critical theory

Critique and Openess

My slides from last week’s presentation at London Conference in Critical Thought.

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Flipping Philosophy

Too many people at the Fontana di Trevi

Last week I went to the 6th International Conference in Critical Theory, based at The John Felice Rome Center of Loyola University Chicago in Rome.  I got some useful stuff out my my presentation, both in terms of some headspace to work on the essence of what I wanted to say in some of my PhD work and in that there were some useful comments to come out it too.  I’m newly confident that there’s a reasonable journal article in there somewhere.

It’s been a while since I spent a full three days listening to philosophy papers.  No doubt I’m a bit rusty in terms of my ability to listen, but I repeatedly found myself thinking that reading out from a prepared manuscript is rarely the most stimulating or pedagogically effective way to present material.

The idea that we should aspire to be innovative in how we present information is kind of a given in the environment I work in at present.  Experiments in form have value in themselves.  But philosophers tend to stick to a long-established way of doing things.  You write a paper in advance, print it out, and then read it out load for anywhere between 50% and 99% of the time available for the session with any leftover time devoted to discussion.

Not all philosophers do this, and for those that do the benefit is that you say exactly what you want to say, no matter how vexed or convoluted.  When you’re trying to explain something complicated, it’s easy to get it wrong especially when you’re presenting to a room full of people who are very keen to point out any mistakes.  For many presenters who are shy, a script to hide behind can be a comfort.

However, there are a few things that have come to irk me about this way of doing things.  Firstly, there aren’t many concessions being made to the audience when you are effectively asking them to digest something like a journal article or book chapter in one go, often without a paper copy of your own to follow.  It can be hard to keep a question in mind if you want to keep up with the presentation.  Perhaps this is exacerbated when you’re trying to listen in a language that is not your own; I was chairing at a conference recently and one audience member complained loudly to this effect.  A whole day of passively listening to people speak is fairly draining no matter how interesting the presentation, and it’s hard to think that people can sustain this for a number of days.

You have a great deal of collective intelligence in the room at seminars like these, but it’s hard to see how reading is a good use of that time.  At the conference in Rome there were academics and graduate students from around the world.  Lots of resources have gone into putting these people in the same room.  It’s a chance to have a really good discussion – or at least it would be if everyone had the materials in advance.

This got me thinking along the lines of the ‘flipped‘ classroom, where you do the information delivery (lecture, video, etc) outside of the class and keep the precious (expensive) contact time for discussion and activities.  Students can digest the material over time, through multiple viewings if need be.  If we were to do the same thing with conference sessions you could have all kinds of new formats, or work towards producing something tangible.  (It’s quite ironic that the complaint about technology creating barriers to human interaction is used to defend reading your paper at an audience.)  It also relies on people being organised enough to produce materials in advance but there’s no reason why it need be compulsory.

I’m coming out in favour of the flipped conference.  I understand that a similar call has been made by Alan Levine and Audrey Watters.   There are issues, though, especially to do with recording unfinished or progressing work.  I can’t see many people in the humanities going for that.

They’re a conservative (with a smal ‘c’) bunch, really, philosophers.  I imagine most of the humanities are the same, however:  they like the old ways of doing things and that’s partly how they ended up where they are.  It’s quite telling that when you are in an educational technology conference everybody is sitting on there devices, tweeting, checking things, looking things up and so on.  At a philosophy conference very few do this.  When I went on Twitter there was only one other person on there and we were both looking for some sort of hashtag or conversation to follow.  There’s a sense of defence of a sanctified space among these communities but I wonder how much of that is about the most effective use of that space.

Revisiting Critical Theory

The full line-up for the 6th International Critical Theory Conference of Rome has now been announced and I see a few familiar names on there from my time at Essex when critical theory was my full-time gig.  As the main international conference in this field it would have been great for me to go while I was a PhD student, but I didn’t have the money and the stipend allocated to PhD students for travel wouldn’t even have covered the flight.  Furthermore, I’m not sure my research was ever polished enough to take to an event like this during the time I was working on it; it only really got finished right at the point when I handed it in and ever since then I haven’t had the heart to really engage with the work again since then.

This is partly about shame:  the kind of shame I think a lot of PhDs feel towards their project because they feel they could have worked harder.  But it’s also about feeling that working on something which is unlikely to lead to significant publication, funding or employment prospects is not a good use of time.  Those who get into academia without realising the competitiveness that characterises the career of a (relatively) young researcher might like the idea of working on whatever takes their fancy but the reality is rarely like this.

