However, his good ideas are cluttered up by the usual sloppy reasoning of postmodernists. He also has an unfortunate obsession with weaving Marxist far-left politics into everything, which is distracting. (Chomsky has the same problem for me.)
The book did not change my life, but it is a notable work of late 20th century philosophy.
I came to this opinion when I stayed at a friends' place recently who had a massive collection of critical theory, and I had not read any crit in years. I read a few of the books, and to my own surprise, my reaction was "what the hell is this nonsense?" The ideas were certainly interesting, but had no real provable basis, and just seemed to be the reasoned expression of one author's individual sense of alienation - more like artistic expression than any real solution to the dilemma of civilization or consciousness.
Why do you think all ideas that need to be taken seriously should be provable, provide solutions, or, indeed anything other than the author's own sense of alienation? This isn't science and doesn't purport to be. Those are works of literature, intended, like all literature, to give one an interesting perspective on life and the world. Shakespeare is taken very seriously in academia, and he provides nothing more than an artistic expression.
If anything, I think that the problem is that laypeople and academics speak different languages, and laypeople misunderstand exactly how academics view this literature. In short, they do not consider it to be in the same genre as Newton's law and the same kind of applicability to physical reality.
I disagree that it's an academic/layperson divide, because I have a background in liberal arts at the academic level. When I was at school, I was writing papers where I REALLY needed to make sure my points were concrete, well-expressed, and well-cited. It was all about transforming a hypothesis into a theory. A lot of new critical theory seems to meander into oblivion in contrast to the strict expression of other academic fields.
Maybe, like you said, I'm just not up on the academics of it.
Because they're part of the Social Sciences.
> This isn't science and doesn't purport to be.
Well, it certainly purports to be.
Critical theory? No. It's more part of the humanities.
> Well, it certainly purports to be.
Absolutely not. Why do you think that? Even many actual social scholars (historians, anthropologists) would object to being called scientists, or, at least, would always emphasize that if you want to call what they do science, it is not science in the same sense as chemistry.
It's amazing how much of this would apply to alchemy, or astrology, or religion.
So the question becomes, why would anyone pay attention to it?
Literature has proven itself useful. Critical theory has not.
(Also, I notice you didn't distinguish what makes critical theory different from religion.)
The two, as academic disciplines, have a lot in common (at least those parts of critical theory that I think you're referring to).
> Literature has proven itself useful. Critical theory has not.
I'm not sure how you make that assertion.
> what makes critical theory different from religion.
The way I learned it back in grad school years ago, religion doesn't have a precise definition but it is almost always required to have a normative component (which critical theory lacks) as well as some transcendence over ordinary existence (which critical theory also lacks). It is therefore debatable whether belief in cryonics or AI singularity, or the Silicon Valley-centered Rationality movement constitutes a religion (they are all normative and transcendental), but I see no way how critical theory can even be considered a religion any more than knitting could; I see no point of similarity. And no, consideration of truths without scientific evidence is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a religion. I consider Dostoevsky a primary source of truth, yet Dostoevsky is not a religion. It's truth of a different kind than scientific truth, but so is the truth of critical theory (or, rather, those "mushy" parts of it, that I think you're alluding to). If it resembles religion in any way is in its goal to interpret reality, rather than examine it merely factually, but, of course, interpretation is nor a sufficient condition for a religion, and probably not a necessary one, either.
If you think being rational is a religion, you've fallen prey to the "All Sides Are Equal" bias, in that you can no longer tell that some philosophies are straight-up more useful than others.
Or is Christian Scientist "No Blood Transfusions Ever" just as useful at surviving major medical emergencies as the rational modern healthcare philosophy?
> It's truth of a different kind than scientific truth, but so is the truth of critical theory
This "different kinds of truth" leads right off the cliff of being unable to evaluate truth claims, and that is the royal road to being an anti-vaxxer, or an AGW denier, or a believer in whatever other fashionable nonsense is in vogue.
Oh, no, I didn't mean that rationality is a religion. I was referring to a movement, mostly based in Silicon Valley, that calls itself "Rationality" (and is only ostensibly about rationality; if you read their materials you'll see), and might qualify as a religion.
> This "different kinds of truth" leads right off the cliff of being unable to evaluate truth claims
Absolutely not. Hamlet really does kill himself, but that truth is not the same kind of truth as Hitler killing himself. Call it different logical theories (i.e. sets of axioms) or different simulations if you're more drawn to a mathematical or computational description of different kinds of truth. Of course, it is possible to reduce all those truths to the same system, but doing so is not very useful.
Axioms give us truth, but truth is inaccessible to us in the real world. Reality gives us probabilities, and our ideas about how the world works are good or bad based on how well they allow us to predict the world.
So saying that "Hitler killed himself" is not a "Truth" in that definition of the word, in that it does not follow from axioms, which means it can, conceivably, be disproven. "Hitler killed himself" is, at best, a fact, and facts are statistical in nature; of course, some probabilities are so close to 1 that denying them, or pretending they're uncertain, is insanity.
For more context on what I mean about facts being statistical, read this review of "Surfing Uncertainty":
Hamlet's suicide is a fact about a fictional world, in that it's possible to interpret the text such that it didn't happen, and interpretation shapes meaning. Again, though, some interpretations have so little going for them, textually and logically, that they're non-starters.
So both come down to the same thing, a three-part summary where some people seem bound and determined to ignore, misinterpret, and outright lie about the third part:
1. Truth is only available to us from axiom systems, where it follows inescapably, such that it is impossible to come to any other conclusion within that system.
2. Real life isn't an axiom system. Real life is perceived exclusively as a statistical interpretation of incomplete and flawed sensory data. Compare this to quantum mechanics and I walk you through a mathematical interpretation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle with reference to waves and linear mechanics, I swear to God.
3. However, and this is the part some people refuse to understand and I mean screaming-match level refuse to get, just because we don't have absolute certainty doesn't mean we don't know anything at all. All probabilities are not 50/50, everything is not equally likely, and it is possible to know enough about reality to predict what's likely to happen. That is what the brain does on a moment-to-moment basis and most people live in the same reality as everyone else, and the same reality as inanimate objects. Reality isn't purely a figment of our collective imagination, it isn't purely a matter of opinion, and there's no way to walk on thin air.
2. Beware of learning philosophy from slatestarcodex. What he writes may sound very smart and convincing to people who have not studied philosophy, but Scott Alexander is often very, very misleading and extraordinarily simplistic. Much of what he brings up has been debated intensely among philosophers, with more interesting insights than his. For example, the entire exposition you laid out, with its distinction between deductive proof and inductive/probabilistic extrapolation, had already been worked out, pretty much in full, but the 17th century (see, e.g. Leibniz). We've learned a thing or two since then. In general, Alexander (and, in fact, the Rationality movement with which, I believe, he is associated) represent more or less the state of philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The choice of stopping at the 18th century is, of course, one of the many ideological choices made by the Rationality movement, so take with a huge grain of salt anything you read by an author associated with that movement. Not that it's not true -- it's just very inaccurate and so, misleading. As you brought up quantum mechanics, the philosophy of the Rationalists, let's call them, amounts to Newtonian mechanics. True, but inaccurate and misses (or, in their case, chooses to ignore) some interesting and important phenomena. Of course, Newtonian mechanics just sounds better to most people, as it fits with their observations, and that is precisely what the Rationalists count on: that their 18th century philosophy would sound "common sensical" to their philosophically-lay readers, while more modern philosophy would sound, like qunatum mechanics, bizarre and foreign, and so likely to be discounted or even ridiculed by their readers.
2. My philosophy has relatively little to do with Slate Star Codex, so attacking him does nothing to disprove it.
It argues that all art is erotic, that if you have a tattoo it is only a matter of time until you murder someone, and expresses something about Negroes that I don't care to look for again. (It was written in 1900 or so. I wonder what people in 2120 will wince about when they read our important works?)
