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The Maniac and the Theorist: Chesterton on Critical Theory

August 4th, 2021 | 12 min read

By Daniel Dorman

It does not matter how beautiful a house seems, how stately its design, how lofty its ceiling, or how well intentioned its builders; a house built on sand will fall when the rain comes (Matt. 7:27). Ultimately, the premises or presuppositions of an idea dictate success or failure. ‘Great is the fall’ of the house built on sand; ‘great is the fall’ of the idea built on lies.

In Heretics, G.K. Chesterton highlights the importance of presuppositions, of first principles, with his typically piercing wit:

“[T]here are some people…— and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them.”

To mix metaphors, Chesterton knew that the potential for fruit or flower was hidden within the type of seed. As temporarily convenient as it may be for a gardener to pretend that dandelion seeds will bring beautiful roses, before long the weeds will be present in full strength and the garden will be swallowed into wilderness. It is the same with ideas; the seed of the idea contains its potential for fruit, for justice or beauty.

G.K. Chesterton died half a century before Critical Theory rose to cultural prominence, but the philosophical presuppositions, the seeds, of Critical Theory took deep cultural roots during Chesterton’s life and career. If we understand how Chesterton responded to the ideas which are the foundation of Critical Theory, we can understand how Chesterton may respond to Critical Theory itself.

Critical Theory as Constructivism

While Critical Theory was at one time synonymous with ‘literary theory’ (meaning the theory behind literary criticism) it has become something distinct. Critical Theory is a subset of ideas within literary theory (itself a subset of ideas within hermeneutics and epistemology more broadly).

Critical Theory, in both its popular (instagramable) and academic (anthologized) forms, applies ‘constructivism’ as a central tenet. Constructivism is the idea that the categories of gender, race, etc. do not exist in any objective reality but are constructed through our use of language. Within constructivism we do not perceive reality, but we create ‘our truths;’ language does not articulate reality, but reality is created through our use of language.

The origins of constructivism are many, but one evident source is the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s short essay On Truth and Lying in an Extra-moral Sense, can be seen planting the seeds out of which constructivism and critical theory finally grow. Nietzsche wrote:

What after all are those conventions of language? Are they possibly products of knowledge, of the love of truth; do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities? Only by means of forgetfulness can man ever arrive at imagining that he possesses ‘truth’ in that degree just indicated. If he does not mean to content himself with truth in the shape of tautology, that is, with empty husks, he will always obtain illusions instead of truth.

And truth, Nietzsche says, is “anthropomorphic through and through, and does not contain one single point which is ‘true-in-itself,’ real and universally valid, apart from man”. Many of the founders of Critical Theory were openly indebted to Nietzsche’s ideas of the arbitrary nature of human intellect and the complete incapacity of language to articulate truth.

Constructivism, the belief that truth is ‘anthropomorphic through and through’, is the defining feature of contemporary Critical Theory. I have been unable to find any influential text of Critical Theory (specifically Gender Theory, Queer Theory, and Critical Race Theory) which does not bear the distinct fingerprints of constructivism. Monique Wittig’s One is Not Born a Woman is exemplary of the whole:

A materialist feminist approach to women’s oppression destroys the idea that women are a ‘natural group’… by its very existence, lesbian society destroys the artificial (social) fact constituting women as a ‘natural group’. A lesbian society pragmatically reveals that the division from men of which women have been the object is a political one and shows that we have been ideologically rebuilt into a ‘natural group’.

Wittig’s opening remarks are typical of Critical theory; the pretension that any social distinction previously understood as empirically verifiable (i.e. natural) is artificially constructed as a method of oppression is the standard trope of theorists. That Wittig refers to herself as a ‘materialist’ should not be misunderstood to mean that she was committed to metaphysical naturalism but rather that she belongs to sub-class of Marxist theorists, ‘cultural materialists,’ who view all literature as propping up socially constructed oppressive power structures. (For further evidence of the prevalence of Constructivism in anthologized Critical Theory see Performative Acts and Gender Constitution by Judith Butler, The Social Construction of Race by Ian Haney López, and Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua).

Chesterton on Constructivism

Chesterton (having been dead for fifty years when Critical Theory became a recognizable concept) says nothing to dispute Critical Theory directly, but much of Chesterton’s formidable career was spent discrediting ‘constructivism’ or as he would more likely refer to it ‘solipsistic idealism’ (also, ‘egoism’). In the Nietzschean constructivist, “the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself,” Chesterton recognized a horrible danger to the life of the mind and a threat to his fundamental convictions.

In one of the finest summaries of Chesterton’s overarching philosophy, Richard Gill wrote:

Chesterton’s main concern was to convey his belief that humans are not the creators of being; that their own particular happiness requires the recognition of their reality as dependent creatures and lies in the gratitude that the acknowledgement of this gift of existence implies.

Throughout his whole body of works Chesterton puts forward a common-sense metaphysical realism as “a philosophy which, over against all forms of reductionist empiricism and solipsistic Idealism, he saw as native to the human mind and, moreover, a condition of that minds sanity and flourishing.” (Aidan Nichols)

(Much the same could be said of C.S. Lewis’ overarching philosophy, particularly as expressed in The Abolition of Man. As Stephen Wedgeworth argued: “Lewis presupposed reality. He presupposed logical and intelligible existence and an objective meaning behind all of that, something which was inescapable and immediate to every man.”)

In ‘The Maniac’ (the second chapter of Orthodoxy), Chesterton outlines his opposition to two prevalent scepticisms, two ideas which oppose the recognition of the gift of existence: materialism (reductionist empiricism) and solipsistic idealism. Chesterton wrote: “The man who cannot believe his senses [the idealist], and the man who cannot believe anything else [the materialist], are both insane, but their insanity is not proved by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives.”