Anyway, I am pleased that, thanks to being awarded some money from IET‘s staff development fund I will be able to attend for the first time.  I also think that I will have a bit of critical distance from the work that I will present (on ‘social pathologies’) which will probably make for a more enjoyable time all around.  And, of course, I’ll be blogging at least some of it here!

Honneth in London Redux

This is a re-post from my neglected first blog, where I tried to get my head around blogging and how it might be used to help me to focus my research.  I posted a lot of different stuff, learning how to publish different types of media online.

I’m not sure how useful the experience of blogging was in terms of my PhD research (although it did help me to grips with the flow of information about jobs, conferences and bursaries).  I think that some of the material should probably have a home here, starting with this.  But first, the comments from the original posting…



Axel Honneth spoke in London last week as part of the Forum for European Philosophyseries of ‘Conversations’. He was talking to Peter Dews, and the conversation spanned from his confessions of undermotivated scholarship in the 1960s to a brief discussion of his latest work on reification. The talk – which was both interesting and informal – took place at the London School of Economics on 22nd March 2007. Here is my transcript of the event (which includes some of my own notes and should not be taken as a verbatim reconstruction of what was said).

Peter began by asking Axel about the origins of his interest in philosophy. Axel was candid enough to admit that he had not always been the most diligent of students, and his interest in philosophy was not something that had always been with him. In fact, his interest in philosophy began with the kinds of existential questions raised in novels and dramas during the 1950s, like Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

Honneth was at the University of Bonn at the end of the 1960s. At this time, he was obliged to read the traditional works of philosophy. He described the climate at the time as “conventional”, and populated by the remnants of scholars from the Nazi period whose survival can be attributed to the lack of opposition they presented.

Honneth studied at the Hegel Archives in the late 1960s. The Archives attracted a range of radical thinkers, and the atmosphere was somewhat politicized. It was at this time that Honneth’s involvement in the student movement began, and he joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which he found too Trotskyist. In 1972 he went to Berlin, leaving the SDP. He decided to join an anti-authoritarian movement which included Oskar Negt and other students of Habermas who were unconvinved by revolutionary politics. Honneth did not share the Marxist belief that the proletariat would be the agency of revolutionary change.

At this point, Peter noted that Honneth’s early work is nonetheless Marxist in orientation, albeit non-revolutionary. Honneth reiterated his doubts over the epistemological foundations of Marxism, which led him to sympathise with Popper’s critical rationalism. These two concerns – in Marxism and Critical Theory on the one hand, and the need for a robust epistemology on the other – would be found in synthesis in Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests (and particularly in “On the Logic of the Social Sciences”).

The political climate at the time meant there was something of an ideological divide between the radically Marxist elements in Berlin and the more theoretical approach of the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt. Honneth’s interest in the group led to him being derogotarily refered to as a ‘Habermasian”, though he had yet to meet Habermas himself.

After attending an Althusser reading group in Berlin, Honneth wrote a critical piece entitled “History and Interaction: On the Structuralist Interpretation of Historical Materialism” (which can now be found in Althusser: A Critical Reader). On the basis of this piece, Habermas invited Honneth to become his research assistant. Honneth wrote a thesis on Habermas, Foucault and Adorno (which would later becomeCritique of Power) in the attempt to reconcile strands of contemporary French and German thought.

Peter Dews noted that it has become common to view French and German thought as having undergone something of a divergence during the 20th Century, with French thought taking its lead from Nietzsche and Heidegger, while German thought retained something of a committment to a rational tradition. Adherents of these positions have often criticised each other for being politically dangerous and authoritarian respectively.

Honneth said that he was never convinced by the 1980s opposition between the Habermas of The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity and various Paris groups which attempted to hold on to a certain idea of rationality while remaining skeptical about universal rationality. He described this as an unhelpful, misleading concentration which has, happily, been abandoned.

In Honneth’s view, the rational potentiality and normative force of interaction can be found throughout the French and German traditions and, in fact, each points to frictions or tensions within the other.

