Critical Theory and an Interdisciplinary Philosophy

Wouldn’t  it to be an interesting question for a social media game among academic philosophers to ask them the first and last book read during their studies? I realised with some amazement that in my case both were classics of critical theory. In 1981, after a year of introductory courses which used textbooks and readers, I read ‘Erkenntnis und Interesse’ by Jürgen Habermas, and in 1987, for the final exam, I read Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’. Both books were suggested by Kees Bertels, who was the professor of Social Philosophy in the Sociology Department. I met him during the two years in which I tried to study Sociology (between 1978 and 1980). The only things that really interested me there were theoretical: symbolic interactionism, Weber, Critical Theory. So it was better that I moved on to Philosophy. I kept in contact with Bertels through my first job as an assistant teacher, which I have to thank him for, and I did my facultative courses with him. He was kind of a hippie-professor, with wild curly hair, and ethnic necklaces – at least that is how I remember him. I also remember that there was a small scandal when he didn’t want to wear the obligatory tie when at a PhD examination committee. He never gave me the high notes that the regular philosophy professors did, so I have grumbled for some years that studying with him cost me my ‘cum laude’. But I also knew that he offered me a lot, intellectually – not only with his suggestions for books and a theme for the paper which I never wrote in the end (it should have been about ‘freedom in the young Marx and in Hegel), but also in his brave example to work outside of the mainstream.

This month I had the opportunity to teach two courses with critical theory in them, one on the Prison as the flipside of modernity, and the other on ‘hermeneutics and critical theory’. While discussing Foucault and Angela Davis in the one course, and philosophers like Gadamer, Derrida and Habermas in the other, I noticed a lacuna in my preparations that I hadn’t thought of. I hadn’t realized that nobody knows the work by Adorno and Horkheimer anymore. All the same it is at the background of many later critical analyses. They were researchers at the famous Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, who fled nazi-Germany to transplant, with other famous colleagues like Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse, the ideas of the Frankfurt School to the US. Characteristic for their work was that they opened up the rigid walls of method that still surround much academic philosophy, to find the focus for their research not in disciplinary presuppositions, but in the actual problems in society. The question at issue should lead the way to the approach chosen. A creative mixture of Freudian and Marxian ideas gave them the tools to analyse the blind spots of modern Europe, which had not succeeded to live up to its own Enlightenment ideals of freedom and dignity for all human beings. On the contrary – Europe had produced one of the most horrific and efficient totalitarian states known in modern times – in it’s philosopical heartlands so to speak.

Marxian analyses were useful to highlight the intertwined economic and political systems that worked to manipulate and produce docile individuals. Psychoanalysis helped to show the need to look into the cultural subconscious to find the roots for the acceptance, even the collective desire for such systems. After the war, Jürgen Habermas became the undisputed new man of the Frankfurt School on the continent – giving it a twist toward more ‘classical’ philosophy again – bringing a version of Kantian transcendental questioning back. Even when the possibility conditions he looked for were inspired by the interdisciplinary approach, the focus of the actual problems became, with Habermas, secondary once more to methodical questions. The more creative versions of Critical Theory developed in the US, with the Cold War as it’s backdrop. Marcuse came up with new and fascinating analyses of the relations between the military-industrial complex, the culture industry, and repressive desublimation. His pupil Angela Davis was part of a new generation of Critical Theorists, who put the interdisciplinary approach at work to study and contest social injustices based on race and gender – drawing too on a tradition of black thinkers who had been largely unnoticed in Academe.

In one of the more fundamental discussions in the course on the prison, my students and myself debated whether philosophy that was interdisciplinary could still be philosophical. My opinion was that it philosophy has to be interdisciplinary – to avoid being dead towards the world we live in. I cited Lewis Gordon’s book ‘Disciplinary Decadence’: ‘Where philosophy is treated as a closed affair that is simply “applied” to [x], it collapses into decadence. But where it is seen as an inexact activity, as the effort to think about the […] implications of [x], it transcends disciplinary decadence.’ The point being that a form of ‘transcendence’ is only reached when ‘a discipline suspends its own centering because of a commitment to questions greater than the discipline itself.’ The transcendance of disciplinary narrowness is taken to another level by a thinker who finds mind-bending deconstructions of racially oppresive thought patterns, Tommy J. Curry. While transcending the disciplinary, he urges his readers to move from understanding black art as transcending hardship, to submerging the viewer into things as they are: ‘For many philosophers interested in aesthetics, the beautiful has been transcending, and transformative to the extent that it provides the ideals through which truth and the good may be attained, but what if the philosophical relevation of “art” is not its ability to transcend, but its ability to submerge – to depict the suffering of the oppressed as eidetic glimmers cast upon the shadows of the colonial order?’ This quotation I used in the other course.

