Critical Theory and Crisis: An Interview with Dr. David Ingram
Dr. David Ingram is a full professor in our department and has published eight books, three anthologies, and almost seventy journal articles and book chapters on social and political philosophy. He has just published a new book with Cambridge University Press: World Crisis and Underdevelopment: A Critical Theory of Poverty, Agency, and Coercion. World Crisis and Underdevelopment discusses the complex issues of world poverty and other crises, with a critique of capitalism at its core. On-the-ground experience informs this new work: Dr. Ingram travels the globe to witness the effects of global crises and speak to those affected. The Association of Graduate Students in Philosophy (AGSP) spoke with Dr. Ingram about his new book, revolution and reform, critical theory, and his forthcoming work.
Association of Graduate Students in Philosophy (AGSP): My first question is about the social and political conditions that your book addresses. Your book encompasses a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to, global migration, international legal institutions, world religions, and secularization. Those topics all, in some way, fall under the umbrella of world crisis and under-development, hence the title of the book. So would you say that there is no singular issue that you're addressing, but rather a complex network of issues, or is there a general social-political condition that your book is addressing?
Dr. David Ingram: That's a very good question. I would say that in general, there's a criticism of capitalism that really doesn't get developed until the fourth chapter, and I don't push it a lot, but I think that's in the background because I see global crises as centering around capitalism as a system. It's kind of a micro-study of development practices, the theory and practice of development aid, and international legal institutions and how they respond to humanitarian crises. Not just crises that revolve around poverty, but crises more extensively. I conclude on a note of hopefulness and solidarity.
So yeah, the book covers a lot of different things, but if I were to say that there is something central grounding all of these different chapters, it would be a critique of capitalism. And a lot of this has emerged from my own experience. I've been involved in what today we would call “alternative break immersion” (ABI) experiences. I went to Africa with Thomas Derdak, I've gone to Guatemala. I work with the United Farm Workers Union and so on. The issue of poverty development has always been something that's interesting to me.
AGSP: I didn't know that you had traveled and seen some of the conditions first.
DI: Yeah. When you've seen those conditions, it's like they’re indelibly imprinted on your brain. You can't get them out of your head. So, I've become increasingly interested in what critical theory looks like on the ground instead of being just absorbed with theory. I'm interested in [questions] like: can we do something with critical theory there? Can we improve practices on the ground? Even if we're not talking about revolution.
AGSP: You have been doing critical theory for a long time. When you visit these places, how do you come to a synthesis of the theory and what you see or what you experience?
DI: When I'm on the ground, when I'm visiting these places, I'm more attuned to the stories that people tell me about their life situation. Now, I don't really try to fit it into a box. But, for example, I went on an ABI just this last January to the Dominican Republic. What fascinated me about that trip was that, going into it, I knew all kinds of issues surrounding immigration, and I've written on immigration and the problem of statelessness with Dominican Haitians. I was able to actually go to some of the places where there are a lot of Dominican Haitians. There were old sugarcane plantations. When you go there, it’s like something out of 19th century: the living conditions and the use of manual labor to do practically everything because wages are so low. It's cheaper to just hire people than to buy machines to do stuff that should be done by machines, and probably in most places in the world is done by machines.
AGSP: That's really interesting. It also brings me to my next question. Critical theory, traditionally, in the Frankfurt School and later, presents criticism itself as a positive claim and as a positive action. But it sounds like you're developing positive solutions—beyond mere criticism.
DI: Yeah. That's right. What I'm interested in puts me a little bit into the Anglo-American tradition. That tradition is much more normatively oriented. You don't get what I would call a totalizing criticism of, let's say, capitalism. You have criticism that points in the direction of socialism, but the Anglo-American tradition is much more focused, so they might be critical of aspects of market economies and trade regimes, that sort of thing. But they’re kind of focused more on reform and what can be done, and so I'm interested in that, too. I do believe that legal institutions can be an engine for radical reform, but we are talking about something that’s gradual over time. I do talk a little bit about recommendations for making incremental changes.
