The critical underpinings of everyday life

I’ve been recently reading about hermeneutics, in specific about Riceour and his interpretation of the Gadamer/Habermas debate found in “Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology”. It has made me imagine a new way of thinking of ideology and criticism that incorporates a potentially more robust understanding of the way people interpret the world around them. Keep in mind this is just a hypothesis, or a one-off insight that needs more thought, deliberation and research to reach more fruitful insight.

In short, it is to argue that with the onset of modernity, subjectivity has necessarily entered a critical mode of thought. My critique of the binary of modernity and tradition is comprehensive. These categories are purely ideological or conceptual. There is no modernity other than that which we give a name to and then act or think upon. There is no tradition anymore either, because of the power of the concept of modernity. The two concepts are now inextricably linked. Tradition no longer means the traditio of the Roman period. Tradition is always in critical dialogue with modernity. The two terms are tactics put into the play of discourse for people to construct the world in ways that suit their needs–and these terms are situated now as almost uniquely powerful tools for rhetorical sledgehammers to define reality in certain ways. These terms are, then, in many ways of thinking of the term, ideological. This is true even if we have different meanings of the terms modernity, tradition, and ideology.

That being said, we often have the “common sense” or even “critical” interpretive stance that those who we label conservative or traditionalists are not critical or self-reflexive about their own positions. This is what I would like to challenge. From a hermeneutic perspective, what we call “back-ward thinking” and “critical thought” are produced in subjects in very similar ways. Both are conditioned by upbringing, education, social norms, interpretive frameworks, etc. etc. The process by which subjects are constructed (or to be a little more nuanced, the process by which subjects take the available horizons of meaning to heart in their own self-constructions) are similar, it is rather that the varied inputs of biology, sociology, culture, education etc. on a subject differ for each in such a unique way as to produce very unique, contextually-dependent subjects who are nonetheless all undergoing similar processes of subject- and identity-formation. Whether one is born-again or a freethinker, one is inevitably shaped by one’s context and relates to and constructs oneself in/from that context in the same manner.

The conceit of “critical” thinkers is that everyone else is duped, while critical self-reflection is liberative. The dupes are brainwashed to ideology, while us truth-knowers are critically aware of what makes us tick. You see this discourse being played out is the discourse of all political ideologies, the most obvious example would be the two sides of liberal or conservative in American political rhetoric. Liberals argue that conservatives are beholden by their prejudices and too-concerned with “right” over domination. Conservatives argue that liberals are too beholden to their group-think and language games, their dismissal of “right” leads to the dissolution of meaning.

What I would like to suggest however, is that neither side is as uncritical as one imagines. We have all seen cases where someone, aside from all facts of the matter, believes as truth something that is demonstratively false. The general response is to dismiss this as ignorance, denial, “drinking the kool-aid”, or plain ideology (in a Marxist sense). Indeed, what I would like to suggest is that the only way that one can hold these untenable positions is the very essence of critical thought. To deny what seems to be a demonstrable fact is to have a critical attitude towards that fact, the way that fact is produced the context within the fact is constructed, or even the whole underlying presupposition that gives that ‘fact’ meaning as a ‘fact’. This is the most critical attitude that we can take. It is not skepticism for skepticism’s sake. Take, for example, regular robust critical analysis of sociological data. The basic questions one asks about any statistic include: what are the underlying presuppositions of the study?; Who bank-rolled it?; What positions does the study support?; How was the data gathered?; Is there a fudging of numbers?; What has the study left out of the equation?… etc. This is a critical attitude. Altered slightly, we can see how it plays out when empirical facts are challenged. To use what many might think should not be a politically charged example, why do some people disbelieve studies that show that the children of same-sex parents tend to be just as happy if not happier than children of heterosexual unions? Taking the same critical stance, we can ask of these studies: Who benefits from these studies?; Who do we percieve as bank-rolling these studies?; If I come from a position of “disgust” (to use a term) towards homosexuals then why should I accept any statistic that inevitably has the presupposition that homosexuals are not disgusting.

I think we do a disservice to a more robust understanding of humanity if we dismiss what makes people tick. How do we engage, push back, develop strategic ways of fighting, convert, etc. etc. the ideologically laden if we cannot understand what makes them think the way they do. It is my hypothesis in this post that labelling the ideological other as uncritical may actually be a mistake. If we start to think of them as critical thinkers of a different kind and degree as us, we can develop much better strategies for engaging with them. And engage we must. Unfortunately. What we need is a more nuanced understanding of the ways that they are critical thinkers, and engage with that underlying critical attitude in a way that subtly insinuates itself into the way they see the world and use that to encourage them, for example, to want to transform their own way of seeing the world.

So, why did I start by talking about modernity and tradition? Because, and this is another inter-related hypothesis, I believe it is this categorical binary (sometimes in other guises) that is the guiding framework for how our critical attitudes are engendered by the interpretive framework that we operate in.

So, two questions:

1) In what ways are our ideological others using their critical thought?

2) How do they use the modern/traditional binary to construct their worldview and thus the way they engage critically. (An easy way to do this it to assume that there is no such thing as modernity and tradition.)

Of course the third step is to take these insights and apply them to ourselves. But, you know, that’s haaaaard.


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