A Critical Essay on the Exercise of Critique

On the Impossibility of Reconciling Ontology and Epistemology

In: Danish Yearbook of Philosophy
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Ontology and epistemology will never be reconciled, this article argues. There is widespread opinion among scientists and laymen alike that we are standing at the threshold of a fusion and reconciliation of ontology (being, what the world is) and epistemology (acknowledgement theory, how the world is). But my thesis is that this will never happen – and my argument can be read as a credo for non-identity. The tensions between being and thinking are here to stay, and this philosophical ‘position’ has a wide range of implications for politics, education, Bildung and thinking. Strongly rooted in Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s philosophy, it is claimed that he was right in emphasizing that the non-identical must be honored, defended and emancipated. The vivid dream is that conceptual work opens and ‘dignifies’ the non-identical, while the non-identical ‘longs for’ conceptual assistance so it can come to exist among us.


Ontology and epistemology will never be reconciled, this article argues. There is widespread opinion among scientists and laymen alike that we are standing at the threshold of a fusion and reconciliation of ontology (being, what the world is) and epistemology (acknowledgement theory, how the world is). But my thesis is that this will never happen – and my argument can be read as a credo for non-identity. The tensions between being and thinking are here to stay, and this philosophical ‘position’ has a wide range of implications for politics, education, Bildung and thinking. Strongly rooted in Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s philosophy, it is claimed that he was right in emphasizing that the non-identical must be honored, defended and emancipated. The vivid dream is that conceptual work opens and ‘dignifies’ the non-identical, while the non-identical ‘longs for’ conceptual assistance so it can come to exist among us.


If the thought really yielded to the object, if its attention were on the object, not on its category, the very objects would start talking under the lingering eye.1

Disenchantment of the concept is the antidote of philosophy.2

theodor wiesengrund adorno, Negative Dialektik

If the philosopher intervenes in the world and delivers high-pitched ideas and feisty concepts, then (s)he is highly unlikely to understand or experience things such as works of art or unforeseen events. If (s)he does the same within the walls of the university, then (s)he risks destroying the opportunity to teach and inspire students as a professional researcher. However, if the teacher assigns certain pre-established categories too quickly to his or her students and their questions, then (s)he might lose the opportunity to hear them speak – as the German philosopher Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno wrote 52 years ago. Reduce a complex case to something simple and controllable and you will fail to obtain exactly that which could have taught you something new. We know this from our encounters with art. To meet art on its own terms one must actively endure, fight, and negate the noise one brings to the encounter.3

The German word for ‘object’ is Gegenstand. The delightful thing about this word is that it literally means that something stands in our way. It articulates a counter-position. There is an unspecified idea – a something – which offers resistance to encapsulation, which shows opposition to being spun in the conventionality of language. A defense for academic dignity, intellectual craftsmanship, and connoisseurship is intimately linked to a willingness to reconnoitre the borderlines between what the object wants us to do, its possible meaning, and our capacity to speak about it without resorting to platitudes and buzzwords.

Or less radically: Stop. And patiently attempt to utter meaningful words that are drawn from your own experiences without falling for the attraction of pouring a steady stream of hot air upon your peers from the over-sized jar of ever-hollowed and frictionless words. Silver tongues do not think.

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer insisted that the raison d’être of processes of understanding and of interpretation was to bring Sache zur Sprache – i.e. to let the ‘case’ be expressed and ‘dressed up’ in language.4 That is, to verbalize the language-less reality; to give it being and attention within the social and communicative horizon in which we live and in which meanings are constantly sought. A thinking and seasoned teacher – or a dedicated student – conceptualizes several facets but they both also possess the will to challenge and criticize the concepts when they become too fixated and lose their curiosity.

The ambition of this text is at least threefold: I want to revitalize the concept of Bildung, scrutinize and expose the concept of critique, and argue that ontology and epistemology never will and never should be reconciled.

Academic Craftsmanship

Craftsmanship and meticulous professionalism are not simply high-profile words used by people who prioritize knowing the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) ahead of project work, thesis statements and, as the leading modern school authorities proclaim: ‘responsibility for one’s own learning.’ Conceptual and inventive craftsmanship is the salt of academic as well as an unavoidable part of the tapestry of a master’s degree. It has a special professional ballast and implies a delicate and sophisticated judgment that does not preach, but which is reflective, regarding any new context as a novel and challenging task. Craftsmanship is both a license for curiosity and an experimental intellectual practice.5 Craftsmanship is a lifelong, unsettled endeavor that entails challenges and importunate duties that occupy thoughtful and active people while they are engaged with equal parts in dedication to the world and its enigmas and (self-)transcendence and the active oblivion of strategic forms of subjectivity.

The Danish philosopher and sociologist Claudius Wilkens wrote some memorable and enduring words on Bildung 6 in 1916: “It is not the amount of what a human being knows or has learned which decides his edification, but the inner processing and acquisition of tradition, i.e. a curious vitality and independent judgement.”7

Edification [Bildung] means many ‘things,’ but people, wanting to avoid being stupid by making hurried decisions, desire it. Both edification and its practical cousin, education, can foster an intensified attentiveness and help in distancing oneself from any hasty and nasty brutalization of thought and speech. Edification is a word of opposition. Edification is provided through exercises, not least exercises of wonder.8 Formation (another attempt to translate Bildung) is related to ideas about the grand words of enlightenment, authority, knowledge, wisdom, dexterity, aesthetic judgment as well as critique of language and contemporary society. 9

But it must not be forgotten, as the French philosopher Michel Espagne writes in the outstanding Dictionary of Untranslatables. A Philosophical Lexicon, that: “The German notion of Bildung includes precisely an element of programmed incommunicability with regard to anyone who tries to approach the term from the outside.”10

If one wanted to defend intellectual craftsmanship, the issue is not so much to fortify a territory or to throw everyone else out of the palaces of wage labor, but to be courageous and act without fear in protest against the massive urge for renewal and compulsory innovation paradigms. This urge risks ruining the self-respect and critical stance of the professional craftsman.

