‘Critique as Social Practice: Critical Theory and Social Self Understanding’ by Robin Celikates reviewed by Jake Parkins

Reviewed by Jake Parkins

About the reviewer

Jake Parkins currently works as an assistant librarian at Newcastle University Library and has an …


In Critique as Social Practice: Critical Theory and Social Self-Understanding, Robin Celikates tackles a methodological conundrum that can be summarised as follows: how should social/critical ‘theorists’ conceive of their relationship with their ‘addressees’ and what pertinence does the latter’s ‘self-understanding’ and ‘reflective capacities’ have for the former in devising their critical theories (9-15)? This question is of vital importance to Critical Theory since its ambition can be summarised by Karl Marx’s claim that theory should contribute to the ‘self-clarification (critical philosophy) of the struggles and wishes of the age’ (Marx, 1992: 209; Celikates, 2018: 193-194; Seymour, 2019: 6). An emancipatory theory, then, supports certain contemporary oppressed groups by enabling them to clarify the nature of their own struggles and domination. Celikates convincingly argues that if theorists misconceive the theorist-addressee relationship, not only do they inadequately understand ‘the practical character of theory’, but they might inadvertently enfeeble the very emancipation they intend or proclaim to support (10). Thus, for Celikates, social criticism should be understood as a form of ‘social practice’ (15). It is one of the achievements of Celikates to recognise the centrality of this issue and to deal with it in a systematic fashion.

Celikates’ thesis is that for Critical Theory to achieve its emancipatory aim, it must avoid two problematic methodologies: ‘external’ and ‘internal’ critique (118). To differentiate between these two types of social criticism, Celikates uses the following criteria: a) from what ‘standpoint’ does the critical theorist make their social criticism; and b) what is the function and aim of ‘theory’ for social criticism (118)? Celikates’ book is divided into three parts – following a clear, dialectical structure.

In Part I, Celikates argues that the external critique ‘model’ – which originates in Émile Durkheim’s ‘objectivist’ approach and continues through Bourdieu’s approach despite his best attempts to avoid it – involves the theorist being independent of how agents understand themselves, that is, ‘common sense’ or given social practices (28, 118-119). Since the theorist is conceived of as being external to the social context, there is an epistemic ‘break’ between theorists and addressees (19, 119). The former regard their theory as ‘scientific’ and/or ‘objective’ and therefore separate from, and superior to, the understanding of the latter of their social practices (118-119). The role of external theory, then, is to deploy social scientific methodologies in order to reveal the ‘the functional laws of social and historical processes’ that work fundamentally beyond the knowledge of addressees; it focuses on ‘social reality’ – explaining ‘why’ it is defective and why addressees fail to know this from within their ‘social context’  (15, 118-119). Celikates then criticises Bourdieu’s approach for underestimating addressees’ critical and reflective competencies and overestimating ‘the potency of social science knowledge’ (119-120), resulting in an array of ‘normative’, ‘political-strategic’, ‘methodological’ issues and a warped understanding of ‘social reality’ (45-59).

In Part II, Celikates discusses the internal critique model, which he associates with Harold Garfinkel’s ‘ethnomethodology’ and Luc Boltanski’s ‘sociology of critique’ (69).  Following a critical reconstruction of Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, Celikates shows how Boltanski develops ethnomethodology’s key ideas, most notably that theorists should aim for their critique to be ‘anchored within the self-understanding of the criticised individual or collective’ (104-105, 118).  Critique, thus understood, cannot be external to how addressees see their social context from within. This move establishes, in contrast to Bourdieu’s approach, a ‘methodological egalitarianism’ between theorists and addressees: ‘in principle’, there is no epistemic break between theorists’ and addressees’ viewpoints with the latter capable of critiquing their own and others’ problematic social practices (70-71, 92, 119-120). Therefore, internal theory’s role is mainly to describe, clarify and learn from agents’ social practices (70-71, 121).

At the end of Part II and at the start of Part III, Celikates discusses the deficiencies of Garfinkel’s and Boltanski’s accounts, most notably their inability to adequately reflect on ‘the social conditions of the development and exercise of the social practices of critique’ which agents engage in (117, 124). If, as even Boltanski notes, there is an asymmetric allocation of ‘communicative competences and the ability to make oneself heard,’ and if a person’s likelihood of being heard ‘in society’ is ‘socially conditioned,’ then theorists must consider ‘which social conditions’ are necessary for the development and exercise of people’s reflective competencies (107, 123-124). Celikates conceives social conditions that stunt the development and exercise of agents’ capacity to reflect, justify and critique as ‘second-order social pathologies’: when citizens are structurally stunted from recognising ‘“problematic” situations… as problematic’, or, if they do, they fail to comprehend and critique them (124, 126). The ‘reasons’ for the above – e.g. uncritically viewing certain societal issues as natural – are forms of ‘ideology’ that operate at ‘a second level’ insofar as they thwart or complicate – but never eliminate – one’s capacity to reflect on and criticise ways of thinking, acting, and ‘social contexts at the first level’ (124).

