Critique of Pure Nonsense: A Case Study in The Vacuousness of Contemporary Conservative Commentary on Critical Race Theory

by Joseph Shieber

Is now the time when we criticize white oppression?

I first became aware of the historian Allen Guelzo’s work due to a mention in a recent newspaper column — just not the mention that, if you’re active on Twitter (and particularly philosophy Twitter), you might be expecting.

In a glowing review in the Washington Post, George Will praised Guelzo’s new biography of Robert E. Lee for Guelzo’s unwillingness to buy in to the hagiography associated with the reverence for Lee that characterized so many 20th century assessments.

Here’s a sample:

Lee, Guelzo writes, “raised his hand” against the nation that, as an Army officer, he had sworn to defend. He did so for an agenda that a much greater man, Ulysses S. Grant, called one of “the worst for which a people ever fought.” Lee thought slavery was a “greater evil” to White people than to Black people. He enveloped himself in what Guelzo calls a “cloud of pious wishes” and decided, as Guelzo tartly says, “it was up to the whites to decide when enough was enough.” Guelzo writes that to Lee, slavery’s victims were “invisible, despite their presence all around.” His indifference was “cruelty in self-disguised velvet.” Not well disguised, when he presided at the whipping of three recaptured runaways, ordering a constable to “lay it on well.”

Given the care that Guelzo obviously devotes to getting the details right in his widely praised historical works, it was surprising for me to see that he was being roasted on Twitter for some glaringly inaccurate pronouncements on Kant.

The impetus for the derision being heaped on Guelzo was a column — again in the Washington Post — in which Marc Thiessen attempted “to explain CRT [Critical Race Theory] and why it is so dangerous”.

In that column, Thiessen refers to Guelzo’s analysis of CRT on an American Enterprise Institute podcast, with Thiessen and Danielle Pletka, from June 23, 2021. In the Post column, Thiessen summarizes Guelzo’s view as follows:

Critical race theory, Guelzo says, is a subset of critical theory that began with Immanuel Kant in the 1790s. It was a response to — and rejection of — the principles of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason on which the American republic was founded. Kant believed that “reason was inadequate to give shape to our lives” and so he set about “developing a theory of being critical of reason,” Guelzo says.

Given Guelzo’s obvious bona fides as an academic historian — before joining the James Madison Project at Princeton as an administrator, Guelzo was the Director of Civil War Era Studies and the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — I was unwilling to believe that Thiessen’s summary of Guelzo’s discussion of Kant was accurate, so I went to the transcript of the podcast.

Unfortunately, Thiessen’s characterization of Guelzo’s understanding of Kant is accurate, although Guelzo’s inaccuracies about Kant are more complicated than the brief summary Thiessen offers in his column.

Guelzo does in fact trace Critical Race Theory back to Kant, by way of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment. He suggests: “… we usually call this reaction to the Enlightenment [in the late 18th century], we call it romanticism, and it had its philosophers as well as composers and artists, and that is where critical theory begins. The hinge figure here is Immanuel Kant.”

So far as it goes, this potted history of reactions to the Enlightenment is not completely wrong. The standard outline of the development of European philosophy would be a move from the ascendance of the Enlightenment through the middle part of the 18th century — with challenges arising from within Enlightenment thought itself — to reactions to Enlightenment thought from the increasingly influential Romantic movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Furthermore, it is also true that Kant was a — if not the — “hinge figure” in this period, and one who was cited as a crucial influence by the leading thinkers of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment.

Where Guelzo goes completely off the rails, however, is in his attempt to understand Kant’s philosophy. Here’s what he says on the AEI podcast:

So [Kant] says, what can we know for certain? Well, if we rely strictly on reason, we discover that reason only works on what our physical senses tell us, and that’s not much. Reason can’t penetrate into the essence of things. Some other tool was needed to reach what he called the thing in itself. So, to brush back the influence of reason, Kant develops a critique of reason, a critical theory, if you will. And he does this by asking a series of skeptical questions about reason. All right, here’s question number one. When reason asks, what is, or what is not, how comprehensive is that question, really? Is something failing? Is something being held back there? Question number two, when you become hesitant about reason’s strength in asking questions, then ask this, why are you asking this question? What is really motivating you?

… Question three, when you become self-conscious of the real motivations for your reasoning, then, ah, that’s when you see how little reason can penetrate to the real lessons of things and you awake to a new reality. And that reality is that reason has blinded you. That is critical theory … It is a procedure for unmasking one’s real motivations and the real nature of things.

Again, there’s some connection to the sort of potted presentation of Kant that one might get in an introductory philosophy lecture: “Reason can’t penetrate into the essence of things,” or “the thing in itself”. But what’s crazy to me are the “series of skeptical questions about reason” that Guelzo attributes to Kant. Those are just not to be found in Kant at all.

It’s true that Kant describes his own theory as “critical” — three of his most prominent works are the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason, and the Critique of Judgment. However, it is not possible to recognize the actual Kant in Guelzo’s slapdash portrayal.

First, Kant’s critical philosophy was a reaction to developments within Enlightenment thought itself that threatened the entire Enlightenment project. In particular, Kant credited David Hume’s skepticism regarding the relation of cause and effect as having prodded him out of his “dogmatic slumber”.

