diverse voices, privileges a certain way of knowing whose successful outcomes belong explicitly to one group.  On the surface level, I find that demeaning — the idea that reason, logic, and debate are the province of only white Westerners.  That’s patently false, too.  At the same time, the hardest of all arguments to accept — and yet the main one at work here — is the idea that no one system gets at the truth, because the truth is impossible to arrive at.

But that’s what’s going on here.  From what I can tell, many Critical Theory activists can decry science, or the traditional literary canon — not just because they feel it was started by whites (and therefore still benefits them), and not because they feel it is an inferior way to arrive at what is true — but because they don’t feel as though there really is a way to know truth.  The liberal system is just one way, and an oppressive way, at that.  There is no such thing as the ability to know human nature, for instance, so there is no way to say which novels in history best portray human nature and its concerns.  There is no way to know to get at the truth of what started the Civil War via the liberal study of history — not because the process includes only white scholars, but because it is impossible to determine a complex, nuanced understanding of the true causes.  The prevailing understanding for either of those questions, as given by Theory, is that any answers are simply the product of cultural constructs that reflect the most powerful opinions — not the kind of rigorously scrutinized, publicly-checked, conditionally held truth that liberalism would say it is. 

It is almost impossible to understate the extent to which these are two contrasting views of how the world works.

It’s this argument which is the most odd and disquieting.  It’s hard to believe that anyone holds this argument — surely we can all agree, at least with great certainty and yet conditionally, subject to a disproval, that the Earth goes around the sun? 

But clearly not.


Here is where things get even more interesting.  While the original postmodernists delighted only in disruption, a new generation of what Pluckrose and Lindsay call the “applied” Theorists *do* recognize stable truths: 1) that society is composed of power structures and, 2) that oppression is real and exists.  It cannot be held as a stable belief that any one book is better than another, or that scientific truths are really truths, but oppression is real and so are social power structures.  The simultaneous argument is held by, for example, law writer Kimberle Crenshaw, who holds both that 1) race and gender are not real facts, but socially constructed, and 2) yet they do exist in the world and result in real discrimination.  Identity, too, is real.

In this sense, the Critical Theorists adapt the Marxist binary of oppressor/oppressed from social class to group identity: race, gender, sexuality.  The individual is no longer the metric for society, but the group.

Here during the “applied turn,” theory began to undergo a “moral mutation: it adopted a number of beliefs about the rights and wrongs and power and privilege . . .” (48).  If your belief is that society is merely set up as a series of power structures — due process, neutral constitutional principles, liberal science, capitalism — designed to further the interests of the already-powerful via subtle, hidden valuations in the “discourses” that all of us unwittingly use (particularly through language) — and that real groups of people are marginalized or oppressed as the result of these systems of power, then surely your job is not to play into a system that calls for evidence, logic, falsifiability, and such — your job is to directly combat this injustice by pointing out the problematics, the hidden ways in which some people are oppressed by these systems, and to try to lift these people up.

This is the birth of the kind of scholar-activism that Lindsay and Pluckrose first exposed in the Grievance Studies Affair — shoddy, biased scholarship based on ideology rather than truth — and which they regard as in fundamental tension with true teaching and learning.  The Critical Theorist approach is, paradoxically, marked by an incredible sureness in the truth of both cultural constructivism, systems of power, and real oppression such that it is no longer curious and inquisitive and open to learning — only to furthering activism in order to change an apparently unjust world.

I think I’ll leave it here for now!  This is surely plenty of writing for one rainy Saturday.  Suffice to say that I feel I have learned a great deal as to the origins of Critical Theory, and I feel I understand what it is that I don’t like about the modern Social Justice movement.  

To recap, for starters, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of cultural constructivism entirely replacing objectively observable truth.  And I don’t buy the cynical idea that all knowledge is just the result of power.  There have been too many visionaries, truth discovers and geniuses who lacked any sort of “power” in society — who were ignored, marginalized, or savagely attacked in their own time, only to be vindicated much later on — despite their lack of power.  

What would this mean, after all, anyway, for knowledge to be the result of power?  Is that just a way of saying that knowledge is whatever most of the people who are influential in a field say it is?  Well, if so, why is that a bad system?  And what, after all, is the alternative?  Government inquisitions or tribunals that contain a smattering of racial diverse perspectives?  It’s one thing to say that might makes right — and that men with guns and clubs enforce what truth is.  If that’s what Theorists meant when they said that all knowledge is constructed by power, I’d be with them.  But that’s exactly what the liberal system was designed to combat!  To say that the open, democratic, provisional nature of the liberal system of knowledge creation is somehow just the result of “the powerful” deciding what’s right — that’s not just cynical, it’s deeply missing the truth.

Plus, I don’t buy the notion of power structures being omnipresent.  Again, there’s a difference between saying a school is staffed with racist individuals versus saying that schools are by definition racist because they prioritize reason and logic.  I can accept the former, but I don’t accept the latter.  And while there is a real argument to made for the existence of prohibitive systemic issues — funding disparities, zoning regulations, and unjust laws — which hinder opportunities to groups, that is very different than saying that education exists as a tool of the powerful to promote the values of white Westerners.

In the end, much of this goes back to the question of what’s possible for human beings and what is not.  In my view, epistemology is all about trade-offs.  Yes, the liberal system isn’t perfect — its criticisms hurt and marginalize some, including some minority groups.  Yet it’s better than the alternative of tribal creed wars, or the substitution of political muscle for rigorous evaluation of truth. You don’t get something from nothing, and there’s nothing new under the sun. Postmodern Theorists, Critical Theorists, have not invented some new solution for the provisional, open, democratic system by which liberalism determines what’s true. Instead, when you look to the bottom of it, they’ve simply gone back to the notion of competing groups who each own their own truths, who cannot speak to each other, and who are set up for endless warring with each other over this fact. They’ve added to it, of course, the notion of a “hierarchy” of competing claims: those of the most marginalized taking precedence in a kind of affirmative action-inspired framework for determining truth (which Rauch, again, calls the “Radical Egalitarian Principle”): the most marginalized groups receive the most credence toward their claims of truth. In the end, this solution to knowledge making has been seen many times before. It’s called a creed war, and its results, too, have been seen before, too.