If professionalism has to be defended in the fields of training, education, and research, it is necessary at once to ally oneself and to come to grips with the concept of criticism. Without a historical commitment, a concept of critique risks becoming completely unable to function in a society which is overwhelmingly filled with short-sighted (ir)rationales. Without an intimate coupling to the concept of critique, the concept of edification (Bildung) risks degeneration, becoming an overly airy, restorative type or a compensatory device. Criticism is a hallmark of the person who does not accept being horizontally leveled and made speechless. The challenge is to avoid losing one’s orientation or one’s belief in the counterfactual force of hope.

The different elements, and tasks, comprising the concept of critique will be unfolded step by step using an aphoristic style of writing and thinking to present the dialectical tensions between the principal points of critical thinking and to highlight concrete contemporary issues that are crying out for critique and concern. Organized under 14 subheadings, it will be clear that edification (Bildung) is not reducible to the privilege of a ruling bourgeois class or equal to an exclusive taste regime of social distinctions. Critique is not reducible to ahistorical schemes of negative judgments or know-all rhetorical devices.

Edification (Bildung) and critique will form a strong tandem in the following.

The Concept of Critique Is Not a New Invention

The concept of ‘critique’ has ancient Greek roots and is used in numerous language games (à la Wittgenstein) in communicative exchanges among both professionals and laymen, as well as in society’s cultural, social, and political spheres. Two clarifications are necessary: Firstly, Krinein (in Greek) is a verb that points to man’s ability to employ a cognitive distinction – the display of practical estimation and judgment. As such, Krinein is a verb that is accompanied by an associated praxis: to discern, judge, or exercise the possibility of intellectual discrimination. Secondly, Krisis is a noun that denotes a crucial turning point. A patient is critically ill when aggravated symptoms set in, whilst our economy is in crisis when market trends fall drastically – when the bubble bursts, so to speak.

Put briefly, Krinein denotes the practical development of critique, while Krisis is the precarious situation that implies qualitative changes, potentially leading to significant ruptures. In this sense, Kritik contains equal amounts of krinein and krisis, and it works with turning and tipping points. It disproves underlying, taken-for-granted ideas, sharpens thought in the name of freedom, and attempts to expand the horizon of possibilities.

It belongs to the absolute logic of the concept of critique that to criticize entails making distinctions. Critique is both breakdown and difference. Critique is nurtured by intense observation and an active interpretation of dramatic differences that can turn out to be of great importance.

Furthermore, the critical academic is destined and doomed to breathe in the rich reception history (Gadamer called it Wirkungsgeschichte). The goal of a revitalized concept of Bildung and its related praxis is to be able to inherit from (and, in the best moments, fruitfully transcend) Kant, Marx, Critical Theory, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and the history of the concepts (in German: Begriffsgeschichte) in order to create new ways of thinking and acting.

Critique is the ability to discern in thought, speech, writing and action (praxis). As a substantial concept, critique is a committed art of judgement and the ability to inherit tradition while transgressing its form.

The Absolute Necessity of Linguistic Critique

The object of critique expands persistently because language never loses its dynamic evolution. As such, any thoughtless employment of much-used words uncritically applies prevalent understandings: for example words such as ‘learning,’ ‘competence,’ ‘evaluation,’ ‘documentation,’ ‘management,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘values,’ ‘sustainability,’ ‘creativity,’ ‘evidence,’ ‘education,’ and so on and so forth.

Language is not an instrument we can refuse to use. As such, language is not a tool in the same sense as, for instance, a hammer. Language is not neutral. The manner in which we apply it to reality, i.e. to things in our everyday lives, often has quite serious consequences for our understanding of this reality. We are deeply entangled in social communication systems and linguistically constituted life worlds. If one is unable to describe oneself using words whose meaning and content is filled with one’s own experiences and senses, then one must accept being described by others’ empty buzzwords. A linguistic version of ‘beggars cannot be choosers,’ one might say!

A dictum and credo must be ventured: It is important to know the parents of the new. Conceptual and intellectual history must persist. Deep discursive lines must be brought into the light of day. Language has no determinate fate but is a transformative field of displacements, inventions, outbreaks, and anticipatory attempts to listen to new phenomena. To name a few, the concepts of learning, competence, and creativity have been shaken. Seek their meaning. Search for them in dictionaries.

Once it was only God who was allowed to be creative – today everyone must be. Notice the instrumentalist distortion that the concepts are subject to through time. Notice the senses they are festooned with. Mobilize the old meanings! Arrest the imbecile meanings! Grasp the oxymorons: liberate your potentials, you are free to be creative, etc. (meaning: potentials are the fuel of cognitive capitalism and creativity has become compulsory for humans, i.e. precious human capital).11 An oxymoron is a well-known, often used, and widespread rhetorical figure which combines and couples contradictory items or words, e.g. two antithetical substantives such as hatred and love, freedom, and necessity. Hate-love is not easy to handle, and neither is the forced-cum-managed ‘freedom’ to be creative, nor does it put people who are forced to be ‘free’ in this way at ease. It is easier, in principle, to make sense of and revolt against the language of the powerful when it isn’t draped in oxymorons.

The edification (Bildung) of your character is fundamentally linked to the noble art of saying ‘no’ to unworthy language use and denying the temptation to circulate newspeak.

A chiasmus offers itself: Critique of the present is critique of language; critique of language is critique of the present.

