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Trapped within Theory
The toxic consequences of worshipping the splendour in your head
This is the thirty-fifth piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: Critical constructivism imagines social castles in the air and then attempts—without reference to reality—to build them on earth. Horror ensues.
Meanwhile, has a thoughtful response to Lorenzo’s 34th piece over at his place.
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.
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My previous essay explored how Critical Constructivism—the popularisation of which is known as “wokery” or being “woke”—traps thought within Philosophy. It blocks the exits out of Philosophy civilisation built up over centuries.
Critical Constructivism does this by seeing our cognitive framings, and our reasons for action, as socially constructed. It denies any definitive knowledge of—or reference to—reality: the Constructivist bit. It claims all human interactions are based on power relationships. They’re also irretrievably polluted by past sins through failing to live up to the imagined, transformative future: the Critical bit.
To embrace properly the politics of the transformative—the liberatory—future is to achieve a Critical Consciousness.
If reality is socially constructed, then the transformative future can be constructed. Moral and cognitive legitimacy comes from manifesting commitment to the transformational future through Critical Consciousness or through what those with a Critical Consciousness approve.
One of the manifestations of such constructivism is the use of terms such as re-imagining or re-conceptualising. If things are not anchored in some fundamental reality, if they are socially constructed, then re-imagining or re-conceptualising something becomes a way to move it towards the transformational future. It becomes potentially liberating.
The emphasis put on discourse also manifests as constructivism. If reality is socially constructed by our actions and framings, then how we talk about things becomes desperately important. This is the process through which the social reality in which we live is constructed.
Words are violence because both words and violence are ways of building social reality, judged by the same does it serve the transformational future criteria. Silence is violence: it represents complicity in oppression. Speaking in any way that impedes the instantiation of the transformational future strips one of the authority to speak, for commitment is the only basis for legitimacy.
When folk are not talking about something is seen as a sign of oppression. Such “failure” to so talk cannot, after all, be a rational response to the structure of things, for we don’t have any definitive access to reality and everything is socially constructed. Having correct conversations becomes important: words must be connected to the legitimacy-providing politics of the transformational future and its supporting Theory.
The causal dominance of discourse naturally leads to identity politics, a politics of general category. Categories are much more plausibly “socially constructed” than actual flesh-and-blood individuals. Categories can be ranked in moral hierarchies based on levels of oppression and past sins. All folk with low melanin count become wrongful inheritors of the legacy of oppression, for example.
In this mindset, social dynamics can only be approached through “correct” use of social categories. Thus, racist has shifted in meaning from taking account of race to not correctly taking account of race. This is seriously affecting corporate hiring patterns in the US.
This take on what is, or is not, legitimate is epitomised by Critical Race Theory’s claim that if you are not explicitly anti-racist—that is, do not display the correct Critical Consciousness towards race—you are racist. You are upholding structures of racial oppression. Oppression is the fundamental moral fact in un-transformed societies. It’s the base point for commentary, aided by concept creep.
Back in stubborn reality—where facts matter—all such critical commentary is either egregiously false or toxically exaggerated. This foundational falsehood drives its adherents to censor, to repress speech, to block and nullify inconvenient noticings.
Folk get oppression standing from their categories. Enough negative oppression points, and you are nullified: systematically discounted.
Then there’s what James Lindsay nicely calls dialectical inversion: claim that something is already happening—censorship, indoctrination, social and emotional learning, whatever—but that the proponents of Critical Constructivism should take control of it because they have thought “properly” about it. In other words, applying Theory is always better, so is more legitimate than anything the rest of us might do, so power should rest with the adherents of Theory.
As Lindsay also observes, there’s no limiting principle to any of this. Everything that matters is socially constructed and so is not subject to any reality test. This is excellent for status and social-leverage strategies. The more to which Theory can be applied, the more social leverage is generated for its adherents, so the incentive is always to extend its application.
So, of course we ought not be “sanist” and (oppressively) block the mentally ill from being child care workers and educators. In a socially constructed reality, what folk think of themselves is much more important than whether they are mentally ill, or what genitals they were born with.
