One of the fundamental problems with the social justice movement, especially given its puritanical and totalitarian proclivities, is that, in spite of its otherwise reasonable concerns about oppression and marginalization in society, social justice activists do not know as much as they claim to know about the issues they raise. For example, there are conceptual ambiguities, logical fallacies and empirical shortcomings in the ways in which social justice activists think about white privilege, white fragility (see here, here and here), cultural appropriation, allyship, micro-aggressions, toxic masculinity, critical pedagogy and the politics of education and restorative justice.
None of this diminishes the importance of social justice. As I have pointed out elsewhere, justice is arguably the most serious concern of any society. But, for centuries, its complexities have consumed the attention of philosophers, bedeviled idealists who chased the perfect at the expense of the good, frustrated ideologues, who brook no skepticism about the perfectibility of human nature, and humbled utopians who naively believed that abstractions conceived in the ivory tower could be smoothly reconciled with the situational intricacies of the real world.
It is this profound lack of consensus about justice that comes to mind whenever I contemplate the sanctimonious moralism of the twenty-first century social justice movement. Failing, or refusing, to appreciate that justice (social or otherwise) is an exceedingly hard thing to figure out, social justice activists—in Hollywood, in the university, in politics and among the Twitter mobs—exhibit a single-minded, almost fanatical focus on historical-social constructs as a perennial source of injustice in the world, tolerating no disagreement with their view that matters of conscience invariably come down to revolutionary analyses of the history of power.
This may seem like a bird’s-eye view of social justice, so let’s focus directly on the views of two prominent social justice activists. In a book entitled, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy explain what they mean by social justice: “while some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we use the term critical social justice … in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints.” DiAngelo and Sensoy explain that “critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e. structural), and actively seeks to change this.”
In other words, social injustice is about inequality. In focusing on the eradication of inequality (without rigorously distinguishing between equality of opportunity, equality of rights, and equality of results, among other relevant distinctions), DiAngelo and Sensoy center the conscience on structural inequality, implicitly assuming that inequality signals injustice, as a function of systemically exploitative relationships between dominant and marginalized groups in society.
In this view, critical theory plays a key role in the mission of social justice activism. DiAngelo and Sensoy write that “Critical Theory refers to a specific scholarly approach that explores the historical, cultural, and ideological lines of authority that underlie social conditions.” It is “a complex theoretical perspective,” which requires “ongoing study and practice” to master, but “even a preliminary understanding of its principles can offer tools for thinking critically about how society works.”
Drawing a fairly obvious distinction between the “acquisition of new information” (e.g. the fact that the Earth is not round) and the “meaning given to information” (i.e. “the historical and cultural context in which knowledge is produced and circulated”), DiAngelo and Sensoy emphasize that context is inseparable from “the political investments” in that meaning—“in other words, who benefits from that knowledge claim and whose lives are limited by it?” The Critical Theory of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, among others affiliated with the Frankfurt School, which emerged in the 1930s and 1940s (and evolved from there), “developed in part as a response to [the] presumed superiority and infallibility of scientific method, and raised questions about whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods.” The work of “continental” philosophers who “were grappling with similar questions,” such as Derrida, Foucault and Lacan, then “merges in the North American context of the 1960s with antiwar, feminist, gay rights, Black power, Indigenous Peoples and other emerging social justice movements.”
In making this leap from metaphysical ontology to historical ontology, DiAngelo and Sensoy erroneously interpret what Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and their intellectual descendants had to say about the nature of reason and its connection to theory, knowledge, justice and human autonomy. According to DiAngelo and Sensoy, “these movements initially advocated for a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom and peace) but quickly turned to a rejection of liberal humanism”:
the ideal of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. In other words, it fooled people into believing that they had more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow.
But Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and later Critical Theorists who followed in their path, such as Jürgen Habermas, do not focus their attention directly on liberal humanism, which is not easy to define anyway. Nor do they claim that reason and autonomy are sources of oppression per se. They argue instead that contemporary ideologies impair the exercise of reason in a way that compromises the Enlightenment project of encouraging and cultivating human autonomy. While they express plenty of gripes about the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, and worry that the technical and scientific apparatus of modern capitalism homogenizes the population into agents of their own oppression, they do not focus their attention on “whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods.” Instead, they focus on the conception of rationality itself and how it evolved in the context of capitalism and related historical developments.
