Over at Object-Oriented Philosophy Harman has an interesting post up critiquing critique. As Harman writes:

A more general thought… It continues to surprise me that some people really think that merely negating someone else’s position is a productive way to hold discussions.

Imagine the following scenario: you’re reading a book, and you find something that you think is wrong. You feel moved to write to the author about it. How do you go about this?

Option A would be to write to them and say: “You’re completely wrong. I disagree.” (And by the way, I do get letters like this, as do many authors.) But where the hell does the discussion go from there? What are you going to say back to them? “No, I’m right.”

Now, we all do read things from time to time that are just utterly false, and that need to be called out. (Such as Klausmeyer’s comment, or Carlin Romano’s true hatchet job on Heidegger in a recent issue of the Chronicle.) But barring those sorts of situations, which are relatively rare, if you’re moved to engage in some sort of critical exchange with a person, it’s probably because you find something of value in their position.

Quite right. Somewhere or other Deleuze talks about how he felt absolutely compelled to flee conversation and I think it was precisely for the sorts of reasons Harman here outlines. Generally “critique” in the sense that Harman is using it places all positions on a flat plane as if they are equivalent or dealing with the same problems and then proceeds to adopt a position and criticize the other position from that standpoint. The problem with this approach to “philosophy” (this model of critique isn’t really philosophical at all), is that it fails to first understand the position which it is critiquing.

However, while I here agree with Harman’s critique of critique, I do feel compelled to flag the point that the term “critique” is used in a variety of senses in philosophy. Harman, of course, is aware of this, yet I nonetheless feel it is important to clarify this point as I think there’s a lot of confusion as to what, precisely, is being rejected when some in the SR camp reject the model of critique in philosophy.

read on!

While the ordinary language connotation of the term “critique” means pointing out the logical, factual, or aesthetic flaws of a particular claim, position, or artistic object, in philosophy, from the late 18th century on, the term “critique” and “being critical” takes on a very different meaning. It was Kant, of course, that invented this newfangled notion of “critique”, though I would argue that it is already there, clearly discernible, in Hume (especially in his Enquiry). There “critique” does not so much signify pointing out flaws in a position as investigating the conditions under which particular structures of experience or cognition are possible. Kant’s (or Hume’s) whizbang contribution to philosophy– and I believe it is an enduring contribution –was to argue that philosophy should not investigate objects but our cognition of objects. When Kant speaks of “conditions of possibility” what he is really getting at is what our minds or cognition contribute to our structuration of experience.

Now what is really crucial in Kant’s proposal is not so much his emphasis on cognition or mind (this is merely a content), but rather the form of his argument. In my view, an argument is “critical” (in the Kantian sense) if it investigates the relationship and structure under which a particular form of experience is possible. Thus, for example, Marx’s historical materialism is a critical approach to the world not because it points out flaws in arguments, factual errors, or aesthetic shortcomings, nor because it investigates the mode by which we cognize objects (as in the case of Kant or Hume), but because it investigates the manner in which forms of production are the condition for the possibility of certain normative systems, legal systems, governmental or political systems, and ideologies (incidentally, this is one reason why I find it bizarre to see certain intellectuals who would like to call themselves Marxists focusing on normativity as an a priori). Similarly, if Levi-Strauss is a “critical” philosopher, this is because he shows how certain ethnographic phenomena are dependent upon certain structures of thought and language (the famous structures). If Derrida is a critical philosopher, then this is not because he shows how “the conditions of possibility are also the conditions of impossibility” (though he shows this too), but more fundamentally because he shows how “things” like differance, arche-writing, trace, etc., are conditions for manifestation or phenomenality or texts. Foucault is a critical philosopher because he shows how power and discourse are conditions for the regimes of the visible and articulable within a punctualized historical framework. And, of course, the phenomenologists are critical philosophers as they show how a particular phenomena is dependent on a constitution and giving through intuition (though contemporary phenomenology has moved far beyond these beginnings).

If I believe it is so important to emphasize this signification of the concept of “critique” then this is because all sorts of confusion is caused when we conflate the ordinary language meaning of critique and the precise philosophical concept of critique. When, for example, one reads a philosopher rejecting critique this risks being interpreted or understood as the call to reject the analysis of arguments, the accuracy of factual claims, and so on. Why someone would be led to this conclusion I’m not sure, as it’s a rather absurd or bizarre interpretation of what a philosopher is calling for when they reject the model of critique, but I often get the sense that this is what others think when they hear the term critique. If such an interpretation of such calls is uncharitable, then this is because what philosopher would seriously defend the practice of making false claims or bad arguments?

No, a call to reject the model of critique is instead a call to reject the form of the Kantian argument whereby philosophy is to investigate the relationship between a subject and an object, our mode of cognition of objects, as if our access to objects were exhaustive of what objects are. Here the argument would be that this mode of philosophizing conflates two distinct questions: the question of our access to objects and the question of what objects are. There are all sorts of problems with this conflation– and I’ll outline a number of them in The Democracy of Objects –but in the meantime I cannot recommend highly enough Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist Philosophy of Science which, in many respects, is a foundational text for speculative realist ontology. If the anti-realists are really serious about their positions, if they’re really serious about being “critical” in the ordinary language sense of the term, then they’ll take the time to actually read through Bhaskar’s arguments and work through them. In the absence of such a challenging encounter, I cannot but feel that the so called “critical philosophers” (in the precise philosophical sense of the term) are simply repeating a dogma (in the worst possible sense of the term) of the last 300 years of philosophy, rather than really advancing a critical argument.

I find myself in a rather peculiar position with respect to the concept of critique. On the one hand, I reject the model of critique that treats the social, economics, minds, language, power, etc., as the condition of objects. All of these arguments, I believe, confuse the means by which we gain access to objects with what objects are. In my usual unfair argument– but when have the anti-realists ever been fair to the realists? or as a commentator here put it, what realist has ever truly advocated the naive epistemology the anti-realists attribute to them? –it’s as if somehow, for the anti-realists, leaning against a tree (a relation) makes a tree what it is. People seem to think that because a lot of things about atoms were discovered as a result of the infamous Manhattan project that somehow these political dimensions make these truths about atoms what they are. I suspect the citizens of Hiroshima beg to differ where this sort of social constructivism is concerned. Nonetheless, I still find myself advocating a critical or transcendental position in that my view is that objects— and I genuinely mean mind-independent objects not mere constructions or models –are the only way we can render our debates about texts, political institutions, economics, scientific paradigms, linguistics, etc., intelligible. In other words, mind-independent objects that act and do things regardless of whether any human is about to know them, or experience them are, I believe, the condition under which all of these inquiries are possible. If this were not the case, why bother listening to our friends, lovers, and enemies, why bother doing lab work, why bother doing case studies, why bother with ethnographic forays?