CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This article addresses the difficulties presented by a brand of scholarly common sense that is propagated through an acceptation of critique shared (often tacitly) by predominant currents in the philosophical and sociological tradition.

2To outline the problem, it is useful to take a brief initial detour via the explicit definitions of critique given in the Lalande and Petit Robert dictionaries. According to these authorities, “critique” pertains to what seem at first sight to be two entirely distinct worlds of meaning: it can imply some relation to crisis, or it can refer to a normative evaluation. In the first case, we note the stubborn persistence of a conception of critical activity that sees it as involving some crucial decision with momentous consequences. In the second, critique primarily designates the examination of some kind of intellectual work, generally in order to discriminate the good from the bad, the true from the false, and is then secondarily considered, in a “restrictive” [sic] and/or pejorative sense, to imply a “negative judgment”. [1]

3As we shall demonstrate, the imaginary of critique operates via a double movement of conflation and hierarchization that tends to thwart any possibility of rendering these critical practices fully intelligible. Firstly, the two initial senses of critique—as an action with radical consequences and revolutionary affinities, and as an intellectual critique associated with emancipation—are conflated into one single sense that more or less coincides with the standard representation of “social criticism (la critique sociale)”. [2] Here we have a critique that aims upward from the lower ranks of the social scale, and is radical, lucid, theoretically robust, emancipatory, and also constitutive for the political heritage of the Left. We shall call this “great” critique, because of the greatness of its forms, driving forces, and effects, but above all to signal that it is perceived as “great” from the normative point of view of the social scientist. What we will recommend is that a more careful distinction be made between intellectual critique and revolutionary activity, so as to think of these two figures of dissent more realistically.

4Secondly, this “great” critique becomes the yardstick for any critique carried out by social actors, so that different critiques (those carried out by dominant actors, those with modest, unclear, non-intellectual, and/or right-wing claims and effects), if they are perceived as critiques, are basically considered to be “small” critiques—even in cases where their circumstances, mainsprings, or effects are far from small. This is why, having become the last refuge of these discredited critiques even though it could well apply to all critiques great and small, the third sense of critique, “negative judgment”, is seen as being narrower—and always from a moral point of view. In contrast, we would like to make a case for the benefits of retaining this last definition as the preferred one if we want to think of critiques both great and small, to rethink them, and, ultimately, to dispense with the division altogether.

5All in all, the principal issue at stake here is to introduce a little doubt—methodical doubt—into our tendency to take it for granted that (true) critique must always be “great” critique; and to question the propensity to truncate our understanding of critical practices with the blade of our own normativity.

Finding the Traces of a “Conventional Perspective” on Critique: Scope of the Discussion

6Our thinking here owes a great deal to Michael Walzer’s corrosive essay “The Practice of Social Criticism” (in which the latter is understood as a “critique of society” that takes place within society). We take up his invitation to consider the force of critics who are not necessarily always “intellectually” or “emotionally detached” and are not necessarily moved by altruistic considerations. [3] But it seems to us that Walzer, in his own way, still ambiguously concedes too much to the “philosophically respectable”—that is to say idealized—representation of criticism that he helps to destabilize. This leads us to demarcate our analysis from his on three main points. Firstly, we do not think that critique can be located solely on the side of the “interpretation” of a common set of values; we should be open to the possibility that critique might (also) be a manifestation of common sense, devoid of any interpretation in the exegetical sense. [4] Moreover, although we entirely agree that criticism cannot be a question of pure exteriority, it seems ill advised to then suggest that critique is a question of being “really marginal”. [5] Drawing the full consequences of Walzer’s suggestive comparison of the critic to a judge, we would like to create an opportunity to consider that criticism might (also) be a matter of centrality. Finally, one last inflection, more external to the framework of Walzer’s analysis, but which we believe chimes with his wish to avoid projecting his own morality into others’ criticism: in our view, right-wing critique belongs to the unthought of what is still described, in his wake, as the “conventional perspective of critique”—even if, from where we stand, its boundaries have shifted noticeably.

7Along with its persistent presence in even the most original analyses, one sure sign of the “conventional” nature of this acceptation of critique is the fact that it crosses intra- and interdisciplinary frontiers. In order to interrogate its blind spots, although we will put them in perspective with some of the most central works of political philosophy, we have therefore chosen to concentrate principally on just two sociological programs which disagree in every (other) respect but which, precisely, converge on this point: the “standard” or “critical sociology” formalized by Pierre Bourdieu, [6] and the “sociology of critique” or “pragmatic sociology” introduced by Luc Boltanski. Cross-analyzing these two models, whose orientations are schematically summarized below (see box), will allow us to address, through two systems that have spawned separate schools of thought, the contemporary French variant of the opposition between an objectivist-type knowledge and a more subjectivist- or phenomenological-type knowledge.

Two Sociologies of Critique, One (and the Same) Critique: Introductory Remarks

Sociology of Tacit Consent Versus Sociology of Explicit Dissent

Bourdieu’s sociology aims to understand actors’ practical sense, the regularities of practice, and the legitimacy of a largely undisputed social world. [7] It insists that in order to do so, what is imperative is an epistemological break: a break with common sense, with spontaneous theories of practice, and with scholastic bias. It objectivates the social structure by studying the way in which actors’ dispositions and position-takings are shaped by the space of social positions. In doing so, it “unveils” the arbitrariness of the established order—meaning its historical constructedness, but doubtless more besides—with particular attention to processes of domination and reproduction. Critique—of the indigenous variety—rarely appears in this program, except in critical moments where the ordinary harmony between objective and subjective structures breaks down. [8]
Boltanski’s sociology aims to understand actors’ sense of justice, the uncertainty of social worlds, and the various legitimacy requirements that allow disputation to arise. [9] Careful to “take their [social actors’] arguments seriously”, it reduces the dissymmetry between sociologist and actors. It “clarifies” the moral conventions underlying their exchanges via the “second-degree construction” of ideational referents (“cities” or “grammars”) that are appealed to during “tests” with uncertain outcomes. [10] This sociological enterprise therefore involves an attention to “action as it happens” in plural situations that open up possibilities for emancipation. [11] Critique is located at the very heart of this model, where it supposes, schematically speaking, three conditions: “access to an exteriority” made possible by the coexistence of worlds with different or even antagonistic values (condition of possibility), [12] the actor’s use of his “free will” for critical purposes (condition of effectuation), [13] and the operation of generalization—that is to say, recourse to a bedrock of ideas that can be shared by a third party (condition of legitimacy).

8Ultimately, we cannot enter into the space of the debate between these two programs without rethinking it, in the sense that their polarity, which is the basis of a surprisingly obstinate division of labor, conceals the convergent conception of “critique” (that is, “great critique”) that underlies it.

Critical Sociology: The Rarity of Everyday Critique

9At first sight, it may seem incongruous to expect a program that has paid little attention to profane or lay critique to give an account of the imaginary associated with critical activity. But it is precisely because this imaginary is at work that critique seems from this perspective to be such a rare thing.

10Ordinary critique can be perfectly well apprehended by a sociology that locates explanation of practices (and critique is a practice) in the state of social relations; so it is not its method that prevents it from addressing more everyday forms of critique, but its morality.

11Another reason why indigenous critique is rarely seen is the tendency to assume that critique must be lucid, while actors are supposed to be afflicted by various forms of blindness to the sociological truth of their practice. In this sense, it is not by chance that the critique to which this program does grant its imprimatur is an epistemological one: the critique of the social determinations that bias the understanding of the processes it studies.

12Ambiguously, this sociology also contains a political or militant critique—but here again, not an indigenous one—conveyed in the idea that such authentically sociological knowledge may be liberatory in some way.

13In summary, if this sociology can be described as critical, it is not because it is incapable of thinking the “autonomy—even relative—of mental structures?assumed to be] the basis of the formulation of a social critique”. [14] It is rather because it persists in considering critique as a kind of “autonomy of the mental”, and, as such, as something rarely met with. [15] Neither is it because it leaves no place for the “free will” of actors, or because it disenchants the world (which is only a critical effect). It is rather because it would be too disenchanting to consider socially bounded critiques as critiques.

Sociology of Critique: The Everydayness of Rare Critique

14With the abandonment of “critical sociology” for “sociology of critique”, the place and status of lay critique seems to be radically altered. De facto, everyday critical practice, which appears only implicitly in Bourdieu as a sort of exception that proves the rule, becomes subject to a more profound systematic analysis.

15Yet although in principle this new sociology envisages critique as an everyday practice rather than as extra-ordinary practice, it does so only to rediscover the same critique, synonymous with emancipation. What is more, if sociology of critique no longer considers moral theories of practice as a hindrance to sociological analysis but as its principal concern, this is because, just like standard sociology, it tends to consider only intellectualized or intellectual critique. Its analysis may insist not on the break between scholar knowledge and militant knowledge but on their circularity, but this is because, once more, it is this model against which privileged critical activities are measured. Finally, if critique does indeed become a field of study for this sociology of critique, it is no less critical for all that, just otherwise critical.

16Each in their own way, but sharing the essential orientation of the philosophical tradition toward Marxist and Enlightenment ideals, these two sociologies both conceive critique as “great”—or else as nothing. When all the elements are on the table, this critique will be great from the point of view of its target (the established order), its effects (radical and emancipatory), its mainsprings (the distance between actors), its authors (marginal or dominated), its ideological content (that of the Left), and its forms (lucid, furnished with a theory of practice)—great, from the sociologist’s point of view. Whether or not any critique could possibly boast all of these forms of greatness, this narrow conventional focus stamps out the understanding of “little” critiques, while compounding the difficulty that sociologies of critique have in analyzing the social substantification of critiques both great and small.

17To analyze this series of difficulties, we will firstly examine the revolutionary amalgam and the consequences of the assimilation of critique to class struggle (the distinction between “call to order” and reformist/radical critique, the expulsion of right-wing critique and that of elites). Secondly, in an extended reflection on the opposition between ideational critical detachment and acritical social rootedness, we will challenge the privilege conferred upon intellectual (theorized, clear-sighted, tolerant) critique and its status (as objective rather than as object of study). Finally, we will detail the analytic benefits, when rethinking these different critiques, of beginning with a non-normative definition of critique.

Emancipated and Emancipatory Critique, or the Revolutionary Amalgam

18The most ordinary or lay critique appears almost everywhere in the work of Bourdieu; never, however, as a critique—a true critique, that is—but first and foremost as “agreement in disagreement”. [16]

19On numerous occasions Bourdieu describes with great subtlety what we have summarized in broad brushstrokes: actors coming into conflict because they endow the same thing with different meanings, depending upon the positions to which they aspire or which they currently occupy in social space. [17] But this “praxeological knowledge” fails to fully deliver on its promises as far as critical practices are concerned, because Bourdieu sees these critiques, which, according to him, “risk [...] never discussing what is essential”, or which (even more debatably) he assumes to “agree on the essential”, as “fictitious or formal [...] oppositions”. [18]

20This disqualification is all the more regrettable in that he demonstrates how a critique must necessarily take on its world’s established schemes of perception and, more generally, the benefits of “falling into line with rules”. [19] There are therefore good reasons to think that, if a critique demonstrates the force of the instituted in this way (which after all is what Bourdieu is interested in), that alone does not necessarily make it a weak critique—still less the opposite of a critique.

