In response to a recent post, Kathya asks:

Very interested post! Sorry if this is a dumb question, but could you just briefly explain what you mean when you say that your position is ontologically realist but epistemologically anti-realist? Thanks!

I’m in a bit of a hurry as I have to head out to pick up my three year old daughter from school soon, so hopefully Kathya will forgive me if my response is a bit abbreviated. Apologies for my slowness to respond. Between my heavy teaching schedule and other responsibilities I can be slow to get back to things. I understand that anti-realist epistemologies emphasize the active role that the social and minds play in the process of inquiry in “constructing” objects of knowledge. Knowing is not understood by these positions to be a passive relationship where mind merely mirrors the world like a reflection in a mirror, but involves all sorts of activities to produce knowledge.

read on!

There are a couple of reasons that I understand my position to be epistemologically anti-realist. The first of these reasons are ontological. One of the claims of my ontology is that all relations between objects involve translation. No object ever encounters another object as it is directly, but rather objects translate one another and produce something new in that process.

If we think of translation in the context of language this concept of translation can be fleshed out. The naive and common sense view of translation is that translation consists in a transfer of meaning from one language (L1) to another language (L2), such that meaning is preserved across the two languages. If we refer to the diagram of the Saussurean sign in the upper left-hand portion of this post, the naive concept of translation holds that while the signifier changes between L1 and L2, the signified remains the same across L1 and L2. In other words, for the naive theory of translation (NTT), the expressions “Il pleut”, “Es regnet”, and “It rains” are identical at the level of the signified. The medium in which the signified is expressed– the language –contributes nothing to the signified.

Now as everyone who knows two languages or who actually engages in translation is aware, this is not at all how things work. The NTT is a terrific and intuitive theory of translation. It’s only failing is that it is false. The English /river/ and /stream/ and the French /riviere/ and /fleuve/ are not, for example, equivalent. The former are distinguished by size the latter by whether or not the entity flows into the ocean. Additionally, there are resonances in any language that simply cannot be translated because they play on the dimension of polysemy through homonyms and whatnot. Thus, for example, Lacan’s concept of the nom-du-pere cannot strictly be translated into English. We can, of course, translate it as “name-of-the-father”, but this forgets that the term, when spoken aloud, also sounds like “No! of the father” in French. Similarly, Lacan’s concept of “sinthome” simultaneously sounds like symptom and Saint Thom. Lacan wants to play on all these resonances at once like multiple staves in a musical score. Since English is structured differently at the level of sound we cannot find an exact equivalent in English that plays on these multiple levels of meaning at once.

The point of the concept of translation, then, is fourfold:

1) Every translation is an interpretation. This comes home with particular clarity in the case of translating a text. Certain terms can be translated in multiple ways. The translator has to make a decision as to how it will be translated. Alternatives are possible. In this respect, a translated text (L2) is a bit like a fork in a railroad track. Choosing one translation excludes the other translations.

2) Every translation produces something new. The copy or translation is not identical to the original. Not only are certain resonances of the French lost in translating Lacan, but certain new resonances become possible in English because of the sound-structure of the English language.

3) The medium makes or contributes a difference. There is no such thing as a passive or transparent medium. Rather, the medium contributes differences to the content. In the case of the examples above, the mediums are the French and English language. That medium contributes different possibilities of meaning.

4) The medium is not a passive vehicle of meaning. If we think of the metaphor of “vehicles”, when we drive our car or take a train or plane we remain the same. The vehicle contributes no difference to the being that we are. The NTT conceives the signifier as a vehicle for the signified where the sound-image or signifier transports the signified without contributing any difference of its own. A careful look at actual translation, however, shows that the vehicle and medium contributes a great deal to the signified.

Following Latour, I generalize these basic points about translation to any interaction between objects, regardless of whether or not language is involved. Think about photosynthesis. Here we have photons of sunlight, the leaf and its photosynthetic cells, and the sugar produces. The leaf “translates” the photons of sunlight and produces something new: the complex sugars. There is no resemblance or identity between the photons of light and these complex sugars. Rather that sunlight becomes something new in passing through the medium of the photosynthetic cells.

Now because I advocate the thesis that translation is an ontological feature of all inter-object interactions, it follows that my realist ontology is necessarily committed to an anti-realist epistemology. Knowers translate the world about them just as leaves translate sunlight. The outcome of these translations is not identical to the inputs. This just is what anti-realism claims. Nonetheless, my position is an ontological realism because 1) I hold that the black-boxes (objects) that do the translating are themselves real entities and are mind-independent, and 2) because translation itself is an ontologically real process. Moreover, while I hold, like the anti-realist, that we can never have direct access to an object, I nonetheless hold that we can arrive at real and genuine knowledge of these black-boxes or objects and how they function through the laborious process of controlled inquiry.

Hope this makes sense. Alright, gotta run.