Not so much what it is – in brief: Marxism taylored for the academic world – but just how it works in practice.
Brief recap: starting with the Greeks, philosophers began to view Nature and reality as a whole as something that could be understood. Not completely or perfectly, but certainly to some extent. This is the beginning of what we call Western Philosophy, and is a big piece of what make the West the West – fundamentally different from everywhere else in the world.
Fitfully at first, but settling in to the extreme rigor of Aristotle by the 4th century B.C., the approach was logical: try to find the most fundamental premises you could, the most general statements of reality, and reason according to strict logic from there. This approach requires (or results in – there’s a bit of a chicken/egg question, at least in my mind) a three-fold epistemology: there must be Required Truths, that without which nothing can be known or even discussed; Conditional Truths that depend on the truth of premises and the rigor of logic, where the conclusions may be ontologically ‘wrong’ even if logically correct because the premises may not be true; and opinion, which may be more or less informed, but is neither required nor explicitly conditioned on premises and logic.
Initially, these efforts to understand the world were a purely theoretical exercise. Nobody did philosophy to make a buck or for any practical gain. Indeed, as a hobby of the at least semi-leisured, philosophy as a means to anything other than self-improvement was considered gauche. Archimedes, famous for his inventions, legendarily did not think it worthy to write anything down about them. So we get fantastical reports – and physical evidence such as the Antikythera Mechanism – but no follow up or disciples. Philosophy was to produce the examined life worth living.
Christian shared with the Greeks (and Jews) the radical idea that the world was comprehensible by the human mind – and that it was worthy for a Christian to make the effort to understand it. ‘The Heavens proclaim the Glory of God’ after all, and we live to give Him glory. By the 11th century, Christians began to apply the rigors of Aristotle’s logic and method to pretty much everything. Albert the Great, a 13th century Dominican philosopher, was into everything and used to draw very careful and detailed pictures of plants – because, why not? God is in the details of a leaf as much as in the stars and seas.
The effort of traditional Western philosophy – the Perennial Philosophy – stands on 4 legs. Along with the faith that the world can and should be understood, the three-tiered epistemology of required truths, conditional truths, and opinion, and logical rigor, one other thing is required to make any headway in understanding the world: the idea of Primacy of Being. This is so basic that it is rarely laid out separately in my experience. Instead, it is assumed, most commonly as part of the Law of Non-contradiction: a thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time.
Like so much of Aristotle, he’s saying something so simple and obvious that it’s easy to miss how profound it is. At least, it was easy to miss it until Hegel and Marx came along.
The Perennial Philosophy and its daughter Modern Science work by investigating and describing what something IS. When defining something – saying what something is – one must say what it is not. If you cannot say what something is not, communication is impossible. If my yes could be no, or over here could be over there, or my cat could be my dog, meaningful discussion grinds instantly to a halt. Science could get nowhere. Math would be meaningless. Communication through language would be impossible.
Everybody got this. The Law of Non-contradiction is not some arcane point of logic. It is the very heart of experience, understanding, and communication. So of course Hegel attacks it, and Marx buries it.
Instead, we are told that we live in a world of becoming. Talk of being reveals one to be among the little people, incapable of real philosophy. Real philosophers understand that you can only speak truthfully about being when all reality is abstracted from it – because reality is always becoming. The Law of Non-contradiction cannot apply to the real world of becoming, because in the real world nothing ever holds still long enough to be anything, and, even if it did so, real understanding of it would require understanding where it has been and where it is going.
This is a paraphrase of the Hegelian dialectic: the idea that a thesis – a statement (of being?) – is contradicted by a antithesis – another statement (of being?) – which contradiction is never resolved, but is instead held in suspense in the synthesis. That synthesis becomes the new thesis, subject to unfolding into a new dialectic.
Hegel humbly acknowledged that, given that we don’t know the future, we cannot predict the next synthesis. We must wait for the Spirit to unfold Itself in History. We cannot use logic or reason our way to the next unfolding, both because logic and reason are invalid and because it is the nature of the Unfolding of the Spirit in History to, let’s say, raise consciousness – to reveal new, unanticipated truths.
Marx, a more practical (and intellectually limited) man, will not accept this: he KNOWS how it comes out, he’s worked it out! A bit – well, a lot – fuzzy on the details, but he, as the chosen prophet of the not-at-all-Godlike History, will lay it down for us: History is unfolding into a Worker’s Paradise, where all nations and governments shall wither away, and all men will live in peace and plenty.