21This applies even if we see it not only as a reflection of its being “the only game in town”, but also as a reflection of the actor’s profound belief in the values of the game in question. We may accept that “the heretic remains a believer who preaches a return to purer forms of the faith” [20]—but we cannot deduce from this that, just because he is a believer or behaves like a believer, he poses no threat to representatives of the Church or representations of faith. To put it crudely, if churches have tended to burn their heretics rather than their miscreants, this is likely because they felt more threatened, and above all more directly addressed by the former than by the latter. If it makes sense to speak of it in such terms, this “disagreement in agreement”, remains a disagreement nonetheless.

22And if Bourdieu is so reluctant to concede that it is authentically critical, this is because critique, real critique, deep critique, is that which turns the tables and/or breaks the cycle of reproduction. Hence its rarity and the fact that, in this sociology, it is confined to critical states alone. It takes place only within a “cleft habitus”, [21] as if only a cleft habitus could produce division; or in “impossible” situations, [22] as if the actor must necessarily hail from an “exotic world” in order to be capable of critiquing the world in which he is integrated or, more exactly, in which he would, from that point on, no longer be integrated. [23] Above all, beyond being a mere personal crisis, this critique is essentially understood as both the index and the accelerator of a general crisis, the only one which can dislodge the ordinary complicity that unites mental structures with social structures. It is a “critical moment”, then, in which “subversive discourse” must contend with the “resistance of orthodoxy”. [24]

23On first glance, the “sociology of critique” seems to follow a different path. In the first stage of the model, characterized by its interest in the ideational—stabilized—conventions that actors make use of to bolster their “ordinary sense of justice”, [25] bringing down the established order is not a criterion for authentic critique. But then this may be because (to exaggerate the case a little) everything that is constraining in the social world has so to speak disappeared. [26] In other words, whether the possibility of critique is considered to be hindered by the alignment of mental representations with the reduced set of possibilities allowed by a social system, or whether it is supposed to be “always open” because of the latitude offered by the coexistence of different ideational systems, [27] in any case we are talking about the same, emancipated and emancipatory, critique. Apart from its enlightening nature, it is this acceptation of critique that is found in one of the main foundational arguments of sociology of critique:


If people lived in a world that is accepted as self-evident, if they were worked and dominated by forces without knowing it, then it would be difficult to understand either the eminently problematic character of the social environment, as revealed by the permanent concern for justice, or the very possibility of questioning and critique. [28]

25Indeed, nothing prevents us from thinking that, for example, actors might be “worked by superior forces” yet might also be critical—at least, nothing apart from the conception of critique invoked here. And this is why critical sociology, when it pays attention to domination, pays no attention to critique; and why sociology of critique, when it pays attention to critique, believes it needn’t pay any attention to domination.

26This also explains why, having reintegrated this theme long abandoned by standard sociology, sociology of critique only continues, in the end, to oppose domination to critique. [29] Even Michel Foucault, despite being a fine thinker of the “double” dynamic of “subjectivation” or rather of its totality (i.e. becoming-subject and being subjected) and sensitive to the affinity between critique and power, does not manage to fully get beyond this representation. [30] We can see how he hesitates, defining critique as “the art of not being governed”, “the art of not being governed like that and at that cost”, and then “the art of not being governed quite so much” or “not wanting to be governed”. [31] Also because he has in mind the Kantian model of critique, and his “What is Critique?” could just as well have been called, as it often is, “What is Aufklärung?” [32] And, more broadly speaking, because this approach to critique is so conventional that it persists even in this (other) non-conventional philosopher. As it does in this second pragmatic sociology, where critique rises up once more, “confronting the institutions”, remaining “the only bulwark against [...] domination”. [33] Along the same lines, on the rare occasions when the spotlight is turned on critical institutions—those which govern themselves by way of critique or are responsible for critical missions [34]—it is essentially to point out the limited nature of their critique or to insist upon the way in which they “digest” critique—forgetting that (to follow this unfortunate metaphor) far from being evacuated in this movement, it is being assimilated.

27For we must also keep in mind that, within this imaginary, critique is radical and nothing but; and not only liberatory but effective. This means that the difficulty in accepting that non-emancipatory critiques may deserve the name of critique is compounded by a difficulty in accepting—and this is not quite the same thing—that ineffective critiques are still critiques, just ineffective ones. From this point of view, a critique that does not silence violence is a critique that “violence will silence”, making it disappear even when it still exists. [35]

The Alignment of Critique with the Model of Class Struggle

28The Marxian and indeed Marxist acceptation of critique as a “struggle against the [...] status quo” that aims not to “refute” but to “destroy” its enemy, and “no passion of the brain” but “the brain of passion”, [36] is liable to tell us more about the (intellectual) revolutionary ideal than about concrete social critiques whether great or small. Boltanski’s proposed synthesis of critical sociology and sociology of critique in the significantly named On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation is a good summary of these distortions.

29In its own way—more attentive to the ideational structuring of discourses than to the social structuring of representations—the picture it paints is regrettable for the same reason as Bourdieu’s outline: because it (dis)qualifies critique on the basis of the presence within it of a supposedly liberatory revolutionary or subversive index. This revolutionary index is itself sought in three criteria, which we will distinguish here, but which, within this perspective, are not separated. Critique is only real critique if (1) it is displaced as much as possible from the existing order, (2) it operates from the bottom to the top of the social scale, (3) it is supported by a theory of practice, or at least some exegetical initiative that seeks to relate action to a rule. Not only are these criteria cumulative (although empirically speaking they all pull in opposite directions), but also each of them reveals serious biases in method. For this classificatory operation amounts to discriminating what can be called critical from what cannot on the basis of (1) its content and/or results (there is a continual confusion between the two) (2) its social factors and/or its authors (again conflated) and whether they are more or less sympathetic to the sociologist; and (3) its forms, depending on whether they are more or less convincing, again from the sociologist’s point of view.

The Weakness of the Radical/Reformist “Hit Parade” Versus the Call to Order

30A first symptom of this obstinate reference to the revolution is that it suggests that the more it is distanced from the “institution”, the stronger a critique will be—and indeed the more noble it will be, in so far as the distinction between the contents of critiques coincides with a sort of scale of critical dignity. At the top of this scale, we find the critique that goes the furthest, as far as it can go, even, when the “work of liberation” begins: this is the “radical” critique functioning by means of an “existential test” (i.e. critique in the name of another system of tests). [37] In the middle, we have critique that does not go all the way and remains incomplete: the “reformist” critique operating via the “reality test” (i.e. denunciation of the impurity of the framework of the existing test). [38] At the bottom of the scale, or rather entirely outside it, we find non-critique and, even more so, the critical obstacle: the call to order, significantly described as “confirmation”, which is what is at play in “truth tests” (i.e. reminding us that whatever was, must be). [39]

31Although On Critique instigates the normalization of critical activity, “reformist critique” is nevertheless considered as critique here (and no longer as “fictitious”). But aside from this labeling, its separation from “radical” critique remains fragile—and problematic. The implication seems to be that any critique that is radical in its claims is necessarily radical in its effects. [40] Does it make sense to consider the most marginal critique (or perhaps a critique by the most marginal actors—the point remains unresolved) as not only the most central but also the most effective? This is to forget that the most subversive discourses and actors by no means have the monopoly on strong critique with a fundamental purchase. Witness the icy silence that sometimes greets the radicalism of these “uncompromising types”, and the fact that, often for pragmatic and sometimes for moral reasons, they are frequently enjoined to be more “diplomatic”.

32From this point of view, actors are more realist, sociologically speaking, than social scientists who tend to posit the equivalency strong critique = effective critique = emancipation. What is more, as Walzer insightfully notes, the most radical and most external critique is probably the one most likely to end up relying on coercion—even more so if its critique has to be effective. [41] We therefore find ourselves far from an emancipatory critique, assuming that an effective critique may not have been simply one that leads to the manifestation of forms of obedience. This is one of the many reasons why we have suggested that the constituent elements of conventional critique, once they are no longer thought of as a given whole, ultimately add up rather badly.

33As we have now begun to suspect, if the dichotomy between the “call to order” and “critique” may seem entirely self-evident, it is a dualism paralyzing to a full understanding of critical practices. First of all, even if we wish to keep in view both sociology of critique and emancipation (which would imply that we do not regard them as synonymous), we should not consider the call to order to be intrinsically alienating. It all depends on what order—and, as always, for whom. Above all, we cannot help but observe that this activity of “confirmation”—confirming [confirmer] what has been and must be—often goes by way of an activity that invalidates [infirmer], and thus critiques, that which should not have been. By applying nothing more than a principle of symmetry, [42] we also obtain the wherewithal to add some significant nuances to the idea that “[t]he main orientation” of the call to order is “to prevent critique” (the implication being, true critique). [43] Rather than subscribing to this proposition, we instead want to open up an opportunity to see that the call to order is one possible orientation of critique and, on occasion, one of the factors in the escalation of that critique among others, the most subversive one. And although the call to order can oppose itself to the critique of order, one cannot deduce from this, as Boltanski suggests, that it is the opposite of a critique. [44] In a pinch, provided that critique is placed on both sides, it would be better to stick with the orthodoxy-heterodoxy couple, which is less saturated with normativity.

34As to the last, and principal, argument justifying this division between call to order and critique by a difference in critical substrate, it is hardly convincing. It runs as follows: the call to order is pronounced in the name of, or even in favor of, reality as it is, whereas the critique of order is pronounced against reality as it is, in the name of and for ideals that are not yet real. [45] Never far away, testifying to a certain propensity to deduce the cause of the practice from its words alone, the call to order would be the pure product of reality, the critique of order the pure product of pure ideals. Consequently, Boltanski gives free rein to a representation against which Bourdieu had already battled, with limited success, when he moved from the marginality of heretical discourse to its disconcerting “novelty”. [46] In short, the call to order would still be attached to the viscosity of the world it defends, whereas the critique of order would be detached from the world against which it fights and, for that reason, would alone have a critical status. There may be differences, sometimes empirically subtle ones, between the critique of transgression and the most transgressive critique. But both of them, without ceasing to anchor themselves in reality as it is, do indeed invoke reality as it should be. Both have a social support and normative references—not necessarily the same ones—to which they are consubstantially linked. [47]

35From this point of view and above all, rather than opposing critique to the call to order, it would no doubt be wiser to consider critique as a kind of call to order—and then try to identify precisely what kind. This would allow us to better understand its social mainsprings; that is to say, it would help us to avoid locating the explanation of critique in forms of exteriority to the societal order, as if it were a matter of an “asocial” practice or of “desocialized individuals”. [48] And, rather than judging for them, it would help us to find out what actors themselves consider to be a true critique.

