Archives For social epistemology and politics

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40g

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.

References

Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, Social Epistemology Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zv

From the March for Justice for Police Violence in December 2014.
Sassower’s book does not directly touch on themes of institutional corruption, like the racialization of police forces as they act with undue violence and exploitation toward minority populations. But the communitarian moralities he thinks can overcome capitalism also has the potential to build progress here. More material for that sequel.
Image by All-Nite Images via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

As a work of philosophy, of political economy, of institutional analysis, Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity has only one shortcoming. It makes for a tantalizing setup for his next work, and gives a reader the distinct impression that we are in store for a stunning sequel. Its title would be something like The Nature of Prosperity, or Remaking Prosperity. To the detriment of the actually existing book, reading The Quest for Prosperity makes you want desperately to read Remaking Prosperity, which unfortunately does not exist.

The Quest for Prosperity itself is a brilliant book, synthesizing many different concepts and images from several disciplines and traditions in the history of Western thought. It is a thoroughly researched and beautifully composed groundwork for a groundbreaking new philosophical approach to political economy.

The book drags a little in part three, which catalogues several hilariously inadequate new visions of prosperity that are unfortunately popular today. It would be news to someone who has only heard the hype of Silicon Valley and other ideologies similarly twisted to make working people desire their own slavery. But the average Washington Post, Manchester Guardian, or even Bloomberg News reader or fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley should already understand the toxic lifestyle PR of these moneyed industries.

As for that groundwork for the groundbreaking, the final two chapters offer a tantalizing glimpse of a work that explores the existence and revolutionary potential of the communitarian values underlying several disparate existing institutions. Unfortunately, it remains only a glimpse.

Economies of Scale

Sassower’s book revolves around an important ethical critique of contemporary capitalism and the culture of business and entrepreneurship that has grown so popular this century. In uncritically capitalist ways of thinking, there is only one set of terms in which people, social networks, technology, building and city architecture, institutions, organizations, ecologies, territories, and ideas are valued: their monetary potential. Such a morality of valuation reduces all that exists, including human identity itself, to a single dimension of ethical worth, and a petty-minded one at that.

The typical narratives to validate and venerate the contemporary economic order often appeal to images and concepts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith is a touchstone for Sassower as well, but he is wise not to linger on the image of the “invisible hand” that haunts the populist imagery of harmony through competition. Sassower instead focusses on how Smith describes the molecular connections of market exchanges – vendors and tradespeople buying and selling from each other in a town marketplace.

In the marketplaces where capitalist exchange begins, the individuals making money from each other are not themselves competitors. Their relationships are collegial friendships among professionals, and Smith describes their interaction as “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” So when a community’s prosperity flows from its markets and commercial exchanges, that prosperity is not a product of competition, but of friendliness. (Sassower 60-61)

In such a social atmosphere, a community of people constitutes itself easily from the everyday interactions of the marketplace, where people develop feelings of love at a low intensity for the neighbours who sustain their lives. Relationships of everyday economic exchange occur at such a personal level that the mutual benefit of such exchange is a straightforward fact, discovered through quotidian observation. They are, as Sassower describes them, “sympathetic neighbours.” (Sassower 90-91)

The rapaciousness and greed typical of contemporary business cultures could not arise from such relationship networks of friendly truck and barter. The network’s members connect by dynamics of mutual sympathy. Such a network would not be able to sustain business practices characterized by the greed and hostility into which many young professionals are socialized in the 21st century’s most intense economic hubs. Greed and cheating would result in your immediate expulsion from the marketplace, having betrayed the friendships of the others in the network.

Such sympathetic neighbourliness could most easily be overcome with an outside disturbance. For our case, that disturbance was the flow of massive economic income to those small marketplaces. This was the income of industrialization and colonialism. Speaking more descriptively, it was the income of exponential energy growth in domestic manufacturing, and a huge influx of many kinds of wealth from distant continents (raw materials, currency metals like gold and silver, agricultural goods, slaves).

These enormous flows of capital are too large for truck and barter, too massive to engage instinctual human sympathy. As the stakes of economic activity grow hugely higher, this depersonalization of economic activity leaves a person adrift in commercial exchange. Unable to form the same intimate connections as in the far less intense marketplace exchange, the alienated, angry approach to business as a zero-sum game. No longer sympathy and friendliness, but fear and aggression characterize the psychology of someone engaging with this sort of economic system in daily life. (Sassower 105)

Art by Shepard Fairey. Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Would a Virtuous Oligarch Be?