Peter then asked about the genesis of Honneth’s own theory of recognition. Honneth made it clear that he thought Habermas’s attention to the realm of communicative reason (rather than production or instrumental reason) hd been the right one, and was substantiated by the phenomenology of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. The problem, as he saw it, was that the linguistic structure of communication does not provide an adequate pespective on actual social interaction. Honneth developed this thought by researching sociological theories of class interaction, and the psychological elements of social interaction like resepect/disrespect, conflict, shame and recognition. These phenomena, Honneth contends, are not really touched by the Habermasian model.

The emphasis, therefore, for Honneth, is one sense away from the abstract and towards the mundane. Although his project began as supplemental to the Habermas’s theory of norm-justification, it has taken on an Hegelian life of its own with the reconstruction of Hegel’s theory of recognition. For Hegel, forms of life are historical, and hence historical forms of reason structure the interactions of subjects. In contrast to Habermas’s simplistic, abstract conception of interaction, the theory of recognition offers the possibility of understanding social interaction as it is experienced. Honneth sees himself as radicalising Hegel’s project of ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). Habermas, on the other hand, has become increasingly focused on a post-Kantian, dialogical theory of rationality.

In response to this discussion of historical forms of subjectivity, Peter Dews noted that much of Honneth’s work exhibits a strong interest in anthropological constants, which would seem to be ahistorical.

Honneth responded by saying that forms of recognition are multi-dimensional, and characterised by different social relationships: significant modern historical forms including love (emotion), legal respect and social esteem. The modern lifeworld comes with these kinds of demands. But how are we, as humans, introduced to these forms of recognition at all? In his latest work, Honneth remarked, he follows Cavell’s notion of ‘acknowledgement’ in exploring an elementary form of recognition that underlies the possibility of normative distinctions brought about through historical process. However, this ‘elemental’ or ‘genetic’ [and presumably anthropological since it precedes historical forms – RF] aspect of recognition cannot, in itself, provide any normative content.

Bearing this in mind, we might well be justified in questioning the strength of this foundation for critique. As Peter asked, should we shift the forms of critique away from normative justification and towards the diagnosis of social ‘pathologies’? To put it another way, how do we get normativity from the identification of reification?

Honneth’s response was that in order to justify our own normative claims we have to provide a kind of teleological account of history. This involves a committment to the idea that modern forms of Sittlichkeit are in some sense superior to those that have come before. A consistent self-understanding of our moral practices presupposes historical moral progress, as it were.

Peter acknowledged that this came across in the book on reification, but argued that this would attribute modernity a normative status when critical theorists have normally identifed modernity with instrumental forms of rationality.

Honneth responded by suggesting that a lot depends on the teleological status of history. We have to presuppose this progress in order to make sense of our own times. We do this by, for example, reassessing the moral legitimacy of capital punishment. It does not follow that we need be absolutist about such a view; it simply reflects a progression in a particular form of ethical life. Our self-interpretation of our moral practices requires this kind of language and these kinds of categories. He went on to say that demands for recognition raise moral appeals that surpass our ability to satisfy them. Critical theory is able to articulate these, and defend existing demands for recognition.

Honneth identified two different types of social ‘misdevelopment’: forms of injustice (which constitute a violation of normative principles) and social pathologies (deficiencies of conditions of ‘the good life’). Speaking of the latter, he maintained that we can explain social pathologies only in terms of our forms of self-relationship, not through a critique of capitalism. Instrumental rationality still involves recognizing an individual as a human qua tool, and is therefore based upon a primordial or originary form of recognition. Self-reification is therefore the main focus of Honneth’s current work, which attempts to develop a more detailed theory of self-recognition.

This might be contrasted with Lacan, who thought that misrecognition was unavoidable and potentially productive. Honneth said that he thought Lacan lent misrecognition an inappropriate weight. Lacan takes recognition to mean some sort of ‘full’ recognition, and yet this is strange since it suggests that the capacity to be fully cognitively aware of the other. Honneth’s notion of recognition works at a deeper level – we recognise another in a certain aspect or situation, never fully. Lacan therefore confuses recognition’s dual meanings. Recognition has both a normative, regulative status but also refers to the epistemological circumstance of fully cognizing something.

Honneth went on to make an interesting comparison of Hegel and Aristotle. For Hegel, as for Aristotle, ethics was more a matter of dispositions than cognition. Although Hegel’s sense of morality is kind of Aristotelian, he presupposes that established forms of moral practice make up Sittlichkeit while Aristotle’s virtues are not institutionalised in an equivalent way.