Public Speech Program, University of Pittsburgh
In a recent contribution to The Newsletter, "Mein Misverständnis mit Miscevic: Or, On the Dilemmas of Organizing a Critical Rationalist Movement", I mentioned, but did not elaborate upon, a certain point "3" which suggested that if Critical Rationalism (CR) is to survive - not to mention prosper - as an intellectual movement in the highly ideology-charged days ahead, it must manage to accomplish "substantial intellectual recruitment from the rising generation of scholars". This is necessary, I claimed, because "CR is doomed by what I called the 'criticism/solidarity paradox' (CSP) to have an unusually high turnover of adherents". In the present article I wish to explain what I mean by this "paradox", and show why I think it poses some significant organizational problems for the development and dissemination of CRist ideas well worthy of our consideration.
The basic problem is simple enough and arises naturally out of the reflexive application of the standard CR modus operandi. Being fully committed to falsificationism, CR is all about actively promoting criticism of all conceptualizations currently maintained, that any remaining errors in our knowledge might be detected and eliminated as quickly as possible. CRists are thus people who see it as one of their primary intellectual functions, nay duties, to maintain a critical attitude to all knowledge claims they may encounter. Hence, as one becomes more committed to CR, one tends invariably to expose ever greater realms of human knowledge and opinion, as well as one's own experience, to critical scrutiny; for there is simply no area that ought artificially to be exempted from continuing criticism. It is thus perfectly natural to expect that as the recent CR recruit's own critical prowess develops, he or she will sooner or later turn these critical powers to the very epistemological "foundations" of CR itself; that he or she shall begin actively to search out any remaining errors in this particular system of "knowledge" claims just as in any others. Such individuals will thus take a much closer look at the standard theses of the CR doctrine itself and attempt to "falsify" its primary theses by adducing evidence and building arguments against them. In doing so they will - even if their powers of criticism remain quite modest - undoubtedly detect a wide variety of remaining theoretical problems, as well as several plain and simple logical errors, in the methodological writings of even the most carefully formulated of CRist theorizations. (For, as Adorno once very correctly noted, it is one of the minor tragedies of human intellection - but also one of its minor miracles! - that "even the dullest of minds are generally quite capable of finding the faults in the very finest".) As the new recruit comes to see ever more clearly just how thoroughly "flawed" CR too really is, however, he is faced with a difficult choice. Either he will simply grow "disenchanted" with it, (just as he has probably already grown disenchanted with many other doctrines before it, should he have genuinely critical proclivities!). In such a case, he will probably simply begin gradually to disassociate himself from CR until he is no longer a part of its sphere of critical discourse. On the other hand, he might adopt a more principled and productive attitude, and decide that, formidable problems and flaws or not, CR is still far better than all of the other methodological doctrines around, and hence fully deserving of whatever corrective influences that the dissemination of his own critique of it may occasion. In that case, he will set about at once to write up an account of the problems and errors that he has perceived and begin to engage actively in critical discussion with those other CRist who have not - or perhaps merely not yet - perceived such hidden sources of error.
Now as the CR neophyte begins to do all this, strange things begin to happen. At first his criticisms are patiently listened to, perhaps even encouraged, and taken quite "seriously" by the rest of the CR community. Generally, however, it will be the case that something very similar to the criticisms that he is now making will already have surfaced within the discourse long before - as many other people before him will no doubt have asked very similar "troubling questions" in their readings of the CR "classics" as well. Thus, more often than not, some more seasoned proponent of CR, who has been through this particular matter several times before already, will be able simply to answer his criticisms at once; to convince him, that is, that the real "error" involved may very well be his own! The beginner will thus - at least at first - be glad to have received such wise and edifying correction, return to the CR "fold", and accept more strongly than ever the validity of traditional CR doctrines. But, of course, this means that he will also see it as even more vitally important than ever that he keep incisively criticizing things (especially now that he has learned so much himself by doing so!). Thus it will not be long before he has headed back to the "canonical" methodological texts of CR and detected a whole new batch of problems and errors, which he now feels even more strongly called upon to expose to his critical compatriots as well. This he will then do, only to discover - usually quite to his chagrin! - that the response this time is a little less patient and helpful than it was the first time. This time, that is, there will also be a certain measure of irritation with him as well; a wee bit of the old "we've been through all of this a dozen times before" attitude. But let us be optimistic for the moment and assume that this time too it is still possible for more established CRists to put our critical protagonist's newly discovered objections to bed in relatively short order. What will happen next? That's right, he will simply become still more committed to CR and its noble falsificationist doctrine, and go right back to seeking out new troubles once again! As these too are brought forward in the discourse, however, he will gradually come to be seen - and, from an organizational standpoint fully justly so! - as a rather "negative element" in the discourse; as someone who always