The frustrating thing is, I agree with many of the points in the essay. There's always something there: a grain of truth in the framework of obfuscation. But they dress it up. The essay even frames it as "Here is something I have discovered, which I now bestow upon the world." It's not a direct quote, but it may as well be; many philosophers share that air of fake importance.
If only he was relaxed, he could have gotten his points across to many more people. "I get over a fire much more easily when only worthless garbage has been burned." Interesting point. "Every age had its style, is our age alone to be refused a style? By style, people meant ornament." Great observation! Notice how we eschew ornament; HN is bare, Twitch is austere, Youtube is as minimalistic as possible. If you image search DaVinci, it's hard to find a single example of anything containing ornament. Coincidence? Works without ornament are timeless.
But something comes over people -- simple isn't enough. Me too. I wrote a downvote hiding extension for HN, and I was embarrassed that the v1 was only a few lines of code. "It doesn't even hide your karma if you look at your profile!" So I wrote a far more complicated v2 and shipped that. Surprise, HN shipped an update and now it broke. v1 works fine. You're certainly familiar with this phenomenon in almost every aspect of our profession. What is going on there? It's worth exploring.
But philosophers manage to obscure these observations in the most complicated ways. And unfortunately, those complications introduce mistakes that make it easy to dismiss the rest of the work, along with the good ideas.
An example to what you're referring to would strengthen your case, though my own experience has been almost exactly opposite; although many works are certainly difficult to read not only for the obscurity of the terms and the form of content used but also for their disturbing and socially challenging content, I don't think they rely on sloppy reasoning; take Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man for example; he speaks in terms the reader can identify with, not using formal logic.
For example, an enlightening passage on freedom under the idea of freedom of enterprise:
>Freedom of enterprise was from the beginning not altogether a blessing. As the liberty to work or to starve, it spelled toil, insecurity, and fear for the vast majority of the population. If the individual were no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject, the disappearance of this kind of freedom would be one of the greatest achievements of civilization. The technological processes of mechanization and standardization might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity. The very structure of human existence would be altered; the individual would be liberated from the work world's imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities. The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own. If the productive apparatus could be organized and directed toward the satisfaction of the vital needs, its control might well be cen-tralized; such control would not prevent individual autonomy, but render it possible.
As we can see, he uses no historical examples (at least not yet), he uses no logic or even dielactic. It's philosophy which prompts the reader to think about their own situation and what that freedom means to them.
Ultimately all action begins with the thinking subject; if we restrict ourselves to strictly empirical forms of knowledge then I think we throw out too much as it relates to how people actually live. I would much much much rather than we and academics continue to search and define boundaries, as almost everybody recognises the relevance of critiques delivered by the likes of Debord, Marcuse and Baudrillade on the social side of the Marxian coin.
Chomsky disagrees with them (Marxist doctrinists, Leninists, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Hoxhaists, etc.) on the same grounds of statist antidemocratic rule as he does with fascists, meritocrats, theocrats, anarchocapitalists, nationalist socialists, etc..
That's his reasoning for being an anarchosyndicalist, rather than some flavor of progressive reliant upon the rule of a small cadre of enlightened revolutionaries
As I understand it (Based on an admittedly rudimentary understanding of the relevant philosophies), Trotsky advocated that everything be decentralized -- i.e. not controlled by the state -- at least in the traditional sense, but by the people, locally to the people. Thus it seems weird to me that Chomsky would disagree with him on this matter.
Personally, I'm still searching for the holon system that was used in Suarez' Daemon series. Although I suspect that I might be remembering it to be less capitalistic than it was described to be.
All I know for certain is that Chomsky is no Posadist, lol.
Had Trotsky succeeded Lenin rather than Stalin, the world might be a very different place today. But he didn’t, and it might not have made any damn difference.
I guess we need to run another experiment.
I have written about it in relation to Facebook here:
I've read some of his more famous articles (i.e. - "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"), but I remember them being very political. Sort of an art-historical and aesthetic-theory application of Marx.
