Preliminary Thoughts on Adorno’s ‘Critical Theory’

I decided to write this article primarily to document my thoughts on some readings I have completed recently on contemporary hermeneutics (critical theory being one of them) and secondly to provide a source of information and critique for those looking for a more sober and non-hysterical understanding of a topic often subject to caricatures & hot-takes on social media. Also note, that anyone who comments on Critical Race Theory etc without understanding and explaining Critical Theory itself is very likely not doing their commentary any justice.

I do want to warn the reader however, that my reading on this topic is limited to a handful analyses of one of the founding fathers of Critical Theory, Theodor Adorno. My current forays into contemporary philosophy have mostly been for the purpose of Islamic theology, so I’ve been spending the bulk of my time on epistemology and metaphysics. I intend to go deeper into hermenutics and ethics only after I start serious research into Usul-ul-Fiqh. Despite this, given how profoundly evident his ideas seem to be among Muslim critical theorists, I have presumed that prioritizing what little I knew so far would still be useful and sufficient to write this article. It is a blog post after all, not an academic paper.

This post is divided into 2 sections. The first introduces some core understandings of Critical Theory (at least according to Adorno), while the second presents my own contemplation and reflections on it.

What is Critical Theory?

I have tried to briefly summarize Critical Theory in the following points:

  1. Critical Theory can be categorized as a sub-field within philosophy in one of two ways:
    • Specific generations of philosophers who explicitly espoused and promoted it, notably the ‘Frankfurt School’ of which Theodor Adorno and his successors Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth were a part of.
    • ‘Any politically inflected form of cultural, social, or political theory that has critical, progressive, or emancipatory aims’. Under this, Michel Foucalt would be counted as a Critical Theorist even if he was not part of the ‘Frankfurt School’.
  2. There is debate whether or not Critical Theory is philosophy at all, or whether it belongs to sociology. This is either because of its anti-philosophy sentiments or because of its heavy involvement and discourse in sociological issues as the grounding of philosophy.
  3. One of the centrals tenets of Critical Theory is to be ‘anti-Enlightenment’ and thus an alternative to traditional philosophy.
  4. The social function of theorizing in philosophy (or science) cannot be neatly distinguished from its content and nature. Philosophy is not an autonomous domain and does not settle decisive problems. Philosophy is ideological in that it has a self-image of being self-sufficient & independent and is utopian in that logic and reason are not just authoritative, but should determine the course of events in society. ‘ The power of thought is insufficient to grasp the totality of the real’. So the philosophical theorizing of Kant on reason, for example, cannot be fully distinguished from his male, white, bourgeois, pietistic life context.
  5. Critical Theory and truth are deeply historical, truth is not trans-historical as philosophy (or brute facts in the case of science) claims to espouse. A lack of agreement on core fundamentals (and how philosophical truths are subject to constant failure & revision) in the tradition of Western philosophy, and the diversity of truths across societies and cultures can be used to justify this. The existence of ‘truths’ which have led to undoubtedly immoral events in history or suffering are also evidence.
  6. Science is not value-free and scientism is a danger to society. Auschwitz is a prime example. Science presents its conclusions as indestructible and static, while this is not so in philosophy. Truths in sciences are ‘answers waiting to be found’, while in Critical Theory scientific acts are constructions of answers by way of a transformation of social reality.
  7. There is suspicion of the categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive and valuable and whether they are applicable to what Critical Theory is trying to achieve. If truth is not trans-historical, one cannot be assertive in conclusions.
