Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Martin Jay reviews The End of Progress

Amy Allen. The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 304 pp.

Review by Martin Jay

11 April 2018

There are few more vexed questions in the history of philosophy—indeed, of cultural production in general—than the proper relationship between genesis and validity. Can ideas transcend their origins, detaching themselves from the historical moment of their creation and the particular subject position of their creators? Can texts float free of contexts—both of genesis and reception—and express truths that can justly be called timeless? Can Mind be separated from the finite minds that comprise it, and absolute knowledge extracted from the relative worldviews of specific epochs, cultures, classes and individual psyches?

Answers to these questions can be ventured, if at all, by first discriminating among the types of ideas at stake. Mathematics and logic, it is generally assumed, are most removed from the contamination of their context of discovery, able to transcend the vernacular languages in which they are expressed and as valid in ancient Athens as in modern Shanghai. Although not quite as pristinely neutral, scientific ideas are less likely to be tainted than those that we recognize are culturally and linguistically mediated. Here the gravitational pull of situatedness seems most powerful. But how to calculate the effect of such mediations is itself by no means certain, for it is no less clear that ideas and norms do in fact often circulate beyond their contexts of origin, languages can be translated into others (however imperfectly), and theories can easily travel across borders. Even if inevitably refracted through the media of their transmission and reconstituted in the different context of their reception, ideas do not entirely shed their transcendent potential. No conception can be fully immaculate, but the alternative may not be resignation to the ineradicable stain of original sin. Positing radical incommensurability, we might say, is as dubious a proposition as assuming perfect and complete decontextualization.

It is into this maelstrom that Amy Allen plunges by questioning the attempts of the second and third generations of the Frankfurt School—in particular, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, and Rainer Forst—to introduce a viable cross-cultural concept of progress into their search for a defensible normative ground for critical theory. The End of Progress takes for granted that faith in actual progress in human affairs, however we measure it, no longer engenders much enthusiasm in a world as deeply troubled as ours. Allen’s real target is the residual belief that a rational reconstruction of history positing a conjectural developmental ascent can be a viable tool in the service of emancipation (an assumption as old as Kant’s “Idea of Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent” [1784]). Especially when based on a reading of the past as a narrative of upward movement—what she calls belief in “progress as a ‘fact’”—it refuses to acknowledge that its values are inherently Eurocentric and inextricably entangled with the uneven power relations characterizing imperialist conquest of the non-European world. The validity of its norms, she contends, is irremediably vitiated by their corrupt genesis, or to put it more bluntly, they “have their roots soaked thoroughly in blood” (p. 207).  Whether in the form of the Kantian constructivism adopted by Forst, the Hegelian contextualism preferred by Honneth, or Habermas’s mixture of the two, any putatively species-wide “learning process” is really an imposition of the ideals of the West on its others (p. 3). There is no metanormative “über-context,” just different forms of life or life-worlds that justify their norms immanently (p. 215). Critical theory must take on board the powerful resistance to Eurocentrism articulated by postcolonial theory, which enjoins it to listen to the marginalized voices of those assigned an inferior place in the dubious metanarratives underlying the ideology of progress.

Curiously, Allen buttresses her argument not by drawing directly on voices from outside Europe—aside from the occasional nod to theorists like Dipesh Chakrabarty, Saba Mahmood, and Gurminder Bhambra (all of whom, in fact, write in English and teach in the West)—but on two quintessentially European thinkers, Theodor W. Adorno and Michel Foucault. In her reading, they rely not on an allegedly transcendent normative point of view or rationally reconstructed evolutionary narrative, but rather on “a broader project of immanent critique that aims not at an abstract negation of the normative inheritance of modernity but rather at a fuller realization of that inheritance” (pp. 164–65). The norms in particular on which they rely are “freedom and respect for the other” (p. 166). Against a naïve notion of past progress as a fact, they are aware of the contingent nature of historical development and even its regressive potential. Such awareness posits what for Allen is a viable concept of progress as “a forward-looking moral-political imperative” (p. 173). Even as they rely implicitly on a norm of rationality for critical purposes, they always know that it is historically situated and reflects the power relations that it vainly tries to escape. Rather than a collective educational endeavor—Habermas’s “learning process”—the full sweep of history should include what can better be called an “unlearning” process, at least of the discredited narrative of prior progress, which then leads to “epistemic humility” (p. 209).

