Critical Theory and Its Discontents: To Reify Abstract Concepts or to Not
Many of my students are Catholic, so when I introduce them to Abrahamic theology in my philosophy classes the reactions are predictable. Some speak of Biblical stories like Adam and Eve as though they really happened, others have trouble understanding that God could be defined as anything other than an all-powerful, knowing, and loving entity. Most students eventually come to realize that they do have an ideology, complete with metaphysical, epistemological, and value-laden assumptions. If I’ve done my job as a philosophy professor, they come away from the class understanding the relationship between their ideological conditioning and that of other belief systems.
In their book Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay more or less convict many left leaning scholars of being in the same boat as my students before completing the class. Both groups are so deeply entrenched in an ideology that they take some of its core tenets as fact — in one case that ideology is Christianity and in another it’s critical theory. As you can tell from the title of their book, Pluckrose and Lindsay are not particularly fond of the latter (which they link with postmodernism), under whose umbrella they include critical race theory, intersectional feminist theory, disability studies, fat studies, postcolonial theory, and queer theory. The authors argue that concepts from this scholarship have been reified, or made real, since roughly 2010 via social justice scholarship and activism and “have begun to take root in the public consciousness as allegedly factual descriptions of the workings of knowledge, power, and human social relations” (Chapter 8). The supposedly reified concepts they target are: objective knowledge is impossible, knowledge is a construct of power, and society is made up of systems of power and privilege that need to be deconstructed. Let’s call their argument the reification thesis.
To take one example, support for the argument can be seen in public intellectuals like Robin DiAngelo, author of the best selling White Fragility. According to her, when white people get defensive after being confronted with information about racial injustice, this reaction is an indication of their complicity in a racist society from which they benefit. DiAngelo has given many talks and seminars where she explores ideas like this from her book.
In an Atlantic article, in response to critics of these public appearances, she is quoted as saying: “I think there’s an assumption that the culture is neutral, and that you’re introducing a particular ideology.” Although DiAngelo’s implication is that she is not introducing an ideology but simply speaking truth, Pluckrose and Lindsay point out her postmodern roots — such as her rejection of liberal principles like individualism and her tendency to see society as composed of systems of power and privilege.
What Can Actually be Drawn from Postmodern Literature?
Although some of the reviews of Cynical Theories have suggested a fair interpretation of postmodern scholarship by the authors, Samuel Hoadley-Brill argues that they profoundly misunderstand that scholarship, in some cases to the point of defamation, with the exception of their discussion of DiAngelo. For example, the authors discuss philosopher Kristie Dotson’s paper “How is this paper philosophy?” which they claim argues for the idea that evidence and reason are the cultural property of white Western men. But as Hoadley-Brill points out, the authors’ evidence for this claim rests on Dotson’s suggestion that professional philosophy should replace what she calls “a culture of justification” with a “culture of praxis.” According to Hoadley-Brill, Dotson’s argument in no way commits her to the idea that reasoned argument and evidence are solely the domain of white Western men. Instead, Dotson is simply emphasizing the way that illegitimate exclusions from the philosophical canon — such as that of Africana and Chinese philosophy — are often predicated on justifying norms that are explicitly Eurocentric. According to Hoadley-Brill, she is indeed arguing for a shift to a culture of praxis, but this shift does not entail a dismissal of rational argument as Pluckrose and Lindsay claim.
Hoadley-Brill makes some fair points. If Pluckrose and Lindsay are not justified in drawing the concepts they do from the primary literature in so many cases, then that would spell some trouble for the reification thesis (though keep in mind that Hoadley-Brill said the authors were right about DiAngelo). The question, then, is how to explain a plan like this from the American Medical Association (AMA). Is it just standard equity-speak?
One section of the plan encourages physicians to follow policies that “reflect an understanding of race as a socially constructed category.” The section goes on to decry racial essentialism. It’s not hard to see how developments like this could be traced back to the primary postmodern literature. Intersectional feminists have often emphasized the social construction of gender roles, encapsulated by Simone de Beauvior’s claim from The Second Sex that “a woman is not born but becomes a woman.” In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (two giants of the field), the authors claim explicit inspiration from this concept of social construction from earlier feminists. In case it’s not obvious, this example supports the reification thesis because claims like this from the plan, which are stated quite authoritatively, appear on the website of an extremely influential medical organization.
In other cases, such as the suspension of the SAT and ACT for admissions to California universities, the reform seems to draw directly from critical theory. Proponents of critical race theory, after all, have long argued — despite the situation being more complex — that standardized tests like these are racist, perpetuate oppression against minorities, and should be eliminated. The reification in this case draws from the conviction of the proponents of canceling the admissions tests (from the university to government level) that it is the morally right thing to do, full stop.
