The art of critique

Welcome to the eighth blog post in the Enough is Plenty Series from Anne Ryan, hosted by Feasta. If you like the post, please share it with your networks. You may also find it interesting to browse the Feasta website for other related articles. And please comment or get in touch with Feasta if you want to contribute to the discussion. We are at, @feasta_tweets and our Facebook page is here.


This post focusses on critique and ideally, you will read it alongside earlier ones on coping and creating. Coping, critiquing and creating exist in a dynamic relationship with each other and we need a sufficiency of each one. All of these actions arise out of the tragic gap between what is and what could be and they are part of our dreaming of the possibility of a better world.

Critique can be described as a way of thinking and it is often understood as fault-finding, showing what is wrong, or making negative judgement. In philosophy, critique is also understood as systematically engaging in doubt or scepticism. It can also involve the recognition of merit and what is of value, as well as cultivating deep understanding of what is going on.

The motivation to engage in critique is often to influence the possibilities for the future and to guide the creation of future politics, policy, civic life, projects, businesses, systems and institutions that are sane, humane and ecological.

Critique has been the subject of volumes of philosophical and scholarly work, so my purpose here is to consider some aspects of a critique that is congruent with the philosophy and practice of Enough, and putting care at the centre of all our decision-making. Enough and care are in turn part of the primary historical-developmental task for humans, which is to develop wisdom, or the ability to see the whole, integrated picture.

Examining the ‘Western Project’

For many, me included, engaging in critique includes an examination of the shadow side of the ‘Western Project’ or ways of thinking and being in modernity, which encourage fragmentation and divisions and neglect relationships, connections and an understanding of whole systems. There is no doubt that the worst aspects of our modern era have created perfect growing conditions for bad seeds and neglected good seeds.

I also find it useful to engage in deconstructive critique, which shows how certain political and social systems have come about and demonstrates that certain outcomes are not natural, normal or inevitable; rather, they were and are the results of people’s decisions and actions. With this kind of understanding, critique can also take the form of expressing the possibility that things could be different; if ‘reality’ could have been otherwise in the past, then decent future realities are possible.

Critique has to go beyond simplistic opposition to particular forces or ways of being in the world. Ideally, then, deconstruction is done in a manner that allows something better to be built or constructed out of the progressive aspects of what has gone before. An adequate critique for our times must also recognize the creative and restorative potential in the present system, even as it also points out the destructiveness and shortcomings of the ‘Western Project’. For example, we have whole-planet communication and awareness. And there is value in salvaging a positive meaning for modern concepts such as equality, justice, human rights and faith in reason. We should also appreciate the appropriate technologies that have been developed.

A whole, integrated critique

Critique adequate to our situation today – seeking deep understanding and wisdom, while avoiding over-simplification — must be founded on a full humanity, a full rationality and a full intelligence. These are the capacities that must grow if we humans are to respond appropriately and in a timely manner to the deep needs of people and planet, from the smallest to the largest need. These capacities are for the most part vastly underdeveloped. They represent a higher order of awareness and development that can take us closer to seeing the big picture, or the ‘divergent problems’ that Ernst Schumacher talked about. This way of knowing acknowledges mystery, science, life and death and it includes and honours all other living beings and systems.
Critique draws on our capacity to reason and to approach problems intellectually. But our modern era offers a limited version of reason and intellect, grounded in a narrow scientism, dependent on the quantifiable and the easily measurable. A holistic science is concerned with the unknown and is oriented towards learning. It is ‘a working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it “reveals” but on whether it “works”.’
A critique or politics that is adequate for our times must include our capacity for many other ways of knowing such as those grounded in heart, emotion, intuition, unconscious knowing, nature, spirituality, the body, eros and erotic energy.

The innermost self has an intuitive knowledge of wholeness and must also be a central consideration. It is often called the soul, but need not be seen in religious terms only. Other terms include the humanist ‘identity’ and ‘undivided self’, or the systems language of ‘big self, small self’ sometimes written as ‘s/Self’.

A whole critique requires us to attend to deep feeling in ourselves and others, including the dark emotions such as fear, despair and grief for the suffering of the planet and its living systems, animals and people. Grief and sadness at natural death and the end of natural cycles also need to be acknowledged. A whole critique and rationality must equip us to look at the pain of others and of ourselves, to see things unflinchingly, not turning away but not falling apart with the pain either.

We must also allow our critiques to contain contradictions and let go of the desire to denigrate uncertainty. We often feel contradictions first in our bodies and in our emotions and we should draw on these ways of knowing to identify them. Contradictions are important because in their discrepancies and in the potential resolution of those discrepancies we can access a transformative energy, sustenance or nourishment that helps us to build or create something better.

If we can work with a both/and approach and bring together what were once dualisms (rational/emotional; spiritual/secular; profane/sacred; body/mind; certainty/uncertainty), we can evolve into a more satisfying and wiser way of knowing and being in the world.

A great deal of the inspiration for this kind of critique comes from the work of Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist, philosopher, scientist and systems theorist who thought in terms of relationships, connections, patterns, and context. His last book equates wholeness with the sacred and he tells us that the sense of the whole can only be met with awe. He warns against rushing in to dismiss, manipulate or trample on this way of knowing. For Bateson, raised as an atheist, the sacred wholeness is not an optional dimension but a necessity.

Letting go

Critique grounded in enough and wholeness is also concerned with what we need to let go of, as well as what we want to retain and what we want to develop. In the material sense, we need to give up over-consumption and unnecessary production. We also have to let go of the idea that we can collect all the information that is out there before we act. We must be prepared to relinquish the ideologies we have invested in. In our very act of critique itself, we have to let go of the desire to be ‘righter’ or smarter than others, to possess the ‘best’ explanations; this is a feature of much political, smart, knowing-more-than-you critique. Again, humility and a learning orientation are essential capacities we need to develop.

Letting go requires us to address the modern denial of death and to take it fully into account in all our critique. In Western modern culture we tend to treat it as a purely negative occurrence, rather than an integral part of the cycle of life.

Our denial of death has led our dominant culture to neglect time, especially the long-term aspects of it. This contributes to our failure to take into account, even to understand, the long-term consequences of our actions as humans and our role as ancestors to the generations to come: the ‘seventh generation’.

This neglect has also brought about an ignorance of history and a failure to understand that, in the past, there were many possible futures and that our ancestors contested and fought and hoped to shape the future in just ways.

We are taught to think of time as purely linear, with only one outcome. But if we can understand it in a more cyclical way, then we can redeem the hopes and possibilities of the past,which may seem to have been hopelessly destroyed, but which are still living, valid and a beacon to guide us.

The overarching dominance of the Western Project is among the things that needs to be allowed to die. If we can see it as a part of a cycle, or a process of evolution, where every death provides for an expansion and the birth of something new great dialectic, that would be more helpful than simply dismissing it as an ‘imperialist-chauvinist plot’.


In the context of Enough I understand critique as an exercise in political thought and also as a meditation on the ways of being and knowing that should guide personal and civic life. It is about the possible: wisdom, care and love for people and the planet. Humans have all the elements we need for a whole critique and related actions of coping and creating. But the conditions that allow them to come together are not present. They exist as potential and one of our primary tasks is to realise the wisdom and higher development that is possible at a higher turn of the spiral for humanity. We need to aim for this with self-reflection, a genuine humility and a learning disposition.

Featured image: patterns in sand. Source:

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