Crispin Sartwell called himself the “bone-head realist” in graduate school because he resisted, nay, rejected, what he called the postmodern notions of Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty. His chosen nickname was correct. He never understood what he was up against.
From William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others, Fish and Rorty learned how to claim NOT that there was no reality beyond our linguistic grasp, but to insist that there was no human knowledge prior to its representation in symbols, verbal and visual.
You can’t reduce pragmatist or post-structuralist thinking to the denial of “external reality” (and, corresponding to that charge, the denial of “agency”). That’s the bonehead move of so-called materialists and Marxists like Alan Sokal in the 1990s, and, if Sartwell is right, it’s the urge of our own time as well, in the new forms of what he calls “externalism” in the philosophy of mind and the “new materialism” exemplified, he wrongly believes, by Bruno Latour and Lee Smolin. (I would add the inane anti-intellectualism of “affect theory” to this laundry list of reaction formations.)
The reality beyond our representational grasp is of course a vast and unmapped terrain. And it’s not only external to us, out there in the “real world.” Within every one of us, the techtonic plates of unconscious, archaic knowledge still shift and collide. That is why Freud’s rendition of psychoanalysis, which claimed that the pleasure of fantasy is real, formative, and causative, will remain indispensable to any project of liberation, no matter how many clinically equipped professors appear to debunk his findings.
I know what you’re thinking. The law of gravity! Science! C’mon, man, if you jump off a seven-story building, you’re dead, right? Now that’s a material reality everybody can agree on, and if you don’t, well, you’re just talking nonsense. Or you’re not talking at all because you’re dead.
OK, except that the external reality of the material world as you experience it is actually constituted by the verbal and visual representations of modern science, a cultural artifact. Otherwise, how would you know anything about it? Why wouldn’t you jump off that seven-story building? Ah, right, if you were a caveman, you wouldn’t have jumped off a cliff, either . . . But why not? Because you died as a result–no, in that case you’d have nothing left to know–or because knowledge gained from your comrades warned you off that experience?
How would you know anything about the world, external or internal, absent the representations you make of it in retrospect? Sure, you experience or feel the world in all its sensory contours as a polymorphously perverse infant and child. But knowledge is different-—it’s actionable because it orients you in and to a world, external or internal, that you can change.
That, in fact, is the central principle of modern science. The only certainty in knowledge is obtained by going into the laboratory, where you miniaturize the real world of objects in motion, where you prove your hypothesis by manipulating reality.
Sartwell thinks that the return of the “external reality” repressed by postmodernism is perfectly staged by the phenomenon of global warming. It’s a laughable proposition. I’ll explain why with a story from my American history survey course of last semester.
I was arguing that there’s no difference between interpretations of the past and the past as such because the facts change as your values and purposes in the present do. A kid in the front row of the auditorium—-about 120 students in all-—begged to differ, saying that scientific practice presupposed an external reality very much like the past, which remained the same no matter what new theory or interpretation came along. There’s no values or purposes in science, he said, just observations and facts.
I responded more or less as follows.
OK, let’s take global warming, climate change, call it whatever you want, as our scientific artifact. Why is there a debate on the facts themselves, why do scientists disagree on the most rudimentary data?
Isn’t it because they have different values and purposes? Yes, nine of ten concerned scientists—-those who study the relevant data-—agree that the climate is changing for the worse. Isn’t that agreement on the facts a function of a prior consensus, viz., that the purpose of science in this domain of inquiry is to preserve the integrity of the natural environment, and with it the survival of the human species? Isn’t the opposition a function of a prior consensus on the facts, viz., that the preservation of the natural environment will exact a cost by imposing new patterns of (slower) economic growth?
And so, isn’t it obvious that the facts themselves are incommensurable products of different paradigms, different values, purposes, and thus models? Isn’t it obvious that science as such is just as “value laden” as any other form of knowledge?
“No cognition without purpose” is how Charles Peirce put it. Or again: “Matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.” These are brilliant ways of stating, if not proving, my claim against the bonehead realist.
Still, I prefer the more elegant variation on the theme offered by William James: “Day follows day, and its contents are simply added. They are not themselves true, they simply come and are. The truth is what we say about them.”
But if you like, we can go all the way down this road. When Marx wrote Thesis 11 on Feuerbach, he wasn’t getting all postmodern on us avant la lettre. He was plainly enunciating the central principle of modern science: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is, to change it.”