What is criticism good for?I'm doing a summer seminar on the Frankfurt School. We've had a first lecture and, before we get into the real meat of the course, I wanted to set down some of the basic questions I have going in.
Marx famously contrasted describing the world with changing it. Is criticism merely a form of description? That would be problematic for pretty much everything Marx actually did could be called criticism.
What the Frankfurt School did from the beginning could be called a challenge to Marx's description of the world. In saying that philosophers had described the world, Marx was issuing a challenge and a praise. The challenge was "lets get on with it." But underlying that was praise: an implicit claim that the Hegelians of the Left had described the world adequately. And the specific philosopher that Marx was responding to when he wrote that famous line about changing the world was Feuerbach. Significantly, the piece that inspired Marx's Theses on Feuerbach was a critique of the Christian religion.
We have three terms: 1. Describing, 2. Criticizing, 3. Changing. Marx only speaks of describing and changing. But he himself criticizes and he labels some of his writings as "critiques." By implication, it seems that Marx takes criticism to be something valuable. And the Frankfurt School implicitly agree with him as everything they do is also criticism. Indeed, it is a commonplace charge on the left that the members of the school just dilly dally in criticism rather than engaging in revolutionary action.
Not surprisingly, defenders of the school point at the failure of 1968 to bring about revolution as proof that more criticism is necessary. But who is this criticism for? What is it supposed to do? Members of the school are presumably already convinced that the world needs to be changed. The answer is that criticism will produce widespread change in attitudes towards capitalism that will create the social conditions that will make revolution possible. We might say that criticism replaces class consciousness.
What do I mean by that? One way of looking at Marx is to say he made a conditional prediction. He said that if three things happen there will be revolution: 1. If the conditions of the working class continue to deteriorate, 2. If capitalism continues to suffer serious crises, 3. If the working class come to see themselves as members of a common class with shared interests. In 1923, when the Frankfurt School was founded, it was no longer possible to believe that economic state of the working class was deteriorating. Appearances might be saved, however, by shifting from the absolute conditions of the working class and talking about relative wealth of rich and poor. That's not a very good argument but it's an argument. The second was only all too easy to believe in Frankfurt given the post-war hyperinflation that Germany had suffered. That leaves us with the third and that was problematic to say the least. Nothing even vaguely resembling class consciousness had come to pass. Worse, the very notion of a working class was starting to disappear; today, many workers own vast amounts of capital through pension plans and virtually everyone we call middle class earns most of their income by selling their labor. The question then becomes, how is it that the vast majority of workers, many of whom are university-educated people who buy tickets for the local symphony orchestra and who attend art museums unable to see that it is in their interest to bring about a revolution?
(A question I am going to pursue is whether it really would be in their interest? I leave it aside for now for it is a question the members of the Frankfurt School never seriously entertained.)
To return to criticism, we might say that the members of the Frankfurt School began to doubt Marx's description of the world. They doubted that economics really was the bedrock that underlay politics and morality. What they didn't question, however, was the value of criticism. And that's the primary question that interests me going into this course. Criticism seems like a worthwhile thing to do but there doesn't seem to be any necessary connection between criticism and the viability of the forms of life that criticism is directed at. Marx's relentless criticism of capitalism convinced him and his many adherents that capitalism's internal tensions would eventually tear it apart. Alas, the rumours of its death were greatly exaggerated. Of socialism, on the other hand, it is the rumours of its birth that keep proving false.
One way to approach the question is to ask, as the kids say, if criticism is a thing. It certainly sounds like a thing. There is a word for it! But is it just one thing. There is a school of biblical criticism that calls itself the Historical-Critical Method. So what exactly is this method? Well, that's easy. Right? We just research the historical situation that led to the creation of scripture and then we ... criticize, whatever that means. In practice, what it has tended to mean was that people brought a series of criteria derived from some purpose and applied it. The problem is that different people had different purposes and that led to there being a number of different sets of criteria being used by a number of different people. Historical criticism was full of promise but produced little consensus because it wasn't one thing but a whole lot of different things. If the criteria used in criticism are determined by the interests of the person doing the critique, then it will always be a matter of criticisms; there is so such thing as criticism in the singular.
