I.  “Critical Thinking”

Within the field of theory and philosophy, the term “critique” is highly ambiguous, signifying a variety of different things.  No doubt this is the source of many disputes.  There is, of course, the facile term “critical thinking” that we hear bandied about by many mainstream educational institutions.  This, of course, is not what is being referred to when theorists talk about a “critical theory”.  Indeed, if Althusser was right in naming educational institutions (along with church, family, and media) as one of the main sites of ideology wherein a society reproduces the conditions for its production, then it’s unlikely that critical theory would be received warmly by those dignitaries of the State that preside over education policy and who call for “critical thinking” as a central part of the curriculum.  Critical thinking in their sense might very well serve at the behest of ideology in Althusser’s sense of the term.

II.  Kant and the Critique of Reason

Among philosophers, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the term “critique” is, of course, Kant.  It was Kant who first– to my knowledge –named the project of a critical philosophy; although I think seeds of that project almost to the letter can already be detected in Descartes and, above all, Hume.  The project of critical philosophy for Kant was the investigation of the conditions under which it is possible for us to have certain forms of knowledge.  For example, Kant famously asked “how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?”  Unlike analytic propositions where the predicate is already contained in the concept of the subject– e.g. “All bachelors are unmarried males” –and which therefore don’t amplify or increase our knowledge, a synthetic a priori proposition is one in which our thought goes beyond what is contained in the subject of the proposition independent of experience, thereby amplifying or increasing our knowledge.  How is this possible?  How is it possible for mind to increase knowledge through thinking as in the case of mathematics?  It’s easy to see how this is possible through experience.  I take a bite of arugula, taste its tartness, and now know that arugula is characterized by tartness.  My knowledge of arugula is thereby amplified.  I’ve discovered something new about arugula and my mind will forever associate arugula with that quality of tartness.

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It’s much more difficult to see how thought can amplify or expand knowledge– how it can discover something new –through thought alone.  However, Kant argues that this is exactly what takes place in most mathematical judgments, as well as many of the judgments of physics.  These bodies of knowledge are not solely composed of analytic judgments (which pose no problem where a priori is concerned as they’re merely definitions), nor of empirical synthetic a posteriori judgments (indeed, math likely contains no empirical judgments whatsoever), but are populated by this strange dimension of synthetic a priori judgments where knowledge is expanded not through experience, but thought.  Philosophy has long contended that “nothing can come from nothing”, that you can only get as much out of something as was first put in– or, as the empiricists would have it following the wisdom of illusionists or magicians, that you can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat without first putting it into a hat –yet here, in synthetic a priori propositions we seem to get more out of the result of thought than we began with.  How is that possible?  Kant argued– and this is where one key element of his concept of critique is to be found –that we must investigate the structure of mind to determine how such judgments are possible.  So this is the first dimension of the Kantian concept of critique:  A reflexive investigation of mind– not world –to discover how we are capable of making such judgments.  It is here that we see Kant’s Cartesian and Humean influences, for in both of those cases, we don’t directly proceed to an investigation of world, of being, as the Aristotleans and Spinozists, among others, would have it, but first have to reflect on the nature of the mind that surveys the world before making claims about the world (hence, “reflexive” analysis).  We investigate, as it were, the mirror itself, not what the mirror reflects (though Kant would, of course, shatter the metaphor of knowledge as a mirror).

ASIDEKant’s question about mathematics is far more profound than is often noticed.  It’s not simply a question of how we’re able to make mathematical judgments in thought.  Were that the case, we could content ourselves with a theory of rule following or grammar where math is concerned.  The truly remarkable thing about mathematics is not simply that we invariably come to certain conclusions (the steps we follow to solve an equation are an argument) when we follow certain rules, but that physical reality itself has a mathematical structure.  This is what those who argue– in my view anyway –that mathematics consists of constructions and others that argue that math consists of fictions miss.  Thought anticipates the structure of reality through mathematics.  For instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity anticipated the possibility of black holes– something conceived of by no one prior to that and dismissed as, early on, as an absurd consequence of theory that couldn’t be possible in nature –through his equations.  The existence of these monstrous beings had to, of course, be verified, but it was there in the equations.  Kant’s question about math could equally be characterized as a question of how thought is able to anticipate the structure of reality independent of experience.  As it’s sometimes put when discussing Kantian critique, “the conditions for the possibility of experience are also the conditions for the possibility of the objects of experience.”

