A Dialogue On Reading The Critical Theory Of Academia

That’s a mouthful isn’t it? I’ve been trying for some days now to read some existentialist philosophical theory, which is very much in fashion these days, to see if it makes any more sense to me now than it did when I tried it in my youth, when I had no academic education to guide me. I was keen to understand back then, but could make neither head nor tail of it due to the language used, much to my disappointment. Reading some of this theory now, is also reminding me of the time I later spent trying to fathom some literary theory and art theory when I was doing my OU degree later in life, where I had to sit with a dictionary by my side to learn a new whole vocabulary that was being used by the professorial academics who wrote the papers and essays I was attempting to understand. These essays were riddled with words like this:

idiomatic, axiomatic, paradigm, espouse, eschew, expound, exposition, epistemological, phenomenological, semiotics, hermeneutics, dialectic, a priori, empirical, substantive, semantics, causality, ontological, teleological, tautology, signifiers and signified, posits, didactic, protean, exigencies, the absolute, occidental, diachronic, synchronic, qualitatively, quantitatively, philological, structuralism, deconstruction, exegetical, Zeitgeist, inculcation, solecism, disquisition, praxis, rubric, corollary, antithetical…and that bloke Hegel doesn’t half get about!

(There are admittedly some gorgeous sounding words here and a favourite phrase I’ve picked up is ‘epistemological doubt’ (doubting of a particular theory of knowledge system)

Well, I improved my understanding up to a point, but I very much felt that this language was a means to divide people, even alienate people, by assuming that only those who had a certain level of education and study in their chosen field would have the means to understand, as opposed to those who didn’t. And that those that didn’t shouldn’t be reading this material in the first place. I also decided that this kind of language was written by critics for other critics within academia, as well as to justify their elevated positions and their work. No wonder there are very short introduction guides published to give students a scaled-down and interpreted simplification of specialist theory and their terms. But of course it’s not always about the chosen words, it can be how they are put together syntactically, as you will find below.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a wee dialogue of my own during some reading. An inner dialectic you might say ;>) between my left brain inner critic, determined to analyse and get it right, and my curious creative right brain wanting to be pleasantly enlightened –  as I’ve been having a bit of an inner argument during some reading of this existential philosophy, which just happens to be some Kierkegaard.

(The Kierkegaard text I’m reading in the dialogue is in quotes. The left brain and right brain are L and R)


‘Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self?…

L and R Okay so far. Got it!

‘The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact]  that the relation relates itself to its own self.’

R Is this for real? No-one could understand this, could they? And this is only the beginning of this essay! What’s the rest going to be like?

L Just bear with it. Read it again –

R Are you kidding? This is nonsense!

L Okay, move on then!

 ‘Man in a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis’.

L and R Yeah, I suppose so…but the it is a bit confusing

‘A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not a self.’

R Here we go again! This is ridiculous!

L Just keep reading. Maybe it will start making some sense. This guy was supposed to be good at psychology. We like psychology.

So reading a bit further on: ‘Whence then comes despair?’

R and L Lovely! We’re onto despair now. That’s more like it. Some good old existential angst to get stuck into…hurrah! (yes, a but weird, but what can I say?)

‘From the relation wherein the synthesis relates itself to itself, in that God –‘

L and R Godwhere does God come into this? I didn’t think existentialists believed in God. I though they believed life was essentially meaningless  – you know, ‘absurd’ as they keep banging on about, and that you have to create your own meaning.

‘In that God who made man a relationship lets this go as it were out of His hand, that is, in the fact that the relation relates itself to itself. And herein, in the fact that the relation is spirit, is the self, consists the responsibility under which all despair lies, and so lies every instant it exists, however much and however ingeniously the despairer, deceiving himself and others, may talk of his despair as a misfortune which has befallen him, with a confusion of things different, as is the case of vertigo aforementioned, with which, though it is qualitatively different, despair has much in common, since vertigo is under the rubric soul what despair is under the rubric spirit, and is pregnant with analogies to despair.’