In an economic system where capital flows massively overpower the capacity for everyday personal relationship networks to manage them, business life tends to condition people psychologically and morally into sociopaths. This problem of the depersonalized economy remains a wall in The Quest for Prosperity that, on its own terms, is insoluble. On its own terms, it likely is impossible to restore the virtue of sympathy to the psychological tendencies of people growing up in a high-intensity industrial capitalist economy. Sassower therefore forges an alternative image of the economic leader.

If capitalism can only express justice when the mega-rich are generally benevolent, community-minded people who care about their neighbours regardless of wealth, breeding, or class, then Sassower can at least describe how an oligarch could become kind. He identifies one economic principle, the recognition of which begins to transform an oligarch from a greedy sociopath to a personal ethic of rationally-justified sympathy. That principle is demand-centric economics.

This is a simple economic principle, fairly well-known in popular culture. If too many people in a society are in poverty, then the economy will stagnate from cratering demand; too few people will have enough money to spend, even for basic necessities. When a very wealthy person accepts this principle, he consents to submit a healthy portion of his income to taxation so that government services can close these poverty gaps. A business owner who accepts the principle of demand-centric economics will pay the workers in his business more, so that their spending can continue to drive economic development (Sassower 123-124).

Demand-centric thinking in economics has not been a major principle in how government policy on incomes and wealth inequality has developed over the last 40 years. The Reagan-Thatcher era of Western governance took the opposite principle, supply-side or trickle-down economics, as gospel. This is the notion that as the wealthy’s tax burden becomes lower and lower, they will spend more of that money in capital investment, backing new business ventures, and expanding private-sector employment.

Although the policy was widely mocked in popular culture from its first emergence, it has become the foundation of tax policy for all the largest political parties in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and among almost all conservative or centrist parties in Europe. Despite its success as legislature, the material consequences have been disastrous, as supply-side tax policies have decimated social democratic institutions throughout the West, intensifying economic precarity for millions across Europe and the Americas.

Why supply-side economics succeeded in becoming, until recently, uncontested common sense in popular culture and state-level politics is its intuitiveness in particular contexts. If an ordinary person’s annual income rises from $40,000 to $50,000, she will spend more money. The supply-side propagandist then derives a universal principle: If you have more money, you will spend more money. With that generality in hand, a principle that applies at middle-class incomes will be taken to hold at oligarchical incomes.

This is, of course, false, for three reasons that Sassower describes. One, personal consumption cannot proceed at an intensity of millions or billions of dollars each year. Two, most of that massive personal income never returns to their domestic economies anyway, and is instead burrowed in tax havens. Three, the capital investment industry no longer focusses on supplying startup funding for businesses. (Sassower 116)

Instead, global finance investment concentrates on the day-to-day trading of stocks in already existing companies, securities bundles, and speculation on the future value of stocks, securities, and currencies. High-frequency trading is a blatant sign that these investments are not for reinvestment into the productive economy. In this practice, a firm’s single algorithm will make millions of trades each day, based on its analyses of minute-to-minute market fluctuations. (Sassower 117)

Turning these massive fortunes away from the communities of non-rich people in their surroundings and around the world is a subtle but harrowing moral failure, considering the many hundreds of billions of dollars are wrapped entirely in these trading concerns.

A Fantastic Book That Falls Short of Its Potential

An economy of oligarchial inequality produces an elite for whom the purpose of living is cartoonishly grotesque personal self-enrichment. Such an economy as the one we live in today on Earth also deranges those who have virtually no wealth at all compared to these titans of mass ownership and securities gambling.

Anxiety over a precarious life of low pay and debt maintenance consumes all personal energy to help others. That anxiety encourages hatred of others as desperation and stress pervert any reflective capacity for long-term judgment into a paranoid social reflexivity. Reduced to egotistic, short-term thinking and habituated into distrust and hostility toward others, the poor become easy prey for financial fraud. The payday loan industry is built on this principle. Poverty does not breed virtue, but fear and rage.

