Home > Uncategorized > A critique of critique: a restatement

A critique of critique: a restatement

I have been feeling somewhat bothered by the fact that my post with the same name from a few days ago was not especially clear–one might even say, badly written.  I confess, I wrote it in haste!  But there is an idea in it which I wanted to express, so I’m going to try it again.  This time more straightforwardly.

After now ten years spent in the context of higher education (particularly in the fields of continental philosophy, theology, and religion), I am left with the impression–and it is at this stage only an impression, not something which I have researched and am prepared to demonstrate, but nevertheless a persistent impression–that a certain kind of critical thinking has become hegemonic.

The particular sort of critical thinking that I have in mind exhibits a complicated relationship with Kant’s Critiques and what they represent: namely, a very sophisticated form of modern skepticism, objectification, or suspension (epoche), for which he is obviously not the only representative.  This bracketing procedure can approximate a certain kind of nihilism.  Because everything would seem to be, as far as we know it, determined by the conditions of transcendental consciousness, everything has, to some significant extent, lost its gravity, its credibility, its affirmability (for lack of a better word).  However, many thinkers who have come after Kant have subjected his own critical work to a further critique.  His transcendental approach was too naive, precisely because it neglected or concealed many of the conditions for its own possibility: history, culture, power, language, flesh, environment, etc.  But if Kant’s critique destabilizes a positive and meaningful sense of the whole, the mode of critique which has sought to move beyond Kant (a mode which one might call “meta-transcendental” or “postmodern”) has seemed, at times, only to increase the threat of some sort of implicit nihilism.  I acknowledge that this tradition can be interpreted in another way, as seeking to retrieve or rediscover sources of meaning which modern transcendental reason excludes.  But what I am concerned with here is its critical aspect, which is often salient, and which departs from Kant only while amplifying the intellectually elite negation of the whole which is expressed powerfully in his work.

My point is that much contemporary critique gives me the impression that we are still embedded in a kind of Kantian danger.  The message of academic discourse is still, basically, that everything is suspect, unreliable, already invalidated by a critical awareness of the conditions for its possibility.

Given this state of affairs, I would not want to advocate an end of critique but rather a more concerted effort to articulate a positive context which is larger and more powerful than the critique itself.  It seems to me that, without this effort, the intellectual life becomes a kind of badly infinite “gotcha” game, in which the goal is to pull the rug out from one another, to reveal with ever greater acuity the depths of another’s unacknowledged naivete and implicit culpability.  To put the point more positively, we need to try to answer questions like: What is not illusory?  What is it that we are attempting to protect by means of critique?  What ultimately warrants our allegiance, our fidelity, our affirmation, our praise?  It is for this reason that I want to suggest precisely theological praise as a point of departure for reflection concerning the bases for saying “yes” definitively and, therefore, for saying “no” in a localized and meaningful way.  Even Qoheleth, who sees the world and declares “vanity of vanities!” does not make this critique in the absence of God but rather in recognition of God’s glory.

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  1. Ross
    June 26, 2011 at 12:41 am

    Andrew,

    I am deeply sympathetic to your suggestion. Still, while I am surely less versed in this material than you are, I wonder whether your proposal grants too much to the critical: why retreat to a sort of phenomenology of praise (I am interpolating here; perhaps you don’t mean phenomenology at all?) instead of holding one’s ground with a kind of logos theology that balances our embeddedness with our shared reason? Instead of theological praise as a departure, why not the act of criticism itself, supposing as it does a truth that can be sought, arguments that can be communicated, goods that are to be done and evils that are to be avoided?

    • Andrew
      June 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm

      Ross, thanks for writing. I’m attracted to your suggestion of a logos theology. The reason I proposed praise as a starting point is, honestly, that I have a desire to work toward a more integrated form of theology and spirituality, where the two would not be separable. I think that a logos theology could be authorized precisely by the fact that we praise God as, and through, the Word.

  2. June 26, 2011 at 9:09 am

    I’m not sure I appreciate the threat you’re diagnosing. I think I recognize the critical one-upmanship that goes on sometimes in the academy, and I recognize how that can be paralyzing. But I’m cycling through the ‘big names’ in the most critical of critical theory–Nietzsche, Foucault, Butler, the Frankfurt School, etc.–and I’m not coming up with any whose ‘positive agenda’ isn’t clear. Their positive agenda is in some way determined by the critical principle, yes, which makes it look very different than the positive agenda of an Aristotle or Augustine or Thomas, but I don’t think the problem is that they’re unable to affirm anything. (And frankly, I’m much happier to cast my lot with those for whom the instability of knowledge has a kind of primacy, and is worked into the system.)

    From the other side, I think I share the modern hesitation to try ‘localize’ the negation within a broader affirmation—because of the way that tends to exempt what was affirmed from any questioning. I’d at least want to come up with a different way of visualizing the relation of the yes to the no, where it’s not just that the no is smaller and internal to the yes.

    • Andrew
      June 26, 2011 at 2:25 pm

      Brian, thanks for pushing me. It’s helping me to try to be more articulate. These are all fair points. I’m prepared in some sense to concede all of them: (i) the most critical of critics have something positive which they are driving at; (ii) if the choice is between something like a pre-critical tradition (Aristotle, etc.), in which metaphysical speculation reigns without attention to the destabilizing conditions for its possibility, and a post-critical tradition, in which these conditions are recognized, then I too favor the latter; (iii) my use of the term “larger” could be terribly misleading, since it may suggest that we can draw a clear line beyond which critique is off-limits–and I don’t want that. So what is my point then? What is the danger?

      One problem, I’m sure, is that I’ve been trying to get away with naming it abstractly, i.e., without engaging this or that particular thinker–probably a decision worthy of critique! So let me consider briefly an example, one not on your list, but whom I know a little better: Derrida. He transforms critique into an unrelenting practice of deconstruction, which, nevertheless, does not prevent him from making known some of his “positive” motivations: e.g., something like a radically inclusive democratic politics. And yet, it seems almost undeniable that the bulk of the labor (an important labor, no doubt) has been put into critique and not into vision. The overall impression one is left with–I speak vaguely, I know–is that we are caught up in a situation where the act of praising something would appear to be much more dangerous and less sophisticated than the practice of dismantling it. So we continue to seek things, no doubt, but we seek them largely or primarily by means of critique, with comparatively less attention given to working through an account of what makes them good or defensible in the first place–or, one might say, the positive implications of saying “yes” to something.

      In other words, something seems off-balance to me in the contemporary fields of discourse which have been deeply influenced by Derrida, et al (and, thus, distantly by Kant). My sense is that the practical consequences of this imbalance are, on the one hand, an eagerness to tear things down, and, on the other hand, only a very weak, somewhat inconsistent, not particularly well-developed form of affirmation.

      One of the advantages of proposing an analysis of theological praise, as a response to this situation, is that this tradition includes a profound understanding of the importance of apophasis (Dionysius being exemplary here), without giving up on the idea that the ultimate goal of knowledge (even critical knowledge) is love, love that is absolute, love which is in this sense “larger and more powerful” than critique.

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