Critique as Social Practice: Critical Theory and Social Self-Understanding

Critique as Social Practice: Critical Theory and Social Self-Understanding


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, April 25

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786604620
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Series: Essex Studies in Contemporary Critical Theory Series
Edition description: Critical
Pages: 238
Product dimensions: 6.23(w) x 9.11(h) x 0.94(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Robin Celikates is Associate Professor of Political and Social Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Read an Excerpt


Part I

'I See Something You Don't See': The Model of the Break

What is the relation between the observer perspective and the participant perspective? And what is the relevance of the self-understanding of 'ordinary' agents for the development of social theory? The first of the three models, which I shall discuss in part I of the book, offers the following answer: agents are involved in practices in a way that renders reflexive and critical detachment impossible and forces agents into a structurally pre-reflexive and naive relation to the conditions of their agency. In order to liberate itself from the constraints of the participant perspective, social science must break with it and adopt an observer perspective, which depends on the self-understanding and the self-descriptions of 'ordinary' agents neither for its substance nor to test its methodological validity. On the basis of this fundamental methodological conviction, I describe this position as the model of the break. What exactly, though, does the break consist in? The image of the break should primarily be understood in an epistemological and methodological fashion and refers to a radical discontinuity between immediate everyday consciousness, common sense and the participant perspective, on the one hand, and the social science perspective, on the other. In examining Pierre Bourdieu's conception of a critical social science and its methodological foundations, the goal of part I is to develop a critique of the idea that the critical potential of social theory can only be established by breaking with the perspective of the agent. As I shall show in the subsequent steps of the argument in parts II and III, such a break is neither possible nor necessary and fails to exploit the critical potential of everyday practices – practices with which a critical social theory must align itself.

The idea that a scientific, detached and critical perspective on society can be developed only by clearly delimiting it from the self-interpretations of agents is connected to a particular understanding of social science, which, because of its dominance, I have in the Introduction described as 'orthodox'. The dogma of the break that forms the foundation of this model is as old as sociology itself. It is particularly explicit in Emile Durkheim's methodological writings, which laid the foundations for a tradition that still continues to shape sociology's self-understanding as a discipline, and that underlies Bourdieu's conception of a critical social science as well.

For this reason, I shall first sketch Durkheim's own attempt at a strict demarcation of the scientific nature of sociology from common sense, and show how this way of thinking is still influential today (section 1). Subsequently, I shall reconstruct Bourdieu's social theory as an exemplary case of the model of the break, with particular attention to the relation between the internalised habitus and distancing reflection. In doing so, I shall show that Bourdieu's basic assumptions concerning practice are intimately connected with the methodological thesis of the break and the epistemic privileging of the observer perspective (sections 2 and 3). In methodological and action-theoretical terms, Bourdieu's theory reveals a structuralist and objectivist bias that obscures the reflexive capacities of agents and entrenches the sociological observer as the sole instance of reflection, theoretical detachment and critique. This leads to a range of normative, political, methodological and empirical problems, all of which I shall discuss by way of conclusion (section 4).


The project of the meta-theoretical grounding of sociology as an autonomous discipline that can also be considered an exact science on the model of the natural sciences is initiated by none other than Auguste Comte, the scholar who gave sociology its name. Despite considerable differences between the two thinkers, Emile Durkheim immediately joins this intellectual project, and divides it into two parts. The first is the demarcation of the subject matter: what distinguishes the domain of the social from that of the natural, or the physical, and from that of the mental, or the psychological? The second is the development of a methodology adequate to this subject matter: which rules should knowledge of the social follow in order to count as scientific?

Durkheim's answers to the question concerning the what – that is, the subject matter – as well as the how – that is, the appropriate method for the new science – can be found in a succinct form in The Rules of Sociological Method of 1894 (Durkheim 2002 [1894]). While the two answers are related, I shall focus on Durkheim's methodological remarks, since these are far more important for understanding the model of the break than his theses on social ontology.