Any external criticism of Theory—especially of those acting according to Theory—is words-being-violence. Moreover, we lack the direct apprehension of reality that might ground such investigation, such interrogation. All criticism of those with correct understanding is violence against the righteous identity of the proponents of Theory. A recurring response to any criticism is wound-collecting.
The most extreme version of wound collecting is to treat criticism or disagreement as “erasing one’s existence”. This bizarre claim makes perfect sense in a constructivist world. Everything social is socially-constructed: including the basis of any legitimacy or identity.
If an individual stakes his moral and cognitive identity on the worthiness of his commitment to the transformational future, then to deny that grand project is to deprive him of a place to stand. It’s to suggest a social reality where identity—as so conceived—has no place. When people deny an externally existing reality, they have no grounding for their identity other than a constructed one. Thus, their identity—and so their socially-constructed existence—is “erased” if one criticises any of its supports. It’s a nonsense claim with a graspable but nonetheless bonkers logic.
The perfection of the imagined future is the equivalent of the perfection of Heaven. When Antonio Gramsci wrote that “Socialism is precisely the religion that must overcome Christianity,” he expressed both the cultural dynamics held to be required for successful revolutionary praxis (theory + action) and the nature of this stream of thought. Salvationist politics attempts to re-enchant the universe by subordinating science—and all forms of social action—to itself.
A conspicuous feature of the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School—from which Critical Theory and its derivatives emerged—is that they represent a return to Hegel. Hegel provides mechanisms to “re-enchant” the world by pouring the spiritual into the social and turning all of history into a unified narrative the masters of Theory (and only the masters of Theory) understand.
The Hume (1711-1776)—>Kant (1724-1804)—>Fichte (1762-1814)—>Hegel (1770-1831) sequence rests on treating “true” knowledge as the discovery of necessary connections. Yet, if one rejects perfectionist standards for knowledge—that is, accepts we can have reasons to believe things that are simply probable—the “problem” of a lack of necessary knowledge of causal process goes away.
If one demands certainty—complete information—as the only acceptable standard for knowledge, then all exits from Philosophy are cut off. Any fuzziness or imperfection becomes an impermissible failure that only Theory in support of the trumping moral perfection of the imagined, transformative future can alleviate. Combining such conceptual games with pernicious perfectionism is how deconstruction operates.
Constructivist scepticism about our knowledge of reality—and of common meanings for terms—rests on claiming that a lack of certainty is so significant any incompleteness is fatally disabling, both conceptually and morally. Only the requirement that to be knowledge something has to be complete—so without possible error or fuzzy boundaries, without any moral imperfections—gives such games any plausibility.
Scepticism about the ability to establish causation was pushed by Muslim thinker al Ghazali (c.1058-1111). The combination of al Ghazali’s attack on the human capacity to apprehend causal reality—which elevated religious knowledge over all other sources of knowledge—and institutional shifts borne of Seljuk invasion and conquest reduced Islamic science to a pale shadow of its former self.
As Critical Constructivism turns Western universities into “woke” madrassas, we can see the same intellectual and institutional processes playing out in front of us. Hence, academic psychologist Geoffrey Miller points out:
Almost every scientific journal has been publishing woke nonsense like this lately, ‘challenging’ this or ‘deconstructing’ that—usually challenging & deconstructing reality & truth.
Ordinary folks who try to keep up with the latest science need to understand this pattern.
The universities have fallen. The gov’t funding sources have fallen. The popular science magazines have fallen. Now the journals—which means the whole peer-review system—have fallen to wokeness.
A lead-in to contemporary Constructivism was the adoption—notably by Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and early Gyorgy Lukacs (1885-1971)—of a strong Historicism, where everything (even science) is to be understood to be entirely a product of—and bound by—its historical context. This is a nonsense claim. Time and causation do not work like that.
Yes, for convenience, we divide history into periods (Antiquity, Medieval, Modern). But the notion that somehow the shift from pre-medieval to medieval, or from medieval to post-medieval, meant all social reality had shifted is untrue. Historicism gives primacy to our categories over the complexities of reality.
Our conceptions do evolve—as anyone who examines, for example, legal or scientific history is well aware. Nevertheless, even in the midst of huge shifts—which take time, even centuries, to work through—ordinary structures of social life, and even more those of physical reality, keep going.