AGSP: That's also where the tension is, especially when we're talking about capitalism and critique. On the one hand, there are people who are on the side of revolutionary change. And on the other hand, there's incremental change that's more tangible when it comes to something like legal institutions. It’s difficult to bring them together or somehow work on both of those projects.
DI: Yeah there's a huge tension. I think on both the left and the right, you have people who have just given up on institutions entirely. There is a kind of anarchist strand in left thinking. I understand where that's coming from. It plays an important role in protest movements, absolutely. But I also believe, as Rudi Dutschke said, you need to go through the long march through the institutions, ultimately, to implement changes. That's why I focus a lot on legal institutions. But there is that tension.
AGSP: There are people who say, if you try to do both, you're taking one step forward, two steps back. It seems like some of those changes within legal institutions are not only tangible in a way that radical change isn't, but closer to and more meaningful to people on the ground who will benefit directly from changes in legal institutions.
DI: Yeah. Foucault was really good because he focused people on these micro-struggles that were absolutely important, and the idea that change can be the result of a capillary kind of confluence of a lot of different movements. I talk a little bit about that in the last chapter of my book. I talk about network solidarity. Different groups are struggling for very focused types of goals—but then they see that there's a common overlap. In particular, I think the common overlap is [a critique of] capitalism. It brings together a number of different movements.
AGSP: That's really interesting. Switching gears a little bit, I’d like to talk about the methodology or theory that you draw on in the book. Are you mostly drawing on Habermas and Honneth—recognition theory and discourse theory—or are you moving away from that in your method and theory?
DI: That's a good question. I do [move away from Habermas and Honneth]. The first chapter, which is on agency, is written from a Hegelian perspective. I begin with Hegel and I and I talk a little bit about his conception of action, or theory of action, if you will. It's informed by Anglo-American approaches. My former teacher Robert Pippin wrote an interesting book on recognition and Hegel's political philosophy. Then I move on to contemporary theories like Taylor, Honneth, and Frazier, who has been a part of these debates too.
That's the core because I really want to develop a conception of social freedom and that’s something that Honneth develops out of his reinterpretation of Hegel, and not just Hegel but Talcott Parsons and other people. I also want to draw from the Anglo-American social contract tradition, so I think that philosophers within the Rawlsian tradition have a lot to bring to the table as well. And finally, I think people who are coming out of the capability approach like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum match up well with some of the things I'm trying to capture in my conception of social freedom. Those are the three normative foundations for my approach: the capabilities approach, social contract theory, and critical theory coming from Hegel, which would be Habermas's discourse/ethical approach and then Honneth's theory of recognition.
But it's rooted in my own experience. In general, it reflects my own peculiar orientation to critical theory, which is that I think critical theory has tended to be overly theoretical. It is a combination of philosophy and social science, but I think critical theory tends to get lost in theory. If you look at the first generation of critical theory, it’s a wonderful tradition. Its speculations verge on the theological to a certain extent, which is not to say that’s not a good thing, because actually in the end of my book when I talk about solidarity, I bring in religion as an important consideration. But I think that what we need to do is reconnect critical theory with evidence-based science, which is something critical theorists haven't really done. They don't like to talk about statistics as a general rule. My work is more much more empirical.
I want to give a couple of hoorays to David Schweickart and Joy Gordon, because they read over a couple of chapters and provided some great criticism, and Drew Thompson, whose dissertation I'm directing, he provided some good stuff too.
AGSP: That's a great team.
DI: It was. It was really great. It's wonderful having great graduate students and great colleagues.
AGSP: Do you have any future plans related to your book?
DI: As a matter of fact, shortly after the book appeared in print I was contacted by the director of the Centre for Ethics and Poverty Research at the University of Salzburg to deliver a keynote address to a workshop this coming November centered on the topic of recognition and poverty. My address, "Misrecognition and Divided Agency: Does Micro-finance Empower Women," elaborates some arguments developed in the first two chapters of my book. More important, my dear colleague in the department from whom I have learned much, Tom Derdak, joined me in co-authoring a textbook on the ethics of development. The book is scheduled to be published by Routledge later this year, and will be the first truly comprehensive textbook of its kind to address development practices on the ground.