First, however, a brief note on Durkheim's answer to the first question. The subject matter of sociology is the class of facts that Durkheim identifies as social facts (faits sociaux). Although these faits sociaux should be distinguished from the material objects that constitute the subject matter of physics, they are no less real. Their specific reality is characterised by the following properties, elaborated in the first chapter of the Rules: social facts are "external" to individual agents (that is, they are not innate, but acquired, and "imposed" by society); they exert social and moral pressure on individuals (which, however, only becomes visible in the case of non-conformist behaviour); they constitute general characteristics of the society at hand (rather than individual characteristics that are then aggregated into a picture of the whole) and they are independent from individual actions and agents (money as a payment method, for instance, exists quite independently of any concrete payments and economic agents). That social facts are "like things" means, most importantly, that they exist independently of the consciousness of agents, and that they should be treated by the social scientist as "hard" and "bare" facts. They leave no room for alternative interpretations, and thus provide the only secure basis for sociological explanations.

Since social facts – a classic 'Durkheimian' example might be the prevailing sexual morals of a society, or its suicide rates – can be reduced to neither physical nor mental phenomena, and thus can be grasped neither by the natural sciences nor by psychology, Durkheim thinks to have found in them the subject matter that necessitates sociology as an autonomous science. Yet such a science will also need specific methods in order to reach scientific knowledge of its subject matter. It is decisive for Durkheim's method that he claims to establish sociology as a science in a strict sense, which for him means a science on a par with the natural sciences. Since social facts do not depend on individual actions or the self-understanding of agents, they cannot be grasped by reconstructing, describing or interpreting these actions and self-understandings. Instead, they can be apprehended only by way of a quantitative approach that treats regularities like natural laws, describing and explaining them without falling back on a vocabulary of intentionality and normativity. Sociology, then, is called to "take on the esoteric character which befits all science" (144; EN 114). In his naturalist understanding of sociology as a positive science, Durkheim, despite all differences, aligns himself with Comte, according to whom sociology, as "social physics", is tasked with deducing prognoses from the scientific analysis of social facts and their regularities, and in doing so preparing a solid basis for activities such as political action.

1.1 Science versus Common Sense

Durkheim's answer to the question of the methodology appropriate to the subject matter, that is, of the rules that must be followed to acquire a scientific knowledge of the social, again comes in two parts. He distinguishes rules for the observation of social facts from those that should govern their explanation. The first set of rules is of far greater importance to my question and shall therefore be my sole focus here. It comprises the following rules, discussed by Durkheim in the second chapter of his book:

• Given their particular character described above, social facts are to be thought of as things (choses) (15; EN 29); they are data (literally, in fact: things that are given), which constitute the subject matter of science (27; EN 34).

• Scientific knowledge requires the systematic "elimination" of all prejudices, and as such presupposes a break with anything that shapes ordinary consciousness or is taken to be self-evident in it (31; EN 43).

• The subject matter of any scientific analysis must always be defined precisely (34; EN 41).

• Science must break with the subjectivity of the agent's experience and achieve an objective representation of social facts, independently of their individual manifestations (43f; EN 47f).

While Durkheim insists that these rules are interconnected, the second and fourth rules are particularly decisive for the specifically Durkheimian conception of sociology as a social science. They demand a break with ordinary consciousness, as well as the systematic elimination of the participant perspective and the self-understanding of agents. Accordingly, immediately at the start of the Rules, in the preface to the first edition, Durkheim emphasises that sociology, as a science, can only establish itself in opposition to common sense:

If a science of societies exists, one must certainly not expect it to consist of a mere paraphrase of traditional prejudices. It should rather cause us to see things in a different way from the ordinary man, for the purpose of any science is to make discoveries, and all such discoveries more or less upset accepted opinions.

Thus unless in sociology one ascribes to common sense (sens commun) an authority that it has lost for a long time in the other sciences – and it is not clear whence that may be derived – the scholar must determinedly resolve not to be intimidated by the results to which his investigations may lead. (vii; EN 3)

According to this view, common sense in its "customary naïveté" (viii; EN 4) produces folk representations, which, as theorist and historian of science Gaston Bachelard puts it, science can only treat as "epistemological obstacles", "for the representations that we have been able to make of them [i.e. the facts] in the course of our lives, since they have been made without method and uncritically, lack any scientific value and must be discarded" (xiii; EN 8).

Like a researcher cutting his way through an untrodden jungle, "as the sociologist penetrates into the social world, he should be conscious that he is penetrating into the unknown" (xiv; EN 9). Obviously, in the case of a study of one's own society this consciousness is harder to cultivate than when investigating exotic nature or 'foreign peoples' – a context in which the impression of instantaneous understanding (an impression that is fatal for the scientific attitude) does not impose itself. Even the sociologist is not immune to common sense and therefore not immune to the danger of becoming the "victim of an illusion" (7; EN 22). This makes it all the more important, Durkheim argues, to strictly separate science from common experience and popular notions.