Having outlined the weaknesses of both external and internal critique, Celikates outlines his own reconstructive model of social criticism and presents it as transcending the previously highlighted deficits. His model attempts to uphold ‘the basic intuition of “methodological egalitarianism”’ while remaining ‘critical’ of the ‘social conditions of critique’ (123-124, 127). Celikates’ ‘reconstructive critique’ strives to be: 1) ‘constructive’ insofar as it goes ‘beyond’ description of the norms and practices of a social context; 2) ‘normative’ insofar as it enables addressees’ to reflect and criticise ‘without… presupposing a full-fledged theory of the right or the good’; 3) ‘dialogical’ in that  it ‘relates to the self-understanding of agents’ without dismissing nor wholly accepting their self-understanding; 4) ‘critical’ insofar as it’s in conflict with how agents understand themselves in (second-order) pathological circumstances since the theorists’ aim is to change addressees’ self-understanding and to eliminate the given second-order pathologies that stint addressees’ ability to develop and exercise their critical and reflective capacities (137-138). In developing this model Celikates draws on Jürgen Habermas’ notion of reconstructive critique, which in turn was methodologically shaped by Freudian psychoanalysis (143). Similar to the analyst-analysand relationship, Celikates’ reconstructive criticism involves theorists ‘enabling’ their addressees to enhance their reflective capacities – that is, their second-order reflective capacities – encouraging the ‘transformation’ of their self-understanding and practices, whilst simultaneously viewing their addressees as ‘equal’ and active agents who are always somewhat capable of self-reflection, even if these capacities require further development (124, 145-153). Unlike external critique, reconstructive critique thus rejects notions of ‘necessary false consciousness’ and total delusion; instead, the addressee is always, to some degree, capable of reflecting on and resisting domination (160-163). More concretely, the reconstructive theorist enables self-reflection by producing and identifying ‘reflective unacceptability’ by providing ‘hypotheses’ supported with ‘empirical evidence’, e.g. via social psychology (158, 172, 175-180). In other words, the theorist induces reflective unacceptability by getting agents to reflect on whether they have reasons to revise their self-understanding in the light of the analysis of the social conditions provided by the theorist. Again, like the analyst-analysand relationship, whether the theorist’s hypotheses are ‘valid’, the account of the social conditions convincing, and emancipation successful is dependent on whether the addressee accepts or rejects the theorist’s reconstructions, albeit the addressee’s response isn’t a definitive ‘criterion’ especially under capacity-hindering social conditions (which the addressee is, in principle, capable of recognising and confronting) (167-172, 192).

In short, Celikates’ important contribution lies in outlining a methodological egalitarianism that overcomes the external-internal ‘dichotomy’ (108) and the limits of each approach. However, his own reconstructive critique is not without flaws. For one, it seems unnecessarily narrow in at least three respects. Firstly, it is not entirely clear why Celikates limits himself to sociological and empirical analyses, supported by empirical evidence, as ‘tools’ available to critical theorists to induce reflective unacceptability (169, 175-180). There are other tools such as discourse analysis or genealogical studies that are utilised by other critical theorists – such as James Tully – which can enable agents to gain even more ‘critical distance’ from their social conditions (5, 175-180; Tully 2008: 15-38). For example, unlike empirical and sociological evidence relating to contemporary social conditions, genealogical studies – beyond revealing the contingency of agents’ social conditions – can enable agents to ‘critically’  compare their ways of ‘thinking and acting’ with other (historical) ways, thereby further strengthening their critical and reflective capacities (ibid, 31, 35-36).

Secondly, Celikates’ conception of the theorist-addressee dialogue often tends to be unnecessarily narrow. In his solution, Celikates often frames the theorist-addressee dialogue in terms of the theorist providing a hypothesis which the addressee is invited to verify, instead of the theorist and addressee jointly elaborating an account of the conditions of domination (Tully 2008: 3). Similarly, in his review of Celikates’ book, Neal Harris stresses that within Celikates’ framework it is ‘always’ the theorist who ‘determines the presence of reflexive pathologies’ and ‘determines which pathologies are worthy of investigating’ (Harris, 2019: 126). After all, theorists – as academics – are more likely to have the ‘conceptual’ resources to develop second-order reflexivity unlike non-academic members of oppressed groups (ibid, 126).

However, this does not imply that Celikates’ approach ‘fails’ (ibid, 126) at its task, as Harris seems to imply, because of this residual asymmetry. Firstly, Celikates never claims that the reconstructive ‘process’ is completely equal (143). ‘Obviously’, Celikates writes (149), ‘this cannot mean that the situation is perfectly symmetrical’ since both Critical Theory and psychoanalysis begin by diagnosing a ‘structural reflexivity deficit’. Secondly, unlike external critique, reconstructive critique always starts with the ‘assumption’ that agents, in principle, have at least some reflective capacity and, ultimately, that theorists’ hypotheses cannot be ‘validated’ without the agreement of the addressee (153, 162). Nevertheless, Celikates could go further and formulate a more dialogical (and hence equal) conception of the theorist-addressee relationship by going beyond a model that more involves mere ‘verification’ (167-171).

Thirdly, and finally, Celikates narrowly focuses on the social conditions that hinder the development/exercise of reflective capacities but hardly on the difficulties of changing those problematic social conditions. In short, he homes in on ‘transformation’ (qua critical reflection) of addressees’ ‘self-understanding’ and less on the difficulties of transforming concrete social change when both are essential for emancipation (137-138). For instance, workers could be well aware of how dominating capitalism is but are structurally restricted from organising to democratise their workplaces, e.g. due to anti-union legislation or their union-busting manoeuvres by management.

Overall, Celikates’ work is an important contribution to the question of how critical theorists, given their emancipatory aims, should address the oppressed, however narrow its contours might be set at times.

4 December 2019


  • Harris, Neal 2019 Review of 'Critique as Social Practice: Critical Theory and Social Self-Understanding', by Robin Celikates European Journal of Social Theory 22 (1), pp. 123-126
  • Marx, Karl 1992 ‘Letter to A. Ruge, September 1843’ Karl Marx: Early Writings London, Penguin Classics.
  • Seymour, Kate 2019 Rethinking critical theory between Rancière and the Frankfurt School PhD Thesis. University of Essex.
  • Tully, James 2008 Public Philosophy in a New Key Volume I: Democracy and Civic Freedom Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

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