PNM Theory is Critical Theory (That’s a good thing)

I’ve long enjoyed grand strategist ‘s “PNM Theory” — the Pentagon’s New Map paradigm that emphasizes connectivity, rulesets, and globalization. However, an old comment of his puzzled me. Once, when asked whether PNM Theory was descriptive (accurately describing the real) or prescriptive (wise advice for decision makers), he answered “Yes. Both.”

This week’s reading in Scopes & Methods made me realize that Dr. Barnett wasn’t being humorous, but was honestly answering the question. “Critical Theory” holds that the only way that a thing can be true is if it happens, erasing the traditional distinction between theory and practice. A “true’ Critical Theory is both a description and a prescription, because the testing of its description is prescribed political action.

Critical Theory has long been associated with Marxism, so it’s natural that Barnett’s quasi-Marxist PNM Theory is a critical theory. CT also has a model of human thought that is very similar to John Boyd’s OODA Loop, which is often used in military strategy. In Critical Theory, one makes different types of decisions based on whether thought is from unconscious orientation or conscious decision, and that both conscious and unconscious thoughts feedback into observation just as much as they feed forward into action.

Below the fold you’ll find my reaction paper for this week, which is on critical theory. It’s not as good as last week’s perfect paper on interpretivism, but it ain’t bad either.


Richard Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory, (pp. 173-236), (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976.

Brian Fay. Social Theory and Political Practice. (pp. 92-110), London: Allen and Unwin., 1975.

I have had a hard time with this reaction paper because it is difficult to defend the obvious. The validity and naturalness of critical theory are clear to me. The trend of increasing “science with a human face” from positivism to interpretivism is continued in this shift from interpretivism to critical theory. Interpretivism is a profoundly natural theory, that’s already in use in respectable places.

Bernstein’s description of the original meaning of “politics” paints it as a moral activity. In today’s world ethics and politics seem far apart, but politics was intended to be the application of ethics to civic life.
While trying to come up with a reaction paper, the words of Saint Paul kept bouncing in my head. Four times he used faith, hope, and love as a troika, most famously as: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” To me, critical theory is similar, but would render those lines “And now these three remain: truth, and victory, and politics, but the greatest of these is politics.”

That critical theory is concerned with truth isn’t surprising. After all, any epistemology has to be concerned with truth somehow. Critical theory differs from interpretivism and politics in its emphasis on victory, but does not hide from this: “truth or falsify of these theories will be partially determined by whether they are in fact translated into action” and “a critical theory is not divorced from social practice.” These are harmonized in critical theory’s final goal, politics, whether in Bernstein’s explicit formulation or Faye’s euphemisms (“conscious-raising groups” for “agitation-propaganda.”).

As humans are moral animals, how could it be otherwise? Humans are not robots, and so a strict positivism (“these are just the things that are”) or even interpretivist (“these are just the things that are intersubjectively meaningful”) would lead to a cold science. They would also be distorting, as it would imply that true positivism or true interpretivism was used to derive them — instead of previous applications of morals, ethics, and perspective (that is, critical theory).

That said, critical theory does not reject previous approaches like interpretivism or positivism. Indeed, they make up critical theory, as bays and seas make up the ocean. Critical theory is more a guide of how to use interpretivism and positivism, rather than a replacement. Critical theory gives us the direction, and interpretivism would give us the semantic, meaningful context of whatever we are studying. Likewise positivism has its place, too. Within the direction to victory provided by critical theory, within the context provided by interpretivism, positivism has a role to play.

For instance, a critical theory in favor of increased public health would focus everything on that need. It would find context from interpretivism, finding that many residents do not agree there is adequate health care, so adequate health care’s presence isn’t “true.” With that positivism can help, giving us empirical knowledge that certain routes are difficult to drive, that statistically fewer people can travel this road or that, etc.

Last, the image critical theory has been harmed by its association with the Frankfurt School Marxists, but this unfair. Critical theory is very similar to “grand strategy,” in that it is an overriding guide for anyone to what is true and good. For instance, anti-Communism itself is a critical theory, because actions that help destroy Communist power were evaluated positively.

0 thoughts on “PNM Theory is Critical Theory (That’s a good thing)”

  1. Interesting post. I agree that critical theory involves a claim about the relationship between subject (researcher) and object (empirical inquiry) and the fact/value dichotomy that is, in principle, amenable to a lot of different “approaches.” Realism, for example, is a critical theory with respect to liberalism and liberal societies. Nevertheless, certain forms of “positivism” (a term we've stretched beyond any coherent meaning in the field, but what the heck), in affirming the fact/value dichotomy, are less “critical” than other ways of thinking about scientific analysis.

  2. Dr. Nexon,

    Certainly Mearsheimer's version of Realism seems to be a Critical Theory, because it seems to combine prescription and description, but isn't traditional realism either generally prescriptive (Machiavelli's list of what works) or descriptive (Morgenthau), but not Critical.

    The “critical” in Critical Theory, at least as it was taught in this class, means the theory is inseperable from an overriding normative objective, not just that contradicts other theories or uses other theories as examples of what not to do.

    Is this not the general meaning of the term? I'm not experienced enough to tell.

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