November 06, 2009

Humanities have increasingly suffered a crisis of identity

Realism, Epistemology, Science, and Scientism from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

First, I get the sense that many in the humanities are deeply threatened by the sciences. Here I don’t blame my colleagues. There is, of course, the sort of discomfort many of us “literary types” suffered in our math and science classes that I think sometimes informs our attitudes towards the sciences. However, more importantly and as a matter of academic institutional politics, many of us in the humanities have suffered having scientific criteria hoisted on our own forms of intellectual engagement where they do not belong and have had to fight funding wars against administrations that increasingly take monies away from the humanities and funnel all sorts of funding into the various sciences and technical degrees.

Additionally, I think the humanities have increasingly suffered a crisis of identity wondering where, precisely, their place lies in the academy. Philosophy, for example, was once foundational to all the other disciplines. Yet with the rise of modern science philosophy increasingly finds itself marginalized as a sort of “idle speculation”.

  • What sort of knowledge, precisely, is it that philosophy contributes to the world or the academy?

I believe many of us in the humanities are asking these sorts of questions and I get the sense that many of us often have a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the sciences, wishing to equate them with dogmatic discourse and reject them altogether.

  • How else are we to account for the fact that within Continental philosophy and theory claims from the hard sciences are generally treated as inadmissible within the framework of philosophical discussion?

Perhaps many of us are still smarting from the Sokal affair and this is why, with only a few exceptions, we tend to shy away from the sciences. But what the Sokal affair revealed was not the absurdity of people in the humanities evoking the sciences (were that the case Dennett and others would be in trouble), but the absurdity of social constructivism and rhetorical idealism gone woefully wrong. No, I get the sense that the inadmissability of the sciences in Continental discussions is more a defense formation than a rational position. To be sure, it dresses itself up in rational garb, but when you look at the actual arguments they turn out to not be very good (I’ll get to this in a moment).

Second, and more importantly, while all the speculative realists and the object-oriented ontologists have a healthy respect for the sciences and think that they reveal something real and genuine about the world, it has never been the position of us object-oriented ontologists that the objects investigated by the sciences exhaust the real. This is one reason I find myself so perplexed by Dan’s observations. For the object-oriented ontologists things like suns, quarks, DNA and so on are real. But signs, cities, groups, books, and so on are also real. The physical objects investigated by the sciences are for OOO a subset of the real, not exhaustive of the real. Dan seems to suppose that OOO treats that subset as being exhaustive of the real. [...]

For the object-oriented ontologist, over and above questions of how we know objects there remains an important and crucial question of what it means for a being to be. This question, following Roy Bhaskar, is not, for the realist ontologist, exhausted by how we know. Likewise, while the object-oriented ontologist readily acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge, the fact that we must engage in inquiry to know any particular type of object, and so on, the realist ontologist rejects the thesis that the differences discovered in and through inquiry belong to the domain of outputs alone. Rather, the realist ontologist begins from the premise that these differences cannot be restricted to outputs alone, but rather that there must be something about the inputs, about the world that produces these differences, that is mind-independent.

Mereological Considerations in Object-Oriented Ontology from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

The sadly departed Levi-Strauss will claim that our black boxes contain structures of mind, Lacan will claim they contain the symbolic, Derrida the trace and differance, Foucault structures of power and discourse, Kant a priori categories and forms of intuition, and so on. The key point not to be missed is that our own black boxes are every bit as “withdrawn” as objects themselves. Second, by way of analogy we can make the point that speculation about what our black boxes contain are, as speculations, deeply prone to error.

Take the example of computer black boxes. If I examine the output of a computer alone I might be led to make all sorts of erroneous influences. For example, when I notice that a blog contains italic and bold faced fonts I might be led to think there is a category in the programming that produces this output. However, the actual computer code that produces italics shares very little resemblance to a category or the font. The point here is that we can’t hit on accurate inferences about what black boxes contain, but that these black boxes are themselves objects of speculation and indirect inference that are not immanently or immediately accessible.

So what is my argument here? My argument is that all things being equal, if we are speculating about our black boxes, if our claims about our black boxes are not “critical” claims but speculative claims, then there is no reason not to open the door to a generalized speculation that allows us to freely hypothesize about objects independent of humans and how their black boxes function. Notice the strategy of argument here. My move is not to argue, contra the last 200+ years of sophisticated anti-realist epistemology that somehow we have a mysterious immediate access to objects, but rather to show how the anti-realist position contains a speculative core at the heart of its thought. As a result of this super-ninja, surprise judo move that uses the force of my critics own arguments against his onslaught, I thus arrive not at a transcendental idealism but at a transcendental realism. In other words, the question becomes “under what conditions can such-and-such a type of difference be produced?” This conditions are not mind dependent, but instead are attributed to the objects themselves.

Clearly the question arises of what knowledge is within the framework of an object-oriented ontology. Insofar as object-oriented ontology holds that all objects “withdraw” from one another (Harman) or that all objects “interpret” one another (Levi, Latour), or that all objects are black boxes with respect to one another, it follows that knowledge cannot be a representation of objects. Why? Because you cannot represent an object whose inputs disappear behind their outputs. My hypothesis at this point is that knowledge consists in know-how with respect to producing differences. To know is not to represent an object but rather to have know-how as to evoking differences within various objects under particular conditions. To know an object is to know the differences it is capable of producing under specific conditions.

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