It is in Idealism that Chesterton recognized the greater threat and which the third chapter of Orthodoxy, ‘The Suicide of Thought’, is dedicated to discrediting. As R.V. Young notes, “Chesterton realized that the mentality of a Thomas Huxley [a notable materialist] was a minor annoyance compared to the threat represented by the madness of a Friedrich Nietzsche.” For Chesterton, solipsistic idealism, “of which Nietzsche will stand very well as the type of the whole,” is a scepticism so radical it endangers the life of the mind:

[T]he human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought… There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.

Chesterton paints a horrifying picture of the loneliness and mental helplessness of the solipsistic idealist:

There is a skeptic far more terrible than he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the skeptic who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the existence of angels or devils, but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day… those seekers after the Superman, who are always looking for him in the looking glass: those writers who talk about impressing their personalities instead of creating life for the world; all these people have really only an inch between them and this awful emptiness.

Then when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother’s face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the wall of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, ‘he believes in himself.’

Chesterton’s criticism of the solipsistic idealist is equally potent against the modern theorist who embraces a constructivist view of reality. The critical theorists, like their idealist ancestors, have adopted a radical scepticism which ‘blackens out the world like a lie’.

The ‘maniac’ that Chesterton describes, the solipsistic idealist, is the constructivist; the constructivist is the critical theorist. Firmly rooted in constructivism, Critical Theory is a modern version of ideas which Chesterton understood to be incompatible with mental health. For Chesterton, the prevalence of Critical Theory today would be no less than a mass ‘mania,’ a popularized psychosis threatening the health and sanity of many. Critical theory is a contemporary re-iteration of ‘the thought that stops’, which is ‘the only thought that ought to be stopped.’

Richard Gill makes much the same point: “In its strongest form, the theory of social construction is staunchly anti-realist in its assumptions and eager to deny that there is any nature ‘out there’ possessing properties of its own… The ‘strong’ social constructionist bears a striking resemblance to Chesterton’s character of the idealist maniac who… believes that ‘everything began in himself’.” Gill cites Psychoanalytical sociologist Ian Craib saying: “If certain varieties of what is known as ‘social constructionism’ were to grow arms and legs (not to mention a head and a body) and walk into a psychoanalyst’s consulting room, they would be diagnosed as suffering from a manic psychosis.”

The theorist is ‘the maniac.’

Chesterton on a Truer Path to Reform

In an article recently published in Mere Orthodoxy, William Murrell argues that Critical Theory can be seen as an objective method, “an academic activity (asking empirically verifiable questions about power and oppression along particular axes of inequality, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, etc.).” However, I would simply note that if you are ‘asking empirically verifiable questions’ you are already stepping outside of the typical mode of the anthologized critical theorist; the theorist seeks to impose a view of the world through a particular lens of power disparity, based in the assumption that all power disparity is evidence of oppression artificially concocted through the arbitrary distinctions of language. The typical mode of the critical theorist is sadly akin to Chesterton’s identification of “those writers who talk about impressing their personalities instead of creating life for the world”.

The sad reality is that there are many pressing questions about the real oppression of individuals or groups which go unanswered because of the radical pretensions of critical theorists to rewrite the basic categories of human existence on genuinely arbitrary and unverifiable lines. (I am thinking specifically of the work of essentialist feminists and some legal scholars of race whose worthwhile research gets hidden in the cacophony of theorists’ claims of oppression .)

Moreover, in opposing constructivism as a basis for analyzing potential injustice between groups of people, one does not need to commit to a view that our current definitions are precisely ‘natural’ (i.e. in accord with reality). This is particularly important to recognize in discussions of race, where opposing the radically constructivist view of race supported by Critical Race Theory is often perceived as support for the still influential categories of race articulated in the early modern period by colonizing Europeans. Opposing constructivism in discussions of race would actually offer a basis for reforming our language in light of the apparently complex realities of race and away from the often ill-conceived categories of early modern Europeans.

There is, of course, a point at which established patterns of thought, entrenched in language, ought to be questioned. There is regularly a need to reform and refine our understanding of social/political realities and to recognize past errors. However, for real reform and real progress we must believe in an objective ideal towards which we can progress.

As Chesterton explains: “If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard? Nietzsche started a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil; if it were so, we could not talk of surpassing or even falling short of them.” (30) Critical theorists follow Nietzsche in attempting to create progress by discarding the standard or discrediting the very possibility of objective standards. The pervasive error of constructivism is denying any exterior reality towards which our words reach, even imperfectly, and thus any basis from which to reform our language to a more objective and just standard. The motive is often to see genuinely needed reform, but the method is poison. The good intentions of many bright minds have been wasted building on an untenable foundation.

I believe Chesterton would seek to awaken in critical theorists a gratitude for the mysterious gift of existence. He would call them back to a common-sense metaphysical realism and a common-sense trust that our language can (with at least some accuracy) articulate the world around us. He would seek to rescue them from the emptiness which awaits the constructivist. He would applaud their hatred of the world’s evil and its broken structures, yet he would ask them to realize that they must love the world too, even if only to think it worth changing. He would direct them down a truer path of reform, a truer path to justice.

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Daniel Dorman

Daniel Dorman is a contributor with Young Voices and the director of communications at a public policy think-tank in Ottawa, Canada. His writing has recently appeared in a variety of publications including the National Review, National Post, and Mere Orthodoxy.