This ties to what I think is the only notable flaw in The Quest for Prosperity. Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised. How he does so reveals the far more profound shortcoming of Sassower’s book.

Sassower is admirable and innovative in his call to regenerate communitarian philosophy as a politically engaged popular intervention. His method is a philosophical examination of how four quite disparate civic institutions express effective communitarian ethics in their habitual structure and behavioural norms. The Catholic and some other Christian Churches socialize its dedicated members as “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), whose primary economic concern is safeguarding people from the indignity of poverty. (Sassower 242-247)

The Israeli kibbutz movement governs distribution of goods and the financial results of their community’s work literally according to Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Countercultural communes in North America operated according to similar rules of management as kibbutzim, but with quite different moral orientation. Kibbutz political philosophy is a secularized agrarian marxism organized around a utopian purpose of building a communal Zion where all oppressed people of the world can live in a Jewish homeland.

American counterculture communes sought to create a living alternative to the immanent political problem of rapacious capitalism’s continuation of genocidal imperialism. Sassower also offers a phenomenological exploration of how military training builds strong interpersonal bonds of solidarity, a communitarianism among soldiers.

All these templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for Sassower’s project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education and socialization. Contrary to how Sassower speaks of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

The Impotence of Civil Rights

You may consider it a bit excessive that a book review would include a brief argument that civic institutions are not on their own adequate to ensure and maintain the freedom and dignity of the people who live in their domain. Nonetheless, Sassower wrote The Quest for Prosperity with an ambition of a similar scope, critiquing fundamental concepts of contemporary ideology and economic morality as part of an argument for communitarian alternatives. So I will maintain my own intensity of ambition with his.

There are two reasons why civic institutions alone, while needed, are not sufficient to overcome with communitarian values the ambitions of people to become oligarchs. Each of the two reasons is a different philosophical approach to the same empirical fact about human social capacities and institutions.

I first want to mention a logical reason. This is the simple fact that, conceptually speaking, law is not itself a material power. There is nothing about the law, as law, that compels your conformity to itself. There may be a moral motive to obey the law, whether that moral reason is a universal imperative or the injunction of social pressure. There may be a coercive motive to obey the law, as when you are under threat of police violence such as arrest, imprisonment, torture, or summary execution. Most often, people obey the law for practical reasons, as when a government’s legislation and regulations structure institutions we need to manage our techno-industrial society. But law alone is not justice, and so compels no obedience.

Law having no power to compel obedience, the existence of laws prohibiting violence against human rights does nothing to prevent such violence. If recognition of the law were all that was needed for obedience, then laws would never be violated. Only some material power, existing in addition to those laws, can ensure their application in managing the actions of a population.

The ultimate material power in the application of the law are state institutions, and any related institutions they support. Raising money through taxation, investment in industrial developments, and central bank mechanisms, states fund law enforcement institutions like courts, rehabilitation centres, prosecutors, and police. But even in institutions whose laws promise equal and fair treatment, individuals operating within those institutions can still use material power to give themselves unfair advantage over the less powerful.

Consider a civil suit whose defendant must make do with the cheapest legal representation in Albuquerque, but whose plaintiff walks into court with Alan Dershowitz at his side. Consider also the many instances where the power of institutions and institutionally-reinforced morality of solidarity encourages police abuse of citizens.

An individual officer may coerce sex from women under threat of arrest, or shoot a civilian with little or no cause; fellow officers or police unions will cover for him. An entire police department will prey on citizens as a matter of policy, as in many cities in the United States whose municipal police departments require a minimum (and growing) number of misdemeanor and bylaw violation fines for budgetary purposes. One of those such cities, incidentally, is Ferguson, Missouri.

The Impossibility of Prosperity?

I give these illustrations to emphasize the ethical importance of the fundamental purpose driving The Quest for Prosperity. Most of the book is taken up by Sassower’s clear and insightful argument for why contemporary capitalism is a moral and ethical disaster. The Quest for Prosperity is a stellar addition to this tradition of critical thought that has accompanied industrial development since its beginning.

Sassower takes a more noble stand than a critique, however, in proposing an alternative to capitalist practice for the domain most essential to resisting and overcoming industrial and economic injustice: public morality and personal ethics. His analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.

My illustrations – deep pockets undermining a court’s fairness, police predation and corruption – describe real injustices rooted in the greed and hatred facilitated through capitalism and the racism that turns the exploited against each other. They are here to remind thinkers who are likewise against such injustice of the urgency of our challenges.

Sassower has offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions.

Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Author Information: Kristie Dotson, Michigan State University, dotsonk@msu.edu

Dotson, Kristie. “Abolishing Jane Crow.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 1-8.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3YJ

See also:

Image by Adley Haywood via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

It took me 8 years to publish “Theorizing Jane Crow.” I wrote it at the same time as I wrote my 2011 paper, “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” The many reviews that advocated for rejecting “Theorizing Jane Crow” over the years made me refine it…and alter it….and refine it some more. This is not necessarily a gripe. But it will seem that way. Because there are two consistent critiques of this paper that have stuck with me for how utterly problematic they were and are. In this reply to Ayesha Hardison’s commentary, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments,” I display and analyze those critiques because they link up in interesting ways to Ayesha Hardison’s commentary.

The two most common critiques of this paper include:  1) the judgement that my paper is not good intellectual history or not good literary criticism and 2) the conclusion that Black women’s literary production is so advanced that there is no way to make a claim of unknowability with respect to US Black women today (or yesterday).  In what follows, I will articulate and explore these critiques. The first critique brings attention to just how wonderful Hardison’s commentary actually is for how it sets up the rules of engagement between us. The second critique can be used to tease out convergences and a potential divergence between Hardison’s position and my own.

The First Critique: Does E’rybody Have to be Historians or Literary Studies Scholars?

Since I neither claim to be a literary scholar nor a historian, I found no reason to deny the first (and by far most consistent) critique of this paper. This paper is not good intellectual history. And, plainly speaking, it is terrible literary criticism. Let me say this, for the record, I am neither an intellectual historian, nor a literary critic. And, with all due respect to those people who do these things well, I have no desire to be.

Hardison detected that she and I are coming to the same sets of problems with different trainings, different habits of attention, and, quite frankly, different projects. Because, no, I am not a literary critic. Hardison acknowledges our different orientations when she writes:

Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining social features facilitating black women’s ‘unknowability,’ in literary studies, we might say black women’s ‘unknowability’ is actually a matter of audience, and more importantly, a problem of reception. (2018, 57)

Another place where differences in our respective approaches is foreshadowed is in the very first line of Hardison’s reply when she writes, “To acknowledge Jane Crow…is not the same as understanding how black women’s subjugation works – or why it persists,” (2018, 56). From the very first line, I was put at ease with Hardison’s commentary. Because however much we might disagree or agree, at least, she recognized my actual project. I treat Murray like a philosopher. In accordance with philosopher stone rules, e.g. like an element from which composite understandings can be derived. It was clear to me that even among Black feminist academics, potential audiences for this paper were simply unused to the kinds of flights of fancy that taking Black women as philosophers requires.[1]

Hardison didn’t have this problem at all. In other words, Hardison was, for me, a “brown girl’s heart” to receive what I was trying to articulate. For that I am so very grateful to her. I believe that Hardison understood what I was trying to do. I was treating Pauli Murray the way I would be allowed to treat any theoretical white dude. Like her work should be able to inspire more work with family resemblances. I treated Murray like there could and should be Murray-ians. And it was this move that I utterly refused to compromise on. It was also the move that inspired, in my estimation, the most resistance from anonymous reviewers. But Hardison got it. But, then, of course, she would get it. She does the same thing in her book, Writing Through Jane Crow (Hardison 2014). We treat Murray like a philosopher.

The performance of Hardison’s commentary accords very much with the existence of (and necessity of) “an empathetic black female audience” (Hardison 2018, 59). And what is uncovered between us is a great deal of agreement between her positions and my own and a potential disagreement. At this point, Hardison and I can talk to each other. But I want to draw attention to the fact it is Hardison’s commentary that sets the stage for this exchange in a way where our convergences and divergences can be fruitfully explored. And that is no easy feat. Hats off to Hardison. I am deeply grateful for her work here.