What strong Historicism does—and Critical Constructivism does even more thoroughly—is claim everything social has an underlying logic that the properly perceptive Theorist can divine while others cannot. In the case of Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci and Lukacs, this underlying logic is dialectical aka The Dialectic: contradictions or tensions between things are resolved into a higher ordering of both.
The Dialectic is often rendered as thesis->antithesis->synthesis, though that comes from a later exegesis of Hegel, not Hegel himself. The Dialectic is a moveable feast, shifting around according to the usages and convenience of the user.
As Karl Marx wrote in a letter to Engels:
As to the Delhi affair, it seems to me that the English ought to begin their retreat as soon as the rainy season has set in in real earnest. Being obliged for the present to hold the fort for you as the Tribune’s military correspondent I have taken it upon myself to put this forward. NB, on the supposition that the reports to date have been true. It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.
Marx to Engels, [London,] 15 August 1857, (emphasis in the original).
Hegel himself wandered in and out of applying his own system.
There is no evidence-based reason to believe the Hegelian Dialectic—or any of its derivatives. Nonetheless, it works to give a spurious authority and a spurious sense of understanding. It elevates the transformational future as both the actual, and the proper, direction of history—all with portentous metaphysical waffle one can manipulate towards whatever conclusion is desired.
Narcissism of thought
In place of human choice, the original Critical Theorists desired a society stripped of alienating and inherently exploitive commerce. As there are only two ways to engage in economic activity at scale—commerce and command—that means moving to a command-economy.1
Such a society is run by those possessing dominion capital.2 That is, those possessing a combination of human and social capital that is structured to capture institutions via coordinating and motivating shared signals, language and commitments. In the case of contemporary progressivism, it’s based around mastery of Theory and legitimated by commitment to a transformational future.
A wider periphery of people who buy into the status strategies support a core group of believers. Status strategies create a giant club of those who “own” morality, excluding those who fail to support the in-group’s shared status markers. Institution after institution has fallen to it.
The commitment to abolishing commerce displays the moral and epistemic arrogance in these strains of thought. They discount the discovery and knowledge problems in coordinating complex societies. This is the economic aspect to a general de-legitimising of other people’s speech and social action.
As Theory is the basis of all legitimacy, narratives can be built out in advance—think “the rising tide of LGBT hate”—without any accuracy requirements. If Theory is the only source of legitimacy, then anything serving Theory’s goal is legitimate. These are not narratives built on careful analysis of social reality, they float out of Theory, scooping up incidents that can be fitted to the narrative (whether or not they actually do so).
These narratives are very revealing of their progenitors’ obsessions and framings, hence the Iron Law of Woke Projection. That is, if you want to know how Critical Constructivists will use power, just look at what they condemn others for and how they claim things work.
A clear example of transformational future politics degrading scholarship is postcolonial theory. Since the state is their preferred and immediate vehicle for political change, progressive politics generally—and post-colonial theory in particular—cannot accept that imperialism is fundamentally and naturally a state activity.
If imperialism is what state apparats do (as it is), why wouldn’t state apparats then colonise their own societies (they do) or international bodies (they do)? To avoid tarring the key instrument of progressive political action with the deep sinfulness of imperialism, such wickedness has to be the act of an entire society/economy/race.
As anyone who is genuinely knowledgeable about the history of imperialism can confirm, this is nonsense. Imperialism is what state apparats do, if they can get away with it. As soon as you have states, you have imperialism. Imperialism is a feature of state societies everywhere states arose, regardless of their ethnic origin or economic organisation.
Indeed, imperialism is so little about benefits to the wider society that—for every single modern maritime empire—the metropole became richer after losing its empire. Oceans pacified by the US Navy and its allies provided commercial access first to the US and then a global middle class. This has proved to be more economically beneficial than even the largest maritime empire.
Due to the advance of information technology, there has been a major expansion in available information. Mainstream media has responded in part by selling narratives and framings—ways to cope with the flood of information—that appeal because they act as status-markers.
Critical Constructivism—with its claims to own legitimacy and discounting of reality-tests—provides status-marker framings tha evolve in a not-fact-constrained way to fill the demand for status-generating narratives. These are then taken up by “quality” media, feeding social-leverage strategies. Hence—given that Critical Constructionism treats oppression as the basic moral fact—a dramatic shift in media language use.
The resort to narratives and framings fits in with old-fashioned proprietary sourcing—and new-fashioned Theory via Media Studies—but regularly gets wrong-footed by open source expertise, expertise many journalists are not intellectually equipped to assess or transmit. Worse, they’ve often bought into Theory—or its derivatives—which actively impedes understanding.
The result is both destructive of trust in media and societies’ capacity to talk to themselves. This is not only thanks to the required affirmations and not noticings built into such narratives, but also because the status strategy destroys any notion of service to the wider citizenry. We end up with journalists actively endorsing both censorship and the de-legitimising of swathes of public opinion.
The degradation of all it touches by the politics of the transformational future, and its associated Theory, is both a moral and intellectual deracination. It’s all justified by the imagined end-point: every time the wonderful transformational future doesn’t happen, that’s proof it wasn’t done right.
No amount of tyranny and mass murder is ever too much. It’s never a result of their “true” beliefs, it’s never authentic. It never casts any shadow on the splendour in their heads.
This outlook is impervious to contrary evidence, and is so all the way down. It does not persuade, it converts and intimidates. There will never be a woke “I have a dream” moment of grand oratory.3 Instead, we have dominion capital practising the non-electoral politics of institutional capture.
Under its influence, universities have become blocks to knowledge, as they often were historically:
…during the three centuries before 1800, when formal medicine was taught at the university level, [it] was more likely to discourage innovation than encourage it.”
Medical schools continue to impede our ability to understand nutrition—based on our evolutionary history—as a mechanism of treatment, while general metabolic health deteriorates. This is the equivalent of surgeons not washing their hands after surgery, but on a global scale.4
The advance of Critical Theory—with mountains of bullshit built on molehills of truth—has made things much worse. Education faculties have become toxic pedagogical disasters while Media Studies and Journalism schools produce ever worse journalists, and people are noticing.
English architect Reginald Blomfield in 1934 foreshadowed what has become an ever-spreading problem as universities have spread their reach:
… literature and the written word established a disastrous domination in arts not their own and all sorts of strange ideals were introduced and pursued with an enthusiasm which constantly missed the mark, because most of its aims were irrelevant to the art of architecture.
Using a spurious perfectionism to cut off one’s thought from any reality test ends up in a toxic worship of the splendour in one’s head.
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Eric Chaney, ‘Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science,’ Working Paper, March 2, 2023.
Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit,’ Raritan Quarterly Review, Fall 1986, Vol.6, No.2.
James Franklin, What Science Knows: And How It Knows It, Encounter Books, 2009.
Jo Freeman, ‘Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,’ Ms magazine, April 1976, pp. 49-51, 92-98.
Max Horkheimer, ‘Traditional and Critical Theory,’ in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, (trans. Matthew O’Connell and others), Continuum Publishing,  1982, 188-243.
Sheila Ryan Johansson, ‘Medics, Monarchs and Mortality, 1600-1800: Origins of the Knowledge-Driven Health Transition in Europe,’ (July 7, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1661453.
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.
Herbert Marcuse, ‘Repressive Tolerance,’ in Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr, Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance, Beacon Press,  1969, 81-123.
Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843,’ Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher.
Daphne Patai & Noretta Koertge, Professing feminism: Cautionary tales from the strange world of women's studies, Basic Books/Hachette Book Group, 1994.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (trans. Maurice Cranston), The Social Contract: or Principles of Political Right, Penguin,  1968.
David Rozado, ‘Themes in Academic Literature: Prejudice and Social Justice,’ Academic Questions, (2022) 35.2
Edward Peter Stringham, Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, Oxford University Press, 2015.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels demand abolition of private property in land, centralisation of credit in a national bank, centralisation of transport and communication in the hands of the state, expansion of state ownership and industrial armies, clearly embracing the command economy logic.
Documentary film-maker Mike Nayna refers to its emotive circumventing of fact-grounded reasoning as discourse engineering.