The Immense Power of Unrestrained Philosophy, Research Time, 13/03/2014

I’ve taken a couple of slow days as I’ve been sluggish from getting a tetanus vaccination the other day. But even though my mind feels a little heavy, I can still think. One thing I’ve been thinking about as I look through my notes on these Donna Haraway essays is my relationship with the naturalistic fallacy, the idea, pretty universally accepted in philosophy, that you can’t derive a moral statement (about what you ought to do) from an ontological statement (about what there is, or how it is). 

Though Haraway has definitely encouraged people to think
very differently over the years, I'm just not sure how much
potential universities ever had for fostering genuine
change in society.
I see this functioning in terms of the separation of philosophical domains. Ontological, epistemic, moral, and aesthetic problems are rarely treated as if they have anything to do with each other. But I think some of the most remarkable and powerful philosophical ideas come from thought processes that blur and mutate the shapes of those boundaries. Take, for example, the situational feminist epistemology that Haraway develops. 

Writing in the early 1990s, she’s concerned to overcome accusations of relativism of which feminist and other philosophies critical of standard accounts of science have been accused. I feel that so much progress has been made since then.* But she probably explains situational epistemology better than most writers I’ve come across. It’s an epistemological thesis advanced for ethical reasons, with what I see as some wonderfully strange ontological implications. 

* Not that much progress has been made since then. I sometimes feel as if philosophical conservatives continue to make the same old accusations against streams of thought influenced by Haraway, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, Edward Said, or other critics of the possibility of pure objectivity. No matter how much folks with whom I sympathize may develop nuanced ways to have our criticism and our objectivity too, I’ve come to doubt whether the people we’re trying to convince even bother to read such work. 

Knowledge is perspectival. There can be no knowledge that is literally, in Thomas Nagel’s words, a view from nowhere. Pure objectivity is impartial, but we can compare, contrast, and combine the partial perspectives of people. There is no dichotomous separation of the purely subjective, variable, and unreliable, from the purely objective, consistent, and true. All partial perspectives are themselves objective, and can be understood and mapped.

Leibniz's hair was even bigger than that of the
greatest rock musicians of the 1970s. The 1600s
was a strange time.
Every subjectivity is a partial illumination of an enormous and complex world. Each such illumination is unique because it only has a single, particular position in that complex world. There is usually far more of the world unseen through a single partial perspective than there is seen and understood. Essentially, this is the structure of subjectivity that Gottfried Leibniz spells out in his monadology. The structure of a monad is, in this way of thinking, the same structure as a subjectivity: a partial view on a world that is far more complicated than that single illumination can reveal on its own power alone. 

There are definite differences, of course. Each Leibnizian monad contains the same entire world within it, with its partiality defined by its inability to illuminate the whole of that world and the different location of its illumination within it. So all relations are internal to a monad, where Haraway’s subjectivities all exist in a world and illuminate it externally. And of course there are significant differences in their philosophical priorities. Even just considering their different stations in the world show this. Leibniz was a courtier to German princes, where philosophical and mathematical work was an elite activity, subject to the ostensible supervision of theological authorities. Haraway is a university professor who came of age in a politicized liberal academy that saw higher education democratized to a wide public. But the older metaphysical system can be used as a model for the contemporary epistemic and ethical system. This is not only how we can learn about and illustrate our philosophical ideas, but also how we understand the world where they develop and their power in that world.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who's been profoundly influenced by writers like Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour and Deleuze and Guatarri, I'll admit the seemingly ultimate futility of our work has had a tendency to get me feeling depressed and nihilistic at times. You're right a lot of it calls for reform of a largely indifferent university system: Our department was the marginal, extreme end of a marginal, extreme field of study. We had a hard enough time getting taken seriously by our colleagues, let alone the people and systems we were actually critical of.

    This was a primary reason for me eventually jumping ship from academia period. Just knowing I was toiling away to produce work that probably wasn't going to be read by my peers, let alone the larger public, who actually has the power to make a material difference in the world, as opposed to academics, who are paid to sit in seminar rooms talking to each other *and nobody else* (if they're lucky), was too bleak and dehumanizing a truth for me to live with.

    One minor semantics nitpick, though: I've had this issue with commenters on my own blog who get tripped up by this kind of intellectual framework, but I don't actually think Haraway is trying to privilege subjectivity over objectivity. While a large portion of her ideas are built around pointing out the patriarchal authoritarianism inherent in objctive statements (The God Trick), she's also sceptical of pure *subjectivity*: Instead, what I think she's trying to do is break the entire traditional Objectivity/Subjectivity binary, as well as the Facts/Values one, in favour of a system of situated knowledge. This would then be her counter against allegations of relativism from STS' enemies during the Science Wars (which I also perhaps differ from you slightly in thinking they still exist to an extent and academia never really recovered from them).