The Second Critique: Black Women’s Literary Production vs. Jane Crow Dynamics

The second most common critique of “Theorizing Jane Crow” concerned skepticism about whether US Black women could be understood as unknowable in the face of US Black women’s literary production. It was only in reading Hardison’s commentary that I realized, I may have misunderstood part of the critiques being leveled at me from (again) anonymous reviewers that were most likely Black feminist academics themselves. One might have misread my essay to say that Black women never afford each other the kind of empathetic audiences that are needed to render them, broadly speaking, knowable in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces. That the Black community at large never extends such empathy.

Or, in Hardison’s words, some may have taken me as advocating for “the conceit that black women’s narratives about their multivalent oppression registers similarly in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces” (2018, 56). Now, I am not sure if Hardison is accusing me of this. There is reason to believe that she isn’t but is rather choosing this point as a way of empathetically extending my remarks. For example, Hardison writes:

An analysis of African American women writers’ engagement with Jane Crow is outside the scope of Dotson’s epistemological story in “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” but their texts illuminate the philosophical conundrum she identifies. (2018, 57)

This suggests, to me, that Hardison detects the problem of Jane Crow unknowability in Black women writer’s work, even as they work to navigate and counter such unknowability with some degree of success.

Now, to be clear, unknowability, on the terms I outline, can be relative. One might argue that the difficulty of receiving a fair peer-review for this paper in a particular domain rife with either Black feminists with literary, historical, and/or sociological training means that hegemonic and counterhegemonic communities alike pose epistemological problems, even if they are not exactly the conditions of Jane Crow (and they aren’t). But those epistemological problems may have the same structure of the epistemological engine I afford to Jane Crow dynamics, e.g. disregard, disbelief, and disavowal. This is primarily because, epistemologies in colonial landscapes are very difficult to render liberatory (see, for example, Dotson 2015).[2]

Limits of Unknowability, Limits of a Single Paper

Still, for me, the most egregious misreading of “Theorizing Jane Crow” is to interpret me as saying that Black women are equally as unknowable to other Black women as they are in “hegemonic spaces” (56) and according “hierarchical epistemologies” (58). Yeah, that’s absurd. Hardison’s commentary extends my article in exactly the ways it needs to be extended to cordon off this kind of ludicrous uptake, i.e. that Black womenkind are equally unknowable to ourselves as we might be in the face of hegemonic epistemological orientations.[3]

But, as Hardison notes, an extensive development of the point that Black womenkind offer empathetic audiences to Black womenkind that render them knowable, at least “to themselves and each other” (Hardison 2018, 57), both for the sake of their own lives and for the sake of the lives of other Black womenkind, is outside the scope of my paper. Rather, I am concerned with, as Hardison rightly notes, “understanding how black women’s [Jane Crow] subjugation works – or why it persists” (2018, 56). And though I don’t think my essay indicates that Black womenkind are equally “unknowable” to each other in all instances, if that is a possible reading of my essay, thank goodness for Ayesha Hardison’s generous extension of this project to make clear that the performance of this text belies that reading.

Perhaps Hardison says it best, my “grappling with and suture of Murray’s philosophical fragments challenges the hierarchical epistemologies that have characterized black women as unknowable and unknowing,” (2018, 58). This is why I love Black feminist literary studies folks. Because, yes! The performance of this piece belies the message that there is no way for us to be known, especially by ourselves. And, what’s more, such an inexhaustible unknowing has to be false for the successful performance of this text. But then I am aware of that. So what else might I be attempting to articulate in this paper?

It strikes me that a charitable reading of the second main criticism leveled at this paper might proceed as follows:

From where does the charge of unknowability come in the face of the existence and quantity of US Black women’s literary and cultural production? This is an especially important question when you need Black women’s production to write about their ‘unknowability,” how can you claim that Black women are unknowable when the condition for the possibility of this account is that you take yourself to know something about them from their own production? This seems to be a contradiction.

Yes. It does seem like a contradiction or, if folks need a white male theorist to say something to make it real, it is a kind of differend- (Lyotard 1988).[4] Radically disappeared peoples, circumstances, and populations are often subject to problems with respect to frames, evidence and modes of articulation. Being disappeared is different than being invisible simpliciter, but then I make this claim in “Theorizing Jane Crow.”

Problems of large scale disappearing that affect entire populations, events, and historical formations render unknowable unknowability. This problematic seems to be what this second critique falls prey too, i.e. the disappearing of unknowability behind sense making devices (Dotson 2017). As the critique goes, if Black women are unknowable at the scale I seem to propose, then how do I know about this unknowability?[5] How, indeed.

