Education, Philosophy, Top Stories

Postmodern Theory Returns to Continental Europe

The infusion of much of the social science and humanities scholarship in the Anglosphere by egalitarian social justice concerns is a much-discussed phenomenon. Less often noticed is an important distinction between overtly activist disciplines such as gender and postcolonial studies, on the one hand, and disciplines that are not intrinsically militant such as education, sociology, and literature, on the other, where intellectual uniformity has nevertheless allowed for the construction of an increasingly biased, insular, and empirically dubious body of scholarship.

This scholarship draws heavily from the ideas of French poststructuralism and ‘continental’ European philosophy more broadly. However, it has gained a larger influence in the United States and other anglophone countries than on the continent. It has been hypothesised that this success has been due to the unique political context of post-war America, or that the then-new poststructuralist framework developed by a handful of French writers faced much less competition because Marxism was less entrenched in American academia than in Europe.

Faculty in continental Europe already overwhelming lean left in the social sciences and humanities, so the temptation to import and adopt the methods and results of English-speaking academe will be hard to resist. This is despite the fact that these methods have often been crafted in explicit and vehement opposition to the scientific method, which has been, first, accused of collaboration with misogyny, racism and other ills, and, second, excommunicated from entire departments and replaced by ‘critical theory.’

I am not accusing continental European scholars of lax intellectual standards to the point of invoking what they know to be bad scholarship. What is more probable is that European scholars will simply import the scholarship of the Anglosphere’s militants as if it were sound and established science. As scholars across Western Europe become increasingly familiar with strands of scholarship intertwined with social justice concerns, it is likely that these ideas will be adopted as both scientifically sound and ideologically agreeable. Left-leaning people tend, by default, to see inequalities of outcome as a consequence of mechanisms that are at best arbitrary and at worst unjust. A body of scholarship purporting to support this intuition is likely to reinforce a conviction that the intuition is correct. Simplistic social justice paradigms such as ‘whiteness,’ ‘decolonisation,’ ‘patriarchy,’ and the exclusively social nature of ‘gender’ are but dreams come true for some scholars, for whom they will serve as a confirmation and formalisation of what they always sensed to be true.

Perhaps the most unexpected feature of this scenario is that the process will require rather little moral intimidation. Those who have scrutinised the ideas of the ‘academic Left’ and found them wanting have been accustomed to epithets. Opposition to affirmative action—be it deontological or pragmatic—is considered racist, studying psychological differences between women and men at the statistical level is misogynistic, and so on. But the growing trend is for academics who find intersectional social justice convincing to simply refer their opponents to the scientific literature. “This is what social science says, don’t you know?” they now routinely respond, and the dissenter will be summarily cast back into the realm of superstition, or what the French call ‘pub counter-sociology.’ In this context of intellectual hegemony, the ‘academic Left’ need not bother with the deconstruction of ‘privilege’ enjoyed by science over ‘other ways of knowing.’ It becomes much less urgent to invoke Foucault to assert that intellectual debate is but a mask put on the ugly face of power struggle, or to remind others that all knowledge rests upon injustice.

When Nicholas Matte, a historian and a Transgender Studies lecturer, appeared on a Canadian television panel with Jordan Peterson, he simply asserted that, “It’s not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex.” Matte was apparently of the view that the scientific literature is on his side. And there is little doubt that much academic literature produced in the social sciences and the humanities does indeed claim to support his view. European academics who judge pronouncements like Matte’s to be auspicious, can simply make reference to the same body of dubious and empirically weak activist scholarship and cite the authority of this apparent consensus. Some will earnestly believe their own rhetoric.

First, the proponents of postmodernism and critical theory have carved a space within academia where scholars can escape the requirements of rigorous scholarship, by referring to real as well as imagined links between existing scholarship and an unjust state of human affairs. Second, they have produced large amounts of academic literature of a self-consciously activist nature while suppressing other, often more empirical avenues of research. Third, they have concluded that the scientific consensus now vindicates their militant intersectional worldview. This might look like a large conspiracy to turn the universities into the headquarters of a political movement. But—with exceptions, such as Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 doctrine of ‘Repressive Tolerance’—it generally isn’t. At each step, the social justice faithful need only be mindful of the pressing need to fight for good against evil. In any event, the ‘academic Left’ is now at the wheel of what looks like an ideological steamroller.

Dissenting voices within the social sciences—such as Lee Jussim and Jonathan Haidt—have drawn attention to the nefarious consequences of intellectual homogeneity among researchers. When I have tried to alert the French intellectual class, academics and internet skeptics alike, to the state of affairs on Anglosphere campuses, I have been told by French ‘defenders of the social sciences’ that, far from being censorious, the academic proponents of group-based privilege-and-oppression paradigms have simply won the academic argument in America. I have been made to understand that pleas for free expression on campus conflict with the progressive duty to carry out editorial decisions in academic journals and the competence-based hiring of faculty. In a profoundly ironic turn of events, it is now the heirs of Lacan and Derrida and Foucault (an intellectual heritage that they are not always ready to embrace) who accuse their opponents of proposing a Feyerabendian paradigm in which anything goes.

