Is critique secular?:

Historical notes on the idea of secular criticism

posted by Talal Asad

In an essay entitled “Secular Criticism,” the noted literary critic Edward Said wrote that “Criticism…is always situated, it is skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings.” To this I would merely add three questions: First, what work does the notion “secular” do here? Does it refer to an authority or a sensibility? Second, since criticism employs judgment, since it seeks conviction – of oneself and of others – to what extent does it therefore seek to overcome skepticism? Finally, if secular criticism regards itself as confronting the powerful forces of repression, finds itself open to all “failings,” can we say that secular criticism aspires to be heroic?

So: What is critique?

That, of course, is the title of a well-known late essay by Michel Foucault called “What is Critique,” which was a lecture originally given at the Sorbonne on 27 May 1978. In it Foucault seeks to equate critique with the Kantian notion of Enlightenment and thus to present it as the singular characteristic of the modern West: “it seems that between the lofty Kantian enterprise and the small polemico-professional activities that bear the name ‘critique,’ there was in the modern West (dating, roughly, from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century) a certain manner of thinking, of speaking, likewise of acting, and a certain relation to what exists, to what one knows, to what one does, as well as a relation to society, to culture, to others, and all this one might name ‘the critical attitude’.” (p.382) It is not clear whether Foucault wishes us to understand that “the critical attitude” is a characteristic only of the modern West, or that “the critical attitude” distinctive of the modern West is quite different from what is found elsewhere – an attitude that enables it to think for the first time of “the transcendent” in a way that permits humanity to make its own future. At any rate, it is clear that in Foucault’s view to be enlightened is to adopt a critical attitude, and to engage in critique, as the West has done for several centuries, is equivalent to living in Enlightenment: living heroically, as Kant put it at the beginning of that venture. This seems to me somewhat surprising coming from a genealogist, because it sets aside the need to think through the various historical determinants whose effect – in different circumstances – has been a diversity of “critiques,” a diversity of styles, uses and objectives. Neither the concept nor the practice of critique has a simple history, and that genealogy has yet to be written. What follows is simply a set of disparate historical notes (in which I will not, incidentally, offer any fixed definition of critique, and therefore not follow any strict distinction between criticism and critique).

The word criticism has its origin in the Greek verb krino, meaning “to separate,” “to decide,” “to judge,” “to fight,” “to accuse.” It seems to have been first used in the juridical sphere, where both the act of accusing and the giving of a verdict were called krino, and thus referred to the ability to differentiate, to ask probing questions, and to judge. In this worldly arena the semantic beginnings of what we now call “critique” did not aspire to conquer universal truth but to resolve particular crises justly and to correct particular virtues within a particular way of life. (See Reinhart Koselleck, Crisis and Critique, p. 103, fn. 15.) My colleague John Wallach informs me: “The verb is krino, signifying ‘to separate, to discern, to judge.’ Related nouns are krisis (turning point – potentially between life and death) and kriterion, i.e., means for judging, as well as the designation for a ‘judge.’ There was no verb equivalent of what English speakers have recently made into a verb (from its origins as a noun), viz. ‘critique’.” A useful account of the history of the term is available in the entries “Krisis” and “Kritik” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe.

Criticism could also take the form of “free and open speech [parrhesia]” in the political forum. Critical preaching, especially associated with the Cynic philosophers of the fourth century B.C., was directed at everyone, and its aim was to teach people how to assess their own personal mode of life. (See Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, pp. 119-133.) Christianity drew on this tradition of free and open speech, transforming the word parrhesia in the process to its own end. Criticism and the open call to Truth have remained an important part of popular preaching throughout the Christian era.

In the late medieval period, Friars preached in public places, censuring particular ways of living and advocating the Truth. At an academic level the idea of critique was employed in a number of university disciplines, but not until the theological disputes of the Reformation did it denote the same notion regardless of whether it was applied to classical texts, the Bible, or social life. So to the question “What is critique?” the answer would then more often than not have been: “The evaluation and interpretation of the truth of Scripture.”

At first criticism aimed only at the production of an authentic text and at its meaning, but eventually, as it began to be concerned with the reality represented in the texts, it became what would be called historical criticism – of the newly recovered Greek texts as well as of the scriptures themselves. A major figure that exemplifies this development is Pierre Bayle. (See Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism, especially chapter 18.) For this seventeenth-century skeptic, critique was the activity that separated reason from revelation by the systematic exposure of errors and by the rhetoric of ridicule. In effect, Bayle tried to analyze and dissolve each theory by a continuous demand for reasons, and so to demonstrate that everything confidently accepted on the grounds of reason could be undone by critical reasoning. The use of critique here turned out to be as much an argument for the necessity of faith as it was an attack on the absolute reliability of reason. This was not the old theological use of reason to underwrite revelation, but a new, secular demonstration that if critique is pushed far enough it collapses under its own weight. Politically Bayle’s extreme skepticism was premised on the notion of an egalitarian “republic of letters,” in which one could engage equally with others instead of submitting to authority. In the newly emerging discipline of experimental philosophy, criticism took a prudent middle position between skepticism and credulity. In this seventeenth-century culture of knowledge production, social trust and gentlemanly authority became – as Steven Shapin has shown – the basis of reliable testimony and restrained criticism.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Kantianism dominated philosophical discourse. Of course philosophy was not the only mode in which criticism was publicly conducted. A variety of representational forms, unconnected with philosophy, drew on the rich tradition of literary and rhetorical devices to attack social pretensions and political corruption. But the downgrading of rhetoric in nineteenth-century language theories re-enforced the claims of philosophy to a unique conceptual domain within which rational critique could be properly defined and practiced.

For Kantians, political revolution thus appeared as the alternative to philosophical criticism; freedom for philosophical critique even became a condition of forestalling political revolution. It was Kant who replaced the model of the “republic of letters” with another model: the “court of reason.” This followed not only from his direct philosophical concern with judgment but also indirectly from his view that truth was guaranteed not by freedom from political and ecclesiastical constraint but by the progress of rational science. To the “court of reason” was given the important task of imposing peace on the apparently unending war of doctrines. For Enlightenment philosophers prior to Kant, critique had been rooted in a secularized metaphysics (in the idea of human reason) and directed against ecclesiastical and state pretensions. For Kant critique became the process of epistemological self-correction by strict reference to established rational limits and the fixed boundary between private faith and public reason. But his formula for critique as an inquiry into the preconditions of scientific truths cut it off from politics as well as from faith. In Kant’s political philosophy it is law, not critique, that ends the chaos of metaphysics and that holds the corrosive effects of skepticism in check. And its concern is no longer with mundane life but with epistemology.

Only when the Romantics returned to problems of aesthetics was the dominance of Kantian discourse challenged in philosophy. The most prominent figure here is Hegel, who took critique to be immanent in history: transcendental reason and phenomenal object (thought and reality) should not be separated, as Kant had separated them. They are both, Hegel maintained, dialectical constituents of the real – contradictory parts of a developing self and of a world in process of becoming. In this way Hegelians set aside the Kantian discipline of epistemology. From this emerged the famous Marxian dictum that critical theory – the activity of criticizing publicly – is itself a part of social reality. Marx’s Hegelian premise that the existing world is characterized by contradictions led him, however, to the anti-Hegelian conclusion that their removal depended not on new philosophical interpretations but on the practical transformation of reality itself. The reality to be transformed was politico-economic, not moral. In a rapidly industrializing world critique and revolutionary violence thus no longer appeared as alternatives but as complementary forms of class struggle, and the critical politics this called for was that of organized working-class movements. (Later, however, the Communist Party would take up the practice of auto-critique. The most moving example of this that I know in literature is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon).

In the twentieth century, Neo-Kantians again limited the concept of critique to epistemology, with the intention of opposing Hegelianism and Marxism. Critique then became a weapon directed at ideological politics and radical intellectuals. Among this group of philosophers criticism again became the criterion of universal reason, a principle held to be crucial for the natural and the human sciences. They defined a scientific fact as one that can be criticized – and that can therefore be falsified. Because religious values are immune to rational critique, because they are based on faith, they are neither neutral nor objective, and they cannot therefore have the authority of scientific facts. To the extent that a “belief” is presented as a candidate for truth, it must be held provisionally – that is to say, it must not be taken too seriously. Falsificationists like Popper reaffirmed a more direct connection between epistemology (what are the criteria of valid knowledge about the world) and politics (how can one legitimately use power to make or remake the social world). Because our scientific knowledge of the world is inevitably limited, so they argued, only piecemeal criticism and reform of the social world was rational. (Karl Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery is the famous statement of his falsification theory. His The Poverty of Historicism was an influential critique directed at the scientific claims of Marxian historicism.)

My final example is of secular critique as modern theology. Theology has never been without criticism, and especially since the beginning of the nineteenth century theology has absorbed secular criticism. The example that I now cite deals with meta-criticism: the Regensburg lecture by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, whose opening salvo against Islam evoked predictable anger from Muslims across the world. What he believed he was doing in this lecture is not of concern to me here. What is interesting is the way he links his discursive attack on Islam to his critique of European reason. According to Benedict, Islamic theology separates the concept of God from reason (making him utterly unpredictable, therefore irrational) whereas Christianity maintains their inseparability in its harmonization of Hellenic rationality with the status of the divine: “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist.” According to Benedict, this fusion explains why Christianity seeks to lead the individual to the Truth through reasoned persuasion and why Islam, in contrast, uses force to convert non-Muslims and to punish people for holding false beliefs. The inner rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry that constituted Christianity “was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event that concerns us even today.” Hence his critique of the successive waves of de-Hellenization in European thought – from the Reformation via Kant and liberal theology to scientific positivism – by which, he claims, the inner bond between faith and reason is ruptured. In spite of his polemic against what he takes to be Islamic doctrine (and therefore, arguably, against Muslim immigrants in Europe) and in spite of his assertion that Europe is fundamentally Christian, Benedict’s critique is not merely political: it is aimed, in a very secular way, at reaffirming the identification of reason with divinity. His critique of de-Hellenization deals with what he regards as a dangerous restriction of reason’s scope – and he calls, therefore, for an unrestricted pursuit and enunciation of the truth. The truth must be presented publicly even if those not possessing it regard the presentation as outrageous – as blasphemy. This is how Benedict concludes his university lecture: “This attempt…at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. … The scientific ethos, moreover, is – as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector – the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.” Thus while for Kant critical reason appeals to transcendental law (while paradoxically insisting on the autonomy of the individual subject), Benedict gestures to a Christian life of obedience that accepts logos as at once persuasive reason and divine authority. The Christian obeys not simply because she thinks it reasonable to do so but also because the authority of the truth compels her to obey. This Christian critique thus offers to accommodate the “insights” of the scientific ethos, but also claims to found itself in the authority of the church.

The modern philosophers I’ve mentioned – Kant, Hegel, Popper – were all attached to universities, and it is in universities that critique of one kind or another has become essential to useful knowledge production. Professional critique, however, has less to do with the right of free speech than with the reproduction of intellectual disciplines and the culture of belief that goes with them. Jon Roberts and James Turner, in The Sacred and Secular University, have described the emergence of the modern university in the United States, together with its secular culture, starting in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They recount how the marginalization or exclusion of formal “religion” in the American university was accompanied by an emphasis on research, professionalization, and specialization, and how these things, in turn, led to a fragmentation of the traditional map of knowledge, which had until then been articulated in a theological language. It was in this situation that the humanities eventually emerged out of the traditions of moral philosophy and philology, and restored coherence to knowledge while according it a distinctive “religious” aura. One consequence was that a less sectarian, less doctrinal idea of religion became part of a liberal culture and therefore part of its understanding of criticism. “This new edition of liberal education had two key elements,” they write. “The first was to acquaint students with beauty, especially as manifest in ‘poetry’ broadly conceived. … A second element thus entered the humanities: a stress on continuities linking the ‘poetry’ of one era to that of succeeding periods and ultimately our own.” Hence there developed a sharper sense of imparting the moral essence of European civilization to students in higher education through the study of great literature and the conviction that literary criticism was the disciplined means to that end. This is one aspect of criticism that has religious roots without being religious, with its emphasis not on doubt but on a particular kind of cultivation of the self. But there is another.

