Having read through about half of Daniel Sacilotto’s review of The Democracy of Objects, I must say I’m deeply gratified and honored by the time and thought he’s put into this massive critical review (47 pages). It is both strange and humbling to have someone else take your mad ramblings and half-formed thoughts so seriously. Additionally, I find that I am not in much disagreement with Daniel’s points about realist epistemology. Daniel shows a sophisticated knowledge of the work of figures such as Sellars and Brandom, and powerfully shows how they help to bolster a case for realist ontology. I am grateful that he’s provided me with tools that might help me to strengthen my own claims, before audiences of philosophers. I will say, however, that my preferred audience consists of geologists, ethnographers, biologists, artists, activists, engineers, analysts and others with degrees and practices outside my own degrees. I learn more from them, they ask better and more interesting questions, and we have better discussions.
It is no surprise that I have a rather strong antipathy towards epistemology. First, this antipathy involves an affective component. My experience of epistemologists is one in which I feel as if I’ve been placed before an inquisitor asking me to justify myself. Let me be clear. I am not, by any means, suggesting that we should not provide reasons for our claims. If I make the claim that the moon is made of green cheese or that the stars determine our destiny, I should be prepared to provide reasons for these extraordinary claims. If I say that pain is c-fibers firing, I should be prepared to provide reasons for those claims. What I find obscene in the philosophical discipline of epistemology is the abstractness of its question. Rather than asking a specific question such as “how do you know that yeast causes fermentation?”, it instead asks “how do we know?” It feels as if you’re being asked to show your papers before you proceed in engaging in any inquiry. While I certainly understand why a government agency would want reasons to give money to build a giant super-collider before giving that money, I find it rather difficult to understand why we should be required to give a one-size-fits all account of what knowledge is before engaging in inquiry. The whole task feels as if a huge monkey wrench is being thrown into the activity of inquiry at the outset, preventing inquiry from ever beginning at all. My feeling is always that if you object to a claim, object to that claim and ask for reasons in support of that claim. Don’t ask general questions about what knowledge is– it’s many things and there are many different types of knowledge (episteme, maybe nous, techne, phronesis, maybe gnosis, etc).
Second, I’m always confused as to just who epistemology is supposed to benefit or what it contributes to any concrete inquiry. During the 17th and 18th century, I can understand why questions of epistemology became burning issues for socio-political reasons. The Enlightenment thinkers were dealing with a despotic church system, endless religious wars, and a system of government based on this religious authority. Political thinkers and activists, along with the emergence of a new type of subject or agent– scientists –needed to develop weapons that would allow them to protect themselves from the schoolman and the monarchial authorities, justifying their new forms of inquiry and attempts to form new social orders. In a contemporary context, however, it’s difficult to see what epistemology contributes to practices outside of epistemologists discussing epistemology with other epistemologists. I can’t think of a scientist, engineer, or medical researcher that has awaited the judgment of epistemologists to determine whether or not their inquiry is legitimate. This leaves me with the question of what, exactly, the philosophical discipline of epistemology is supposed to contribute to the world. I can very well see what ethics, social and political theory, aesthetics, and ontology might contribute to the world. But I have a very hard time seeing how epistemology is not thoroughly parasitic, such that it has the status of a useless supplement.
Now I realize that this is a claim that will burn for some, and that it will immediately lead to evocations of Butler’s Gender Trouble, Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and perhaps Gould’s Mismeasure of Man. Aren’t these critiques of knowledge, we might ask? Doesn’t that make them epistemological? Yes and no. Yes, these issues are “epistemological” in the sense that they are critiquing specific knowledge claims made in specific contexts. The demonstration that these claims are poorly supported, that they haven’t provided good reasons in support of themselves, is invaluable. No, these issues are not “epistemological” in the sense that they are not asking the general question “how do we know?” or “what is knowledge?” in general. I’m fully on board with the first project. I find the latter project a bit useless (I guess that makes me a pragmatist).
