What does it mean to be critical? – the paradox of the private and the public

‘…the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives.’

C Wright Mills, Appendix to The Sociological Imagination.

In previous posts we have considered what it means to be critical. To bring one’s critical faculties to work can be unsettling for oneself and for others because it begins to reveal, and perhaps pick away at, power relationships. Perhaps Kant was the first philosopher to observe that to use one’s critical judgement involves subjecting authority public privateto scrutiny and come face to face with the exercise of power. What we take to be given, taken for granted, which is one of the ways that power works in society, may suddenly appear to be less so. And there may be a cost in denaturalising the way things are done around here particularly if the dominant ethos in the organisation is appreciative, or sets great store by ‘alignment’. The cost might be to exclude oneself or to make oneself vulnerable.

To be engaged in thinking about social life, inquiring into things which matter to us, involves bringing personal insight into the public realm: it involves being reflexive. This insight is not unique to organisational scholars, but is shared across disciplines from literary criticism, to anthropology to sociology as the rest of this post will demonstrate. The moment you notice something which causes you to doubt and give voice to this, perhaps to set it down in writing, is to make oneself become visible. This is something that the late Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said noticed and drew attention to in the Reith Lectures in 1993:

“There is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world. Nor is there only a public intellectual, someone who exists just as a figurehead or spokesperson or symbol of a cause, movement, or position. There is always the personal inflection and the private sensibility, and those give meaning to what is being said or written. Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his or her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.” 1993: Reith Lecture 1, Representations of the Intellectual.

Said represents the intellectual effort required to engage oneself in taking an intellectual position as a paradox of the individual and the social, private insight taken into the public realm. It is the paradox of reflexivity. There can be no purely public position, nor would a purely subjective position be of interest to a broader public. To straddle the paradox of private insight and public context requires:

“… a steady realism and almost athletic rational energy; and a complicated struggle to balance the problem of one’s own selfhood against the demands of publishing and speaking out in the public sphere is what makes it an everlasting effort- constitutively unfinished and necessarily imperfect.” Ibid.

The continuous effort requires constant mental effort and attention to politics, acting into a figuration of power relationships, from which there is no escape. The dynamic is taut, tensile, an imperfect achievement.

Clifford Geertz[1], an anthropologist, straddles the paradox of involvement and detachment to describe social research with a human purpose:

“Detachment comes not from a failure to care, but from a kind of caring resilient enough to withstand an enormous tension between moral reaction and scientific observation, a tension which only grows as moral perception deepens and scientific understanding advances. The flight into scientism, or, on the other side, into subjectivism, is but a sign that the tension cannot any longer be borne, that nerve has failed and a choice has been made to suppress either one’s humanity or one’s rationality. These are the pathologies of science, not its norm.” Geertz, 2000: 40

Where for Said the paradoxical tension is between private and public, for Geertz the paradox turns on objective and subjective, which involves the question of method. He aspires neither to complete rational detachment, which might tell us little of importance about the human inquiry which preoccupies us, nor to subjective absorption, which tells us more about the inquirer than the object of inquiry. Similar to Elias’ formulation of this same subjective/objective question as detached involvement, so Geertz offers us insight into deepening our understanding of particularly human questions:

“And as the ability to look at persons and events (and at oneself) with an eye at once cold and concerned is one of the surest signs of maturity in either an individual or a people, this sort of research experience has rather deeper, and rather different, moral implications for our culture than those usually proposed.”

The quest, then is to understand human behaviour and illuminate its moral significance, for the researcher and for the researched. As researchers we mobilise our humanity in order to understand what it means to be human.

C Wright Mills points to the same paradox in his famous book The Sociological Imagination[2] by highlighting what he refers to as troubles and issues. To be alert to what is going on more broadly in society one has to pay attention to what one experiences as a human being, in order then to go on to ask what these particular human troubles tell us about broader patterns in society. This is because:

“By the fact of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of this history, even as his is made by this society and by its historical push and shove.”  Wright Mills, 1959/2000: 10

We form the world just as we are formed by the world, and insight into our own forming will help us ‘achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world.’ (Ibid: 9-10).

Thinking in a more detached way about our experience and noticing the paradox our own social forming helps us understand more deeply the social processes in which we are immersed can help us develop insights which matter to us, and may matter to others. But it means reflexively bringing the private into the public, a movement which can make us vulnerable.

What might be the impediments to bringing the private into the public? Here are just some of the things which might prevent us from revealing our critical intent:

There might be ethical dilemmas about doing harm to oneself or others depending on what we reveal, when and how. If we are interdependent then perhaps nothing is ever just private to us but reveals something about our commitments to others. We can’t just implicate others without thought about the consequences of so doing.

In contemporary organisations there may be a premium placed on being positive, and/or obedient. It may be difficult to appear to be political/controversial. And there is no avoiding politics in being critical. There are a variety of ways of closing down critique, such as suggesting that it is worth nothing unless it also proposes a ‘practical alternative’.

Sometimes the bigger the stake we have in the game as it is played at the moment, the harder the game is to call into question. Our own investments in the game may blind us to what is needed, or we may favour our commitments over what needs to be said.

We may be selective in what we draw attention to in our critique, which then diminishes our critique. Being critical involves reflexivity about the weaknesses in one’s own position.

In 21st C society, and according to German sociologist Hartmut Rosa[3] we are experiencing a crisis of individuality, where a premium is placed on being flexible and adaptive. There is no social advantage to be gained by standing firm, in Brinkmann’s terms.[4] This may lead us to be indeterminate, to have trouble finding ourselves in relation to others, or in Mead’s terms it may lead to our having a weak sense of the ‘generalised other’. If we are unable to notice Wright Mills’ ‘troubles and issues’, placing our particular difficulties in the context of the group in which we find ourselves, then it would be hard to be critical. Criticality depends upon the exploration of the relationship between the self and other selves.

From a variety of different perspectives, then, being critical involves politics, ethics and the generative tension of the private and public.


[1] Geertz, C. (2000)  Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, Princeton: Princeton University Press. Chapter 2 II. Thinking as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of Anthropological Fieldwork in the New States.

[2] Wright-Mills, C. (1959/2000) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapters 1 and Appendix: On Intellectual Craftsmanship.

[3] Rosa, H. (2019) Resonance: a sociology of our relationship to the world, Cambridge: Polity.

[4] Brinkmann, S. (2017) Stand Firm: resisting the self-improvement craze, Cambridge: Polity.

1 thought on “What does it mean to be critical? – the paradox of the private and the public

  1. Gerrit Van Wyk

    Could the core question here be ontological? The theory of complex responsive processes implies an ontology of complexity of which one of the consequences is uncertainty and unpredictability as opposed to the certainty of the prevailing rational-logical perspective of reality. A science of uncertainty means asking questions about what we cannot explain, making predictions about what may be happening, and testing the prediction to see if it is valid. The point becomes that within a complex constantly changing environment we can’t help asking questions critically or otherwise, it is what we must do to make meaning of what we experience.

    As humans, thinking is what we do all the time and thinking critically in terms of my argument would mean asking questions or thinking more systematically than we normally do as opposed to critiquing or judging something we disagree with which is the meaning we sometimes associate to critical. It shifts the emphasis from what is to why it is. Secondly, the notion that one may think in a detached way is thoroughly embedded in the rational-logical ontology whereas the theory of complex responsive processes and complexity implies that thinking is socially embedded and cannot be detached.

    The deep dilemma is a public world dominated by an ideology of reason and logic which we believe to be real and a hidden real world underneath of social complexity which not only includes our thinking world, but also the things we need to think about, critically.


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