My Apostasy from the Church of Critical Theory

| by Reza Ziai |

In 1997 I earned a Masters degree in psychology from Duquesne University, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh, PA. At the time, Duquesne was one of only a few schools in the country with an emphasis in existential phenomenological psychology that was also accredited by the American Psychological Association. So, off I went.

Twice a week, for three semesters I carried to class Being and Time, a bible-shaped book by Martin Heidegger (who, although his private beliefs are still contested, was, in fact, literally a Nazi) across a courtyard under a really creepy fifteen-foot tall statue of Christ’s now very well-known execution.

Duquesne’ statue of Christ

In virtually every class, I was told that all scientific knowledge, and even science itself was founded on Western cultural constructions and was to be regarded as hegemonic. And since each of the world’s various cultural viewpoints were enmeshed in their own historicity, each respective one (especially the Western one) could only be understood in terms relative to all the others. Accordingly, objective truths did not exist. We were all taught that “reality” was the exact equivalent of how you perceive it.

Sometimes this axiom was communicated to us through the use of children’s literature and other so-called “atheoretical” Gestalt approaches (The Little Prince was a required text for one class and Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment was on the suggested reading list for another). Other times this postulate of extreme relativism was disguised and obfuscated in dense Heideggerian jargon. For example: the only way to understand Dasein’s being-in-the-world was to first accept its facticity in being-with.

We read about Hegel’s Geist, which is basically some sort of “spirit” of humanity that phenomenologists and postmodernists incidentally go to great lengths in insisting has nothing to do with anything supernatural. Some of these thinkers we read were practically revered like prophets. Similar to how guitar players speak of the three kings: B.B., Freddy, and Albert, Critical Theorists and postmodernists had “the three H’s”: Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger.

We also read Maurice Melreau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception, which is a crowning achievement in raising subjectivity to the status of godhead. We were immersed in mock group therapy sessions structured on the postmodernist view that if one believes something, it is as every bit real as a chair that one sits on. We were told that one’s feelings about something, one’s subjective experience (of say, the likelihood of a building collapsing on top of someone), ought to be the only thing considered in understanding a person’s experience. To them, the mind could not know itself, and therefore all empirical evidence was to be completely disregarded (a` la Kurt Lewin).

Looking back on it, the whole thing seemed like a bit of a hustle to me. Now it feels like it was more of a training camp to instill a certain ideology rather than a school designed to openly explore questions about human nature. I felt there was a “hidden curriculum” intended to combine the concept of a personal god to the philosophical underpinnings entrenched in the core of Critical Theory. And apparently, when it came to the philosophical roots of the so-called human sciences, the only way to understand “the human kind of being” was through the use of the very magical sounding hermeneutic circle.


I heard ambiguous terminology carelessly thrown around: mantras that stressed magical thinking (quaintly referred to as meditative thinking) above and beyond analytic thinking (which was negatively associated with Western cultural values and crony capitalism).

Although, coming from a premedical background, the experience of being immersed in this literature was novel to me; postmodern thought on college campuses was hardly anything new. As Francis Wheen points out in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World:

“By the end of the 1980’s, deconstructionists and their allies — generically labeled ‘post-modernists’ — had established something of a hegemony (to use one of their own favourite (sic.) terms) on campuses in the United States.”

In the 1950s and early 60’s the academic narrative was forcefully dominated by conservative ideologies. Today, ironically, it is mainly academic liberals sometimes violently dictating the political discourse. As numerous recent examples would indicate, a growing fringe movement on the left has been employing the use of violence as a way to shut down dissenting views.

Apparently, Horseshoe Theory, like evolution, isn’t “just a theory” either.

Postmodernists raise an individual’s “lived experience” to the state of apotheosis. At Duquesne, I was told that whatever a person experienced — or in their vernacular: “Dasein’s experiential-bodying-forth as being-in-the-world with-Others” (no, I’m not kidding) — was in fact, the literal equivalent of reality. What this boiled down to was that the hallucinations of a psychotic patient were to be regarded every bit as real as what one would measure using science. After all, since it was just a Western cultural construct, science could not have a monopoly on what was to be regarded as “truth” any more than a supernatural explanation of the universe from, say, a person living in a subsistence based culture.

Was this a way of just being polite? Was this a true and safe attempt to level the playing field? Was this theory actually correct? Or was it the soft bigotry of low expectations? I honestly couldn’t tell.

