All we are saying, is give the Dead White Men a chance...
June 24, 2010 12:48 AM   Subscribe

I'm taking a class in social theory, and while I'm interested in the readings, I've fallen into a way of responding to them which I think is intellectually lazy. How can I stop dismissing old-school social theorists for being Dead White Men?

The course is an overview of the work of prominent Western social theorists. I'm interested, and I'm doing my best to engage intellectually with the material assigned. But I've noticed that regardless of whether I'm reading Marx or Durkheim, I seem to raise the same internal objections: What about women? Where do their labour and their aspirations fit into your model of class? What about colonialism and racism? If you're so against injustice, why are you silent on it? Isn't it a bit coincidental that you, as a professional intellectual, place the intellectual professions at the top of every hierarchy you construct to explain the social order? It's as though there are women-shaped, minority-shaped, rest-of-the-world-shaped holes in the work of every social theorist I read.

I know that these concerns do have some validity, and that post-colonial and feminist theorists have been exploring them for several decades. But those theorists aren't a big part of what I'm studying right now, and I'm concerned that this pattern of thinking is leading me to dismiss vast bodies of work before I've fully understood the arguments at hand. I do believe many classical social theorists had blind spots in their understanding of the social world, but I'm not so arrogant as to believe I can't learn anything from them. I'm concerned that "Meh, Dead White Men Again" is becoming a habitual response that undermines just about everything I read, preventing me from reaching a more intellectually rigorous understanding (and perhaps a more convincing rebuttal) of the social theory itself.

Have you faced anything like this in your academic or intellectual life? How did you learn to put your objections aside and engage anyway?

Answers of the "University wasn't meant to be tea and cupcakes, suck it up and do it anyway" variety aren't helpful here. I'm a motivated, non-traditional-age, part-time student with a career. If I can't engage genuinely with the subject matter, of course I will suck it up and go through the motions. I'm asking because I am interested, and I would like to be able to say something more coherent about classical social theorists than, "They, uh, totally miss the point."
posted by embrangled to Education (17 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Not to be obvious, but could you focus your analysis or response papers on what you agree with? Or what you feel they did that is new?Somewhere during my education someone said that undergrad is about learning to criticize whereas grad school is about learning to create and defend new ideas and approaches, in part by figuring out how other people did. Maybe you could skip over the "gotcha!" phase and move straight on to the reverse-engineering phase where you imagine you were living just before that concept had come out and try to see where it came from or what it changed.
posted by salvia at 1:00 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

and I'm concerned that this pattern of thinking is leading me to dismiss vast bodies of work before I've fully understood the arguments at hand. I do believe many classical social theorists had blind spots in their understanding of the social world, but I'm not so arrogant as to believe I can't learn anything from them.

It seems to me that you've already answered your own question. Reading something that challenges or even offends your views can be a waste of time or an eye-opener. Reading to reinforce beliefs already held is always a waste of time.
posted by three blind mice at 1:26 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't study social theory with the sole purpose of "testing" it, because that misses the point: they're much more valuable and approachable as historic documents and systems of thought. Yes, they're dead white men, but they're important and have attempted to explain their world in ways which affected / justified the machinations of other white men, who have (unfortunately) shaped our present world. If you approach it with the question of "did they miss any points?" then the history of human thought is never going to stop disappointing you. The more interesting question might be: why did this theory become a popular way of looking at the world? How did it affect our world and shape the prevailing perspectives of our own times? What else was going on? In any case, remembering where the value in studying these things lies... might help you to, well, value it more.

In other words, instead of expecting any theory to explain or encapsulate reality, focus more on what its historical significance illuminates about our past and present.

Also try to look at the writers as individuals with limitations and priorities - depending on our location in time and space, we often come to think that the world revolves around a specific axis, be it class, gender or psychology. As a student, question your own 'axis' and expand your readings (if possible) not to find "successful" answers but to stay critical of all answers.

In short: people miss all kinds of points, it's all a matter of perspective and motivations. Historicize the writers who are bothering you... not least with the help of other (later) writers who've attempted to do so. Foucault comes to mind immediately, but I'll surely think of others as well. (I'll look through my library and me-mail you.)
posted by mondaygreens at 1:26 AM on June 24, 2010 [8 favorites]

And holes for the young, the old, the disabled, etc.

