Thursday 28 February 2013

Evidentialism vs. empiricism; Philosophy as an anthropological phenomenon

The other day I wrote that the world needs a concept of 'evidentialism' to supplant the perennial argument between rationalism and empiricism; it needs it because of the confusion between critical mindedness and plain, nasty and (dare I say it?) irrational cynicism.

Of course, when a lot of people say 'empiricism' they mean something a lot like 'evidentialism.'  Scientific empiricism is generally understood to involve the priority of experiment and the collection of evidence over abstract, a priori reasoning.  To this extent, 'evidentialism' is a superfluous coinage.  However, in stricter, more philosophical terms, the word 'empiricism' pertains to experience (and hence to a subject), rather than to evidence as such.  Evidence is the thing experienced but it is a secondary term -- something that enters into the equation once the grounds of experience have been established -- and it is these grounds that are the problem, not the evidence itself.

It is in this that empiricism and its other are all too similar; both empiricism and rationalism locate the problematique of knowledge in the subject -- in the mind that knows (or does not know).  And, as Latour, William James and others have argued, once the gap between mind and world is set out as something to be bridged it never goes away; the question of access, of the salto mortale, forever dominates the whole conversation.

The grounds of knowledge, as sociologists have demonstrated time and again, are in epistemic practices not abstract subjectivities.  These processes necessarily involve subjectivities, rationalities, modes of experience and so on but they are reducible to none of these and no one kind of subjectivity, rationality, etc. is germane to all epistemic situations.  Moreover, none of these things can be privileged more than the *evidence* itself. 

If we embrace evidentialism rather than 'empiricism' the experiencing subject is no longer primary and subject/object relations become but one consideration among many.  The processes highlighted by the notion of evidence involve both experiences and rationalities but also artifacts.  Evidentialism is, therefore, a social, practical, processual but also materialist concept.

Instead of subjectivities the artifacts and the processes by which they become artifacts -- i.e. items of evidence -- become primary and we begin from a real, worldly process rather than abstract subjectivity.  Understood in this way, experiences and rationalities are elements of epistemic processes; they are not the grounds of the epistemic in general.

But isn't this sociology of knowledge rather than epistemology?  Isn't this just turning a philosophical problem into a sociological one?  Yes and no; I think we need to think about philosophy itself slightly differently.

If knowledge is a worldly and practically, incrementally produced kind of entity then philosophy that is unrooted from the actual processes by which it is produced is a waste of time; it simply won't get us any closer to understanding what knowledge is or how it can be improved.  The philosopher as 'the critic of abstractions' (as Whitehead puts it) is not above or beyond the grubby complexities of evidence and sociology but, instead, embodies a set of critical capacities necessary for the proper execution of intellectual tasks.  This philosopher is a kind of critical subjectivity that any individual researcher should be able to embody and articulate in the course of research, to some degree.  In this sense 'we are all philosophers' -- although we're not all equally good at it.

Conceived in this way, philosophy is an anthropological phenomenon.  Philosophers as professional individuals simply embody these capacities full-time and (sometimes) get paid for it -- but they don't own any of it.  Individual philosophers most fully experience the mode of rationality particular to philosophy -- consequently they are its principle vehicles in the world.  Experience and reason are thus fully part of the process.

The pertinence of philosophy, thus conceived, to knowledge is that it is a form of rationality intrinsic to the academic or intellectual epistemic process, taken abstractly; it does not comment on the epistemic process from afar but, if it's doing its job, provides some of the tools by which it can occur at all.

That's a slightly jumbled and very schematic sketch of an idea, but I think it makes some sense (or at least it does to me).

Do we choose what to read?

In my last post I wrote: "usually people choose to read what they read ...".  But is this true for academic literature?

Students only get limited choices in their reading -- choice increases the further one progresses but doctoral candidates still get reading lists imposed by supervisors.  And then professional academics -- do they get much choice?  Not really; researchers always have to stay 'up to date' in their areas of expertise, which makes any notable publications in these areas required reading.  The only choice anyone has is in areas of general interest where one can pick and choose and needn't read everything -- which is exactly the sort of reading that many students and academics seem hard pressed to find time for.

All of which means that academic writers are writing for a largely captive audience.  And this makes the moral importance of writing well is even more pressing.

Incidentally, as neither an academic nor a student I get to read whatever I like!