  8. Marx plays a definitive role in Critical Theory, especially in his statement that ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it’. This is reflected in Critical Theory, and its insistence that theorizing is not to be conceived independently from political struggle. It is also reflected in acceptance of Marx’s notion that the only true science is history, from which ethical questions cannot and should not be detached.
  9. Critical Theory espouses a ‘reconstructive methodology’, a form of social activism in which participants in social practices are made aware of the ‘grammar’ of these practices by reconstructing the socially constructed philosophical assumptions underlying them that they are largely unaware of.
  10. Depsite all these criticisms of philosophy, it is important and useful, although not for the reasons philosophers have traditionally espoused (i.e. discovery of truths). Philosophy is useful because it provides a self-criticizing function in theorizing that can break the hold certain conceptual structures have on us (and therefore the hold of social practices constituted by these conceptual structures).
  11. Another important use of philosophy is the use of ‘dialectic’ i.e. the tracing and unfolding of philosophical problems internal to philosophical theories and develop philosophical standpoints for theorization as a social activity. This is not the authoritarian development of fixed philosophical standpoints, just ‘philosophical discourse’. We should be critical of philosophical theories which separate method and substance, or form and content, and suspicious of absolutism in these distinctions. The role of logic is not to establish truths but to guide dialectic and ensure that it remains logical and coherent. Despite this, no deductions or conclusions are made. Philosophical ideas cannot be captured in neat definitions that provide necessary and sufficient conclusions.
  12. Dialectic should be ‘negative, i.e. nothing in the dialectic process guarantees a positive resolution of contradiction, especially not any ‘absolute knowledge’. We can only speak absolutely of ‘untruths’, not ‘truths’. These untruths are known through suffering and pain, physical or otherwise as a result of social domination or social ills. We do not need theorizing to determine that pain or domination is evil, to even try to do so is an outrage. Otherwise it would imply that the events associated with Auschwitz for example, could only be judged to be evil if something else held true.
  13. In general, there is a closer link between negative experiences and philosophy overall than with positive experiences. Critical Theory subscribes to a natural-historical account of how conceptual thought and reason emerged: with the human animal exposed to an often hostile natural environment, they emerged out of physical impulses and drives of self-preservation.
  14. How to write with dialectic then? Tracing and revealing concepts and their social theorization requires a particular mode of presentation. We should write in such a way that each sentence is equidistant to the centre of the subject matter under discussion. Any argument that is developed along one continuous, linear path is rejected as inadequate because the object of enquiry (the social world and its thought forms) it itself antagonistic and resists ‘continuous presentation’. Often it will seem that arguments are lacking altogether and we are just faced with striking and suggestive conclusions, leaving it to the reader to construct arguments in support of them. The text is meant to be a trigger for reflection, not reporting about reflection that has taken place.
  15. Capitalism – as a way of organizing production and society is one particular manifestation of this conceptual-social discourse. Is is a very sophisticated tool that humans developed as a consequence of natural grown in human history that has achieved many advances, but this tool no longer serves us but dominates us instead.
  16. Identity thinking is another such tool. All conceptual thinking is identifying, or grasping a particular as part of a concept or set of concepts.

