N Pepperell: I’m sure that regular readers of this blog will sympathise with the notion that “what the hell does NP mean” is a somewhat popular game locally, with the reading group members in particular often dedicating more time than my project likely deserves to piecing together what I’m trying to say and whether I’m making any sense. In this collective process of trying to make sense of my work – a process in which I’m all too often involved on a par with the others, rather than as someone with a clear concept of what I am trying to do – L Magee has proven exceptionally generous, providing detailed critical feedback on fragmentary writings, and workshopping concepts with patience and critical curiosity that I view as a kind of radical advance of faith that there might actually be something “there”, something “to” this theoretical project, if only one could work out what lies underneath my often confusing or ill-formed presentation.
It is impossible for me to express adequately the value of this kind of patient critical attention to work at best in pre-draft form. Even against the background of LM’s consistent generosity, however, I was stunned and deeply humbled to receive the extended critical commentary I’ve spliced below, in which LM attempts to translate into a more systematic form the main points from the Counter-Factual Immanence post, as well as from some of the conversations we’ve held in person around this piece of writing. This kind of detailed critical response provides me with an invaluable sense of how some of the points I’m making are being heard – and therefore an opportunity to clarify (and refine) what I’m attempting to say. I’ve asked LM’s permission to reproduce the extended commentary here. On the main page, I’ve left LM’s comments to stand on their own, so that readers can get a sense for how this extraordinary response reads in its own terms. Below the fold, I’ve reproduced LM’s observations once again, but with my own clarifications and responses interpellated into LM’s text.
NP’s argument in pseudo-propositional form (“Counter-Factual Immanence for Dummies”)
1. “Critical theory” is the attempt to articulate a theory of the social, as well as a position from which the social can be critically appraised.
1.1. As a tradition, it develops from Hegel and Marx, through Durkheim and Weber, to find its most explicit articulation in the first generation Frankfurt school (Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse).
1.2. Habermas deviates the Frankfurt School with a resurrection of particular Enlightenment ideals and a more optimistic, rationalistic and “problem solving” approach to the problems engendered by capitalism and modernity.
2. “Immanence” is an aim of critical theory to explain both the observed object and the observing subject within the theory. Phrased otherwise: the critical or normative outlook deployed by critical theory must be explained via the same categorial framework as the object of criticism, if theory is to avoid performative contradiction and asymmetricality.
3. Purely descriptive theories – Weber, Bloor – aim to describe the object without normative standpoints, and can therefore claim “immanence”. However normativity is retained tacitly; its’ lack of explication results in such performative contradiction.
4. Positive theories – variants of Marxism, Mannheim – can posit normative standpoints which are generated by the same conditions as the object of critique. For variants of Marxism, forces of production are generative of both criticised “dimensions of social context” – domination, exploitation, alienation – and the critical standpoints. For Mannheim, historical points contain potentials which theory and practice can fail to realise – and theory can point to this failure normatively without contradiction (there may be other contradictions between the descriptive and normative “modes” within Mannheim’s own account).
5. Positive theories nevertheless suffer from the failure to account for enough of the social context they critique. Consequently historical efforts to implement the positive elements of such theories fail to satisfy the utopian aspirations of such theory, and in fact frequently result in a sacrifice of the positive dimensions of the social context.
5.1. Critical theory arises from such failures:
5.1.1. It retains the aim of positive theory towards immanence. Critique must therefore be determinate.
5.1.2. It refutes the “positive” aspect of theory, by stating critique must also be negating – to negate the dominating impulses which were not sufficiently explicated under positive theory.
5.1.3. Critique is thus theorised as determinate negation.
6. Critical theory must, as an attempt to account for social context broadly, engage in discussion with theories and philosophies of particular and distinctive features of that context. Within modernity, science is one such feature.
6.1. Popper radicalises classical theories of science as teleologically oriented towards what is. What characterises science is its critical tradition. Criticism does not verify; it falsifies. Science therefore progresses, not towards truth, but towards precision, through endless falsification.
6.2. Critical theory (Adorno) posits that this critical capacity is suggestive of the existence of counter-factualism within the context that engenders it. Popper’s view of science is largely commensurable with critical theoretic formulations, which view critique as negation. However it fails to explain how negation is derived from the very context that allows itself to be criticised – it is therefore not articulated as determinate negation. (Popper himself cares little about whether his critical standards are commensurable within a historicising tradition like Marxist-engendered critical theory).
