The wealth of material supplied by N Pepperell acts as a sure caution to intrepid guests, not to overstep their mark by way of tongue-in-cheek introductions and open-ended questions – particularly leading into holidays of national fervour… Not only does this lead to an avoidance of patriotic duty – long afternoons, barbeques and cricket under these antipodean skies – it ensures guilt-laden indigestion as well, as the reader attempts to sift through the subtle responses provided. All this, despite the assurances to the contrary from their author, made through various comments of fatigue, vagueness, distractedness and an invariably heavy workload… The embarrassment of riches which followed is all the more generous in consequence.
The intricate nature of the responses have suggested further comment to an already lengthy post would make comprehension difficult – so I’ve created a separate post with the first question and response below. I’ve followed with some additional comments in blue.
L Magee: What motivates the aim to develop an immanent theory over a transcendental one? Why must a critical position show itself to be explained in the same terms as what it criticises? Why not, for instance, posit God, nature or something else as a normative ideal against which to measure a particular historical moment or social situation?
N Pepperell: This is one of the questions that Hegel alludes to early on in Phenomenology: the idea that, if you just start off saying “I’m going to do an immanent theory – unlike all those dogmatists who posit a priori stances”, etc. – you’ve basically just demonstrated that you’re a dogmatist too… ;-P To be consistent, the position of immanence actually has to fall out of the theoretical argument itself – so that, really, you can only know that an immanent position is the best “standpoint”, as the result of a (fairly elaborate) argument, that would try to show that you can only make sense of certain important things if you work from an immanent standpoint.
So a stylistically or presentationally consistent immanent theory wouldn’t declare itself as such, but would just unfold an argument through the categories available within a particular context, gradually unfolding its analysis so that it becomes clear that a concept such as immanence is actually required to make sense of all the categories. Hegel – quite rightly – doesn’t trust his readers to “get” that kind of argument, so he adopts a kind of bifurcated presentational strategy, where some elements are quite consistently immanently voiced, while other elements are full of, effectively, stage whispers and stage directions – hints to the reader about what he intends to do, so the reader won’t lose patience or become confused at the strategic intent of the sections that are more immanently voiced.
So, to address your question more directly: there is no way to make an a priori case that a critical position must account for itself using the same kinds of analytical categories that it uses to make sense of its environment. It’s entirely possible to posit God, physical nature, human nature, or similar as a normative standpoint – and, in fact, when I’m discussing these issues in a context where I can’t unfold a lengthy argument about the value of immanent theory (where, as a matter of practicality, I effectively have to assert immanence and ask my interlocutors to “trust me on this one”… ;-P), I’ll almost always mention that, if people are happy positing a God, or nature, or some other transcendental standpoint, then they won’t have to answer the sorts of questions I think I have to answer. If I have an opportunity to discuss the issue over a longer period of time, I’ll then explain why I think appeals to transcendental standpoints provide particularly poor means of answering certain kinds of questions – but it generally takes longer to make this kind of case, than it does just to set out – dogmatically, as Hegel would say – that certain specific standards of proof and argument begin to apply, once you begin operating within an immanent framework.
What begins to motivate thinking about an immanent theory, in a contemporary social theoretic context, is usually a recognition that the object of analysis – social institutions, normative ideals, collective practices, etc. – has actually changed over time. The point of a non-immanent concept is, generally, that it can be universal or timeless or transcend contexts. When you try to use a non-immanent concept to explain something that changes over time (and people do this all the time, of course) the form of reasoning is necessarily reductive – you are dismissing or deliberately ignoring qualitatively specific elements of your object, in order to assimilate that object into something more generic. This form of reductionist reasoning is quite valid – and quite useful – for many practical purposes, so I would have no blanket criticism that would rule out the use of reductive forms of thought for all purposes.
This kind of reduction, though, tends to be associated with ontological, rather than with simply pragmatic, claims: so, people perceive that the universal or general elements to which an object is reduced are the “essence” of that object, while other elements are less essential. You then get questions about how one can decide what’s essential, and what is mere appearance – and this often leads into a kind of scepticism we’ve discussed in the reading group in relation to Weber: the feeling that, really, there is no standpoint from which one could make a decision on such things, so the choice is essentially arbitrary (or pragmatic). So one of the things Hegel, for example, is trying to do is to make the case that, actually, things aren’t anywhere near as arbitrary as they seem – that it’s not an accident that we experience some choices as arbitrary, but that this experience doesn’t actually mean that things are random. I’m not saying this very clearly – and I know I’ve promised to post on this issue (Sarapen mentioned the other day that, where his blog used to be the thing he did to procrastinate on his work, he has now reached the point where he finds himself procrastinating on his blog – I think I’m at that point, as well… ;-P). But for the moment I want to leave this kind of philosophy-eye view of the problem to one side, since your question was really about critical theory specifically, and why immanence is particularly important in that context.
First, of course, there are critical theoretic approaches that aren’t immanent: that, for example, criticise existing society against a notion of human nature – or, for that matter, against religious ideals. So, in a sense, when I toss around the term “critical theory” in a casual way, I’m using it as an informal shorthand for a particular kind of critical theory: specifically, a theory that operates in a secular framework (which is more or less what “materialism” means, in its original sense), and that also tends to think that at least the historically specific elements of contemporary societies and contemporary forms of subjectivity must be explained in historical and social terms. One core goal of this kind of critical theory is to provide a secular explanation for an object of analysis that changes over time. If the object changes, and yet we try to explain the object with reference to categories that are themselves understood to be timeless or transcendent, then we know from the outset that we’re engaging in a form of reduction – specifically, a form of reduction that will abstract away from whatever changes. The problem is, since we’re talking about critical theory here – theory oriented to exploring what might make change possible – it’s not terribly helpful to engage in a form of analysis that abstracts away from whatever is temporally specific… So, since the object of analysis is perceived as an historical object, and the goal of the analysis is to cast light on further potentials for historical change, there’s a need for the categories of analysis themselves to be historical categories – otherwise, it’s a bit difficult to see how the theory can grasp the things it claims to want to understand…
That said, I don’t actually believe most approaches to critical theory have come terribly close to this ideal. I think that many approaches – including some that set out with a strong commitment to producing a thoroughly historical theory – in practice only apply their historical sensibilities to half the equation: they’re happy to historicise the thing they want to criticise; considerably less happy to historicise the ideals in the name of which they criticise that thing. Tacit notions of nature (including quite complex notions of historically-emergent nature) tend to be the actual grounds for the normative standpoints of most critical theories. In this sense, they fall short of the Hegelian ideal and are arguably not terribly consistent with their own stated argumentative standards. More importantly, though, this one-sidedness (I personally think) tends to lead to a lack of appreciation for the generative role played by our current context as an incubator for progressive ideals and practices – which can both drive theories into a more pessmistic direction (more on this in response to your question below), as well as leading to positions that the current context would need to be smashed, rather than preserved through the fulfillment of the potentials it has generated…
I should also mention that a consistent immanent approach to critical theory can’t just assert as a stance, e.g., that a secular theory is the way to go, or that historical objects must be apprehended historically, or any of the other stage direction sorts of positions I’ve mentioned in passing above: a fully consistent immanent critical theory would have to explain these forms of subjectivity just as it explains its other critical ideals (for these concepts do function as normative ideals, grounding critical judgments of other intellectual – and social – movements). The problem is, of course, that it’s presentationally impossible to keep all of these conceptual balls in the air at one time – you can’t always be offering the meta-analysis of how each term you use has been properly grounded, etc. You’d never actually get around to saying anything… ;-P So my approach has been to use a combination of stage directions, combined with a very open and explicit acknowledgement that, in a particular text or conversation, I’m not actually providing sufficient justification to persuade anyone not already tempted by the framework I’m outlining. Then, depending on the concept, I might be able to point to some other work that has carried out some kind of grounding in a more adequate form, or I might need to say that this is work that remains to be done. There is a necessary caveat emptor warning that needs to accompany presentations of this kind of theory, at this point – unless someone is prepared to believe that Hegel or Marx has adequately carried out an immanent explanation to their satisfaction…
