Thursday, January 23, 2014

Pluralism and Realism: a Jamesian rejoinder

Following up on a short, but interesting post by Jeremy Trombley, Levi Bryant bring up his hesitancy at the ontologically rich work in anthropology. Anyone who has read the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo Kohn, Philippe Descola, and Tim Ingold know that there is a strain within anthropology that is (and has been for quite some time) producing ontologically and metaphysically rich accounts of the world that refuses any easy anthropocentrism (and I am not an anthropologist, so forgive me if that list is particularly partial or idiosyncratic). The hesistancy of Levi comes from the tension he perceives between realism and pluralism. As he explains:
I want to be pluralist and recognize that different groups of people have/propose different ontologies or different “theories of the world”.  I think it’s deeply important to recognize this for a variety of reasons.  However, as a realist and advocate of some version of the Enlightenment, I can’t, of course, believe that all of these ontologies are true depictions of being.  I can appreciate the ethical and political commitments of my good friend, a liberal catholic Bishop (unaffiliated with Rome); however, I can’t share his views that God exists, that we have souls (or are anything more than some form of embodiment), that there’s an efficacy to pray beyond psychological benefits it might have, etc.  The universe that I think is real and that can be argued for is just not a universe that contains these things. 
Also, I appreciate how, a little later in the post, Levi makes sure to include animals as part of the pluralism we need. True enough.
Of course there is a philosopher for whom answering this question might be, as Kennan Ferguson has suggested, his most important legacy. Obviously, I mean William James.
James strived to think the meaning of truth alongside his understanding of a pluriverse or multiverse (he might have been the one to coin multiverse). For Jamesian pragmatism, we all know the formula for understanding what is true. "Grant an idea or belief to be true...what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? ... True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify" (Pragmatism, p. 97). He goes on: "This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation."(p. 97) Pragmatism does not give us access to realism (or at least the realism that Levi seems to mean), because it is fundamentally uninterested in such questions as a priori questions. Does this mean that pragmatism is open to charges of correlationism? Different language, but a common and old attack on pragmatism. James again (long quotation, sorry):
What our critics most persistently keep saying is that though workings go with truth, yet they do not constitute it. It is numerically additional to them, prior to them, explanatory of them, and in no wise to be explained by them, we are incessantly told. The first point for our enemies to establish, therefore, is that something numerically additional and prior to the workings is involved in the truth of an idea. Since the object is additional, and usually prior, most rationalists plead it, and boldly accuse us of denying it. This leaves on the bystanders the impression -- since we cannot reasonably deny the existence of the object -- that our account of truth breaks down, and that our critics have driven us from the field. Altho in various places in this volume I try to refute the slanderous charge that we deny real existence, I will say here again, for the sake of emphasis, that the existence of the object, whenever the idea asserts it ' truly,' is the only reason, in innumerable cases, why the idea does work successfully, if it work at all; and that it seems an abuse of language, to say the least, to transfer the word 'truth-' from the idea to the object's existence, when the falsehood of ideas that won't work is explained by that existence as well as the truth of those that will.
I find this abuse prevailing among my most accomplished adversaries. But once establish the proper verbal custom, let the word ' truth' represent a property of the idea, cease to make it something mysteriously connected with the object known, and the path opens fair and wide, as I believe, to the discussion of radical empiricism on its merits. The truth of an idea will then mean only its workings, or that in it which by ordinary psychological laws sets up those workings; it will mean neither the idea's object, nor anything 'saltatory' inside the idea, that terms drawn from experience cannot describe. (p. 174)
The question of truth is not, then, if that object exists really. The cat sitting in my lap, refusing to move as I type with my laptop resting against him, is utterly real (other philosophers use desks and coffee mugs in their discussions. For me, the object par excellence is always the cat, always trying to interfere with my working). Truth describes the relation between knower and known, between idea and object. Therefore, not all real things are equally true. Again, James:
It is quite evident that our obligation to acknowledge truth, so far from being unconditional, is tremendously conditioned. Truth with a big T, and in the singular, claims abstractly to be recognized, of course; but concrete truths in the plural need be recognized only when their recognition is expedient. A truth must always be preferred to a falsehood when both relate to the situation; but when neither does, truth is as little of a duty as falsehood. If you ask me what o'clock it is and I tell you that I live at 95 Irving Street, my answer may indeed be true, but you don't see why it is my duty to give it. A false address would be as much to the purpose.
With this admission that there are conditions that limit the application of the abstract imperative, the pragmatistic treatment of truth sweeps back upon us in its fulness. Our duty to agree with reality is seen to be grounded in a perfect jungle of concrete expediencies. (p. 111)
Perhaps, then, we are not talking of speculative realism, but rather what Brian Massumi has called speculative pragmatism. Or just the plain old adventures in radical empiricism.
What pragmatism does, however, is entirely devalue the project of first philosophy. If truth, pragmatically speaking, is unconcerned with questions of ultimate reality. Thinking proceeds without ground (perhaps, as Schelling put it, Ungrund. Perhaps not). And therefore truth, as relation, does not privilege the grounding of metaphysics, or ethics, or epistemology, or logic, or the political, or aesthetics, or what have you. Rather, thinking proceeds ungrounded among the constant pullings and tensions of a pluralistic world of second philosophies. Perhaps even of the non-philosophical, as Laruelle has put it (see APS' book, chapter five). Thinking in pragmatism takes on the character of ecology.
"The world is full of partial stories that run parallel to one another, beginning and ending at odd times. They mutually interlace and interfere at points, but we cannot unify them completely in our minds. In following your life-history, I must temporarily turn my attention from my own. Even a biographer of twins would have to press them alternately upon his reader's attention." (p. 71). The truth of pragmatism does not just allow pluralism, but in many ways must take the side of pluralism. And the tension will not end up not just between realism and pluralism, but also between monism and pluralism (and thus to some degree between Spinoza and James. Steven Shaviro manages to capture this tension in a few sentences and footnotes of chapter two of Without Criteria).
Empricism, as James understands it, begins with understanding the parts and working to the whole. Rationalism begins with the whole, and works to the parts. Kennan Ferguson follows James' arguments, explaining that "James censured 'our' (philosophers' and others') tendency to fall into what he called 'idealistic monism': that is, to hierarchize entirety over partiality, to think of the whole as the natural, highest conception" (Ferguson, William James, pp. 2-3. Btw, if you are concerned at all with this issue, you absolutely must read Kennan's book. You.Must.Do.It). Pragmatism, in this way, is deeply discomforting. No ground to think from, and a pluralistic world that necessarily means partial stories, unfinished questions, threads of work lost and, perhaps, never found. Oh, but the joy as well. The ability to shrug off certain annoying debates with, "Well, I'm basically a pragmatist," and then move on with your work.

