Yesterday was a day of converging ideas. Weird serendipities in my reading before I went in for an evening shift at work last night. It feels good to think through these kinds of connections. After the last few months of stress, things are looking more optimistic regarding my income security and creative projects.* I feel like my mind is running on more cylinders than it has recently.
* Don’t jinx it, Riggio!
It could also just be the coffee and an extra nap I was able to get in yesterday too.
So what the hell am I talking about? Well, first it was this post, by a colleague John Drabinski, a professor of Black and African Studies at Amherst College. Following a popular article in the New York Times calling out every philosophy department in Europe and North America for their all-encompassing West-centrism.
|How we understand the world can't be separated from how
we think about the ways to change the world.
Drabinski – very admirably – took that critique a step farther. It wasn’t just about inclusion and diversity, but about justice. And in making it about justice, he showed his readers a truth that I realized was true as I was writing the first drafts of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity.
It’s a very controversial truth, which many professional (that is, academic) philosophers demand could not be true. How we understand reality – ontological concepts and arguments – are intimately and essentially integrated with political and economic concepts, beliefs, and institutional structures.
As I’ve said before, this idea undercuts the naturalistic fallacy, the idea that you can’t derive a statement about how the world should be from a statement about how the world is. This is the closest to an unquestioned dogma you’ll find in the usually argumentative community of academic philosophers.
And it is true when it comes to simple premise-conclusion-premise-conclusion chains of inferences. That’s how we argue inferentially. But thinking through concepts and understanding our world is a more complex matter. I could call that, for want of a better term, arguing systematically or existentially.
|Hegel's eyes widen in surprise at being called out for
racism. He's unsure why being racist is a bad thing.
That's 19th century Europe for you.
Drabinski’s point is that, if we want a truly comprehensive understanding of the great thinkers of modern Europe (ie. Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel), we need to understand the feedback loops between their own reasoning about universal topics and the imperialistic political beliefs that permeated their societies.
An example from my own life. Early in the blog, some friends of mine who are big Hegel fans criticized me for writing about what I thought were clearly racist ideas in his Philosophy of History. The very shortest version of their argument was that Hegel had his eye on the universal, so these apparently racist ideas (like African society not being fully human or Indian and Chinese society not truly having history) were just cheap shots to ignore the true profundity of his ideas.
At the time, I didn’t really have a solid response, though I didn’t agree with their criticism. Now, I realize that the proper response is “I call bullshit.” Hegel wrote about the universal, but he wrote from a position in history and society himself.
Like Drabinski says, we usually read African and Latin American thinkers as coming from their post-colonial situation, even when they’re writing about more universal, profound topics than post-colonial politics. This is what we typically do with the writers of formerly subjugated peoples.
|Why would we read Aimé Cesaire only as a black man
and not as a thinker?
And there’s no actual reason why we should read the great works of European philosophy as if their situations as leading intellectuals in subjugating peoples didn’t impact their thought.
The same idea appears in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, as well as my notes and outlines for Utopias. One of Antonio Negri’s accounts of what a sovereign state does in human social space is starkly divide the human from the natural, then sweep away nature in favour of a space under the exclusive control of humans.
I have a critique of the traditional conception of freedom in Western philosophy along the same lines. We define humanity’s self-consciousness as the source of freedom and natural existence as the passive realm of deterministic action – David Hume’s billiard ball causality of A to B to C. Then humanity liberates nature by chopping it into pieces and using it as raw material for human technological projects.
Both my own and Negri’s accounts of how human political and social activity demean and trivialize our ecologies unite political movements with concepts about the nature of reality. He talks about the state’s power to separate humanity from nature. I talk about how concepts of human freedom as an exemption from the natural order justify ecological destruction.
• • •
I can imagine one response that most readers would have to all this. ‘But if all knowledge is situated in the positions of its producers, that would make all knowledge relative. So aren’t you saying that knowledge of the universal is impossible?’
|Get out of your own head. GetOutOfYourOwnHead.
No, I’m not saying any of that. Because that first premise is wrong. Think of Leibniz’s monads. Each possible situation is a perspective on the same universal. From each situation, there are paths through the complex catacombs of universal reality that are especially well-lit, and some that are completely obscure. All knowledge is universal, but none of it is complete.
Your situation doesn’t invalidate your knowledge. It conditions the limits of your knowledge. So you improve your knowledge by exploring multiple situations. Get out of your own head.