1. Critical Theory aka The Frankfurt School
a. “Critical theory, as defined long ago by Max Horkheimer, attempts to promote the project of emancipation by furthering what it understand as the theoretical effort of the critique of domination begun by the Enlightenment and continued by Karl Marx.” But Marxist critique of capitalism “obscures the understanding of new forms of domination . . .Marxist theory suffered three setbacks: (1) the establishment of bureaucratic socialism in Eastern Europe; (2) the rise of fascism in Central Europe; and (3) the birth of the ‘culture industry’ in Western Europe and the United States. These massive phenomena reshuffled the dialectical deck of cards. . . The Frankfurt School reconstructed Marxism so as better to account for the new situation, especially for the ideological hegemony of capitalism and the cultural supremacy of mass society. [p pp. 1-2]
“Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, 244). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.” (Bohmann, 2008.)
b. “Today in the late twentieth century the situation has grown worse. This time critical theory has suffered three additional setbacks: (1) the decolonization movement has raised voices that question the ability of Western thought to encompass the critique of Western forms domination; (2) the feminist movement has uncovered patriarchal elements within Western theory, not excepting critical theory; (3) the social formation has been altered by electronic systems of communication, cybernetic devices and a massive institutional growth of science, changes I lump together under the designation’ mode o information.’ . . .each of these developments calls into question not only the familiar social landscape that had been the target of critical theory but the subject of that theory . . .” [p pp. 2-3]
c. “Yet critical theory contains the best of what remains in the shambles of the Marxist and neo-Marxist theoretical position, the best of what is left of the Left. It presents an attitude of antagonism and critique in the face of the deeply problematic contemporary social formation. It sustains an effort to theorize the present as a moment between the past and the future, thus holding up a historicizing mirror to society, one that compels a recognition of the transitory and fallible nature of society, one that insists that what is can be disassembled and improved considerably. Critical theory goes against the grain of a legitimating process endemic to power formations, a discursive mechanism through which the finitude of institutions is naturalized and universalized. Critical theory is a disruptive counterforce to the inscription on the face of social practices which says ‘Do not tamper with me for I am good, just, and eternal.’ “[p p. 3]
“[Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard claim] that the quest for certain truth and the claim of having attained it are the greater dangers. The logocentric philosophical tradition, with its strong assertions about truth, is complicit, for them, in the disasters and abominations of the twentieth-century Western history. . . Above all, poststructuralists want to avoid forms of political oppression that are legitimized by resorts to reason, as this kind of legitimation has been, in their view, one of the paradoxical and lamentable developments of recent history.” [p p.16]
a. Some Definitions
i. Subject: “Critique of the human subject. The term ‘subject’ refers to something quite different from the more familiar term ‘individual’. The latter term dates from the Renaissance and presupposes that man is a free, intellectual agent and that thinking processes are not coerced by historical or cultural circumstances.This view of Reason is expressed in Descartes’s philosophical work. Consider the phrase: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes’s ‘I’ assumes itself to be fully conscious . . It ‘decenters’ [and destabilizes] consciousness. . . structure and subject are interdependent categories. The notion of a stable structure really depends on a subject distinct from it. One can see that the wholesale attack on the subject was in due course bound to subvert the notion of structure as well.”” [ s p. 1-2]
ii. Constructivism is a psychological theory of knowledge (epistemology)  which argues that humans construct knowledge and meaning from their experiences. Constructivism is not a specific pedagogy, although it is often confused with Constructionism, an educational theory developed by Seymour Papert. Piaget's theory of Constructivist learning has had wide ranging impact on learning theories and teaching methods in education. [w]
i. “Post-structuralists want to dissolve the subject; in a sense it could be said that Derrida and Foucault do not have a theory of the subject. The exception is Lacan, who is committed to the subject because of his Hegelian philosophical formation and his commitment to psychoanalysis. [s p. 2]
ii. Lacanian psychoanalysis seemed to reconcile Marxism and existentialism (provided way to think of choice and individual responsibility. [s p. 5] But as a theory of the self, existentialism was Cartesian; the individual was rational, conscious actor who could understand the basis for his or her action. [s pp. 5-6 modified quoting]
iii. “At the time of the May ’68 events people were very concerned with questions of self-expression, desire and sexuality, and Lacan’s theory offered a way of thinking about the social and the linguistic construction of the self, of thinking thorough the problem of the individual and society. For Lacan there is no separation between self and society. Human beings become social with appropriation of language; and it is language that constitutes us as a subject. Thus we should not dichotomize the individual and society.” [s p. 6] [Similar to constructivism?]
iv. “His language fuses the theoretical and the poetic. His associative style is intended to slow the reader down. His text is not there to convince, but to do something to you. He relies heavily on punning and word games, and he uses symbols, signs, etc., to express himself without referring to ordinary language. He wants to resist t the over-simplification of much psychoanalytic writing. He also wants to subvert the normalization that everyday language imposes. [s p. 6]
v. “He fused phenomenology [stresses the free self—the subject] and structuralism [offered systems of interpretation—linguistic determinism]. Lacan uses structuralism but never rejects the subject.
vi. Lacan is anti-biological. Madness is an attempt at communication. There is no such thing as biology without language. He denigrates behaviorists and ego psychologists, the latter because it asserts that the individual can adapt to society without calling society into question. [s pp. 6-7]
vii. “He is very interested in mathematical logic [including catastrophe theory (chaos theory) and poetry.” [s pp. 7] Shares much with Kristeva [s pp. 122-126]
viii. Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory is partly based upon the discoveries of structural anthropology and linguistics. One of his main beliefs is that the unconscious is a hidden structure which resembles that of language.
c. Derrida (plus Nietzsche & Hardy)
i. “In his many books and articles, Derrida persistently attacks the idea that language is or can be referential. He finds this idea active as a premise in philosophy, in most discussions of language, and in everyday thought. For Derrida, as for Friedrich Nietzsche, Michael Foucault, and a few others, including the Sophists, language does not mediate our relationship to a more or less knowable world. Rather, Derrida maintains that ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’—there is nothing outside of the text. [d p. 158] By this he means that our knowledge of the world is constructed from language, and language is not a transparent medium of reference of thought. Language cannot be transcended to reach the thing signified while disposing of the signifier. This effort to reach past the language to the reality it names is what Derrida calls ‘the metaphysics of presence.’” [bh p. 1165]
Instability in language involves ‘sous
rature’ (‘under erasure’)
where a word is crossed out, thus being both there and not there,
inadequate but necessary, necessary but insufficient, a device which
derives from Heidegger who crossed out the word ‘Being’
which Heidegger felt transcends signification. “In Derrida’s
view of language the signifier is not directly related to the
signified. . . . In Saussurean [structuralist] thought a sign is seen
as a unity, but in Derrida’s view word and thing or thought
never in fact become one. . . Signifiers and signified are
continually breaking apart and reattaching in new combinations, . . .
[when one] consults a dictionary, one soon finds that one sign leads
to another and so on indefinitely. Signifiers keep transforming into
signifieds, and vice versa, and you never arrive at a final
signified which is not a signifier in itself. In other words, Derrida
argues that when we read a sign, meaning is not immediately clear to
us. Signs refer to what is absent, so in a sense meanings are absent,
too. Meaning is continually moving along on a chain of signifiers,
and we cannot be precise about its exact ‘location’,
because it is never tied to one particular sign. [s pp.
”Nothing is ever fully present in signs. It is an illusion that I can be fully present to you in what I say or write, because to use signs at all entails my meaning being always somehow dispersed, divided and never quite at one with itself. Not only my meaning, indeed, but I myself since language is something I am made out of, rather than a convenient tool I use, the whole idea that I am a stable, unified entity must also be a fiction.” [e p. 103, quoted in s, p. 34]
iii. Thus, Derrida views language as unstable and multifaceted, with constantly shifting references to many aspects of experience, most of which remain hidden from adequate expression. Such a dynamical/complexity point of view has had recent expression in an excellent book by Christine Hardy [h] about which it has been said:
“Christine Hardy has proposed a bold,
innovative approach to the dynamics of meaning. Transcending the
usual interdisciplinary boundaries, she seeks to capture the real
richness and complexity of self and existence—from the
individual mind, to its interactions with society and the environment
at large. Based on the concept of semantic constellations, she
introduces a novel cognitive architecture which can account for the
personal and collective dynamics underlying the construction of
”Like Kristeva—though Hardy is not a postmodern writer—her ideas center on both cognitive and emotional dynamical psychology, while pointing to important avenues for social change. I suspect these lines of inquiry will prove a popular direction for theorists who follow, and will challenge us all to enrich our thinking. The transformation and broadening of our mental frameworks comes with enormous responsibility. To quote Hardy: "Collectively, we co-create our culture and civilization, we inform the future of humanity." It is time we took this responsibility seriously.” [a]
iv. Deconstruction. “This method is a method of reading a text so closely that the author’s conceptual distinctions on which the text relies are shown to fail on account of the inconsistent and paradoxical use made of these very concepts within the text as a whole.” [s pp. 34]
v. “The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure - be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious—that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained—through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.” [t]
vi. These exclusive structures can become repressive—and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems. As an Algerian Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us. He showed how these repressive structures, which grew directly out of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return with devastating consequences. By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living, he developed a vision that is consistently ethical. [t]
vii. Other philosopher/linguists who have decentered language include Nietzsche, Bakhtin, Wittgenstein, and Korzybski..
