An Epistemology of Their Own: Why Iraqis Should Embrace Critical Theory

The wording of the final in Scopes was as hilarious as the concept was brilliant. Imagine you’ve been hired to teach political science in Iraq, it begins, You’re tickled pink. But what epistemological approaches are essential to teach to understand the real world of Iraqi politics?.

The full question is several paragraphs long, It provided a fun way for students to synthesize the various approaches that been taught in this class. Below is my Scopes & Methods final, which argues that the most appropriate method would be Critical Theory. I tried to work in some humor, as well. Sorry for that.

Adapting to my role as a political science professor in Baghdad (I a student who still has a final to write for Scopes and Methods!), I looked out the window as the Department Chair puts on her chador. “Well,” I began, “I think a Critical Theory approach would be best because…”‘

“Critical Theory?!” roars a large and well armed man behind me. “You would teach our students a godless, Marxist epistemology?!?” I recognized him as a uniformed soldier in the Badr Brigades, the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. A “sciri” and well armed opponent, if I dreamt of tenure — or my life.

“Not at all…” I begin, and just in time too. I realized that while I was recognizing his political affiliation he was lifting his AK-47 to point uncomfortably precisely to my chest. “You see, many people conflate critical theory with Marxism because of the Marxist Critical Theoreticians of the Frankfurter School. But Critical Theory does not have to be Marxist…”

He spits. “The Godless Marxists, they are imperialists and a blight on our lands!”

I feared for my life, yet recognized that I could not let an epistemological blunder go uncorrected. After all, the brave, remaining faculty of the U. Baghdad (“Go Mujahideen!”) political science department had entrusted me.

“My friend – Marx’s well known discussion on India, cited in Avineri, may indeed prove that politically Marxism is imperialist. Yet epistemologically, Marxism refers to a belief in dialectical materialism. That is, the belief that material conditions are in a dialectical relationship with the social world and the world of ideals. It does not imply the absence of God, and the teleological nature of Marxism implies that Paradise is awaiting us.”

But the man was not deterred. (He was one of the badder fellow I met, I pondered.) “Marx was an apostle of that blasphemer Hegel (thus spake Warren), who predicted the apocalypse in the early 19th century! The liar!” Here, again, my training got the better of me. “While Marxism and Hegelianism are both based on the dialectic…”

“Who’s going to die?!?” he shouted. The chair ducked under her desk. Apparently, that was a touchy syllable.
“I said dialectic — as in dialog. A binary opposition of two things creating something newer, and more fit. Thesis, synthesis, antithesis – all that jazz you remember from Galtung.”

“Ah!” said the SCIRI soldier. “In the way that the supernatural beauty of the Holy Koran can interact with the fallen filth of humanity, creating the Holy Sharia — God’s plan for us on earth?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Although that would be Hegelian, not Marxist. You see, while both Hegel and Marx emphasized this dialectic — this collusion of opposites — as the pathway to understanding, Hegel focused on the world of ideas, while Marx focused on the world of things.”

“Ahh….” he responded, and I continued my impromptu lecture. “Further, Hegel’s concept of the End of History references the formulation of what he thought was the perfect non-self-contradictory ideology of freedom. He did not mean the world would literally end.”

I could tell our well armed friend was calming down. He even began polishing his bayonet, instead of making worrying shoving actions with it. The chair emerged from her desk. “So a Muslim Hegelian might say that the synthesis of the Holy Sharia liberates us from what imprisons us, and thus the assembly of it by the Caliph Omar (peace by upon him) would be the end of history — if not the end of this world?”

“Exactly!” I responded. “So, to begin my answer, a Critical Theory…”

At this time the fellows of the Mahdi Army must have been conducting their patrols, because now a second gunman entered the ream. “Critical Theory? Like being critical? What a cruel philosophy!” And before he could pronounce death on all cruel philosophers, words taught to me in Scopes and Methods (which I had not yet received my final grade in, strangely enough) came to my mouth:

“Critical Theory is positivist — and then some. Critical Theory is facts and a direction for those facts. In the same way that a vector is a magnitude and a direction, a Critical Theory are facts and a direction. Marxism as a critical theory would be Marx’s positivist study of capitalism combined with his direction for a worker’s paradise, while…

“… while the wise political planning of our leader, Muqtada al Sadr, is a Critical Theory, because it combines his scientific knowledge of the ills of Iraq with a normative view of how Iraq should be? And its test for truth or falsity would not be merely in a lab or journal article, but in seeing of those theories are implemented in practice?” I saw that the local madrassas had been graduating quick minds.

“Yes,” I answered, silently questioning his appraisal of his leader. “Islam can be a Critical Theory, if you combine a knowledge of what is with a belief in what should be. It is not just the application of science to society, as John Stuart Mill did…”

… and Nagel related!”

“ and Nagel related, but the application of society to science. Critical Theory should aim for liberation…”
“… in the same way that our Jihad will liberate souls from the oppressive social conditions of materialism!”

“Yes,” I said, again with silent qualifications. Their summary of Critical Theory was good enough, so why bother to correct. “And you see, Madam Chairwoman that Critical Theory..”

