|Published||August 25, 2020|
Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody is a nonfiction book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, published in August 2020. The book was listed on the bestsellers lists of Publishers Weekly, USA Today, and the Calgary Herald.
Cynical Theories contrasts the academic approaches of liberalism and postmodernism, then argues that "applied postmodernism" (which focuses on ought rather than is) has displaced other approaches to activism and scholarship. The authors present several academic fields and schools—postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, intersectionality, fourth-wave feminism, gender studies, fat studies, and ableism—and describe how the "applied postmodernism" approach has developed in each field. The authors use capitalization to distinguish between the liberal concept of social justice and the ideological movement of "Social Justice" that they state has reified postmodernism.
Sales and rankings
Shortly after its release the book became a Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestseller and a number-one bestseller in philosophy on Amazon. Cynical Theories was named in the Financial Times' Best Books of the Year 2020 and in The Times' Best Political and Current Affairs Books of the Year 2020.
Harvard University's Steven Pinker, psychologist and public intellectual, praised the book, saying that it "exposes the surprisingly shallow intellectual roots of the movements that appear to be engulfing our culture".
Douglas Murray wrote an admiring review of Cynical Theories for The Times, saying "I have rarely read such a good summary of how postmodernism evolved from the 1960s onwards." Murray concluded, "Yet as I put down the book and turned on the news I couldn't help thinking that this deconstruction of the deconstructionists may have arrived just a moment too late."
A Spiked reviewer said that the authors provide "a huge service in translating the language of today’s activists and explaining to readers not steeped in critical theory or postmodernism how the world looks from the perspective of those who are," and that it "successfully draws out how, over the course of six decades, the burgeoning popularity of critical theory within university humanities and social-science faculties shifted postmodernism from a minority academic pursuit to an all-encompassing political framework." But the review also noted that "[w]hile Cynical Theories offers an excellent account of how postmodern scholarship morphed into social-justice activism, it is less persuasive when it comes to why this happened." The review stated, "What's largely missing from Cynical Theories is a broader political contextualisation of social-justice activism."
The Manchester Review claimed that "Despite its flaws, Cynical Theories is an important, interesting, accessible, and extensively cited work of non-fiction. It avoids the pitfalls of texts caught up in 'culture war' subjects; it intentionally avoids screeds of left- and right-wing punditry and the reader is likely to come away feeling that it has been academic and fair towards its opponents.
Nigel Warburton, writing for The Spectator, praised the early chapters on postmodernism and called the first part of the book "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 [Michel] Foucault's analysis of power." and says the book then "becomes a gloves-off polemic against specific manifestations of Theory in areas such as postcolonialism, queer theory, critical race theory, gender, and disability studies. Here they are far less charitable to their targets, and they take cheap shots in passing, a strategy likely to prevent anyone who has caught Theory from being cured by reading this."
Writing in The Times Literary Supplement, Simon Jenkins wrote that within half an hour of starting he thought he had "had enough of this book. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay seemed obsessed by a straw man, a fake foe. Their opponents, I felt, were surely well-intentioned and did not really believe what they were accused of believing." He went on, however, "I read on and now think differently." He cited the conclusion "refreshing" in that they offered no "counter-revolutionary strategy" or "demand that Theory be suppressed," but rather only call for the support of "reason, debate, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law." He wrote that the book illuminates "one of those sidetracks in Western ideology that led to both Salem and Weimar."
Nick Fouriezos of OZY magazine described Cynical Theories as "the first cohesive attempt to tie together the intellectual strands of the intellectual dark web" and notes its "blind spots" in suggesting that the movements for civil rights, LGBT protections, and feminism had achieved almost total victory by the 1980s while ignoring significant issues that had persisted since then.
Tim Smith-Laing in The Daily Telegraph said that the authors "leap from history to hysteria" and the book fails to fulfill the "values of rational, evidence-based argument" that it praises. Though the book presents an acceptable sketch of the history of several of the intellectual strains it highlights, the book fails entirely to argue for its central thesis. Its arguments "do not add up to anything like Pluckrose and Lindsay’s apocalyptic characterisations".
In a Liberal Currents review focused on chapter eight of Cynical Theories, Samuel Hoadley-Brill, a PhD student in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, suggests that many of the book's citations and paraphrases of the scholarship that Pluckrose and Lindsay critique are misleading and based on cherry-picking. "None of the cited works by Fricker, Dotson, Medina, Code, Wolf, Mills, or Bailey gives us any reason to classify them as radical skeptics about the possibility of objective knowledge or truth ... For those of us who have carefully read the literature, Pluckrose and Lindsay's discussion of reified postmodernism in academic philosophy looks much more like incendiary fan fiction than scholarly analysis". Hoadley-Brill concludes that the chapter "suffers from the exact same problems Pluckrose and Lindsay diagnose in Social Justice scholarship—namely, misplaced cynicism combined with unwarranted confidence in such cynical interpretations. Critical scrutiny exposes an embarrassing fact: Pluckrose and Lindsay have done a better job of revealing themselves as cynical theorists than revealing any of the theories they discuss as cynical."
- "Publishers Weekly Best-Sellers". OANow.com. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
- "US-Best-Sellers-Books-USAToday". Martinsville Bulletin. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
- "Calgary bestsellers". Calgary Herald. August 29, 2020. p. B.7.
- Pluckrose, Helen; Lindsay, James A. (2020). Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – And Why This Harms Everybody. ISBN 9781634312028.
- "Bestselling Books Week Ended August 29". The Wall Street Journal. September 3, 2020. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved October 1, 2020.
- "US-Best-Sellers-Books-USAToday". The Washington Post. Associated Press. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved October 1, 2020.
- Rachman, Gideon (November 18, 2020). "Best books of 2020: Politics". Financial Times. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
- Millen, Roland White | Robbie. "Best political and current affairs books of the year 2020". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
- Paul Kelly (September 12, 2020). "Tracing the dangerous rise and rise of woke warriors". The Australian. Retrieved October 1, 2020.
- Murray, Douglas (September 4, 2020). "Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay review — woke warriors are conquering academia". The Times.
- Williams, Joanna (August 28, 2020). "How wokeness conquered the academy". Spiked. Retrieved August 28, 2020.
- Whittaker, Ryan (October 18, 2020). "Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay | Cynical Theories". The Manchester Review. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
- Warburton, Nigel. "Universities are supposed to encourage debate, not strangle it". The Spectator. No. November 14, 2020. Retrieved November 12, 2020.
- Jenkins, Simon. "The new intolerance". Times Literary Supplement (2 October 2020). News UK. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
- Fouriezos, Nick (August 10, 2020). "American Fringes: The Intellectual Dark Web Declares Its Independence". OZY. Retrieved September 5, 2020.
- Smith-Laing, Tim (September 19, 2020). "'Postmodernism gone mad': is academia to blame for cancel culture?". The Telegraph.
- Hoadley-Brill, Samuel (August 19, 2020). "The Cynical Theorists Behind Cynical Theories". Liberal Currents. Retrieved October 8, 2020.