viii. By denying the ‘metaphysics of presence’—“the present perceptual world as we are experiencing it. By challenging access to the present Derrida poses threat to both positivism and phenomenology.” There is no certainty, “no signified which is independent of the signifier. . . .Derrida argues that phonocentrism-logocentrism relates to centrism itself—the human desire to posit a ‘central’ presence at beginning and end. He states that it is this longing for a center, an authorizing pressure that spawn hierarchized oppositions. [s pp. 37-38] Point also made by Karamozov in Brothers K.
ix. “And yet, supporters on the left and critics on the right have misunderstood this vision. Many of Mr. Derrida's most influential followers appropriated his analyses of marginal writers, works and cultures as well as his emphasis on the importance of preserving differences and respecting others to forge an identity politics that divides the world between the very oppositions that it was Mr. Derrida's mission to undo: black and white, men and women, gay and straight. Betraying Mr. Derrida's insights by creating a culture of political correctness, his self-styled supporters fueled the culture wars that have been raging for more than two decades and continue to frame political debate.” [t]
f. Foucault: “What makes this book [Foucault, 1961] more than a wide-ranging study of cultural history by a historian of science is a philosophical interest in madness as a phenomenon complementary to reason. A reason that has become monological holds madness at arm's length from itself so as safety to gain mastery of it as an object cleansed of rational subjectivity. Making madness clinical, which first renders mental illness a medical phenomenon, is analyzed by Foucault as an example of those processes of exclusion, proscription, and outlawing in whose traces Bataille had read the history of Western rationality.” (Habermas, 1987, chap. IX, p. 239.)
3. Post-Analytic Philosophy
i. ”There are two principal ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to those lives. The first is by telling the story of their contributions to a community. . . The second way is to describe themselves as standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality. . . I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and that stories of the latter kind exemplify the desire for objectivity. . . the search for Truth.” [r1 p. 3]
ii. “Thomas Jefferson set the tone for American liberal politics when he said ‘it does me no injury for my neighbour to say that there are twenty Gods or no God’. His example helped make respectable the idea that politics can be separated from beliefs about matters of ultimate importance—that shared beliefs among citizens on such matters are not essential to a democratic society. Like many other figures of the Enlightenment, Jefferson assumed that a moral faculty common to the typical theist and the typical atheist suffices for civic virtue.” [r2 p. 279]
iii. “Both Jefferson and Dewey described America as an ‘experiment’. If the experiment fails, our descendants may learn something important. But they will not learn a philosophical truth, any more than they will learn a religious one. They will simply get some hints about what to watch for when setting up their next experiment. Even if nothing else survives from the age of the democratic revolutions, perhaps our descendants will remember that social institutions can be viewed as experiments in co-operation rather than as attempts to embody a universal and ahistorical order. It is hard to believe that this memory would not be worth having.” [r2 p. 295]
There is an “intimate connection between
aesthetics and democracy. However, aesthetics is concerned here, not
with how the Arts or music convey certain values or political ideas,
rather it is concerned with the emotional/sensory nature of
aesthetics, those which draw an individual toward an interaction with
another (Adorno, p.
attractors may indeed
be art or music, but for the purposes here the attractor is human
relationship which, like art and music, has a destabilizing effect on
habitual patterns of thought—a liberating pre-condition of
human learning and which therefore is a foundational element of
equalitarian democracy. (Dewey 1980, p 21, 41) [ld]
”These citizen aesthetics can be problematic for administrators who see their responsibility only as the implementation or reform of the rule of law without regard to what is already emerging in the adaptive dynamics of social relationships. Whether public administration is able to act on the positive potential of this ‘self-organization’ depends on whether administrators perceive democracy as it is happening or whether they simply, like the janitor, see non-compliance.” [ld]
v. “To emphasize what is aesthetic about an experience is not, finally, to emphasize what is apolitical or impractical or otherwise marginal about that experience; rather, it is to emphasize in what ways that experience, as aesthetic, is a 'manifestation, a record and celebration of the life of a civilization, a means for promoting its development' and, insofar as that aesthetic experience relates to the kinds of experiences had in general, it is also the 'ultimate judgment upon the quality of a civilization.” [d p.326, ]
vi. Dewey was concerned with the emancipation of the school child for the good of the child and society. Dewey was not a post-analytic philosopher, but these ideas are consistent with Rorty.
