The subject of critical theory in general and critical race theory in particular has interested evangelical Christians over the last few years. Two days ago, Prof. Alan Jacobs weighed in on this debate tangentially by suggesting that James Lindsay and -by extension- his collaborator Helen Pluckrose, who are vocal critics of “critical theory,” have misunderstood it, or at least use the term ambiguously. Because Jacobs did not cite any of their work specifically, it’s not clear what precisely he takes issue with. His main criticism seems to be that:
Lindsay himself uses the term “critical theory” in extraordinarily flexible ways, sometimes quite narrowly and sometimes expansively. It can be hard to tell in any given sentence of his what the intended range of reference is.
Because Prof. Jacobs stated on Twitter that he doesn’t reply to comments [EDIT: he informed me that he doesn’t even see the comments made by people he doesn’t follow] and because I’ve seen his article shared quite broadly among evangelicals, I thought I would collect James’ and Helen’s helpful responses below, along with the links they provide to their work. Hopefully, these comments will promote further dialogue. I was also tagged into the thread by a follower and include some of my remarks since Lindsay responds to them directly.
James Lindsay: It’s nothing I’m not aware of.
Neil Shenvi: I’m curious what Jacobs would call [Sensoy and DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal?] or [Adams’ Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice] or Levinson’s characterization of “critical social theories” in Beyond Critique…while CT may indeed refer to a lot of different things, there is a more-or-less coherent set of ideas driving the social justice movement which are identified by their own practitioners as being derived from “critical theory” (note, not CRT). No one knows exactly what to call it. For various reasons, I dislike the phrases “cultural Marxism,” “identity politics,” “intersectionality,” etc. But, as I’ve said before, I’m much more concerned with the ideas themselves than with the labels we use to describe them.
James Lindsay: I acknowledge this explicitly in my “Critical Theory” entry from the first paragraph. I should probably expand this entry a bit, though. In even more detail here. As Jacobs, who I respect, associates my work on this with Areo, not New Discourses, I can only assume he’s behind the times on my understanding. I appreciate the publicity, though.
Neil Shenvi: …in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Adams comments that this discipline didn’t emerge until the 1990s. It really is relatively new.
James Lindsay: Yes, very new with deep roots. Marx and Freud are obvious, in the obvious ways, and so is Nietzsche, but less clearly. I’m indebted to Jacobs for highlighting enough for me to get how: Nietzsche was Critical of morality. If brilliant folks like Jacobs would have bothered doing a responsible job of dealing with these things, seeing as they know so much, it wouldn’t require amateurs like myself to start putting the puzzle together from outside.
Helen Pluckrose: We have differentiated between the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and critical theories more broadly – critical race theory, queer theory etc – many times and a lengthy explanation of this is Note 1, Chapter 1 of our forthcoming book. On social media, I usually just ask anyone getting confused or pedantic to read this encyclopedia entry which covers the two meanings of the term.
But most often now we speak of “Critical Social Justice” which in scholarship is heavily postmodern – Foucauldian & Derridean – with the Marxist tradition mostly limited to a borrowing of Gramsci’s ‘hegemony.’ Activism is a bit different & has a strong spirit of Marcuse in there. You will not hear us confusing our Marxists/post-Marxists/cultural Marxists with our postmodernists nor are we usually ambiguous about what we mean when we say ‘critical theory/ies.’ Generally, the only people confused by a use of ‘critical theories’ to mean anything other than the Frankfurt School are philosophers who value the Frankfurt School & haven’t kept up with the evolution of Theory in cultural studies. I recommend [that they read The Critical Turn in Education From Marxist Critique to Poststructualist Feminism to Critical Theories of Race]
Given how important critical theory is within our culture and, increasingly, within evangelicalism, I welcome continued discussion. I encourage readers to check out Lindsay’s work at New Discourses, his upcoming book Cynical Theories with Pluckrose, or some of my writings on critical theory with Dr. Pat Sawyer.
See all content on critical theory here.