A personal review of the book “Cynical Theories” by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay
Currently, social theories are under attack, both from within the academy as well as in broader public debates. At least, some strands of social theory are: theories that do not aim to discover ‘universal truths,’ but rather trace the social mechanisms and structures that guide the search for and claims to said truths. We could label those theoretical positions constructivist, poststructuralist, anti-essentialist, or, as in the book “Cynical Theories” by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, postmodern. What different kinds of academic and broader intellectual critiques have in common is that they see a causal link between these kinds of social theories and the arrival of the post-truth era which we supposedly live in (e.g. McIntyre 2018; Fuller 2018; Koschorke 2018). Debates revolve around what is frequently – and often pejoratively – referred to as ‘political correctness,’ ‘alternative truths,’ ‘identity politics,’ and ‘social justice.’ To fix what is wrong with society today, these critics often suggest, we need to reject anti-essentialist thinking.
This is the core theme of “Cynical Theories.” Pluckrose and Lindsay identify “two overwhelming pressures” (p. 12) confronting Western societies today: “far-right populist movements” (ibid.) on the one hand, and “far-left progressive social crusaders” (ibid.) equipped with postmodern tools of thought on the other hand. While acknowledging the dangers of the former, the book is dedicated to a critical in-depth analysis of the latter. To be sure, both authors are neither card-carrying social scientists nor do they work in the humanities – Pluckrose is a writer, Lindsay is a mathematician –, and the book targets non-academic as well as academic audiences. Yet, I think it is crucial for social theory to engage with the arguments brought forth against this large body of literature, and “Cynical Theories” is a good point of departure. It certainly does a good job in wading through the vast bodies of literature on postmodernism in the broadest sense; it presents its points of critique in a concise, determined, and often typical manner; and it names a solution to all the problems specified, which is liberalism, combined with a very classical idea of science (something along the line of a correspondence theory of truth). The guiding question for my review is this: What happens if we evaluate the book according to the scientific standards emphasized throughout by the authors themselves?
Let me now properly begin with this task in the spirit of the reviewed book: from an explicit and definitive point of view, and with an unambiguous verdict. “Cynical Theories” addresses a crucial issue of contemporary thinking about society. But the way this issue is treated here is not suited to solve the problem. One might even say: the book epitomizes what is wrong with public intellectual debates today. In the following, I will try to convey the reasons that bring me to this conclusion.
As I said, the book contributes to important and growing discussions regarding the societal role and impact of anti-essentialist social theories. In this sense, it is to be welcomed. The authors touch on some highly relevant arguments problematizing anti-essentialist thinking. Perhaps the three most pressing themes are: first, the structural proximity between the anti-essentialist suspension of absolute truth and the right-wing claim to alternative facts. Second, the fact that constructivist approaches offer no (or at least no easily determinable) conceptual grounds from which to advocate for and defend what we might call societal ‘quantum leaps’ like human rights or democracy. Third, the ever lurking and paradox danger to essentialize anti-essentialist thinking, resulting in a “reification” (p. 181) of a specific way of reflecting on and thus acting in society. This third argument is what the book is most verbal about, encapsulated beautifully in one of its section’s headlines that speaks to the paradox endeavour of “ending racism by seeing it everywhere” (p. 111). The authors repeatedly, and rightfully, argue that such reifications dramatically narrow our vision, immunize against criticism (particularly by groups it deems powerful such as white, heterosexual, men), and may have dire repercussions: excesses of political correctness, cancel culture, witch hunts, and thought police. In one paragraph (p. 134), the book even mentions a fourth argument that deserves attention: if anti-essentialist theorists truly commit to liberating society from undue determinations (of people, groups, society in general), they should probably pay more attention to the – often counter-productive – ways people react to their criticism
Despite its pejorative overtones in the more polemic paragraphs, the book indeed has “some merits” (p. 20) for the academic and non-academic reader alike. It conveys an accessible image of the postmodern ‘Theoretical’ (with a capital ‘T’, for its reification) discourse, its definitions and structuring. This would make it valuable for, say, a textbook (critical) introduction to postmodernism. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s commitment to precise and concise language comes in helpful here. We learn, for example, that postmodernism is based on two theoretical principles – a constructivist knowledge principle and a political principle of viewing society as “formed of systems of power and hierarchies” (p. 31) –, as well as four main themes: “1. The blurring of boundaries 2. The power of language 3. Cultural relativism 4. The loss of the individual and the universal” (ibid.). Furthermore, we are introduced to a useful chronological heuristic, which helps to distinguish three stages in the development of postmodern theorizing (p. 182). According to the book, in the first stage (1965-1990), postmodern thought emerged as a philosophical and self-sceptical intellectual game of sorts and quickly became fashionable in French academic thought. The second stage (1990-2010) witnessed differentiation and an increase in the applicability of the postmodern principles to diverse fields of knowledge, yet still mainly inside the realm of the academy. Finally, in the third stage (from 2010 on), postmodernism was ‘unleashed’ from academia under the name of “Social Justice” (also capitalized in the text), spreading throughout society – the virus-metaphor is repeatedly employed (e.g. p. 46, 208, 250) – and becoming a confident moral and political imperative. Beyond this, we gain first insights into some specialized areas of study, their relevant themes, and central proponents such as postcolonial theory, queer theory, gender studies, and disability studies.
