One trend I’m happy about over the past six months or so has been increase of critiques of progressive philosophies of the far left on the part of – not the right – but the center-left, and even from the left itself. Readers of this blog know that I have spent time trying to understand and to flesh out the difference between, for example, critical thinking and critical theory, and to identify for myself a coherent philosophy of education amidst a profession that, at its highest levels, seems to have been captivated by a theory – Critical Theory – that I believe has major shortcomings.
As I’ve written before, I think that critical thinking – and the associated liberal science, fallibilism, empiricism, and the like – is a far more coherent and far more promising goal and approach than what I’ve begun calling Criticality – a slippery word from the first that, in its various guises (critical pedagogy, critical (fill in the blank theory, etc.) represents a combination of postmodern skepticism, Marxist conflict theory, and identity-based political activism. As I’ve written before, I think Criticality is a valuable lens, but it is just one lens. It needs to be named, labeled, and, as best as it can be, tested by critical thinkers and old-fashioned (small-L) liberals to see if its claims are logically consistent and true. I’ve often had the sense over the past six years that what needs to happen is for all of the far-left Critical Theory – the “woke” movement, in shorthand – to finally come under the microscope of good, old-fashioned liberal science – that is to say, for Criticality to be tested against real philosophers and real inquiry. It’s time for the real liberals to get ahold of this stuff and to see what it’s actually made of.
Recently, I’ve read two outstanding examples of this – Alan Sokal’s journal article, which I’ll describe below, and philosopher Susan Neiman’s Left is Not Woke, which I’ll analyze in a subsequent blog post.
The recent journal article by Alan Sokal is called “The Implicit Epistemology of White Fragility” and represents to me exactly what academic journals should be doing right now: slowing down the work of a popular and influential critical theorist and teasing out the philosophical grounding of her thinking in order to evaluate it.
DiAngelo’s White Fragility was one of the first modern works I had read from the Critical Theory school, and so the terms, the philosophical grounding, and the basic claims were mostly new to me. But there was something clearly wrong with this book, and I felt it from the first few pages. Every page had about 426 questionable claims on it, but all done so subtly that it was hard to even know where to begin. It was an extended exercise in trying to grab the advantage that an inch’s worth of true insight provides in order to take a mile of unsubstantiated ground – one of the slipperiest books I have ever read, a book that thrives of ambiguity, untenable leaps of logic, uncharitable, reductive thinking, and a complete lack of attempt at any basic degree of falsification. It bothered me greatly at the time that this book was so roundly praised and so little scrutinized. Yes, there were important articles critiquing the book, but not quite in the way that I felt was warranted. But an academic, writing in an academic journal? That’s more what I had in mind – and Sokal does not disappoint.
Sokal responds immediately criticism that he is “holding DiAngelo’s work to an unfairly high standard: employing the scalpel of academic philosophy to dissect a book (DiAngelo 2018) that is manifestly aimed at a popular, non-academic audience” by writing that “clarity of thought is not a mere academic nicety, but is an essential component of informed public debate; if academic philosophy can help to provide or enhance such clarity, that constitutes a significant contribution to society.”
I have to say, I could not agree more.
Sokal tells us that he does not want to debate the substantive content of DiAngelo’s work, which he implies that he somewhat agrees with. Instead, he writes, his goal is to “extract, and then critically analyze, DiAngelo’s implicit epistemology. On what grounds, according to DiAngelo, can people know what they claim to know? And on what grounds does DiAngelo know what she claims to know?”
Sokal concludes that DiAngelo, although not a hardcore postmodernist, is a “postmodernist-lite,” identifying three main critiques of her work: her vague, often confused epistemology, her misrepresentation and caricature of science, and her logical and argumentative fallacies – especially Bulverism and the Kafka Trap.
In his first critique, Sokal finds that DiAngelo’s epistemology is far more moderate than that of traditional postmodernists, and is ultimately inconsistent and self-serving. Essentially, she claims that objective truth exists when it’s convenient to her argument, and claims that it doesn’t – no “neutral knowledge” exists – when it serves to discredit her ideological opponents. While the “classic postmodernist” stance, for Sokal, consists of total relativism and social constructionism, extending to all subjects, even science, the “more recent evolutions of postmodernist thought — what Pluckrose and Lindsay (2020) call “applied postmodernism” and “reified postmodernism” — are more explicitly selective in their relativism, and in fact dogmatically absolutist with regard to certain subjects.”
This in my view is at the heart of what I see as the epistemic inconsistency of postmodernism and the Foucaultian understanding of the world (more on this in the other text I discuss): on the one hand, objective truth does not exist, all knowledge is relative and socially constructed, but on the other hand, one truth *is* acknowledged and insisted on: the notion of power. That is a fixed, immovable truth – that the world is composed of human beings with a drive for power, and structures that further this power.
Meanwhile, the applied postmodernism movement – the Criticality movement, as I call it – in my view takes this inconsistency further and says not only does power exist as the single underlying motive, but oppression results from this power. Oppression, they say, is real – everything else is socially constructed. It is the same inconsistency that asks us to “Trust The Science” (objective truth exists) while instructing us in the importance of “other ways of knowing.”