Which, personally, I enjoyed. But was surprised to see Benjamin's work referenced in that context. Could be that I'm missing something, or mis-remembering, though. This was years ago, now. =)
Marxist critique of capitalism is very solid. It doesn't have any good prescriptions for alternatives, but the critique is well-founded.
Marxism is an ever-developing field.
Also, yes, Newtonian physics isn't well founded for exactly that reason. Although in its original formulation E&M wasn't described.
As to the Marxist tendencies - i think it’s more of a reaction to the totalitarian worlds he and dick foresaw. It’s certainly what’s pushed me leftwards over the years.
Nevertheless, it inspired me to pick up a few of Baurdrilliard's other books (e.g. Cool Memories) which are even less rational, so S&S was probably his best work.
P.S. I found this amusingly profane and ribald translation ("from English into American") a while ago. http://continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/vie...
In The Matrix the characters could easily tell apart the real world from the simulation, but the point of Simulacra is that you can't tell it apart from reality, not because there is a conspiracy that conceals it from the masses, but because simulacra replaces reality, conceals that there wasn't really anything "beneath" the simulation in the first place.
This happens in the sequels, and it doesn't make for as compelling a story.
The Wachowski brothers loved Baudrillard and he was part of their inspiration for their story about a whole society trapped in simulation.
The Simulacra and Simulation part starts at about 4:10.
Comparing to who else?
I'm looking through this again, and there were just so many places where he makes dubious but absolute statements without backing it up at all, and we're to take him at his word. "It is simulation that is effective, and never the real". OK, man. Or the way he throws in vague sentences for effect. I mean, I can't start a chapter with the sentence "The apotheosis of simulation: the nuclear" while keeping a straight face.
Anyway, like I said, I think eventually it builds into something cool and tangible it you stick through it, but it takes a lot of digging.
JAMES THURBER: Did you read the French translation?
READER: No, I read it in English.
THURBER: That explains it. It suffers greatly in the original.
[This was told me by my father. I can't find a published source, and a web search doesn't turn up anything similar. My father interviewed Thurber once, but this isn't from the version that was published, and it doesn't sound like something Thurber would have told about himself. Epistemic status: probably apocryphal.]
If you believe I am off base, I welcome suggestions of thinkers who are an anti-pattern here.
I don't think critical theory is particularly insightful, or internally consistent except by which it's proponents fit it. It makes many predictions, but most are true only through the lens of critical theory. Looking in from outside, there's other explanations of all the predictions.
Much like Marx: it's an interesting, intriguing theory. But it breaks down at some point, except that people already attached (and it's easy to see why it's an attractive view of the world, simplifying things into a constant struggle against the "oppressor"; the classic narrative) will do great contortions to explain why it's still true, rather than going back to the drawing board.
Of course, you can level the same criticism of libretarian ideals, and they do break down. I think libretarians have a more consistent view of why the break down and where, but it's imperfect and I greatly await a more grand, unified theory.
If you haven't read him, I'd recommend the "Labyrinths" collection as a great place to start.
FWIW, the most concise and straightforward critical theorist that I've read is Vilem Flusser: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vil%C3%A9m_Flusser
There's a short compilation of his essays called "Writings" that is a great place to start, for anyone interested. Most essays are < 15 pages long, IIRC.
Very simple, elegant arguments, with little fluff. One of the few philosophers I know whose writing is absent the usual obscurantist cruft.
Partially Examined Life podcast did an episode recently on the book. The ideas are related, not quite the same.
Contra another commenter, I don't think it's easy to separate Marxist critique of capitalism from spectacle / simulation replacing reality - I do believe that capitalism is responsible for the alienation, the alienation doesn't just apply to the labourer and his output, but also to consumers and what is consumed.
Very much this, though I must also recommend his Comments on it, for the reader who has a hard time penetrating the critique. I have a short list of related books at the bottom of this comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15299592
Hofstadter's book is brilliant, funny, delightful - a real treasure.
He's not a major philosopher like Kant, but he is much more than a charlatan or provocateur.
To his credit, I probably wouldn't have picked up his serious work if his antics hadn't first put him on my radar many years ago.