So, what’s the problem? For all its emphasis on scientific precision and rigour, the argumentative foundation of the book itself is anything but clear and seems to be quite shaky on closer inspection. First and foremost is the claim that postmodernism renders itself obsolete by its self-evident absurdity. Thus, whenever the tenets of any line of postmodern theorizing is succinctly stated, the reader will be disappointed by what follows: instead of the “rigorous” reasoning that she might expect and which the authors so often call for (p. 19), she will be put off by unsupported assertions and commonplaces such as “most people would find such a conclusion properly ridiculous” (p. 104), or “most people […] rightly see [queer theory] as quite mad” (p. 89). Only occasionally, Pluckrose and Lindsay admit that there is an empirical foundation to anti-essentialist thinking. But when it is, it is usually spoken of in belittling terms as “not wholly unreasonable” (p. 215), comprising only a “kernel of truth” (p. 251), or “true in a banal sense” (p. 252). This may be an effective way to strategically readjust the boundaries of what is to be accepted as scientific and what is not (Gieryn 1983). But it cannot be counted as “rigorous” argumentation.
A second recurring theme is the inaccessibility of postmodern language, for example, Judith Butler’s “semi-incomprehensible prose” (p. 54). Indeed, rhetorical obscurity may be pitiable, and it may at times reflect a lack of conceptual clarity which has real consequences for theoretical debates and empirical studies. Having said that: if rhetorical accessibility were an absolutely crucial scientific criterion, the human history of thought might not have come very far. (We will see that rhetorical clarity, conversely, is no guarantee for scientific insight.)
The core reason for rejecting anti-essentialism, emphasized throughout the book, are its inherent contradictions. Indeed, how we can accept a theoretical position as true that radically questions the concept of truth is an old problem that remains a lingering puzzle. But this argument would certainly have much more credibility if the entire book were not ridden with glaring (in the idiom chosen by authors, we might say: absurd) contradictions. I will briefly discuss the four most obvious problems.
- The authors frequently criticize and even ridicule postmodern theories for focussing on language and systems of thought and knowledge instead of ‘real’ problems (p. 186). That they write an entire book about how a specific way of thinking may have real consequences and how it is therefore to be vehemently contested seems to entirely escape the authors. (This is one of the moments when it becomes obvious how much Pluckrose and Lindsay themselves have benefited from postmodern, constructivist, anti-essentialist thinking.)
- Pluckrose and Lindsay deem postmodern thinking to be obsessed with power structures, purportedly dominating every inch and corner of society. Paradoxically, when discussing postmodern theories, the authors are happy to insinuate underlying power interests instead of a thriving for knowledge. For example, they argue that calls for “research justice” (p. 62) are not grounded in empirical insights into the unequal acknowledgement of female researchers or those who belong to minorities. Instead, we learn that these groups delegitimize a form of “knowledge production rooted in evidence and reasoned argument [as] an unfairly privileged cultural construct” (ibid.) in order to uphold the “postmodernists” own ideological footing in society (p. 191).
- The book frequently questions the political motivation of the postmodern theories’ rigour to de-essentialize social categories and thought for the sake of public liberation. How and in what way this line of argumentation is different from the authors’ pervading political concern that postmodernism “undermines public trust in the academy” (p. 99) and therefore poses a threat to liberal society remains unclear.
- The authors certainly see themselves as ardent advocates of science and scientific method in the classical – modern – sense. It might thus come as a surprise that, in order to debunk anti-essentialist thinking scientifically, they neither outline theoretically grounded hypotheses nor draw from (systematically gathered) sound empirical evidence, but mainly seem to call upon the common sense of “most people” (p.89) and to chastise not immediately comprehensible and “remarkedly complicated idea[s]” (p. 101).
