Radical Immanent Critique


Dan Hicks


January 19, 2020

My general approach to philosophy might be characterized as radical immanent critique. This might seem paradoxical. The goal of this blog post is to resolve this apparent paradox.

Let’s start at the end. My approach is critical. By this I mean that my approach is evaluative, not purely descriptive; and that my evaluations are frequently negative. Things are going wrong; things aren’t working. This might be because the means aren’t appropriate to the ends, or it might be because the ends are bad ones.

My critique is radical. By this I mean that it targets deep assumptions of the scientific practices I study (and critique). The value-free ideal, and related concepts such as objectivity and partisan neutrality, is a good example here. The value-free ideal (for science) is widely assumed by scientists, policymakers, and members of the general public. It is also rarely questioned or put up for debate. This ideal has a profound influence on the way we organize scientific institutions and integrate them into our systems of public decisionmaking. In these ways, the value-free ideal is a deep assumption of science in our society. And it is an assumption I am sharply critical of. I don’t just think it’s mistaken; I think it’s pernicious. By criticizing this deep assumption, my work becomes radical.

But my critique is also immanent. This means that it is addressed to the social practices that I think should change — scientific research and policymaking — framed in terms that they can understand, and argued by appealing to premises that they accept. (This is also why I’ve published so much of my work in venues like Environmental Health Perspectives or Risk Analysis.) My basic argument against the value-free ideal is that it prevents scientists from doing the very things that they claim to be trying to do. For example, environmental health scientists characteristically want to produce knowledge that will be useful for protecting human health and the environment. I didn’t make up the phrase “protect human health and the environment”; it’s from the mission statement of US EPA. The value-free ideal prevents them from pursuing this goal when it’s used to portray and dismiss their research as “biased” and to justify excessively skeptical standards of evidence.

The sense of paradox in “radical immanent critique” comes from the fact that, on the one hand, I appeal to deep assumptions of scientific practices while also, on the other hand, criticizing deep assumptions of these same practices. How can I both appeal to and criticize an assumption?

The solution is that I’m appealing to some deep assumptions to criticize other ones. The aim of protecting human health and the environment is a deep assumption of environmental health science; my argument points out that this assumption is incompatible with another deep assumption, the value-free ideal. We might distinguish between radical critique and Cartesian critique. Radical critique targets deep assumptions of a social practice; but not necessarily every assumption. Only Cartesian critique attempts to target every assumption of a social practice at once. Cartesian immanent critique would be paradoxical; but there’s no logical problem with non-Cartesian radical immanent critique.