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Trapped by Philosophy's worst features
Critical Constructivism—popularised as “wokery”—cuts off any route to what works
This is the thirty-fourth piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: Lazy thinking first popularised in academic philosophy has escaped the lab. It now routinely impedes the development of workable public policy.
Meanwhile,has a thoughtful response to both Lorenzo’z last essay and an essay of mine over at his place, while Barry Brownstein discusses a selection of pieces on Hamas, also including one of mine.
Do remember, my Substack is free for everyone. Only contribute if you fancy. If you put your hands in your pocket, money goes into Lorenzo’s pocket.
However, paid subscribers do get exclusive, unrecorded Chatham House Zoom calls with both Lorenzo and me. We held the first of these last month, and there will be another one next week.
My post here on the failings of Philosophy, plus two companion posts that explored the limits to conscious intelligibility — teasing out some implications thereof — have all considered Philosophy’s limits.
Philosophy is the ante-room or foyer of useful thought. It may be where we start, but it’s not where we usefully finish. The history of Philosophy is, to a large degree, the history of portentous guesses. (Portentous guesses that, to the extent they are testable, proved to be mostly wrong.) When we learn how to test our guesses in a given area, it ceases to be part of Philosophy.
It greatly helps to understand “wokery”, i.e., the popularisations of Critical Theory —aka Critical Social Justice, Critical Constructivism, Post-Enlightenment Progressivism — if one grasps that this stream of thought traps exists within philosophy’s worst features. We’re cut off at the pass, so we miss the exits from Philosophy humanity built up across the centuries.
This trapping of thought within Philosophy — this elimination of exits — emerges thanks to two features. The first is the denial of objectivity, either in the sense of sharing a common, testable reality or in the sense of having a common, shared, definitive meaning of terms. The controversy over whether 2 + 2 = 4 (yes, really) was about such denial.
Language is treated as a social construction, with words only referring to, or being understandable, in terms of other words and states of human cognition. This is part of a larger pattern where human action and interaction is taken to be entirely socially constructed and thus only understood as (and by) social constructions. In other words, the mode of analysis is Constructivist (with some later caveats about the alleged objectivity of oppression).
If we have no access to a shared reality, to the inherent structure of things, then concepts and statements cannot be tested against reality in the way Science, Engineering or Law maintain that they can be. The exits from Philosophy, built up over centuries, are closed off.
The second feature is to turn everything that is socially constructed into a Who Whom? question. (Kto–kogo? in its original Russian.) If everything human is socially constructed then it is determined by social interactions. In particular, it is determined by power.
Power relations thus dominate everything. All analysis of human action and interactions becomes a matter of Who Whom? Who has power over whom? Who oppresses whom? Who is marginalised, minoritised, unhoused, or undocumented by whom? By turning everything into a Who Whom? question, analysis becomes Critical Constructivism: specifically, Critical Constructivism based on a politics of the transformational future.
If the imagined, transformational future is one’s benchmark, that imagined future can be as perfect as you wish. It must be better than any actual existing thing — anything humans have actually created. Anything real will be based on trade-offs and have a morally mixed history. It will be taken to be permanently, and irretrievably, blighted by the sins of its history, hence requiring social transformation that will cleanse it of that sinful past.
To accept the constraints of (socially constructed) structure is to sin against the promise of the transformational future. This is how constraint becomes oppression. It’s not the case that obesity is unhealthy, for example, it’s that people fail to show the correct level of fat acceptance. Just as power becomes the pervasive social reality, oppression becomes the bedrock moral fact.
By embracing the politics of the transformational future, the political imaginings of those who deal with information, and its manipulation, become so much more worthy than the pedestrian perspectives of the unenlightened general public who lack appropriate understanding.
The urge to maximise contrasts between products of a blighted past and the splendours in progressive heads leads to both cartoon history (history simplified to the point of serious distortion) and caricature history (history distorted by activist processes of selection and exaggeration). The 1619 Project of The New York Times was an exercise in cartoon and caricature history.
A purely imagined thing — without any grounding in what works, any test against the structures of reality — becomes a benchmark for judging everything that exists, or has existed, and every action people do, or have done.1 This both motivates and justifies the ruthless criticism of all that exists.
Having declared existing society oppressive — it lacks the moral perfection of the imagined future and is blighted by sins (real or alleged) in its past — anything that can be held to “support” the existing society, to be part of its history, can be declared oppressive, and so illegitimate. Science is part of existing society, so it is illegitimate. It’s a cis-heteronormative, patriarchal, hegemonic mechanism of white supremacy.
