A Critique of Critical Theory: the Insufficiency of Postmodernist Causal Explanation

Critical Theory is a methodology of critiquing power relations within society. It takes as axiomatic the new-Marxist analysis of oppressor-oppressed dynamics being inherent in all human relationships. As such, Critical Theory is not about whether such power dynamics exist, but in what ways they manifest. There is little talk about why these dynamics manifest.

In the postmodernist vein of critical theory, there is an asymmetric skepticism of grand metanarratives: it is asymmetric because they are only skeptical of those grand metanarratives that contradict their own. Max Weber, who in some ways is a forebear of the critical theory established by the Frankfurt School in the twentieth century and adopted by the Woke crowd of today. Weber believed that history is the process of rationalization, i.e. of increasing efficiency, predictability, and control (of ourselves and our environment). The move from communitarian polytheism to imperial monotheism reflects this in that it rationalizes society into a single, predictable polity where two people, hundreds of miles apart, can expect the same treatment from the government; all of the inefficiencies of local traditions are smoothed over for a single overarching tradition.

Next came science, along with bureaucracy and equal rights, which rationalized nature, government, and law (respectively) to a far greater degree. However, when it was realized that the Truth that science brought was always subject to change, based on new evidence, it lost all ability to ascribe meaning: if what we believe to be True now is not only inevitably going to be replaced by something else, but that it is a feature of such scientific Truth that it must be replaced, then there is no meaning to be gained from it. And as a result:

Weber is, then, not envisioning a peaceful dissolution of the grand metanarratives of monotheistic religion and universal science into a series of local narratives and the consequent modern pluralist culture in which different cultural practices follow their own immanent logic. His vision of polytheistic reenchantment is rather that of an incommensurable value-fragmentation into a plurality of alternative metanarratives, each of which claims to answer the same metaphysical questions that religion and science strove to cope with in their own ways. The slow death of God has reached its apogee in the return of gods and demons who “strive to gain power over our lives and again … resume their eternal struggle with one another”

From this analysis, and that of Marxist alienation, people like Georg (György) Lukács further developed the Marxist idea of reification whereby:

[commodity fetishism] stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man; his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can “own” or “dispose of” like the various objects of the external world. And there is no natural form in which human relations can be cast, no way in which man can bring his physical and psychic “qualities” into play without their being subjected increasingly to this reifying process. (1923)

By raising the proletariat’s consciousness of reification they could be awakened to the fact that they are the subject-object: that which manifests the objective world according to their subjectivity.

These ideas were then adopted by new thinkers on the left who reframed the Marxist analysis of economic power dynamics into social power dynamics. Now it wasn’t just the rich oppressing the poor, but white, heterosexual males who were oppressing everyone else. Reification became internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. in the sense that, according to the new Critical Theory, the oppressed classes were indoctrinated into viewing themselves as inferior to the white, male, heterosexual oppressor class and therefore to be used as cogs in the social, political, and economic hegemony that maintains the status quo.

One could spend a great deal of time explicating the development of the Critical Theory and go into various ways in which it is methodologically unsound, epistemologically inadequate, socially destabilizing, and morally reprehensible, but I want to focus on a particular fault that seems often to go unnoticed: how and why it is that Weberian rationalization, Marxist/Lukácsian reification, and the current iteration of the concept in the forms of structural inequality, internalized oppression, and epistemic injustice actually come about in the first place.

It makes a certain sort of sense, in the Postmodernist and Critical Theory framework, why this would go overlooked. The resources required for such an analysis take one outside the framework, and going outside the framework requires one to legitimize the very methodologies the framework is attempting to deconstruct. In other words, the only grand metanarrative with any validity is that proposed by Critical Theory, so going outside this framework already presupposes that its grand metanarrative is insufficient. A core tenant of the Critical Theory grand metanarrative, which must accord with the grand metanarrative that there is no grand metanarrative, is that all people are born blank slates. There is no ‘human nature’, only individual perspectives. For there to be a human nature would mean that there is some objective way (or set of ways) in which human flourishing could, theoretically, be maximized that is true of all humans and not just certain groups. For there to be a human nature would mean that bigotry and oppression are aberrations rather than the norm, at least insofar as who is doing the oppressing and who is being oppressed.

