Metaphysics and Critical Theory
Metaphysical thinking is, like so many things, historically conditioned. This does not mean that the truth of metaphysics itself is historically conditioned. Rather, a metaphysician may accept that truth itself is eternal, unaffected by the changing tides of history—and yet the changing tides of history affect the capacity of human beings to perceive that truth. The common assertion that we are living in a “post-metaphysical” era is often intended as evidence of metaphysics’ bankruptcy. That metaphysical truths appear to be unknowable within contemporary historical conditions is often taken as evidence for their inherent unknowability, or even their lack of any truth altogether. While the classical metaphysician may not accept such conclusions, the intuition of living in a post-metaphysical age is easily confirmed by observing contemporary material conditions and their effects on the psyches of contemporary people. Modern people simply do not have a keen capacity for metaphysical thought.
The conviction that thought is historically conditioned is at the root of all cultural and social critique, or critical theory, which aims to demonstrate that the prevailing social and cultural norms render people less able to intuit or discover the truth about themselves, about the world, or about reality as a whole. Thus, critical theory requires a kind of transcendent perspective that is not limited by the present, and can thus think outside the constraints of historical circumstance. For this reason, critical theory itself may be likened to an exercise in metaphysics or the pursuit of it, inasmuch as it is the critical mind’s restless attempt to break through the barriers of its own historical existence in order to discover the Real that lies beyond its limited circumstances.
Not all critical theorists, to be sure, have conceived their role as that of the metaphysician. In the introduction to One-Dimensional Man, for example, Herbert Marcuse emphasizes the importance for critical theory to adopt a transcendent perspective, by which the theorist refuses to be constrained by the narrow conditions of his present social circumstances, so that he might more effectively reflect on what possibilities lie outside those circumstances. Such a theoretical stance of transcendence is at the service of the revolutionary praxis that alone can build a society beyond the present one. Marcuse insists, however, that this stance is “opposed to all metaphysics by virtue of the rigorously historical character of the transcendence” (One-Dimensional Man, xiii). Its purpose is to cultivate an awareness of history and historical possibility as a whole, and thus to discover possible alternatives to current modes of existence. As such, its purpose is not to obtain knowledge of what is outside of history, timeless, or eternal, but only to free the mind from the conditions that prevent it from seeing how its surrounding social world may be changed—and to identify which other conditions might ground such change.
Marcuse’s fellow Frankfurter and friendly feudist Erich Fromm might have put the matter somewhat differently. Fromm’s voluminous writing regularly draws upon not only Marx and Freud, but the mystical and metaphysical traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, Meister Eckhart, and others. His understanding of critical theory was situated in a larger teleological framework, in which the purpose of revolutionary praxis was not solely to liberate the working classes from necessary labor but to liberate consciousness from a condition narrowly occupied by the needs and worries of material existence. On Fromm’s reading, spiritual liberation was the whole purpose of even Karl Marx’s critical theory. In the German Ideology, Marx famously wrote:
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. . . The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of the politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics of a people.
Commenting on this passage, Fromm observes that:
It is important to recognize that this theory does not pretend that ideas or ideals are not real or not potent. Marx speaks of awareness, not of ideals. It is exactly the blindness of man’s conscious thought which prevents him from being aware of his true human needs, and of ideals which are rooted in them. Only if false consciousness is transformed into true consciousness, that is, only if we are aware of reality, rather than distorting it by rationalizations and fictions, can we also become aware of our real and true human needs. (Marx’s Concept of Man, 19.)
It is difficult to ignore the metaphysical undertones of Fromm’s interpretation of Marx. Though primarily a psychoanalyst, Fromm saw the transformation of false consciousness into true consciousness as the conversion of the mind away from unreality towards the real, like an exodus of prisoners from Plato’s cave. Capitalism as a mode of production, protected by trenchant ideological superstructures, effectively inhibits the mind from perceiving the truth of human nature and its aspirations, which extend far beyond the boundaries of desire that consumerist ideology promises to fulfill. The purpose of critical theory, and thus of revolutionary praxis, is to accomplish the liberation of the mind from just these structures—a kind of spiritual awakening. The liberation of workers from the bonds of alienated labor is liberation from the cave, the entrance of their minds from a sphere of alienation and one-dimensional preoccupation with material existence, the “realm of necessity,” into a higher sphere of pure thought and unalienated consciousness, “the realm of freedom.”