Clarity in philosophical writing

While clarity is certainly a virtue in philosophical writing, all else being equal, I think there's a distinction to be made between writing clearly and writing well.  One can write clearly and still fail to write well.  Many philosophers manage to be perfectly clear but are stylistically drab, dull and ponderous.  Other philosophers may fail to be particularly clear but instead write enthrallingly.

The best writers can be clear and engaging at the same time.  There's a beauty and an elegance in really good writing that neither adopts the blunt, clunking, mechanical tone of a phone-book nor gives in to self-indulgent, quasi-poetic flights of fancy.  Neither extreme makes for good communication, which is what really counts.

As a rule of thumb I feel that a piece of writing is well written to the extent that it is rewarding to read -- consequently a lot of it depends on the quality of the ideas.  I've read many things that were perfectly clear but bored me to tears and, worse, lacked any redeemingly insightful content.  Equally, I've read things that I didn't immediately understand at all but which gripped me enough to make me do the hard work to come to understand them.

The very worst kind of writing is the sort that wantonly wastes its readers' time, mindlessly pummelling them with ugly, unnecessary, vacuous verbiage.  I find writing of this kind to be disrespectful and arrogant -- writing to be read is a privilege, not something to which anyone is entitled.  No one should have to wade through stodgy, artless, unedited word-stew just because the author can't write properly.

If your book takes 10 hours to read and 1000 people read it that's 10,000 hours of human existence -- of living, breathing human life -- that your writing has consumed.  Yes, usually people choose to read what they read but this is not always the case.  Regardless, I think it's the responsibility of the writer to make those 10,000 hours as rewarding and useful as possible -- and clarity is but one factor in that equation.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Whither Epistemology?

I think the world needs a proper concept of evidentialism -- knowledge grounded in neither reason nor experience per se but rather evidence.  The whole never-ending palaver over rationalism and empiricism makes the question of knowledge far too abstract when it is, as sociologists of science have amply demonstrated, the most concrete of things.

Evidentialism is not contrary to critique -- in fact, critique is its condition of possibility since what constitutes evidence in any given situation must be open to question.  But evidentialism cannot be reduced to critique since it must, by definition, bring more to the table than argument itself -- it must bring something of the world with it.

There is a difference, I believe, between sharp, acute critical mindedness and plain, old, nasty cynicism.  I think Latour is right in that in the age of 'cynical reason' (in Sloterdijk's phrase) or after the 'miniaturisation of critique' (in Latour's phrase) we need to find a way to trust and build institutions again (see chapter 1 of his new Modes book for a discussion of institutions in this sense).

I think that one of the institutions we need to build is a reformed, evidentialist epistemology.

The enduring dualism of nature; A new concept of nature

Levi has some kind words for some of my previous posts on the subject of nature and naturalism.  I don’t always agree with Levi’s thinking – I don’t share his enthusiasm for Lacan, for one thing – but I find myself agreeing with him more often than not and I certainly end up blogging a lot more when he’s in a productive mood.

I’m still somewhat ambivalent about nature and naturalism as concepts but they interest me deeply.  I think they constitute, at present, more of a challenge than something positive.  However, I’ve been re-reading Lucretius and this has definitely revivified my interest in naturalism at its roots.  The problem, perhaps ironically, is less with the concept of nature as per its classical origins and more with how the term has been used in modernity.  Particularly problematic is the theological relationship that, I think, still structures the discourse today.

One thing about ‘nature’ in modernity is that it's invariably been defined in opposition to something else.  In particular, the natural was contrasted to the supernatural – with most modern philosophers taking the latter no less seriously than the former.  The interesting thing in this (broadly Christian) version is that Man, possessing an immortal soul, was both natural and supernatural at the same time.  Hence, human beings were immersed in the Sturm und Drang of natural life but, unlike the animal 'automata' so derided by Malebranche, etc., also breathed the rarefied air of worlds beyond the laws and dirt of mere nature.  Humans, unique among beings, belonged at once in the finite and the infinite.  Being made ‘in God’s image’ gave a very serious and definite meaning to the ‘bifurcation of nature’ – humans were not taken to be ‘other than nature’ for reasons of epistemology, critique, dialectic, linguistics or mere conceptual convenience but because this was a meaningful division in reality itself.

Although he was not alone in demonstrating that the supernatural was a superfluous hypothesis (e.g. Laplace with his famous “Sire, I did not need that hypothesis”) Darwin did more than anyone to demolish the dualist metaphysic, in its natural terms.  Nietzsche may have declared God dead vis-à-vis morals but it was Darwin who struck the mortal blow for God’s role in nature.  Humans were revealed to emerge from the same self-sufficient natural processes as any other living thing.  There was no remainder, no caveat – God was not critiqued so much as ignored.

