The mission of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought (CCT) is to nourish, explore, encourage, and support critical re-examination of the received wisdom of our time. The center is a joint project of the Columbia Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Columbia Law School.
Far too often we are confronted with claims to science, to objectivity, to common sense, to empirical certainty that, when questioned or challenged, reveal themselves to be little more than historically situated products of our social and political relations, practices, and institutions. Looking back, with historical distance, it is much easier to unmask and expose the work that certain forms of knowledge and received wisdom accomplished—whether they related, for instance, to the science of phrenology, to a belief in natural order, or to the idea of dangerousness. Yet, it is so much harder, often practically impossible, to dig beneath asserted truths that hold today—in large part, because they are integral to the very fabric of our ways of knowing, talking, and thinking. They are ingrained in our rationality and discourse.
Contemporary critical thought aims to break that hold of the present. The task of contemporary critical thought is to question and challenge the authority of established truths and falsehoods, to challenge their empirical foundations, and to engage in forms of practice that test the limits of knowledge.
Contemporary critical thought is located at the intersection of the humanities, social sciences, arts, law, and letters. It bridges philosophy, political theory, sociology and social theory, anthropology, classics, law, art criticism, and cultural studies. It represents an epistemological approach that is reflected in a wide range of disciplines and approaches, including critical theory, post-structuralism, critical race theory, critical legal studies, post-colonial studies, critical feminist theory, queer theory, and other strands of contemporary thought.
Contemporary critical thought can be traced to several traditions of intellectual thought, but is not limited to any one; it is, instead, nourished by these different traditions. Along one well-recognized path, contemporary critical thought traces to the term “critique” that was central to the work of Kant and Hegel. This strand traces to the Kantian idea of the critical limits of reason, of morality, and of aesthetics, a tradition that would be developed in Hegel’s writings, especially his Elements of the Philosophy of Right and Phenomenology of Spirit. These, in turn, would lead to Marx’s various critiques of Hegel and of classical economics. Marx practically always used the term “critique” in the title or subtitle of his works to express this critical relationship to the German idealist tradition. This particular line of thought would be developed and flourish in the Frankfurt School in the mid-20th century, in part at Columbia University, in the writings of Walter Benjamin—who would influence aesthetic criticism—and in the writings of Hannah Arendt in the field of political theory.
Two equally important and well-recognized inspirational sources of contemporary critical thought pass through the work of two other key critical thinkers: Nietzsche and Freud. The three—Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx—have often been grouped together because of their family resemblance as thinkers of suspicion. All three branches are deeply epistemological, but the Nietzschean strand traces most directly to the nominalist tradition of thought that goes back to the Franciscan friar William of Ockham and to Michel de Montaigne. It then extends to the work of Michel Foucault and other post-structuralist thinkers, such as Derrida, Lacan, and Said. This strand also traces to the present, in the work of many contemporary critical thinkers such as Homi Bhabha, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Renata Salecl, Slavoj Žižek, and others. Many of these strands come together in creative ways. The political economic and genealogy of morals strands join together today, for instance, in contemporary critiques of neoliberalism, such as those that draw on the work of Foucault, David Harvey, Noam Chomsky and others.
These rich lines of inquiry and approaches—which can best be described as “contemporary critical thought”—have been nourished in the humanities and the social sciences. They represent a dominant strand of thought in Europe today, and continue to challenge more conventional ways of approaching problems in the United States. Because they are often in tension or explicitly challenge more positivistic social scientific approaches and analytic philosophical methods—because they often challenge the relationship between knowledge, power, truth, and subjectivity in ways that make many other thinkers uncomfortable—these approaches frequently are not taught or nourished properly in the existing disciplines in humanities or social science.
This strongly suggests the need for a center and for programs that bridge these various disciplines and foster critical thought.