Along with the Rejection of the Call to Order, the Rejection of “Right-Wing” Critique

36It would also give us a better grasp of the diverse content of critiques, if only because the call to order – reformist critique – radical critique scale is a suggestive symbol of the division of the political gamespace from right to center to left. For the other symptom of the conventional definition of critique is that it endorses only left-wing critique, supposedly concerned with social progress, to the exclusion of critical activities which, because they are either soft and “reformist” or frankly “reactionary”, cannot properly speaking be described as critiques. This is part of the explanation for the notable imbalance between the social sciences literature dedicated to left-wing critique and that dedicated to right-wing critique (a term rare enough to have something of the oxymoron about it). [49] As if the right, unlike the left, did not have its critiques, its theoretical developments, its revolutions. All of this is another way of signaling that this penchant for distinguishing critiques according to their ideological coloring is no more helpful in addressing “great” critique than “small” critique. [50] As an overview of the field of these practices usually considered not to be critiques, we could cite among other salient examples: the repertoire of the French anti-gay marriage movement La Manif Pour Tous, the intellectual work of Charles Maurras, the doctrine of the Chicago Boys, the “conservative revolutions” (whether Thatcher, Reagan, or the French variety), and other less peaceful “counter-revolutions”.

37In short, if the opposition between “call to order” and “critique” and its refraction in the distinction between “reformist critique” and “radical critique”, and then between right-wing (a)critique and left-wing critique remains stubbornly in place even when the empirical facts overflow this hit parade on every side, it is because it comes down to distancing good critique from bad.

The Disqualification of Critique on the Basis of its Driving Forces

38The other sign of the persistence of this acceptation of critique is to be found in the disappearance of all critiques whose dynamic does not seem to comply with the imagery of class struggle. For the second criterion allowing the identification of a (true) critique is that of its (revolutionary) driving forces—often presumed on the basis of the social identity of its authors, as if their social position mechanically dictated their dispositions and their position-takings.

39Thus, critiques reflecting antagonistic positions in the social space are more willingly considered as critiques than those that operate between similar, scarcely distinguishable positions. This even when, in a luminous passage, Bourdieu signals how minimal distance can offer a favorable terrain for the expression of disagreement: “what is ‘closest’ presents the greatest threat to social identity”. [51] But, perhaps because this structuralism does not know what to make of this cumbersome empirical finding, and doubtless also because the revolutionary analogy is at work, critical sociology has largely considered these critiques between alter egos to be symptomatic of the alignment of subjective hopes with the objective chances of seeing them becoming concrete, guarantor of the preservation of social hierarchies—and “therefore” as a brake on critique. In other words, this narrow focus prevents itself from seeing that here we might have one of the fuels of critique and, prior to that, one of its most ordinary forms.

40In On Critique we rediscover a difficulty that crops up here and there in Bourdieu’s work in the coupling “opposed position-takings = opposed social positions”: a difficulty in thinking, as such, critiques that consist in “turning against those nearest”. [52] The task is made all the more difficult in that these miniscule competitions have been exclusively located among the most “dominated” actors—as if they were the only ones unable to join forces, in contrast to the dominant, who of course always have an objective sense of their interest, to the point of knowing how to systematically silence the threat of those closest to them in order to guard against that of the most distant.

41“Fragmentation”, understood here as both a lack of solidarity on the part of the dominated and an absence of any systematized moral alternative, [53] is deemed to pose a (twofold) obstacle to critique and is expelled from the table of critiques. As if, with the wrong opponent and the wrong motives, these critical exchanges necessarily lost not only any significance but also any critical quality. But there is something problematic in dismissing a critique based on what motivates it and to whom it is addressed—imagine if we were to proceed in this way to decide what qualifies as a partisan organization. What is more, if we are absolutely to prioritize only critiques that achieve good results, we would have to remember that the “mediocre” factors of this kind of critical exchange—examples of which can easily be found in the most dominated and the most dominant actors alike—do not necessarily presage an unhappy outcome. Must critique, as well as achieving good results, and in order to achieve them, be driven by noble motives on the part of good people? This is asking a lot of critique. [54]

42So it is understandable that, in order to save the full critical authenticity of this kind of critical activity—which could be described as a “narcissism of small differences” if the term had fewer negative connotations [55]—there is a strong temptation to distort its explanation. Namely, to find more elevated factors for it by analyzing the social competition between those nearest each other from the angle—exclusively from the angle—of the most extreme opposition of principles possible. It is largely this common sense of critique that leads actors struggling with the imperatives of justification to try to broaden their grievances. [56] But, in our view, it is this common sense that researchers must make sure to disabuse themselves of. And this, in order to understand not only how actors legitimate a critique (which comes back to being interested only in “legitimate” critiques without ever really knowing who is the judge of this legitimacy) but also what it is urges them to deliver a critique, besides the values to which they are attached and/or which they advocate. It would be a shame, for instance, to reduce the explanation of certain humanitarian exchanges about the scope of action of non-governmental organizations to a conflict between two irreducible options, “emergency” or “development”, like a collision between two planets, without seeing that this opposition is never more salient than within the “Sans Frontières” family. The point illustrates, if need be, that the most acute institutional competition does not in any way prevent exchange on matters of principle.

The Blind Spot of the Critique of the Dominant

43Continuing with the list of social forces and authors that disqualify critique, but now at the other extreme of the social field, in virtue of the stubborn idea that the dominant have no interest in critique, the conventional acceptation tends to disregard any critique prosecuted by elite actors—even when the critique it endorses is itself of a rather elitist genre.

44To begin with the most obvious case, if we wish to study critique that appeals to a great value system, if not the universal, in support of its grievances, we would have to admit, as Dominique Memmi has capably demonstrated on the subject of the Ethics Council, that “the paths of ethical generalization” are narrow and socially selective. [57]

45If we want to endorse only the most transgressive critique of the existing rules, we can no longer reserve it for the dominated alone. Here we would benefit from dispensing with the somewhat hasty equivalence between “dominant ideology” and “ideology of the dominant”—which, moreover, is made without ever really knowing for sure which dominant we are talking about. [58] The “dominant” (i.e. prevailing) ideology may well lean in their direction, that is to say in the objective sense of something like a class interest. But what we find—and Bourdieu and Boltanski alike say it perfectly well—is that the dominant actors have the ability to “bend the rules”, not to apply them to themselves, not to take them to the letter, to freely interpret them, not to endow them with a proper force.  [59] Treated as a mark of social excellence, this “distanced relation”, or rather close relation to rules appears just as undeniably as a critical manner and, doubtless even more so, as one of the driving forces of critique—which perhaps helps explain why Bourdieu consigns it to a footnote. [60] For we need only observe what critique owes to power to have an uneasy presentiment that it will not necessarily come from below to upset the top of the social scale. It is this disappointed hope to which Jürgen Habermas refers, reproaching Michel Foucault for his “contradictions” in wanting to hold together critique and power, demonstrating a discrete cruelty that has nothing epistemological about it. [61] Following Boltanski this time, we can easily believe that the propensity of the dominant to exonerate themselves from the rules in force, or to consider that the rules mean nothing more that they can make them say, raises the price of contestation for those who are in no position to “make the rule”. [62] But this elitist art of critique need not necessarily be harmful to the greater number. There is no reason why the critical activity of the dominant should necessarily be any less preoccupied with social progress than that of the dominated, nor why it should be any less effective from this point of view—given that, according to the conventional perspective, it must be effective.

46This is another way of saying that, even if we address only the critique of domination, we would find it rather difficult to place it solely in the camp of the most disadvantaged actors. As an illustration of this difficulty we might invoke the fierce critique of gender discrimination in the university by female students at the prestigious French École Normale because of their gender “disability” but also (at least as much) their social and scholarly excellence. And to counteract a conventional reading of this kind of critical practice by a dominant group sensitive to the lot of the less fortunate as (nothing but) the doing of a “dominated (fraction of a) dominant (group)”, we must remember that, for powerful people, there is no need to share, by homology of position, a part of the misfortune of the most oppressed in order to be able to take up the stance of denouncing it.

47Furthermore, even in the case where leaders are the principal object of criticism, we observe that, far from always aiming to “contain and limit the critique”, they sometimes have an interest in rendering such critique possible, because, like the Roman senators who surrounded themselves with counselors capable of pointing out their errors, they want to deserve their authority. [63]

48Finally, even if the critique of the great does not converge with the cause of the dominated but only complicates it, it seems troublesome to deny its critical nature because of its effects on other critiques that are believed a priori to be more worthy. In short, there are no reasons—other than moral reasons—to believe that a critique attesting to the emancipation of the dominant should, on account of a change in style but above all a change of author, have its critical “nature” rescinded. An intriguing prospect would open up were the critique of the dominant no longer only a critique aimed at the dominant but also—and there is nothing incompatible in this—a critique prosecuted by the dominant.

The Return of the Polarity: Social Rootedness Versus Ideal Detachment

49Finally, the last trace of this revolutionary amalgam is to be found in the abandonment of “critique” in the sense of “socially rooted, contextual forms of criticism” in favor exclusively of “metacritique”: the critique that consists in convoking.. . rules. [64] Are we to believe that this “metacritique” is not “socially rooted”? And that a “socially rooted” critique cannot be emancipatory? Although Boltanski rapidly passes over this distinction, it is reiterated when he locates critique not in “practical moments” but in “metapragmatic registers”, all of which are critical apart from the call to order. Exaggerating the functionalist zest of Bourdieu’s sociology by imbuing it with a scholastic bias, this classification raises three series of difficulties.

50Firstly, critique, detached from “practical moments” governed by the “taken for granted”, is only critical on condition that it breaks with the order of practice. [65] Like reflexivity in critical sociology, critique is what happens when the “automatisms have broken down”—and is only this. [66] If we were to keep to this conventional acceptation, we would necessarily end up disregarding “resident critics [critiques de service]” [67] and dismissing from the field of critique all those critiques characterized by their strong routinization and/or weak explanations. [68]

51Secondly, located in “metapragmatic” moments, (true) critique consists in convoking rules: in showing how rules have been abused but deserve to be retained (“reformist critique”), or how they should be abandoned for new and better rules (“radical critique”). In view of our earlier discussion of the exegetical capacities of certain dominant—in particular those most inclined to forms of interpretative virtuosity—this makes it even less tenable to exclude elite critiques.

52Above all, this perspective does away with all critiques that function on some other basis and take forms other than that of a test of coherence, one of its most legitimate forms within the intellectual milieu. It forgets that the expression of disagreement, even when radical, does not always and everywhere reside in an operation that consists in identifying or demonstrating a contradiction between practices and rules. [69] More exactly, in disregarding vague critiques—which are deemed insufficiently robust—this acceptation not only prevents us from considering them, but also from gauging the critical efficacy of the vagueness. [70] Here we are thinking, on one hand, of suggestive critiques, ironic gestures, jokes, puns, quips and other forms of wordplay that are capable of getting an amused audience on side, leaving them to come back to the chain of argument at their own convenience. Thus the mischievous little hand that signaled the shaky future of a commercialized French post office by altering its sign from “banque postale [post office]” to “poste bancale [wobbly post]” has a real critical depth, noticeably different but no less corrosive than the more conventional mode of explicit argumentation on the incompatibility between commercial logic and the exigencies of public services. Similarly, the fake report on satirical news website Gorafi revealing the “discovery of an endless queue”, again at the post office, has a comico-critical power sufficient in itself to signify a dysfunctioning in the institution. On the other hand, we are thinking above all of critiques that invoke, at the same time, contradictory practices, discourses, views and/or rules—such as the “lay” critiques of politicians as “all rotten, but not all bad”, or professional political critiques that mix up the most diametrically opposed registers, references, and/or symbols. [71] Now, against a conception of (true) critique delivered as an ideational pure solution, [72] it is possible that, far from short-circuiting and rendering themselves inaudible by not being more precise as to their aims and better organized in their articulation, these ambivalent critiques, precisely because of the operational misunderstandings they favor, may be propagated by the most heterogeneous actors.