R And I’m in acute spiritual despair right now of ever making any sense of this!

L Yeah, I know , I can’t say I blame you

R What should we do?

L Oh we’ll just  read the blasted thing because then we’ve done it, and maybe there’ll be something that turns up that we do understand…

 ‘A despairing man is in despair over something…’

L  and R  Well, like, obviously!

 ‘So to despair over something is not yet proper despair. It is the beginning, or it is as the physician says of a sickness that it has not yet declared itself…’

L and R Yawn

‘The next step is the declared despair, despair over oneself. A young girl is in despair over love…’

L Woops. We nearly fell asleep there…

R So?

L You mean you’ve had enough?

R Well, haven’t you?

L  I suppose logically, reading this is a good way of getting off to sleep…

R Exactly!

L It’s being doing it for the last few nights, hasn’t it?

R Exactly! It’s quite constructive really – you like constructive.

L Yes, I do. And we can pick it up tomorrow night?

R Yes, of course, we’re not giving up.

L No, we’re not giving up. And we mustn’t be too hard on Kierkegaard or too hard on ourselves.

R No.

L We mustn’t despair

R Oh God, no!

The book is cast aside and L and R go to sleep….

(PS My apologies to you, Kierkegaard, for being the butt of my humour. It happened to be you, but could have been one of many, and I will finish you, I promise!

(pic courtesy of pixabay)
























About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
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21 Responses to A Dialogue On Reading The Critical Theory Of Academia

  1. Oh Lynne – you brought back my schooldays when I thought I’d like to understand philosophy, and gave up because I couldn’t understand the language, I went round in circles looking up the dictionary, which explained in the previous terms which had baffled me!
    Loved your inner dialogue… I must have found a good translation of Kierkegarde thirty or more years ago, because I loved him…
    As for all those terms you listed…. jargon – I hate it – it’s a real barrier to communication as well as a sort of ‘keep out of our club’ sort of vocabulary… if the aim of communication is to be understood, then it seems as though the aim of jargon is to be understood by a tiny group of people in the ‘club”.
    Do so enjoy reading your thoughts, dear Lynne, which are so honest, and cut through the cant.

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Wow, that’s a compliment – cutting through the cant! Yes, it’s that ‘keep out of our club’ vocabulary, as you so aptly put it, that bothers me – the use of it is unquestionably intentional. And of course the translation aspects can be critical to understanding, but we get a lot of notes and discussions within the text on the difficulties in translation interpretations too! Well, Andy likes K and so do you, so he must have something going for him! I also know what you mean about looking up certain words only to come across more of the same kind of terms…Thanks for sharing, Valerie :>)


  2. Lynne, to read this was a delightful and disturbing experience. Disturbing because I remember reading Kierkegaard with fascination. Either I had a better translation at the time or a better brain. Now I am looking at those quotes websites with different eyes—grateful instead of irritated. Thanks for my morning treat.

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thank, Rachel! Well Kierkegaard was kind of recommended to me by Andy, an online pal…but when I got back to him saying I was finding ‘Fear and Trembling and the Sickness unto Death’ quite indecipherable, he said ‘well there’s Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard’ meaning probably that it does depend on the translation or studied interpretations you happen to be reading – so I can see where you are comign from. And yes, the quotes can shed a different light on him, a more kindly light from my point of view. Glad you enjoyed the post though!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the book that appealed to me forty years ago but I think it might have been pink. That’s advanced education for you!

        Liked by 2 people

      • lynnefisher says:

        Well I’ll remember this one as being a beautiful shade of sage green!

        Liked by 2 people

      • A.P. says:

        Hello, I’m Andy, and I confess to being the culprit involved in this convoluted caper concerning academia and absurdity.