"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language." Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Marxists are fond of the expression "late capitalism". That term derives from what is a popular form of bloodletting among historians: the naming and defining of periods. Again, just because we can give a name to something doesn't make it a thing. And "late capitalism" implies not only that it is a thing but that it is a thing that has been going on a while and that is far from self evident.
Consider that Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was meant to describe something new. Capitalism was not the reigning economic system when the book was published in 1776. Mercantilism was the prevailing system and capitalism was emerging. When capitalism can be said to start is a bit of a stretch but, no matter how we date it, to speak of "late capitalism" sounds more like wishful thinking than serious criticism to me.
Another way to look at it is to ask when does the Medieval period end? Many historians like to refer to the period from 1500-1800 as the Early Modern Period. Again, the term makes it seem like a thing. On the other hand, some Medieval historians argue that the middle ages don't really end until the 18th century. The basis of that argument is that the social, political and economic forms that defined the middle ages continue to dominate. There are many challenges and we can see the emerging forms of social, political and economic arrangements that will define the modern period beginning to emerge but it is not until the end of the 18th century that they begin to be firmly established. That seems plausible to me. An historical period might end with a bang but it seems more likely that it would be with a whimper. For a long time, it was argued that the Antique world ended with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. Lately, however, this view has been largely replaced with a countering view that says there was an extended decline that can be called Late Antiquity and that the middle ages cannot be said to have ended until the form of life of Antiquity were effectively replaced by the new forms of government and agriculture that defined the middle ages and that took another 300 years after 410.
If we accept that argument, and I do, then we have to apply the same criteria to determining the end of Middle Ages. Although it is clearly the case that the forms of life associated with the middle ages were in decline from 1500 to 1800 I don't think it can be credible argued that they began to be effectively replaced before the 18th century. If we start thinking that way, then we might start to think of René Descartes as a late medieval thinker, as playing a role similar to what Augustine did. That is to say that while Augustine was immensely influential for the middle ages, he was still a figure from the antique world. Likewise, I would say that while Descartes has been immensely influential to the modern era, he was still a figure from the middle ages. (Descartes most famous argument has clear Augustinian roots.)
All this matters for the philosophical issues that concern me in this course for it seems that a society can survive even in the face of inner tensions. What Hobbes called the ghost of the Old Roman Empire had a very long life. Criticism in the post-Enlightenment sense has consisted at pointing at internal tensions in a form of life and asserting that we can do better. It seems, however, that internal tensions are not fatal to forms of life. For all we know, they may thrive under this tension the same way the human body tends to under training. Physical training, lifting weights, is the deliberate imposition of trauma to the muscles. Done the right way, it causes growth. There is a vast amount of evidence that says the same is true of psychological trauma. Why wouldn't it also be true of social trauma?
Depending on how we answer this question, we will define "modern" philosophy differently. We might say, and I would, that modern philosophy begins not with Descartes but with David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith. That last is a bit controversial. Even those who might accept the first two will bristle at Smith. They will do so because if Smith is a foundational philosopher of the modern period, then capitalism is a foundational form of life of the modern period.
Others might question whether Hume belongs with Kant. Kant, they will argue, is surely the giant figure and Hume deserves the still significant but lesser honour of being the catalyst who inspired Kant's more significant work. There is a lot that would have to be said but the outline of my argument would go as follows: Kant rightly saw that there are percepts and precepts but just as Galileo falsely assumed that orbits must be circular so too, Kant falsely assumed that precepts are universal. I agree with Charles Saunders Peirce in believing that the advent of Non-Euclidean geometry put paid to that notion. Thus, I would would argue that Hume's realization that notions like causality are not extracted from reality so much as applied to it should count as the beginning of modern thought. To put it in Peircean terms, organizing concepts mathematics and geometry were not abstracted from reality, they were not discovered but invented.