Any mechanism or methodology part of existing society becomes complicit in oppressive mechanisms. This, of course, includes any mechanism developed over the centuries for critically assessing claims, so all the exits from Philosophy. All forms of critical thinking are to be replaced by cultivation of a critical consciousness, legitimised by a commitment to the transformational future and rejection of existing society.
The basic claim is that the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house, which is nonsense even as a metaphor. Any successful wrestling with the structure of things already part of existing society becomes complicity in oppression. Even things like punctuality, care for accuracy, reasoning about how things work …
With the exits from Philosophy cut off, acceding to Critical Theory — including its various offshoots — becomes the only basis for legitimacy. The absolute primacy of an intention-to-create the transformational future prevents testing Critical Constructivism’s against the (socially constructed) structure of reality whose bedrock moral fact is oppression. Meanwhile, any notion of a shared meaning—of a shared apprehension of reality—is at best suspect and, at worst, complicity in oppression.
We move from teaching proper — attempting to clarify the world and its structures so that students can become independent thinkers — to guruhood, where matters are obfuscated. This creates dependent thinkers.
Any sense of terms having definitive meaning is replaced by de-clarifying complexity that has to be navigated via the expertise of those versed in Theory, judgement’s only legitimate basis.
This expertise operates via systemic racism of the gaps. The default explanation for any difference in group outcomes is racism — or some other form of bigotry — that need not be tied to any specific phenomena, arrangement, or human action. It’s presumptive if outcomes are not perfectly demographically distributed. Oppression is the bedrock moral fact.
As such perfect demographic distribution is never going to happen — talents, aspirations, and life-strategies are never evenly demographically distributed — then systemic racism, systemic bigotry is, indeed, eternal. Obsession with presumptive bigotry manifests vividly and in rhetorically effective ways a critical consciousness that “sees” how what exists can only be understood in terms of its flaws. Or, rather, what are most conveniently understood as its flaws.
Declarations of oppression are the bedrock of judgement, the only real thing. This is clearest in Critical Race Theory, where racism is assumed to operate and the only question is how racism manifests in a given situation. If one is playing a purely conceptual game, one can always “find” racism, as one simply construes events as instrumentally convenient.
The notion that different life strategies might have different outcomes is excluded.2 Any notion that the social is emergent from the biological absolutely has to be excluded, because that entails causal dominance by the apprehended structure of reality over Theory and over any commitment to a transformational future.
All within Theory
As part of de-legitimising all the escape routes from Philosophy built up over the centuries, dissent is also de-legitimised to protect the moral and cognitive primacy of the transformative future, and its supporting Theory. Dissent is only permitted from within Theory.
Various mechanisms are used to enforce this, notably entirely instrumental name-calling. As there is no definitive meaning or directly apprehended reality, Theory provides the only vehicle for legitimate judgement. Anyone can be called anything if it serves the purposes of the politics of the transformational future. There is no objective meaning for Nazi, fascist, bigot, racist, transphobe, nothing that connects these terms to the structure of things. There are just the meanings that serve the purposes of the politics of the transformational future, the purposes that are the only legitimate basis for judgement.
Those not in thrall to Theory — who patiently try to explain that x is not a Nazi, y is not a transphobe, z is not a bigot — do not understand that the righteously-hating activists are using your language and your vocabulary, but not your dictionary. For devotees of the politics of the transformational future and its Theory, such terms — indeed, all uses of words — are activist instruments that have no objective meaning (such objective meanings being non-existent). They are boo words to cast out those already shown to be illegitimate by their dissent from the politics of the transformational future and its supporting Theory.
It is worth dwelling on the pedagogical implications of this. First, only activist scholarship — scholarship that serves the politics of the transformational future — is legitimate. As all such scholarship is scholarship to a required narrative — in this case of pervasive oppression — it is degraded scholarship. But student evaluations also have to serve the narrative. Hence, it is utterly predictable that, as such scholarship — and its status and social-leverage strategies — spreads, more and more students will simply lie. They’ll falsify their preferences to get marks and jobs.
The instrumental strategy of linguistic game-playing works much better than it should because so many Very Smart People refuse to see a game is being played. As such Very Smart People typically want to be liked — and want to be seen as the Clever People Who Understand — the boo-word strategy works.
