Critical Theory

No one is as critical as a critical theorist. Some of their leading spokespersons have spent their lives criticising. They criticised traditional philosophy, German idealism, positivism, existentialism and pragmatism.. They've looked at all the main traditions in sociological thought and criticised them as well. They became so critical that they virtually painted themselves into a corner -- everything could be criticised and so there were no clear guidelines to do anything except criticise. Critical theorists do not do positive implications or helpful suggestions for reform They have good reasons for this and it is a mistake to attribute this negative stance to personal tragedy or gloominess (Adorno and some of his colleagues were lucky to escape from Nazi Germany in the 1930s) . Any criticism is  'negative' for those who do not want any inquiry into what they are doing. As we shall see, being 'positive' is pretty easy by comparison and there is no shortage of people wanting to get on with things without thinking them out too clearly. We can leave some of these issues aside though and proceed to pinch some of their critical techniques in our cheerfully vulgar way.

Extensive work here, but we will take one crucial central point -- the critique of identity thinking. One main application here is to critique the usual techniques of applying theory to actual cases. People who like tidiness, from hard-pressed students to really quite sinister political manipulators like fascists, like to try to make theoretical concepts fit precisely on to some actual event or practice in the real-world, ideally without too much adjustment or thought. In other words, they like to try and achieve a relation of identity between concepts and actual lumps of the real-world. Once they have done this, they think they will be able to manipulate the real world far more easily.

Why is this wrong as a research technique specifically? Let us take a key argument in Marx (Adorno approves of  a great deal of Marx's work, but by no means all of it). The German philosopher Hegel developed a marvellous theory of social development, involving human beings inventing particular political and social systems, and then becoming aware of the difficulties with them and trying to improve them. Slavery, for example, is quite a convenient system, at least for the slave-owners, but almost behind their own backs they come to depend far too much on slaves and their labour: finally, even slave-owners reflect and realise that they might as well emancipate their slaves and develop a new society based on the notion of contract labour.  Employing people gets the job done just as well and without all the obligations.

Hegel eventually came to see some sort of monarchy as the most developed form of social and political organisation. Ideally, the monarch would represent universal interests, above the petty rivalries of the other sectors of society like politicians, or the conflict over wages or rights between capital and labour -- and so on. The monarch would represent universal Reason itself. OK in theory, just possibly, but disastrous when applied to the actual Prussian monarchy of the time (whether Hegel himself did this, or just his followers is debatable). As Marx pointed out, the actual Prussian monarch had come to power as a result of a sordid political struggle with his rivals, and he held on to it by a series of classic political manoeuvres including the use of armed force. Claiming that this represented some universal Reason is clearly poor description, completely inadequate analysis, and, of course, an apology or justification for actual Prussian politics.

That's what happens when you do 'identity thinking'. You don't do justice to the complex realities of actual events, and you find yourself propping up particular powerful groups, justifying their actions as grounded in theory, no less.  To cite a well-known phrase, cognitive domination of the object is closely connected to real domination of people.

Adorno was so keen to avoid identity thinking that he constantly stressed complexity and the need to open up ourselves to experience it. This would be far better than pursuing any particular theoretical scheme or model of research. Sticking slavishly to some organised procedure to deliver knowledge, whether this was 'scientific methods' or particular philosophical approaches, was simply dogmatic. It was also a bit superstitious: in this sense sticking to a scientific method was not much different from sticking to a magic ritual to try to affect the world, rather like a goalkeeper putting his water bottle in the same corner of the net each time so he could get magical help saving shots. Adorno even went so far as to write in a deliberately obscure and ambiguous way, precisely to avoid people taking his  'theory', and 'applying' it by sticking it on to some lump of reality.

EXAMPLE. We would not want to go round using German literary forms and expressions deliberately to emphasise ambiguity and complexity! However, we can quite easily find examples of identity thinking that we can criticise in the work of others. The government and other bodies are always bleating on about  'sport', for example. They mean by this concept an entirely wholesome, healthy, physical activity which will combat obesity, improve longevity, reduce crime and teach proper values such as  'fair play'. It would be quite wrong to take their concept of sport and use it to describe actual sporting contests that we can witness or take part in. Is the  'sport' of professional cycling a 'sport' in the same sense, or is it a nasty commercial exploitative spectacle riddled with risky drug-taking and other forms of cheating?

That was an easy one, but is school sport 'sport' in the sense that the government is using the term? There are some studies that suggest that, for example, a routine game of football played at school will not deliver the health and physical benefits of  'sport' in the Government's sense. Kids do not play sufficiently energetically to raise their heart rate to the approved level for the approved length of time, for example. There is an argument coming from the other direction as well -- other routine activities may well raise heartbeat to  'healthy' levels, including vigorous housework, or vigorous sexual activity. Oddly enough, then, vigorous and prolonged daily masturbation may end up being more like what the Government says is 'sport' than playing football in PE lessons!

At the very least, it would be a gross simplification to assume that Government reports, or the research findings of sports scientists, paediatricians or medical personnel were simply supporting concrete practices such as school sport. If you are in the field, you will realize that a good deal of persuasive communication, creative application and special pleading is requirted to make things fit Those practices are far more complex than they appear at first, or, in Adorno's terms:

'objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy' (Adorno T Negative Dialectics)

You might already be able to see the relentless negativity of the approach. No system, no position, no beliefs can be universally applicable or valid. So where does that leave critique? Where do critical theorists actually stand? Where did they criticise from, so to speak? Was it  a consistent position they had or was it just opportunist and improvised? How about the old marxist view that marxism was a science that could be believed because of its superior techniques and its lack of ideology?  Adorno and the lads would scoff at that, of course, as a kind of positivism. How about a more contemporary (for them) view that marxism represented the working class who were destined to come to power as a universal class, and only that class could possibly gain universal knowledge? We know that there is and can be no univdersal knowledge. So what is left?

Habermas struggled with this issue for years, and finally came up with the ideal speech act (see below) as some sort of concrete grounding for critique. Adorno and the others had another possibility -- immanent critique ( it really is spelled that way). This spelling of 'immanent' has a general philsophical meaning as bringing out that which is struggling to realise itself. Let's be more vulgar though: it also means criticising things on their own terms, against their own claims, bringing out what has been skipped over, repressed or hidden.

Let's take a policy seriously enough to criticise and judge it it in its own terms. Let's not condemn it right away as New Labour bollox, or whatever.Let's tease out what it claims and then see if we can test it. Not very different from critical rationalism in some ways, although we will be employing specific concepts like identity thinking, or the ones used by Habermas ( below).


A later theorist, influenced by the Adorno generation (he was Adorno's research assistant), but wanting to tangle with more modern arguments. A real big hitter who has written some superbly learned critiques of philosophy and social sciences and is one of the main critics of (French ) postmodernism. Let us pluck a few nuggets and bend them to our purposes [several mixed metaphors there I notice]

Some of the most political material in Habermas turns on his critical analysis of the modern state. States like ours or the European ones face a real dilemma. On the one hand, they need to gain the consent of the people, at least in general and for most of the time. To do this, they have to pursue policies that clearly appear to be in the universal interest, the  'interests of the nation', as it is sometimes put. On the other hand, they are operating with an extremely unequal economic and social system, one that provides economic growth, but which also produces considerable inequalities of power, income and wealth, and a great deal of social injustice. They have no choice but to support these specific interests as well, but to do so openly would be to risk universal consent.

One way around this is to develop a particular kind of  'distorted communication'. What this does is try to represent specific interests as universal ones. Thus our government announces that it must allow the rich to find ways to avoid tax, otherwise the whole British economy would suffer, and that means all of us. Or, particular wars, clearly following specific interests, sometimes foreign ones, are represented as great struggles for 'civilization', supported by all of us and in the interests of all of us.

The examples in Habermas are really quite simple ones to follow. I suppose the main clue indicating possibly distorted communication is when any one individual or group starts talking about the wider interest, uses  'we' without specifying who is involved, or simply assumes that everyone living in a particular region has the same national interest. A classic example would be the 2012 Olympics, of course. No doubt 'the nation' might benefit economically, but a more detailed analysis shows that London and the South East will benefit more, while other regions might even suffer economically. The gloss 'the nation' conceals these regional differences,

Other analysts have pursued this in more detail, including those involved in  'critical linguistics' (e.g Fowler et al -- see also the file on critical discourse analysis) . A number of particular strategies have been identified as a result of an analysis of the language used by middle-management, for example. They typically use pronouns like 'we' in ways which imply that  'we' all believe in the good of the firm, or in the need to make people redundant. They also use other linguistic forms to avoid responsibility, to 'denominalize'. Examples here include making it look as if things happen abstractly or on their own accord rather than being made to happen by somebody -- something like  'Funds have not always been used wisely' instead of  'Too many budget holders have had their hands in the till'.

For our purposes, any sentence or statement with these abstract forms, or which use the term  'we', might be suspected of offering distorted communication. A critical analysis would ask who exactly is the  'we' in question? The British nation as a whole? Parliament? A particular political party? A particularly powerful group inside a particular political party? Some other group whose specific interests are being pursued? A critical analysis might demand to know who exactly is responsible for things that apparently have happened 'on their own' .

We're not asking these questions just to be spiky or nasty. Terms like 'we, the community' might lead to some useful questions such as exactly how were the community's views communicated to the policy makers? [ which some researchers have indeed identified as a big problem with, for example, Best Value -- see Stevens and Green, for example]. How representative were the views of people who were consulted? How might we [sic] make them more representative? It is important to penetrate beneath abstractions if you're interested in putting your finger on what actually needs to be changed -- if too many budget holders have had their hands in the till, we need to know about it not to prosecute them necessarily, but to find a new form of training and recruitment procedure or financial control.

Habermas also discussesd a major interest of ourse -- 'strategic communication', which is intended to persuade people, quite often by pretending to be neutral, obvious, beyond dispute and so on. We discuss this in more detail in another file.

If those are examples of distorted or strategic communication, what would undistorted and non-strategic communication look like? This leaves us to Habermas's excellent work on the  'ideal speech act'. This has also been much discussed and criticised, so we will give a simple account here and let keen students follow up the debates for themselves.

The idea is that everyday speech between individuals has a substantial critical potential. Ideally, individuals are capable of asking questions about the validity of any statements made by other individuals. In an ideal speech situation, any member of the audience could get up and challenge a policy-maker to explain, defend and justify their statements. We're not just talking about the usual notion of validity or truth here. Validity usually refers to the idea that there are 'facts' to support a particular view. Anyone taking a methods course would be able to make quite sophisticated demands of any speaker in terms of whether or not statements matched objective reality -- how was the evidence gathered, what were the methods used, what interpretations were made, and so on.

There is commonly thought to be another kind of validity as well, this time relating to internal consistency. Thus the statement  'two plus two equals four' is valid because it conforms to, or is consistent with, the rules of arithmetic. For some writers, this kind of consistency is called validity, while conformity to objective reality is sometimes called  'truth'. To complicate things still further, there is much discussion about methodological validity and what to call the different types -- see any good methods text, for example Gratton and Jones.

However , Habermas is well aware that all sorts of statements are made in public discourses, many of them referring not to  'facts' but to other matters. For example, public speakers or writers often want us to believe that they are sincere, they are not trying to persuade us for their own ends, but are laying out the only available alternatives. Clearly, the validity of this claim can also be challenged: the questions at any public political meeting commonly raise this issue. How can we judge the sincerity of a statement? We might want to inquire about any special interests involved, we might wish to check the consistency of statements, we might want to explore implications -- we might want to use all the techniques that lawyers use with witnesses in court.

Habermas is a systematic thinker, and he describes the two kinds of validity so far in a systematic way. Factual validity can be seen as a matter of the relationship of statements to the external objective world. Matters of sincerity turn on the relationship of statements to the inner psychological world of the speaker, their motives and intentions. There is one other main issue -- the relation of statements to the social world. This turns on the idea of  'social appropriateness'. Again, this is not a terribly abstract idea, and you can often find social appropriateness being discussed in public meetings -- are policies really workable, suitable for our societies or imports from somewhere else, will they cause unintended social upheaval or resistance, are they too 'academic'-- and so on.

In an ideal speech situation, any speaker will be free to question the claims made by any other speaker [Habermas often assumes that face-to-face communication is the norm]. Claims will be made and questioned by any and all participants, who will be guided solely by the need to arrive at the best argument. This sounds quite similar to the role of the scientific community in critical rationalism, although Habermas wants to introduce these other issues of sincerity and appropriateness as well (see his contributions to the Positivist Dispute).

Many actual conversations and interactions will not correspond to the ideal speech situation, as Habermas recognises. He has even accepted that some conversations work better where there is a limit to questioning -- some pedagogic interchanges, say between teachers and primary school children, might be like that. In many cases, people will simply feel intimidated or disempowered, and the right to question someone will be purely tokenist. There are many ways to dominate the discussion without appearing to do so, including the exercise of various kinds of power to set agendas and automatically disqualify some participants. There is also the background operation of ideology or hegemony.

Nevertheless, Habermas insists that we keep hold of the notion of the ideal speech situation, so that at least we can use it to recognise examples of actual conversations (including written ones) and where they depart from the ideal. If a meeting claims to be fully open to questioning, what sort of questions are actually  permitted and discussed, and which ones are sidelined, ridiculed, rejected or ignored?

There is no reason why we fearless critics of policy statements should not assume that writers would welcome participating in an ideal speech situation. Let us give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are sincere when they say that they would welcome discussion. We can then use Habermas's notion of validity claims to organise a systematic critique -- how truthful/valid are the statements? And how sincere or socially appropriate are they?

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