If I have only really reached the mind of one student, like Kees Bertels reached my mind in the late seventies talking about Marcuse and Horkheimer and Adorno, as a teacher I will be satisfied. For the discipline of philosophy it is however badly needed that the Interdisciplinary and the Critical is heard more often. I love philosophy too much to let it slumber away and not wake up to what should concern reflection nowadays. All the great problems of inhumanity in our time can and should still be analysed with the dedication that Adorno and Horkheimer showed towards those of their days. The Shadows of Enlightenment are still here.

  1. “Wouldn’t it be an interesting question for a social media game among academic philosophers to ask them the first and last book read during their studies?”

    First one: Walter Benjamin – Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze

    Last one: William Bechtel and Adele Abrahamsen – Connectionism and the Mind. Parallel Processing, Dynamics, and Evolution in networks

    Uh, that’s kind of sad…

    • I think it is great, David, in another way that you might have noticed. You seem able to connect worlds of thought that are far apart, perhaps the outcome of the game can symbolize that? Thanks for playing. 🙂

  2. onesis said:

    hello Angela, it’s always so great to read your posts and I find myself looking forward to the next one. I don’t always get a chance to comment but what you write always either leaves me with something fresh to ponder, or else it revitalises thoughts I’ve had many times before and lacked an opportunity for discussion.

    You begin here by mentioning first and last books read during your philosophy studies. Personally I can’t remember the first one, but I do remember the invitation it gave to spend a life doing philosophy under the Socratic umbrella concept of “the unexamined life is not worth living”. I studied for a number of years under some fabulous teachers at the University of Queensland in the early to mid 1970s. I had to stop officially registered studies before my quest was ended, and I had decided at that point not to take up an academic career. But I do remember having a sense to go on with the kinds of thinking produced, first, by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and second, by Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. I thought then these these were saying something that I needed to develop my own thoughts about. All that was 40 years ago.

    Now to say something about the critical tradition. Criticism must begin at home and with the self. That is my first rule. Knowing oneself as a thinker means knowing how one thinks. I tried in vain to find echoes of how I really think in the sort of logics being taught at the time; mainly deductive and inductive varieties. But Wittgenstein proposes that the deep grammar of our language cannot be captured by these. In order to find out how we think we have to see ourselves engaged in activities, and this is the relevance of Arendt’s “to think what we are doing”.

    I am still very much in the orbit of these thinkers. Of course there are backwards and sideways movements, for example into the German tradition that seems at first utterly alien to English language speakers, but which settles like silent snow on the tombs of Europe. I speak here of Heidegger and Jaspers. Arendt took me there, and through her lens I saw glimmers of what she saw.

    But seeking to know how one thinks now brings me to challenge afresh the hegemony of deductive and inductive logics. I see in that widely disparaged operation of thought (disparaged through psychologists such as Piaget who identified it in the immature thinking of young children), namely transductive logic, the actual operation of the thinking of adult people engaged in their day to day activities. I first analysed my own thinking thus. I realised that what I was doing was taking the everyday experiences of things and transforming them, by working with them, so as to produce “a life worth living”. It started when I had to do time and motion studies to make my day to day work on a farm most efficient. Otherwise I couldn’t finish a day’s work in a reasonable number of hours. It went from there to using it to work out the best way to manage customers in a retail fruit and vegetable operation. My transductive thinking became more complex, far more complex than that of a child, but it was only a different of degree not of kind.

    So now I use transductive logic in occupational coaching. I work with people with disability predominantly, and what I have found is that each person develops mind maps that are suited to their own needs. Some mind maps are better than others and some are deeply flawed by prejudice and resentment. But without transductive logic, and critique of what is considered possible, the development of these maps would not be possible.

    I am not talking, by mentioning “mind maps”, about such matters as discourse and worldview. Those are abstractions. It’s about how thought changes sensory information into usable items of knowledge that are unique to individuals and small communities. The philosophical or critical element is vital to all this.

  3. Thanks David, for your long and interesting reflection inspired by my post. Your approach to life and philosophy (so closely intertwined) always gives me food for thought. A very original and creative example of how to do things in real life by way of critical reflection.

  4. johnberk said:

    I definitely don’t remember the book I have read first when I started my career, but I do know what book I’m reading now, and it has nothing to do with philosophy and critical theory. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this post. I would represent a change to your demographics, because I actually started with critical theory recently, and jumped on Adorno’s lectures first. Now, I continue reading about psychoanalysis, trying to catch up with the psychological stuff I was not aware about. The strongest positive impressions I have from the critical theory are: it tends to be interdisciplinary; it deals with reality – it does not pretend anything similar to the Mill’s Methods, or to a classical Positivist study, which pretends all variables exist in a vacuum and are not affected by anything else; it raises self awareness.

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