The claim that “speech (or silence) is violence” breaks the barrier between words and deeds while delegitimising dissent. Wrong words become justifications for rightful violence. Folk are stripped of the authority to speak — other than to support the politics of the transformational future — as Theory, in the service of the transformational future, is the only basis for legitimacy. This then justifies blocking investigation or interrogation of what Theory claims, except from within the presumptions of Theory.
Silence is violence, meanwhile, because only support for the politics of the transformational future is legitimate. Attempts to invoke an objective reality just proves your complicity in oppression. There are no legitimate grounds for dissent, except within the wheelhouse of Theory itself.
Any external criticism of Theory — especially of those acting according to Theory — is, of course, words-are-violence. Moreover, we lack the direct apprehension of the structure of reality that might ground such investigation, such interrogation. As such (inherently wrongful) criticism is thus violence against the righteous identity of the proponents of Theory, the typical response to such criticism is wound-collecting.
As various exits from Philosophy get blocked, the right sort of portentous guesses become authoritative. There is no greater manifestation of such portentous guessing than the dialectic itself. The dialectic is understood as the fundamental driver of events. Things that are interact with things that are not—or otherwise “contradict” such—to create what becomes to be.
There is no reason to believe this nonsense, but it grants a spurious authority, and a spurious sense of understanding. It elevates the transformational future as both the actual, and the proper, direction of history—with a side-serving of portentous metaphysical waffle.
Remaining within the game of portentous guesses — so avoiding tests against reality — is rhetorically very useful. As such streams of thought are freed from tests against the structure of things, they are able to evolve to be rhetorically, to be emotionally and socially, effective. No matter what you do — given the multi-dimensional nature of human actions and interactions — there is always a way of construing your behaviour as contravening some standard.
If there’s an African-American and a Euro-American in your store, if you approach the African-American first you are trying to get them dealt with because (insert negative stereotype here). If you approach the Euro-American first, you’re “privileging” whiteness.
There is always a conceptual narrative available to support whatever claim one wishes to make. This is particularly so if one is judging by alleged intent. Even more so if — thanks to such constructions as micro-aggressions and implicit bias — any intent does not even have to be conscious.4
This turns Critical Social Justice into the perfect status and social-leverage strategy, as any dissent becomes complicity in oppression. Disagreement with the project becomes a moral and/or cognitive failure that is presumptive evidence of bad faith.
The failure to test against structure is rhetorically convenient, but analytically useless: a general failing in the Theory of the transformational future. As there is no information from the future—only from past and present—dismissing the only available sources of information as realms of sin creates a pathological relationship with information.
But it’s only analytically useless if one accepts an apprehensible reality against which we can test claims. Critical constructivism denies any authority to such assertions, even to 2 + 2 = 4.
The politics of the transformational future is at war with human contingency, with folk choosing: whether the contingencies of private acts or the contingency of electoral choice. Only those acts and votes which serve the politics of the transformational future are legitimate.
In its identity-politics form, it pushes forced association, destroying people’s ability to associate with whom they will. That manifests “bigotry”. Yet the ability to choose with whom one associates is fundamental to promoting prosocial behaviour and discouraging anti-social behaviour. It’s also crucial for independent social associations — to the various forms of private governance that provide alternatives to state action — as they are based on creating civic groups that foster the cooperative and prosocial by excluding the uncooperative and the corrosive.
The politics of the transformational future is also fundamentally committed to conflict models of society. The more society is seen as a series of fights, the more it can be de-legitimised. This sharpens the contrast with — and means the greater the moral urgency of — an imagined, harmonious future. It has great appeal for those who don’t attempt to make things work, who don’t have to wrest value from physical reality, who don’t engage in serious martial arts, who don’t provide physical goods or services. In other words, it’s for folk insulated from the consequences of their decisions.
To make things work requires an epistemic humility — a deference to the reality of structure, to the wants, wishes and perspectives of others — that is incompatible with the grandiose moral narcissism that the politics of the transformational future generates. In terms of genuine understanding — and of human flourishing — it’s a toxically useless philosophy that appeals and empowers toxically useless people: folk that modern academe, bureaucracies and non-profits give employ, thereby inflicting their toxic uselessness on the rest of us.
These people are prone to the curdled envy that Nietzsche labelled ressentiment. Or, as Peter Boghossian says, they’re under-accomplished and dyspeptic malcontents.
Expanding bureaucratisation increases the number of people who are isolated from the consequences and costs of their decisions. Managerialism applies a layer of moral arrogance to this process. The products of Theory — such as Diversity, Inclusion, Equity — given form, status and increased social leverage to the moral arrogance.