Another fascinating passage of DiAngelo’s that illustrates her selective application of postmodern “epistemology” is here – demonstrating specifically her use of the term “objective knowledge” as a smear against her opponents:
“[C]ritical scholars in the field of education . . . argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective, neutral, and universal [emphasis mine].”
It seems to me, from my own reading of DiAngelo, that her book, White Fragility, is surely an extended attempt at claiming objective truth does exist – hers. Yet here she seems to deny objective truth exists, and that knowledge is only socially constructed. It seems to me that this is largely just an example of her selectively employing social constructionism to discredit her enemies, by labeling them as epistemic bigots.
“An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it.”
Sokal breaks this last sentence down into three possibilities and concludes it is impossible to know which one DiAngelo means. He concludes that her epistemology is, at best, “deeply ambiguous” – a charitable assumption, I think.
At another point, he quotes DiAngelo as trying to distinguish between objective scientific knowledge and socially constructed knowledge:
“In order to understand the concept of knowledge as never purely objective, neutral, and outside of human interests, it is important to distinguish between discoverable laws of the natural world (such as the law of gravity), and knowledge, which is socially constructed.”
Sokal takes DiAngelo to task for the obvious inconsistency here, and also points out the ambiguity of “socially constructed” – clearly, he writes, those who discovered the law of gravity operated within a social process, which were in turn, writes Sokal, related to the “ideologies” of the era. Even if Newton was motivated by questionable political concerns, the knowledge that he developed still counts as “objective” truth, doesn’t it?
Finally, Sokal notes that time and again in her writings DiAngelo cites numerous sociological and scientific studies – “which she treats unabashedly as facts” – when they support her arguments. Meanwhile, for those she disagrees with, she implies that their work is masquerading as objective, when in reality it is “socially constructed” – the result, it is implied, of some sort of political consensus among an elite, exclusionary group. This way, for Sokal, DiAngelo can “have her cake and eat it too, albeit at the expense of philosophical consistency.”
Sokal, in his second critique, immediately charges DiAngelo with writing an “account of the relevant philosophical issues [that] lies at a level that can only be described as caricatural: one that in all likelihood reflects a “trickle-down” (and attendant distortion) of ideas as they pass from philosophy departments to sociology departments to education schools (the academic home of Sensoy and DiAngelo).” Sokal writes, “All the right buzzwords are used, but the meaning is, alas, thoroughly mangled.” This is certainly a devastating criticism.
Much of what Sokal is doing is just good, old-fashioned close reading – asking good, close-up questions of DiAngelo’s text, checking to see if it’s consistent, slowing her prose down and really holding it up to the standard of reason and logic. Consider what he does with a typically tossed-off but provocative line of DiAngelo’s: “There is no objective, neutral reality.”
Sokal takes this claim apart, slowly and carefully:
“This assertion conflates objectivity with neutrality, and also mistakenly employs them as adjectives that modify “reality”. Of course, “reality” means simply “the way the world is”; it needs no adjective. Sometimes, it is true, people (including myself) refer to “objective reality” as a way of stressing that facts about the way the world is are independent of anyone’s beliefs about those same facts. But it is redundant to call reality “objective”; and it makes no sense at all to call reality “neutral” or “not neutral.’”
Sokal follows this with just the sort of long-way-around, patient explanation in order to demonstrate the slipshod nature of DiAngelo’s almost reflexive postmodernism:
“People, on the other hand, can be objective or not objective, neutral or not neutral; but the two are quite different things. Consider, for instance, a team of scientists conducting a clinical trial of a vaccine against the novel coronavirus (SARSCoV-2). These scientists are decidedly not neutral: they want the vaccine to work, and they will be sorely disappointed if it does not. On the other hand, they strive (albeit imperfectly) for objectivity: namely, they aim at bringing their beliefs about the degree of efficacy of the vaccine into as close accord as possible with its actual degree of efficacy. Indeed, their striving for objectivity is a direct consequence of their non-neutrality: they want the vaccine to be efficacious in reality in protecting people from COVID-19 disease; they do not merely want to convince other people, perhaps falsely, of its purported efficacy.”
I kept having a sense as I read this article that finally the grownups are back in charge.
Sokal is both amazingly fair-minded in his taking-apart of DiAngelo, constantly stopping to acknowledge the rightness of some small aspect of her arguments, and he is dutifully conscientious in combing through her work. At one point, in his third section of critique, Sokal dives into DiAngelo’s dissertation to get at the root of what he portrays as her shoddy conception of “generalizability.” DiAngelo, Sokal finds, dispenses with the correspondence theory of reality, and instead attempts to define generalizability in a research study merely as a matter of consistency with previous work in “a chosen ideological framework.” Sokal then dings her dissertation for drawing its (dubious) claims of generalizability on a focus group of just 13 participants. This, as I have begun to read similarly shoddy research in the pages of ostensibly prestigious research publications, is a pet peeve of mine.