53Finally, this conventional acceptation makes it impossible for itself to completely understand the only critique that really matters to it: exegetical critique. Because it prevents itself from seeing that this critical reflexivity, whatever position it may espouse, does not, as if by its very essence, escape the domain of the reflex. [73] As Wilfried Lignier summarizes, on the subject of the teacher who with his colleagues takes up “his usual accusatory tone”, it misses the “practical character of practical distancing” and the critiques that, even when they convoke rules, are “taken for granted”. [74] One must therefore go beyond this narrow focus so as to take the opportunity to consider whether critique—even the most “radical” critique, the “adoption of a standpoint situated apart from reality”, this “thought experiment” that may assume “a fictional character” [75]—might be above all a sensible and practical—in a word, real—experience.

54Further still, in positing the equivalence critique = removal from practice = ideational detachment, this narrow focus proves heavy with consequences as far as analysis is concerned. For it amounts to postulating—to sum it up in a phrase of Gaston Bachelard’s familiar to the reader of Bourdieu—that “[t]he world in which we think is not the world in which we live”. [76] Which means that, when asked which world we can think in, if not the one in which we live, sociology is condemned to answer: in an other world that offers an ideational alternative. [77]

55And here it becomes entirely clear: if critique must be radical in its content and its effects, if it must be driven by the great social divides, prosecuted by the dominated against the dominant, if it must explode contradictions and relate itself to something like a theory of practice which alone can gauge the injustice of reality, if it must be all of this at once or else not be critique, it is because it is being thought on the exact model of the Marxist revolution.

Enlightenment Critique: Theoretical, Lucid, and Generous

56We will continue our discussion by addressing this question of the place granted to theories of practice in the activity of critique. Here we will touch more directly on the other filiation of this conventional acceptation of critique, of which its Marxist heritage is the extension: the legacy of the Enlightenment.

Critique as Theoretical Generalization: The Forgetting of Local Critique

57We will now concentrate more on sociology of critique because, as opposed to critical sociology’s tendency to consider indigenous theories as an obstacle to the analysis of practice, [78] the pragmatic program considers them to be a legitimate object for the analysis of practice, but also—via a succession of slippages—sees them as inseparable from a legitimate or effective critique, and ultimately from critique tout court. For it envisages critique principally, or even exclusively, as a mobilization of great, systematized (and, what is more, coherent) moral theories. Now, assuming that these theories, these “cities” or “grammars”, are indeed those of actors, it is as reductive as it is normative—in a word, it is scholastic—to count as critiques only those vast argumentative elaborations that lay out the framework of their principles. For not only does this reduce critique that rises in generality to critique that rises in ideality, [79] but any critique that does not follow the path of rising in generality through ideality will find itself dismissed from the field of studied criticism.

58In these studies, the local, as opposed to the globality of “principles” (and to the elsewhere of “worlds”) is deemed incapable of supporting critique. For example, the proposal whereby the “return toward the circumstances demands efforts to suspend the question of justice”, [80] misses the possibility that this return could be a way of making the question of justice heard for actors who do not have the capacity and/or desire to theorize their grievances. Is it so difficult to understand that the reference to singular circumstances, or “relativization”, might be a way of engaging in critique by signifying what is important here and now, rather than a way “of escap[ing] from a clash” by agreeing that “nothing matters”? [81] Saturated with both critique and details, humanitarian Sitreps (Situation Reports), military “after action reviews”, and other methods of detailed (self) evaluation remind us that, although it may not be the “all” of a principle, the local is not “nothing”.

59When it does not exclude them, this conception of critique can lead to an understanding of even the most theory-averse critiques as full operations of critical theorization. Above all it leads us to consider that critiques devoid of all theory are equipped, in the last instance, with a theory of practice deemed to be present in so many “atom-words”, to use Nicolas Dodier’s term. [82] All in all, the focus here amounts to considering that critiques must indeed have, somewhere in mind, and in the best case on their lips, a theory of practice that can be unearthed with some extra reflective effort—the effort that is made by the sociologist in clarifying this rather unusual sense of justice. [83] Note that the double sense of the word “grammar”, designating both the immanent rules of discourse and, in the most persistent signification, the discipline of language, offers a particularly welcoming cradle for this imaginary of critique. [84]

60Along the same lines, when local critiques have not been understood as pertaining to principle (at the price of considerable distortions, since the absence of principle continues to be considered as a “flight from justification”) [85] these critiques, deemed “fragmentary” (with “fragmentation” once again meaning an absence of mass movement, theoretical this time), “fugitive” or, essentially, emotive, have been considered at best as “testimonies”. Or even as the index of a “crisis of critique”, [86] although they are one of the most common and most significant forms of critique. Because, in this optic, (true) critique must be a critique of society at large and of power in particular, and one that rivals its target in scale.

61However, even if one is only interested in this social critique—and if so it would be helpful to explicitly say so [87]—the privileging of the most theoretically sophisticated critiques is hardly defensible. First of all, a critique of society can perfectly well be patchy, approximate, or sentimental (for lack of words with fewer negative connotations!)—in short, as distant as possible from being a theory—without this authorizing us to consider it as non-existent. [88]

62Further, there is nothing (apart from a tenacious intellectualism, once again) to dictate that a social critique must be totalizing and/or explicit in order to be, by virtue of this very fact, effective. While amalgamating critique into the figure of the Marxist revolution, this understanding of criticism neglects one of Karl Marx’s principal contributions to sociology, namely the idea that “[t]he weapon of criticism certainly cannot replace the criticism of weapons” with weapons, whatever they might be. [89] It is probably always difficult for us to acknowledge that the dynamics of revolutions often have no significant relation whatsoever to a theory of social justice. Far from being an affair of a “[w]hole [that] is poorly distributed”, [90] these great upheavals operate via little pornographic libels and other miniscule banter exchanged illicitly or in close-knit communities, [91] and are “also, and perhaps especially, the results of problems with overcrowded housing and taps running dry”. [92] This is what leaves us thinking that “small” critique is not necessarily “small” in its consequences, and “great” critique not necessarily any better armed.

The Critique of Common Sense in Defiance of Common-Sense Critique

63The scope of critique, already reduced to theorized critiques alone, is reduced yet further if they have to be thought on the model of a sociological competence.

64Following Bourdieu, to consider profane critical theories as the production of a “point of view [...] that is no longer that of action, without being that of science” has the advantage of reminding us that we cannot expect the actor to be his own sociologist.  [93] But it has the unfortunate consequence of placing the accent on what is missing from these critical theories, rather than addressing what they are made up of: namely, a practical logic (even if it does not yield a precise reflection on the practice it rationalizes) sometimes rich in fragments of sociological knowledge. This last angle is therefore the most appropriate from which to study the hybrid knowledge mobilized in these enterprises of normative rationalization, [94] without reducing them to a “form of lacunary [...] consciousness” [95]—which would still be a way of comparing them to a pure and whole sociological knowledge.

65But in countering this sometimes too rigid conception of the epistemological break, one must not bend the stick too far in the other direction by considering that ordinary critiques are “similar in every way” to the denunciations of injustice contained in “critical sociology”. [96] Rather than being the exact opposite of the sociologist afraid of constructing the actor in his own image, indigenous critique tends to be understood—on terrains amenable to it—as his almost perfect double, validating the conviction that the researcher need do no more than clarify what he says of himself and of the world. [97] If it is a matter of attributing this faculty to him and no longer depriving him of it, here we find the same tendency to consider critique as sociologically equipped or, since this is not always enough, as philosophically equipped.

66On this point, we can well accept that one of the ordinary topics of denunciation consists in relating (for the purposes of critique) position-taking to social positions, as happens (for the purposes of knowledge) in “standard sociology”. But it would be unfortunate to envisage this reduction to smallness (“of course, it’s X’s son who got promoted”) as a tacit reference to some great theory of justice when, far more prosaically, it simply signals a practical comprehension of situational logics.

67Above all, the critique in question here, far from being generic, is of a very particular genre. Since the “exercise of superior forces upon actors” no longer takes place “without their knowing it”, it is conscious, and even critical, of its determinations. [98] Yet critical reflection does not suppose knowledge of the effective driving force of their practice on the part of actors, although we may observe that they are not always ignorant of them.

68If we have dwelt on the way in which the precepts of both of these opposed methods harbor an acceptation of critique as conscious of the objective functioning of the social world, it is because all this amounts to is a professional (in this case, sociological) declension of an imaginary—the Enlightenment imaginary—that can only conceive of critique as lucid (and as intellectual, but from this conventional perspective these are more or less two words for the same thing). Critique (true critique) is an affair of Reason, but also of good reasons. It is a critique of common sense, not a common-sense critique. It is a critique of prejudices, not a critique based on prejudice. Significantly, it is the Dreyfus affair that, in France, is deemed to have precipitated the emergence of the “critical intellectual” and is taken not only to symbolize a critical ideal, but also to symbolize what critique should be in the name of ideals. As if the critical intellectual, in the literal sense of the term, must necessarily espouse the stance of tolerance. [99] The exact historical dating may be the subject of fierce debate (Plato? Voltaire? Zola?), but today it seems unthinkable to separate “intellectual” from “critical”, and it is accepted as a given that these two figures of dissent emerge together in a “public space” that supposedly constructs itself on the basis of frictions, but especially against the power of the state, the blind faith of religion, and the obscurantism of tradition. [100] Another index of the force of this representation is that we find it again in the strategies of “democracy building” that privilege the “empowerment” of “civil society” through support of its community “leaders”, that is to say the non-governmental lay intelligentsia. This perspective, blind to other no less concrete paths of democratization, is also fuelled by the silent conviction that the people, enlightened by a superior brain, will begin to think (well), to critique (well), that is to say to critique for the good (that of the greatest number), ensuring the happy passage from “the critical intellectual to intellectual critique”. [101] Behind this, in more or less nuanced forms, we find a whole representation of critique as an intellectual enterprise that must help the dominated to outgrow their “immaturity”, and which is liable to forget that “courage” is not just a matter of “understanding”. [102] For it seems to be a given—to believe otherwise would, for an intellectual, be too wretched—that if up until now men have not revolted against oppression, it is because they do not know how to think, since one can only think well. This is demonstrated in striking manner by Isabelle Delpla when she destabilizes the thesis of the “banality of evil” popularized by Hannah Arendt on the basis of the (deceptive) case of Adolf Eichmann: if evil “does not think, then thinking is saved”. [103] Better yet, thinking can save, especially when, as if to definitively do away with evil (the Frankfurt School’s thoughtlessness), it is “critical thinking”.  [104] We therefore have to call on the surrealist force of Ylipe to convince ourselves that, just as “even stupid people think” [105] even the most unpleasant critiques can sometimes be very carefully considered, and may prove resistant to the temptation to consign them to the wastebasket of acritical practices.

Critique as Objective Rather Than Object

69We now understand that sociology, the science of the social, especially in one of the (French) birthplaces of Enlightenment philosophy, tends to take an interest only in a certain genre of critique (i.e. “social critique”) and to make it, above and beyond an object of study, an aim in itself.