Kant wasn’t, of course, simply interested in how the a priori judgments of mathematics and physics are possible.  After all, these disciplines more or less speak for themselves and aren’t truly in need of validation by the philosopher as their methods of validation are internal to these disciplines themselves and they are testified to by their success.  Asking philosophy to validate math, for example, is like requiring a validation of a validation in a contractual agreement.  The contract itself validates the agreement (we hope, anyway).  What interested Kant about math and physics was the light they could shed on the possibility of metaphysics.  Metaphysics, Kant contended, is populated by synthetic a priori judgments.  Why?  1) Metaphysics is not based on experience– in his understanding –insofar as it inquires into things beyond experience.  Therefore, if metaphysical knowledge exists, then it must be a priori.  However, 2) metaphysics can’t be composed of analytic a priori propositions because it’s not merely a matter of definitions, but instead increases or amplifies our knowledge (if, in fact, there is truly metaphysical knowledge; a highly contentious supposition after Kant).  Consequently, 3) if metaphysical knowledge exists, then it must be composed of synthetic a priori propositions.

We therefore see the structure of Kant’s argument.  Physics and mathematics are interesting to the philosopher (Kant) because they are uncontroversial cases of synthetic a priori knowledge.  If we can show how synthetic a priori knowledge is possible in these cases, we can perhaps show how metaphysical knowledge– riven as it is by debates and conflicts (e.g., the entirely different accounts of God in Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz) –is possible and resolve these debates.  However, Kant contends, we also have to account for how these entirely different metaphysical systems arise, how these debates arise among thinkers working in and through reason, rather than the consensus that arises in maths and physics.  Why are mathematics and physics different?  It is here that we encounter the second dimension of Kantian critique.  Critique does not simply answer the “conditions for the possibility question”, the quid juris question, but must also define the limits of reason (the limits of what reason can know through synthetic a priori propositions).  The rival internally consistent systems that arise among metaphysicians all claiming to arrive at their knowledge through a priori reason would thereby be shown to occur when the metaphysician transgresses these limits, claiming to know what a priori cannot be known.  So long as we remain within those limits, consensus and knowledge are possible.  The second dimension of Kantian critique thus consists in defining limits to knowledge or the a priori boundary distinguishing what can be known and what can’t be known a priori.  This is the work of Kant’s paralogisms, antinomies, and proofs for the existence of God.

However, there is a third dimension to Kantian critique as well.  Not only must we determine how internally consistent metaphysical systems that nonetheless contradict one another can arise (again, e.g., Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz), we must also account for why reason so insistently is drawn towards transgressing the boundaries of reason; why it so insistently seeks knowledge of things that can be known.  In other words, the work of the transcendental dialectic (Kant’s elaboration of the limits of reason) is not simply negative, showing how we can have no knowledge of the soul, the world as a totality, or God, but is also positive.  It shows how these three Ideas– in his terminology –serve a function internal to reason with respect to empirical inquiry and morality, leading us to strive to ever increase and systematize our knowledge (rather than just produce disjointed encyclopedias) and to strive for moral perfection.  So long as these Ideas are directed towards these ends (what he calls “immanent ends”) reason, Kant contends, functions well.  It’s when reason strives to know the transcendent that things go awry and we get the endless disputes of the metaphysicians where we are unable to decide between rival metaphysical systems because they are internally consistent yet in contradiction with one another (both Spinoza and Leibniz produce internally consistent metaphysical systems, yet come to entirely different conclusions).

III.  Critical Theory Proper:  Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx

While Kant is a centrally important figure in critical theory, Kant’s critical philosophy is not ordinarily what we have in mind when we speak of a “critical theory”.  Rather than a delineation of the limits of reason and an answer to the question of the conditions under which synthetic a priori knowledge is possible, “critical theory” denotes any theory of society that aims at emancipation from oppressive social conditions.    As such, a critical theory minimally has three dimensions.  It must contain 1) a theory of what oppresses us, 2) a theory of how we might escape these chains, and 3) a theory of what free, non-alienated, or non-oppressed existence would look like.  In this regard, Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Spinoza, d’Holbach, and Rousseau– there are many others, of course –can be seen as early runners of critical theory.  Here I hasten to add that there isn’t consensus among these theorists.  These are rival theories of oppression and emancipation, but are theories of emancipation nonetheless.  Moreover, not all critical theories respond to all three of these questions, even though they are minimal conditions.  Most contemporary critical theories, for example, respond to the first question, presenting a theory of what oppresses us, while providing little in the way of a theory of how we might emancipate ourselves or what non-alienated existence might look like.  Why still call them critical theories if they don’t respond to the second and third questions?  For the simple reason that the very fact that they can articulate a theory of oppression implies that they virtually contain theories of emancipation and what non-alienated existence might look like.

