Critical Theory and Self-Transformation

January 15, 2010

In the twentieth century a school of social science theory came to prominence by criticizing the status quo in the philosophy of social science. Spearheaded by the Frankfurt School theorists, Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer, this movement advocated for what became known as critical theory. Their rejection of social science based on the principles of natural science caused is centered on the idea that the tools of natural science or not suited to the study of human behavior and society. The methods used to study subjects are tools, and the critical theorists simply wanted people to use the proper tool when studying humans. Much of the theory of social science when the first critical theorists proposed their ideas was centered around Enlightenment ideals of objectivity and knowledge. Contrary to this the early critical theorists pointed out that the “myths” which early enlightenment thinkers dismissed as irrational were in fact just as rational within their contexts as any of the schemes that the Enlightenment thinkers came up with, and the Enlightenment schemas of the world were no less “mythic” than those that were criticized and dismissed.

One of the strongest criticisms of critical theory is that the emphasis on individual perspective and interpretation it demands engenders a sort of inherent conservatism. This is a strong accusation to be directed towards an initially neo-Marxist philosophical movement, and critical theorists since have tried to demonstrate how a critical encounter with a different culture could be self-transformative. In exploring this I will lay out the skeleton of critical theory and the ways in which its proponents have talked about self-transformation, and then I will discuss how societies and individuals can become transformed in a critical encounter using Bhiku Parekh’s writings on multiculturalism and Peter Rollins’ writings on religious thought in a post-Enlightenment setting. In light of the accusation that anti-positivism and critical theory are conservative, the examples of Rollins and Parekh suggest that in abandoning grand social engineering, critical theory seeks to inaugurate change within the observer– both a more modest and ultimately radical aim.

One of the things that distinguishes social science and social life from natural science is the difference between concepts. In social science concepts, to some degree at least, constitute the thing being studied, while in natural science concepts are merely descriptors and explanatory of the thing studied. This complicates the interpretation of meaning in the study of social science, because in order to understand a thing’s meaning then one must understand the role it plays in the system it is part of. In studying and truly understanding a concept, a social scientist must plumb all the dimensions of the concept and in so doing can hardly come out of the encounter unchanged. This is a point that the critical theorists press home. “A fundamental assumption of critical theory is that every form of social order entails some forms of domination and that the critical-emancipatory inter underlies the struggles to change those relations of domination-subordination.” This assumption presages much of Michel Foucault’s subsequent work, which built upon the foundations laid here.

As stated above, the critical theorists think that the aims and methodologies of natural science are good and useful in their proper context– natural science. For a long time social scientists preached empiricism and experimental rigor, but they rarely practiced their religion, as it were. “But when it comes to social science, Habermas thought that both the ‘technical’ interest in control and the ‘practical’ interest in understanding are properly subordinate to an ‘emancipatory’ interest in liberation.” Habermas thinks that positivism has its place in the natural world, interpretivism in history and anthropology, but critical theory is most useful in the social sciences. Social sciences are supposed to do three things: Understand situations and the distortions therein, explore the forces that cause those distortions, and help show that the distortions can be overcome. In best practice this pursuit of understanding would also apply to the forces and distortions working upon the scientist as well. Critical theory sees such programs as the pedagogy of the oppressed, liberation theology, feminism, and dependency theories as reflecting its aims.

This fundamental questioning of the basis for questioning– the denial of the “innocent fact”– renders all cultures and societies foreign, even the researcher’s own. Ideology is “a set of ideas which serve the interest of a particular social class.” This implicates social scientists since they operate within ideologies, and it is thus natural that their ideologies would be self-reinforcing. People rarely have a good reason to undermine their own foundation, but this is precisely what critical theory asks of the researcher. A scholar who did not take time to take into account his or her own viewpoints can no longer be seen as totally honest after this critique. Uncovering the unconscious bias in human life allows for the scholar to approach matters with new eyes. The aim of critical social science is “self-conscious practice which liberates humans from ideologically frozen conceptions of the actual and the possible,” to attempt to convince people that they are in fact actors in their own world, not just parts of socio-economic machines.

Under the regime of critical theory meanings and actions are momentary expressions of changing culture. Knowledge is not neutral; it is always for something; even the pursuit of knowledge is not a neutral pursuit. In doing so critical theory attempts to allow for the possibility of numerous knowledges and forms of explanation. The study of famine is a perfect opportunity to interrogate the traditional ways of discussing phenomena and the biases undergirding these methods. Typically famine has been understood as a failure of something; all that was needed was to isolate that failure and remedy the situation. This treated famine as an entirely natural occurrence which could be ameliorated instrumentally. Unfortunately, this is not always the case; sometimes a famine is a roaring success. Food prices go up, and people move away making land cheap; often many millions die, allowing famine to be used as a convenient tool for eliminating opponents. Without interrogating the foundations, this sort of thing would stay hidden.

Making underlying truth claims visible is the driving force behind critical theory. Having done this researchers engage in a dialogue with their topics. Critical social science research asks researchers to consider the situation of people who maintain and participate in the very processes that oppress them: They make the things run, but have no individual control over the processes. Habermas thinks that meaning is constructed intersubjectively, rather than in isolation by a single person. By breaking down the previous assumption, a person can “unmask and criticize factors that block developmental processes.”