From a Platonic perspective, any attempt to break through the barriers of historical contingency is an exercise in metaphysics, even if it is bad metaphysics. After all, history itself is but a “moving image of eternity” (Timaeus, 37d). The motion of time through the realization of infinite possibilities is itself a reflection of the vast and endless unity of eternity; the Many are the refracted and diversified reflection of the One. The process of becoming is nothing other than the universe exploring within itself the depths of possibilities inscribed in being itself. Consequently, and analogously, to meditate on the possibilities inherent in things is to engage in a type of metaphysical thinking. To reflect on history in a way that is no longer trapped within the contingency of a given historical moment is itself to look upon history from a “bird’s eye view,” so to speak—that is, from a metaphysical view. Just as becoming is the realization in particularity and contingency of what is universal and eternal in being, so is the intellectual process of meditating on the variety of possibilities no more than a way of realizing in thought that which is eternal and absolute.
Thus, it is no accident that Plato—or the character of Socrates—played the role of both the metaphysician and the critical theorist simultaneously. Indeed, they were hardly distinct for him. The great Platonic dialogues are devoted at once to subjecting the institutions, practices, and ideological assumptions of ancient Athens to relentless critique and to discovering alternative ways of thinking, living, and being, beyond the narrow constraints of contemporary Athenian society. By the same token, for Plato, this same intellectual process is nothing other than that of suspending the naive acceptance of the narrow contingencies immediately attainable by way of opinion (doxa), so as to penetrate beyond them into the intelligible realm of metaphysics, the realm of universal knowledge. The critique of the doxa—perhaps, what we today might call ideology—of the Athenian citizens whom Socrates encounters is at once the practice of critical theory and of breaking down the epistemic barriers to metaphysical knowledge.
This union of critical theory and metaphysics is nowhere more evident in the Platonic literature than in the Republic. The acceptable concepts of justice are there exposed as mere expressions of opinion, and then sublated (in the Hegelian sense of being negated and then re-assimilated) into the fuller account of justice which Socrates proceeds to trace philosophically. Similarly, the very concepts of politics and society are also subjected to a trenchant critique, followed by a quasi-utopian reimagination in the construction of a hypothetical city as a radical, and not-yet-existing, alternative to the current forms of political life. Plato’s act of hypothetical city-building is nothing if not an act of critical theory: not only criticizing existing institutions and ideologies, but theorizing new possibilities of alternative institutions lying outside the boundaries of possibility theretofore accepted by society. But it is also, in a deeper sense, an act of metaphysics: the discovery of what belongs to the universal Idea of a good city to begin with, undistorted by the ideologies and assumptions inscribed in current forms of social life. Further still, it is a metaphysical act because it seeks to discover and define the universal Idea of the Good, undistorted by the partial and imperfect goods often set up as final and ultimate goods by the ideologies of current social forms.
Plato’s attempt to build a city-in-speech is also an attempt to define what sorts of social conditions would facilitate true metaphysical thought. The journey of the prisoner from the cave into the clear light of the sun represents the liberation of the mind from lesser to higher degrees of consciousness and the discovery of metaphysical truth. At the same time, the cave allegory is a political allegory, from which many a liberationist movement has drawn imagery and inspiration. The role of the philosopher is “not just to mould himself but to arrange the dispositions of others at the level of both individual and city” according to the model of the eternal things which he beholds through philosophy (Republic, 500c1-d8). The role of the philosopher who returns into the darkness of the cave is to govern according to the Good that he has seen, i.e. to govern according to what is real. As Socrates tells the philosopher-in-training:
So down each of you must go in your turn, to share their living space and become accustomed like them to observing things in the dark, because as you become used to it, having yourselves seen the truth about beautiful and just and good things you’ll see a thousand times better than they do what each kind of shadowy image is, and what it is an image of. That way both we and you will have a city whose government is awake, and not in the dream state that now affects ordinary cities, governed as they are by people who shadow-box with one another and fight about who should rule, as if ruling were some kind of great good (Republic, 520c1-520d1).