Preliminary thoughts on Adorno’s Critical Theory (as above)

Here is a summary of my thoughts on the above as someone whose primary research lies in Islamic theology and Usul-ul-Fiqh, as well as my now years of readings in the intersection between contemporary philosophy, science and traditional Islamic knowledge. Feel free to disagree although with civility and adab please.

  1. Critical Theory should be approached in a similar way to any other sophisticated philosophical system: with constructive caution. Critical Theory has the potential to supplement Islamic thought with theologically sound contributions that fit well with the Islamic tradition and orthodoxy, and it also has the potential to clash sharply with it as well and be subject to rejection and censure in its ideas and formulations. As with any other sophisticated philosophical system, this is not an easy task and requires more than a hot-take on social media or even a blog post like this one. It requires careful academic work by expert Islamic theologians and philosophers who are also fluent in contemporary philosophy and demonstrate a critical yet receptive attitude towards new ideas while maintaining a faithful and pious adherence to Islamic orthodoxy.
  2. Critical Theory is useful in its suggestion to us that Western philosophy and science are in fact individually and socially constructed traditions. This is especially valuable for Muslims when confronting the dark and crippling shadow of colonialism, modernism and orientalism on our civilizational history, ethnic homelands and our own minds. We must be able to recognize that as tempting as it is to understand Western thought as a truth-bearing monolithic entity – it is after all a tradition of thought grounded in its own ontological, metaphysical and epistemic assumptions like any other. Scientism today has taken on a popular form within the New Atheist movement – which hides its incoherent and outdated approach to scientific knowledge behind a sarcastic sneer and an a false veneer of scientific authoritarianism. The detachment of philosophy from truth is also instructive in that it shows that philosophizing itself is a process of theorizing and conceptualizing rather than the absolute frame of reference that it may be thought to be by amateur readers in the subject.
  3. Contrary to what a critic of Critical Theory may think, it is not alone in this contemporary discourse of the ‘subjectivity of truth’ as this is an idea well-explored and well-established in the contemporary study of logic, mathematics, language, metaphysics, knowledge and the philosophy of science – among other subjects. Wittgenstein – who may be understood as a source of inspiration for those inspired by the ideas of the Frankfurt school – famously and influentially demonstrated this in his writings on logic and language. In mathematics, the intuitionist & constructive element of mathematics features prominently in the writings of L.E.J Brouwer and Kurt Godel. In metaphysics and epistemology Husserlian phenomenology has been particularly influential. In the philosophy and history of science figures like Thomas Kuhn became notorious for highlighting the fallibility of scientific knowledge. Dismissing the issue of subjectivity in truth wholesale as a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived excesses of academics and social justice activists is misguided and inaccurate. In science itself, Quantum Mechanics has called into question a lot of what we consider to be definitive empirical reality.
  4. Such discussions on subjectivity and the constructive nature of truth become very useful in analyzing issues of ijtihad, ikhtilaf and sub-traditions within the Islamic scholarly tradition, especially from a historical perspective. I would argue this has proven to be largely true given the plethora of useful and insightful analyses in Islamic history of a non-Orientalist nature that have proliferated among Western academics. This approach can also help us to identify traditions within Islamic thought that are distinctly ‘Islamic’ in origin (or Islamicate as the term is often used), and those that are foreign impositions or influences resulting from Eurocentric thought or modernism. Of course this does not mean that such processes will be error-free, but at least we now have some sort of guiding methodology within which to organize our research and inquiry.
  5. Perhaps most importantly, such approaches, together with the demotion of post-Enlightenment European thought to tradition, allow us to see our religion and history within a perspective that is untarnished by Orientalism and anti-theism, and return us to the arguably more ‘natural’ mindset of pre-modern/pre-colonial Islamic civilization. There are of course many reasons to doubt whether this mindset ever existed, as Islamic history has repeatedly shown us its status as an ‘open civilization’ receptive to critique and adjustment – a religion for all times and peoples. But the fact remains that with Critical Theory we now have a mindset to now just be critical of foreign influence into our history, but also within the very time we live in – to recognize that much of what parades itself as ‘common sense’, ‘good morals’, and ‘normal’ around us is only so because our current culture dictates it to be, not because it actually is. This leads us to the problems of Critical Theory.
  6. In sharp and glaring contrast to the above, in Islam one simply cannot believe all truth to be subjective or for truth to be non-trans-historical as a whole. The very nature of belief in God and religion requires us to believe that there are a set of objective realities and truths that we must always assert as trans-historical, for example our belief in God, the Prophets, the Quran, Qadr, the Last Day and Heaven and Hell. The Qur’an and Sunnah make unequivocally clear in many passages that there are absolute truths about our universe that humans must reckon with or face repercussions for. With respect to these core aspects of Islam – what could in broadly theoretical terms be categorized under issues of consensus or the tighter noose of ‘what is known in the religion by necessity’ – Critical Theory becomes inapplicable and we could very strongly argue – unIslamic. In Islamic thought we both accept differentiate between a fixed conceptual core of orthodox beliefs and practices, and more fluid and differed over issues regulated by the scholarly community in theory and practice. In the terms of Critical Theory, the tradition of Islamic thought itself compels us to reject some of Critical Theory’s core features. One cannot maintain both without landing in serious contradiction and incoherence. Similar to this are questions about universalism and perennialism in religion – they land into incoherency as they accept multiple religious truths – a drastic incoherency that is easily detected by even the most basic believer in these faiths, let alone theologians.