        In my defense, so to speak, I was a 24-year old man the last time I read “Fear and Trembling and the Sickness unto Death.” I was a phlosophy major at the time and fortunate enough to be taking Existentialism from Marjorie Greene, who was President of the American Philosophical Association at the time. I don’t recall having any particular trouble with the translation, but I also seem to remember glossing over huge portions of it. This was because once I got the general idea about the “three lives” (then translated aesthetic, ethical, and religious), and the concept of the “leap of faith,” I got excited, and I wrote my paper without reading the rest of it.

        When I saw to my surprise that she had given me an A- on the paper, which in the States is a very high grade, I unfortunately became overconfident and complacent. The second and last paper for the class was to be on an existential philosopher of my choice. So I chose Merleau-Ponty. After a similar skim of his work, I audaciously wrote a 20-page paper in which I dared to invent my own terminology, and included the made-up word “sublogical” in my paper, inferring that Merleau-Ponty was operating beneath the surface of what British empirical philosophers would think was rational philosophical behavior. I remember boldly name-dropping Berkeley and throwing in a little “esse e percipi” just to sound as though I knew my stuff.

        (I also wrote on my breaks at a rock music recording session while smoking marijuana.)

        I never saw the grade on the final paper, but was dismayed to see that my overall grade in the course was a D+; that is, a very very low grade. Undoubtedly, my grade on the final could only have been an “F” – meaning I failed, and would have failed the course entirely had I not been saved by my interpretation of Kierkegaard. At that moment, Marjorie Greene ceased to be a philiosopher whom I admired, but rather an annoying sort of eccentric who often walked into class in the middle of a complex sentence and couldn’t help adjusting the straps of her brassiere unconsciously while talking philosophical nonsesne.

        I rest my case.

        Liked by 1 person

      • lynnefisher says:

        Thanks for sharing, Andy! So you went too far, were too audacious for the President of the American Philosophical Association – wow!
        This reminds me how we have to follow the writing rules, conventions of response rules in degree study essays and assignments – it was a bit of a language in itself for me generally speaking. Like having to be so careful by saying things such as : ‘this might suggest that…’ This could exemplify…’ AND NEVER to use the word ‘I’ – which is far too presumptuous! :>)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Rick Ellrod says:

    Loved the interior dialogue!

    I share some of your concerns about the gobbledegook. Of course any field has its technical terms. And yet– When I finished grad school, way back when, and started teaching introductory philosophy courses, I realized the teaching was a kind of acid test for me. After all that time in undergrad and grad school, one can sling the lingo with the best of them. But the best way to see whether I actually knew what I was talking about was to see whether I could put these arcane concepts into words that college freshmen, with no training or background at all, could understand. I found that exercise extremely rewarding.


    Liked by 3 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Rick! Wow, you taught philosophy – it’s interesting how through writing the post I’m finding that some of you have studied it and taught it. Love the expression ‘sling the lingo’ . I can totally appreciate how rewarding it must have been to get the points across to the students in terms they could understand. I can really identify with that boiling down process. I did a wee bit of very basic introductory stuff with the OU, mostly focusing on logic which I did enjoy. Thanks for sharing, Rick :>)

      Liked by 2 people

  4. galenpearl says:

    Very funny. One of the great things about getting older is that I just don’t despair (!) over not being able to unravel this stuff anymore. I studied philosophy in college, and my favorite course in law school was jurisprudence, or the philosophy of law. The one paper I saved from my education days was a paper from this jurisprudence class. A few years ago, I discovered it in a box of old stuff. When I reread it, I couldn’t even understand it, and I’m the one who wrote it and got a high grade on it! Ha!

    When I asked one of my spiritual teachers a few years ago if it all had to be so complicated, he said, “No.” I asked him if we could talk about it further, and he said, “No. The answer will be the same.”

    So I admire your persistence, and your humor. But in the end I wonder if it will all come down to something very simple.

    Liked by 4 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      That’s so interesting, Galen! I was wondering what your response would be. When I try reading this material now, I do have my tongue in my cheek, so to speak, and I was thinking of how taoism just wouldn’t go there! And yes, I believe the dense language can be boiled down to simple truth, even if it takes a while to get there. In the second hand copy of K, there are some notes scribbled in by someone else trying to decipher it all – rather than put off I was entertained by it, and they did leave off half way through! Cheers, Galen!


  5. Loved the conversation Lynne. Methinks this is where a group discussion is useful for opening up the meaning and passing on the baton of intuitive understanding until all becomes clear. It’s the only way it works for me anyway and I’m full of admiration for those singular people who can read and understand philosophical statements without their minds going all fuzzy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanks, Sylvia – yes, group discussions would be good for such material – I suppose that’s what can happen in a university setting – it’s probably about using different words and some real life examples and experiences to get some clarity…glad you enjoyed it!


  6. A.P. says:

    Do I detect both the Kierkegaard and (I daresay) the Pope influence?

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      I thought you’d cotton-on to that, Andy! Funnily enough, last night I found myself understanding some of it…there’s always hope, I guess!

      Liked by 1 person

      • A.P. says:

        I couldn’t understand much of it, myself. I have found some very beautiful Kierkegaard however, including something that Maria Popova posted on BrainPicks recently, something about the moment being a reflection of eternity. It was so beautifully written, I read it to Jan and Echo (the latter of whom is a philosophy major) and they both thought it was breathtaking. But if I’d have had to read some of the stuff you posted here when I was in college — well — I never finished my Philosophy major anyway due to the reading load and my disability, so to say I’d have never finished would not be meaningful. Let’s just say I’d have probably wised up and dropped out earlier…

        Liked by 1 person

      • lynnefisher says:

        Thanks, Andy – yes it seems to be a case of reading a variety and finding what resonates. That’s a lovely quote you found by K and here are three gorgeous ones that crop up when you do a quick search:
        ”Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
        Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.
        People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
        Thank goodness those of us who aren’t bound to certain reading can treat philospohy reading as a pick and mix business and see what turns up! I love Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus so may come to that in a post one day! Cheers, Andy :>)
        PS currently reading your musical script, 70% in now…great drama and great language!, and listening to the uplifting music tracks now and then means I can sort of see it on the stage in my mind’s eye 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • A.P. says:

        I had to look it up to get the exact quote (which was quite long) but the salient portion was this sentence: “The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.” Rather thought-provoking, I’d say. This brings up the matter of it being somehow easier to familiarize myself with the mind-set of great philosophers, artists, political figures, etc. by memorizing solitary quotes of theirs rather than having to sift through huge heaps of material. A Camus quote I’ve always liked is: “Always go too far, for it is there that you will find the truth.” Not sure I’ve ever found the truth, but I’ve *definitely* gone too far lol.

        As for the script. it’s wonderful that you’ve made it 70% through. I’m glad you’re enjoying it! I’m also trying to catch up on some of my reading, being as I find myself better able to focus on reading these days, being less overloaded and preoccupied than earlier. I finished *Blessed are the Weird* last night, and Jacob and I are planning to talk later in the week. This has me somewhat nervous, but the nervousness is overwhelmed by my desire to connect with the man, for he seems both like-minded and fascinating. I’ll try to get to your book and Lauren’s new book, after that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • lynnefisher says:

        Glad you found it Andy! Yes, it’s lovely. It’s funny I saw the Camus quote on twitter the other day – and it made me have a think. I too have gone too far…not sure I’ve found the truth but got a lot closer to it, at least for me. There comes a point when you have to say, enough now, and that for me is when things start to take on some simplicity and when whatever it is you’ve found becomes echoed by other philosophies too. then the going too far seems well worth it!

        I’ve finished the script now, it’s everything it should be, knowing you, and a lot more! Still got to reply to your email, so will leave it there for now. It’s great that you are connecting with Jacob, perfect timing somehow! Cheers for now 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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