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Egalitarian Epistemology

During recent discussions about postmodernism and its implications, a few readers have argued, implausibly, that as a loose set of ideas postmodernism has no single political bias. It’s true that postmodernism is remarkably ill-defined, not least by its devotees, and one might use the term ‘postmodern’ as a kind of shorthand to refer to any cultural product that’s conspicuously aware of its own history and conventions. One might, for instance, regard The Simpsons as postmodern without assigning any particular political leaning to its characters or creators.

Frank_lentricchia_2But insofar as postmodernism refers to a range of claims regarding the relativism of knowledge and ethics - specifically the claim, expressed with varying degrees of emphasis and clarity, that all aspects of reality are socially constructed or meaningful only as social intercourse - then these claims are political in their implications. As are assertions that Western knowledge – regarding, say, cosmology, computing or medical treatments – is a de facto power grab, the aim of which is, allegedly, to bolster the ideological “hegemony” of Western capitalist societies. Indeed, the assertion of epistemic questions as political activism is a defining trait of much postmodern rhetoric. The leftwing theorist Frank Lentricchia happily told the world that the postmodern movement “seeks not to find the foundation and conditions of truth, but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.” Achieved, one might suppose, even at the cost of truth. This overt political emphasis has led to an error and a misplaced pluralism. Specifically, the conflation of knowledge and fairness, and typically expressed as a belief that no one epistemological position – at least not a “Western” one - can be “privileged” above another, ostensibly in the interests of resisting “cultural imperialism.”

The assertion that reality is a matter of local consensus or social custom, with no existence independent of the claims made about it, seems to presuppose that there is nothing “outside” of social intercourse, and by extension that nothing much matters besides society. The default emphasis of such claims is on society, not the individual – who is, implicitly, reduced to an artefact of society, and whose character can presumably be reconstructed by society as is seen fit. Hence the preoccupation with social consensus as defining what reality is, whether or not the particulars of reality are known to human beings. A philosophy of this kind would appear to be a narcissistic cul-de-sac and metaphysically agoraphobic.

Several PoMo figures, among them Andrew Ross and Sandra Harding, have argued that rationality, coherence and standards of evidence are merely social artefacts coloured by white male patriarchy and other Western vices. Thus, it is argued, one cannot assert the primacy of the scientific method over, say, a belief in voodoo or Scientology. Defined in this way, epistemology becomes a matter of lifestyle choice or political preference. Hence Harding’s unveiling of “feminist empiricism”, a quasi-Marxist alternative to the kind that actually works.

Sandra_hardingThis kind of epistemic egalitarianism may seem quite thrilling to a subset of leftist ideologues, particularly those who resent the functional pre-eminence of Western societies, and who feel it is somehow wrong that so-called “Western ways of knowing” are also pre-eminent in their effectiveness. It’s perhaps unnecessary to point out that this levelling of all knowledge claims is also of enormous benefit to Ross and Harding personally, both of whom make grandiose claims based on precious little evidence. But the practical and ethical implications of levelling knowledge in this way, supposedly in the name of “fairness”, are both repellent and unsound. Given there are those who rail against the “microfascism” of “evidence-based discourse” and its “hidden political agenda”, this particular strand of egalitarian fantasy can lead to a nihilistic conclusion.

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom address this point, among others, in an essay for Axess magazine. In it, they challenge those who would disassemble and deny “not just the criteria for science and reason, but science and reason themselves.” By way of illustration, Benson and Stangroom quote Frederique Apffel Marglin, who rails against smallpox vaccination while romanticising the Indian worship of Sitala, the goddess of smallpox, as an equally valid “narrative”. Marglin – who, one hopes, has been vaccinated against life-threatening diseases - affects to “challenge science’s claim to be a superior form of knowledge which renders obsolete more traditional systems of thought.” In an essay published in Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance, she writes,

“In absolutely negativising disease, suffering and death, in opposing these to health and life in a mutually exclusive manner, the scientific medical system of knowledge can separate in individuals and in populations what is absolutely bad, the enemy to be eradicated, from what is good, health and life. In the process it can and does objectify people with all the repressive political possibilities that objectification opens.”

As Benson and Stangroom point out,

“There is something rather stunning about a level of science-phobia that sees ‘negativising’ disease, suffering and death, as harmful and repressive. It is extraordinary that Marglin, even for a moment, countenances the possibility that human suffering might be a source of joy and pleasure if only it weren't for the intervention of an oppressive system of Western medicine.”

This is the postmodern wasteland to which egalitarian epistemology can lead, and to which, left unchecked, it very often does.

Please, read it all. Related: Ophelia Benson on lit crit insecurity, “physics envy” and why truth matters. (mp3)

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