Sunday, 17 August 2014

The epistemological caveat: 'Of course, I might be wrong...'; The false modesty that subtends 'realism'

Even the most self-importantly 'realist' philosophies generally contain a caveat that goes (whether explicitly or implicitly) something like this: 'Of course, I might be wrong...'.

This epistemological disclaimer is of paramount importance; it cannot be understood as a mere article of etiquette (nor as a statement of the obvious); rather, it subtends the entire operation—it underpins the whole claim on 'realism.'

By uttering such a phrase the author demonstrates that she is neither a fool nor a dogmatist; she shows that she understands very well the near-impossibility, 'in practice,' of describing or explaining the absolute (and she opens herself to her peers in anticipation—or perhaps preemption—of their inevitable disagreements). Nevertheless, in precisely the same gesture she maintains this possibility 'in principle' and thus monumentalises the True as a 'regulative ideal.'

She thus self-identifies as a selfless, hard-nosed, gravel-handed voyager in dogged pursuit of a far-flung ideal: what a noble and romantic tragedy!... It is as though she were saying to her others—the shadowy, infantile anti-realists, idealists and correlationists: 'at least I'm giving it a go!'. The others are stay-at-home losers, unwilling to even attempt to transcend human finitude; she herself strides out—bold, fearless.

Embracing the near-inevitability of failure 'in fact' permits the self-congratulatory subscription to the (supposedly) noblest of noble goals 'in principle' and thus absorbs some fraction of the reflected glory of the absolute (as if the phrase 'it's the taking part that counts' applied to more than just amateur sports).

By making Truth a point in space that can be located and appropriated 'in principle,' the author is able to claim that she is 'getting closer' even though she has 'not yet' reached the promised land. (The rather Socratic paradox of 'getting closer' to a location that one has not yet been able to identify is remarkable; however, it is the practices of philosophers who claim to bathe in the warm, reflected light of Truth that concerns us here, not their aporia per se.)

The reflected glory of graduated approximations is what gives blunt and vulgar 'realisms' their seemingly effervescent aura. For some this hazy glow makes 'realism' a semantically closed shop—a gate to be kept, all alternatives shunted into opposing (i.e. binarily opposite) camps.

However, there are other ways of being realistic in matters philosophical and metaphysical—ways less absurd.

By saying 'of course, I could be wrong' the author avoids the obligation to construct her text in such a way that it could think itself as an event in its own universe. Instead of being a novel event that differently joins up the various threads of existence and thus differently realises and articulates all kinds of things that 'were there all along' (although this 'there' is only sensible or meaningful after the event) it instead speculates on 'how things were all along,' regardless of itself.

The 'realist' philosophy really just does this: it describes a universe in which its own occurrence is circumstantial; where it itself needn't have occurred in order for the truth claims it makes to be sensible. That self-incidentalism is its entire conceit; and it is the leaky logic of that conceit that is bailed out by the phrase 'of course, I could be wrong.'

The alternative to this tumbledown half-thought is to fully reckon with an event-based ontology that always embraces within itself its own novelty, partiality and contingency—that recognises these things not at an 'auto-meta' level, saying 'I might be wrong,' but internally and intrinsically to itself, saying 'I am an event that differently articulates existence thus...'.

'Partiality' and 'contingency' have long since become clichés and articles of faith for academic philosophers and theorists. What matters much more than the well-mannered re-statement of these principles is where they issue from and how they are achieved. If they are articulated on the back of 'I might be wrong' then this is a completely different statement to the case where they are understood through an event that understands itself as an event.

The former is the product of position-based thesis-thinking—that is, where the objective of thought is to set out a comprehensive statement of 'how things are' and to defend this 'position' from those of others; the latter is the product of problem-based intervention-thinking where the objective of thought is to intervene or interject into already ongoing processes on the basis of continually evolving problématiques.

These oppositions—caveat/event, position/problem, thesis/intervention—are not absolute but they are strong. If 'realism' has value as a signifier then it has to reckon rather differently with these contrasts than it has to date. However, more than realism, speculation is the word that really must be saved from 'I might be...'.

Speculation is not what philosophers do, uniquely, when they boldly undertake to articulate how things are and have always been, securing themselves above this abyss with the coarse rope of 'I might be wrong.' Speculation must instead be understood as what happens when existence demands of any entity an action that cannot be performed solely on the basis of already-occurred (or readily articulable) existents; in other words, whenever there is a demand for novelty in a state of profound existential risk.

Speculation, in this sense, is pragmatic, issue-oriented, local and widely practiced. It only makes sense in direct relation to a problem that is demanding the risky becoming of some unknown and—until the occurrence—unknowable event.

It is here that the philosopher qua intervener enters the fray, not as an architect of the world, urban planner of the galaxy or master of the universe but as an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage—inheritor of long traditions of agility-focused self-development—whose skill involves not the freehand sketching of the beams and struts of the background of things but rather of the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in service of (or, better: in alliance with) those whose very subsistence is at stake.

'Being wrong' is the least of this thinker's worries and 'being right' would be the least of her rewards. Her destination of choice is no less mysterious or puzzling than that of the paradise-pursuer but her relation to it is never one of progressive approximation; it is always that of gradual, hesitant, tentative fabrication, assembly, achievement. Such a destination is never 'just over the horizon' but always at the centre of the milieu, in the midst of the melee, at the heart of the matter at hand.

To give the matter at hand a heart that beats—that is the utopia that this philosopher pursues: bold, fearless...



  2. Hi Phil,
    You nail on the head the central issue behind the compulsion towards generic, inhuman-striving, realism (to which I feel very close, to be honest). I would object, not to the core of your argument, which I would need to process further, but to the identification of epistemological humility with the philosophical position, or tendency, that you describe as realist : are not the idealist or the anti-realist just as susceptible to such a positioning ("we cannot be sure of the great outside, contingency is the core of our condition, etc.") ? Lee Braver convincingly argued in this sense at the start of his article on Continental Realism, which would suggest to me that the gesture of humility that you describe is part of a wider, more general stance related to philosophical practice itself...