Critical social science is aware of its historicity as it attempts to describe its context. It participates in reconstruction of its own society and the societies around it in order to understand. It is precisely this awareness of context that allows a critical encounter to be transformative. By not passing judgement on a social phenomenon and instead attempting to understand the reasons for that phenomenon’s existence the research open him or herself up to transformation. This can only happen given what Habermas called an “ideal speech event.” These events are governed by a series of rules which can roughly be boiled down to “all potential participants to the discourse must have equal opportunity to use constative speech acts.” Every must be allowed to make a truth claim in good faith, so as to problematize all truth claims and to honestly engage with them. Stephen White goes into more specific detail:

1. “Each subject who is capable of speech and action is allowed to participate in discourses.”
2. a. “Each is allowed to call into question any proposal.”
b. “Each is allowed to introduce any proposal into the discourse.”
c. “Each is allowed to express his attitudes, wishes, and needs.”
3. “No speaker out to be hindered by compulsion– whether arising for inside the discourse or outside of it– from making use of the rights secure under [1 and 2]”

After these conditions have been satisfied and discourse has begun then a researcher can begin to act by creating “a program of education with the subjects that gives them new ways of seeing their situation” and “a theoretically grounded program of action which will change social conditions and will also engender new, less alienated understandings and needs.”

It is into this tradition that Peter Rollins steps with his work, exploring new (and sometimes simultaneously very old) philosophical frameworks for Christian belief in a post-Enlightenment landscape. Rollins’ articulation is of “Christianity as a religion without religion, that is, as a tradition that is always prepared to wrestle with itself, disagree with itself, and betray itself.” Rollins provocatively argues that a Christian must be willing to take on the role of Judas in order to stay true to the spirit of Christian faith; in much the same way, a critical theorist is called to examine and hold all things in tension and, I would argue, be willing to betray his or her tradition in order to ultimately uphold it. Later on in The Fidelity of Betrayal, Rollins begins to unpack the idea of the “Word,” and his formulation holds significant parallels to the truth regimes that critical theorists want examined. On the surface the “Word” and the truth regimes people operate under seem fairly uncomplex, demanding little; a closer look reveals the myriad complications and immense demands they place upon those under their rule. According to Rollins “The point then is not to engage in a hermeneutical approach that would seek to somehow expose the mind of God, but rather to embrace a radical hermeneutics (a reading that sets the text free from the idea of a single correct meaning) that seeks to ultimately move beyond the desire to reduce the text to descriptive statements, inviting instead an ongoing transforming dialogue with the text.” This embodies the rebuke of the “conservative” critique, while also reaffirming a refusal to be tied down to one restrictive meaning. This is the point of critical engagement. A Christian leader taking these ideas seriously might say things like, “I affirm this value of the Muslim people of Turkey because it is true, it is good, and it is a better way to live. It doesn’t matter where I find it, who speaks or lives it, or what they believe, I claim and affirm truth wherever I find it.”

In How (not) to Speak of God, Rollins uses the now familiar rabbit/duck image to illuminate the pervasiveness of interpretation. While it is possible to speak of the real world– and that perhaps we should never stop speaking of the real world– we must acknowledge our existence as interpretive beings, and other people’s existence as interpretive beings as well. Understanding of this existence on our parts will open us up to understanding differing interpretations which are no less “real” than our own. Perhaps the best thing that critical theory can teach its applicants is the idea of “knowledge plus,” a topic Rollins refers to. This is true knowledge, which is knowledge of a subject, plus acknowledgment that this knowing is pierced by unknowing. By acknowledging this, the engager is allowing room for growth and transformation in light of new illumination.

Rollins speaks of truth not as a “fact to be grasped, but an incoming to be undergone.” In this formulation a believer is supposed to seek truth and to let it transform him or her. Seeking after something is implicitly affirming that the thing exists. Seeking transformation is implicitly affirming that transformation is possible. Rollins illustrates this with a parable about a Princess who upon receiving a vast treasure from a poor street boy, throws the treasure away in a bid to understand the treasure the boy must possess in order to give such riches away nonchalantly. Here the evidence of transformation is already in existence, as shown by the princess’ willingness to seek the transformation in the first place.

If Rollins’ work on religion can be applied to individuals, and even social science researchers, then Bhiku Parekh’s work on multiculturalism occupies a similar space on a societal level. In “The Logic of Intercultural Evaluation” Parekh argues that if a minority value conflicts with a societal one, society owes it to minorities to examine the issue and see if it can be accommodated in any form. The work follows the contours of critical theory, rejecting a majority group’s claims to absolute correctness. The only way Parekh sees for cultural groups in contact with each other to live together peacefully is to interrogate their own beliefs and engage their opposite numbers in honest debate. In a reflection of Habermas’ “ideal speech event,” Parekh emphasizes that the sides must make positive arguments in favor of their positions and not negative arguments against their opposition.Adequate dialogue requires that minority spokespeople frame the question from the point of view of the majority, while the majority must seek to present its position from a perspective germane to the minority. In situations such society reflects upon itself. If a society is able to make honest reflection, why shouldn’t an individual citizen? Are societies not made up of citizens? If a society can make a change, that reflects a change in the minds of the citizenry.

This is the most radically insightful moment of the theory. Rather than attempting some sort of grand explication of all things ______ using power narratives, the canny theorist can make the focus of study a mundane, everyday thing. In negotiating these mundane realities– the everyday differences– together, cultures can come to a better understanding of themselves and of the world they inhabit. “In short, people may systematically misunderstand their own motives, wants, values, and actions, as well as the nature of their social order, and– given what we have about about the constitutive role of self-understandings in social life– these misunderstandings may underlie and sustain particular forms of social interaction.” As a social scientists comes to understand these misunderstood motives, wants, values, and actions the underlying forces working upon the scientist may come into clearer focus, and the world around the scientist may be changed.


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