I suspect that people of Hoadley-Brill’s persuasion would look at developments like this and blame them on popularizers like DiAngelo and their obsequious followers in the media, especially given that he has elsewhere in a talk critiqued both DiAngelo’s work and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist.
The Critical Gaslight
Still, while I get where Hoadley-Brill is coming from, it’s hard not to see some of this as gaslighting. The same sort of gaslighting some Christians engage in when they deny being part of a religion, instead referring to it as a “relationship with God.” Sure, just a relationship with God — one that includes a very specific, culturally determined set of beliefs that have deep implications for how one thinks about, and engages with, the world around them.
Like many of us, I’ve watched loaded phrases like “white supremacy” be thrown around by colleagues, friends, and family — and even Noam Chomsky who was once a fierce critic of postmodernism — without much attention to the nuance of the scholarship such phrases draw from. The question, remember, is not whether critical theory has academic value; the question is whether concepts from it have been reified.
Unfortunately, responses to criticism from some scholars and journalists on the left support the reification thesis. Such as an apparent inability to understand that one could object to core assumptions of critical race theory (like skepticism of rights) but still support an honest reckoning with the history of racism in America. If the tenets of critical race theory are taken as fact — that is, reified — then what else could disagreement with those tenets be but evidence of one’s latent white supremacy? If gender and sex are completely separable, in fact, then what else could disagreement from the likes of J.K. Rowling be but bigotry or ignorance?
Hoadley-Brill may have a point that Pluckrose and Lindsay could have been fairer and more thorough with respect to the primary sources they were drawing from. But part of the problem is that the scholarship itself is infamously confusing and ambiguous. Hoadley-Brill himself describes the aforementioned paper by Dotson as exceedingly “technical and abstract” (though this did not apparently stop him from asserting quite confidently what claims can and cannot be drawn from it.) Chomsky’s once widely-circulated dismissal of postmodernism brings home the point when he emphasizes the failure of postmodern scholars to articulate their arguments in ways that are clear and concise and can be explained to the common person. He accuses these scholars of being elitist, impractical buffoons. (That’s not an exaggeration: he calls Derrida’s scholarship “pathetic” and Lacan a “self-conscious charlatan.” This marks quite a shift in Chomsky’s thinking relative to the aforementioned podcast where his use of “white supremacy” aligns perfectly with the critical race theory perspective, a perspective that explicitly counts Derrida as an intellectual inspiration.)
Chomsky’s intellectual trajectory aside, his initial critique of postmodernism raises the possibility that both Pluckrose and Lindsay and Hoadley-Brill are misguided. Perhaps the ambiguity of the scholarship allows a diversity of claims to be drawn from it, including contradictory ones. But alas, I’m not as cynical as Chomsky once was of the scholarship and common themes can be identified.
There is some plausibility to the reification thesis, however the reification happens. It’s notable that Hoadley-Brill’s critique of Cynical Theories focuses primarily on one chapter. Earlier in the book, the authors cite the definition of postmodernism in Encyclopedia Britannica which refers to a movement characterized by “broad subjectivism, skepticism, or relativism.” They also cite a work by Walter Truett Anderson that explicitly lists cultural relativism as one of the four pillars of postmodernism. My question for Hoadley-Brill, then, is: if the claims Pluckrose and Lindsay target cannot be drawn from the scholarship, then why are similar claims included in the encyclopedia and listed as pillars? He could reply that he was only referring to the specific articles he targets (like Dotson’s), but then at the beginning of his review he is quite dismissive of the authors’ entire project. This is what I mean by gaslighting.
I do think that the blame for the reification (to the extent that it’s plausible) does seem to lie mostly at the feet of critical theory popularizers, be they journalists or public intellectuals. But then this makes me wonder, why hasn’t there been more pushback against the popularizers from others on the left, the same way popular science writers often get pushback from practicing scientists? Shouldn’t they want to convey to the public the complexity of the scholarship and the central points of disagreement among critical theory proponents?
Although there has certainly been some pushback — as noted Hoadley-Brill, to his credit, pushed back against DiAngelo and Kendi — there could and should be more. Sadly, this lack of pushback itself supports the reification thesis. As so often is the case, the people whose values are broadly consistent with a movement are less likely to acknowledge, or even notice, its excesses. Why would a given scholar from, say, an education or sociology department who has been inundated with talk of social constructions their entire career be worried to see the phrase repeated on the AMA website? If anything, they would likely see it as a triumph or vindication. Because to them a DiAngelo or a Kendi is still, fundamentally, speaking truth, if just a bit more imprecisely.