70Even Bourdieu does not entirely escape the belief, or at least the longing to believe, that the “truer” a critique is, the more effective it will be, that the more it is based upon objective data, the more emancipatory effects it will have. And yet we know of his repugnance for thinking in terms of “becoming conscious of”, and his insistence on reminding us that this “becoming conscious” is not sufficient in itself for a dynamic of emancipation. [106] But, no doubt because he had to gloomily acknowledge his sociology’s failure to yield the key to a more egalitarian world—although perhaps it also reflects the limits of his permanent struggle against the intellectual in himself [107]—Bourdieu does not entirely let go of this conception of liberatory knowledge. [108] The unveiling of determinations in all their arbitrariness can accompany an experimentation with lateral possibilities, on condition that it is upheld by a “Realpolitik of reason” whose “realism” is questionable, even “for intellectuals”. [109] Or else—no less scholastically, for who better than the intellectual to find his freedom and pleasure in knowledge for knowledge’s sake—the sole fact of knowing them can make of the actor “something like a subject”. [110] Addressing critique, then, comes down to addressing “the misadventures of critique”; [111] and understanding the world is “understanding the world to change it”, to take up the phrasing that sums it up best, beyond the arena of research advocating a “critical sociology”. [112]

71Similarly, contrary to what is suggested by the label “sociology of critique” and its critique of “critical sociology”, this program does not seek to bridle its own normativity in order to better account for the normativity of actors—otherwise we would get exactly what we bargained for. This is not to say that in his sociology, Bourdieu conceded too much to his militancy—as we are inclined to think—but rather that he did not concede enough to it: in refusing to see how deeply his critical sociology was shared, in underestimating the margins of freedom available to actors, and in prohibiting himself from exposing the underlying moral motives of his analysis, particularly in regard to inequality. [113] It is therefore no longer a matter of fuelling critique by suggesting that the world does not march to the ideals it advocates, but of clarifying which ideals it should call upon in order to work better. To exaggerate the case somewhat, the objectivation of grammatical structure, a theory of just ideas, has taken up the critical office formerly occupied by the objectivation of social structure, a theory of true ideas. [114] We can also understand that the first critique would come down to belittling the critique of actors by attaching it to its social determinants, while the second would raise it up by relating it to its moral imperatives. [115] It is therefore not critique understood as a militant objective that the pragmatic sociologists propose to abandon, but a critique they judge to be unfortunate, in both senses of the word. To the point of regretting that calling it “sociology of critique” does not do sufficient justice to the normative ambitions of their “moral sociology” which, in recent years, has forcefully reaffirmed its “critical vocation” and made a number of ameliorative recommendations. [116] In this respect, these works incarnate a postulate that overflows them: the idea that “critique’s dependence on sociology has as its corollary sociology’s dependence on critique”. [117] Within this perspective, which henceforth wants to believe in a certain critical efficacy of “critical sociology”, a place is beginning to be made for “power relations”, principally considered as hindering factors to be overcome. [118] Their reconciliation with the themes of “standard” sociology appears to be overdetermined by considerations of a militant order, as was their opposition to the same themes.

72Subsequently, exchanges between these two currents rapidly develop into a reciprocal examination for critical ineffectiveness. [119] The question, significant in itself, of whether critique requires a theory of practice, is only posed so as to find out which—a “determinist” theory of practice or a moral theory of justice—would be most profitable for it. To question the place of constraint in the activity of critique comes down to asking oneself whether it is discouraging to dwell on it or inconsequential not to do so; and whether, to awaken some critical tendencies in an actor, it is better to paint him as being already free, or as not yet free. If the problematic nature of the elitism of both programs begins to surface in these debates, it is not to wonder which (uncommon) critiques these works accede to, but which of these works, up to and including its style, is most accessible to the common people. And on occasions when it is not a matter of saying that the competing model is devoid of critical consequences—which is just a way of saying that it should have some—it seems to be a matter of showing that it only has disastrous consequences, as if it were impossible that it could have none. What follows is a list of contradictions—which are only contradictory if we think that the objective of knowledge and that of struggle must go hand in hand—indicating the inability of the competing alternative to guard against the forms of domination it seeks to combat. How is it possible that this “critical sociologist” could be the only sighted man in the world of the blind? And if its sociology applies to itself, doesn’t it reproduce the same undisputed authority from which it was supposed to liberate the actors? Isn’t it a shame that the pragmatic sociologist of critique, in returning to “free will”, echoes a conservative political philosophy and even legitimates it?

73On the other side of the Atlantic, and on that other side that is philosophy—though the borders of these national and disciplinary territories are not so solid when it comes to critique—debates are startlingly similar. Thus we hear Habermas accuse Foucault of self-refuting his own theory, and even of abdicating by persistently pointing out the affinities between critique and power without sufficiently teaching the principles that he advocates. [120] It is therefore principally from the angle of their respective contribution to “social critique”, rather than to the comprehension of social actors’ critique, that these epistemologies are interrogated.

74It will therefore come as no surprise that they pay most of their attention to those critiques that most resemble sociological critiques (or the ideal of sociological critique), and above all that, in essentializing this conception, they define and recognize as (truly) critical only this type of critique.

A Change of Perspective: Rethinking “Social Critique” and the Criticism of Social Actors

75At this point in our argument, it may of course be objected that sociologies, under other terms and above all under the polysemic term “critique”, have addressed one aspect of this activity, and that they were quite within their rights to do so. Agreed. But it would doubtless be beneficial, at least for the purposes of clarity, if this preference were spoken, maybe if it were acknowledged. [121] If only to prevent the belief that this social critique is the (only) critique and the risk of putting all critiques through the mill of this very particular one. The discussion would at least have the advantage of showing, let us hope convincingly, that the social sciences are interested almost exclusively in one critique, great critique—assuming that we can still call it critique—when it passes over critique in its “little” form and in some of its most ordinary forms. We will therefore sum up this twofold distortion before setting out the interest of a (generic) acceptation of critique capable of suspending this attribution of greatness and thereby refreshing the scope and orientation of the inquiry.

The Unthoughts and Overthoughts of “Great” Critique

76Not only does this conventional perspective retain only one type of critique—“social critique”—it probably retains something else: emancipation—and even something else: the (intellectual) ideal of emancipation, that is to say, confusedly, emancipation by intellection.

77Here we touch upon the first series of difficulties raised by this conventional definition of critique. In positing that (great) critique is equivalent to emancipation, that is to say in conflating “intellectual work” and “crucial decision”, this narrow focus neglects all critiques that do not lead to emancipation, while suggesting that emancipation is necessarily an affair of great critique. Now, as we believe we have demonstrated, this is a naïve sociological conception of the dynamics at work not only in criticism but also (since this is what is at issue) in revolutionary processes. To work at these different projects will therefore in all likelihood require that we untangle the different threads of “great” critique which, although they may form a coherent whole for one seeking to formulate a political theory of liberation, are somewhat chimerical: a forced cohabitation of social realities that are probably not particularly convergent. It is to err on the side of irenism and/or mechanism to see a relation of perfect refraction between the (great) forms, the (great) factors, the (great) authors, and the (great) results of critique. It is hardly sociologically realist to suppose that a critique could be both radical and emancipatory in its claims and in its effects, while being carried out by the most dominated actors and in the most intellectualized way possible.

78Furthermore, the very division between great and little critique does not stand up to empirical examination, so that it would seem impossible to predict the respective and as if proportional amplitude of the effects of great critique and little critique. What is more, there is no reason to think that they must result from singularly different social processes, as if their essence dictated it. Ultimately, even if little critiques had nothing in common with great critique, they would nevertheless still be critiques—provided that we ceased to invest them with all the weight of critique’s own normativity, and instead considered the normativity of actors in all its diversity.

Small and Acritical: The Unthoughts of “Little” Critique

79Here we touch upon the second series of difficulties. The stamp of social critique (these two acceptations of critique conflated into one) does away with all little critiques, or leads to their disqualification. Critiques that, rather than attacking the foundations of the existing order in the name of another yet to be invented, repress, as if lacking great courage or creativity, the beginning of a disorder. Those that, supposedly narrow, limit themselves to advocating marginal improvements and, in doing so, supposedly scuttle themselves. Those that, indifferent to the emancipation of others or of the dominated, are inseparable from the emancipation of the dominant who espouses them. Those that are not wholly and entirely clear-sighted, fully aware of social determinations, or even detached from every social determination. Those that are not backed up by a sociological and/or philosophical theory of practice, a theory of unjust inequalities or a theory of just equalities. Those that, rather than demonstrating a contradiction between practices and rules, reveal the ordinary confusion of practices and rules. Those that, because they express emotions and not reasons, assessments and not judgments, impressions and not arguments, singularities and not generalities, are deemed to speak only of superficial froth, or of nothing at all. Those that, far from the great debates on ideas and the great social divisions, play out in miniscule, even “petty” competitions—for this perception is not unrelated to their disqualification. And finally, those that, whether devoid of ideology or saturated with a distasteful one, are not, not really, or insufficiently left-wing.

80Just like the great critique whose exact counterpart they are, these critiques are “small” from the point of view of their forms, their ambitions, their results, and their driving forces, which are often conflated—but always from a moral, if not a moralizing, point of view, that of none other than the sociologist himself. The sociologist who, blurring critique’s many faces into the figure of “the” revolution and ultimately never thinking of them for themselves, judges these critiques to be so “small”, so inconsistent, that he denies them any critical consistency, denies them even their own critical consistency. Except when, in those places where the ground of the imaginary of the revolution begins to slide, in order to save the idea he has constructed of the good mainsprings of good critique, he has to distort the explanation of them: to transform a marginal critique into a critique of the marginal, an emancipatory critique by the dominant into a critique by the dominated, a social competition between actors in strong proximity into an ideational exteriority.

81Beyond these deformations, as if summarizing them, this imaginary of critique is not without its effects, as we have seen, on sociology’s difficulty in enquiring about its social rootedness. It explains the stubborn survival of two variants on the thesis of the social underdetermination of critique. That of critical sociology, which locates its explanation in forms of social disorganization—the only thing that could have allowed the accession to other ideational possibilities. And that of sociology of critique, which locates it in ideational forms of organization that are certainly social, but are thought independently of any social organization.

Thinking Critique as “Negative Judgment”: A Non-Normative Acceptation

82If we are to better understand what constitutes critique, there are therefore a number of advantages in retaining as our (preliminary) definition of critique the final one to appear: that is, “negative judgment”. [122] Recall that the issue is not to use the order of definitions to invert the hierarchy between great and small critique, but to escape from this hierarchy by thinking both of them and thinking them otherwise, by way of a definition that is indifferent to their worthiness.

83To sociologize it a little more, it is acceptable to study as “critique” any practice whatsoever that consists in publicly manifesting a negative judgment on someone or something. We use the word “practice” to maintain ourselves in the idea that critique is a practice, even when it seeks to break away from the order of practice. We say “publicly” to escape the conception of critique as a “decision” taken in the actor’s innermost depths, and to protect against the risk of the overinterpretation of practices too narrowly descended from “intellectual works”. We say “manifesting” because—as annoying as this may be for our intellectualist tendencies—critique is not always expressed by way of the Word, and even when verbalized is not entirely expressed by way of the Word. Experience has taught us that a mere sigh, in the right context, can sometimes say more than many a lengthy speech. Finally, we say “on someone or something” to remind ourselves that critical ideas are incarnate.

