Far too often we are confronted with claims to science, to objectivity, to common sense, to empirical certainty that, when questioned or challenged, reveal themselves to be little more than historically situated products of our social and political relations, practices, and institutions. Looking back, with historical distance, it is much easier to unmask and expose the work that certain forms of knowledge and received wisdom accomplished—whether they related, for instance, to the science of phrenology, to a belief in natural order, or to the idea of dangerousness. Yet, it is so much harder, often practically impossible, to dig beneath asserted truths that hold today—in large part, because they are integral to the very fabric of our ways of knowing, talking, and thinking. They are ingrained in our rationality and discourse.
Contemporary critical thought aims to break that hold of the present. The task of contemporary critical thought is to question and challenge the authority of established truths and falsehoods, to challenge their empirical foundations, and to engage in forms of practice that test the limits of knowledge.
Contemporary critical thought is located at the intersection of the humanities, social sciences, arts, law, and letters. It bridges philosophy, political theory, sociology and social theory, anthropology, classics, law, art criticism, and cultural studies. It represents an epistemological approach that is reflected in a wide range of disciplines and approaches, including critical theory, post-structuralism, critical race theory, critical legal studies, post-colonial studies, critical feminist theory, queer theory, and other strands of contemporary thought.
Contemporary critical thought can be traced to several traditions of intellectual thought, but is not limited to any one; it is, instead, nourished by these different traditions. Along one well-recognized path, contemporary critical thought traces to the term “critique” that was central to the work of Kant and Hegel. This strand traces to the Kantian idea of the critical limits of reason, of morality, and of aesthetics, a tradition that would be developed in Hegel’s writings, especially his Elements of the Philosophy of Right and Phenomenology of Spirit. These, in turn, would lead to Marx’s various critiques of Hegel and of classical economics. Marx practically always used the term “critique” in the title or subtitle of his works to express this critical relationship to the German idealist tradition. This particular line of thought would be developed and flourish in the Frankfurt School in the early to mid-20th century, in part at Columbia University during the war.
Two equally important and well-recognized inspirational sources of contemporary critical thought pass through the work of two other key critical thinkers: Nietzsche and Freud. The three—Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx—have often been grouped together because of their family resemblance as thinkers of suspicion. Together, they form what has been called a hermeneutics of suspicion. All three branches are deeply epistemological. The Nietzschean strand traces most directly to the nominalist tradition of thought, which goes back to the Franciscan friar William of Ockham, Michel de Montaigne, and others before them. It extends to the work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Sarah Kofman, and other late 20th century thinkers. (We spent a year studying this current of critical theory at the CCCCT in the Nietzsche 13/13 series). And of course, it reaches to the present, in the work of many contemporary critical thinkers such as Homi Bhabha, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Renata Salecl, Judith Revel, and others. The different strands come together in creative ways. The political economy and genealogy of morals strands join together today, for instance, in contemporary critiques of neoliberalism, such as those that draw on the work of Foucault, David Harvey, Nancy Fraser, and others.
These rich lines of inquiry and approaches—which can best be described as “contemporary critical thought”—have been nourished in the humanities and the social sciences. They represent a dominant strand of thought today, and continue to be enriched through new projects and journals, such as the new review Critical Times and the new International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs. And they continue to challenge more conventional ways of approaching problems. Because they are often in tension or explicitly challenge more positivistic social scientific approaches and analytic philosophical methods—because they often challenge the relationship between knowledge, power, truth, and subjectivity in ways that make many other thinkers uncomfortable—these approaches frequently are not taught or nourished properly in the existing disciplines in humanities or social science. This strongly suggests the need for a center and for programs that bridge these various disciplines and foster critical thought and new visions of critical praxis.
Welcome to the CCCCT and please join us at our next event.
Bernard E. Harcourt
Founding Director, Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought