Tuesday 15 November 2011

On Human Exceptionalism

Levi Bryant comments on a debate happening across various blogs on human exceptionalism and anthropology.

This is a really interesting debate and something I've thought a lot about lately.

This kind of problem always reminds me of a passage from Plato's Statesman where the Stranger reproaches Young Socrates for failing to 'carve nature at its joints' and instead making hasty generalisations about kinds of things; of failing to perform the labour required for accurate classification.
Stranger: The error was just as if some one who wanted to divide the human race, were to divide them after the fashion which prevails in this part of the world; here they cut off the Hellenes as one species, and all the other species of mankind, which are innumerable, and have no ties or common language, they include under the single name of "barbarians," and because they have one name they are supposed to be of one species also. Or suppose that in dividing numbers you were to cut off ten thousand from all the rest, and make of it one species, comprehending the first under another separate name, you might say that here too was a single class, because you had given it a single name. Whereas you would make a much better and more equal and logical classification of numbers, if you divided them into odd and even; or of the human species, if you divided them into male and female; and only separated off Lydians or Phrygians, or any other tribe, and arrayed them against the rest of the world, when you could no longer make a division into parts which were also classes.
Plato's method of division and classification is particularly laborious in this dialogue and it has irritated more than a few classicists (I'm not one but I've read a few) who wonder why he doesn't just make broad distinctions and jump to the end where everything is nicely carved up; why go through the process of division (which frequently goes off on tangents that are subsequently abandoned) if you can just state the end product and be done with it? I think Plato realised that that's lazy and that philosophical method is as important as philosophical claims. In short he recognised the importance of working things through, of honouring the mediators rather than fixating on the end products, if you like. But I digress.

Who is more 'barbaric': the multitude of peoples chatting away to each other in their various tongues or the puzzled-looking philosopher who, as if to subconsciously repress his shame and incomprehension, waves his hand and decrees them all 'the same'?

Etymologically, the word barbaric connotes 'babbling' and the sensation of hearing someone talk a language you don't understand. The truly barbaric reaction is to take this incomprehension as a sign of homogeneity - not of the inadequacy of one's comprehensive capabilities but of the uniformity of the phenomena presented.

Such is the phenomenological experience of any anthropologist at the start of their journey: they are clumsy, awkward, incompetent, thoroughly stupid when placed among their tribe. Their genius lies in correctly deducing that this is an inadequacy of theirs, not of their hosts! Such powers of intuition allow them to gradually become less clumsy, awkward, incompetent and stupid - the generic babbling becomes a flooding plurality of clearly articulated and endlessly diverse conversation. Eventually their hosts become literally familiar - family. They become beings capable of stating their own differences; their babbling disappears as they impress themselves upon their own categorisations. They become subjects, endowed with depths and agencies, possessing unique characteristics.

I'm keen to ontologise this principle.

The reason why we need a conceptual vocabulary that can articulate the qualities and relationships of all things - human and non-human - i.e. the reason why we need a metaphysics, is not because all things (human and non-human) are the same; on the contrary, it is because they are all different. Not just the human and the rock but the rock and the tree, the tree and the ... etc. etc. etc. We can't have a separate conceptual scheme for every possible relationship so we are left with only two options: have an abstract scheme that is vague enough that it can accommodate any thing or engage in the arbitrary bifurcations whereby we have one language for one side and another for the other and then sit around wondering how the two can ever be reconciled.

The reading of Plato's/Socrates' 'cutting of nature at its joints' is always that there are natural kinds that can be rationally deduced. And this has always been used to justify hard-boiled naturalisms that say we must scrub away any trace of our pitiful subjective perceptions from our definitions of objects, etc. etc. On the contrary, I understand it to mean that we should try to learn from things, open ourselves to things, risk ourselves in front of things as Stengers might say. Let them define themselves, let them cease to babble. But don't expect them to suddenly 'speak our language'! This isn't Star Trek - the aliens won't miraculously have a grasp of American English. It takes work to turn that head-spinning babbling into comprehensible conversation.

This, for me, indicates what an object-oriented epistemology would be: a theory of becoming-sensitive to things, of how we can allow things to define themselves while acknowledging that they won't just speak our language as if by some miracle. This would show us that we don't need to purge subjectivity to have objectivity. On the contrary (and my Latourianism is coming out here), becoming-sensitive is an object-loaded activity!


The moral of the story?

One is barbaric when one suppresses one's own ignorance and incompetence by ontologically homogenising all that which one has not gone to the effort of telling apart.

If a phenomenon's nuances are elusive this could simply mean that the phenomenon is entirely disinterested in you! The ultimate narcissism is to assume that this disinterest reflects badly upon the phenomenon! Maybe it wants you to think it's babbling!

Indeed, this is a precautionary principle for all metaphysics: beware babbling, things might be plotting against you and your ignorant ways! Ignorant in every sense of the word.

The real barbarians were the Hellenes and we are their heirs so long as we worship Kant and weep over the white man's burden (homogenising things or peoples, it matters not). Neither things nor folks have any problem differentiating themselves or going about their lives without us. We struggle to keep up - and then we blame it on them!

Carving nature at its joints doesn't indicate that nature is a neatly segmented totality just waiting for the cut and thrust of our instruments. (One surely needn't point out the phallic implications of this modern interpretation!) On the contrary, I think it means that we need to learn how to segment and how to carve.

Even a corpse won't cede so easily to the wild flailing of the butcher's apprentice - he too has to learn his trade, knife in hand, babbling to himself.