Contemporary critical theories can be sorted in terms of the thought of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx (those figures Ricoeur referred to as the three hermeneuts of suspicion).  I only propose this as an imperfect heuristic device for categories critical theories.  Clearly there will be figures that don’t neatly or easily fall under any of these headings, and other thinkers (Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, and Marcuse all come to mind) that straddle two or more of these orientations.  Classifications are always imperfect.  However, the value of a sorting scheme, as imperfect as it might be, is that it might allow us to highlight tensions among orientations, so as to produce better critical theory and zero in on problems that need to be resolved.  Above all, my aim here is not to discuss the merits and drawbacks of these various orientations, nor to engage in precise commentary (so if anyone responds to this post, please avoid raising such issues or engaging in debate about how these thinkers ought to be read; that’s just not the purpose here).

Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx can be characterized as critical theories of power, desire, and economy.  In other words, each of these theories, treated in a purified way, presents us with a theory of what organizes social relations.  For example, in the case of Nietzsche (who’s heirs might be Foucault, Bourdeau, and Butler), it is power that organizes social relations.  In this regard, Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, attempts to show how morality is really about something quite other than we think.  Put crudely as the aim of the post is not commentary on any of these thinkers but a set of indicators of orientations, far from being about altruism and goodness, he contends that it is a technique of power that allows those who he refers to as slaves to triumph over those he refers to as masters, so as to both control them and take revenge against their excellence.  Nietzsche thus argues that a dirty secret is harbored at the heart of morality and that it’s good intentions are anything but.  Similarly, in the case of Foucault, it is argued that prison reforms tat moved away from punishment of the body and instead turned towards rehabilitation, are reflective not of greater compassion and humanity, but were in fact techniques of power that targeted the soul itself, transforming the soul itself into a prison such that jailors wouldn’t be needed at all.  This transformation, Foucault argues, took place through a series of disciplinary techniques, and was reflective not only of a change that took place in prisons, but throughout society as a whole ranging from schools, military, the factory, and the general populace.  What appears to be a compassionate transformation, Foucault argues, is instead a more effective technique of control and power.

In Freud, by contrast, we get a theory of desire at the heart of social relations.  It is desire and deadlocks of desire that organize how people live and relate, not power.  It is instructive to look at Freud’s account of God and religion (religion being not simply a set of beliefs, but a set of social relations and ways of living socially) to understand Freud’s model of critique.  Religion, Freud argues, serves two functions.  On the one hand, it serves as a set of control mechanisms that regulate unruly desire, preventing society from falling into the chaos that would arise were we to live according to our libidos.  On the other hand, religion functions as a safety valve, allowing us to tolerate the sacrifice of desire and enjoyment required for admittance into society by envisioning another world (heaven) where such sacrifice won’t be required.  Similarly, belief in God is explained in terms of desire.  Freud contends that God is modeled on the Oedipus complex and, in particular, the infants relationship to the father.  Freud, argues that the infant experiences itself as helpless and encounters the world as menacing.  As such, it dreams of a strong father able to protect it and surmount its own limitations.  Over the course of development, these infantile desires and anxieties are transformed into the idea of God as both a source of the law, capriciousness, and as a protector.