Elucidating the first rule, which calls for treating social facts as things, Durkheim writes:

At the moment when a new order of phenomena becomes the object of a science they are already represented in the mind, not only through sense perceptions, but also by some kind of crudely formed concepts. [...] But, because these notions are closer to us and more within our mental grasp than the realities to which they correspond, we naturally tend to substitute them for the realities, concentrating our speculations upon them. [...] These notions or concepts – however they are designated – are of course not legitimate surrogates for things. The products of common experience, their main purpose is to attune our actions to the surrounding world; they are formed by and for experience. (15f; EN 29)

The practice-bound notions of folk understanding "are as a veil interposed between the things and ourselves, concealing them from us even more effectively because we believe it to be more transparent" (16; EN 30). With Francis Bacon, Durkheim understands them as "notiones vulgares or praenotiones", as "idola, which, resembling ghost-like creatures, distort the true appearance of things, but which we nevertheless mistake for the things themselves" (17f; EN 31).

The social sciences are confronted with this problem in a much more pressing fashion than the natural sciences, since they are constantly tempted to reproduce common sense notions at a second, allegedly scientific level, lifting them to the rank of insights: "Men did not wait on the coming of social science to have ideas about law, morality, the family, the state or society itself, for such ideas were indispensable to their lives. It is above all in sociology that these preconceptions, to employ again Bacon's expression, are capable of holding sway over the mind, substituting themselves for things" (18; EN 31).

Similarly to the natural sciences, which owe their progress to their liberation from vulgar conceptions of, for instance, space, time and velocity, the social sciences had to break free from the claws of ordinary consciousness (all the more powerful because they did not feel restrictive) in order to achieve true scientific knowledge. Sociology's task was the analysis of the deeper causes of social behaviour that were lost on ordinary consciousness because of its naiveté and its thoroughly practical character – a task that called for knowledge to be rigorously guided by scientific rules.

The demand of the second rule, that "one must systematically discard all preconceptions", is one that Durkheim considers the "basis of all scientific method" (31; EN 39). Both in defining his subject matter and in providing "proofs" and "evidence", the sociologist may not avail himself of the terminology of ordinary language, which is adapted to the wholly unscientific needs of practical affairs. Moreover, he "must free himself from those fallacious notions which hold sway over the mind of the ordinary person, shaking off, once and for all, the yoke of those empirical categories that long habit often makes tyrannical" (32; EN 39).

Durkheim's remarks ultimately come down to the fundamental demand that sociology break clearly with the ideas, concepts and judgements of everyday consciousness, as well as with the self-understanding of the agents constituted by them. Durkheim realises that this demand is, in the first instance, entirely negative: "It teaches the sociologist to escape from the dominance of commonly held notions and to direct his attention to the facts" (34; EN 41). This negative step, however, is the precondition for all further steps, for instance for the positive task of developing an adequate definition of the object of investigation, of the objective representation of social facts independent of their individual manifestations (45; EN 47) and of sociological explanation, which "consists exclusively in establishing relationships of causality" (124; EN 101).

The break with the participant perspective and the introduction of a scientifically grounded observer perspective, then, become necessary because the agents are caught up in the naive ideas of common sense and are themselves incapable of reflecting on the social conditions and the consequences of their actions – and thus on their 'true' meaning. Referring to Bacon's doctrine of the idols (which emerges as the source of both scientism and the critique of ideology), Durkheim's diagnosis of a naiveté that is both structurally conditioned and structurally necessary functions in a manner quite parallel to the diagnosis of ideological blindness, without, however, employing the more narrow vocabulary of the critique of ideology, and without assigning sociology an explicitly emancipatory role. His conclusion that an epistemological break with the participant perspective is necessary is also characteristic for the conception of critical social science that shall be our topic in the next section.


Excerpted from "Critique as Social Practice"
by .
Copyright © 2018 The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface, Axel Honneth / Acknowledgements / 1. Introduction / 2. 'I See Something You Cannot See': The Model of the Break / 3. 'Follow the Agents': The Model of Symmetry / 4. Critical Theory as Reconstructive Critique / 5. Conclusion / Bibliography

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews