True/False & What Else? II: Material Conditions of Production, Research Time, 08/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . If you accept that knowledge is inherently social, then knowledge is going to be a very complex phenomenon. I’m not talking about complexity in terms of truth being ambiguous, as if there were fuzzy middle terms between a proposition’s truth and falsity.

Though that is a problem on the front lines of logical research

And I’m not talking about how knowledge primarily being social instead of an individual’s thoughts corresponding to the world introduces an inescapable relativism.

Philosophy isn't about a hard, dedicated search for the
truth above all else. It isn't a tradition of detectives
seeking straight answers. Or at least it should be. When
it tries to be, it stops being interesting.
Because it doesn’t do that anyway. And you only think so if you have a too-simple understanding of truth and knowledge in the first place.

What I want to talk about today – and probably for the rest of the week – is how focussing on the social character of knowledge implies a very different kind of thinking than thinking only of its individual or mental character. A very general and broadly defined distinction that I’m drawing solely for rhetorical contrast. 

Knowledge – on a mental model of thinking about it – is about knowing specific propositions. How we discover facts. When you consider the social character of knowledge, you’re drawn to how knowledge is produced. How we produce knowledge and power.

Looking at the ways knowledge is produced gives a person a pretty broad mandate. Because pretty much every social relation – among individuals, institutions, communities, architectures, ecologies – produces knowledge. So the entire human experience and civilization is the object of your scientific attention.

That’s basically the entire venue of activity for social epistemology or any other social approach to knowledge and its production. Needless to say, nobody in these fields are true generalists until you get to very broad, abstract, conceptual arguments. 

Reading Louis Althusser, he’s the first person I’ve come across to situate Karl Marx’s work explicitly in this context – Marx the first social epistemologist.

Another thing that keeps marxist studies marginalized in
the academy is his being vilified in pop culture as the
prophet of total state control of your life.
Now, before I describe my thinking here, I want to take a note of humility. I’ve read pretty heavily in a lot of philosophical traditions. But marxism actually wasn’t really one of them. Part of that was because marxist studies constituted quite a closed cult in my experience of the academy. If you wanted to study marxism, you had to shut yourself away from any other research but marxism to be taken seriously. 

Who am I kidding. That was pretty much the only reason I never got into marxism as a field of research. Every marxist or Marx specialist I met in the academy was – for the most part – a self-absorbed, hypocritical, delusional dick. And they were all men.

So I’m looking into these different aspects of marxism over the decades – Louis Althusser, Antonios Negri and Gramsci – for ideas that I plan on using in my very-not-marxist Utopias book of philosophy. And I’m stumbling into ideas that have probably been widely discussed throughout the academy already. 

So any of my colleagues who know the history of sociology, marxism, and the related fields better than me, let me know just how warmed over this insight may or may not be. And maybe throw a guy a few pdfs so he can update himself on this angle.

Karl Marx the first social epistemologist. Because when I read Althusser discussing Marx’s great early work The German Ideology, that’s what I see. In the marxist community of the French academy during the 1950s and 60s, there was a mainstream idea that Althusser made his reputation fighting decisively.

When King William IV of Prussia came to the
throne, German democrats thought their land
was entering a period of liberal freedom. But
he continued to rule as a despot, despite his
democratic promises as a prince. Even if you
give him the most credit, it's funny how an
institution can corrupt a good person.
That idea was taking all the details of marxist analysis as the universal terms of political and economic relations. The German Ideology, for instance, laid out the universal structure of how ideology worked. The German Ideology exposed a truth about the human phenomenon of ideology that had always been true and always would be.

Now, I don't know if anyone really thought in this exact way, or if Althusser is inventing an exaggerated version of a general tendency in his academy, to make his work more impressive and path-breaking. 

But I remember the quietist revolutionaries convinced that the necessity of human development would create a revolution and full communism without having to work. And I’ve met a few ridiculously dogmatic marxists in my time. So this feels plausible to me.

His argument was that The German Ideology doesn’t describe universals at all. At least not in this direct sense. It was instead a philosophical diagnosis of a social problem peculiar to Germany in the 1840s. 

Germany at the time had a philosophical establishment whose major thinkers and problems revolved around the underpinnings of democracy. Germany had a whole society of thought leaders who understood humanity as free, and probed the meaning of freedom. 

But their society was a monarchist dictatorship. The “German ideology” was the mass self-deception that made people think that understanding the meaning and essence of freedom was the same as actually living in a free society. That’s what made the belief in freedom a “bourgeois illusion.” Because you could believe yourself free while living in chains. 

The German Ideology was Marx calling his people out. . . . To Be Continued

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