takes the discussion off more "productive" tracks - tracks which simply tentatively presuppose the conventional principles - to pose endless "philosophical" questions regarding the "ultimate" status of the doctrine itself. More troubling still, there is bound eventually to come a time - if he possesses any real talent for criticism that is - when our precocious neophyte begins to pose questions so novel and incisive that even the most seasoned of his intellectual seniors has never encountered them before, and can thus produce - at least immediately - no convincing rebuttals to silence him. And yet, far from consistently thanking our now so prodigiously advanced young critic for having helped them eliminate a few more actually remaining flaws in their previous methodological conceptualizations, as they should, the rest of the group is far more likely to view the critic with great ingratitude, if not down-right contempt, for having just destroyed some of the very "foundations" upon which they had just been so sanguinely building all of their divers ideational habitations. In short, the consistently critical participant in CR discourse, as in any discourse, will eventually come to be viewed as someone simply "heretically" bent upon subverting all "WORKING" methodological agreement within the group, all intellectual "solidarity", rather than as one genuinely concerned to point out remaining problems.
Well this process will go on for a while. But eventually something has got to give. (For it is simply so much easier for a quick and critical mind to discover ever new problems and errors far faster than it is possible for even the sharpest CRist grouping to invent workable "solutions" to each and every new difficulty detected.) Eventually, that is, one of two things will happen; with equally negative consequences, both for the individual involved and for the healthy development of CR as a whole. Either our overzealous falsificationist will continue his bothersome "hyper-critical" behavior and become ever more explicitly a persona non gratis within CR circles; someone eventuallyactually to be prevented from further participation, in the unlikely case that he doesn't sense the "bad vibes" beforehand, "take the hint", and drop out freely. In that case CR will simply have lost one of its most critically competent adherents; one, that is, of the very type which CR methodologically most requires! Or, the ever sceptical individual in question will eventually decide that his continued participation in CR discourse is so important to him that he will be willing to cease - or at least greatly curb - his previous activity of criticizing CR doctrine itself to the best of his ability. But in that case, he can hardly be expected to continue to serve his previous healthy role of allowing CR to detect and slowly eliminate its many remaining theoretical errors. Indeed, he will have - for all practical purposes - been reduced to the status of one more uncritical "believer" or "hack" in a highly hypo-critical "critical" cult more than willing to dish out criticism to others, but unwilling to suffer it amongst themselves!
Thus it is that the most critical minds attracted to CR - the very same minds that have the most to offer CR intellectually - will very often - and within a span of time reciprocal to their original critical prowess! - begin to pose so many bothersome questions to their colleagues that they will either be drummed out of the movement altogether, or be "broken" of their critical spirit. As such truly critical spirits are - and by their very nature to boot! - subversive of all underlying doctrines which serve to give the group its very raison d'etre, they invariably begin to call the originally motivating basis of organizational "solidarity" itself into question and thus pose a real threat to the further existence of the group and all of its current activities. In short, precisely what is best for CR in one sense, incisive criticism of current ideas, is worst for it in another, eroding doctrinal unity, and we encounter the so-called "Criticism/Solidarity Paradox".
Up until now we have viewed this "paradox" merely as an interaction between an isolated, consistently critical individual coming up against the CR "establishment". We should also make a few comments upon some of the aggregate organizational effects of this concomitant solicitation and suspicion of self-criticism among its membership upon CR as an intellectual movement, and make a few very tentative recommendations as to how to diminish its destructive potential as much as possible. Because of CR's - organizationally considered - nearly unique legitimation, if not also stimulation, of self-criticism among its adherents, we would, of course, consider the CSP to be reactivated fairly frequently as new people are "recruited" to take part in CR discussions and activities. This, in turn, should manifest itself in an unusually high turn-over rate of individuals participating in the movement, which, for its part, should then simply serve to exacerbate the already substantial problems of maintaining doctrinal and organizational coherence and structure. In addition, such rapid "burn out" of new members would be expected significantly to hamper the further numerical growth of the movement; perhaps even leading to its gradual collapse should it prove impossible to find enough new recruits willing to stick around long enough to counter-balance the natural attrition rate due to "falling away" and/or aging of the current membership. Perhaps most important of all, we should also expect to see the stress placed upon criticism, especially self-criticism, to become ever more attenuated; both because those new members who have stuck around are likely to be exactly those who are not so quick to criticize and who have hence not yet run into the paradox and already left, and also because the group itself will undoubtedly become ever more explicitly aware of the organizational problems that too much self-criticism occasions for any discourse community and thus - quite rationally - seek to find institutional means of preventing its continual disruptive articulation. All in all, then, we would expect - "a priori" as it were - CR to have an exceedingly rough go of it as an intellectual movement.