One might object that if we don’t answer these big questions of what knowledge is in general and how we know in general we’ll become “dogmatic metaphysicians” (Daniel expresses this worry with respect to my work on pages 426-428 of his review), or heaven forbid, we’ll have to take creationism, intelligent design, and astrology seriously (Daniel doesn’t level this charge against me). With regard to the first worry, again, be specific. If someone has made an extraordinary claim such as Spinoza’s claim that there are an infinity of attributes or Leibniz’s claim that God exists and this is the best of all possible worlds, ask for reasons for those claims and if there’s no way of experientially or experimentally verifying them, take them with a grain of salt. With respect to the creationists and other new age freaks, I’ve found, as my goatee grows grey, that the criteria of knowledge we outline and epistemic standards we enunciate fall on deaf ears. We’re performing a socially useful service in pointing out just how poorly supported these positions are– why aren’t there rabbit bones at the lowest level of the fossil record? –but we’re not accomplishing much in changing these folks. Daniel seems to think this response makes me an irrationalist that believes I don’t need to provide reasons. I believe that it means I have enough experience to recognize when others are impervious to hearing reasons at all, and it’s better just to walk away and get back to work. Sometimes people just won’t listen or acknowledge reasons, as in the case of the fundamentalist freak. This is why I think that ideology critique, sociology, and psychoanalysis have more to offer us in our understanding of why people think such things than epistemologists defining sets of normative standards for making claims.
Third, I just think that I’m a bit more humble in my epistemology than the epistemologists I encounter. The epistemological realists I encounter seem to desire guarantees. Like Hamlet, they seem to want everything worked out in advance, in a way that would guarantee successful results or knowledge were these norms and distinctions obeyed. By contrast, I feel that the best we can do is try. I don’t feel that “truth” is something that is there at the beginning of an inquiry– though certainly I share the view that hypotheses we make are based on prior successful inquiries –but rather is something that arises at the end of inquiry. Chasing the truth or the real is always something that involves risk. When we built the Haldron super-collider we didn’t know that it would successfully allow us to discover the Higgs-Boson. There were many reasons from previous inquiry and formal, mathematical theory that suggested that we would find it if we created the requisite experimental conditions, but there was nothing that guaranteed that the costly building of this massive apparatus, all the human and nonhuman actors it would have to marshal, etc., would be successful. We had to take the risk. And here I can’t help but feel that the epistemologists I repeatedly encounter are profoundly risk-adverse. Like the young man that buys the “how to score with girls every time for dummies” book, I always get the sense that the epistemologists I encounter want the “perfect score”, the infallible methodology. The secrets out, I don’t think there’s an infallible methodology. I think the best we can do is try. I believe that some experiments are more worthy of trying than others, but I don’t think there are any guarantees in advance.
Finally, fourth– and again at the affective level –my experience of epistemologists is one of “smarminess”. Again and again I find epistemological questions posed to me in the form of false dilemmas. If I make the claim that I don’t think the criteria of knowledge can be determined in advance, that we have to engage in risk and that things might not turn out well, I’m suddenly told that I don’t believe in any norms, standards, activities of providing reasons, etc. and that I’m a dogmatic metaphysician. This despite the fact that all I ask of my readers is to try this ontology out and see if it allows you to do anything interesting. If it comes crashing down around your ears and yields nothing but sterile results, so much the worse for me. That’s the risk. Back to the drawing board. But the criteria here will not be whether it meets your abstract philosophical criteria, but whether it generates inquiries and practices that can sustain fruitful practices that grow and develop. The choice I’m presented with– and my friend Daniel confronts me with this choice in spades throughout his review –is either being someone that obeys the rules of his game or, if not obeying those rules, believing that anything goes. But claiming that things can’t be guaranteed in advance is quite different than claiming that everything goes. Claiming that things can’t be determined in advance is merely the very humble epistemological claim that things might not turn out as you wished or wanted. Back to the drawing board.
