‘The Specter of Babel: A Reconstruction of Political Judgment’ by Michael J Thompson reviewed by Felipe Taufer

The Specter of Babel: A Reconstruction of Political Judgment

State University of New York Press, Albany, 2020, 380 pp., $32.95 pb
ISBN 9781438480350

Reviewed by Felipe Taufer

About the reviewer

Felipe Taufer is studying for a PhD in Marx’s Critique of Social Ontology at the University of …


The main claim of Michael J. Thompson’s The Specter of Babel is that we have an obligation to disobey any society in which social ends are not committed with the freedom of all its members. To support this claim, Thompson firstly tries to dispel impotent versions of the critique of society and then, he presents a Marxist-Humanist theory of political judgment which he calls a Critical Social Ontology.

To begin with, Thompson provides a very meticulous analysis of how the post-metaphysical turn in Critical Theory is not only uncritical of capitalism but is a theoretical expression of the cybernetic society’s general loss of the capacity of judge (3). This paradigm fails to note how ‘first-order social pathologies’ like reification and relativism constitute not only the modern social relations but also our experience and can reproduce in a reflective, second-order level the pathologies that it is supposed to criticize. This distinction is a very helpful theoretical tool to demonstrate that if our intersubjective experience is pathologically constituted, then theories, like any other form of social consciousness, can also ‘refract’ these pathologies in political judgments (31). In the last forty years, the post-metaphysical turn has tried to ground political judgment in the immanent contexts of the social practice’s experience to avoid foundationalists approaches to critical judgments. In doing so, they became incapable of detaching pathological societies from desirable ones. This is because it seems like they cannot grasp any objective criteria – considered by them as ‘foundational’ – to inform the evaluative dimension of political judgment (307). In Thompson’s account, it seems like all this theoretical trend is stuck in a hall of mirrors (32-33). In my view, the ‘hall of mirrors problem’ is a very powerful objection that, from now on, every intersubjective conception of the immanent critique of contemporary societies must deal with.

One very accurate example of how this ‘refraction’ happens is demonstrated through Thompson’s concept of ‘evaluative implicature’. Normative theories of ‘mutual agreement’ usually claim that in pragmatical contexts of disagreements, the illocutionary force of discourse can achieve consensus through the criteria of generalization and reciprocity. For example, when the homophobic says that ‘homosexuals should not be allowed to marry’ if we think that homophobia is only a matter of that the homophobic is just being unreasonable in that he cannot achieve generality and reciprocity in his judgments, then the exchange of reasons would make him realize that the use of neutral terms of his statement (‘should not’, ‘be allowed to’) does not fit universality. But the homophobic is not just unreasonable, he possesses an evaluative comprehension that distorts what ‘homosexual’ or ‘to marry’ even means. First-order pathologies socialize a series of social groups as homophobic, and they do not interpret such nouns as if they were neutral terms like ‘a person attracted to same-sex people’ or ‘matrimonial institution between two people’. The semantics of this socialization has pathological orientations of values where the nouns connotate ‘deviant and threaten people’ and ‘matrimonial institution between two people with different sex’ (108). ‘Evaluative implicature’ refers then to this deeper pathological structure that does not appear on the pragmatic disagreement. So, the discursive resolution instead of leading to ‘mutual agreement’, can both mystify the fact that these disagreements are about real forms of life and lead to the contrary direction of ‘mutual agreement’. In this vein, it is a ‘refraction’ of ‘first-order pathologies’.

The question then is how to provide a compelling critique of ‘first-order pathologies’ that at the same time is a critique of the forms of social consciousness produced by them? Thompson’s distinctive insight is that this task needs to reclaim the idea of a ‘privileged position’ for critique in a very singular sense (37). The Specter of Babel does not present a return to foundationalist modes of elaborating objective criteria for the critique. It is a reframing of the traditional political problems by giving them an ontological ballast: the problems of justice and freedom are objective in the sense that they are real and practical problems. The objectivity of this ‘privileged position’ relies on the idea that the cognitive content of ‘social concepts’ are real social proprieties, modes, and levels of the world. This thesis is not only a theoretical critique of the ‘post-metaphysical’ turn in social theory but also provides a socio-ontological basis for a new critique of political and social problems. A critique that understands that what needs transformation are the specific social-objective properties that constitute the contemporary content of the social concepts that express how we organize our social life (230). That is a necessary condition to distinguish objectively between pathological and non-pathological societies. The heart of the matter is characterized by Thompson’s illustration of two very specific relations: (a) that between the teleogenetic and the phylogenetic levels; and (b) that one between the modes of social ends and social relations.