For the historic white man in your mind, try mentally substituting just a generic healthy capable free-ish citizen-type person. The Dead White Men are restricting their domain to that most important determinative group, assuming the rest will follow in patterns that are accidents of history or culture, or simply to be filled out by thinkers who come after while they pursue the main line.
posted by fleacircus at 1:49 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you already are engaging intellectually, but you don't like what you're seeing. I think the best way to avoid becoming lazy and dismissive is to make your criticisms work for you. Presumably, you'll have to write at least a paper or two on your readings over the course of the term, and perhaps you could address your objections in your written work. Exploring these issues in a cogent way will force you to think about what exactly you object to and why you feel the way you do. (I'm sure you're already well aware of the "what" and "why," but articulating these things can sometimes make it more palatable).

Extrapolation could be key here. Are there really "women-shaped, minority-shaped, rest-of-the-world-shaped holes" simply because they're not mentioned specifically or could the theories actually be applied to everyone? In whole or in part? What would you change to make them more universal? Who comes closest to a Unified Social Theory? Is something like that even possible within the context of social systems? Could you take bits of each and splice them together to create something better? How would you fill those holes? This is what got me through my Cultural Anthropology course without stabbing someone.
posted by Eumachia L F at 2:22 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Put them in context. When you read old work from a modern perspective, of course it sometimes seems backwards, especially on subjects that have developed radically since then.

Think back to what the state of the art was in social theory in their time - research it if necessary - and then try and put yourself in their shoes and work out what was really innovative about their thinking at that time.

Like it or not, a lot of the more modern work on feminism and racism and so on is standing on the shoulders of the dead white men you are reading, so perhaps they contributed more than you are giving them credit for.

Do some reading on the Marxist perspective on women, which to my mind was pretty radical for the times, and far ahead of other contemporary thinkers.
posted by emilyw at 2:41 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Would it be helpful to stop thinking about them as Dead White Men? That makes it too easy to categorize them as all exactly the same, and therefore easier to get tunnel-vision on the same three holes in all of their arguments. To me, that part's the intellectually lazy part: if you go into a text looking for things you're pretty sure you'll find, it's really easy to miss the more interesting problems with it.

Also, this isn't fully coherent in my brain, so it might not be coherent on paper either, but I was in a class recently where I hated 90% of what we read. I realized that what was really making me feel growly was reading all of those authors on their own terms. I was accepting all of their premises and then trying to argue with them (either in my head or in class), and that never got anywhere interesting or useful. It still always ended up with me pacing angrily across my living room, dropping books on the floor. What helped me get through that class was starting to question the premises of authors' arguments--the assumptions they made which led to some of their full arguments-- Once I did that, I stopped feeling so intellectually trapped, which had been a big part of the problem. Don't know if that makes sense. Hope it does.
posted by colfax at 2:55 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're getting great advice.

I always ask myself: who is the writer trying to convince? What position is he arguing against? What makes his work so powerful or controversial in the time he is writing?

In a way I'm just restating what others have already said.
posted by vincele at 4:10 AM on June 24, 2010

To me, that part's the intellectually lazy part: if you go into a text looking for things you're pretty sure you'll find, it's really easy to miss the more interesting problems with it.

Yup. Dead white guys are often smart, important, and foundational to understanding and contextualizing later (and more diverse) critics and thinkers.
posted by Forktine at 4:38 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Find a contemporary thinker that you like a lot.
Then delve into their influences and sources. Almost certainly, they were influenced by some of these dead white men of which you speak.

If you begin to understand what parts of the old school thought influenced new school thought that you like - that will help you appreciate the old school.

Remember, in almost every advanced field, the leaders of the field are standing on the shoulders of giants. The current thinkers didn't event the field, they picked up where the last generation left off, who picked up where the last generation left, and so on.
posted by Flood at 5:17 AM on June 24, 2010

Are you asked to like what they say? Are you asked to share their world view? Who cares if you do or don't? Their views, just like yours or mine, are in any case determined by time, place, culture. Stop taking it all so personally. Step out of yourself. You are not required to empathise or bond with these people. Anyway, they're dead for chrissakes. Your task is to understand their ideas, not pass emotional judgement on them. If you can't do that, if everything reduces back to a student's own feelings, prejudices and hang-ups, isn't the university experience a waste of time?
posted by londongeezer at 5:18 AM on June 24, 2010

I think you've received some good advice here, but I'd echo the warning that boxing people into particular categories does indeed lead one into some rather serious errors. Durkheim was a French Jew who lived and worked through the Dreyfus Affair. Marx lived in significant poverty for much of his life, and four of his seven children died quite young. Marx’s father felt he had to convert from Judaism to further his career.

On the flip side, what about a living African American woman makes her more “valid” as a thinker? Are Indian thinkers smarter because their country was once colonized? Are Hindu bigots less bigoted because they aren’t judeo-christian?

