An “obsession with language”, Pluckrose and Lindsay write, is at the “heart of postmodern thinking and [is] key to its methods”. There is nothing distinctively “French” or “postmodern” about such a focus on language, however. The same could be said, after all, about the Anglo-American “analytic” tradition in philosophy, which famously took a “linguistic turn” in the first half of the 20th century. This involved the claim that philosophical problems could be solved either by tidying up ordinary language with the aid of tools drawn from formal and mathematical logic or else illuminated by paying close attention to how words are used in everyday contexts.
The first part of the book, though, provides a plausible and interesting story about the origins of the phenomena they describe. Like Roger Scruton in his book Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, they have done their homework, and can’t fairly be accused of a superficial understanding of the thinkers they engage with, though they probably underestimate the seriousness and depth of Foucault’s analysis of power. True to their liberal beliefs, they have no desire to shut down debate in this area and want to combat bad ideas with informed discussion.
Inevitably, this will do the job in some quarters. Cynical Theories has already been praised by Steven Pinker, among other self-appointed upholders of “Enlightenment values”. But the truth is, it fails on its own terms: not because the values of rational, evidence-based argument that Pluckrose and Lindsay claim to stand for are poor values, but because the book itself so transparently does not fulfil them. You could be forgiven for wondering who the real cynics are here.
It is too easy to just laugh at such nonsense. In the universities this school stopped being a laughing matter as it advanced through intellectual intimidation. Now on the streets of America its protégés have broken out in physical violence. Pluckrose and Lindsay rightly show how critical race theory (among others) has fractured the liberal world view, with real-world consequences playing out on the streets of Portland and other American cities. This world view long ago evaporated the possibility of society having an agreed way of living. Instead of sexual, racial and other differences becoming unimportant, critical, cynical theories have rendered them the only things of importance.