Science was viewed as a totalitarian perspective allegedly meant to keep people chained to the circumstances that they were born into. We were told that science kept Dasein clinging to a less “soulful” Western linear viewpoint. And although a working definition was never given, the “hubris” of Galileo and Newton, we were told, was alleged to have destroyed the “spirit of human nature.” Our postmodernist professors told us technology itself was to be held in suspicion for blindly attacking a purer, more primitive state of humanity that was somehow nobler and kinder than our own (a notion largely popularized by Rousseau and later refuted by many including Pinker and Michael Shermer).

I started to realize that these people rightly hated the kind of national socialism Hitler used to justify murdering millions in the name of a “master race” but were ironically supportive of the philosophical foundations for a type of socialism that justified murdering many millions more in the name of the oppressed who were “seeking social justice.” Logical positivism and scientific thought were connected to the analytic, calculative thinking that allegedly helped bring the Nazis to power. I believe that a lot of the political polarization we see in the world today stems largely in part from the extremes in this disparity.

(Aside: I believe the right has unintentionally usurped postmodernism. Both political parties (which, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, have evolutionary roots based on a Utopian vision of the world and a Tragic vision of the world) have been using the idea of a subjective godhead to fabricate and justify their respective world-views for quite some time. However, we are seeing it most profoundly today as fake-news. To borrow from the idiom of Sterling Archer: if you want a post-truth world, this is how you get a post-truth world!)

Despite their lambasting of science, critical race theorists and social scientists (and even Heidegger himself) have acknowledged the benefits that it has to offer.  But any good that technology is thought to have had was heavily downplayed and de-emphasized in my training as a phenomenologist. I was told to construe technology through the “proper” postmodernist vernacular. Technology’s Greek etymological origin, techne (which means “craft, culture, and art”) we were told, was the “true” technology and Western culture somehow hijacked it for malicious hegemonic purposes. It was therefore a goal to return to some dream-like, ensouled understanding of technology.

Simply holding the view that an objective, measurable reality existed (i.e. logical positivism) was deemed to be a transgression against the group. Holding this view was considered heretical and practically regarded as a sin — I’m not exaggerating.

Shortly after I graduated from Duquesne I visited Pacifica University in Santa Barbara C.A. The postmodernist leaning was so strong there that an outsider could have easily mistaken the campus for an ashram. While I was walking with a friend along a sandy road between the beach and Pacifica’s campus, we saw a sign smattered in red paint nailed to a dying palm tree. There was something very Lord of the Flies about it. It read: “B.F. Skinner is the Anti-Christ”. But to us, since we were deeply indoctrinated in the whole Babba Ram Das/Derrida “there is no such thing as empirical reality” thing, we just looked at each other and laughed with moral triumph.

“Well, what’s the big deal,” one may ask. “After all it was science that was responsible for the A-bomb, Tuskegee, napalm, and the Eugenics Movement. Why not associate it with humanity’s horrors? And while we’re at it, let’s misconstrue any positivist perspective as scientism and scapegoat anyone who has a strong scientific world-view and label all of them as bigots and racists!”

The problem with having a negative attitude towards an empirical viewpoint is that doing so then makes it justifiable to limit people’s rights. If one’s subjective experience is raised to the status of a godhead (as postmodernists essentially posit) then any perceived verbal offense could be construed as being literally violent towards the self. And since the words a person uses, to postmodernists, cause actual harm it is therefore rational to pass laws to limit the rights of those using said words.

Despite the concern that some have about not doing so, limiting freedom of speech is a terrible idea because, as Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, this can have a detrimental effect on scientific inquiry. The fewer perspectives and hypothesis you have to test, the worse off everyone potentially could be.

Many great scholars (like E.O. Wilson) have suggested religion originally evolved as a way to codify and control behavior. Postmodernism, in a way, shares this desire.

The other problem I arrived at came about very gradually and I didn’t notice it until many years later. In a way, it makes sense why postmodernists hate empiricism so much: if you believed that the world owes you something simply because you have an experience then any system of thinking that would call this orientation into question would obviously be perceived as a threat. If someone valued a way of thinking that stressed the idea that a person’s well being should be taken care of without that person doing a single thing, for example, then any line of investigation that would point out the obvious problems in this (i.e. how communal sharing is ultimately constrained by social loafing) would be viewed with great contempt.

If you believe that the universe owes you something, that it is protecting you, or that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, then any system of government, religion, or philosophy that preserves these notions would understandably despise an idea that threatens it: namely, ideas about individual autonomy, self-reliance, accountability, forethought, and, ultimately, personal responsibility.


Reza Ziai has a Masters degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution. You can follow him him on Twitter at @Reza_Ziai


Header Photo: Jon Flabrant

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  1. xyz

    It saddens me that the arguably useful tools to understanding society supplied by the critical theorists is tought in a dogmatic (rather than a comparative or reflexive) way, but I don’t see any reason why this would encourage the abolishment of using critical theory in general. It rather underlines the neccesity of constant rethinking and recontextualization of the ideas they developed.

    Same applies to plainly stylizing the “scientific method” as the only way of uncovering truth, which is entering popular culture in a quasi-religious way similar to your observations on post-modernism.

    Honestly, people should stop only teaching in absolutes. This only alienates people from concepts that can be the base for some fruitful discussions.

  2. Nathan Graves

    It pains me to re-mention this, but what most American people understand as “Critical Theory” is more like the teachings of Herbert Marcuse (who was a member of the Frankfurt School, but of questionable sort).

    The original concept of Critical Theory was developed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Its goal was to bring the theories of Karl Marx into the context of the 20th century, but the final product became more like an analysis of modern society.

    The culmination of their effort can be regarded as their book “The dialectic of enlightenment”, which talks about topics like “the regression of reason” or how quickly enlightenment can fall back into barbary. (As seen in national socialism)

    You talked about “Heideggerian jargon” and in fact Theodor Adorno wrote a whole book, criticising Heidegger and his “German Ideology” (i.e. postmodernism)”.
    It’s called “The Jargon of Authenticity”.

    So whenever someone today uses the term “Critical Theory” you should be wary if they really mean Horkheimer and Adorno or if they just mean the (sadly very popular) beliefs of Herbert Marcuse.

    And if we look at regressive leftist ideologies, I think it is pretty clear whose books they’ve read:

    “Leszek Kołakowski described Marcuse’s views as essentially anti-Marxist, in that they ignored Marx’s critique of Hegel and discarded the historical theory of class struggle entirely in favor of an inverted Freudian reading of human history where all social rules could and should be discarded to create a “New World of Happiness”. Kołakowski concluded that Marcuse’s ideal society “is to be ruled despotically by an enlightened group [who] have realized in themselves the unity of Logos and Eros, and thrown off the vexatious authority of logic, mathematics, and the empirical sciences.”

    Have a nice day!

  3. Arion Horn

    If, by being revolutionary, one means rational rebellion against intolerable social conditions, if, by being radical, one means “going to the root of things,” the rational will to improve them, then fascism is never revolutionary. True, it may have the aspect of revolutionary emotions. But one would not call that physician revolutionary who proceeds against a disease with violent cursing but the other who quietly, courageously and conscientiously studies and fights the causes of the disease. Fascist rebelliousness always occurs where fear of the truth turns a revolutionary emotion into illusions.
    – The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich

  4. Vijen

    It is not that reality doesn’t exist, but that you are mistaken about its nature, because you are deluded about your own nature.

  5. Vijen

    A useful contribution to the recent resurgence of the Enlightenment. However, the conflation of Baba (not “Babba”) Ram Dass (not “Das”) with Derrida is unhelpful. Far from suggesting that “there is no such thing as empirical reality”, Ram Dass, after Neem Karoli Baba, his guru, asserts that reality can only be known through empirical enquiry. What you know is ultimately and inevitably dependent upon who you are, so the enquiry has to start here.

  6. David Eriol Hickman

    So, essentially, the ‘West’ is under ideological attack from within and without; PoMo neo-Marxists and Islamists.

    And they have the effect of blurring the line distinguishing the two, because they are both obfuscatory. They allow mutual plausible deniability.

    Obvious question then becomes ‘How then best do we defeat them”?

  7. CC

    It’s funny you bring up Wakefield. He simply wrote a case study of 12 children and suggested further inquiry be made into a possible association of the MMR vaccine, gut issues and autism. The vaccine industry, being the “critical theorists” they are, can not allow scientific debate or their reality to be questioned so they react violently by using their political clout (they are crony capitalists) to threaten those who question them and stifle all scientific debate.

  8. djaramblings

    It must be a terrible place to belong in the land of “Ning nang nong” ( with apologies to Spike Milligan).
    I wonder was the apostasy a damascian experience or was the rational part of the brain just suppressed for the duration of the onslaught of the ‘mumbo jumbo’?

  9. Speaker To Animals

    i shudder at the name Bruno Bettleheim.

    His contribution to the misunderstanding of autism was unsurpassed even by Andrew Wakefield.

    A generation of mothers were demonised for emotional neglect based on his ‘refrigerator mother’ theory.

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