As Horkheimer explains in Eclipse of Reason, reason has become instrumentalized, focused formulaically on calculating means to achieve ends, while attaching “little importance to the question whether the purposes as such are reasonable.” The concern was not about whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods. The concern was how instrumentalized reason had given rise to a relativistic nonchalance about the ends we pursue, whereby objective evaluation of the moral underpinnings of society was viewed as inconsequential or pointless:
In Platonism, the Pythagorean theory of numbers, which originated in astral mythology, was transformed into the theory of ideas that attempts to define the supreme content of thinking as an absolute objectivity ultimately beyond, though related to, the faculty of thinking … the present crisis of reason consists fundamentally in the fact that at a certain point thinking either became incapable of conceiving such objectivity at all or began to negate it as a delusion.
The signature work of the Frankfurt School is Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the Enlightenment, which philosopher Immanuel Kant defines as “man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity,” has failed in its attempt to emancipate man from subservience to oppressive arrangements in societies organized around mythical beliefs. Enlightenment put so much stock in technology, material progress and scientific discovery as foundational institutions that virtue and vice became indelibly connected to the moral superstructure of capitalism, which imposes a uniformity on cultural life and severely cripples the potential for human autonomy. The cultural machinery of industrial capitalism homogenizes the populace, molding people into social automatons rather than autonomous (not to be confused with atomistic) participants in an active, healthy culture of avant-garde dissonance.
How did this happen? The aim of the Enlightenment, in its commitment to scientific inquiry and the scientific method, was to explore, control and dominate nature. Rationality was viewed as the supreme weapon for manipulating the world as it is, in contrast to an idea of rationality as a guide to thinking about how the world should be. Horkheimer and Adorno trace this development in part to a philosophical lineage dating back to a Cartesian focus on the thinking self as the basic foundation of epistemological claims, but their contemporaneous diagnosis is that, with the development of capitalism, reason became concerned exclusively with its acclimation to the technological apparatus associated with mass production and the culture industry, rather than with the evaluation of the ends we pursue within the technical apparatus of mass production, mass entertainment and mass media.
The authors of the Dialectic present the Homeric hero Odysseus as an allegorical representation of the modern bourgeois individual. Odysseus, man of many wiles, is a master at manipulating the mythological world—Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens—in the interests of self-preservation and of his ultimate return to Ithaca, where he assumes the throne once again. As Curtis Bowman sums it up: Odysseus oppressed resumes his place as Odysseus the oppressor. Both Odysseus and the modern bourgeois individual employ instrumental reason to succeed in a world by pursuing ends that they take for granted. There is never a pause to wonder if the ends they pursue are worth the effort to attain them.
With no visceral consciousness given to the intrinsic value of the social order in which the material conditions of life are enjoyed, science and technology improve living standards while doing nothing to dissolve the social tension resulting from the division of resources between those who rule and those who are ruled. Enlightenment was supposed to free mankind from myth, but it reverted back to myth under the influence of a transformed rationality, which accommodated the mind of man to the ideology of a capitalist order promising enhancements in material well-being in exchange for obedience to the efficiencies of mass production:
just as the ruled have always taken the morality dispensed to them by the rules more seriously than the rulers themselves, the defrauded masses today cling to the myth of success still more ardently than the successful. They, too, have their aspirations. They insist unwaveringly on the ideology by which they are enslaved.
In the Dialectic, Horkheimer and Adorno leave no doubt about their allegiance to the project of Enlightenment: “herein lies our petitio principii—that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking.” But they lament how the loss of objective reason has destroyed enlightened thinking: “ruthless toward itself, the Enlightenment has eradicated the last remnant of its own self-awareness.” Influenced by Kant, they believed in rational autonomy. But, influenced by Marx, they attempted to show how industrial capitalism undermined the Enlightenment idea of human autonomy as a consummate achievement of rationality.