84In this respect, then, a critique is a negative judgment. We have become so habituated to another acceptation of critique that this one risks seeming terribly loose and frightfully impoverished, to the point of not really designating anything. On the contrary, we believe it more rigorous because it is non-normative, and richer in terms of what it allows us to observe. It enables us to avoid reducing critique to just one of its forms (the most intellectually sophisticated form), to one of its political orientations (Leftist critique), to one of its targets (the most consecrated norm), to one of its authors (the most dominated), to one of its factors (social and/or ideational distance) and, finally, to one of its outcomes (the most positive). More exactly, when looking at practices of dissent, it allows us no longer to discriminate between what belongs to critique and what does not on the basis of the above criteria. It would suffice to replace “critique” with some other term designating another social practice—“contestation” or ‘“conformity” for example—to remove any lingering doubts as to the well-foundedness of this methodological orientation.

85Abstracting from the different forms of critique allows us to make of intellectual critique what it should have remained: just one critical form among others, and an object of study. At the same time it makes room for critiques that have not been theorized, or very little: the most circumstantial types of critique. Suspending the question of their ideological tenor also allows us to take a look at the burgeoning field of right-wing critiques, from which we can no doubt learn a great deal not only about these critiques themselves but also, by comparison, about those opposed to them. To break away from the hit parade of “call to order” versus reformist critique and radical critique gives us a chance to no longer confuse cause and effect, form and substance.

86Above all—and this important point bears repetition—it comes down to considering that critique cannot be anything but a kind of call to order, in the literal sense of the term. To study the critique of those actors least endowed as well as those best endowed in the various types of capital is to cease to think of the relation between domination and critique as one of poison and antidote. That does not necessarily mean losing critique as the conventional perspective conceives it—indeed, our reflections here suggest quite the contrary. No longer assuming that its sole mainspring is distance, detachment, or various forms of exteriority gives us better chance to improve our understanding of the most ordinary dynamics of (more or less) ordinary critiques. To no longer think of it as (a)critical depending on its results and whether they are more or less satisfying is to authorize ourselves to think that illegitimate critiques and, before that, ineffective critiques—for the rather hasty equivalence between legitimacy and efficacy deserves further interrogation—are still critiques. Not only would studying them allow us to better understand critiques that succeed in finding an audience, it would enable the analysis to escape a finalist bias which we have stated here in terms in which no serious sociological thinker would recognize himself, but which nevertheless remains a marked trait of (both) sociologies of critique. [123]

87What is more, if it seems useful, when delimiting the scope of practices understood as critical, to take the methodological decision to be indifferent to the forms, driving forces, and consequences of critique, this is also in order to (better) discover them in study, when those practices have to be explained. It is only on condition that these three facets of critique are not taken up in the very definition of the object, that it becomes possible to study the way in which the conditions of entry into a critical exchange can influence the course of exchanges and/or their outcomes, how the forms and effects of these critical interactions may help or hinder actors in obtaining different critical grasps in specific social contexts, and which actors are thus affected.

88Finally, this new acceptation, in distancing itself from a conventional definition of critique that, over and above being a definition, is a normative essentializing of this activity, can play a part in the sociological normalization of the study of criticism. In ceasing to consider that criticism supposes—in the full sense of the word (obtains, necessitates, and is defined as)—a suspension of the social attraction exerted on mental representations, it invites us to break with all explanatory exceptionalism. That is to say, it invites us to reinstate the ordinary of the social relations within which criticism is integrated.

89It is true that this reorientation may seem to discredit the critique of actors, by ceasing to understand critique as a pure affair of ideas and an affair of pure ideas—as if this then meant seeing it as an affair of impure, dirty ideas. This critical effect of an approach whose postulates are non-normative, a direct consequence of the scholarly common sense of critique, is doubtless the price to be paid in order to be better informed as to the diversity of its forms, and to think an unthought of (both) sociologies of critique: their social organization.

90In this sense, the above reflections may be useful to anyone seeking to work on critical activities, even if they choose to define them differently. Above all we would like to think that, in constraining ourselves to make criticism an object of study and nothing but an object of study—that is to say, in apprehending it as just another sociological object and resisting the sirens of critique unless it is of a methodological order, it will be possible to reinvigorate our knowledge (for knowledge’s sake) of social actors’ critical practices and, within that broad spectrum, that of “social critique” “itself”.


