It's About What Gets the Job Done – And the Job, Research Time, 21/09/2016

When I first read Cosmopolitanism, I wasn't impressed
by its very casual, seemingly superficial treatment of its
concepts. But underneath those long, almost nostalgic
fables of a casually multicultural world are some
very radical conceptual moves.
Despite my problems with Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, his book is filled with genuinely fascinating and useful ideas. They’re dealt with at a barely introductory level, but they're still very interesting.

One of these is Appiah’s pragmatism. I mean this referring to the tradition of philosophical thinking that began with that usual trinity of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey.* Appiah applies a pragmatism about the use of knowledge and frameworks of understanding the world to a globalist problem.

* Here’s another issue I have with academic philosophy in the English-speaking West. The widespread presumption that pragmatism isn’t a living tradition of thought, but that if you call yourself a philosophical pragmatist, all it means is that you write secondary material about James, Peirce, and Dewey. This irks me.

That problem is in one of the few directly useful examples in Cosmopolitanism. The encounter of a person familiar with scientific knowledge about infection and disease with a society of people who  believe primarily in witchcraft and evil spirits. 

It's an example that plays to just about every racist stereotype about indigenous people you can think of. That’s why, I think, Appiah chose it. I’ve heard quite a few well-educated, quite wealthy people use just these stereotypes to dismiss the validity of indigenous knowledge. 

Even what we think of as enlightened
progressive corners – like environmental
activists – indulge in such ridiculous
racist stereotypes of indigenous people
as "mystically in touch with the land."
As if they were magical spirit people
instead of people. It erases the real human
complexity of indigenous cultures as
the old horrifying adage about savages.
They say we have nothing to learn, for example, from indigenous medicinal practices because they’re based in oral tradition and inherited folklore instead of “the scientific method.” Of course, any basic reading in the history and philosophy is science shows that there is no such single “scientific method” applying to everything we call science. Apart maybe from “Pay attention!”

I came across this debate pretty frequently when I was researching for Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, because a major eco-activist narrative** is rediscovering indigenous American connections to the land that were overwritten and erased by America’s history of genocide.

** Crass oversimplification that it still is. . . . 

So Appiah’s example sets up a problem – a group of indigenous stereotypes*** believe that illness is caused by spirits and witchcraft. They also live near a polluted water source. They essentially need a boil advisory, but don’t know any of the science behind why you should boil polluted water before using it. So they still get preventable diseases.

*** Seriously, I don't think people like this have ever existed outside thought experiments like these.

Appiah's thoughtful Westerner explains, in as clear a format as he can, the germ theory of disease, and that boiling water can kill the bacteria that causes their sicknesses. None of this fits with any of the framework ideas of the community’s worldview, so they don’t understand it and don’t follow his good advice.

Then the thoughtful Westerner explains that the community’s water source has been infested with evil spirits that cause illness, and that boiling the water sends them away – see, the bubbles of boiling water are the spirits escaping. So the community is healthy again.

Above: The only person who deserves to be called a
savage. Jokes aside, Appiah smuggles into this very
light writing style an argument that makes an
audacious and brazenly unorthodox inference. He
reasons from a fact about the nature of knowledge
to an implication about ethics and politics. In this, he's
a real metaphysician.
You know, Appiah’s example doesn’t sound nearly so racist when he writes it in Cosmopolitanism. Ironic that a book whose purpose is explaining a political philosophy about embracing the infinite variety of humanity could fall into an example that trades in such condescendingly racist imagery.

The conceptual point is sound, though. We can solve most of the problems that constitute human life with a ton of different and incompatible frameworks for understanding the world.

Accept as fact that – following the research and concept-building of Claude Duhem and Willard Quine – reality under-determines how we understand it. It’s not a relativism, where there are many different truths. 

Now let your political and moral stances flow from this truth about reality. Even dealing with the types of people that confirm everyone of your racist stereotypes ignorant savages, they can still be your intellectual equals. They will look at the world differently, but their way of looking remains valid and practically sound.

No comments:

Post a Comment