I still reject this rendition of the second criticism, i.e. the one that says with all the literary production of Black womenkind we are no longer unknowable or else I wouldn’t know about a condition of unknowability. Jane Crow unknowability, in my estimation, is not subject to brute impossibilities, i.e. either we are knowable or unknowable. This is because Jane Crow is domain specific in the same ways Jim Crow was (and is). Also, Jane Crow is made of epistemological and material compromises. Hardison gets this. She is very clear that “Black women continue to be ‘unknowable’ in dominant culture due to its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy,” (Hardison 2018, 57).

But, let’s get something clear, an “investment” is not only a set of attitudes. It is composed of sets of institutional norms (and institutions through which to enact those norms). Sets of norms of attention. Sets of historically derived “common sense” and “obvious truths” that routinely subject Black womenkind to Jane Crow dynamics. It is composed of social and material relations that make sense because of the investments that invest them with sense.

Jane Crow as a Dynamic of Complex Social Epistemology

Jane Crow dynamics, when they appear, are built into the functioning of institutions and communal, social relations. They are embedded in the “common sense” of many US publics- including counterhegemonic ones- because I am presuming we are assuming that some Black communities indulge in patriarchy, which is what lead Murray to her observations (See, Hardison 2018). And though Black women can disrupt this in pockets it does not change the epistemological and material conditions that are reinforcing and recreating Jane Crow dynamics for every generation. And it doesn’t change the reality that there is a limit to our capacity to change this from within Jane Crow dynamics. So, we write ourselves into existence again and again and again.

Hardison acknowledges this, as she astutely notes, “Although I engage Pauli Murray as a writer here to offer a complementary approach to Dotson’s theorizing of Jane Crow, I do not claim that black women’s writings irons out Jane Crow’s material paradoxes,” (2018, 62). And this is the heart of my disagreement with the second major critique of this essay. Are those critics claiming that epistemological possibilities brought by Black women’s literary production iron out material paradoxes that, in part, cause Jane Crow dynamics? Because, that would be absurd.

But here is where I appear to disagree with Hardison. Is Hardison claiming that epistemological possibilities have ironed out Jane Crow’s epistemological paradoxes? Because I sincerely doubt that. Schedules of disbelief, disregard, and disavowal are happening constantly and we don’t have great mechanisms for tracking who they harm, whether they harm, and why (on this point, see Dotson and Gilbert 2014).

This leads to a potential substantive disagreement between Hardison and I. And it can be found in the passage I cited earlier. She writes:

Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining social features facilitating black women’s ‘unknowability,’ in literary studies, we might say black women’s ‘unknowability’ is actually a matter of audience, and more importantly, a problem of reception. (2018, 57)

There is a potential misreading of my text here that seems to center on different understandings of “epistemological” that may come from our different disciplinary foci. Specifically, I don’t necessarily focus on social features. I focus on epistemic features facilitating black women’s unknowability, when we encounter it. That is to say, disregard, disbelief, and disavowal are epistemic relations. They are also social ways of relating, but, importantly, in my analysis they are socio-epistemic. What that means is that they are social features that figure prominently in epistemological orientations and conduct. And these features are embedded in what makes audiences and uptake relevant for this discussion. That is to say, the reasons why audiences matter, and problems of reception are central, is because varying audiences indulge in disregard, disbelief, and disavowal differently.

So, the juxtaposition that might be assumed in Hardison’s statement of the focus in literary studies, which is indicated by the phrase “actually a matter of,” is not a difference in kind, but rather a difference in emphasis. I am tracking the kinds of things that makes audience and problems of reception important for rendering anything knowable in social worlds, e.g. disregard, disbelief, and disavowal. Because it is there, as a philosophy-trained academic, that I can mount an explanation of “how black women’s [Jane Crow] subjugation works -or why it persists” (Hardison 2018, 56).

The Great Obstacles of Abolishing Jane Crow

In the end, this may not be a disagreement at all. I tend to think of it as a change in focus. My story is one story that can be told. Hardison’s story is another. They need not be taken as incompatible. In fact, I would claim they are not incompatible but, as Hardison notes, complementary (2018, 62). They uncover different aspects of a complicated dynamic. One can focus on the problems of audience and reception. And I think that this is fruitful and important. But, and this is where Hardison and I might part company, focusing on these issues can lead one to believe that Jane Crow dynamics are easier to abolish than they are.

