The Ethics of Theory

Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?

The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?

That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out.

“Critical Theory is in fact an ethical practice whether it explicitly sees itself as such or not.”

Does critical theory require an ethical practice?

Well, my point is that it presupposes it to a large measure. That is to say, Critical Theory is in fact an ethical practice whether it explicitly sees itself as such or not. Any discourse that takes “objectivity”–the subject-object split that Heidegger so effectively undermines in Being and Time–as one of its main targets is effectively saying that human purposes are inextricable from efforts to establish truth claims. And human purposes are always conditioned by ethical, political, and cultural norms. Now, of course, what Theory abhors is prescriptivism–telling us what should be done, how we should treat ourselves and others, and so on. And it always denies that it does this (Foucault says: “My books don’t tell people what to do. . .  People have to build their own ethics”); this (Theory says) is for the moralists and the moral philosophers (even if many of these, particularly on the Analytic side, are more interested in establishing the form of moral reasoning rather than its content—the Kantian model). Nevertheless, there is a kind of prescriptivism that pervades Theory’s analytical stance. For it is inevitably a matter of telling us that we need to see the contingency in all things, lest we fall prey to various forms of oppression: totalitarianism, imperialism, capitalism, scientism, etc. We should not forget that the rise of fascism, communist totalitarianism, WWII, the Holocaust, and decolonialization were formative historical realities for the figures examined in the book. It is only natural that as intellectuals their work should in some way respond to these realities, however obliquely. In short, as I say in the Said chapter (which functions as a kind of conclusion or coda to the book), Theory is first and foremost an antiauthoritarian discourse. The problem is that this antiauthoritarianism can sometimes lead to a kind of authoritarianism in disguise (dogmatism), hence the resistance to Theory in many quarters.

“Theory is first and foremost an antiauthoritarian discourse. The problem is that this antiauthoritarianism can sometimes lead to a kind of authoritarianism in disguise (dogmatism), hence the resistance to Theory in many quarters.”

Why is the example of the philosopher Martin Heidegger so important?

Heidegger was very influential for many of the figures examined in my book, as well as for Continental thought more generally. He takes Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (discussed above) and makes it more philosophically potent. Nietzsche was, after all, trained as a classical philologist, and so his main target is Platonism, rather than Cartesianism or Kantianism–the whole edifice of modern philosophy (i.e., epistemology, subject-object split, correspondence theory of truth) that Heidegger goes after. Even such a Nietzschean as Foucault remarks that (in an interview I cite in my book) “I had tried to read Nietzsche in the 1950s, but Nietzsche by himself didn’t hold much interest for me. But Nietzsche and Heidegger, that was a philosophical shock!”

What do we mean by the expression ‘ethical turn’ in the work of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty?

It means something different in each case, even if the general trend is similar (namely that there is a shift toward ethics in the later thought). In the case of Foucault, it is a matter of a “return of the subject” in his last interviews and course lectures (1980-1984). In these courses Foucault explores the ethical resonances of the “care of the self,” the theme of the last two volumes of his The History of Sexuality, published just before his death in 1984. But the “ethics of the self” that Foucault outlines in these lectures really has very little to do with sex, which is why the belated appearance (in the 2000s) of these lectures is so important. In the case of Derrida, it was the reaction to the “Heidegger Affair” launched by Victor Farias’s polemical tract Heidegger and Nazism in 1987 that led Derrida to take up ethical themes (e.g., justice, law, forgiveness, hospitality), themes that appeared to break with the hermetic “textualism” of classic works such as Of Grammotology and Writing and Difference. (When I say “textualism” I am referring more to the American or North American reception of these writings; I discuss in my book the need for careful differentiation between Derrida’s actual philosophical project, which can be described as a radicalized phenomenology that develops Husserlian and Heideggerian motifs with some reference to structuralism, and the use to which Derrida’s texts were put in North America, namely formalist literary criticism). In the case of Rorty, it is my contention that he underwent an “ethical turn” of sorts in his last writings, when he seems to put into question his cardinal dichotomy between the public and the private (this dichotomy relegates ironist philosophy, what we are calling Theory, to political irrelevance). This is the meaning of what Rorty calls in his last collection of essays “philosophy as cultural politics,” that is, philosophy as an ethico-political discourse that addresses the question “What should we do with ourselves?”

