ADVISORY WARNING: This post might irritate philosophers and some people in the humanities.
Philosophers are really irritating, and pretty arrogant to. Now don’t get me wrong. Y’all know that I love philosophy (is that a double positive?). I’m up to my ears in Plato, Aristotle, the epicureans and stoics, Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Deleuze, Badiou, Lucretius, and many others besides. If I could draw a bath composed of philosophy and smother myself in it, I’d do so. Nonetheless, I can’t deny that philosophers are really annoying and myopic. Why? Because we seldom examine the conditions of our own discourse.
“What?!?”, you say, “philosophers… philosophers!… don’t examine the conditions of their own discourse? Poppycock! We’re the only ones that examine the conditions of our own discourse!”
I’m sorry boys, but it just ain’t true (oh, and please understand that I’m using masculine gender in this post advisedly, because philosophy still remains an overwhelmingly masculine discipline and this has all sorts of consequences that are seldom discussed outside of feminist and queer circles). Oh, I know you engage in your whizbang “transcendental reflection” on the conditions for the possibility of frying eggs and knowing how to fry eggs, but that’s not what I’m getting at. What I am getting at is that you don’t examine the sociological, psychological, geographical, material, and institutional conditions for your own discourse. Indeed, you guys are such twerps that you even think these things are irrelevant to your questions and discourse. Your annoying rejoinder is always the same: “These things are irrelevant to our discourse because we’re just investigating what knowledge is, what the ultimate nature of being is, etc., etc., etc. Those things pertain to other disciplines.” Thus, as Wlad Godzich recounts in his forward to Paul de Man’s Resistance to Theory, philosophy came along in ancient Greece and reduced the question of theory or knowledge to aisthesis, to the question of a subject relating to an object and striving to represent that object, effectively getting rid of the sociological and geographical dimensions involved in knowledge.
It almost never occurs to the philosopher to see the fact that today he largely conducts his work in an institution, for example. “That’s just where I go to work? What possible relevance could this have to the nature of my research?” Similarly, it almost never occurs to a philosopher to wonder whether the social division of labor in contemporary society and the leisure he enjoys as an academic might have an impact on how he conceives knowledge and poses questions of knowledge. “Leisure time couldn’t possibly influence my assumptions about what knowledge is!” Nor does it occur to the philosopher to ponder whether it’s important to note that his medium is primarily texts he reads and texts he produces and whether this influences how he thinks about knowledge, being, ethics, etc (please, oh please, would you philosophers sit down and read Kittler, Ong, Havlock, and McLuhan? Pretty please? Just Ong maybe? C’mon, I’m on my knees here, don’t make me humiliate myself further!). The philosopher responds, “but writing is just a vehicle for meaning or conceptuality. It’s just a copy of speech! What possible difference could the fact that it’s written make?!?” Lots, I assure you.
It was probably frustrations like this that led the humanities to begin distinguishing between philosophy and theory. The story went something like this: “While we love our philosophers, they’re also a bunch of know-nothing, provincial nincompoops that ignore the place or field from which their enunciations arise and become possible and ignore sociology, economics, linguistics (sorry, philosophy of language doesn’t count), material conditions, and so on. We can’t get rid of our philosophers because occasionally they manage to say something interesting and valuable, but because they suffer from blindsight— and are even smug about it! –we must “bracket” philosophy so as to produce a form of reflection that includes these excluded things. Moreover, we must include these excluded things because the questions philosophy wants to answer 1) can’t be answered without including these things (at least, not in any way that doesn’t amount to just justifying the position of the philosopher and his desired sovereignty in the hierarchy of knowledge; which isn’t unrelated to his job and funding, by the way), and 2) because philosophers can’t answer these questions. Even though I started out in philosophy, I consider myself squarely in the camp of theory. I can imagine few things more dreary than philosophical conferences or dinner conversation with philosophers.
Anyway, I found myself reflecting on this when I came across the following remark from a philosopher of science friend of mine. He writes,
“The body of evidence,” “total evidence,” “the existing evidence” are pernicious fictions that philosophers of science should avoid.
Now this is a pretty innocuous example of the sort of the sort of thing I’m railing against in this post. I’m sure folks are saying “why’s Levi getting all worked up about this simple proposition?” It’s what is assumed in this proposition and the blindsight with respect to geography that it displays that irritates the hell out of me. First, I think it’s just plain wrong to place concepts like “body of evidence” and “existing evidence” in the same category as “total evidence”. The idea of total evidence is, of course, total nonsense. We never have “total evidence”. But when people use expressions like “existing evidence” and “body of evidence”, all they’re saying is that “given the evidence we’ve gathered to date x is the most probable conclusion.” The person who says this doesn’t have some sort of fantastic belief in complete evidence, only that in the absence of compelling counter-evidence, this is the conclusion the evidence we have points to. It’s a statement about probability, not certainty. And if there’s one thing that gets my gander up about people in the humanities, it’s their tendency not to understand the logic of probabilities. Again and again I hear dolts in the humanities with multiple letters after their name argue as if they believed the citation of a single counter-example is sufficient to refute a statistical sample. Nope. Statistical samples always contain exceptions. There are Texans, for example, that don’t like barbeque. That doesn’t change the fact it is sound to generalize that most Texans like barbecue. Learn the difference between the logic of “most” and the logic of “all” humanities people!
But that’s not what really got my dander up in response to this professor’s casual remark. These points about probability fit easily with standard debates in philosophical epistemology. What gets my dander up is the blindsight this remark suggests with regard to geography. “Professor Philosophy of Science-Pants” basically thinks that he can make claims about scientific epistemology in a vacuum that hold for all times and places. But geography matters! Suppose, for example, that there’s an imaginary place on the globe called Epistemolia where all the citizens have absolute faith in the sciences. Epistemolians never doubt what scientists say, believe that available evidence is total or complete evidence, and believe all scientific enunciations are certain. Now, in Epistemolia I would be right behind Professor Science-Pants’s enunciation because those folks need to be knocked down a peg or two because they have a really bad epistemology.
In the United States, however, matters are quite different. Here we don’t need more science skepticism, we need more science support. We’re talking about a population where opponents to vaccination are common, where a plurality of people believe evolutionary theory is poorly supported, and where it’s believed that there’s a huge controversy in scientific circles as to whether humans are causing global warming. For example, it’s not at all uncommon to hear an opponent to vaccination cite an anecdote of someone falling ill after getting vaccinated as evidence sufficient to refute vaccine theory. I’m not saying that in the United States we should become Epistemoligians and have absolute faith in science. I’m saying that here the questions of epistemology are different. In this geographical locale, the important thing is to cultivate an understanding of evidence, inquiry, and the difference between data and anecdote. We already have science skepticism in spades. It’s even the American way! We’re thus faced with a different set of epistemological questions and priorities.
What I’m trying to say is that geography matters. The sort of theory you do and the priorities you pursue resonate differently in different geographical locales. My feelings are similar in the case of postmodern and poststructural thought. Who can forget the Bush official who waved his hand dismissively at the journalist the evoked all the evidence suggesting that Iraq wasn’t pursuing nuclear weapons and didn’t have chemical weapons. His response to the journalists was “we make reality. we tell you what it is, you report it, and then everyone believes it.” Wasn’t this Bush official acting like the perfect postmodernist, arguing that reality is just socially constructed, that it is nothing but a narrative or story we tell, that reality is consensus, or, as Latour put it in Irreductions, “the principle of reality is other people”? In a context where the conservative right believes such things, is more anti-realism really a politically emancipatory position? Aren’t we just instead adding fuel to the fire of a priori skepticism in the United States by advancing these arguments? In another geographical location (or in other institutions) such arguments might truly be emancipatory. Yet in a context where we have capital, media, and government regularly manipulating facts and creating fictions, is such social constructivism truly emancipatory? In this context, aren’t we just denying ourselves the tools necessary for debunking these things? Forget Baudrillard.
What I’m trying to say is that we need to avoid our tendency to treat our questions and theories as being somehow above the living historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. No, it’s crucial to look at how the priorities we pursue and the theories we advance resonate with the social and geographical context in which we’re thinking. I’ll end my rant there.