Gender studies are in the ascendancy in France, but some practitioners have demanded that they be carried out along more militant, less empirical lines. At an academic round table on the topic held at a French university, one of the participants deplored the notion that the field’s increased institutionalisation might be accompanied by increased calls for scientific rigour. When I remarked on this during a social media exchange, I was told—and not for the first time—that I am ignorant of how research in the social sciences is carried out. Meanwhile, in the video of the discussion I had shared, the other participants readily assented to the complaint and its appalled tone, while sections of the crowd greeted it with enthusiastic applause.

So, the smoking guns still there, but those who notice the smoke will generally be dismissed and disparaged in one way or another. Besides, I have not been able to elicit from my interlocutors, much in the way of condemnation of the most egregious cases of campus intolerance, such as those experienced by Bret Weinstein or Lindsay Shepherd. This is simply glossed over, just as the activist and non-empirical nature of the scholarship is glossed over. This kind of blithe denialism looks likely to increase among continental social science academics, especially in France, and particularly if activist research is allowed to conquer the academic mainstream.

But if this pessimistic scenario is correct, then it remains to be explained why it has not already taken place. After all, militant social justice scholarship has been a major facet of academia in the Anglosphere for more than three decades. So then why should its importation begin in the late 2010s, rather than, say, in the early 1990s? Left-wing intellectuals were already dominant on the continent then, and they were sorely in need of a new intellectual paradigm after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client states. Furthermore, as political theorists like Raul Magni-Berton and Diego Rios have argued, the proportion of left-wing/anti-capitalist academics in France, though naturally much larger than in the wider population, has not markedly increased in the past decades as it has in the United States.

What has changed is less a major unifying force than a galaxy of mutually reinforcing smaller factors. Much of French academic sociology, for instance, is still written and published in French. Whether this persists or not, the English-language fraction of what French academics in the social sciences study will almost certainly increase over the coming years. Another aggravating factor is the growing popularity of social media and its influence on wider discourse. Women’s studies and other postmodern programs in the Anglosphere have produced countless internet-savvy activists. In France, many of the noises about checking one’s privileges seem to be made by groups of young Twitter activists, who seem to be emulating what they see on the English-speaking internet.

The third—and possibly most important—factor is the relatively sombre mood among left-wing intellectuals in Europe. Anti-capitalist forces have not been able to seize the opportunity offered by the financial and economic crisis of the late 2000s. Anxieties about immigration, identity, and Islam are obviously considered distasteful among the au courant wing of the European Left, but they have been growing among the European public. Identitarian and nationalist concerns are now more prominent, and openly discussed by a variety of scholars from across the political spectrum. A widespread version of the anti-racist paradigm—according to which the ethnic European majority is the perpetual and sole cause of intolerant and supremacist tendencies—has been weakened by multiple attacks by Islamist terrorists in European cities, and the disturbing realisation that terrorist cells seem to be tolerated in some Muslim-majority areas, such as Molenbeek in the suburbs of Brussels. A number of troubling polls have found that the identitarian, Islam-first proportion of the European Muslim population is larger among the younger generation than it is among their parents and grandparents.

I take this increasingly clear reality to be a strong motivating factor for European left-leaning intellectuals, and academics in particular, to import the fixed, group-based, oppression-centred paradigms of their Anglospherical counterparts. The worldview of French intellectuals, in particular, is still profoundly marked by the German occupation of 1940-44, collaboration from a non-negligible part of the French population, and the ugly atavistic response of the French government to the Algerian desire for independence. As such, growing concerns about a minority demographic within the French population, of a different religion, and specifically of North African origin, are bound to alarm the intelligentsia. Left-wing academics and journalists are ideologically disinclined to consider understandable reasons for these concerns, and prefer to claim instead that ‘Muslims are the new Jews’ of Europe. In its rush to defend Muslims and Islam, the French vanguard has encouraged religiously-based chauvinism. It has supported the openly homophobic, antisemitic academic Houria Bouteldja; it has made Tariq Ramadan—whose main purpose has been to spread the ideas of his theocratic grandfather—a cause célèbre; and it has embraced ‘decolonial’ camps from which ‘whites’ are banned and shunned.

These positions are justified by the idea that Muslims, along with other minority demographics, are ontologically oppressed by the ethnically European, secular and/or Christian majority. And so old identity-centred ideas are being recycled and marshalled under the guise of progressive egalitarianism (what historian Richard Wolin has called “Heideggerian leftism”), and spread by hip phrases, the apparent novelty of which earns them extra currency. This process will only be reinforced if these ideas appear to be validated by large sections of ostensibly scientific academic scholarship. For those who remain unswayed by the notion that the primary purpose of intellectuals should be to change the world, rather than merely understand it, the challenge is daunting: their colleagues who have long wanted to change the world, are now in a strong, albeit unjustified, position to claim to have understood it.

 

Vincent Debierre is an academic researcher in physics and runs the podcast Liberté Académique. You can follow him on Twitter @AcadFreedom