The notion that nature is the Other of the human is, today, scarcely credible in scientific terms.  And yet this very opposition continues to structure almost everything anyone says about the subject, even among scientists.  Even though nature can no longer be contrasted to super-nature (and therefore soul-endowed humans can no longer be transcendently contrasted to soulless natural automata) we still use ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ in basically the same ways as before.  In everyday language we talk about going camping, say, as ‘going back to nature’ (even though there are few, if any, true wildernesses left on the planet, let alone in carefully managed national parks).  ‘Natural’ is still contrasted to ‘artificial’ in everything from art theory to soft drink commercials.  All kinds of taboo behaviour are denigrated as ‘unnatural,’ in contrast to some ideal of scripted, dictated harmony.

Even though God has been ‘dead’ for over a century the concept of nature is still bifurcated almost everywhere.  What’s worse, few seem to notice the absurdity of dualist naturalism in a godless world.  Many people who would unquestioningly concur with the proposition that humans are just one natural species among others nevertheless insist just as fervently that the natural and material ‘worlds’ must belong to a strictly separate dialectical and analytical category to the human, social or artificial. Even those who agree with and celebrate the disappearance of super-nature still cling to its consequences vis-à-vis Nature as Man’s Other.

Of course one could argue that, although super-nature is gone, nature as other than the human still makes sense if it’s defined in opposition to human capacities.  In the German Ideology Marx writes that “Men ... begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”  This is, effectively, the historical materialist response (I’ve heard basically the same argument restated in other terms often enough).  Man diverges from Nature through the progress of History, which is initiated when Men self-consciously produce the means of their own subsistence rather than reactively ‘living off the land’ (assuming that such a world ever really existed).  The fact that humans can now control their own genetics, for example, can be brushed off as an historical development within the becoming of Man as a techno-scientific being.  Nature still exists, they can say – humans still don’t control gravity; they don’t make the tide come in; humanity still has an other; nature is still ‘out there.’

However, a nature defined as ‘that which is beyond the human,’ however ‘dialectically related’ the two things are, is inherently anthropocentric and consequently self-defeating because, by this definition, nature shrinks as human capacities expand – the very concept of ‘nature’ therefore presupposes and is defined by the human and its creeping empire.  Not only are these two things mutually defining in a mundane sense, as any binary opposition is, but ‘human’ is the primary term from which ‘nature’ derives; nature reacts to human advancement by shrinking, shirking, backing away meekly.  In truth it has no real definition of its own, it’s just the non-descript, frictionless ‘outside’ – a bookend to something more important.

So, the point I’m trying to make is that many supposed and even self-declared ‘naturalists’ maintain structuring oppositions that, I think, derive from the shadow of the supernatural.  So long as nature is thought to be anything other than wholly inclusive of humans and all their trials, tribulations and trinkets, naturalism remains haunted by the ghost of super-nature.

Wherever someone justifies animal cruelty by arguing that only humans have souls and animals are just natural brutes (or words to this effect), the theologically structured concept of nature is alive and well.  However, the same is true of whenever mountains, valleys, plains and deserts are taken to be nothing more than a collection of natural resources, simply lying there mute and disused, begging human intervention.  Wherever ‘nature’ is marked out as other to humanity, marked by lacking something – something that humans, to their great distinction, do not lack – this dualist naturalism is at work.

The challenge, then, is to produce a new concept of nature; to define nature as it exists in itself, not in opposition to anything supernatural or human.  Philosophically this necessitates realism since we should not use the phrase ‘in itself’ lightly.  Sociologically this necessitates materialism since only thus can we understand how human natures are tightly interwoven with other elements of nature.  However it also requires recognition of the politics of nature and how this concept is bound up in fierce ideological conflicts – that between the secular and the religious but also between the capitalist and the ecologist.

What is needed is not a dogmatic reassertion of scientific truths, simply because they are known by a possessed, possessing, possessive science.  Naturalism must be more than a litany of the prevailing facts of the day and, although natural sciences have an utterly pivotal and indispensable role to play, the new concept of nature must not simply be an abstract summary of popular science – nor must it be xenophobic when it comes to other truth regimes or traditions of wisdom.

