Non-Sovereign Epistemology and the Practice of Doing Critique: In Defense of Radical Critiques of Reason


Critique, especially critique of reason, has not had the best of press lately. It finds itself attacked by two menacing opponents. The champions of “post-critical” thinking want to be done with the whole business of critique – for it has become a business, they lament, and a shady one, too. Its main products are self-righteousness and immunity from reality, Bruno Latour fumes, and the proprietors of this business are modernists or, worse, modernists in denial, namely post-modernists. The decriers of “post-truth”, in turn, identify critique as the culprit whose tireless deconstruction of facts paved the way for the kings and queens of “post-truth” politics and their sycophants, the “fake-news” media outlets and social media platforms. Since the critique of reason has landed us in today’s mess, both opponents argue, the last thing we need, if we are to restore the unquestioned authority of science and at least a courteous respect for truth in politics, is another critique of reason. Instead, both advocate a more realist attitude although both understand the reality that realism is meant to respect very differently.
Why should reality be able to limit critique? In both cases, “reality” is endowed with normative force because what is real is discovered by the sciences and thus by our best institutionalization of reason. Hence if reason sets the limits for critique, we need to return to the critiques of reason. As critiques of reason come in all shapes and sizes (from Kant to Habermas, from Nietzsche to Foucault, from Wollstonecraft to Haraway), I propose to them into two broad traditions: “purifying” critiques of reason that exempt some “ideal” core of reason as their foundation (because totalizing critiques of reason become unreasonable) and “radical” critiques of reason that criticize all of reason (because by presupposing access to an ideal core of reason, critiques of reason become uncritical).
My defense of radical critiques of reason begins with the aporia just outlined, namely that critiques of reason either cannot criticize all of reason and thus are uncritical, or that they cannot justify their own practice of critique and thus are unreasonable. I argue that this aporia is only apparent, for it presupposes a specific picture of critique: it takes critique to be tied to a fixed normative standpoint and a sovereign epistemology. As soon as we realize this as only one of many different ways to picture the practice of critique, we are free to explore practices of critique that change as they change us. In order to explicate such an understanding of practices of critique, however, we also need to free the epistemological assumptions that underwrite our pictures of critique from the fiction of a sovereign epistemic standpoint.
In my talk, I demonstrate that by taking these two steps, we can conceptualize radical critiques of reason – which we need against the clamor of untruth in politics and against the attempts to reinstate science as unquestionable.

4 October 2019 — 5 October 2019
McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario

The Critical Theory Roundtable is a small, high caliber conference that represents the best of the diverse streams of critical theory in philosophy and the social sciences. In the past it has been hosted at Yale University, Northwestern, Dartmouth, the University of Toronto, and other venues across the country. It draws participants from across the US and often Europe. The conference now represents a new generation of critical theorists who are focused on diversifying the perspectives and problems in the field. This includes challenges of neoliberalism, globalization, and nationalism, and fostering creative new critical modalities in the social sciences, humanities, and arts.