L Magee: The concept of immanence is certainly clarified here – thank you. I’m interested in following up on several implications for an immanent critique in what you’ve described. Firstly, it seems that it would be necessary to follow Hegel in demonstrating immanence – not in terms of the categories, and certainly not in terms of the result, but in how the critique would unfold, from a range of dogmatic “immanently voiced” positions through to its conclusions. The form of this critique is necessarily a difficult one for someone to follow, who is “not already tempted by the framework” – sympathetic perhaps in virtue of the result, the reputation of the thinker, the necessity to master his or her thought, and so on. Contrastingly, the normal form of an argument – take certain principles as a priori and proceed from there – is much easier (perhaps because of our collective early schooling in deductive reasoning, but still…). Of course, it should be more difficult to demonstrate that the “certain principles” are themselves not ahistorical truths but grounded in a particular history, that so are other principles of other arguments, including those of the current argument. However this is a lot of work for anyone to do before even getting to the meat of the argument, and seems to cede ground, as a rhetorical strategy, to a so-called transcendental critique, made on the basis of God, human nature, etc.. So long as your “interlocutors” will “trust [you] on this”, that’s fine – but I wonder in other contexts how an immanent critique could ever convince anyone not, as you say, predisposed beforehand? Indeed I wonder whether this difficulty results in a convenient and pragmatic reduction from immanence precisely to the very sort of positions being critiqued, ensuring a new form of “high-brow” vs “low-brow” version of any successful immanent critique – a cognoscenti who understand and interpret the critique into a set of dogmatic statements for those who can’t or won’t follow it. Granted, this is a less of a problem for the critique itself, and more of a problem for how to interpret and respond to it.
Secondly, I think your comments about “work” are telling in this regard – a critique is in this sense less a point of view taken in relation to a particular object, but an ongoing work into how particular points of view get to be taken with regard to an object at given times. As work, it can build on previous work, refine it, augment it, critique it and so on, according to the historical conditions which permit certain aspects of the work become more (and less) clear. In turn, later work may perform the same set of operations, with the assumption there are always “workers” sympathetic to this form of critique. It is at this juncture that I would see the distinction between the “philosophy eye-view” and “critical theory”; philosophy, at least classically (and also in its modern mode of formal logic), has great trouble reconciling its temporal contingency – why these thoughts, at this time? – with the universals it seeks to deliver. Conversely critical theory has the problem of explaining how the historical itself is anything more than a category dreamt up a at a given moment in history, as likely to likely to disappear once its utility has been exhausted. (Of course this dichotomy leads some to the apparently implausible, if highly praiseworthy, project of historical universals…). The notion of “work” as either the production of final account of some particular problem, or a continued effort towards a critique of a given idea or institution in terms of its historical traces presents, at least to me, a useful one for conceptualising these positions.
Finally, I wonder how an immanent critique might proceed without the sort of underlying metaphor or model of organic growth which Hegel uses. This metaphor is at the heart of the Phenomenology, which explains apparent oppositions as evolving moments in the organism – Spirit – under study. Under other critiques, this metaphor itself is heavily historicised – your talk, for instance, describes “capitalism as a form of social life that perpetuates pressures for economic growth” [my emphasis]. What seems to underly this is the idea that capitalism understands itself as naturalised, as a form of organism destinated to grow (via economic rather than biological means). For Hegel’s critique, the result nicely ties up with eventual maturing of the object; if criticism removes or replaces this metaphor, it has to devise other means for delivering its result – not as the product of organic growth, necessarily, but by some other process. What else, if anything, can be used to explain social and ideological movement and change? How does critique avoid, on the one hand, being entrenched in the back-and-forth movement of dogmatic inquiry, and on the other, repeating the progression towards some sort of holistic teleological meta-critique?
I realise both the initial and subsequent questions are somewhat presumptuous and out-of-order, given the context from which they spring (and the time it takes to provide any meaningful reply…). They are in part an attempt to grapple with how to interpret Hegel in a modern context, and an effort to bring to the fore the difficulties I have with understanding other modern interpretations – including those suggested at in these posts. So, some apologies in advance with the naivety in which these thoughts are voiced – truly, not those of one in any sort of “commanding position”. They of course do not demand or expect, either, the rich kinds of responses brought forth previously…