The new concept of nature must be generated through a sophisticated, wide-ranging, synthetic project of philosophy that richly describes and thinks through what it is to live in a fully natural world without any outside or remainder.

Happily, it seems that such a project is already underway, though I could not yet comment on its success.

Fearing communication for the sake of communism

Levi Bryant writes:
For years I’ve been hearing off and on that there’s a school of thought that argues that the rhetoric of texts should be enigmatic and elusive so as to interrupt the logic of exchange characteristic of communicative capitalism.
I'm not sure who would actually argue this but it’s exactly the kind of thing ‘lost down the rabbit hole’ / ‘disappeared up their own arse’ academics come out with but I’m unfamiliar with any specific instance of the argument. (I’ve heard the one about how stating definite opinions or facts is committing ‘violence against the other’ but this seems to be another variant.) It’s rather a mad prescription. Capitalism isn’t ‘exchange’ itself, it’s a particular form of exchange. While it’s ‘capitalist’ to think of one’s communicative utterances as products to be distributed or conveyed like Amazon packages that neutrally ‘transmit’ a message, severing the social relationship between interlocutors, it’s not ‘capitalist’ to think in terms of exchange in general.

The essence of a capitalist exchange is that it abstracts from all other kinds of social relation besides the narrowly economic and legal ones. If you sell me bread today you’re under no obligation to sell me it at the same price tomorrow, only to ensure that the product you provide is as advertised and that I get what I pay for. Once the transaction is concluded to the satisfaction of economic and legal standards our relationship ends and any further transaction must (in principle) be negotiated as a new contract. This can be contrasted with other kinds of trade and exchange like, for example, gift giving where you give me a loaf of bread and, since we are bonded by this exchange, you can later ask for one of my chickens, or whatever.

Exchange can sever or bond, can be capitalist or communist (or anything else). Capitalism doesn’t own ‘exchange’ any more than it invented trade. Nor should it own clarity, honesty or straight-forward communication. Yes, you can’t have différence without différance and translation without transformation, blah blah blah. But whether or not one should write declaratively or suggestively has nothing in particular to do with capitalist ‘exchange’, even if that is the dominant mode of exchange in our societies.

Good writing can be beautiful in its elegance and simplicity or mesmerising in its depth and polyvalence. The best writing combines these virtues in varying proportions. There are some philosophers who are also good writers but they are few and far between. Most of the obscurantists remain stuck in a single mode that transcends any given situation and is fetishised, reified into being ‘what philosophy is’. It becomes an end in itself — and it’s not.

Rejecting communication qua exchange for fear of capitalist forms of exchange is cowardice. It may involve the discourse of the master but he’s a cowardly master, unwilling to take the much more radical and difficult step of engaging in a better form of communicative exchange, one that binds and builds and nourishes and flourishes according to its own economies and ecologies. The cowardly master renders undo Capital what does not belong to it. It’s the cowardly master that reinforces discourses of capital, precisely by granting it aspects of human existence that it dominates but cannot possess. The cowardly master concedes capital’s hegemony over everything that actually makes human life function, everything that actually keeps our bodies moving and breathing — everything except the nebulously intangible, the mystical, the religious, the ideal.

Soft Power and the Limits of Power

Jeffrey Stacey at the Duck of Minerva blog writes about 'soft power' and its relevance (or irrelevance) to policy makers:
It seems high time to question the usefulness of how we define the term “soft power,” which has gained credence ever since the scholar Joseph Nye came up with it more than decade ago. ... something I always feared as an academic was readily confirmed when I entered the government:  more than a decade later, despite the large number of policymakers who learned Nye’s definition in graduate school, for the vast majority of them soft power‘s academic definition is of little practical use.  To a pragmatic policymaker the concept is too complex, too difficult to measure, and near impossible to manipulate as a device of influence.
The term 'soft power' actually comes originally from Nye's book "Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power", published in 1990.  It was originally proposed to arrest fears of American decline (that perpetual neurosis of the all too powerful!).  So, it was actually thought up in response to late Cold War fears, although it found its success in the more optimistic, hubristic post-Cold War world.

Of course whatever the term signifies is something unquantifiable and basically ineffible.  To some policymakers this may make it a useless concept but I'd take precisely the opposite approach: its very unquantifiability is its most important lesson.  Policymakers act in the real world, not a world of spreadsheets.  They act on the basis of intuition as well as data.  Moreover, most policymakers act pragmatically, on the basis of 'what can we get done in this timeframe with these resources?' -- not on the basis of some global, overarching superstrategy that treats reality as a giant, fifty-dimensional chess board.  So, why would policymakers need a precise total for everything?  Why must soft power be effible and instrumentally valuable in order to be real or meaningful?  You can't count your pop music artists in the same way you count your battleships but why on earth would you want to?