One might suspect, as some of the anonymous reviewers of this essay have, that all the literary production of US Black womenkind means that US Black womenkind don’t actually face Jane Crow dynamics. Because, and this seems to be the take-home point of the second critique, and as Hardison explains, “Structural realities (and inequities) demand black women’s invisibility, but black women’s philosophical and literary efforts make them visible – first and foremost – to themselves” (2018, 57). And this is the crux of our potential disagreement.

What do we mean by “make them visible” and, more importantly, where? In the domains where they are experiencing Jane Crow dynamics, i.e. epistemological and material compromises, or in the domains where they, arguably, are not? Because the empathetic audiences of “brown girls” outside of institutions that operate to our detriment are not major catalysts for the problem of Jane Crow unknowability, on my account. This is where domain specificity becomes important and one must reject the conclusion (as I do in “Theorizing Jane Crow”) that Jane Crow unknowability is invisibility simpliciter.

As Hardison explains, Pauli Murray’s experiences with racial and gender subordination motivated her towards identifying and signifying Jane Crow oppression (along with constructing epistemological orientations with which to do so) (2018, 61). What the anonymous reviewers and Hardison insist on is that “These fragments of knowing identify black women’s autobiography as a vehicle for positive self-concept and social epistemology.”

Moreover, Hardison claims, and rightly so, that though “Black women writers do not ‘resolve our dilemmas,’…they do ‘name them.’ In a destructive culture of invisibility, for black women to call out Jane Crow and counter with their self-representation has substantive weight” (2018, 62). I agree with all of these conclusions about the importance of Black women countering Jane Crow dynamics, even as I wonder what it means to say it has “substantive weight.”

I question this not because I disagree that such countering has substantive weight. It does. But part of what has to be interrogated in the 21st century, as we continue to grow weary of living with centuries old problematics, what does the abolition of Jane Crow look like? Are there other forms of “substantive weight” to pursue in tandem to our historical efforts?

In asking this I am not attempting to belittle the efforts that have gotten us to this point- with resources and tools to “call out and counter” Jane Crow dynamics. My work in this paper is impossible without the efforts of previous and current generations of Black womenkind to “name” this problem. Their work has been (and is) important. And for many of us it is lifesaving.  But- and yes, this is a ‘but,’ what next? I want a world other than this. And even if that world is impossible, which I half believe, I still want to work towards a world other than this today as part of what it means to live well right now. So, though this may be blasphemous in today’s Black feminist academy, I don’t think that Black women’s literary production is quite the panacea for Jane Crow dynamics that it is often assumed to be.[6] But then, from Hardison’s remarks, she doesn’t assume this either. How we come to this conclusion (and how we would extend it) may be quite different, however.

The Limits and Potential of Literary Production

And, yes, I think a focus on the socio-epistemic and material conditions of Jane Crow can help us detect the limits of relying on black women’s literary production for the abolition of Jane Crow dynamics, even if such production has an integral role to play in its abolition, e.g. producing knowledge that we use to form understandings about potential conditions of unknowability. And though I would argue that black women’s cultural production is key to worlds other than (and better than this). Because, as Hardison explains, such work helps us “confront the epistemic affront intrinsic to black women’s Jane Crow subjection,” (2018, 60).

I will still never argue that such production, by itself, can fix the problems we face. It cannot. But then, Hardison would not argue this either. As Hardison concludes, disruption of Jane Crow dynamics means a “a complete end to its material and epistemological abuses,” (2018, 62). Indeed- this is my position as well. In making this claim, we are not attempting to overshadow what has been (and continues to be) accomplished in US Black women’s literary production, but to continue to push our imaginations towards the abolition of Jane Crow.

Contact details: dotsonk@msu.edu

References

Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limititng Epistemic Oppression.”  Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33 (1):24-47.

Dotson, Kristie. 2013. “Radical Love: Black Philosophy as Deliberate Acts of Inheritance.”  The Black Scholar 43 (4):38-45.

Dotson, Kristie. 2014. “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.”  Social Epistemology 28 (2).