My point is that once you concern yourself with the theories rather than the biographies you may find more that resonates with you. That does not mean that there won’t be holes in the theories. There are always holes. But dismissing Marxism, one of the theories most explicitly concerned with liberation in recorded history, because Marx is a dead white man, is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
posted by OmieWise at 5:38 AM on June 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah I'm with OmieWise on this one. Amongst (especially new) students of social theory, there can be an implicit presumption that there is a set of theories that it is 'ok' to agree with, and a set that is not. This is a mistake. You need to forget, initially at least, about who is writing what, and be able to ask yourself 'does this resonate with me on a critical level'? Things can resonate with you and still suffer from flaws.. as was indicated above, there is really no such thing as a 'unified social theory'. Your task as a student is to develop your own perspective, and that can incorporate and meld a variety of viewpoints. So, finding flaws in existing theories is in no way a bad thing, but because a particular theory has certain flaws or has been applied in an unhelpful doesn't automatically mean the rest of the theory has no value.

I think feminism is a great example of this -- the very fact that there are marxist-feminists, liberal-feminists, cultural-feminists etc goes to show you the value that engaging with, criticizing, but attempting to reconstruct flawed theories have. Liberal feminists for example don't simply say "liberalism has historically been a male-focussed theory and therefore is of zero value" -- they say, "liberalism has historically been a male-focussed theory but many of the underlying principles, if genuinely applied equally to men and women would be of tremendous value for the advocacy of substantive equality, and therefore our task as social theorists ought to be to identify the flaws in liberalism as currently understood and help to reconstruct in a way that is more responsive to the interests of women."
posted by modernnomad at 6:44 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could it be the language that is derailing you? Like "man is a thinking animal and thus blah blah blah"? If so, don't misinterpret that as "men", but "humanity". It's just old-school language.

Even if the dead white guys were only thinking about white guys, if their theories are sound, you can apply them to everyone and it still works. Failing to include isn't a flaw; only exclusion is.

And OmieWise is correct- one needn't live the life of a particular cohort to be able to theorize on the meaning of life. Different experiences don't change the various truths of corporeal existence.
posted by gjc at 7:11 AM on June 24, 2010

Postcolonialist critics have a saying: Use Kant, Hegel, and Marx, or Kant, Hegel and Marx will use you.
What they mean by this is that the philosophical frameworks are so ingrained in our ways of thinking that even when we consciously try to escape them, our thinking is already framed by categories created by dead white guys.
So for example, postcolonial nations tried to create new nations, but some would say the root of their difficulties in doing so is rooted in the Kantian nature of the idea of the nation state. In trying to not be Germany, many postcolonial states let nation-ness be defined by Kant's vision of a national German volk.
Or consider the tragically comical work of Ayn Rand. She defines herself as not-a-Marxist, and therefore she is defined by the categories and terms of Marxism. Therefore, work that is meant to be an incisive rejection of the communist nation ends up as a carnivalesque parody of said nation. Her vision fails because she can not recognize the limitations she has imposed on herself by refusing to work through the theories of Marx.
You're pushing up against some really complex ideas, and I'm a poor teacher of said ideas. Might I suggest reading Gayatri Spivak's Critique of Postcolonial Reason. She is much more detailed and capable than I am of teasing out the complications of the trail of thought that you are now on.
posted by pickypicky at 7:40 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I found it most useful to read this material while thinking as a historian (granted, I turned into a historian, so YMMV). These works are still being read because they forced some type of change onto the world in which they were written, even if the change they made is now so accepted and routine that it seems like "meh, whatever, this isn't news." Take Adam Smith as an example. The first time I read Wealth of Nations, I got partway into it and found myself completely baffled as to why I had to read this book about the normal way money works. After all, I had taken a required economics course in high school, and my textbook was WAY better written than this guy nattering on about pins. I went to my professor and asked for help; now that I think about this, I realize that he literally changed my intellectual life that afternoon.

What he suggested was that I stop reading Smith for a few days and go hunt up some material about the Industrial Revolution in Britain, to give myself a context for precisely why Smith's work was new in that context and why he is still considered the father of modern economics. When I went back to the book, I had a much better understanding of the world within which he was saying these - to my modern eye, unremarkable - things. I did the same thing for Marx, Rousseau, Durkheim, Mead, etc.

Particularly when you are reading 17th-19thC theorists, you are going to be reading men because they had the power to publish their thoughts and, in Western Europe at least, had a framework of intellectual exchange and vigorous response already culturally embedded. This approach also worked for figuring out postcolonial theory, although not quite so well for structuralism and other humanistic theories that were more about word and thought than political theory.
posted by catlet at 8:00 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Realize that your ideas about dead white men are borrowed from one - Nietzsche.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:33 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

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