He makes the mistake common to most End Time prophets, in that while he’s really, really vague on most things, he nonetheless lays out too many detailed that can be proven wrong. Among the details he didn’t get right: Workers of the world are to unite to lose their chains, not Russian and Chinese serfs; Communism is to arrise from among the rebels, not be imposed by sociopathic criminals like Lenin, Mao and Che. Capitalism (his swear word for free markets) is to run itself into the ground enslaving everybody, not bring many millions of people into a far better life than even the richest Capitalist enjoyed in Marx’s day; The revolution was to be organic and inevitable, not something brought about by the lies and machinations of Fabian Socialists and Gramsciite Critical Theorists.
The Critical Theorists took on the job of polluting Academia and culture with Marx’s lies and distortions. Here’s how applying Marx to academic fields works:
- We already know how it comes out, we don’t need to prove anything;
- We’re much smarter and more enlightened than any other people anywhere ever.
- Everything – everything – is explicable by a oppressor/oppressed dynamic;
- Offering any other explanations, any other predicted outcomes simply prove you are an oppressor or a tool of oppression, and are in either case on the wrong side of History;
- We don’t have to make sense. Demanding we do is oppression;
The results are as predictable as they are sad. First off, every traditional explanation for ANYTHING that cannot be made into an effect of an oppressor/oppressed dynamic is WRONG. History, for example, whenever it shows cultures developing peacefully, or religious beliefs having a positive affect, or wars being fought for anything other than the right to oppress people – IS WRONG.
In another context, was disputing a critical theorist’s assertion that, not only is the West not a product of Greek culture, but there really isn’t a ‘West’ to begin with. As another person quipped: sure, Eritrea and America – exactly the same. For now, it is enough to note that for over a thousand years people in the West have recognized a difference between themselves and all other cultures, and that the trajectory of the West has been far different than that of any other culture. Therefore, a critical theorist must deny this, evidence in front of their eyes notwithstanding.
History has sides. Those who accept and promote the inevitability of a Worker’s Paradise populated by New Soviet Men magically freed from all human faults are on the Right Side of History. Those who insist that people have natures – human nature – and so are not infinitely reformable, or in any other way deny the inevitability or desirability of the Worker’s Paradise, are on the Wrong Side of History. Note: those on the wrong side of History are scheduled for culling.
Scholarship is reduced to identifying the oppressor/oppressed dynamic that is making people unhappy. If people aren’t unhappy, it’s your job to fix it. Thus, the endless stream of before/after pictures of kids going to college, where cheery, normal-looking 18 year olds become bitter, frowning 20 year olds with shaved heads and Che t-shirts. They thought, you see, that they were suburban kids going off on a great college adventure, only to discover that they are miserable oppressors, victims of oppression, or both, and need to promote the Revolution.
If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s OK. Any dogma divorced from reality will soon tangle itself into knots of nonsense. Critical theory teaches us to *embrace* that nonsense! Intersectionality, for example, or simultaneous claims that Science Has Shown and that science is a social construct, or using tools created almost entirely by men – computers, the internet, electrical systems, heck, indoor plumbing – to popularize the idea that men are always oppressors. Except that ‘men’ are likewise a social construct.
The nonsense never ends.
Gramsci laid out the targets to be destroyed: Family, village, church. These are where normal people find happiness. Happiness leads to not wanting to kill your oppressors and put the likes of Pol Pot in charge, and therefore is the enemy.
Yes, happiness is no less the enemy of critical theory than reality itself. It works by trying to destroy happiness.
I imagine most critical theorists are useful idiots. This is more generous than to imagine they all understand it and keep doing it anyway. Some do, for sure, but not most – I’d like to think. Doesn’t really matter, except that the useful idiots are likely to follow to wherever the cool kids are sitting, so that if the true believers are shown to be uncool, the battle is largely won.
Meanwhile, the fruits of the Philosophy of Being are being harvested every day: science and technology cannot discover or build anything using a philosophy that denies logic and dismisses definition and communication, so scientists and technologists stick to Aristotle and the Scholastics, even if they’ve been taught that it isn’t so. To their credit, scientists tend strongly to hold philosophers in contempt – because the philosophers with which they are familiar hold contemptible ideas. Among them: critical theory.
All good men have a duty to be reasonable, happy and lovers of family, village and Church. It’s a duty – and it makes critical theorist heads explode. Win-win.