With Marx we get a very different theory of religion.  Our ideas of the divine and the supernatural are reflective of economic relations.  As in the case of Freud where religion is a highly ambiguous thing both reflecting our yearning for protection and satisfaction and functioning as a control mechanism to check our desire, a Marxist analysis of religion is similarly ambiguous.  In very crude terms, religion is, on the one hand, one of the ideological mechanisms through which class relations and conditions for the reproduction of the possibility of production are maintained.  For example, by teaching us that our true destination lies in the next world and that this world is intrinsically fallen due to original sin, we are less likely to contest miserable social conditions and unjust social relations.  Likewise, religion teaches us to obey authority without asking too many questions.  It’s no mistake that Marxist thought tends, by and large, to be related to atheism, for part of emancipation from oppressive social conditions requires overturning ideological structures that maintain those class relations, many of which are found in religion.  However, this is not the entire story.  The Marxist might also argue that religion contains, in a veiled and alienated fashion, our utopian longings for a just society and that it is one of the major sites where injustice and the beyond of injustice is thought without realizing it.  Here, then, religion could be seen as containing emancipatory sentiment, albeit in a distorted and fetishized way.  Overcoming this would require, in the manner of Feuerbach, realizing that these utopian longings refer not to another world like heaven, nor to spiritual salvation, but to the transformation of this world and eradication of injustices through material praxis.  Rather than living in the fantasy world of pornography (religion), of substitute satisfactions, the Marxist might argue, we must shift to the world of real relationships (of political struggle aimed at producing a just system of production).  At root, the Marxist argues, all social ills refer back to the system of production.  Thus, for example, were a just system of production produced, we see an end to crime, racism, sexism, and nationalistic and fundamentalist violence.  Real political struggle on behalf of overcoming these injustices thus consists in struggle against the capitalist system of production.

IV.  Tensions

Obviously Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud are far more sophisticated than I’ve presented them above.  Moreover, it’s difficult to know where to situate all thinkers that loosely fall under the label of critical theory in these three categories.  For example, where would we place the semiologists like Barthes, assuming that semiology is a form of critical theory?  Likewise, where would we place Derridean deconstruction?  Setting aside these classification difficulties, the question of real interest, I think, lies in the tensions that arise among these orientations (an issue critical theorists such as Marcuse and Deleuze and Guattari well recognized and strove to resolve).  There is, I think, a truth in all these orientations and they all call for different forms of emancipation.  The problem is that they are not self-evidently consistent with one another.

Take the example of Foucault and Marx.  From a Foucaultian perspective, we could indeed transform the economic system and achieve something like communism, yet emancipation would not have taken place as the disciplinary power relations pervading society would still remain as they would not have been addressed.  This is one of the pre-occupations of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (though they situate it in terms of their theory of desire and Deleuze is critical of Foucault, seeing desire, as they conceive it, as more fundamental than power).  How do we address the micro-fascisms that haunt socialist parties?  For them it is not enough to target the economic system– though that is necessary too –we must also target the relations of desire and power that lead us to pursue our own oppression and will Oedipal/authoritarian forms of social organization.  Real emancipation can only take place, they seem to say, when both of these things are addressed.  In short, there is something that Marxist analysis leaves out in its theory of oppression– power and desire –and it is this oversight that accounts for things such as the Stalinist terror.

We get a starker conflict between Freud and Marx.  Freud (and to a lesser degree Lacan) are legendary for their pessimism where emancipatory projects are concerned because they see the source of much social oppression as residing in ineradicable conflicts pertaining to desire.   This comes out clearly in the case of religion.  A very crude version of Marx would have it that were we to overcome capitalism and produce a communist system of production, superstition, fundamentalism, religion, and religious violence would disappear.  All of these things, the story goes, are distorted effects arising from class inequality.  However, if Freud is right and religion arises from how our infantile sense of helplessness and authoritarian attachment to the father (figures:  bosses, leaders, etc), then these economic transformations could take place and these phenomena would still remain.  This is because these phenomena are effects of fundamental structures of how human desire is organized.  As Freud might say, “there is no cure to the human condition”.  Freud’s rejoinder, then, would be that we would do better to focus on how we can live with the repressive structures of society that torment us.  Here he resembles the Stoic that argues we must transform how we think about the world, whereas Marx would be in the camp of the Epicurean that argues that we must transform the world that produces so much discontent (remember that “The Garden”– as sort of utopian society of Epicureans –was an integral component to achieving the good life as conceived by Epicurus).

Again, the issue is not one of selecting one or the other of these thinkers and abandoning the others, for there is truth in all of these orientations.  As such, a central project of critical theory is that of synthesis, or that of how to think these orientations together.  This, of course, was a project well understood by Deleuze and Guattari and Marcuse, so I’m not saying anything new here.  However, while the issue is not one of abandoning one or the other of these thinkers, it’s also crucially important to note that synthesis does not leave unchanged the elements that it synthesizes.  Maintaining fidelity to Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche does not mean that we retain all elements of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche.  Rather, we abandon those elements of their critical theory that turn out wrong or overstated, while preserving the spirit of their thought.  This requires raising the question of what elements, in each of these thinkers, are non-negotiable such that they cannot be abandoned without ceasing to be Freudian, Marxist, or Nietzschean, and what can be severed.