Sokal seems astounded by DiAngelo’s dubious justifications and her highly questionable concept of “generalizability.” He writes:
“Precisely as promised, she interprets all interactions in her study through the lens of her chosen theoretical framework (Whiteness theory), and does not even consider alternate interpretations; what results is a 150-page exercise in confirmation bias.”
Sokal, unlike DiAngelo, gives specific examples, including one absolutely basic, fundamental objection that I (and surely many other readers) had to her book, White Fragility: the notion that the paying customers in her sessions as well as the forced-by-their-employers-to-be-there employees, might not be the most representative sample group, and may have been subject to special features of the given social situations. Sokal writes, “Foremost among these is the understandable resentment of employees forced to take part in a session that they may regard — perhaps justifiably, perhaps not — as indoctrination, and in which their performance may be subject to evaluation (and reward or punishment) by their bosses.” This is basic stuff, and I’m glad someone was finally able to say points like this in print. Sokal tells us that he does not even see anywhere in DiAngelo’s work any evidence of her attempting to falsify her hypotheses, a methodological approach that he sees as consistent with DiAngelo’s caricatured views of science.
In the third section, Sokal engages in rhetorical analysis, citing specific examples of DiAngelo’s engaging in both the Psychogenetic fallacy, and the Kafka Trap. The psychogenetic fallacy (also known as Bulverism) occurs when one assumes – without making an argument – that an opponent is wrong, and then moves on to explain why this person made this mistake, typically by attempting to explain this person’s motivations. Sokal states that DiAngelo is guilty of this throughout White Fragility when, by characterizing any resistance to her seminars as evidence of a psychological phenomena or even deficiency – defensiveness in response to “racial stress” – without first making a clear argument that this resistance was necessarily the result of what she says it was, she is committing this fallacy. Sokal cites the famous example of DiAngelo taking participants to task for their silence during her seminars – evidence of white fragility, says DiAngelo. Yet there are lots of possibilities for why these participants may be silent, responds Sokal, and when DiAngelo jumps straight to one without considering the others, she is committing the psychogenetic fallacy.
In fact, he writes, DiAngelo even seems to explicitly *endorse* the psychogenetic fallacy. DiAngelo writes:
“In my work to unravel the dynamics of racism, I have found a question that never fails me. This question is not “Is this claim true, or is it false?”; we will never come to an agreement on a question that sets up an either/or dichotomy on something as sensitive as racism. Instead I ask, “How does this claim function in the conversation?”
This is just the sort of claim that, as I first read this book, I could tell felt slippery and wrong, but I did not have the understanding of rhetoric to explain why I felt this way. But here Sokal is right on in his analysis. DiAngelo is implying that she will not even consider others’ viewpoints as correct or incorrect, but will instead jump to analyzing their behavior or motives in a sociological or psychological fashion – hence, committing the psychogenetic fallacy.
It’s even more disturbing to me, in fact, the slippery way in which DiAngelo makes two claims in this passage:
1. Asking if a claim is true or false sets up a binary in which one must answer that the claim is either completely true or completely false.
2. The result of such a question and subsequent discussion must be “an agreement” among (apparently) all participants.
Both of these premises are clearly false, but I am struck by the speed and deceptiveness with which DiAngelo fires them off.
In the end, I was deeply impressed by Sokal’s analysis of DiAngelo, and I’m reminded that philosophy matters. Epistemology matters. How do we know what is true? How do we know what counts as knowledge? These are relevant, important questions to ask, especially of important thinkers and writers like Robin DiAngelo. But reason and logic and evidence matter, too, in this process, and these are the weapons that Sokal uses to understand and to evaluate DiAngelo’s positions. So much of philosophy, it seems to me, is about slowing things down, looking at them carefully, asking for complete definitions, spelling out inferences and making clear underlying meaning. Time and again Sokal seems to be reminding us of a difference between DiAngelo’s substantive claims and her epistemology and methodology. The former, he says, are important, and deserve to be heard, but the latter are questionable and undercut the strength of what she’s trying to tell us. Sokal ends the essay by quoting another writer who writes that moral and political egalitarianism do not necessarily imply epistemological egalitarianism. In fact, he says, the latter undercuts the former. Claims to universal truth are in fact vital to the broader political and social egalitarian projects of the political left. So is the notion of objective knowledge. Those in positions like DiAngelo – academics, researchers – must do everything that they can follow a liberal system of proferring their hypotheses into the arena, subjecting themselves to as much critique as possible, so that their ideas – the whole concept of “white fragility,” for instance – can be taken as being true. Anything short of that, any attempts to shortcut around that process, any use of logical fallacies and slippery, ambiguous language and philosophy, only harms one’s ability to get one’s work considered to be true under this liberal epistemology.
It’s great to read slow, careful, logical critiques like this of the progressive left, and in the next post I’ll write about the philosopher Susan Neiman’s new book, Woke is Not Left, another great example of this “new” genre.