Dotson, Kristie. 2015. “Inheriting Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Epistemology.”  Ethnic and Racial Studies 38 (13):2322-2328.

Dotson, Kristie. 2016. “Between Rocks and Hard Places.”  The Black Scholar 46 (2):46-56.

Dotson, Kristie. 2017. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Thoerizing Unknowability.”  Social Epistemology 31 (5):417-430.

Dotson, Kristie, and Marita Gilbert. 2014. “Curious Disappearances: Affectability Imbalances and Process-Based Invisibility.”  Hypatia 29 (4):873-888.

Hardison, Ayesha. 2018. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (2):53-63.

Hardison, Ayesha K. 2014. Writing Through Jane Crow: Racec and Gender Politics in African American Literarure. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1988. The Differend: Phases in Dispute. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[1] Nothing I am saying here is meant to indicate that literary critics are not (and can never be) philosophers. That is not a position I hold (Dotson 2016). Rather, the claim I am making is that treating people like philosophers can come with certain orientations. It takes extreme amounts of trust and belief that the person(s) whose thought one is exploring can act like a transformative element for the construction of composite understandings (Dotson 2013). It takes trust and belief to utilize someone else’s ideas to extend one’s own imagination, especially where those extensions are not written word for word. One way to treat a person’s work as philosophical work is to assume a form of authorship that allows one to use that work as a “home base” from which to explore and reconstruct the world that is implied in their abstractions. I call this activity, “theoretical archeology” (Dotson 2017, 418). And all I really meant to describe with that term was one way to take a writer as a philosopher. I had to become very detailed about my approach in this paper because of the propensity of anonymous reviewers to attempt to discipline me into literary studies or intellectual history.

[2] This is what I attempt to draw attention to in my work. The epistemological problems in Jane Crow, for example, are epistemological problems that might be able to exist without their corresponding material problems. The material problems in Jane Crow are material problems that might be able to exist without the epistemological problems. But in Jane Crow they are so linked up with each other that they reinforce and reproduce one another.  So, one can address the epistemological problems and leave the material ones (that eventually reintroduce those epistemological problems again). One can address the material problems and still leave the epistemological ones (that will eventually reintroduce those material problems again). Epistemic relations impact material relation and material relations impact epistemic relations, on my account. But they are not the same and they are not subject to domino-effect solutions. Fixing one does not mean one has fixed the other. And it is unclear one can make a claim to have fixed one without having fix both.

[3] If the reader needs more evidence that I have “figured this out,” see (Dotson 2012, 2016).

[4] There is a great deal about Lyotard’s account I would disagree with. But we are undoubtedly grappling with similar dynamics- though our subject population and approach differs significantly. Pauli Murray’s work pre-dates this formulation, however.

[5] I consider the appearance of this kind of seeming paradox to be a symptom of second order epistemic oppression. See (Dotson 2014).

[6] It may be my lower-socio-economic class background that makes it hard to accept the position that writing is going to save us all. I acknowledge that Black womenkind in the places where I am from needed literature and other cultural products for our survival (especially music, social and film medias. The kind of emphasis on writing in this exchange has a tinge of classism. But we can’t do everything here, can we? There is much more dialogue to be had on these issues.) Though, some might say, as Murray did that we need a “brown girl’s heart to hear” our songs of hope. I will agree with this and still maintain that I needed far more than that. When child protective services were coming to attempt to take me from my very good, but not flawless mother, I needed not only brown girl’s hearts. I also needed hierarchical epistemological orientations and oppressive, material conditions to lose hold.

Author Information: Al Rodbell, Encinitas, California, alvrdb-brt@yahoo.com

Rodbell, Al. “Social Epistemology as Oxymoron and Challenge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 no.12 (2013): 37-39.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-17j

Please refer to:

Academic journals are written for, and by, intellectual elites. Beyond the idealistic goal of expansion of enlightenment, journals are vehicles to navigate the road to prestige and the economic security of a tenured position. “Social epistemology” implies the interdependence between the masses who do not read such publications, hoi polloi of the Greek Forum, who then could be dismissed. That ancient democracy was a limited one where the very lowest classes were seen as essential in their subservience to those elite who created a viable government. We face rather more exceptional challenges to the governance of modern day America. Continue Reading…