Robin Celikates, Critique as Social Practice: Critical Theory and Social Self-Understanding. Translated by Naomi van Steenbergen. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018; 238 pages. ISBN: 978-1786604620.

Reviewed by Maxwell Kennel, McMaster University

In the tradition of the Frankfurt School, Robin Celikates’s recently translated book, Critique as Social Practice, is concerned with the methodology of critical social theory, although his insights will resonate with other fields of study in both the humanities and the social sciences. Originally published in German in 2009, Critique as Social Practice provides a critique of social scientific models of the relationship between “ordinary agents” and “experts,” or similar terms like “observers” and “participants.” In his appreciative preface, Axel Honneth praises Celikates’s work on the normative justification of the methodological orientation of critical theory and draws out the dialectical structure of his book. Beginning with the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and its assumption of a “radical break” between social scientists and everyday members of society, and then moving to the sociology of Luc Boltanski in which the distinction between social practice and critical reflection is intentionally absent, Celikates describes and evaluates two contrasting perspectives which he then extends and exceeds in the latter third of the book with a defense of critique as a social practice. As Honneth observes, Celikates articulates a third position between the model of the “break” and the model of “continuity” in a way that is not beholden to either but represents a new perspective.

Critique as Social Practice begins with an observation that should strike anyone who has been attentive to the current politics of resentment and controversies surrounding political correctness, identity politics, and the polarization of left and right politics: “criticise someone, and you may well find yourself accused of being a know-it-all.” (1) From this basic observation Celikates narrates some of the problems of critique itself, from the accusation that one is being patronizing or paternalistic, to the problem of those who quickly become defensive and cannot take criticism. Giving the reader an image of the “incorrigible critic” who always knows better and further believes that resistance to their critiques only represents further ignorance, Celikates begins with a distinction between what he calls “reflexive agents” capable of self-awareness and self-critique, and the lack of reflection definitive of what Harold Garfinkel called “judgemental dopes.” (2) Simultaneously observing that people act against their own interests, and highlighting the tendency of the critique of ideology to take on a position of judgmental distance that assumes the ignorance and ordinary status of those whom it critiques, Celikates challenges adversarial and othering ways of considering the relationship between the critic and those critiqued. Against the simplistic and hierarchical distinction between those susceptible to the false consciousness of ideology and those liberated from it, Celikates rejects the idea that there is a fundamental break between objective critics and unreflective agents, and further rejects the immunization from critique that can accompany the inverse perspective of participation with ordinary agents.

Reorienting critical theory against the epistemic asymmetry characteristic of “critical social science” (of which Bourdieu is exemplary, but not completely representative), leads Celikates to “ethnomethodology” and the “sociology of critique,” both of which assume that there is some relation of symmetry between experts and laypeople. Situating his work after the pragmatic turn, Celikates begins by identifying the dogmatic aspects of the critique of ideology including the assumption that scientism and objectivism are by nature non-normative, the assumption that this scientific critique must penetrate the contradictory totality of society to unmask its delusions, and the assumption that functionalist explanations are sufficient to explain social life. (8) Against these assumptions, Celikates reasserts the emancipatory project of critical theory and defines its reflexive position in a twofold way, drawing on Horkheimer’s distinction between traditional and critical theories, as well as Albrecht Wellmer’s inclusion of metatheory in method. For Celikates, critical theory must be reflexive both in its reflection on the context of its origins and environment, and in its reflection on its own content and self-understanding. (10) Without a posture of relentless self-consciousness that is prepared to question its own presuppositions and conditions of possibility, critical theory cannot avoid the pitfalls that Celikates identifies in models of critique that take up a position of abstracting distance from those whom they critique. Celikates writes on this note, that “because of its explicit relation to practice, critical theory in particular should understand itself as a voice within the context of social self-interpretation. In this context, the aim of a better self-understanding of agents can only be achieved when we speak with them, not merely about or on behalf of them.” (12) Surely this suggestion alone is worthy of consideration by all those concerned with methodology across the disciplines that compose the humanities and social sciences.

Lest Celikates’s argument seem more moralizing than scholarly, I should note that the bulk of Critique as Social Practice is concerned with the minutiae of both the orthodox model of objective scientific knowledge and the participatory aspirations of ethnomethodology – all while keeping the overall aims of the volume in view. After providing nuanced critiques of Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus and Boltanski’s focus on everyday practices of critique and justification, in Part 3 Celikates proposes to account for the problems and prospects of both breaking with and aligning with social practices of self-interpretation. If the phrase “I see something you don’t see” represents the orthodox model of the break, and the phrase “follow the agents” represents the participatory model of symmetry between agents and experts, then Part 3 of Critique as Social Practice pursues a reconstructive and reflexive critique and extension of both. Problematizing the positioning of both external distance and internal participation, Celikates rejects postures of epistemic privilege and egalitarianism alike, and reasserts the metatheoretical status of critical theory. He writes that “I propose that we understand critical social theory…as second-order critique, as meta-critique, which aims to strengthen everyday practices of justification and critique by disclosing the social conditions for the possibility of these practices of reflection and transformation by participants themselves.” (135) Following Habermas and Honneth, Celikates’s “reconstructive” critique seeks to be constructive, normative, dialogical, and critical. Using psychoanalysis as a model for critique as social practice, Celikates suggests that the restoration of structure, the dialogue between analyst and analysand, and the role of self-reflection in psychoanalysis are potential resources for critique, given that psychoanalysis and critique each privilege autonomy, foster self-critique and reflexivity, and attempt to remain accountable to the self-understanding of those who are addressed.

Although Celikates concludes with a helpful exploration of a possible programme in social psychology exploring the ways in which his theory may help to understand and critique the self-justification of systems of oppression and exploitation (i.e., why those who are suffering under conditions of prejudice and domination tend to rationalize and justify the status quo), I want to focus on the parallels that Celikates draws between psychoanalysis and critique, for it is the only aspect of his argument that seemed out of place. If the major premise of Critique as Social Practice is that the critic must question and blur the boundaries between critic and those critiqued by engaging in self-critique, but not in such a way that becomes so entangled as to inhibit critique, then it stands to reason that the parallel that Celikates draws between psychoanalysis and critique should be held to that same standard.

However, both as a field of study and a social practice, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis is esoteric and disconnected from the experiences of everyday people. Although psychoanalysis remains a critical vocabulary that holds some sway in the scholarly conversations in which Celikates is engaged, it strikes me that his argument would be just as well – if not better – served by examining the parallels between his critique as a social practice and the more widely used counselling and psychotherapy modalities of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and/or the vast body of literature on trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therapists and counselors who employ these models very often privilege autonomy, foster self-critique and reflexivity, and attempt to remain accountable to the self-understanding of their clients. The increased awareness of mental health and mental illness in public discourses, and the many different therapeutic modalities that themselves negotiate similar issues of autonomy, capacity, and moral responsibility, make Celikates’s identification of critique and social practice all the more relevant to many so-called “ordinary agents” who are trying to understand themselves and their social and psychological lives. Interdisciplinary engagement on this front may find affinities with Celikates’s work in Critique as Social Practice, and this connection is one of many potential ways in which his work is timely and relevant.

Accompanying other significant new works – such as Rainer Forst’s Normativity and Power and Rahel Jaeggi’s Critique of Forms of Life – Celikates’s book is a key part of an important resurgence in the tradition of critical theory. Critique as Social Practice forms the basis for Celikates’s more recent work on social philosophy and civil disobedience, while also providing important resources for the broader scholarly conversation on critical theory and the place of critique in the contemporary social and political environment.