Critique as Petrol

The project society, reform pedagogy, experience-based pedagogy, autonomous theses and assessment papers, interdisciplinary approaches, green economics, sustainable education, learning requirements, learning goals, evaluation culture, prophylactic health policies, knowledge and creativity-based economies, the anaesthetization and capitalization of (nearly) everything and everyone, cv-personalities, the ‘authentic’ worker, the anti-authoritarian insurrection, new forms of gender, family and societal life, social and user-driven innovation, the unleashing of identity, low power distance, endless online social media interaction, the unbound journey, the global view, cosmopolitanism…

All these code words and captions – and there are of course many more, located in our contemporary, archival mouths – mark renewed strengths which, after a while, are integrated into and by capitalism. They are transformed from expressions of counterculture to renewed pecuniary items. Former Marxists become leaders of large public-sector workplaces. ‘We’ wage ‘our’ war on Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure human rights. Even the big players in agriculture procure a green profile, and yet the meat is still red. Corporations become learning organizations while family life becomes a matter of coordinating logistics and technological support. The building of identity is undertaken in the proximity of libidinally invested contact with an interminable array of consumer and identity possibilities. Creative ideas and innovative initiatives are especially fancied when they turn into gold at the stock exchange. Our wide-ranging competences are exposed in the name of transparency and are made into assets for companies, i.e. ‘tasty’ and competitive profiles worth selling.

One can ponder two evergreen questions – Is capitalism humanized? Is humanism capitalized? – with no obvious enduring answers. In any case, being exploited and utilized by industrial capitalism was likely no better than the current demands of cognitive capitalism for critical (although not too critical…), innovative thought, cheekiness and commitment. Underpaid farm workers and welders at the bottom of large iron ships would most likely have happily switched lives and jobs with today’s web designers, master chefs, school leaders, and internet storekeepers with their higher salaries and shorter hours.12 But of course, we should not fool ourselves and become too futuristic. Underpaid workers and routine jobs in the service sector and in factories still exist.

The renewed power of critique in Europe has, over the past 200–250 years, been distorted and selectively integrated as a treasured element of the new spirit of capitalism. As such, this is nothing new and there is no reason to become depressed by this integration. No-one should be blamed for taking delight in clean water – at least cleaner than the water we had in the 1960s – or in the greater equality between the sexes, or in the fact that French, English, and German youth are not being conscripted to fight one another in the trenches. We cannot lament the lack of sympathy for anti-environmentalists, monotonous and alienating labour, or authoritarian leaders.

Capitalism has more than nine lives. This is due, in particular, to its capacity and ability to learn from, absorb and transform the renewal of criticism. Capitalism is often smarter than its critics.

Critique as Know-It-All

It is intolerable when the critic – and hence the critique – acts in a know-it-all manner: As an oracle, as an august judge. If any critique should have its place on Earth, then it must breed meanings. These should be presented as offers to be debated with the people at whom the critique is directed. The listening ‘victims’ should have the opportunity to interpret the critics’ voices without fear. At the same time, well-founded and thorough critique of the structurally caused societal misery has to question any defeatist position.

Kant’s three critiques of, respectively, pure reason, practical reason, and the power of judgment can be both inspiring and exemplary. They specify what can be said about the true (acknowledgement), the good (ethics), and the beautiful (aesthetics in its broadest sense; that is, beauty and the sublime, the harmonic and the horrible, the frightening and delightful, etc.). But the sharp distinctions of the triad must also be challenged and disturbed. All critical convictions and assertions must openly examine and discuss their own transcendental condition(s) so as not to forget their own limits. The legacy of the Enlightenment commands us to attend to our own intellectual capacities without any other guidance (from God, for example) so as not to become incapable of thought.

Through the ages, entities of varying scales, such as the elements, God (the creator), providence, substance, Being, essence, nature, history, consciousness, existence, science, language, economy, society, will, matter, materiality, communication, consequence, utility, and pragmatic measures have served as indubitable foundations for theoretical exploration, but one by one, the validity of each of them has been contested by deconstructive and persistent critique. The work of the critic is presentation rather than representation, vigorous resistance (recall the Gegenstand, I mentioned earlier) rather than static inculcation and set to repeat.

As we saw above, Adorno wrote that the object itself would begin to speak under the lingering gaze of thought. If you restrain your will to judge and to apply the all too familiar categories or conceptual construction, the object (the criticizable) might itself – with some help from suspecting, experimenting, and non-identical concepts that ‘know’ that there is always something more in the object than the concept is able to capture – begin to ‘speak.’ That is, it may reveal how it is and how it can – or, perhaps, should – be subjected to questioning, or, as they say in Swedish: ifrågasättas.

The standpoint of critique, its validity and the realm of its logic are not issues that can be settled once and for all. The benchmarks of critical-normative statements must themselves be scrutinised critically; if they are not, critique becomes dogmatic – and therefore uncritical. 13

The Standpoint of Critique, the Pathos of Distance, and the As-Yet-Unthought

Why think and live differently when you are a part of that which should be criticized? This question sneaks up on us in the dead of night but continues to captivate us in the light of day. Acknowledgement procedures and knowledge forms are always incarnate. Any assertion about society is located within a situation and is the offspring of a historical configuration. Moreover, the rules of language and the laws of grammar condition the assertions we make. This fact makes it even harder to establish the distance of pathos advocated by Nietzsche almost 150 years ago: in the name of the eminent and condensed dissimilarity. Furthermore, any critical stance entails blind spots: when we see, we do not see what we cannot see, nor what our medium of perception consists of. So, from where do we think the critical and from where do we act critically, when we are a part of the criticizable?

One could, with an intact Adornian inheritance, dream of contemplating all things as they are accounted for from the vantage point of the language of complete epistemic certainty; however, that would presuppose that one knew – or had at least a vague impression of – this redeeming language. But we do not. Such a pursuit would entail grasping the totality of both the ‘actual’ and the ‘real.’ Cosmic demands and phantasms, if you ask me.