EDIT: Also read this post at Circling Squares.


Matt D Segall said...

Ah you pulled out all the James quotes I would have liked to cite in my response to Bryant. Nice going. I loved the ending:

"Pragmatism, in this way, is deeply discomforting. No ground to think from, and a pluralistic world that necessarily means partial stories, unfinished questions, threads of work lost and, perhaps, never found. Oh, but the joy as well. The ability to shrug off certain annoying debates with, "Well, I'm basically a pragmatist," and then move on with your work."

Bryant expressed concern with such an ontology of partial stories by referencing the Bush administration's claim to "make reality." I have just as much political distaste for the reality they tried to construct as Bryant does, but I think his choice of examples ends up proving the pragmatist's point about the nature of reality (be it the nature of human sociopolitical reality or of cosmological reality). If the whole world is "in the making," then there is no solid ground to stand on upon which the truth might be pronounced. Truth is an event, a process, and it must be constructed (and can be constructed better or worse). In the case of the Bush admin., it was constructed for the worse, but nonetheless, for some time after 9/11, their truth was the truth. Thankfully, that truth-event has mostly past. The point here is exactly as you say, the pragmatic understanding of reality is deeply discomforting, since it acknowledges the contingency of what 'passes' for truth at any given time. We can't simply fall back on "Reason" or "Science" to keep us safe from poorly constructed truths.

Scu said...

That is all a very good point. Levi actually actually brought up the same objection onto my facebook page before he made that post. I made the argument then (and hopefully there will be a blog post later adapting some of that) that the Bush administration claim is the exact opposite of James. Not only was James historically opposed to US imperialism against the Philippines (and Hawaii, and Cuba), but the respect for other worlds that Jamesian pluralism demands is the opposite of the ontology of empire and imperialism. Those may be constructivist projects, but they come about through a basic authoritarianism against the worlds of other beings. From Kennan Ferguson's book (which is excellent on this point, and linked to above): "James opposed this homogenization, celebrating those people who were overtly unlike him, for it was they who could teach and change him: people who loved war, people who hated nature, people who believed in the afterlife, people who had new ideas of medicine, and Cubans, Hawaiians, and Filipinos." (p. 46). It just seems to me that Idealistic Monism and universalism are the philosophical grounds of imperialism. Again, Kennan: "What happens to those creatures that are judged deficient in their intelligibility, or those that transgress these boundaries, or those who understand but ignore them? This includes the traditionally and contemporarily problematic categories of slaves, women, criminals, the insane, and children, each of whose inclusion and exclusion from intelligibility and political involvement has been contested." (p. 10) Jamesian pluralism, unlike, say, the Bush administration, forces us to understand the legitimacy of another's world. Like Ranciere put it in Disagreement, "Politics is not made up of power relationships; it is made up of relationships between worlds." The idea of learning from and avowing the legitimacy of other worlds risks, of course, voluntarism. But it does so as being irreducibly opposed to the authoritarianism of the Bush administration.

Anonymous said...
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Scu said...


Huh, that is weird. Especially because there basically aren't images on my blog. It is on this post you are receiving error messages? Or just sort of all over the place?