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