6.3. To explain critique as determinate negation, deductive reasoning – still the standard of critical reasoning for Popper – is insufficient. Dialectical reasoning is required. Nevertheless, for Adorno, even dialectics fails to quite account for the objectivity – within social contexts – of critical capacity. What is it about social contexts which determines the tension between the is – the factual existens – and the ought – the counter-factual that is equally determined by context? [I find this paragraph particularly hard or unclear; on the one hand, it sounds like a radicalisation of a perfectively normal, and long-observed feature of societies – that they produce conditions for their own change; on the other it suggests that dialectics is required but still insufficient. Surely this is simply aporetic – neither positivist nor dialectical reasoning is sufficient – so what then can be said of the grounds for Adorno’s own normative standpoint? It seems a grandiose incoherence, as expressed here… If so, it is not clear why you would care to use Adorno as a useful launching pad for theoretical speculation.]
6.4. Habermas embraces the diagnosis of critical theory of capitalism and modernity, but combines speech theory, a revived form of rationalism and a theory of communication as the grounds for the production of counter-factual within a social context which nevertheless has far from ideal “dimensions”.
7. Immanence, and by extension, self-reflexivity, are not therefore simply the ideal aims of a systematic exposition which retains symmetry and non-contradictory properties. The presence of these concepts as aims of critical theory is in fact suggestive of the broader social context which engenders them. [Assuming this is an adequate re-articulation: I’m not sure why it follows. Could they not instead be the kinds of ‘aleatory’ characteristics, produces by perverse individuals, and therefore in no great sense ‘determinate’? What justifies the claim that “these concepts actually provide important substantive clues about the nature of our context – about what our context is”. This, at worst (I know you say ‘incompletely’) begins to sound like over-determination – the very presence of certain concepts at certain times suggests those concepts matter for an explanation of the times. What, then, about: schizophrenia, trace, differance, episteme, discursive formations, mirror phases, base and superstructure, simulacra and a host of other conceptual terms? What do these say, if anything, about their engendering context?]
7.1. Failure to adequately conceptualise “immanence” – qua concept which resonates within a social context – and immanence, as an embedded property of the conceptualising theory leads back to the aporetic moment of Frankfurt School critical theory.
7.2. A consequence: all concrete social institutions can be radically understood as strained between tensions between the descriptive and the normative, the factual and the counter-factual, the is and the ought.
7.3. Counter-factuals – which now include immanence and self-reflexivity – are therefore embedded within social contexts as more than philosophical idealisms, but as partially constitutive of collective practices.
7.4. Immanence and self-reflexivity can therefore be understood as historically derived categories, rather than features of logical systems and theories. Goal-oriented theories – liberatory, emancipatory – which conceive only of the concrete social dimensions, without considering the counter-factuals which are partially constitutive of the social context – will potentially repeat the same failures of positive theories (and possibly not). [My sense is that, thus expressed, ‘immanence’ and ‘self-reflexivity’ look reified – conceptualised as things rather than properties, to put it one way. It is hard for me to see how collective practices can be immanent and self-reflexive, in other words adjectivally, in the non-trivial way you seem to be trying to get at here. But I may be misunderstanding this].
7.5. Without adequate articulation of immanence and self-reflexivity, which sees these concepts embedded within theory in order to arrive at symmetry without positing extra-contextual standpoints – the negativity of theory risks being misunderstood as “pure”. What is “pure” is what remains when determination is stripped away, therefore what is asocial and natural.
7.6. By foregrounding immanence and self-reflexivity as historically grounded and counter-factual ideals that are as much determined by context as any object of criticism, what is conceived as “natural” can be brought back under the microscope of critical theory as “social”, if operational at a level of abstraction which is hard to “see”.
7.7. Since it is social, it is something which can be criticised and potentially transformed by theory, which can therefore overcome the aporias of previous critical theoretic efforts, do away with the normative contractions of descriptive theory and result in more critically-aware transformations of social context than positive theory, which failed to see it replicated the very dimensions of context it sought to do away with.
N Pepperell: So now my responses below the fold… Read more of this post