Actively encouraging criticism, and thereby unintentionally legitimating self-criticism as well, for all of its noble commendability as an intellectual ethic, would thus seem - from the purely anticipatory perspective pursued so far here - to be a goodprescription for organizational suicide. One might well wonder then how CR has actually fared with respect to this paradox in recent years. Here one has to be somewhat pleasantly surprised as an observer of organizational coherence. For although CR seems indeed repeatedly to have encountered the paradox specified, continues to have a fairly high turn-over rate of participants, and even seems somewhat to have attenuated its tolerance for internal criticism over the years, it still seems to be both quite salubriously open to self-criticism, and, at any rate, to have fared considerably better than most other self-consciously "critical" organizations, (indeed, even as well as many organizations which are not burdened with the necessity of continually tolerating internal criticism!). Such relative "success", of which CR has every right to be somewhat proud, can be attributed, one assumes, to the exceptional patience, good humor and intellectual integrity of some of its more established members.
Still, while CR has done a good job of surviving, perhaps even slightly expanding, in recent years, it can hardly be said to have prospered. The movement has a definite foothold in German academic life, but, even there is hardly an intellectual force to be reckoned with - as say are Critical Theory, Hermeneutics, Neo-Marxism, Deconstructionism, and a variety of others. Moreover, it has fared far less well in other European countries, and remains virtually unknown in the rest of the world as an intellectual movement; and this although it can in fact proudly claim a truly international representation of adherents. One has to wonder then what can be done concretely to ameliorate at least that impediment to further growth that is posed by the CSP. It should be stressed that there is clearly no simple solution here. There will always be some real tension between the self-critical enthusiasm of CR's new - and sometimes even older - recruits and the on-going need for organizational stability and solidarity upon the part of the movement as a whole. One can only hope to diminish the paradox's more overtly undesirable "unintended consequences". To do this will clearly require real effort and a preparedness to compromise upon the part of both the self-critical individuals and the established and organized movement. The former must come to realize that it is unfair of them to be continually and immediately disturbing the group with every single new suspicion or doubt that enters their heads. They must respect the other's right to get on with more advanced questions in situations where they already feel confident enough of a consensus upon such axiomatic principles. The latter group, on the other hand, must try hard to continue to show exceptional patience with the often only very "half-baked" objections raised by newer adherents; to view these as the necessary price to be paid for developing the confident independent critical thought so essential to the highest ends of CR. Moreover, this group must always manage to keep itself open to the real possibility that some of the problems and errors detected in CR by these actively self-critical adherents may in fact represent real matters of concern, that must be dealt with if CR is to continue to develop its theoretical conceptualizations and not merely fossilize into one more anachronistic ideology or "Philosophy of Science". At some point, it may even become necessary to introduce some specific institutional procedures to help ameliorate the CSP. Thus, for example, it might be desirable to hold special colloquia from time to time which are devoted completely to criticism of current CR doctrine itself, while at the same time requiring participants to withhold such criticisms at other functions, devoted to more specific CRist analyses of particular scientific, philosophical, social, political or economic matters. Should some balance eventually be found, which allows new adherents to CR to explore and express their many newly-discovered areas of weakness in CR itself, while yet sheltering the more established adherents from the need to be continually rehashing basic principles, the chances for CR's growth in future years should be measurably increased. Unfortunately, however, this paradox is only one of many organizational impediments to such a healthy expansion of the influence of CR in the years ahead. Still, finding some good solutionhere, could only serve to help the noble cause of promoting the spread of critical reasoning in a world increasingly dominated by its diametrical opposite: violence.