  7. Similarly to Islamic thought, as someone who I would now consider well-read in analytic philosophy and science – I find it important to some trans-historical truths of both philosophy and science. Although I’m not an advocate of either logical positivism or scientific naturalism, I do acknowledge that there are definitive truths to be found within these types of discourse. A historical analysis of philosophy finds that while much has changed, much has also remained the same – there is something intuitive in human beings and how we think about reality that has remained constant and consistent throughout philosophy and other subjects – and rejecting these as trans-historical would be epistemically unpragmatic and force us to concede the unreliability of our our faculties of observation and knowledge – which is obviously incoherent. It’s also impractical – if we can’t know anything to be true – then what do we actually know, and why should we take any action at all? In science, as a biology graduate who read research papers for fun (and still sometimes do), I find it grotesquely irresponsible – especially seeing as how science plays such a major role in health and medicine – to believe that science cannot offer us any truths. Lastly, even in politics one must admit that truth is sometimes trans-historical, and its ironic that the political/ideological left – often the domain within which Critical Theorists reside – are the most critical of ‘fake-news’ and the post-truth world of disinformation.
  8. In this sense Critical Theory is as much an artifact of colonialism, modernism and tradition within Western thought itself. It is the Western intellect revolting against its own perceived self-importance and intellectual oppression. The most obvious examples of this are in Critical Theory based analyses of Islam and Muslim thought. Many of these will attempt to adopt an anti-trans-historical approach but often are reflective or dismissive of their own cultural and intellectual milieu. Instead of grounding themselves in the book of the Creator and the words of His Messenger – the most ‘Islamic’ grounding one can possible have – they ground their thoughts in what is very prominently a European and Western tradition. Papers and books written on the basis of passively accepting ideals from Western culture, history and society – like feminism or gender theory – are very common.
  9. It is easy for the impious individual corrupted in soul or lacking in conviction of the Creator and His Messenger, or the sociologist and philosopher lacking in a firm and comprehensive grasp of Islamic theology and scholarly tradition to think that Islamic orthodoxy is just another ‘trans-historical truth’ – and this has featured prominently among many Western Muslim academics, some who have advocated for Islam to be whatever its adherents make it out to be! I would argue – boldly yet soberly – that methodologies like Critical Theory have become a cloak for some of these academics to conceal their otherwise obvious nifaq.
  10. With regards to the focus on untruths and negative experiences – that we should only talk about what is not true – and that we should speak about them through negative experiences of pain and suffering. What has resulted from this as our current political & cultural circumstances would suggest – I would argue that social justice warriors or the political left as they are popularly labeled are popular manifestations of the discourse of Critical Theorists and their authoritative presence in Western centers of learning – is an intellectual mindset & popular culture of complaining and negativity. Modernity has already shattered our mental health and psyches, but this constant negativity is most likely making it worse. I once tried to read (i.e. listen to) the immensely popular book by Mark Fisher called ‘Capitalist Realism: Is There No Other Alternative’ but I found it unbearably negative and despite the fact that I find listening to audiobooks while exercising soothing and contemplative – for the first time I found my anxiety spiking during exercise. In comparison, I’m listening to Richard Gallagher’s book on demonic possession right now and even that is more relaxing. The constant problematization of social issues by the political left is, in my observation, undoubtedly inviting the rising and increasingly hostile antagonism from the political right. If you’re going to keep being negative, open up wounds and increasingly apply pressure – expect a hostile response. Radical discourse invites radical discourse. Besides my reservation about feminism and more significantly, gender theories, I am not without sympathy for causes such as those to do with racism or Islamophobia. But I find the radical negativity and pressure on social change to be counterproductive – especially when living as a minority whose values run counterproductive to the dominant culture.
  11. Lastly, the grounding of untruth in pain and suffering is in my opinion – Islamically problematic. While maslahah and the maqasid al-Shariah definitely have parallels to such discourse – pain and suffering is not a grounding of significant epistemic or ontological significance in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Tawhid, worship, obedience to Allah & His Messenger & eternal salvation – these are the foundational principles in any Quranic ontology. Take for example the concepts of Jihad and Mujahadah – literally striving and implicitly experiencing pain and suffering for the sake of God. In the Qur’an the ultimate sacrifice of being shaheed is celebrated – and hardship for the sake of religion is not looked down upon. The verses, hadith and discourse within the tradition throughout tafsir, fiqh, theology and tasawwuf is too preponderant to list or ignore. Another is Sabr, patience in the persistence of truth and good. The emphasis on pain and suffering for discourse on social untruths (and truths) can be very attractive for otherwise very compassionate and well-meaning Muslims to fall for, and it misleads us into thinking that this is THE authoritative methodology upon which we should be basing our philosophical discourse.

And Allah knows best.

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