Philosophy is here given a political purpose, and politics itself is defined in terms of its philosophical purpose: to govern in accordance with the Form of the Good. The political function of the ruler, in Plato’s hypothetical republic, is to bestow the gifts of his own wisdom upon the city which he governs. In a certain way, though not all citizens are meant to be philosophers, this is to bestow upon them a share in the philosophic life. This conception of politics is confirmed in Plato’s Seventh Letter, which recounts Plato’s own attempts to instruct Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, on the best practices of philosophic kingship. There Plato writes:
If in [Dionysius’s] empire there had been brought about a real union of philosophy and power, it would have been an illustrious example to both Greeks and barbarians, and all mankind would have been convinced of the truth that no city nor individual can be happy except by living in company with wisdom under the guidance of justice, either from personal achievement of these virtues or from a right training and education received under God-fearing rulers. (Seventh Letter, 335d).
Thus, for Plato, politics is ordered to the liberation of the mind for the virtue of justice and, above all, for the virtue of wisdom itself—which is to become like the gods: “a man becomes like God when he becomes just and pious, with understanding” (Theaetetus, 176b). “If a man has seriously devoted himself to the love of learning and to true wisdom, if he has exercised these aspects of himself above all, then there is absolutely no way that his thoughts can fail to be immortal and divine” (Timaeus, 90b-c).
Although contemporary critical theory might not own up to its metaphysical qualities, it serves a function that is of great value to metaphysics. The Frankfurt School’s analysis of contemporary technological society reveals the social conditions that paralyse the modern mind, making it no longer capable of metaphysical thought. Adorno and Horkheimer display how in the wake of the Enlightenment, “thought is reified as an autonomous, automatic process, aping the machine it has itself produced, so that it can finally be replaced by the machine.” Consequently, “Enlightenment put aside the classical demand to ‘think thinking’”—the classical Aristotelian and Plotinian formula for metaphysical contemplation, the form of consciousness assumed by the divine intellect itself. Enlightenment thought, or “positivism”—the form which thought inevitably takes under the despotism of the machine—no longer tolerates metaphysical speculation; indeed, it no longer understands it:
Even the denial of God falls under the same judgment as metaphysics. For positivism, which has assumed the judicial office of enlightened reason, to speculate about intelligible worlds is no longer merely forbidden but senseless prattle. Positivism—fortunately for it—does not need to be atheistic, since objectified thought cannot even pose the question of the existence of God (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 19).
For a similar reason, the function of the Platonic philosopher king is also made practically impossible in contemporary society, since the governing function of thought has been transformed by technological rationality into no more than an instrument of administration. “A consequence of the restriction of thought to organization and administration. . . is the stupidity which afflicts the great as soon as they have to perform tasks other than the manipulation of the small” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 28). Across the whole of the social plane, thought is emptied of its substance; no longer exercised for itself (to “think thinking”), it is now nothing but a means to utilitarian ends, such as the accumulation of capital or of additional strength for continued labor.