Vii. Certainly, from the perspective of Humboldt and philosophical hermeneutics, a look at the world-disclosing function of language reveals an affinity between Heidegger and Wittgenstein. And that discovery must have fascinated Rorty, given that Thomas Kuhn had convinced him to read the history of science from a contextualist vantage point. But how did Dewey fit in this constellation—the embodiment of that democratic wing of the Young Hegelians that we had so sorely lacked in Europe? After all, Dewey's way of thinking stood in strident contrast to the Greco-German pretension, the high tone and elitist gesture of the Few who claim a privileged access to truth against the many.
“At that time, I found the association so obscene that I quite lost my cool in the discussion. Surprisingly, however, the important colleague from Princeton was by no means irritated by the resilient protest from the backwoods of Germany and instead was so kind as to invite me into his seminar. For me, my visit to Princeton marked the beginning of a friendship as happy and rewarding as instructive. On the bedrock of shared political convictions, we were easily able to discuss and endure our philosophical differences. Thus, the kind of "priority of politics over philosophy" that Dick defended as a topic tacitly served as a source of our continuing relation. As regards Heidegger, incidentally, my initial agitation was unfounded. Dick likewise felt a greater affinty to the pragmatic Heidegger of the early parts of Being and Time than to the esoteric thinker who devoutly listened to the voice of Being. (Rorty, 1999)” (Habermas, 2007.)
Abraham, F.D., et al. (2006) Derrida: A Conversation in Memoriam. Silliman Journal 47(2), 195-204. http://www.blueberry-brain.org/chaosophy/derrida.htm (prior version)
Adorno, T. (1997). Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis: Minnesota.
Bakhtin, M. (1929/1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. L. Matejka & I.R. Titunik (trans.). New York. [originally published under the name V.N. Volshinov, a friend; poliics you know; emancipation needed.]
Bizzell, P., & Herzberg, B. (1990). The Rhetorical Tradition. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin’s. [bh] [See introductions to Neitzsche and Derrida.]
Bohman, James, "Critical Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/critical-theory/>. Retrieved 27 August 2009.
Dennard, L. (2007). The Administrative Thrid: Complexity and Democracy. Chapter in Dennard, L. & Richardson, K. (Forthcoming). Complexity & Policy Analysis. ISCE Press: Boston.: http://www.blueberry-brain.org/winterchaos/Linda%20Administrative%20Third%20Dennard.htm [ld]
Derrida, J. (1971). Signature Event Context. Read at the Congrès International des Sociétés de Langue Francaise in Montreal. Tran. S. weber & J. Mehlman (1977) in [bh] and in Glyph I, Baltimore. Aso, A. Bass (trans.) (1972, 1982) in Margins of Philosophy, Chicago
Derrida, J. (1976). Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, [d]
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. [d] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_as_Experience
Egleton, T. (1983). Literary Theory: an Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Habermas, J. (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. F.G. Lawrence, trans. Original in German, 1985. Cambridge: MIT.
Habermas, J. (2007). The Philosopher and the Language Shaper: In Memory of Richard Rorty. TelosScope, 2 November 2007, http://www.telospress.com/main/index.php?main_page=news_article&article_id=204
Hardy, C. (1998). Networks of Meaning: A Bridge
Between Mind and Matter. Westport: Greenwood/Praeger. [h]
Reviewed by A. Combs (2000) in Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 4, 129, and by F.D.Abraham at http://www.blueberry-brain.org/dynamics/hardy-testimonial.htm [a]
Horkheimer, M. (1972). Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Trans. M. O’Connell et al. New York: Herder & Herder. [h].
Horkheimer, M, & Adorno, T. W.. (1944/1947/2002). Dialektic der Aufklärung. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford
Nietzsche, F. (On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense. In [bh] and O. Levy (ed.), The Comlete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. New York, and in D. Breazeale (ed. & trans.) Philosophy and Truth: selections for Nietzsche’s Noebooks of the Early 180s (1979).
Poster, M. (1989). Critical Theory and Poststructuralism in Search of a Context. Ithaca: Cornell. [p]
Rorty, R. (1985). Solidarity or Objectivity. In Rajchman, J. & West, C. (Eds.),. Post-Analytic Philosophy. New York: Columbia. [r1]
Rorty, R. (1990). The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy. In Malachowski, A. Reading Rorty. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell. [r2]
Rorty, R. (1999) Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin Books, pp. 190f.
Surap, M. (1993). Post-structuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd ed. Athens: Georgia. [s]
Taylor, M.C. (2004). What Derrida Really Meant. New York Times, October 24. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/opinion/14taylor.html?ex=1098772231&ei=1&en=614d4201c8942e7b [t]
Wikipedia [w] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(learning_theory)
21 January 2009; updates 4 February 2009, 27 August 2009