The authors present their book as a case against critical theory (or “Theory”) from a traditional Western, liberal perspective. The authors describe Western liberalism as follows:
The main tenets of liberalism are political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion. … Liberalism is thus best thought of as a shared common ground, providing a framework for conflict resolution and one within which people with a variety of views on political, economic, and social questions can rationally debate the options for public policy.
This tradition of liberalism, according to the authors, is compatible with both American social/political liberalism and moderate conservatism.
The bulk of the book is organized chronologically around the three stages of the development of critical theory. The first was its origin in postmodernism in the 1960s–1980s. The authors describe the works of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard and the resulting skepticism toward “a belief in objective knowledge, universal truth, science (or evidence more broadly) as a method for obtaining objective knowledge, the power of reason, the ability to communicate straightforwardly via language, a universal human nature, and individualism.” They call this phase the “high deconstructive phase,” which was characterized by nihilism and playful cynicism. It bequeathed to critical theory two principles and four major themes.
The first principle is “the postmodern knowledge principle,” which consists of a “radical skepticism as to whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.” According to this principle, what we call “truth” is just a social construct, and we should not assume that it corresponds to anything “out there” in reality. The second principle is “the postmodern political principle,” which is the “belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.” This is the belief that society is based, not on truth, but on power, and that even our appeals to truth and reason are only veiled attempts to exercise power over others.
These two principles are fleshed out in the following major themes:
1. The blurring of boundaries. Boundaries and categories of thought previously accepted as true (e.g., gender) are viewed as oppressive attempts to exercise power over others.
2. The power of language. Words do not refer to anything “out there” in objective reality, but rather consist of an endless, self-referential system with no anchor in the external world. Since they are not “true” in any meaningful sense, they are viewed as the means by which dominant groups oppress the powerless.
3. Cultural relativism. Since language does not deal in truth but in power, attempts to evaluate one culture from the standpoint of another are simply an attempt by one group to exercise power over another (colonialism). Furthermore, one’s own culture can only be critiqued using the value system (based in the biases) of that culture. Critiques by those in places of privilege are only attempts to maintain one’s own privileged position, while critiques by the oppressed are to be validated as a means of empowerment.
4. The loss of the individual and the universal. The individual and the universal are simply cultural constructions. Critical theorists focus instead on identity groups and their positions in the hierarchy of society vis-à-vis one another.
The second stage in the development of critical theory took place in the 1980s through the early 2000s, when postmodernism mutated from its high deconstructive phase into what the authors call “applied postmodernism.” In this stage, the concepts of postmodernism were put to use in various academic disciplines as tools for social activism. This mutation was characterized by a shift from simply theorizing about the problems of knowledge to a highly moralistic program for social change. It also limited its skepticism in one important area: “under applied postmodern thought, identity and oppression based on identity are treated as known features of objective reality.”