To clarify: I do not wish to turn the argument upside down to suggest that, instead of anti-essentialist thought, the book should be rejected due to all its own contradictions. My main point is to call into question the authors’ investment in portraying the reality as ruled by order, unambiguity, distinctness: first of all, Pluckrose and Lindsay assign the care for postmodern theorizing to one political corner, and one political corner only (p. 45). What is more, they ignore that constructivist thought may not only be (at least partly) to blame for the surge in right-wing politics, but might also provide tools to overcome right-wing ideologies and reasoning, which is of course very essentialist at its core. They even seem to have a very simplistic and perhaps distorted understanding of their own favourite system of thought, liberalism: whatever good happened after the Enlightenment – the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, for example (which the emerging postmodern discourse allegedly had nothing to do; p. 38) – is due to liberalism. All the bad things on the other hand such as “Nazism, the Holocaust, and genocidal communism” (p. 247), not to mention world wars and the destruction of the environment, had nothing to do with liberalism. Thus, the pervading belief in unambiguity goes on: liberalism is “almost directly at odds” (p. 237) with postmodernism; only the liberal way is the right way to practice critique (as opposed to the “cynical”, “paranoid” and destructive way of postmodern criticizing; p. 175); liberalism inevitably “leads to progress” (p. 239).
I am convinced that real theoretical progress cannot be achieved by accusing other approaches of contradictions (via contradictory argumentation) and then be done with them. Instead, borrowing from Theodor Adorno (Adorno 1981; whom, I fear, the authors have little love for), we could argue that identifying contradictions – both theoretically and politically – is not when our intellectual efforts end but when they begin. In this spirit, a number of researchers point to the pitfalls of denouncing ambiguity and complexity – a tendency that is at the heart of social polarization –, considering it one of the major problems of contemporary society (e.g. Bauer 2018; Frenkel-Brunswick 1954; Cairney 2012; Brichzin 2019). Considering that “Cynical Theories” is constantly calling for “correspondence to reality” (p. 84), it has surprisingly little insight into the intrinsic complexity and incoherence of the (social) world it claims to describe. Against this backdrop, an alternative pathway forward might be to flesh out ways to think through contradictions, rather than outrightly denying or affirming them. To this end, it is probably necessary to go beyond both (radical) constructivist and classical-liberal approaches, all the while drawing on their respective achievements without categorically rejecting them. Such an approach could even help to understand the paradox of how not only anti-essentialist thinking has unintended (namely essentializing) political consequences, but so has the rigid call for hard truths. Both might equally contribute to current destructive socio-political tendencies.
To conclude: “Cynical Theories” is very well written, but on closer inspection often poorly argued. While I root for clear writing, I would always prefer a book that is difficult to read but harbours some intriguing insight over one that smoothly guides me through its own intellectual insignificance. The book offers no real starting points to solve the problems of theorizing society today. Rather, it seems (again, not unlike postmodernism as described by the authors) to bask in the self-content of its own absolute verdict. How this is to help estranged groups and polarized societies is beyond me.
Adorno, Theodor (1981): Negative Dialectics. New York: Continuum.
Bauer, Thomas (2018): Die Vereindeutigung der Welt. Über den Verlust an Mehrdeutigkeit und Vielfalt. [Making the world unambiguous. On the loss of ambiguity and diversity.] Ditzingen: Reclam.
Brichzin, Jenni (2019): Wider das Diktat der Eindeutigkeit. Ein Denkanstoß im Geist der Kritischen Theorie [Against the dictates of unambiguity. Thinking along the edges of Critical Theory]. Soziologie 48 (4), p. 425-429.
Cairney, Paul (2012): Complexity theory in political science and public policy. Political Studies Review 10, p. 346-358.
Frenkel-Brunswick, Else (1954): Social tensions and the inhibition of thought. Social Problems 2 (2).
Fuller, Steve (2018): Post-truth: Knowledge as a power game. London: Anthem Press.
Gieryn, Thomas (1983): Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American Sociological Review 48, p. 781-795.
Koschorke, Albrecht (2018): Die akademische Linke hat sich selbst dekonstruiert. Es ist Zeit, die Begriffe neu zu justieren. [The academic left has deconstructed itself. It is time to readjust our concepts.] Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 18|4|2018.
McIntyre, Lee (2018): Post-Truth. Cambridge: The MIT Press.