As the imagined, transformational future is so morally grand, no social action, no way of looking at or talking about the world can legitimately impede that future’s creation. Hence, a politics of the transformational future leads directly to the Jacobin model of politics: unlimited in scope (all parts of society have to be transformed) and in means (everything and anything that brings the transformational future closer is morally trumping).
Just as operationalising the politics of Rousseau — he of Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains — led to the original application of the Jacobin model of politics. All serious attempts to operationalise Marxism have required new versions of the Jacobin model. Specifically, they have all been variations on Lenin’s Jacobinisation of Marxism.5
Neither Robespierre or Lenin were aberrations. They both represent the operationalisation of the politics of the transformational future.6 We are also now experiencing the endless-activism networked version of the Jacobin model of politics.
Marxism implanted in the academy — and in the intellectual life of the West and beyond — the notion that Western (and other) societies can be declared to be profoundly exploitive based on theoretical claims. That is, declared to be such—not based on sober comparison with other societies in human history—but because Theory says so. Theory that was both false, and disastrous.
As all action directed towards the transformational future is sanctioned — is the only legitimate course — truly appalling states of affairs can be created and justified. Hence we get Year Zero and other atrocities, and the appalling Kim Family Regime, and other tyrannies. Or we see partisans for the expansion of such politics cheering on the murder, rape and kidnapping of civilians by folk designated as “oppressed” against folk designated as “oppressors” (even when they are children).
Degrading all it touches
Nothing is allowed to escape demands from the transformational future. This means we end up demanding to know what footballers think about same-sex marriage, without seeing such demands as totalitarian nonsense. In the process, we prevent sport from being something folk can enjoy across political divides. We’re in the process of doing the same to entertainment, comedy, even (lord help us) knitting.
Nothing is allowed to be itself, everything has to conform to the demands of the politics of the transformational future. Hence, everything it touches is degraded (scholarship, journalism, entertainment, sport, marketing).
The practitioners of Theory may adopt Standpoint Epistemology, yet their all-encompassing expertise extends to determining whose lived experience counts, when, and why. As with everything else, only “lived experience” that conforms to the politics of the transformational future—and its narrative of pervasive oppression—is acceptable, is legitimate. We are back to a war on human contingency, on human choice.
Possessing — or at least playing along with — expertise in Theory as the fount of all cognitive and moral legitimacy then becomes the always-trumps status strategy granting endless social leverage. With the exits from Philosophy cut off, everything is trapped within portentous assertions. Without an apprehensible reality—and words directly connected to that reality—there is no basis for authority to contract the portentous assertions of Theory, except from within Theory.
It is the revenge of all those for whom Mathematics, Science, Engineering or Law is too hard, or too uncongenial.
It’s also false all the way down. To characterise the most successful societies in human history as structures of oppression is to tell a series of falsehoods that strip achievement from generations of human effort for reasons that have everything to do with the wants and obsessions of those who embrace these falsehoods. Nothing good has ever been, or will ever be, built on such gimcrack portentousness.
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Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lives: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, Harvard University Press,  1997.
V.I.Lenin, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: (The Crisis In Our Party),’ February-May 1904, published in book form in Geneva, May 1904.
V.I.Lenin, ‘Can “Jacobinism” Frighten the Working Class?,’ Pravda, No. 90, July 7 (June 24), 1917.
Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843,’ Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. Maurice Cranston, The Social Contract: or Principles of Political Right, Penguin,  1968.
Edward Peter Stringham, Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, Oxford University Press, 2015.
As there is no information from the future, yet the transformational future is the benchmark of authority, it is a realm of absolute authority from which there is no replicable feedback. It performs the role of the divine in the politics of the transformational future.
As their “oppression” both expresses and justifies the divine authority of the transformational future, these groups become sacred victims. As the sacred is a realm within which trade-offs are rejected, or massively resisted, and as, in this world of structure, we live in a place of trade-offs, any ameliorative solution — especially if it involves changes in the behaviour of the group in question — is likely to be judged an offence against their sacred status.
Yes, I go on and on about strategic self-deception. But that has science behind it, unlike the neither reliable (stable) nor valid (consequential) concepts of micro-aggressions and implicit bias.
“A Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organisation of the proletariat—a proletariat conscious of its class interests—is a revolutionary Social-Democrat.” Lenin, emphasis in the original.
The Jacobin model is available for other political projects. Mussolini Jacobinised Italian nationalism; Hitler Jacobinised volkisch Aryan racism.