  • [1]
    André Lalande, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1991, vol. 1, pp. 196-7; Alain Rey and Josette Rey Debove, Petit Robert. Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française, Paris, Le Robert, 1983.
  • [2]
    Translator’s note: Somewhat like “social criticism” in English, “la critique sociale” in French refers to a criticism that has society for its field and for its object (a critique at work in society and a critique of society); but it also refers to the state of leftist contestation (a critique of the society worked out in leftist social movements and/or in the academic leftist reflection on social issues). For the word “critique” itself, there are two possible translations: critique and criticism. Criticism—which has no exact equivalent in French—in placing the emphasis on the practice or action of critique, rather than on ideational content or intellectual work with grand “radical” pretentions, corresponds more closely to the reorientation the author proposes in the text. English “critique” is largely applicable to the conventional perspective under discussion in this article. It is the reason why, for convenience, we have predominantly used the term critique throughout this translation.
  • [3]
    Michael Walzer, “The practice of social criticism” in Interpretation and Social Criticism, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 33-66, here p. 40.
  • [4]
    In Walzer’s essay “Three paths in moral philosophy”, the idea of interpretation is brought in to remind us of the fact that criticism rarely (if ever) consists in inventing or discovering a new morality, but usually involves the interpretation of an already existing morality. On the other hand, if we are to avoid reducing criticism to an exercise in moral philosophy, as Walzer tends to do in “The practice of social criticism”, it would seem useful to take into account, alongside criticism that interprets common sense, criticism that manifests common sense without intellectualizing it. The French version of Walzer’s Tanner Lectures seems to decide in favor of this approach, choosing to translate “Interpretation and Social Criticism” as “Critique et sens commun [Critique and Common Sense]”. It makes another choice in adding the subtitle “Essai sur la critique sociale et son interprétation [Essay on Social Criticism and its Interpretation]”, implying that this interpretative task is solely that of the researcher, and not that of the social critic himself. In relation to this reading, the non-normative approach defended here does not privilege any one of these forms of criticism to the detriment of the others, nor does it seek to “interpret” them, at the risk of metamorphosing them, but only to exhibit their content and their own logic (whether more or less theorized—or not at all).
  • [5]
    Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism, 38.
  • [6]
    These are the terms used by Luc Boltanski, respectively in “Sociologie critique et sociologie de la critique”, Politix, 3(10), 1990, 124-34 and On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation [2009], trans. Gregory Elliott, Cambridge, Polity, 2011, 18. We adopt them here for convenience of exposition.
  • [7]
    For a summary see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice [1972], trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 3-86.
  • [8]
    Bourdieu’s well-known phrase has almost become an adage: “Indeed, essentially, what is problematic is the fact that the established order is not problematic [.. . ] except in crisis situations [.. . ]”. Pierre Bourdieu, Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action [1994], Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1998, 56.
  • [9]
    This program is initiated in Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, Les économies de la grandeur (Cahiers du centre d’études de l’emploi no. 31), Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1987; presented in more popular form in Boltanski, “Sociologie critique et sociologie de la critique”, and systematized anew in On Justification: Economies of Worth [1991], trans. Catherine Porter, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2006. For a summary of this trajectory see Luc Boltanski, Love and Justice as Competences [1990], Cambridge, Polity, 2012, 18-27.
  • [10]
    See the synthesis of the two programs in Philippe Corcuff, Les nouvelles sociologies, Paris, Armand Colin, 2007, 103.
  • [11]
    On what marks out this model from Bourdieu’s sociology, and for a pragmatic summary of the same social interaction envisaged from the two points of view, see Nicolas Dodier, “Agir dans plusieurs mondes”, Critique, 529/530, 1991, 427-58.
  • [12]
    Boltanski, Love and Justice as Competences, 52.
  • [13]
    Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification, 232-3.
  • [14]
    Albert Ogien, “L’antinomie oubliée: ou la critique sociale a-t-elle besoin d’une théorie de la pratique?” in Michel De Fornel and Albert Ogien (eds), Bourdieu, théoricien de la pratique, Paris, Raisons pratiques, 2011, pp. 135-54, here p. 136. “From the perspective of a theory of practice founded on the triptych habitus/field/practical sense, it becomes difficult to think the autonomy—even relative—of mental structures, even though we may suppose this autonomy to be the basis of the formulation of a social criticism.” (Our translation.)
  • [15]
    Ogien, “L’antinomie oubliée”, p. 136.
  • [16]
    Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations [1997], trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge, Polity, 2000, 98. This notion indicates the importance of shared classificatory schemes that make it possible for the same conduct to become the object of disagreement (e.g. described as “shameless” versus “unaffected”) between actors situated in opposed positions.
  • [17]
    For a systematization, see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction [1979], trans. Richard Nice, London, Routledge Classics, 2010.
  • [18]
    To put it in terms of reproduction. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture [1964], trans. Richard Nice, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1979, 47.
  • [19]
    Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, 100sq., and Outline of a Theory of Practice, 22.
  • [20]
    Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, 102.
  • [21]
    Pierre Bourdieu, Sketch for a Self-Analysis [2004], trans. Richard Nice, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008, 100sq.
  • [22]
    Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, 92 and 157.
  • [23]
    Ibid., 147.
  • [24]
    Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus [1984], trans. Peter Collier, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1988, 159-93, and “Dire et prescrire”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 38, 1981, 69-73.
  • [25]
    Claudette Lafaye, “Situations tendues et sens ordinaires de la justice au sein d’une administration municipale”, Revue française de sociologie, 31(2), 1990, 199-223. This notion is a current one in pragmatic works.
  • [26]
    On this critique of the model, see Claude Gautier, “La sociologie de l’accord”, Politix, 54, 2001, 197-220; Philippe Juhem, “Un nouveau paradigme sociologique?”, Scalpel, 1, 1994, 115-42; Elsa Rambaud, “L’organisation sociale de la critique à Médecins sans frontières”, Revue française de science politique, 59(4), August 2009, 723-56.
  • [27]
    Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification, 353sq.
  • [28]
    Boltanski, “Sociologie critique et sociologie de la critique”, 129. (Our translation.)
  • [29]
    See for example Boltanski, On Critique; Cyril Lemieux, Le devoir et la grâce, Paris, Economica, 2009, 177-201.
  • [30]
    Michel Foucault, “The subject and power”, Critical Inquiry, 8(4), Summer 1982, 777-95.
  • [31]
    Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in Michel Foucault, Sylvère Lotringer, and Lysa Hochroth (eds), The Politics of Truth, New York, Semiotext(e), 1997, pp. 23-82, here p. 29. For a commentary see Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” in David Ingram (ed.), The Political, Oxford, Blackwell, 2002, pp. 212-28.
  • [32]
    For an explicit debate on this point, see the original (French) verbatim of the conference “Qu’est-ce que la critique? Compte-rendu de la séance du 27 mai 1978”, Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 84(2), 1978, 35-63. For an overview of the interlacing of critique/Aufklärung, see for example Boltanski, On Critique, 19 and 27.
  • [33]
    Ibid., 98 and 83.
  • [34]
    See for example Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism [1999], trans. Gregory Elliott, London, Verso, 2017; Thomas Angeletti, “(Se) rendre conforme: les limites de la critique au Conseil d’analyse économique”, Tracés, 17, 2009, 55-72.
  • [35]
    Dominique Cartron and Michel Gollac, “C’est quand même un peu violent! Le désarmement de la critique dans les entreprises néo-libérales” in Marc Breviglieri, Claudette Lafaye, and Danny Trom (eds), Compétences critiques et sens de la justice, Paris, Economica, 2009, pp. 333-43.
  • [36]
    Karl Marx, “A contribution to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right: introduction” in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 129-42, here pp. 133-4.
  • [37]
    Luc Boltanski, “Institutions et critique sociale: une approche pragmatique de la domination”, Tracés, 8, 2008, 17-43, here 34.
  • [38]
    On this distinction, see Boltanski, “Institutions et critique sociale”, 30-32, and On Critique, 103-10.
  • [39]
    Boltanski, On Critique, 61-2 and 98-9. (Translator’s note: Confirmation is part of Boltanski’s conceptual construction, but the word confirmation, in its usual meaning in both French and English, is the antonym of disagreement, disapproval, opposition, etc.)
  • [40]
    See for example Boltanski, On Critique, 108: “But precisely because they are situated on the margins of reality—reality as it is ‘constructed’ in a certain social order—these existential tests open up a path to the world” (defined as “everything that happens”, 87).
  • [41]
    Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism, 55-6.
  • [42]
    David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery [1976], Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1991, 7.
  • [43]
    Boltanski, On Critique, 62.
  • [44]
    On these “symmetrical and converse” qualities, see ibid., 72.
  • [45]
    See the passages on the confirmation of “what has already occurred” as (rhetorical?) acritique (ibid., 99) and those on how radical critique emerges from existential trials without any “pre-established format”, “often called ‘subjective’” (ibid., 108). Here we use the words “reality” and “world” in their current sense and not in the conceptual sense that Boltanski gives them.
  • [46]
    For a glimpse into this tension, see Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, ed. John B. Thompson, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1991, 128.
  • [47]
    Within the international Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, there are two ways of critiquing a “poor medicine for poor people”. The first, coincidentally adopted by the parent company MSF-France, consists in defying the authorities by substituting its own protocols for those validated by the authorities and declaring that it is doing so. The second, favored by the more peripheral sections of the movement, pleads for closer collaboration with the authorities. But both manifest the close integration of these collectives into the space of politics and the will to demarcate themselves from it in order to improve the quality of the care given. If we choose to consider only the first, on the grounds that it is more radical, we would be forced to observe that it, also, inseparably, is understood as a humanitarian call to order—that of non-governmental organizations. In other words, trying to bring real critiques—which are difficult to triage—into this triptych, far from allowing them to be grasped more clearly, risks clouding their intelligibility.
  • [48]
    According to the respective expressions of Michael Walzer (Interpretation and Social Theory, 56) and Edward Palmer Thompson in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London, Merlin Press, 1978, 172-5.
  • [49]
    For convergent remarks on this normative orientation of the sociology of militancy, see Frédéric Sawicki and Johanna Siméant, “Décloisonner la sociologie de l’engagement militant: note critique sur quelques tendances récentes des travaux français”, Sociologie du travail, 51(1), 2009, 97-125, here 99sq.
  • [50]
    A tendency that Albert Otto Hirschman manages to escape with his “map [of the] rhetorics of intransigence”—which can quite well be seen as critical rhetorics before asking whether they serve the quality of democratic debate—when he shows that the three topics of reactionary rhetoric (perversity, jeopardy, futility) have their exact counterpart in progressivist rhetoric. See Albert Otto Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • [51]
    Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice [1980], trans. Richard Nice, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1990, 137.
  • [52]
    Boltanski, “Institutions et critique sociale”, 42.
  • [53]
    Boltanski, On Critique, 42–4 and 119–24.
  • [54]
    Since it is ultimately a question of emancipatory revolution rather than of critique, we will limit ourselves to recalling that processes of democratization—including those precipitated by crisis situations—are not entirely the province of fervent democrats. See Adam Przeworski, “Some problems in the study of the transition to democracy” in Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead (eds), Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 47-63, and Guy Hermet, Aux frontières de la démocratie, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1983, 207sq.
  • [55]
    Sigmund Freud, “The virginity taboo” [1918] in The Psychology of Love, trans. Shaun Whiteside, London, Penguin Classics 2006, pp. 262-78, here p. 268.
  • [56]
    On this correlation between the construction of (social and ideal) generality of a grievance and critique received as legitimate, see Luc Boltanski, Yann Darré, and Marie-Ange Schiltz, “La dénonciation”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 51(1), 1984, 3-40.
  • [57]
    Dominique Memmi, “Celui qui monte à l’universel et celui qui n’y monte pas” in Bastien François and Érik Neveu (eds), Espaces publics mosaïques, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1999, pp. 155-66.
  • [58]
    Bourdieu, Practical Reason, 129; Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Boltanski, “La production de l’idéologie dominante”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 2(2-3), 1976, 3-73; Luc Boltanski, Rendre la réalité inacceptable, Paris, Demopolis, 2008.
  • [59]
    Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 298 n.12 (“liberties with the rule”); Boltanski, On Critique, 147 (“bend the rules”).
  • [60]
    Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 298 n.12.
  • [61]
    As Michael Kelly summarizes: “Habermas argues that Foucault’s paradigm of critique is self-refuting because of his theory of power: if critique itself is a form of power, then either it cannot be used to criticize power or if it is used it undermines itself”. Michael Kelly, “Introduction” in Michael Kelly (ed.), Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1994 (2nd edition 1987), pp. 1-13, here p. 5. See, in the same volume, Ju?rgen Habermas, “The critique of reason as an unmasking of the human sciences: Michel Foucault”, and “Some questions concerning the theory of power: Foucault again”, pp. 47-77 and pp. 79-107.
  • [62]
    Boltanski, On Critique, 147-152. To extend the example of non-governmental organizations used above, the principal leaders and intellectuals of humanitarianism, following the “King René” of Médecins Sans Frontières, Rony Brauman, have formalized a sophisticated theory of practice rationalizing the preference for emergency and the necessity of leaving the terrain when aid is being diverted. And indeed this is what makes them the most capable of denouncing the “dogma” of all emergency and the imbecility of such a humanitarian exit, to the chagrin of those who, within their non-governmental organization and within the humanitarian space, thought they were following their precepts.
  • [63]
    See Paul Veyne, Bread and Circuses: Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism [1976], trans. Brian Pearce, London, Penguin, 1990, 403-4. We have known since Max Weber that the exercise of domination would be nothing without the conviction that one deserves it; it is therefore a singularly impoverished conception of domination to believe that it consists in “contain[ing] and limit[ing] [the] critique” of the governed (Boltanski, On Critique, 117).
  • [64]
    Boltanski, On Critique, 6.
  • [65]
    Boltanski, On Critique, 62sq.
  • [66]
    Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 91 and, along the same lines: Emmanuel Bourdieu, Savoir faire. Contribution à une théorie dispositionnelle de l’action, Paris, Seuil, 1998, 166.
  • [67]
    By analogy with the idea of “resident reflective” put forward by Wilfried Lignier and Nicolas Mariot in “La réflexivité comme second mouvement”, L’Homme, 203-4, 2012, 369-98.
  • [68]
    Significantly, most work in “standard sociology” has addressed these critical practices only when they offer some empirical material to demonstrate the faltering and faulty nature of the institution. For an overview see Choukri Hmed and Sylvain Laurens, “Les résistances à l’institutionnalisation”, and Yann Raison du Cleuziou, “Des fidélités paradoxales: recomposition des appartenances et militantisme institutionnel dans une institution en crise” in Jacques Lagroye and Michel Offerlé (eds), Sociologie de l’institution, Paris, Belin, 2010, pp. 131-48 and pp. 267-89.
  • [69]
    For a paradigmatic illustration, see Lemieux, Le devoir et la grâce, 29.
  • [70]
    On this “art of separation” (Walzer) that manifests and takes place in the ordinary jumble of principles and ofpractices, see Eva Illouz, “Critiquer le talk show: le cas Oprah Winfrey” in Jérôme Bourdon and Jean-Michel Frodon (eds), L’œil critique. Le journalisme critique de télévision?, Bruxelles, De Boeck Université, 2003, p. 159.
  • [71]
    Daniel Gaxie, “Les critiques profanes de la politique. Enchantements, désenchantements, réenchantements” in Jean-Louis Briquet and Philippe Garraud (eds), Juger la politique, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2001, pp. 217-40.
  • [72]
    On this “reckless proposition” postulating of the greatest solidity of “pure montages” (Dodier, “Agir dans plusieurs mondes”, 457), see the study of the fragility of “composite setups” (Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification, 225-8 and 336-8) or the hypothesis of the “incompossibility of grammars” (Lemieux, Le devoir et la grâce, 164 and 191).
  • [73]
    François Héran, “La seconde nature de l’habitus: tradition philosophique et sens commun dans le langage sociologique”, Revue française de sociologie, 28(3), 1987, 385-416, here 411.
  • [74]
    Wilfried Lignier, “Comment pratiquer la critique des institutions?”, Critique, 756, May 2010, 421-34, here 427-8.
  • [75]
    Namely the capacity of actors to “act as if” they did not belong to the world judged and could project themselves into another to present a critique advocating a new order of trials. See Boltanski, On Critique, 42.
  • [76]
    Here we take free inspiration from Bourdieu’s dialogue (Pascalian Meditations, 49-52) with Gaston Bachelard, The Philosophy of No, New York, Viking, 1968, 95.
  • [77]
    Elsa Rambaud, Médecins sans frontières. Sociologie d’une institution critique, Paris, Dalloz, 2015, 38-48.
  • [78]
    For a critique of this rigid understanding of the “epistemological break” and of the reduction of true social science to a “science of the hidden” (Bachelard), see Luc Boltanski, “La cause de la critique. I”, Raisons politiques, 3, 2000, 159-84, here 169sq, and Philippe Corcuff, “Pour une épistémologie de la fragilité. Plaidoyer en vue de la reconnaissance scientifique de pratiques transfrontalières”, Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 41 (127), 2003, 233-44.
  • [79]
    See for example the contrast between the passage on the resources of “rise in generality” (titles and social qualities, relations with the already “worthy” person, play on the forms) in Boltanski, Darré, and Schiltz, “La dénonciation”, 31sq, and their principally discursive or ideational character in Boltanski, Love and Justice, 34sq; and Lemieux, Le devoir et la grâce, 190sq.
  • [80]
    Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification, 340.
  • [81]
    Ibid., 339.
  • [82]
    Nicolas Dodier, “L’espace et le mouvement du sens critique”, Annales, 60(1), 2005, 7-31. Online
  • [83]
    On this “extra reflective effort” of the sociologist, see Yannick Barthe et al., “Sociologie pragmatique: mode d’emploi”, Politix, 103(3), 2013, 175-204, here 186-7.
  • [84]
    See Michel Foucault’s observations in “La grammaire générale de Port-Royal”, Langages, 7, 1967, 7-15, here 8, and, for a reflection on the linguistic heritage of this notion in matters of moral grammar, Elsa Rambaud, “À propos du Devoir et la Grâce (Lemieux 2009): réflexions sur les usages de la grammaire dans la sociologie des pratiques morales”, Working Papers du CESSP, 6, 2016, 1-38, online.
  • [85]
    Boltanski and Thévenot, On Justification, 339.
  • [86]
    Dominique Cardon and Jean-Philippe Heurtin, “La critique en régime d’impuissance: une lecture des indignations des auditeurs de France Inter” in François and Neveu (eds), Espaces publics mosaïques, 108. On this difficulty in considering ineffective critiques as critiques, and the tendency to see them as a crisis of critique, see Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism; and Damien De Blic, “La cause de la critique. La sociologie politique et morale de Luc Boltanski”, Raisons politiques, 3, 2000, 157-81.
  • [87]
    If only to “transform an indecisive and floating impression into a distinct notion” (Marcel Mauss, “La sociologie: objet et méthodes” in Marcel Mauss and Paul Fauconnet, Essai de sociologie, Paris, Seuil, 1971, pp. 30-2).
  • [88]
    It must once again be clarified, in regard to the polarity reason/affect, that one must have an idealized conception of what a “(critical) intellectual work” or a “critical mind” is, to think that the “brain of passion” cannot also be a “passion of the brain”.
  • [89]
    Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right”, p. 137.
  • [90]
    “Revolutions do not break out when the social Whole is poorly distributed (for in that case, there would be permanent revolution) but when our lot, such as we perceive it, becomes intolerable”. Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque, Paris, Seuil, 1976, 318. (Translator’s note: Our translation here, as this passage is omitted from the abridged English translation.)
  • [91]
    Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, Durham, NC and London, Duke University Press, 1991.
  • [92]
    Jean-François Bayart, The Illusion of Cultural Identity, trans. Steven Rendall et al., London, Hurst and Company, 2005, 184. Similarly, the maintenance of a regime—even an oppressive one—is also explained by the many “trivial” advantages that it affords a certain segment of those governed. See Béatrice Hibou, “Économie politique de la répression: le cas de la Tunisie”, Raisons politiques, 20(4), 2005, 9-36.
  • [93]
    See Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 91. We never know too well whether Bourdieu speaks of the effects of scholarly interrogation or the effects of indigenous interrogation in itself.
  • [94]
    For such a framework, see Johanna Siméant, “Friches, hybrides et contrebandes”, and Brigitte Gaïti, “La science dans la mêlée” in Philippe Hamman, Jean-Matthieu Méon, and Benoît Verrier (eds), Discours savants, discours militants, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002, pp. 17-53 and pp. 293-309.
  • [95]
    Bourdieu, Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, Paris, Seuil, 2000, 305. Our translation.
  • [96]
    Boltanski, “Sociologie critique”, 124; see also Boltanski, Love and Justice as Competences, 18-9.
  • [97]
    This will to rethink the “disymmetry between actor and sociologist” tends to forget that a critique, even a sociologized one, is not driven by the will to “understand for understanding’s sake”, that indigenous critiques sometimes have only a vague family resemblance to a sociological theory, and that these are not “just any” indigenous actors. For an exemplary illustration of these three problems, see François Dubet, “Principes de justice et expérience sociale” in Marc Breviglieri, Claudette Lafaye, and Danny Trom (eds), Compétences critiques et sens de la justice, Colloque de Cerisy, Paris, Economica, 2009, pp. 297-308.
  • [98]
    Boltanski, “Sociologie critique”, 129. One of the difficulties with the above argument is that it confusedly considers—and this indistinction runs through Bourdieu’s sociology, in particular its analysis of symbolic violence—that the forces that “traverse and dominate actors” are exerted upon them “without their knowledge”, as if these were just two words for the same thing.
  • [99]
    The study of this genesis, understood (at least from the point of view of its reception) as an essence, runs through a whole historiographical tradition. See Christophe Charle, Naissance des “intellectuels”, 1880-1900, Paris, Minuit, 1990; Pascal Ory and Jean-François Sirinelli, Les intellectuels en France. De l’affaire Dreyfus à nos jours, Paris, Armand Colin, 2002.
  • [100]
    Élisabeth Claverie, “Procès, affaire, cause: Voltaire et l’innovation critique”, Politix, 26, 1994, 76-85. For a glimpse of these debates, see Arnaud Fossier et al., “Où en est la critique?”, Tracés, 13, 2007, 5-22.
  • [101]
    Vincent Descombes, “De l’intellectuel critique à la critique intellectuelle”, Esprit, 262, March-April 2000, 168. We adopt this association because it gives a good summary of the conventional imaginary of critique—from which the author, in fact, distances himself, recusing all mentalism to instead seek “institutions of sense”.
  • [102]
    We refer of course to Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” [1784] in H. S. Reiss (ed). Political Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • [103]
    Isabelle Delpla, Le mal en procès, Paris, Hermann, 2011, 17.
  • [104]
    Essentially, then, from this perspective, thoughtlessness is irrationality, inhumanity, and immorality, i.e. the opposite of what thought is. For an overview, see Géraldine Muhlmann, “Pensée et non pensée selon H. Arendt et T. W. Adorno. Réflexions sur la question du mal”, in the special issue of Tumultes edited by Michel Abensour and Géraldine Muhlmann, “L’École de Francfort: la Théorie Critique entre philosophie et sociologie”, Tumultes, 17-18, 2002, 279-319.
  • [105]
    Ylipe was a surrealist author and artist. See Bizarre 45 (special issue on Ylipe), Paris, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1967, 17. (Our translation here. Original wording in the French: “Les gens idiots n’en pensent pas moins.”)
  • [106]
    Pierre Bourdieu with Loïc J. D. Wacquant, Réponses. Pour une anthropologie réflexive, Paris, Seuil, 1992, 166-8; Jacques Bouveresse, Bourdieu, savant et politique, Paris, Agone, 2003, 174-5.
  • [107]
    Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, 7-8.
  • [108]
    Jacques Bouveresse and Daniel Roche (eds), La liberté par la connaissance. Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), Paris, Odile Jacob, 2004.
  • [109]
    Here we rediscover critique as test of coherence, in this case a test of Kantian universalizability, see Bourdieu, Practical Reason, 144.
  • [110]
    Bourdieu’s preface to The Logic of Practice, 21, and the conclusion of the Sketch for a Self-Analysis, 111-3.
  • [111]
    Franck Poupeau, Les mésaventures de la critique, Paris, Raisons d’agir, 2012.
  • [112]
    Pierre Favre, Comprendre le monde pour le changer, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2005.
  • [113]
    Yannick Barthe and Cyril Lemieux, “Quelle critique après Bourdieu?”, Mouvements, 24, 2002, 33-8. Along the same lines see Boltanski, Love and Justice as Competences, 23sq.
  • [114]
    To give only one example, excluding systems of values that do not allow access to “common humanity” in exchange for a formula of investment, the model of cities systematizes a set of meritocratic ideals (commercial, domestic, civic, etc.), and only those.
  • [115]
    Boltanski, “La cause de la critique. I”, 182-3.
  • [116]
    Y. Barthe et al., “Sociologie pragmatique”; Pascale Haag and Cyril Lemieux, “Critiquer: une nécessité” in Emmanuel Désveaux et al., Faire des sciences sociales, vol. I: Critiquer, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, 2012, pp. 13-27.
  • [117]
    Boltanski, On Critique, 6.
  • [118]
    Apart from the works cited above, we also find this interest in Nicolas Dodier, in his invitation to consider the “respective embedding of trials and powers” (“Le laboratoire des cités et les biens en soi” in Breviglieri, Lafaye, and Trom (eds), Compétences critiques et sens de la justice, pp. 55-67), or—although this author’s reflection on the “asymmetries of grasp” (1999) goes back further—in Françis Chateauraynaud, Argumenter dans un champ de forces, Paris, Pétra, 2011.
  • [119]
    For a glimpse of these two arguments, one could cross-reference Poupeau, Les mésaventures de la critique, with Ogien, “L’antinomie oubliée”, who respond to each other as if point by point.
  • [120]
    Habermas, “The critique of reason as an unmasking of the human sciences: Michel Foucault”.
  • [121]
    It is possible that the absence of any explicit definition of critique in the sociology dedicated to this activity, apart from the fact that it fuels all sorts of misunderstandings (leading one to believe that it embraces all types), may, like the absence of definition of loyalty in Hirschman’s trilogy and owing to the same distaste for the (supposedly) docile silence, testify to this poorly controlled normativity. On this point, see Patrick Lehingue, “L’éclipse de la loyalty dans la trilogie conceptuelle d’A.O. Hirschman” in Josepha Laroche (ed.), La loyauté dans les relations internationales, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2010, pp. 59-86.
  • [122]
    For a concrete application, we allow ourselves to refer to Rambaud, Médecins Sans Frontières, 54-60.
  • [123]
    On this “finalism”, which consists in explaining social phenomena via their real or perceived-as-real effects (and often confusing effect with cause), see François Simiand, “Anthropomorphisme et finalisme”, Notes critiques—Sciences sociales, 1904, 73-4. This enterprise of sociological normalization has proved fruitful on other terrains—see for example Michel Dobry, “February 1934 and the discovery of French society’s allergy to the ‘Fascist Revolution’” in Brian Jenkins (ed.), France in the Era of Fascism: Essays on the French Authoritarian Right, 1st ed., Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2005, pp. 129-50.