Where we have to look for a common human nature, obviously, is science. If we want to find some solid ground onto which Weberian rationalization, and all its descendants, can be perched, we need to know why it is that humans would tend toward this seemingly undesirable state of affairs. I am not going to construct an entire theory here, but I will try to outline what a theory to explain these tendencies ought to look like.

Humans, like all organisms, evolved for energy efficiency. Those of our ancestors who were able to acquire the most resources for the least amount of energy expenditure are the ones who survived long enough to pass on their genes. This has selected for a Bayesian cognitive information processing architecture that allows us to sort of “ignore” those things in our environment that are not salient. I use scare quotes on “ignore” because we’re obviously not ignoring them, but if what we sense fits our prediction of what we will sense, then it doesn’t require further processing. Something becoming salient means that it surprises us in a cognitively significant way – minimizing entropy:


Free Energy Principle


This equation means that minimizing entropy corresponds to suppressing surprise over time. In brief, for a well-defined agent to exist it must occupy a limited repertoire of states; for example, a fish in water. This means the equilibrium density of an ensemble of agents, describing the probability of finding an agent in a particular state, must have low entropy: a distribution with low entropy just means a small number of states are occupied most of the time. Because entropy is the long-term average of surprise, agents must avoid surprising states (e.g. a fish out of water). But there is a  problem; agents cannot evaluate surprise directly; this would entail knowing all the hidden states of the world causing sensory input. However, an agent can avoid surprising exchanges with the world if it minimises its free-energy because free-energy is always bigger than surprise.

It was in the survival interests of our evolutionary ancestors to minimize surprise. This allowed them to maintain a (local) maximum of energy efficiency. And so, this way of reducing surprise has led to the rationalization of human society. All people have this evolutionarily imposed need to reduce surprise, but living in a large scale society makes that impossible to do for every individual person, and so we rationalize society so that each individual has their surprise minimized when navigating the social and political realm.

The Weberian notion of rationalization logically leads to the Marxist/Lukácsian notion of reification: by attempting to live in a large scale society with as little surprise as possible, most other people, from an individual’s point of view, are reduced down to their function in society. To their employer, the person is their labor; to other producers, they are consumers; to their fellow citizens, they are their job (waiter/waitress who serves them their food, the construction worker who builds their roads, the banker who handles their money, the businessperson who finances/runs the businesses they patronize, etc.).

The notions of structural bigotry, internalization, and epistemic injustice, ironically enough, comes out of these notions of rationalization and reification due to overlooking how rationalization/reification relate to cultural attitudes. By failing to understand the evolutionary origin of rationalization/reification, and by seeing it only as a power dynamic, the Critical Theorist is blinded to how rationalization/reification manifests in a cultural milieu: they begin with a pre-made diagnosis (power dynamics) and thereby fail to make a proper diagnosis.

Given the evolutionary origins of rationalization/reification as a necessary consequence of centralization of power (i.e. bringing large numbers of people into a single society), these phenomena will manifest in different ways according to different cultural values. The rationalization of law (i.e. ideas like equality under the law, having an impartial and non-political judiciary, taking individual self-ownership (a reification process) and personal responsibility as axiomatic, and so forth) means that there will be cultures whose values will be less consistent with the rationalized/reified law. Different cultures will cultivate different values insofar as how one, from the point of view as a cog in the machine, will desire to function within society (i.e. what sorts of jobs they will pursue). And thus, having differential outcomes within society (crime rates and employment differentials within demographics) is an expected outcome. Thus, structural forms of bigotry cannot be the only explanation for these differential outcomes.