The nexus between social relations and their structure is that the nature of ‘social relations’ gives form to the structure of the social ontology. In a capitalist society, money constitutes the basic structure of other social relations such as capital and surplus value. In this case, the kind of specific internal link is that the nature of the relations provides the specific structure of any particular social form. But the relational structure of the reified monetary social relations of capitalism has certain purposes and specific ends that are yielded by our human practices. To say that a relational structure has a social end means that the purpose of the human practices that bring about those relations ‘have a retrogressive causal relation to the other modes’ (249). This means that ends peculiarly shape all other objective modes through specific practices. For example, the imperatives of accumulation of capital produce not only reified social relations of productions, but also the very social role of the members of capitalism’ social ontology: proletarians, capitalists, and their specific targets in the social division of labor. Each social purpose remodels through specific practices other modes, as relations, e.g. As we shall see, the purpose of a particular social scheme is the core of critical judgments. Even if it is not explicit in the book, the idea in the background of this distinctive thesis on social ontology is that Thompson is implicitly suggesting that teleology is an aspect of social being rather than of nature, rationality, or history. It is a sort of a Marxist-Humanist ‘philosophical innovation’ against the traditional role that this concept has played in the History of Political Philosophy.

Thompson also distinguishes five levels of his ontology: phylogenetic, morphogenetic, praxiogenetic, teleogenetic, and ontogenetic. The most important of which is the relation between the phylogenetic and the teleogenetic. The first and phylogenetic level concerns the basic constitutive capacities of human sociality as a species. This level denotes the potentials that can be realized or not, according to the purposes of social life in question (255). Depending on the way they are organized, they can obstruct in pathological ways our social schemes. Since all relational structures have certain social ends, the teleogenetic level endows the organization of our constitutive capacities with a specific function. If the end of a given society is, e.g., the imperatives of capital accumulation, those structural relations will block our constitutive capacities to realize their true purposes of freedom and self-realization unless we not submitted ourselves to the demands of monetary social relations. This level shows how social ends ‘retrogressive’ shape the possibilities of realizing our most constitutive capacities. And the ‘purpose of the relations […] that orient and shape our phylogenetic capacities is, therefore, the crucial keystone to the vault of critical social ontology’ (258).

The key feature of this descriptive social ontology is that a society must be evaluated according to how the basic constitutive capacities of the phylogenetic level are realized. The critical aspect relies on the fact that a society is constituted by properties, modes, and levels that do not allow all its members to realize in a free fashion their constitutive capacities is a social formation that can be regarded objectively as pathological. The next step for Thompson then is to show how the criteria requirements itself can be constructed objectively. He attempts to provide a normative theory of value, practical reason and political judgments that itself as an ontological ballast. Only in doing that Thompson’s Critical Social Ontology can move further from the ‘hall of mirrors problem’ and provide a ‘privileged position’ to distinguish clearly between those desirable societies that worth lives in from those who are not.

What does it mean to say that values have a social ontological nature? It means to say that values are social proprieties of the world discovered through ‘reasons that are resonant with those ends and purposes that are rational, that is, that express and constitute social forms that enhance the realization of human capacities’ (276). E.g., social schemes such as friendship and freedom are social values. But why are these social schemes values? Thompson’s answer is intertwined with its notion that practical reason has a metaphysical infrastructure, one that allows us to submit the existential relations between the constitutive capacities of human activities and the ends that shape their modes of existence to a critical analysis.

Practical reason has a metaphysical structure that shows how social schemas articulate their social existence. We can verify then whether the social purposes realize or distort social freedom: in case of only one side is benefited, there is some pathology that does not allow members to self-accomplish each other. The metaphysical infrastructure of reason analyzes the actual relational structures that form a friendship and tells where it realizes the potential of its members. Social schemes are not intrinsically natural values ​​nor abstract principles. They are values ​​with ontological ballast and imply ‘structural-relational features, norms, practices, and purposes that make it friendship’. The same can be said in a broader fashion of the relation between capitalism and freedom precisely because the substance of value ‘consists of the ways that the concrete social-ontological structures of reality are shaped, and these shapes are constitutive of the social reality we inhabit (278). And here Thompson does not see himself as a foundationalist about the role values play in informing the ‘privileged position’ of the critique. Rather, he believes that this constitutive-evaluative approach is immanent to all social contexts. Capitalism has some kind of partially unrealized values in its relational structures.

But what kinds of judgments does this reason can address based on this ontological notion of values? They have ‘the capacity to achieve judgment with ontological coherence’. This is because it understands the relation of social appearance (the partially unrealized values) with ‘relations […], and purposes that constitute our given social context as well as insight into the social totality that provides the context for it’ (291). Their task is to start from the ontic layer of social reality and inquire about the processes that make the ontic layer appear as it appears. These judgments seek to understand why contents reflexively appear through a specific form. In the case of capitalist societies, why does a coat appear as a commodity and not as a use-value? Why do cooperative labor relations are destined to surplus value and not to satisfy our phylogenetic status? Critical-ontological judgments assume that the social being is endowed with basic constitutive capacities and inquire whether social forms or specific social schemes are ‘coherent’ with the phylogenetic level of our species-being. Only through an investigation about the deeper ontological characteristics of capitalism we can see why its specific mode of appearance mystifies its own normative presuppositions to have freedom as its social value. Do the ends of the social relations we inhabit enhance the realization of these constitutive capacities’ potential in a free way or not? Ontological coherence refers to a form of life in which the social ends shape the basic constitutive capacities to realize social freedom – one should note that this commits Thompson’s ‘privileged position’ with a sort of ethical perfectionism very similar to those Humanist readings of Marx in the late sixties.

These judgments account for a fundamental question of political philosophy: ‘Does φ warrant my obligation?’ (293). Does a family whose end is not love warrant my obligation? Does capitalist society, which aims not at human freedom and the development of our constitutive capacities, but the imperatives of capital accumulation, warrant my obligation? If and only if we take that φ has an ontological status, then we can make use of the notion of ontological coherence in political judgments. Hence, this informs an objective critique to answer, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The cognitive content that informs the answer to ‘Does φ warrant my obligation?’ implies a twofold gerundive statement: ‘(i) Does institution X warrant my obligation? […] (ii) What function or end, ψ, does institution X realize?’ (296). The objects of evaluation can be specific institutions as well as the entire form of society. Here is one of great merits of this book: not only a contribution to the source of normativity in political philosophy, but a new sort of realism in metaethics. The main insight here is that values are social properties of the world. This differs both from the non- and reductionist versions of naturalism about values.

Thompson’s reconstruction of political judgment focuses on ‘the relative rationality or defectiveness of the associational structures, practices, and goods that any social scheme instantiates’ (322-23). I believe that at this moment his theory of critical-ontological judgments re-updates the notion of class consciousness to criticize social pathologies. Here is the very Marxist-Humanist aspect of class consciousness that gives rise to expanded autonomy: ‘any member […] must be able to judge how the association is shaped and what purposes or ends it is put to’ (323). If we remember Lukács’ very famous theory of reification, the concept of class consciousness has a normative implication that what it blocks for proletarians is a self-conscious grasp of social totality. Lukács resolution to this problem is that the normative and historical notion of ‘class consciousness’ amounts to a social process that overcomes the reified structures of the social proprieties that constitute the social ontology of capitalism. Here, ‘expanded autonomy’ has the same function concerning social pathologies, but it is not restricted to a collective extension of the Kantian notion of autonomy. For collective autonomous subjects also identify and verify ‘social schemes that could potentially enhance our freedom as processual and relational beings’ (324). Concerning political obligation, the concept of ‘expanded autonomy’ amounts to social groups that learn to present critical judgments – which has the function to answer questions such as: ‘How does a given institution or norm violate the purposes of associational life? (325). Thus, the responsibility of those collectivities is not merely a formal one; it is a responsibility able to discern when it is a duty to disobey a society at its more fundamental level. That responsibility makes any society in which the social end is not the freedom of all its members – say, a pathological society – prone to disobedience (336). It is not hard to see then why this book is a stunningly ambition to recover the classical Enlightenment approach on objective responsibility.

The Specter of Babel does not come without any problems. From a ‘historical determinedness’ perspective, it can be said that this phylogenetic conception of social ontology is at least a ‘thin essentialism’. This is because constitutivism about what are the real social ends of societies always has some a-historical – and perhaps even foundationalist – assumption about how our social existence should be organized. Besides that, Thompson’s critical social ontology is the specter that surrounds us like class consciousness theories were at the beginning of the past century. The main claim of the book is a lesson about how theory can be dangerous again. After all, no Marxist or Critical Theorist has attempted to answer this specific sort of normative task since Lukács and Adorno. In doing so, Thompson seeks to systematize the vertigo of our falling civilization. But as someone once said: ‘where the danger lies, also grows the saving power’. This powerful and rebel book is more aware of this than any other.

* This study was financed in part by the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior – Brasil (CAPES) – Finance Code 001.

11 December 2021

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