Update: For my last words on Dr. Shenvi’s work, please see: “Critical Theory, Dr. Levinson, Dr. Shenvi, and Evangelicalism: Final Thoughts”
Dr. Shenvi has responded to my publication of Dr. Levinson’s critique of his supposed “core tenets of contemporary critical theory,” by essentially arguing that Dr. Levinson really does agree with him, as though Levinson did not clearly state,
These so-called tenets read to me as caricature. They carry minor grains of truth, but they simplify and obscure.
no, I don’t think they capture the “core” of critical social theories. I think the Intro to my book gets closer to doing that “properly.”
which is all that I set out to demonstrate. Further, the “Intro” Dr. Levinson references does in fact state clearly his understanding of the “defining characteristics” of critical social theories, namely,
- “value-rationality” rather than instrumental rationality. In other words, it is not neutral in reference to values and has a definite (though not teleological) conception of “progress” and the social good, often a utopian vision or concept of “liberation.”
- the assumed need to dismantle and critique taken-for-granted ideologies, to challenge the “false consciousness” (Lukács) or “misrecognition” (Bourdieu) that enables social domination.
- an understanding of domination as structural yet dialectically connected to agency in people’s “everyday lives.” (Beyond Critique, p. 11)
Again, specifically not Shenvi’s fourfold construction.
I honestly am at a loss as to why Dr. Shenvi is so committed to these four points in the face of criticalists’ own definitions, descriptions, and overviews of what makes critical theories critical theories. Is it because it is more convenient for making accusations of evangelicals?
I’ve sent links to Shenvi’s articles and his four “core tenets” to other scholars in the field as well—each the identical simple email.
(With occasional modification in salutations and deletion of “you yourself have been cited…” if not applicable.) It seems to me this would be an important element in properly characterizing an academic field before attempting to summarize and condemn, especially as laymen. It is not a “gotchya!” attempt nor a personal attack on Dr. Shenvi. Having one’s work reviewed by experts is exactly the expected process within academia, and I hold no ill will toward Dr. Shenvi and believe that he is rightly following his personal convictions.
I have so far heard back from several scholars in the field and will share them as our conversations develop. Unfortunately, Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s assistant responded saying she was too busy to engage, and Maurianne Adams declined, for, as she stated,
I would only guess that our clarifications & responses would be further distorted by those with an interest in distorting them.
But she did assure me that she and her colleagues hope to “inform this debate” in their coming 4th edition of Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. In a similar vein, Dr. Ozlem Sensoy, co-author of Is Everyone Really Equal? with Dr. DiAngelo, stated simply,
It sounds like your community is engaged in some deep dialogue, which is wonderful to hear about. That said, there are enough problematic elements in the 4-point summary of critical theory below, that I would not [be] able to substantively engage in each point over email. Nor would it be possible to explain the problematic summarizations themselves without those interested in critical theory engaging in fuller academic study of the subject.
(This, in itself, speaks volumes.)
Dr. Stephen Eric Bronner, on the other hand, kindly offered a fuller response. Dr. Bronner is Board of Governors Professor of Political Science at Rutgers, Human Rights Director of Global Relations Executive Committee of the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention, Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR), and author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, including Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists, Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists, and co-editor of Critical theory and society: A Reader, and has been in part responsible for popularizing critical theory in the United States.
Though his approach is very traditional and rooted in the Frankfurt tradition, I do believe his voice and perspective is nevertheless important in contemporary discussions of critical social theories. Nearly every (if not every) book on critical social theory identifies the Frankfurt tradition as the source of critical theories and still a defining perspective of what makes theories properly “critical.” Dr. Levinson begins with Frankfurt when defining “critical social theory” in his own work (see “Demystifying Theory, Demystifying Critical” in Beyond Critique), and Sensoy and DiAngelo likewise acknowledge the same:
Our analysis of social justice is based on a school of thought known as Critical Theory. Critical Theory refers to a body of scholarship that examines how society works, and is a tradition that emerged in the early part of the 20th century from a group of scholars at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany (because of this, this body of scholarship is sometimes also called “the Frankfurt School”). These theorists offered an examination and critique of society and engaged with questions about social change. Their work was guided by the belief that society should work toward the ideals of equality and social betterment. (Is Everyone Really Equal?, p. 25)
We read also in Patricia Hill Collins’ most recent book, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, that,
The Critical Theory advanced by Frankfurt school scholars provides an important benchmark for subsequent discussions of critical social theory. Other perspectives build on its foundation, identifying various aspects of the concerns of Frankfurt school scholars as foundational to critical social theory writ large (Agger 2013; Bohman 2016; Calhoun 1995; Held 1980). (Location 1382)
(See also the modern influence of Angela Davis, in her own right a Frankfurt theorist.)