Less ambitious goals may also suffice. One can make detours, contemplate, linger, use irony, and twist intellectual conventions: Détournement, as the French say, coupled with the unlooked for. Critical thinking problematizes and distorts the taken-for-granted implications of, for example, the business cycle model, which states that the purpose of creativity is to lead innovation (first step) that, in turn, should lead to the launch of a product onto the marketplace (second step).14 Imagine that the telos of creativity was not purely commercially infected; that innovation could be a matter of qualifying social possibilities. We would certainly have come to live in a better world in which intellectual and creative processes qualify, dignify, and increase the validity of the non-economic use-values and improve their material and aesthetic qualities.15

Critique of the present is exerted by citizens of the present, embedded in the ever-present society. In spite of the impossibility of the view from nowhere – the complete, objective stance – and the fact that freedom of thought is tethered to the historical situation, there nonetheless exist many as-yet-unlooked-for, as-yet-unthought-of and as-yet-untried possibilities for critique that the world is waiting for.

The Münchhausen Trilemma – Also Called Fries’ Trilemma

The German philosopher Jacob F. Fries (1773–1843) claimed that any attempt to justify an assertion faces an unprecedented triple problem. According to Fries, we will always run into three equally unacceptable and unavoidable cul-de-sacs:

  1. 1.We end in an infinite regress; that is, the need for explanation never ends.
  2. 2.We end in a circular argument; that is, we assume what we wanted to prove.
  3. 3.We end with a dogmatic assumption; that is, we assume the truth of a claim without explaining why.

These three problems have been called Fries’ trilemma or the Münchhausen trilemma.

When a philosophical tradition, a religious denomination, a branch of science, or an ideology attempts to satisfy its fundamental premise – to assert the firm ground upon which it stands – intellectual inheritors of Fries’ insight cannot stop themselves from demonstrating that these world views, methods, and schemes are just as stuck in the mud as Münchhausen, the liar who steadfastly asserted that he could save himself from the swamp by pulling himself up by his own hair with his horse between his legs.

Nevertheless, this trilemma might not be as devastating for the engagement of philosophical speculation, scientific thought, or general societal criticism; Fries’ trilemma can be incorporated into philosophical and scientific reflections and in political engagement. The trilemma can install itself as a quality of the self-critical process: an everlasting challenge, a constant reminder of the provisional nature of our thoughts and existence. Our assertions are always fallible (potentially wrong and certainly preliminary).

The fact that we are thinking and sentient beings within a linguistic framework positions us in several self-referential processes. We attempt to understand death while being mortal. We attempt to understand the corporeal while having a body. We attempt to understand time while living in it. We attempt to understand language while using some of its possibilities. We attempt to understand nature while situated in it. We attempt to understand society while existing in it. We think that we can say something definitively true about the past while living within and being embedded in a certain historical frame. But the activity of thought does not operate without presumptions. To live is to have knowledge-guiding interests (as the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas tells us) and to ‘foster’ values (as Friedrich Nietzsche put it when he wrote about how life itself deploys values in us while we are living). The existence of these self-referentialities precludes the neutralizing ambition to place ourselves as seekers of objectivity, which would allow us to objectify ourselves as were we protons within an atomic model or statistical quantities.

Existential inquiries and fundamental scientific problems have quarrels with Fries’ trilemma. However, these quarrels can be avoided as long as the trilemmas, considered as a condition for living, are taken as a challenge. A critical questioning of our own concepts and understandings is urgently needed. We are destined and doomed to ask questions about language by means of our language, acknowledging that the everyday language we ‘have’ for thinking is embedded in a societal and historical horizon. We are ‘meta-masseurs’ in and of language, but we also know that language is not everything. Such paradoxes seem to be here to stay.

Today, it seems futile to privilege Nature, the ‘physical,’ consciousness or language as having a patent on a singular reality. Grand ontologies, normative ‘reasons,’ and self-convinced epistemologies have been called into question as quickly as they have been proposed.

Philosophy must be interpreted as reflected and trained doubt, as a continuous questioning of life and its conditions in dialog with contemporary and past voices. For the time being, the trilemma is here to stay. Will it someday be dropped into a bottomless swamp so that, when and if it can be solved, we will be able to go beyond it and, finally, forget it?

Rational critique is not the only spark of life, despite the fact that it is an essential feature of a life worth living and a constitutive feature of res publica (the public sphere) in which it is worth being embedded and embodied. Fries’ trilemma is a test that can discern poor and unsound arguments, but it is also a beam before the critic’s own eyes.

Societal Diagnostics as a Critique of the Contemporary

To conceive our time in thoughts; to grasp contemporary society in concepts; to understand, interpret, and question the Zeitgeist. This is what modern thinkers have been trying to do for the last 200 years. It is, of course, not possible to accurately measure a society’s condition, as though submerging a thermometer in a bowl of warm liquid, but one can attempt to create distinctions from which we can learn and benefit. Diagnosis is a Latin word, from the Ancient Greek διάγνωσις, itself stemming from the verb διαγιγνώσκειν (diagignṓskein: ‘to discern,’ ‘to distinguish,’ ‘to differentiate’), which contains the prefix διά (dia: ‘from each other’) + γιγνώσκειν (gignṓskein: ‘to learn,’ ‘to know’).

In the exertion of societal diagnosis, an attempt is made to interpret and decipher the conceptions of reality, both from the present of the past and the future of the present. The societal diagnostician ‘reads’ the dominant tendencies while also occupied with tracking and displaying the powerful conceptions of the will that dominate the present. Where did the will to develop competences come from? The will to honor ‘learning goals’? The will to respect and inherit the employability discourse? The notion that we should base our livelihoods on creativity and the production of ideas? Why this penchant for both evaluation and evidence?16

The societal diagnostician must often realize that there are opposing tendencies in the anything-but-unambiguous society. Currently, two tendencies cut through public debate and political life: on the one hand, education and intellectual work are portrayed as the responses to global challenges (‘education, education, education!’). On the other hand, there are warnings against an expensive, overeducated, and overqualified workforce, at least in Denmark. Students are forced to race through their studies and to view themselves as educational consumers trying to qualify and marketize their own human capital.