Inspired by the thoughts of M. Walzer, this article examines conventional meaning of criticism shared by the philosophical tradition and the most opponent sociological models: critical sociology (P. Bourdieu) and pragmatic sociology of critic (L. Boltanski). It shows that this perspective focuses on only one kind of criticism  the social critic  and maybe something else: the ideal of emancipation for an intellectual people. For a better understanding of the different forms, effects and social factors of social criticism (i.e. criticism taking place in society), it proposes a non-normative definition of criticism contrasting with the social scientist's propensity to conceive the (true) critic as necessarily radical, lucid, theoretically framed, inseparable from emancipation, sociologist's role and left wing legacy.


  • Social Critic
  • Normativity
  • Critical Sociology
  • Pragmatic Sociology of Critic
  • Walzer
Elsa Rambaud
Elsa Rambaud holds a doctorate in political science, and was the winner of the Dalloz thesis prize and the Aguirre Basualdo Chancellery Prize of the Universities of Paris 2014. Her publications include a programmatic article (“L’organisation sociale de la critique à Médecins sans frontières”, Revue française de science politique, 59(3), June 2009, 723-56), a revised version of her thesis (Médecins Sans Frontières. Sociologie d’une institution critique, Paris, Dalloz, 2015), and a discussion of grammatical approaches to criticism (“À partir du Devoir et la Grâce [Lemieux, 2009]: réflexions sur les usages de la notion de “grammaire” dans la sociologie des pratiques morales”, Working Papers du CESSP 7, 2016). Her research combines a sociology of humanitarian work attentive to the organizational shaping of activism with a sociology of critical practices that brings together the contributions of philosophy with those of sociology in order to think of criticism and institution together. CESSP, Université Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne, 5 rue Cujas, 75005 Paris, <>.
Uploaded on on 01/07/2019
Distribution électronique pour Presses de Sciences Po © Presses de Sciences Po. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait