--from Bereft of Reason:
On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for its Renewal
by Eugene Halton
Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1995, paper, 1997.

Chapter 1: The Codification of Social Theory

    Free speech? Yeah, tell me another one.
        -Stanley Fish, Literary Theorist

    Let not theories and `ideas' be the rules of your being. The Führer himself and he alone is German reality and its law, today and for the future.    -Martin Heidegger

    I philosophize only in terror, but in the confessed terror of going  mad.     -Jacques Derrida

    I admit to having a perfect horror of a dictatorship of theorists.
         -George Orwell

Why Theory Now?
       The comedians Mike Nichols and Elaine May used to have a routine going back to their days with the Second City Comedy Club in Chicago, in which they would toss words back and forth which would qualify as "cleans" and "dirties." For example, the term "Lake Michigan" is a clean, while "Lake Titicaca"--enunciated very slowly--is a dirty. "Sword" is a clean, while "rapier" is a dirty. Are you with me, dear reader? We can apply the same method to a number of terms in intellectual life today.
       In this general mindset, contingency, pluralism, and social constructionism are cleans, while essences, foundations, experience, and universals are all dirties. "Reality" is a dirty while "fiction" is a clean. The "I" is a dirty, and so is "we."  An "author" is a dirty, while a "text" is a clean. "The body," formerly a dirty, can be redefined as a text, and made into a clean. Local cultures are clean, while "humanity" is a dirty. "Privileging" and "valorizing" something is a dirty, while using the terms "privilege" and "valorize" as verbs is a clean. Postmodernism is a clean, while modernism is a dirty. Non-hierarchical multiculturalism is a clean, while a canon is a dirty. Both those who characterize certain people as "politically correct" and those who are so characterized agree that it is a dirty.  John Dewey used to be a dirty for most post-world war II academic philosophers, but now that "the public intellectual" has become a clean, Dewey has become a clean. Even more remarkably, Dewey, the philosopher who lamented what he termed "the eclipse of community," has become a clean for many who also regard "communitarianism" as a dirty. Figure that one out!
       Central to contemporary intellectual life is the assumption that "the big picture" traditionally sought by philosophy is a dirty, while "little pictures" are clean. I wish to claim that fallible big pictures are not only still possible but are requisite for comprehending the modern and postmodern world. Also central to intellectual life today, although more problematically, is the assumption that organic nature is a dirty, while culture is a clean.
       When the term nature is used in the context of ecology it can be put safely within a political context, and then regarded as a clean. But the idea that organic biology may have some direct and inward influence on persons, institutions, societies and civilizations, that human conduct cannot be completely reduced to socio-historical cultural constructions categorically distinct from nature--such an idea is a dirty, even if John Dewey, the newly reconstructed clean public intellectual, might have sought such a naturalistic basis for human conduct. That side of Dewey is declared a dirty, and consigned to the dungheap of history.
       The term "public intellectual" is clearly a clean, while for many, the term "tenured radical" is a dirty. Philosophy is regarded by many today as a dirty, while social theory is a clean. There is, of course, a long tradition, going back at least to Marx's last thesis on Feuerbach, to call for the end of philosophy. But today...

 Return to Bereft of Reason page