The societal diagnostician must have an eye for the non-contemporaneities of events.17 The different capitalisms and economies have different rational bases, multiple stakeholders, and places to ‘inhabit.’ For example, industrial and agrarian capitalism and cognitive and financial capitalism ‘are living’ side by side and/or are intertwined. In the midst of this interlacement, concrete thinking and critically nuanced analysis must be provided.

It is noteworthy that when the hankering inclination dovetails with the socially acceptable, then – as previously mentioned – the will for competence development, management, creativity, reforms, competitiveness, etc. establishes itself as a self-justified mantra, a mentality structure, and a behavioral modus operandi. Then the societal diagnostician will have to wake up and try to think of other – maybe even alternative – ways to grasp ‘what’s going on,’ as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (with his metaphysics of the will), Nietzsche (will to power), the French historian of ideas Michel Foucault (will to truth, will to knowledge), and the Danish intellectual historian Lars-Henrik Schmidt (will to order) have already laid out, offering inspiring thoughts to be carefully studied, supplemented, and challenged.

Critique is expressively formed as vigilant, antagonistic readings of both tendencies within contemporary society and dominant conceptions of the will. Critique is an x-ray of the now, a vivid gaze upon the not-yet of the unrealized past, and the fragile and curious attempt to sense the new.

To Navigate in the Midst of Confusing Adjectives

Critiques of religion, metaphysics, genealogy, reason, sources, ideologies, society, systems, Zeitgeist, tradition, modernity, technology, economics, theory, power, totality, culture, civilization, institutions, bureaucracies, everyday life, consciousness, self, subjectivity, science, positivism, realism, nominalism, literature, art, media, language, growth, capitalism. These types of critiques can be labeled as intellectual orientations: critical theory, critical rationalism, critical realism, critical discourse analysis, and critical thinking. But also critiques of specific things can be found, such as critiques of the pope, feudal societal structures, stagnating relationships, terrible football tactics, and a chef’s lack of taste.

In this way, the list of what can and must be critiqued is long and could be even longer. Critique is privileged and a self-escalating procedure; everything can be subject to it. This creative procreation is never-ending, and we live and breathe meanings in the dynamic history of critique. Critiques are thus rarely finished products; we use and rearticulate them. And if one has had enough of others’ critique, one can always apply words such as anti-critical, post-critical, acritical, non-critical, and uncritical.

Today, societal critique must be exercised via a ruthless critique of the mentally invasive and constantly changing stream of policy documents, laws and reforms that reach far into communal life. Without access to numerous councils, both national and international, how could a critique of them ever be established? Without substantive knowledge of the detailed law-making paragraphs, an honest critique of the depressing yet powerful educational paradigms will not last. My suggestion is: scrutinize and interpret eagerly and inquisitively what you find in the powerful archives of today (oecd strategies, Bologna process papers, un charters, World-Bank directives, statements from the World Economic Forum) with critical interest – only then will you have a chance of conceiving a critique that is worth something.

In sum: Critique has many faces and is forced to study its subject in depth and seriously engage with if it is to be worth listening to. Often, it must take the form of a somewhat impertinent – or cheeky – critique of powerful contemporary policy documents ‘inhabiting’ the national sphere and ‘coming from’ global interaction.

Critical Thinking as a Mode of Existence

Man is a practicing animal and, as such, does not ‘arrive’ as a matured, fully developed being. Life is not a static endeavor, and what we become, as a species and as individuals, is connected to the possibilities we get and to how our will and our ability to act take form with a little help from (y)our friends. Existence projects itself in transcending acquisitions of ourselves and our conceptualizations of the environment, and existence makes its way to the art of decentering (Dezentrierung in German) in the encounter with The Other (meaning both the other human being and the Gegenstand – the thing which stands in our way). “Kritik üben,” as they say in German, captures an important duality: To learn how to exert and practice critique – and then on your own and far beyond the protective universities and schools to exercise critique. Critique can be learned, ventured, tried, and calibrated.

Karl Marx’s prominent body of work often came with titles that begin Critique of political economy, and he first and foremost conceptualized the logic of capital, coining, or specifying landmark concepts like accumulation of wealth, surplus value, exploitation of the workforce, the double character of the commodity, etc. In these numerous and eye-opening books and working papers, Marx turned capital into an analytical, dialectical, and contradiction-ridden concept. Capital – deciphered and experienced as an unstoppable exploitation machine and valorization process, but at the same time as a profoundly social relation – is the production of crisis. Capitalism is infected with crisis; it is its immanent ‘nature.’ The exposition of the logic of capitalism is therefore also the critique of capital – and hereby of societal forms that are ‘poisoned’ by capitalism. In this way, critique is not understandable or practicable as a moral addition, but rather as an immanent crisis in the capital itself – making it possible to overcome capitalism in an unspecified future.

Already in the mid-19th century, the prescient Marx described how automation would reduce worktime to a minimum. He presented this prognosis in a historical context in which millions of workers were unskilled laborers embedded in giant and highly polluting factories, working for poor wages under dreadful working conditions. In this way, critique must be understood as both discovering the being of capital’s societal potentials and taking part in faintly sensing the future.

Concerning the task of conceptualizing and criticizing capitalism, asking and trying to answer how-questions is not enough for critical thinking. Exclusively descriptive and neutral non-normative registrations do not provide a path to fruitful critique. In order to wrest from the object which is criticized something more than mere description, one cannot simply content oneself with loyal registration of how something works.

Radical questions must be posited as follows: The experience economy is a growing industry, but why is experience intimately and seamlessly coupled with economy when everyone knows that no human brain process or existential mood can be reduced to economic rationality; when one cannot buy experience, or have it donated from ‘outside’ via a market that trades with artefacts of so-called entertainment?18 Why did our society become obsessed with investigating the plasticity of the brain and neuroscience a few years ago?19 Why not take a risk and bet on education over competence? Add to that other important Wh-questions: What is education for?20 What does a university teacher do and why does (s)he do it? Where do our society’s importunate demands and bewitched concepts come from? When are they legitimized? Why do revolutions often degenerate into totalitarian regimes?

Armed to the teeth with what, why, where and when questions, it is possible to try to grasp and challenge the present power structures and forms of exploitation. A critic is, of course, also a dedicated and first-class fieldworker, persistently occupied with examining, understanding, and interpreting how something is. The critic cannot just examine first-level descriptions; (s)he must look beyond, exploring refined and audacious second- and third-degree reflections.

Critique must furthermore expose and combat our society’s contemporary soft-power oxymorons. It is, for example, very difficult to find out how one should behave when one is gently forced, but also free, to develop a self-promoting/-selling strategy – in an original way. Self-evaluation, student plans, the idea of realizing potentialities, demanding development, personal branding, and the ‘unique’ cv … all these increasingly mandatory and oxymoronic phenomena are submerged in the cauldrons of contemporary society.

Critical thought is an available existential mode for man, the practicing and experimenting animal. But this possibility has to flourish in the public sphere and, even better, to be realized in a broader societal praxis. Critique is about sharpening one’s attention and one’s capacity to decipher contemporary signs and, only then, taking a stand. Critique is both an exercise and the execution of that exercise. Critique is defied and challenged by our contemporary oxymoronic soft-power. How it should – and, most of all, why it should – be fought for is a central theoretical, practical, and existential theme of 21 st -century life.

Ontology and Epistemology Will Never Be Reconciled

Die Utopie der Erkenntnis wäre, das Begriffslose mit Begriffen

aufzutun, ohne es ihnen gleichzumachen.21

The first time I read Adorno’s credo for non-identity, as a student more than 30 years ago, I felt enlightened, happy, and overwhelmed. How would I ever be able to live up to and incarnate these words as an intellectual and academic in spe?

Many years have passed. Here are my present thoughts on Adorno’s philosophy of difference.

We are always already embedded and embodied in the world. Our human being is a being-in-the-world-in-the-body-in-the-social-in-history and time-situated-in-space and woven into events and our being-in-language-as-thinking-interpreting-existence-living-in-shifting-we-articulations can never be conceptualized 1:1.

There is always a ‘more’ to it and in the ‘things,’ as Adorno wrote in Ästhetische Theorie. 22 Events, works of art, and nature ‘talk’ to us and we must learn to ‘listen.’ If we conceptualize, then we must do so without deliberate attempts to classify, ‘mortalize,’ and ‘finish’ the open exchanges.

Therefore, being and thinking can and should never be reconciled, and the ambition in a scientistic-instrumental era must be to attempt to go beyond objectivism and subjectivism – and to leave the object-subject dichotomy behind, even though that is no easy task.23 We are not sovereign, rationalistic monads – nor do(es) the world/cosmos/nature/being consist of silent and passive raw material.24

Now and then we even have to defend words against concepts. We have to acknowledge that the existence and lives of irreplaceable human beings, the unique events, and the non-identical, are fragile ‘entities’ we both live amongst and attempt to conceive of.

Being Is Becoming – towards Dynamic Process Ontology

Everything in and around us changes, as Heraclitus wrote in a fragment 2,500 years ago.25 Flux is the modern manifestation of our existential condition.26 Fundamental events cannot be anticipated. Something happens and the world is new.

A ‘thatness’ takes place in the world. As meaning-dependent and addicted animals, we use old concepts or have the courage to invent new ones and transform ‘thatness’ into a ‘thisness’ and a ‘howness.’ Children and parents communicate. An evolutionary anthropologist like Michael Tomasello conducts empirical research and coins the label ‘shared intentionality,’ which gets attached even to a pre-verbal child’s pointing behavior.27 People act in concert and neuroscientists and cognitive researchers talk about ‘joint action’ and ‘joint attention,’ while sociologists talk about ‘social synchronization’ and ‘mass behavior.’

All around the globe, researchers, politicians, citizens, and media seem to have and share great expectations regarding neuroscience, neurobiology, and the cognitive sciences. Brain scanning results and data from thousands of observational studies are becoming easily accessible. Many people think that we are standing at the threshold of a fusion and reconciliation of ontology (being, what the world is) and epistemology (acknowledgement theory, how the world is), but my thesis is that this will never happen.

And on the threshold of the new big data era, the claim is that not only theory but also ontology are reduced to superfluous phenomena.28 But good old Adorno tells us that data and numbers are not the same thing, nor do they ‘grasp’ all that is and can be thought and done.

Critical edification (Bildung) is a capacity to live with and among uncertainties, ambiguities, and dilemmas without a strong will to fixate them. When science becomes ‘scienticism’ (i.e. science as a truth belief system), it is a duty and an obligation to present a thorough critique of positivism, version 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, etc.

Entering a Zone of Indiscernibility

We are not in the midst of fusing ontology and epistemology. When the process of becoming is articulated, we normally attribute subject (consciousness), object (thing), cause, and identity to ‘it.’ We instrumentalize language in terms of function, as a ‘pure’ tool, and invent and sustain metaphysical patterns and concepts,29 while we tend to forget that two very different narratives are in circulation in the occidental world:

  1. (i) the ‘science-progressive’ path, telling us that the not-yet-articulated can be grasped and represented in good order using concepts and language.
  2. (ii) the ontologico-philosophical perspective, telling us that articulations and representations are relics from the past – and that every time the scientist thinks that he can present a bunch of new ‘objective’ facts to the world, we all realize that this is a reductionist approach. Even though 35,000 highly qualified peer-reviewed articles and books on neurology are written and produced every year, we still have not located ‘the mind’ nor solved ‘the hard problem’: the body-mind enigma. First-person phenomenology (how it is and feels to be me) is still not the same as – nor reducible to – ‘objective’ third-person scientific knowledge of ‘my’ (in casu: the) body.30

From a knowledge-political perspective, and heavily inspired by Adorno’s non-identity thinking, it can be stated that we enter a zone of indiscernibility (“Unentschiedenheit”) – a two-way landscape in which man is depicted and deciphered between a ‘neurobiologization’ of the humanities and social sciences and a ‘sociologization’ of the neurosciences, as the Luhmannian sociologist Werner Vogd precisely describes it.31 As Vogd argues, I will also claim that we have to invent options for “creative controversies” (“Auseinandersetzungen” in the original German32 between the different scientific approaches in order to produce and fertilize “a new scientific culture of talking to one another.”33

It has become a double-edged challenge to avoid descending into either pure ‘biologism’ or pure ‘sociologism.’ Self-proclaimed reductionisms do not have much of a future. It must be labeled an operative fiction to think that one might be able to grasp and interpret the brain sciences as a unity: there is no independent and sovereign “Gottesaugenstandpunkt” (God’s eyes’ view in English) from where one might be able to observe the brain.34

Baptizing Is Not Innocent

The German theologian and philosopher Nicolaus Cusanus (1401–1464) did not think that it was possible for man to characterize what and who God was. The transcendental and divine master could not be compared to something human, something from the animal kingdom, something material, conceptual, or cognitive. He challenges conventional logic. The ‘other’ is called Heterotes in Greek and Alteritas in Latin. Facing God’s ungraspable being and unpredictable existence, Cusanus wrote a famous sentence: “Non aliud non aliud est quam non aliud”, which can be translated to: “the not(hing)-other is nothing but the not(hing)-other of the not(hing)-other.” 35 The challenge is to make Cusanus’ wisdom profane and mundane. Today, we do not need a God to praise and honor the enigmas in and of the world.

When we proclaim something from the field of empirical research, we tend to forget that we were once sceptical of baptizing events and processes. It might be the case that what goes on in the plastic brain of this individual and what takes place among these people are nothing else than what goes on and what takes place. But this modest credo does not preclude the will and the courage to invent and circulate new concepts, which happens to be the inevitable task of philosophy.36 In 1867, Karl Marx conceptualized the logic of capital in the first volume of Das Kapital. We have to inherit and continue his work and invent and refine (self-)critical concepts like cognitive capitalism in order to grasp and question the society in which we have come to live, work, and think.37 In this respect, edification (Bildung) and critique might also have a chance to fertilize and strengthen one another through thought experiments.

A Credo for Non-identity – The Tensions between Being and Thinking Are Here to Stay

Dialektisches denken ist gegen sich selbst denkende Denken. /…/

Gratis ist Denken ausschließlich für den Nicht-Denkenden.38

As the Adorno quote a few pages back demonstrates, the non-identifiable (“das Begriffslose”) will never be identified, labeled, and conceptualized (via “Begriffen”). Adorno is not a language-critical poststructuralist or deconstructivist avant la lettre. Therefore, he was right in emphasizing that the non-identifiable must be honored and emancipated. The claim and dream is that conceptual work opens and dignifies the non-identifiable, while the non-identifiable longs for conceptual assistance so it can come to exist among us. The tensions between the non-conceptual and conceptual dimensions of the world will always exist. The empirically minded scientists, the critical theoreticians, the militant activists, and the philosophical logicians must daily experience and come to know that being and thinking will never come to cover or substitute one another, even if we decipher synaptic activity, perform brain scans, and observe and compare apes and humans.

In this way, the non-identity credo is directly linked to the ambition to let edification (Bildung) of the, on the one hand, self-critical thought and, on the other, individual character oscillate with a historically informed concept of critique that knows its tasks, challenges, and limitations.

Thanks to the Danish philosopher Joachim S. Wiewiura, Simon Rolls, and to the editors of Danish Yearbook of Philosophy for help with the translation.


Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Negative Dialectics, Taylor and Francis e-library, 2004/1973, 27-28.

Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt am Main, 1982/1966, 38: "Entäußerte wirklich der Gedanke sich an die Sache, gälte er dieser, nicht ihrer Kategorie, so begänne das Objekt unter dem verweilenden Blick des Gedankens selber zu reden." nb: What disappears in the English translation is "Blick des Gedankens," which is a much more philosophically powerful linguistic act and important memento than "the eye" depicted in its splendid isolation.


Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Negative Dialectics, Taylor and Francis e-library, 2004/1973, 13.

Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt am Main, 1982/1966, 14: “Die Entzauberung des Begriff ist das Gegengift der Philosophie.”


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “The incomprehensible force of art.” In Det jyske Kunstakademis 50 års jubilæumsskrift, eds. Jesper Rasmussen et al., 29–36. Aarhus: Det jyske Kunstakademi, 2014.


See Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1986/1960, 390–391.


The American sociologist Richard Sennett (Sennett, Richard. The Culture of the New Capitalism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006 and Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. New ­Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) has shed light on the intimate relations between craftsmanship and the striving for excellence. In my view, these important relations possess the power to function as points of departure for critical analysis in dynamic modern societies.


In Danish: ‘Dannelse.’ This cannot be translated into English without losing something, but one might talk about edification, culture, and refinement. It is more or less equivalent to the German Bildung. But it is worth noting the French philosopher Michel Espagne’s warning in his thorough ‘definition’ of the term: “… the term Bildung is certainly one of those words whose translation seems the most aleatory” (in Cassin (ed.) 2014, 111).


Wilkens, Claudius: “Dannelse.” In Salmonsens Konversationsleksikon, Volume V: Cikorie-Demersale, ed. Chr. Blangstrup., 749–750. København: A/S J. H. Schultz Forlagsboghandel, 1916. In Danish: “Det er ikke Massen af, hvad et Menneske ved eller har lært, der bestemmer hans Dannelse, men den indre bearbejdelse og Tilegnelse til en ejendommelig Livsfylde og selvstændig Dom.” Today, we would also write her (hendes) and not only his (hans).