Adorno and Foucault, Allen argues, seek neither simply to subvert Eurocentric Enlightenment ideals nor to defend them through a vindicatory genealogy. Instead they want to problematize them “as a gesture of solidarity with the suffering of the colonized, subaltern subjects who have suffered so much at the hands and in the name of Eurocentric modernity” (p. 209). She endorses Chakrabarty’s claim that what is needed is “an openness so radical that I can express it only in Heideggerian terms: the capacity to hear that which one does not already understand” (quoted on p. 75). If there is a viable version of rationality that can be said to move beyond the impermeable boundaries of specific life forms, it entails what Anthony Laden has called “the responsive engagement with others as we attune ourselves to one another and the world around us” (quoted on p. 220).

Despite all of her stress on the gravitational pull of genesis on validity, Allen nonetheless holds out hope for overcoming the moral relativism that always bedevils radical contextualist arguments. But, alas, she provides little warrant for this optimism. Two troubling issues cloud her argument. The first concerns her reliance on European theorists such as Adorno, Foucault, and, via Chakrabarty, Heidegger, without explaining how their rootedness in the Eurocentric lifeworld out of which they emerged—which vitiates the universalizing claims of Habermas, Honneth, and Forst—doesn’t also deflate theirs. How does their alleged acknowledgement of immanent contextualism somehow immunize them from ethnocentrism and qualify them to begin a humble dialogue with hitherto oppressed others? If the defenders of a dubious notion of prior history as “progress as a ‘fact’” deserve to be chastised for failing to acknowledge the blood in which the roots of their ideas are steeped, what makes believers in prior Western history as a declension story—Heidegger’s forgetting of being or Adorno’s trajectory from “the slingshot to the megaton bomb”—or the random replacement of different regimes of truth—Foucault’s epistemes—any less open to the same objection (p. 12)?[1] Can one, moreover, so easily excuse the actual political choices made by a deeply compromised thinker like Heidegger when he piously praises the “capacity to hear that which one does not already understand”?[2]

The second major objection concerns Allen’s idealized version of the non-European other to whom humble listening is owed. Rather than an historically concrete community that can be granted the status of a distinct form of life with its own immanent norms, it is little more than an empty placeholder for whatever candidate postcolonial theory posits as the victim of European imperialism. Nowhere are the dilemmas of responding to actually existing postcolonial cultures confronted, cultures that, for all their virtues, may have behaved at times in ways that make abstention from condemning them morally impossible. Does it really help to “hear that which one doesn’t already understand’ in the case, say, of Rwanda or ISIS or Boko Haram or the Duarte regime in the Philippines? Did Foucault too quickly jettison his Eurocentric values when he opted to support the Islamic Revolution in Iran? Is it always wise to exercise epistemic humility and respect for the other when the other turns out to be unendurably awful? Is it really a portent of future progress when we allow a suspicion of the purity of our motives and the blood still clinging to our own hands to paralyze our critical capacity and suspend our responsibility to do what we can to rectify injustices? Are the Rohingya in Myanmar to be abandoned to their genocidal fate with nothing but a sigh of self-lacerating regret?

In short, although Allen makes a strong case for the costs of imposing a parochial version of putative progress in the past—and perhaps in the future as well—on the rest of the world, she leaves us with little help in addressing the more fundamental problem raised by the transcendent extension of norms that inevitably emerge in particular contexts. It may be prudent to jettison universal developmental schemes, even those that try to uncouple their narratives of progress from actual historical embodiments, but we still face the challenge of avoiding an impotent relativism.  Is there not, after all, a generically human “form of life,” however thin it may sometimes appear in contrast with the culturally diverse forms that separate us, that allows the species as a whole to share some common values and be willing to enforce them for the common good? However much it may on occasion mask imperialist intentions, the discourse of human rights cannot be so briskly dismissed as nothing but ideological window dressing. The next time you are tempted to urge a global response to climate change, decry the fate of millions of forced migrants, or worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, should you allow your epistemic humility and wariness of ethnocentric norms to prevent you from pushing others, no matter how defiantly they defend their cultural uniqueness, to follow suit? Can, in short, the world really tolerate dissent from, say, the Paris Climate Agreement by a rogue nation truculently claiming its narrow interests come first, and whose distorted norms allow it to prioritize short-term economic growth over the survival of the planet as we have known it? Or are they forever weighted down by the baggage they cannot shed, like a child that forever carries with it the placenta that nurtured it in the womb? 


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York, 1999), p. 320.

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago, 2002), p. 36.