How can critical theory seek to address historical events such as the Holocaust?

As I note in Chapter 7, on Hayden White (full disclosure: White was my dissertation advisor at Stanford University), the event that brought Critical Theory into contact with Holocaust studies was the conference convened in 1990 by Saul Friedländer at UCLA (I recently spoke at a commemoration of this seminal event, held at UCLA in January 2017, with White, Saul Friedländer, and Judith Butler also speaking). Entitled “Probing the Limits of Holocaust Representation” (later published in book form by Harvard University Press), the conference was, in effect, a referendum on White’s challenge to historical studies, specifically his idea that “all stories are fictions.” Although, in reality, White was taking historical studies to task as an overly scientistic and provincial academic discipline, especially when it came to understanding how narrative works, White’s critique was perceived as putting into question the factual basis of historiography (postmodern relativism at its most irresponsible), which seemed to put him in an especially awkward place vis-à-vis the Holocaust. This is what I address in my chapter. On the other hand, Jean-François Lyotard’s book, The Differend, which appeared in French and in English translation in the 1980s, has been seen as the model of how Critical Theory can play an important and ethical role in talking about the Holocaust. I don’t discuss this work in my book, but I will take it up in my next book The Ethics of Art, since The Differend primarily concerns matters of representation.

Edward Said
Edward Said

Could you say a little bit about your reading of Edward Said and the ‘political turn’?

Said attempted to nudge Theory toward the ethico-political virtually his whole career, although his approach only caught on in the 1990s, when “postcolonialism” took academia by storm. Said was “political” virtually from the get-go. I describe in Chapter 10 how Said was influenced by Theory, especially by Foucault, even as he maintained a critical distance from it, especially from the “textualist” version of it that flourished in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his major publications appeared. I argue that Said was attracted to Theory because of his great admiration for Giambattista Vico’s historicism and anti-Cartesianism. Theory was thus interesting to Said precisely because it continued aspects of Vico’s “constructivist” approach to philosophy (i.e., all human products are constructed, not naturally given; hence Vico’s verum-factum principle: the true is the made).

Did you come across any new or unexpected texts during your research?

Yes, indeed! It was by happenstance that I discovered the proceedings of the 1988 Heidelberg conference in a French bookstore in 2014; this became the subject of Chapter 3, “Derrida in Heidelberg,” but it also really brought the whole book into focus by serving as both a historical and a theoretical document. The other “new” texts I used were the aforementioned course seminars by Foucault, which have been published only during the past 10-15 years (some have still not been translated). These seminars offer a unique window into Foucault’s late turn toward the “ethics of the self” and have not been much discussed in the literature. But this is beginning to change.

“Foucault’s late turn toward the ‘ethics of the self’ [has] not been much discussed in the literature. But this is beginning to change.”

What do you think is the role and purpose of critical theory today?

I think that Theory will always be with us in some form, even if its heyday has perhaps passed. Theory should offer itself as a challenge to prevailing modes of thought and should ever strive to increase human freedom and self-awareness, even if (or perhaps especially if) it lacks any kind of identifiable program.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a few projects. The most relevant project for readers of this interview is the above-mentioned The Ethics of Art, which will look at how the competing and contrasting attitudes of aesthetic autonomy and ethico-political commitment have shaped thinking about art over the past two centuries and continue to shape our attitudes toward artistic creation today.

The Ethics of Theory is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Author

Robert Doran is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Rochester, USA. He is the author of The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant and the editor of The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory, 1957-2007, by Hayden White, and Mimesis and Theory, Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005, by René Girard.


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