The Dialectic conceives of enlightened thought as an escape from societies based on myth. Myth is an anthropomorphic interpretation of the world. Inanimate nature appears to the mythologized mind as inhabited by animated beings: the sea is controlled by Poseidon; the rocks and trees are inhabited by spirits. These animated forces that inhabit inanimate things exert a controlling influence on human affairs. Human societies based on mythical interpretations see survival as dependent upon the manipulation of these animate forces through sacrifice, prayer and other rituals, which then become means by which persons in control of these societies manipulate everyone else to serve their interests. This manipulation is sustained by a widespread belief within society that deviation from mythical interpretation is destructive to survival. Thus a status quo emerges defined by the relationship between the persons in authority, who oversee the practices that allow society to conform to the mythical interpretation, and the rest of the population, who take these mythical views to be true and thus succumb to the authority of those in control of facilitating the necessary functions that support and maintain these views.
The concern of the Dialectic is that enlightened society supplanted mythologized society as another status quo characterized by the ideologically enforced power dynamics that dismantle autonomy: “myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” When the ideological superstructure of capitalism instrumentalized reason, objective reason was eclipsed, transforming reason into a mechanical instrument of domination, effectively sabotaging Kant’s appeal to emerge from self-imposed immaturity by thinking for oneself using one’s a priori faculty of reason, a crucial condition for the objective evaluation of society’s moral compass.
Thus, in contrast to what DiAngelo and Sensoy claim in their book on social justice education, rational autonomy was not viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. Rather, bourgeois ideology instrumentalized reason and thus impeded the cultivation of autonomy. The result was the eclipse of objective reason, fostering a kind of false consciousness, which makes people oblivious to the structural inequality associated with oppression and marginalization. Autonomy was not an obstacle to social justice. Social ideology and instrumental reason were obstacles to the cultivation of autonomy, which was viewed as a crucial condition for the public exercise of objective reason in the service of a critique of social injustice.
Critical Theory has since been applied to fields such as feminism, critical race theory and various forms of postcolonial criticism, all of which regard historical-social constructs as important concerns of humanistic inquiry. For example, Michel Foucault focused on the historical conditions in which claims of knowledge are made—namely, the epistemes of the Renaissance, Classical Age and the Modern Age. Foucault sought to demonstrate how accepted methods of investigation give rise to historically unique frameworks, through which we conceptualize the things we study—a thesis which helps motivate his study of madness in civilization.
But Foucault, who is not a direct descendant of the Critical Theory philosophical tradition (see this essay for a helpful account of the differences between the Frankfurt School, postmodernism and post-structuralism), was not oblivious to the links between his critical attitude and Enlightenment rationality. Like members of the Frankfurt School, Foucault was concerned with historical and social circumstances that affect our perception, conceptualization and understanding of the world. Like Kant, he was concerned with the limits of knowledge (“This philosophical ethos,” he says about his thesis in an essay on the Enlightenment, “may be characterized as a limit-attitude.”) Unlike Kant, however, Foucault finds the limits of knowledge not in the limits of reason itself, but in the epistemic or “archaeological” conditions in which claims of knowledge are made.
As this critique of Steven Pinker’s defense of Enlightenment and reason points out, the Enlightenment was concerned with defining what reason is rather than coming to a defense of reason itself: “Reason does figure centrally in discussions of the period, but primarily as an object of critique. Establishing what it was, and its intrinsic limits, was the main game.” Similarly, the first generation Frankfurt School philosophers were concerned with delineating the contours and content of reason after it has been transformed by the ideologies of industrial capitalism. Even later critical theorists like Jürgen Habermas, and continental philosophers like Michel Foucault, did not reject reason outright, instead focusing their attention on how reason fits within the language of communicative discourse (in the case of Habermas) and how rational inquiry fits within the episteme of a historical set of circumstances (in the case of Foucault). They were not inherently anti-Enlightenment or anti-reason. They were committed to a critique of reason, in an attempt to improve our understanding of what reason is and what it can achieve.
In sum, contrary to what DiAngelo and Sensoy assert early in their book, Critical Theory was not engendered by a view that rationality was unreliable because it depended on one’s position in the social hierarchy. It was inspired by a view that social hierarchies and ideologies exert an influence on reason that should not be ignored, and sought to rescue reason from any corruption by prevailing hierarchies and ideologies. Rational autonomy was the goal of, not an obstacle to, emancipatory social justice.