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. At ville noget med nogen. Samtidskritiske og filosofiske fragmenter om dannelse og pædagogik. Aarhus: Turbine Akademisk, 2016.


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “Top-down university governance eradicates thinking and good teaching.” In On the Facilitation of the Academy, eds. Joachim S. Wiewiura and Elias Westergaard, 87–100. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014. and Nepper Larsen, Steen. “What is Education? A Critical Essay.” In What is Education? An Anthology of Education, eds. Anton Bech Jørgensen et al., 157–186. Copenhagen: duf, Problema, 2017. for thorough analyses of the history of the Bildung tradition and attempts to revitalize the concept. See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “Philosophy as language-critical practice.” In Cartography Morphology Topology, eds. Cort Ross Dinesen et al., 252–257. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture. Copenhagen: Kunstakademiets Arkitektskoles Forlag, 2009 for language-­philosophical theses and take-offs. It is important to stress that language is not just a neutral tool or a simple mirror of reality. Neither is it a pure object of deliberate intentions. There is much more to say about language. Man did not invent language on behalf of an a priori non-linguistic, rational, and conscious will. But this article will not delve deeper into the delicate relations between evolutionary anthropology, the socially complex settings of human interactions through the last 50–100,000 years, and etymology (the history of words).


Dictionary of the Untranslatables. A Philosophical Lexicon, ed. Barbara Cassin. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014. 111.


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “Compulsory Creativity: A Critique of Cognitive Capitalism.” Culture Unbound Vol.6, 2014.


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “Is capitalism dying out?,” ephemera Vol.4, 2012.


The German language is helpful here. “Hinterfragen” means to ask profound questions that are able to go beneath the surface and convention of an argument or practice.


Coade, Neil. “Be Creative. The Toolkit for Business Success.” In Smart Strategy Series. London/Boston: International Thomson Business Press, 1997, 2.


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “Compulsory Creativity: A Critique of Cognitive Capitalism.” Culture Unbound Vol.6, 2014.


See Nepper Larsen. “Blind Spots in John Hattie’s Evidence Credo.” Journal of Academic Perspectives No. 1, 2015.


The German philosopher Ernst Bloch coined this extremely useful and clarifying concept: Ungleichzeitigkeit.


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “The incomprehensible force of art.” In Det jyske Kunstakademis 50 års jubilæumsskrift, eds. Jesper Rasmussen et al., 29–36. Aarhus: Det jyske Kunstakademi, 2014.


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “The Plasticity of the Brain – an Analysis of the Contemporary Taste for Neuroplasticity.” In Neurolex Sed…Dura lex? L’impact des neurosciences sur les disciplines jurisdiques et les autres sceinces humaines: études compares. Wellington, New Zealand, 2013.


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “What is Education? A Critical Essay.” In What is Education? An Anthology of Education, eds. Anton Bech Jørgensen et al., 157–186. Copenhagen: duf, Problema, 2017.


Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982/1966, 21. “The cognitive utopia would be to use concepts to unseal the nonconceptual with concepts, without making it their equal.” Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund (2004/1973, 10): Negative Dialectics, Taylor and Francis e-library: I would prefer to translate ‘Erkenntnis’ to ‘knowledge’ to emphasize that “Die Utopie der Erkenntnis” should not only be understood as a narrow-minded (!) cognitive, brain-centered, and solely self-conscious assertion.


Adorno, Theodor Wiesengrund. Ästhetische Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973/1970, 521.


Bernstein, Richard D. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.


See, e.g. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.


Diels, Hermann. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Hamburg: Rowohlts Klassiker, 1957.


Caputo, John D. Radical Hermeneutics. Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987.


Tomasello, Michael. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge: The mit Press, 2008 and Nepper Larsen. “Critical Notice: Michael Tomasello on the “Prosocial” Human Animal.” Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology 5(2), 2014.[16].pmd.pdf.


“This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.” So Chris Anderson, the British-American author, entrepreneur and editor of Wired Magazine proclaimed in an article with the deliberately telling and provocative title: “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,” 2008.


Like Friedrich Nietzsche showed us in Götzen-Dämmerung, oder: Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert. ea Leipzig, 1889 (in English translation, the title is: Twilight of the Idols) 129 years ago.


Fuchs, Thomas. Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan. Eine phänomenologisch-ökologische Konzeption. Stuttgart: Verlag Kohlhammer, 2009. And for English readers: Fuchs, Thomas. Ecology of the Brain. The Phenomenology and Biology of the embodied Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


Vogd, Werner. Gehirn und Gesellschaft. Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2010. The German neologisms for these active and ‘living’ nouns are: “Neurobiologisierung” and “Soziologisierung.”


Vogd, op.cit., 25.


Vogd, op.cit., 379.


See Nepper Larsen, Steen. “The Plasticity of the Brain – an Analysis of the Contemporary Taste for Neuroplasticity.” In Neurolex Sed…Dura lex? L’impact des neurosciences sur les disciplines jurisdiques et les autres sceinces humaines: études compares. Wellington, New Zealand, 2013.


See Kirkeby, Ole Fogh. Eventum tantum – begivenhedens ethos. Frederiksberg: Forlaget Samfundslitteratur, 2005.


See Deleuze, Gilles et Félix Guattari. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1991.


See Boutang, Yann Moulier. Cognitive Capitalism. Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2011 and Nepper Larsen, Steen. “Compulsory Creativity: A Critique of Cognitive Capitalism”. Culture Unbound Vol.6, 2014.


Marcus Steinweg on Adorno in Evidenzterror. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2015, 137–138. “­Dialectical thinking is itself against thinking thought /…/Thinking is exclusively without costs for the person who does not think." (translation, jw & snl). Steinweg paraphrases both Hegel’s and Adorno’s way of philosophizing and writing and it is not possible to translate (t)his aphorism without losing something.

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