“CRITICAL THEORY” roared yet another soldier, this one was a drugged, angry look. He appeared to be a escaped People’s Mujahid, part of a crazy anti-Iranian terrorist group known to be lurking in the area. I sighed at yet the prospect of yet another clarification.


“I think you mean Interpretivism,” I interrupted. “Read Taylor and free yourself of your ignorance.” Having convinced the SCIRI and Mahdi men, I was feeling more confident in my abilities. “It is interpretivism that focuses on holistic understanding. Indeed, intrepretivist studies can take years to conduct, because they force one to understand something from as many sides as possible. As Fay wrote, meanings are not indepndent of each other but rather interrelated. Then, the interpretivist has to form these into a story, and tell that story to the people involved. It is only if they agree with that story that it becomes ‘true.’ Interestingly, the epistemeology of interpretivism appears derived from the psychological theory of constructivism, originally devised by Jena Pia…”

“Ah, I see,” said the latest gunman, interuppted me. “Please continue.”

“No problem, of course.” I graciously respond. I see the Chair becoming impatient for me to continue, so I start once more. “Critical Theory…”

“is a bunch of baloney, I’m afraid, ol’ chap.” I twirl around, and see none other than the very model of a modern major general (HRM British Army). “You see, my dear chum, Karl Popper clearly established that if a theory isn’t falsifiable, it isn’t scientific. I’m quite familiar with the details of Critical Theory, and I know of no empirical test it can be subjected to that would show it is incorrect.”

“Yes….” I answer, until I notice a slight growl. Ah, yes, British formality. “Yes, sir. Yet what you are saying, because Karl Popper defined science as a form of positivism, is that Critical Theory is not positivist. Of course that is true. They are different epistemologies — different ways of knowing. In the same way, Positivism isn’t Critical Theory because positivism has no normative direction for social change. You cannot judge one epistemology in terms of another.”

Trying to wrap up my answer, I addressed the Chairwoman and continued as before “So, ma’am, I believe that Critical Theory…”

From the hallway now, the tiniest, pipsqweek voice. Obviously a small child. Must be a war orphan. “My father taught us that Critical Theory is merely a reaction to positivism that teaches that science — indeed, all knowledge — is organized around paradigms. These paradigms are perspectives or sets of exemplars. It is very hard if not impossible to compare the state of knowledge of one paradigm with..”

“That’s Kuhnian logic, from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. You’re confused.” I was becoming agitated. “To get back to my point, Critical Theory…”

“Critical Theory is…” and I was not able to continue until another young, armed, man pushed his way to the beginning of our assembly. Unidentifiable rabble, from the look of him. “Here’s a theory I’m critical of. Phenemonology. What’s up with that? Believing that all knowledge has to focus on subjective and intersubjective elements and relations. Apparently, completing discounting the objective world. That’s nonsense! And they know it!”

“While you accurately described Phenomenology, that’s not a Critical Theory. That’s being critical of a theory. I explained the difference already. Now, Critical Theory is the best choice for Iraq because..”

“… because it will liberate women against an oppressive patriarch?,” uninterrupted… could it be… Paul Wolfowitz. Huh? Well, strangely enough there he was. In our office. With the gunmen and a not-yet-seen orphan. The trials of an academic, apparently. “No, that’s feminism. Feminism is a form of critical theory, that’s oriented against a supposed patriarchy. Feminism can first assume that there are innate differences or not between the sexes, and thus advocate different approaches. These approaches can be more or less wise. For instance, a particularly idiotic approach would be to invade a country like Iraq and expect a disproportionately female parliament to enact reforms that fit with the “feminine” construct of Western Civilization. But that’s not my point. My point is that Critical Theory…”

and I stopped. I guess I must have expected someone to interrupt me. But of course, no one did. Just me, the chair, the gunmen, the orphan, and the unhelpful President of the World Bank. “He can’t answer the question. That’s why he’s delaying. You shouldn’t hired someone who hasn’t even comped yet as a professor,” said President Wolfowitz. The chair stared coldly at me.

“Critical Theory…” I began once again… “Critical Theory is the best epistemology to teach in Iraq. I would focus my instruction around Critical Theory?”

“That’s a great idea,” said Wolfowitz dismissively.

“Critical Theory is best for Iraq because of it’s combination of positivism and normative objectives. It’s collection of facts is essentially positivist, so it avoids the nonsense of feminism, the bizarre faith in negation of dialecticism, or the tediousness of interpretivism. If we are to do anything, we need facts. Just as if we are to go somewhere in the car, we need to actually be in the car. But we also need a direction. We need to go somewhere…”

“Of course.” More than a hint of sarcasm in Wolfowitz’s voice.

Because the current situation sucks.” I answered. “That’s a normative statement, and I don’t care. When you met me, Madame Chair, you said you already lost several faculty. What sort of insane, injustice is that? That’s intolerable we need to change How can we academics sit still, while our country is in ruins. We need to do something! We need to educate people! We need to show them. We need to develop a theory that’s also a program of doing. A ‘new map’ of the world that’s also a ‘blueprint for action.’ And when that program wins, only when it wins, then it will be ‘true.'”

“Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” Wolfowitz. The sarcasm again. Always the sarcasm. I hate that man.
“Here,” I said, turning my face towards the former deputy defense secretary, and trying to put this in terms he could understand. “I once heard a Professor at the Naval War College, who worked in an office with you, describe Pentagon force transformation. When asked whether the force transformation program was proscriptive – showing what should happen — or descriptive — showing what is happening — he answered “yes.” That’s the epistemology of Critical Theory. Truth is only established when the theory works on the ground. When the rubber means the road.”

“Ah…” he said. I could see all understood, as well.

“Critical Theory is best for Iraq,” I strongly spoke. Here was the answer to the Chairwoman’s question, at last. “It avoids the pitfalls of nonsense. It avoids the pitfalls of unconcern. It cares for social justice and a restructruing of society — in Iraq’s case, to a society where the death rate for professors at this University (“Go Mujahideen!”) is less than one a day. We must, as Fay commands us, unite theory and practice. That’s what we need to be concerned about: not theory or practice, but theory and practice. Critical Theory Today! Critical Theory Tomorrow!”

“Critical Theory forever!” the room erupted the exclamation. Even Wolfowitz was smiling.

“Thanks for the explanation” said the Chairwoman. But I just wanted an answer, not an essay. Anyway, get to class. Iraqi Scopes & Methods began five minutes ago.”

6 thoughts on “An Epistemology of Their Own: Why Iraqis Should Embrace Critical Theory”

  1. Very interesting, though it tells us nothing about the facts and the direction…and only vaguely how they interact.

    Anyway, Dan, you should write a novel. Socio-Sci-Fi, I think.

    Are you familiar with David Gerrold's “Mode Training,” from his Chtorr series? Many people have asked him if it's authentic — does it exist or can it exist or should it exist — and he usually responds with exasperation that It's fiction, folks! But you are coming close to describing it for your theory on polisci in Iraq…

  2. “In my book, A Rage For Revenge, one of the characters postulates 'modes.' That human beings have different operating paradigms, which we choose according to the circumstances.” –from his blog:

    (A bit down the page; search for “modes.”)

    Really, explaining Mode Training would require the entire third book in the series, which was a significant interlude in the action/plot of the total (as-yet unfinished) series. The Chtorr are an alien species, then turn out to be an entire alien ecology, that invades Earth, with no discernible intelligent species apparently behind the ecological invasion. The action of the series begins after Earth has been devastated by viruses, killing a huge chunk of the population, and massive geopolitical changes. The alien ecology begins to appear, swamping Earth ecology, which include large man-eating voracious worms among other species. Of the relatively small number of human survivors, many are “walking wounded” — psychologically wounded, because most of the old operating paradigms have been destroyed.

    A Dr. Foreman teaches Mode Training to a select few agents of what order remains. (Government subsidized.) In a nutshell, the agents — soldiers, politicians, scientists… — are trained to discover which operating mode will lead to the outcomes they desire. Because facts are constantly shifting, a significant focus of the training is learning to determine what is actual, and from there being able to shift into the “mode” that will carry the individual through the circumstances to the desired outcome.

    Naturally, achieving such an operational ability requires the extermination of psychological “baggage,” or old modes which operate regardless of actual circumstance — i.e., the extermination of habitual paradigmatic operational modes. Interestingly, however, even modes created to fit a present circumstance cannot be allowed to solidify into perpetual paradigms, since future circumstances may require their own peculiar operating modes. (So, no creation of new baggage allowed!)

  3. I forgot to mention: Not only is he working on the next installment (at a slow pace!), but one of his blog entries mentions that he's planning to hook up with a trainer and creating an actual Mode Training.

    BTW, *Mode Training* is something from the “sci-fi universe” that I have thought has received far too little attention. The only other idea from sci-fi that seems quite important for our present world, also almost completely overlooked, is Samuel Delany's concept of *Cultural Fugue*, from “Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand” — another unfinished series which the author is suppose to be working on completing.

  4. Curtis,

    Interesting! “Mode” seems to cut across fields.

    My first thought is that a mode is a domain, as I learned in Human Cognition & Instruction. [1] Knowledge and action is extremely domain specific — information learned intoxicated in a dark, small room is harder to recall while sober in a large well-lit room, for instance. This is why mentoring is such a great form of instruction — you may not learn any more (though you probably do), but the recall environment is very similar to the learning environment.

    Then, I wondered if a mode is an epistemology, like in Scopes. An epistemology is a way of knowing, a way of separating what's true from what's false. It's not a thing one knows but a thing that guides what one knows.

    Last, the post you linked to on the Nazi within made me think of Howard Bloom — particular The Lucifer Principle [2] and Global Brain [3]. TLP argues that the behaviors we consider “evil” are those that we are built to perform, while GB discusses how the modes of individuals are socially selected (depending on social environment, a cell may be a divider, a gatherer, an explorer, etc.). (Despite his roots on the Left, Bloom is something of an evolutionary biologist, and sees no hope of changing these impulses or the societies they help form.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *