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Against theory, "fake philosophy for non-philosophers"


Writing in the September issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Barbara Carnevali, a professor of philosophy at Science Po in Paris, denounces a certain brand of trendy critical theory that she calls “fake philosophy for non-philosophers.” In her provocative piece, she says that unlike genuine philosophy, “theory” tends to confirm the reader’s cherished beliefs rather than overturning them. Here’s an excerpt:

Differently from philosophy, which functions under long, frustrating timings, and very rarely reaches any certainty, theory is quick, voracious, sharp, and superficial: its model is the “reader,” a book made to help people make quotations from books that are not read. Exactly for that reason, it functions as a common language and a ground for transdisciplinary aggregation. Those who teach risky subjects such as aesthetics and political philosophy have begun to worry a long time ago.

Let me clarify something: when defining theory as “fake philosophy for non-philosophers,” I do not intend to suggest a snobbish argument against the extra-disciplinary uses of philosophy. Quite the opposite: nothing would be more beneficial today than a dialogue between philosophy and the other forms of knowledge: this dialogue would not only remedy, in Simmel’s words, to the tragedy of a fragmented and parceled culture, always more autonomous and removed from the very life-world which generated it, and which, only, can give it back a direction and a purpose; but it would also accomplish the irreducible mission of philosophy at the time of scientific specialization, that is the ability of keeping the memory and the nostalgia of totality. The complementary, legitimate demands of the student of the humanities and of the political militant are symptoms of this need for philosophy as an inspiration to the all. Eventually, they are looking for the same thing in the “theoretical gesture:” a way of reconnecting culture and life, of forcing it to start again addressing the requests for meaning and justice.

The main weakness of theory is the loss of all the specific attributes, which have allowed to define philosophy in its different traditions: it does not have the rigor, the clarity, the solidity of definitions and argumentations, which characterizes the practice from a formal viewpoint; it does not have the ability to raise truly defamiliarizing questions, and, above all, it does not have a taste for a passionate search for truth. Not only does theory not exceed the doxa, but it produces a second level thereof. Therefrom comes the paradox of a “radical” gesture, which becomes a habitus, conformist and predictable. We already know how a book of theory will end before having opened it; and it is exactly this sense of acknowledgement, of moral acknowledgement of one’s own certainties and of one’s own best intentions, which guarantees its success. Theory makes one feel fully at home in one’s fake conscience.

Image: Jacques Derrida


I have heard Lucia Allais talk about the methods of history taking the place of “theory” in its failure. While her comments were specifically about the failure of critical theory in architecture, this article suggests that the failure is more widespread.

The failure of critical theory in architecture is evident in the way that it is used to rationalize the “work” of a privileged class of “architects” who altered the function of the architect by privileging representational experiments over building science. This has led to a deskilling of the industry (in the United States) and opened a schism between architects and clients that jeopardizes the architect’s role in the construction industry. As this article may be addressing, a reverence for self confirming a la carte blah blah (theory) is perpetuated by a privileged class of academics who aren’t beholden to the pressures of supply and demand. Read: their work is irrelevant to a wider audience.

Like “theory” history can also provide a narrative structure for cultural works, but the narrative is necessarily deeper and shows some sort of continuity across time. Although, the power of history to create editorialized narratives is also dangerous and tempting. I suppose Ms. Carnevali would warn us against borrowing the form of history without also engaging its history of disciplinary critique. Brandon Hookway does a really good job of driving at truth about our contemporary world through history in his book Interface .

I believe that if we hold ourselves to a higher standard, the quality of the work will be self evident.

That being said I don’t think there’s any problem in operating from a place of partial ignorance. I believe that if I’m brave enough to speak up, and lucky enough to get a response, my ignorance can be slowly remedied.