The very act of tying all those elements that constitute a country's 'soft power' into a tool to be militantly projected outwards into the world would, if instituted on any scale at all, destroy all those cultural entities precisely because they would be torn out of the very environment of free expression that made them possible in the first place.  Yes, you can open some libraries and sponsor some pop stars to go out on tour or hire some linguists to translate American literature into other languages and this is all fine and good but (and this, I think, is the key point) the very things that constitute the American state's soft power depend upon a cultural environment that doesn't enlist them or instrumentalise them for the sake of a centralised, bureaucratised 'soft war' effort.

The very notion that the cultural phenomena residing within a state's borders can be reduced to mere resources for the projection of state power -- this notion is part of the mania of 'Full Spectrum Dominance' that *terrifies* most of the rest of the world.  The idea that every last nut and bolt of American society should be arrayed and aligned to further American interests is precisely the kind of thing that undermines America's attractiveness.

The lesson of soft power's ineffibility is, in short, that there are limits to instrumental power and while policymakers should do what they can with the resources they have (and cultural promotion is one small element of their larger remit) not everything is grist to the mill of national security or interest promotion.  At some point you've just got to keep your damn hands off, lest you destroy what you are meant to be protecting and promoting!

Vitalism and the Homeliness of Nature

Levi Bryant on the recent resurrection, if you will, of 'vitalism':
Vitalism, even though it allegedly moves in a posthuman direction, still seems a little too close to human narcissism.  It still seems a little too close to the idea that all of this somehow has a meaning, that it can somehow be redeemed, that there’s still somehow a purpose behind things. ... Perhaps the more we come to understand just how indifferent the universe is, perhaps the more we come to understand just how contingent life is, perhaps the more we understand that we’re not at the center of creation, the more we will have regard for each other and this biosphere.
I tend to agree.  'Vitalism,' as usually understood, implies something added to matter that matter on its own lacks.  Redefining the term to pertain instead to something intrinsic to matter itself doesn't help because that over-generalises what is really quite a specific state of matter, i.e. life.  Matter shouldn't be said to 'lack' life-like qualities because that would mean that it needed something else, something other to animate it -- vitality of some kind.  But, equally, life-like qualities are not evident everywhere and not every form of dynamic self-organisation is equivalent or even analogous to life.

This is something that a realist, materialist or naturalist philosophy has to grasp.  It places us in a bit of a bind, actually; a duality of demands.

On the one hand, yes, we are made out of the same stuff as the rest of existence.  Our bodies are made from atoms that were once part of stars, we share ancestors with all life on earth, etc. etc.  So, there is this sense of kinship with the rest of existence that comes from realising that we are not made in god's image but are wholly natural.  If we do not have immortal souls and do not, thereby, transcend the rest of merely natural, material existence then we are connected to the rest of existence in quite a profound way.  Matter is not Other to life, life emerges from matter -- realising this (and it's not just the techno-scientific culture of the present that has realised this) reveals a deep relationship with the rest of material existence that is of paramount philosophical importance.

And yet, on the other hand, god is dead; if we are not made in his image, we also have to reconcile ourselves with being's profound indifference with respect to human existence.  If (or, rather, when) we annihilate ourselves as a species life, matter, energy, entropy -- all these things will carry on regardless.  Whatever life we haven't extinguished along with our own will thrive in our absence.  What's more, the vast majority of the known universe that is apparently completely lifeless will continue to evolve along its own self-organising trajectories, blissfully indifferent to the remarkable, peculiar particularities of that form of self-organisation we call 'life.'  On the scale of natural time, human existence will appear and disappear in the blink of a pulsar.

We anthropomorphise and vitalise the world in order to articulate it in terms we can understand but that doesn't mean that our metaphors are really germane to the inner workings of matter -- in fact they are not, which is why there are so very many ways of articulating the basic facts of existence, in so many languages, in so many manners of speaking.

So, philosophy, I think, has to do justice to two seemingly incompatible intuitions: we are, at once, at home in nature and, at the same time, largely inconsequential to it.

Vitalism is a dead end because it makes the universe seem too homely.