As before, I will here quote in entirety Dr. Bronner’s statement, without comment.
It seems that your friend has basically thrown together some views (or better clichés) that were gathered from Gramsci and post structuralism. They are not the core values of critical theory and they don’t represent its unique perspective either.
Let me put it to you this way:
Critical theory grew out of the response to the failure of “orthodox Marxism” in its response to World War I and the Russian Revolution. The key thinkers who comprised “Western” Marxism and inspired the Frankfurt School were Georg Lukacs and Karl Korsch. Their point was that reliance on economic determinism and “scientific” claims about the historical inevitability of revolution against capitalism and the commodity form were actually “traditional” forms of theory.
In their view, which became crucial for all critical theory, it was necessary to (1) highlight the “totality” of social relations rather than the economy and (2) consider “consciousness” the decisive step in bringing about a revolution and envisioning a liberated society. 3) This means that forms other than economic must be understood in inhibiting the prospects of revolution and in envisioning liberation: so any genuinely “critical” approach must understand the functioning of the “authoritarian” family (Erich Fromm), the “culture industry” (Marcuse), instrumental or bureaucratic rationality (Adorno) and the workings of the commodity form. The resulting “alienation” and reification rob people of their reflexivity and radical vision and objectively turn them into things or little more than cogs in the machine. Reality meanwhile becomes subordinate to mathematical or scientific forms of thinking. Horkheimer’s classic essay on “traditional and critical theory” insisted on the need for a new interdisciplinary approach that indulges in neither “vulgar materialism” (positivism, behaviorism, empiricism etc) nor “metaphysics”; consciousness must challenge this increasingly reified and alienated world and insofar as oppression changes in changing circumstances, any genuinely radical theory must be self-critical and change in order to deal with new problems. Critical theory is therefore always historical and provisional in its claims and even Marxism must constantly call itself into question to confront the theoretical and practical mistakes made in its name. 4) Critique is intended to illuminate the unexamined assumptions that we make (as radicals) that actually harbor repression in the realm of psychology, sociology, analytic philosophy etc: all of these incorporate alienating and reifying assumptions and thereby reproduce the practice of the system in thought and imperil the philosophical subject. With the onset of World War II it became apparent that the proletariat had lost its revolutionary privilege and that its liberating vision had failed in the USSR. Instrumental rationality, the commodity form, the culture industry, and the authoritarian family had become hegemonic. They now threatened not merely the historical subject, the proletariat, but the subject as an individual. To this extent, it seemed that progress would need to be called into question, and that the assumption regarding the positive development of the historical dialectic required revision. Thus, the need for what Adorno termed “negative dialectics,” the determination of new ways to defend individuality, the importance of what Marcuse termed the “great refusal,” and a new reliance on the imagination and utopian thinking.
Insistence upon “social location” as decisive is just another way of invoking the need for relativism and sabotaging a utopian perspective; challenging the idea that violence is not the only form of domination is as old as religion and the critique of it; this view has nothing which is unique to critical theory; the division of society into dominant/subaltern classes is also as old as the hills, and has more to do with different forms of populism than critical theory.
Time for your friend to actually read the basics of critical theory. Note the collection edited by myself and Douglas Kellner, Critical Theory and Society; Martin Jay’s history of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination, Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, Horkheimer’s collection of essays, The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno, Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, and Adorno’s later Negative Dialectics and The Jargon of Authenticity.
Stephen Eric Bronner
Board of Governors Professor of Political Science
Director of Global Relations
Executive Committee of the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention
Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR)
More to come . . .
I think that clarifying argument is essential here. We can’t have a true argument of point/counterpoint if we don’t agree on what the issues are.
I’m not a professional or even amateur philosopher. I do what I can to keep up, but one thing that helps me is when the argument is based upon a mutually agreed-upon set of facts or points. And what I understand is that we have to clear away the misstatements and misapprehensions before we can have a real argument.
It’s important to stick with what was actually said by the originators and explainers of the concepts of critical theory (I don’t see it as a single thing that all parties who support this agree to completely–that’s the nature of concepts.)
I don’t have animus against Dr. Shenvi. I think it is great to have people approach critical theory using tools of criticism. My plea with Dr. Shenvi (and others) is to not start from the premise of “this is wrong” and instead start from the premise “what is actually being said here?”
It’s possible that all the concepts behind critical theory are wrong, that every premise and conclusion are wrong, and that the biases of the opponents of critical theory are simply matters of truth and fact.
But I’m not yet convinced to believe that because as yet I’ve not seen the critics present a set of honest arguments, let alone represent critical theory fairly.
I’ve spent far too much time with my life listening to men and women who declare with certainty “This is an unbreakable fact.”
Show me. Don’t tell me to believe and then see. Show me. Help me in my unbelief.
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