Only a mind that resolutely struggles against and even overcomes the constrictions of technological society could hope to genuinely understand this insight, in the mode of the critical theorist. Similarly, only such a mind could hope to regain the metaphysical mindset which is smothered by the forms of life under technological society. Undoubtedly, this is an immensely difficult frame of mind to adopt in a world that ceaselessly militates against it. The alienated soul, living in the deep prison of contemporary society, addicted to the neon screen of his iPhone, trapped in a dull routine of the professional workday, forced to concern himself solely and automatically with his physical and psychological survival—such a soul might well despair of awakening to a truly transcendent mindset. The same conditions which, for the Marxist, seem to militate against the awakening of a revolutionary consciousness might also militate against metaphysical consciousness. But by the same token, the conditions which necessitate an energetic proletarian commitment to class struggle also necessitate a commitment to the struggle of mind against the tyranny of a merely material or economic existence. Thought must resolutely refuse to be molded in the image of technological rationality. To cite Adorno and Horkheimer again, “a true praxis capable of overturning the status quo depends on theory’s refusal to yield to the oblivion in which society allows thought to ossify. . . The spirit of such unyielding theory would be able to turn back from its goal even the spirit of pitiless progress.” (33)
In contemporary society, this highlights the ancient conviction that philosophy itself, including even metaphysics, is a way of life, a praxis. As Pierre Hadot writes,
[For the ancients] philosophy was a method of spiritual progress which demanded a radical conversion and transformation of the individual’s way of life.
Thus, philosophy was a way of life, both in its exercise and effort to achieve wisdom, and in its goal, wisdom itself. For real wisdom does not merely cause us to know: it makes us ‘be’ in a different way (Philosophy as a Way of Life, 266).
The Marxist tradition re-emphasized this ancient conviction in its application to social form, insisting on the deep unity between theory and practice. Requisite for the theoretical vision of human social relations according to their true nature was the transformation of those social relations themselves by revolutionary praxis. Echoing Plato’s description of philosophic rule as a wakeful governance not affected by the dreamlike illusions of the cave, Marx writes that “the religious [i.e., ideological] reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form” (Capital, 173). Just as, for Marx, a truly revolutionary politics will remove the veil of capitalist ideology from the relations of production, in order for those relations to be known as they truly are, so a truly philosophical engagement with politics will remove the obstacles that stand in the way of metaphysical knowledge‚the knowledge of things as they really are, which for Plato means in the light of eternal and divine forms. In both cases, this will demand a radical transformation in the praxis of society. Just as the ancients understood that philosophy demanded a transformation in concrete ways of life, so does the acquisition of a philosophic consciousness in contemporary society demand a transformation of that society and its embedded ways of life.
In this light, Alasdair Macintyre’s famous, oft-misunderstood call for “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict” at the end of After Virtue takes on a relevance beyond just the reform of ethical and political life. St. Benedict stands not only as the model of an alternate way of life, an alternate praxis, or an alternate social structure, but even more as the model of an alternate path of thought, a life devoted to contemplation, a life of truly metaphysical thought, liberated from the suffocating anxieties of “the new dark ages which are already upon us” (After Virtue, 263).
The individual philosopher, living in a social milieu that no longer even asks the questions of metaphysics, must therefore resolve to be in the world but not of it—like the philosopher of Plato’s allegory, who returns into the cave as a stranger. It is inevitable that a modern man, living under the social conditions of modernity, will partake of modern praxis and modern ways of life to some degree. He must do so, if he is to survive. This is the doom of contemporary humanity. It is also a fundamental obligation of the philosopher, if he is to contribute to the enlightenment and emancipation of his fellows. Yet at the same time, he must refuse to let his mind be shaped by those same conditions, if he is to maintain a mind open to the transcendence of being that is beyond history. He must practice a way of life in resistance to the ways that the world will seek to impose on him. And he cannot do it alone: just as the proletarian worker is no revolutionary by himself, but only in solidarity with his class, so the philosopher can only build an alternate way of life with the help of others who share his aspirations for philosophy. For this reason, the pursuit of metaphysical consciousness cannot be separated from the concreteness of ethics and politics: the philosopher must constantly be discovering the forms of virtuous practice, the modes of social relation, &c., which alone can contribute to the development of a consciousness not weighed down by the crude materialism of capitalist modernity. For this purpose, he must also be constantly attentive to the conditions of that modernity itself, whose totalizing grasp he is resisting in the first place—here is the utility of critical theory. This delicate balance, of living in the world but not belonging to it, is the challenge of all philosophy.
Jonathan Culbreath is an alumnus of Thomas Aquinas College and has done graduate studies at the University of Leuven in Belgium. He is an assistant editor at The Josias. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.