Tag Archives: Critical Theory

I have been silent for too long. The reason was not, surely not, being tired of blogging. As usual once a week an idea for a post sprang into my mind. But over the past months, I could never sit with some rest to write it. There were more papers to write, or finish for publication than I was used to, as a result of the many conferences I was lucky to go to over the past one and a half year. A common book project which I initiated about two years ago was suddenly asking for the work to be done, as a publisher came on board. There was a sudden increase in invitations to speak at book presentations and events for a wider public. And teaching just had to go on as usual. It seemed longtime investments in what matters to me in philosophy were now coming together – with movements in the world around me. Such a time is called momentum – a window for action after long preparations which one didn’t know if they would lead anywhere, and where, if so.

Reflecting on the change in myself that accompanies this momentum, I often had to think of a story, told by a friend I met in my first year of philosophy, in 1980. This friend was deeply involved in yoga, meditation and what we now call spirituality. Back then it was called mysticism. Like a Jehova’s witness, she was always pulling me into conversations on spiritual matters, and said she was convinced that althangela-81-4-2ough I was burying myself in the classical curriculum of my philosophy studies, she knew that I was really oriented toward the mystical. I protested the word, as ‘becoming one with the One’ did not attract me – a fan of negative dialectics and critical thinking. In the end, of course, we had more in common than we both would admit, and we entered into a fundamental conversation that lasted for 16 years. Then my friend (who had changed to religious studies in 1981, out of protest against what we now call the white canon in philosophy) at the moment she was about to start her PhD project on sufi mysticism in the middle ages, and already was making headway with learning Arabic and Persian, died.

The story she told me, in an attempt to convince me to turn to the spiritual, was from Carlos Castaneda’s famous books on his journey into native American shamanism. She tried to convince me to read Castaneda by recounting he had embarked on his surprising journey, full of personal challenges and spiritual visions, from the moment he had decided to simply say ‘yes’ to anything that came upon his path. So he said yes when he was asked to become the pupil of a native American shaman.

To me saying yes like that was almost like blasphemy. Negative dialectics, you see. Keeping distance, making detours, looking at what divides and taking its painful realizations in, were what I lived by. Distance over against nearness. And this was not just a matter of psychology, I knew it was necessary to get where I needed to be to understand something in this life. Long before I started this blog I wrote what I called my ‘log’ – a personal handwritten diary of events and experiences in my philosophical life. In that log, I once wrote that my life was about continuous detours. Moving somewhere, but returning every time to find that I could not enter, not say ‘yes’.

Now I find myself saying yes all the time – to the many unexpected invitations that come towards me, like the exciting one that came just this week – to come over to the university of Essex to share my experience with introducing intercultural and African philosophy in teaching. Entering, saying yes, is a great change to me, and the interesting thing is that I didn’t give up my critical approach in (and to) philosophy to get there. The world around me has changed. The world has taken many detours too, with devastating consequences, and more are happening even now. In present times, however, new platforms that urge for change are springing up – outside, but now gradually also inside academia. Now that I am learning to say yes, I find companions who have been getting to this same place on their own lonely journeys. A window in time has opened and one never knows for how long it will remain so. Criticism is wanted, and now directly transforms into affirmation for those working for positive changes. This is called momentum.

In this blog I have commemorated my friend Reva van Haaster, who died in 1997 – I have hardly known a more dedicated, thorough, and unprejudiced researcher than her, and she was also that friend who brought flowers when you had passed a difficult exam… Over the years we pursued a dialogue between our often diverging viewpoints, inspired by true friendship and love for knowledge.

This post is also a greeting to all my philosophical friends, new and old, you know who you are. Let’s enjoy the momentum and make a difference!

The photo shows me, 1981, a fan of negative dialectics and critical theory – still pursuing philosophy after my friend had left the studies.

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.

What is ethics? Teaching the introduction to ethics for years and years, to students in philosophy as well as in theology, I have often wondered what I was doing – where I was introducing them to: to a separate discipline with its own theories and methods of argumentation or to a systematic version of universal human reflections on good and bad. Or is ethics still something else? Viewing, and choosing from, available textbooks, one notices first a strong, if not hegemonic, presence of more or less analytic approaches. And second, an a-historical temper. One of the reasons for this last characteristic could be that ethics has tried to demarcate itself, in the twentieth century, as a distinct discipline, not as a branch of philosophy or of theology, but as something newer and more vital, a new ‘science’ of deciding what to be done in cases of moral dilemma. The trained ethicist should be able to be part of ethical committees and advise doctors, companies, governmental representatives and all kinds of other societal parties on morality and how it comes about by way of the right techniques of argumentation.

Thus, much of the reflexive nature of ethical questioning has gone lost. Many ethicists have forgotten about the experiences that induced human beings to reflect on good and bad in the first place. Like the experience of deteriorating political circumstances, for instance, for Plato, and the even more decisive experience that this could be repaired by searching for the original good that informs being. Or the experience, for a Christian philosopher like Aquinas, that the human being seems to be a creature in between – in between heaven and earth, having some idea of the divine origin of knowledge, and also feeling the need to comply with earthly desires and urges. A creature between angel and animal, seeing what should be, and what is, as different spheres, and having been endowed with knowledge of this – knowledge of good and bad. Also that great moral philosopher Nietzsche hardly has a place in the ethical canon, for his experiences, that the Christian view of humanity blinded human beings for their radically impulsive nature, and for the fact that no value has ever been found but as an answer to a need. Every good is a good for a will, and even going beyond good and evil is just the result of a bold, inquisitive nature, that of Nietzsche and his likes, who venture into radical moral insecurity.

What has been lost in the making of ethics into a discipline is, finally, the experience that ethics is a critical tool, which can hammer to pieces complacent adherence to whatever is in fashion, morally – be it tragic resignation, or acceptance of a dualistic wordview which leaves no room for tragedy. Be it  the disappearance of the public sphere, or the belief that everything can be decided by rational argumentation. I have decided that I want to try to make for a change in this field. Ethics has to return to its reflective powers and its critical function. It has to remember the experiences that unhinge the factual world – those that make one silent first, and then brave. It has to renew its orientation, which does not mean that it will successfully solve dilemmas, or even understand them in a final manner. It has to dare to fail in the giving of reasons, while making room for pain and pleasure in a deeper sense than that of a rational individual. In this sense, there are quite a few moral philosophers who are not present in ethics textbooks: Jacques Derrida who dared to ask about justice in the present world, Hannah Arendt, who dared to expose the banality of evil in one of the biggest mass murderous experiments in history, Angela Davis, who dares to ask about the racist economy which underlies the prison system in the greatest country. This is all about pain – so what about pleasure? Pleasure could be given room in a reflection like that of Benedict de Spinoza on friendship, or in the research of the moral qualities of hermeneutics, like Hans-Georg Gadamer did. Or in the joyful visions of a deschooled society by Ivan Illich.

‘Caring about’ means, according to Joan Tronto, ‘noticing the need to care in the first place.’ And what she cared about in her 1993 work Moral Boundaries, are the boundaries of moral and political discourse. What she noticed was that not enough attention to them had been paid, resulting in the reproduction of existing injustices in society. Moral Boundaries is a great book, I would trade several bookcases filled with mainstream ethical theory for it. No, that is a silly thing to say – it is an indispensable book, and cannot be traded for anything. Of course one might criticize the work – I would, for instance, have loved it to be more systematic in its reasoning. But all the same it is rare that someone writes an original contribution to the body of philosophy, and any imperfections of it should not diminish the wonder this inspires (as one would not want to miss Kant’s works because his distinction between analytical and synthetical propositions is not really convincing).

For some time I owed a post to Joan Tronto, since the motto I chose when I first started blogging consists of a combination of expressions of Ludwig Feuerbach and of her. My first post was dedicated to Feuerbach, while I remained silent of Tronto. Why? Did I think that, as she is alive and active, she could take care of spreading her thought on her own? Or did I unknowingly fell victim to this unfeministic tendency (I suspect it exists in many women, as well as men) to cite the works of men more often than those of women? Anyhow, there is the more reason to give attention to her old work now – in the year that she finally, after twenty years, published another original book – on the failing of democracy (especially in the USA, but I suspect the results of her analysis will be of wider applicability), and its relation to not caring about care enough. This book I still have to read, but Moral Boundaries I have read and studied for a long period of time, and used parts of it in my ethics classes almost every year.

It is a work in the tradition of Critical Theory, and she makes clear where her approach diverges from the older German colleagues, especially Habermas in his eighties work on Communicative Action: ‘The Frankfurt School framework, blaming our understanding of reason […] provides only part of the answer. It is not enough to call attention to the formal problems in our current thought processes. The more serieus aspect of inattentiveness is the unwillingness of people to direct their attention to others’ particular concerns.’ When I reread these lines I smiled and thought: ‘oh, that’s what was wrong with the leftwingers of my student days – endlessly talking about highly theoretical stuff in smoke filled rooms – they wanted change, and were sincere about this, but connecting (practically and theoretically) with the powerless, the speechless, the mute, didn’t come very easy. They, we, needed Joan Tronto: ‘care implies reaching out to something other than the self: it is neither self-referring nor self-absorbing.’ And it is inherently directed to some kind of action.

The greatness of Tronto’s book consists in the fact that it showed that the soft force of care needs to have its place in the hard worlds of power and normativity – in politics and in ethics. When Kant searched for the essence of the good will he wrote that, instead of being driven by some interest, it takes an interest in something. Habermas broadened the importance of interest, and placed it, whether as drive or as motivation, behind every form of knowledge. Tronto’s criticsm goes further – it is attentive towards the boundaries of standard political and ethical discourse – the discourse that has relegated care, taking an interest in the problems of actual others, to something supererogatory, something beyond what morality can ask from a person, and something outside the arena of political trading. It is left to those who want to practice ‘charity’. But while modern political and ethical theory is based on the Enlightenment idea that all ‘men’ are equal – this makes it avoid, says Tronto, ‘the difficult questions that arise when we recognize that not all humans are equal.’ Taking no interest in this factuality is, she rightly states, ‘a moral failing’.

Therefore she was very right in focusing, in 1993, in the era of late modern thinking, on the ‘boundaries’ that have excluded care from public space. For reflecting on boundaries is what philosophy since Kant was supposed to do to be taken seriously. Not mindlessly enjoying the fun of metaphysics, but asking what preconditions our thought and experience. Care ethics, however, does not halt at contributing to critically outlining the limits of modern ethics and politics – it has in mind actual practice, from which it also springs – thus it makes sense that Tronto’s new book is still more focused on the actual political situation in which we live – this is where practical reasoning should have been directed at from the start anyway.

Joan Tronto is professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. The titles of the books of her I mentioned are below. I cited from the 1993 one.

I admire not only her work, but also that she succesfully withstood one of the perversities of present academic life, namely the pressure to ‘publish (very much) or perish’.

Moral Boundaries. A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care, Routledge, 1993

Caring Democracy. Markets, Equality, and Justice, new York University Press, 2013