Second, Kant understood his critical philosophy as a way to come to the aid of reason, to put reason on a firmer footing than it currently enjoyed. In other words, the result of Kant’s critical engagement with Hume’s challenge to pure experience as a foundation for knowledge, as Kant writes in the Preface to the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, was an attempt to strengthen the standing of reason — or, as Kant puts it, of “pure understanding”. Kant writes:

I proceeded to the deduction of these concepts, which I was now certain were not deduced from experience, as Hume had apprehended, but sprang from the pure understanding. This deduction (which seemed impossible to my acute predecessor, which had never even occurred to any one else, though no one had hesitated to use the concepts without investigating the basis of their objective validity) was the most difficult task ever undertaken in the service of metaphysics; and the worst was that metaphysics, such as it then existed, could not assist me in the least, because this deduction alone can render metaphysics possible. But as soon as I had succeeded in solving Hume’s problem not merely in a particular case, but with respect to the whole faculty of pure reason, I could proceed safely, though slowly, to determine the whole sphere of pure reason completely and from general principles, in its circumference as well as in its contents. This was required for metaphysics in order to construct its system according to a reliable plan.

Third, even a brief internet search of the keywords “Kant Enlightenment” would yield, as the first results, links to Kant’s famous essay, “What is Enlightenment?” It is a beautiful essay — and one of the most impassioned pleas for Enlightenment values that you could imagine.

In the very first paragraph, Kant defines “Enlightenment [as] man’s emergence from his self-imposed … inability to use [his] own understanding without another’s guidance.” Kant describes this inability as “self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”

In the essay, Kant identifies close-mindedness and a resistance to public discussion as the enemy of enlightenment:

This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue–drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue–pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!” … We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.

This is a far cry from Guelzo’s description of Kant as focusing on reason’s having “blinded you” — or from Guelzo’s suggestion that “the great weakness of [Kant’s] critical theory [is that if] the only purpose of questions is to serve the interests of a dominant or oppressive class, then no question that you ask about the truth of a situation or the truth of an event or the truth of a proposition, none of that kind of questioning about truth has any meaning.”

Fourth, Guelzo’s account linking Kant to CRT rests on an absolutely bonkers conception of historical causation that underwrites the entire discussion. Indeed, this is perhaps the most glaring problem with Guelzo’s discussion of Kant, given Guelzo’s profession as an historian.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The idea of the fallacy is that, simply because one event follows another event, we’re not allowed to conclude solely on that basis — without additional evidence tying the two events together causally — that the first event causally contributed to the second event. (Hume rears his head again! Look it up.)

Guelzo’s whirlwind tour of 18th – 20th century intellectual history is one long cavalcade of post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies. Of course, the podcast hosts don’t push back on any of them, but the mere fact that Guelzo feels so comfortable trotting them out is itself remarkable. It’s as if someone said that George Washington was responsible for the My Lai massacre, simply because we can trace an historical line running from George Washington to My Lai.

Finally, it is worth remarking that, although Kant is not well-suited as a bogeyman for Guelzo’s just-so story about the origins of CRT, Kant himself actually serves as an interesting case study for the resonance of racist thought in the Western philosophical tradition — and the ways that racist thought has gone unacknowledged for so long.

The reason for this is that there is increasing awareness of the fact that, despite his avowed allegiance to the universalist principles of the Enlightenment, Kant himself expressed a — to quote Robert Bernasconi — “virulent and theoretically based racism” in his own work.

At the end of the AEI podcast with Thiessen and Pletka, Guelzo suggests five strategies for countering the teachings of CRT:

First of all, establish its non-rationality. … Now, take critical theory out of its disguises, strip it of those disguises and show that it is fundamentally non-rational.

Second, second point, embarrass critical race theory. Show its fundamental family similarity to conspiracy theories, like the Grassy Knoll, like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Conspiracy theories function in the same way. … Embarrass critical race theory by pointing out how much it lives up to what Richard Hofstadter, a great American historian once called the paranoid style in American politics.

Third, complicate it. Critical race theory likes to function by one size fits all categories. But one size fits all categories like people of color, indigenous, one size fits all categories defy the disparateness of reality.

Fourth, establish critical race theory’s conflict with our basic human desire to know the truth.

Lastly, show critical race theory’s historical roots. In other words, show that critical race theory is a historical narrative just like all the other narratives it pretends to critique.

Ironically, the ludicrousness of Thiessen, Pletka, and Guelzo’s discussion serves as excellent fodder for using those five strategies to counter the teachings of Anti-CRT!

First, point out the irrationality of Anti-CRT. To take just one example from what is a genuinely crazy podcast, the co-host Marc Thiessen links Nazism, Marxism, and CRT because all three movements oppose oppression: “… for the Nazis, the Jews were the oppressors. For the Marxists, the kulaks and the bourgeoisie were the oppressors. And today, in 21st century America, the whites are the oppressors.”

Second, embarrass Anti-CRT. We’ve already seen Guelzo’s face-plant on Kant’s views. Bizarrely, in the very quote in which he recommends embarrassment as a strategy against CRT, Guelzo again (!) embarrasses himself by misrepresenting Richard Hofstadter’s critique of the paranoid style in American politics.

(Just as a reminder, here’s what Hofstadter himself says about the paranoid style: “the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.”)

Third, complicate Anti-CRT. Well, yes. That’s what I’ve been doing.

Fourth, establish the conflict between Anti-CRT and our basic human desire to know the truth. See here, here, and here.

Lastly, show the historical roots of Anti-CRT. Done and done.

I’ll leave the last words to Kant.

In “What is Enlightenment?”, Kant considers what we ought to respond to the question, “Are we now living in an enlightened age?” Kant continues, “the answer is, No, but we live in an age of enlightenment. As matters now stand it is still far from true that men are already capable of using their own reason … confidently and correctly …. Still, we have some obvious indications that the field of working toward the goal is now opened. What is more, the hindrances against general enlightenment or the emergence from self-imposed [inability to use our own reason] are gradually diminishing. In this respect this is the age of the enlightenment …”