Over the last few centuries, modern powers have encouraged and used the developing sciences to normalize and regulate social life – and therefore have legitimized a particular kind of disciplinary criticism. That is why, perhaps, critique that is integral to the growth of useful knowledge – and therefore of modern power – is part of a process whose major lineaments have not been effectively reduced to skepticism, a process that is rarely itself the object of effective public critique. Thus, while the freedom to criticize is represented as being at once a right and a duty of the modern individual, its truth-producing capacity remains subject to disciplinary criteria while its material conditions of existence (laboratories, buildings, research funds, publishing houses, personal computers, etc.) are provided and watched over by corporate and state power to ensure that citizens can be useful.

In presenting these notes on thoughts about critique, I have tried to underline the very different understandings people have had of it in Western history, understandings that can’t be reduced to the simple distinction between secular criticism (freedom and reason) and religious criticism (intolerance and obscurantism). The practice of secular criticism is now a sign of the modern, of the modern subject’s relentless pursuit of truth and freedom, of his or her political agency. It has almost become a duty, closely connected to the right to free expression and communication.

But every critical discourse has institutional conditions that define what it is, what it recognizes, what it aims at, what it is destroying – and why. Neither philosophical nor literary criticism can successfully claim to be the privileged site of reason. It matters whether the criticism/critique in question is conducted in the form of parody and satire, confession of sins, political auto-critique, professional criticism, or speech under analysis. One might say that if these are all possible instances of critique/criticism, then what we have here is a family concept for which it is not possible to provide a single theory because the practices that constitute them differ radically.

And yet there is, perhaps, something distinctive after all about the historical concept of “critique” that Foucault wanted to identify, something other than the varieties of critical practice to which I have pointed: In some areas of our modern life, there is the insistent demand that reasons be given for almost everything. The relation to knowledge, to action, and to other persons, that results when this demand is taken as the foundation of all understanding, is perhaps what Foucault had in mind when he spoke of critique.

“The critical attitude” is the essence of secular heroism.

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2 Responses to “Historical notes on the idea of secular criticism”

  1. I think Edward Said is right. “Secular” depends on reason and lends itself to scientific analysis and observable truths. Religious truths, however, are based on faith and do not lend themselves to reason. Sectarian truths cannot be proved or disproved, and, as long as they are not compelled by force or violence, they should be respected and tolerated. To paraphrase the French poet Pascal, “Faith (like the heart) has many reasons that reason knows nothing of.”

    Norman Kurland
    Center for Economic and Social Justice
    http://www.cesj.org

  2. avatar Shams Hamid says:

    I enjoyed this brief history of Critique/criticism in western thought. I wonder at the omission of the contribution of existentialists such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and others? Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God liberated thought from theological speculations to secular examinations. His positing the question of value and the value of truth instead of untruth and the assertion of individual being the ultimate authority to give value has paved way to the modern notion that each individual has the right to criticize. Existentialists critique of reason such as Cartesian and even Kantian reason has also played an important part in critical assessment of scientific rationality and universal law. Existentialists transformed moral and aesthetic discourse basing it on individual’s choice and made everything open to criticism. Everything became susceptible to criticism including but not limited to universal reason, universal law and universal conceptions of beauty.

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