This brings me to a couple of specific claims in Daniel’s article. First, when I argue sometimes you simply have to wait for certain frameworks to change, that there’s no ultimate persuasion, Daniel takes this claim as the claim I think everything is up to individual, subjective, human whim. Indeed, the claim that everything is up to individual whim is a claim that Daniel often attributes to me. I’m surprised by this and wonder if Daniel has read Koyre, Lakatos, and Kuhn. All I’m pointing out when I say such a thing is that certain research projects are incommensurable with one another. I’m surprised that Daniel, who has read and been influenced by Badiou so deeply, has difficulty seeing this point. Daniel seems to miss the point that the Galilean who has resolved to try to see if nature can be mathematized, cannot respond to questions within the Aristotlean-Ptolemaic context. The Aristotlean-Ptolemaic context will simply not be able to comprehend the questions and research projects of the Galilean because they presuppose a fundamentally different framework of reference and meaning than that Aristotlean framework. Questions that made sense in the Aristotlean framework will no longer make sense in the Galilean framework. It’s like the advocate of astrology trying to ask the modern astronomy about the significance of Mars in this region of the sky. This just isn’t a question for the modern astronomy. It’s a question that presupposes an entirely different ontology and understanding of causation. Questions that make sense in the Galilean framework will categorically not make sense in the Aristotlean framework. Does this mean that the Galilean framework is a “mere human whim” as Daniel suggests? No. It means that there’s little possibility of dialogue between the Aristotlean and the Galilean because they appeal to fundamentally different universes of reasons or reference that the Aristotlean refuses to recognize. The situation is similar with the intelligent design theorist. What counts as a reason, what counts as evidence, how the universe is put together put in fundamentally different ways. Certainly I wish I could wave a magic wand and change all of this, but the fact remains that my creationist and intelligent design theorist friends share fundamentally different standards of evidence. Were that it were otherwise. The best that I can do is show why their norms fall short in so many different ways. The smarminess of these critiques is that they always suggest that someone refuses all reasons. No, there’s no refusal of giving reasons. There’s a refusal of halting all inquiry to answer questions in advance for Hamlet.
Second, I just feel that Daniel and I are interested in fundamentally different issues. Daniel seems interested in the question “how do you know that’s true?” For reasons I’ve outlined, I think this is a rather boring and even pernicious question. Be specific! What specific claims are you objecting to? I can respond to that. Quit portraying those who don’t share your project as cross-eyed irrationalists. Quit playing this Stalinist game of telling your interlocutors that they’re supposed to do some task without specifying what that task is or how you want them to accomplish it. I’m interested in making some small contribution to shifting the sorts of questions we ask and what we inquire into. Daniel is obsessed with the question of how a human being knows what he says (it’s always a “he”) about the world is true. I find this question to be rather uninteresting as I think it contributes little to any real practice; scientific, artistic, personal, political, or otherwise. I see it as the question of a hall monitor. By contrast, I’m interested in making some small contribution to shifting the issues we discuss. I’d like to see theorization of how mercury from rain fall affects fish populations and enters human populations. I’d like to see discussion of why people aren’t buying hybrid or electric cars, and what this has to do with availability and semiotics. I want to talk about how sanitation technologies affect the economic and cultural development of a people. I’m interested in how mantis shrimps or bees experience the world. If I make claims about how they do, I’m fine with providing reasons for why I think this is true and how we might come to know this about bees, but I take umbrage at the suggestion that I’m just basing these claims on wild speculation and haven’t engaged in any research or inquiry that might justify these conclusions. I think knowing a bit about bees might go a bit further in addressing real issues such as their disappearance in the States than abstract epistemological questions about how we know in general. I’m not interested in legislating what “true reality” is, but in shifting discussion from an obsessive focus on how we know, on how our minds relate to the world, to a discussion of how things, including humans, interact with one another. Assertions made within this framework are not a mere “subjective whim”, as Daniel suggests. He’s welcome to question claims and ask for reasons. It could turn out that various accounts are mistaken. Be specific. Critique the account. That’s how accounts become better. Don’t, however, throw sand in the engine of inquiry. Daniel, I’m sure you miss this, but the basic point is that we’re tired of discussing your issue. We want to ask other questions and attend to other issues. That doesn’t mean we’re unwilling to provide reasons.