Notes on Mensch’s Book: ‘Knowing and Being- A Postmodern Reversal’ -Pt 1: (Post)Modernity And The Self.
This book. Boy, has it been a challenge for me. Partly because I’m very rusty, partly because it’s working in a field that I have not extensively studied. That said, let us try to muddle through it anyway. Firstly I might start with Mensch’s deconstruction and analysis of modernism.
For Mensch, the case for modernity sits largely with Descartes, to the point that Mensch thinks Cartesian principles are so ingrained in modern thought so as to be a bias for modern thinkers. The analysis of modernity lies in how it is prescriptive, not descriptive. From Descartes to Kant to Marx it applies rules for how things are and should be and anything that sits outside of this prescription has no meaning. More than this, and problematically Mensch would say, it draws its prescriptive norms from the subject. With each new attempt, and failure, at drawing such norms from the subject Mensch sees a problem with “the project itself, in the very attempt to explain the world in terms of subjective performance.” (p.2)
Where we might like to start is with Enlightenment thought, particularly with Descartes in which we are shown a brief look at Cartesian doubt:
In the first Meditation, he [Descartes] considers the possibilities that everything we now sense and experience is actually a dream and that “an evil spirit, not less clever and deceitful than powerful” prevents us from realizing this (…). To banish this enchanter Descartes searches for something absolutely certain, something he cannot doubt. He finds the “I” or subject of the “I think”. Even if we doubt every object of this subject’s thought, we cannot doubt the subject itself. It becomes ens certissimum, the being whose certainty is such that it can stand as a norm, a standard against which to judge all other claims to knowledge. (Mensch, 1996, p.2)
Mensch moves next Kant with his attempt to ground certainty on the self through his synthesizing subject:
For Kant, the self is such a ground through its synthesis. (…) Synthesis is its action of connecting perception with perception so that, through their ordering, we have an extended experience of some object – an object shows itself as one and the same in different perceptions. Given that the syntheses yield the experience of an object, judgements that embody their rules naturally apply to this object. “A priori” certain (certain “before” experience) naturally attaches to them. In Kant’s words, it is inherent in our “assuming that the object must conform to our knowledge,” the conditions of such knowledge being those of synthesis (…). (Mensch, 1996, p.3)
To Mensch both Descartes’ and Kant’s work have a major fault, which lies with the subject as the basis for normativity. With Descartes the problem becomes: if all objects of attention can be doubted, but the “attending self” cannot be, we could ask how this works. The subject being appealed to is not an object (like other objects), but rather something that thinks about and directs itself to objects:
As such, Descartes attempt to turn it [the subject] into a “thinking thing” – an entity whose perception can stand as the norm for the perception of other objects – is highly problematical. To the point that we cannot doubt it, it escapes any characterization that could give it some objective content. (Emphasis mine, Mensch, 1996, p.3)
Part of this has to do with the modern notion of the self, which is problematic for Mensch due to the idea of the self being a continuous thing, a unity, when in it is not clear that it is so, and if it is not so, if there are a multitude of ‘self’s’, how could it possibly be the grounding for normativity?
The same criticism is leveled at Kant, when the author asks if we can have certainty about the synthesizing subject, he would say we do not. The reason we do not is because the synthesizing subject is not a result of such synthesis as applied to objects, as he states it is what connects perception, what Mensch calls “the uncombined combiner” (p. 4), a noumenal subject, that is, a subject that is unknown and beyond our experience.
Postmodern Reversal of the Self
Mensch’s view of the self, which he borrows from Aristotle, is that of an openness to the world, as opposed to a definite thing. Mind is defined by its action, that before it thinks, before it grasps an object, it has no existence:
It is “potentially identical with the objects of its thought,” indeed, this potentiality is its openness. But, he adds, it “is actually nothing until it thinks”. This means that it has no inherent content, that all such content is derived from the objects it thinks. This is why the attempt to grasp it as an object is bound to fail. Objects have definite content. A subject, however, has content only in its temporary identity with what is not itself, that is, what it is transparent or open to. (Mensch, 1996, p.4)
It is the self’s adaptability, its openness to the world, that makes it appear to support every normative structure from “the Kantian to the Freudian” (p. 4), but Mensch argues it is the last place we should look for said normativity. It is open to norms, takes them on as it is shaped by its environment, as such it is the world itself that becomes the grounding for the subject, not the other way around. “Rather than being something that in its singularity yields universal norms, subjectivity is pluralized by the situations it finds itself in.” (p. 5)
From this reversal Mensch notes that it is in fact time that becomes the basis for content for the subject. With the world as its grounding, time acts as the unifying connector for the series of subjective processes of the self. To Mensch time itself has no content, as such it exhibits every kind of content: “it’s moments are empty containers – or rather, placeholders – of possible contents.” (p. 5) This conclusions however opens us up to a perplexing relativism:
If we really hold that subjectivity is temporality, then the implication is that it has as many forms as time has. This means we can speak of subjectivity as sheer nowness, as temporal flowing, as the forms of objective synthesis, as our being-there in and through other persons, and even as the unidirectional flow of objective causality (the flow that allows us to suppose that our own inner relations are subject to causal laws). (Mensch, 1996, p.5)
To Mensch there are different forms of subjectivity, exhibited in different actions such as when solving a mathematical equation versus playing in a musical ensemble.
And it is here I might leave it, as Mensch goes on further to tie time to the subject, comparing his notions back to Kant. This is all well and good, and might support his argument further, but space and your interest is limited.
Look, I’m not sure I really grasp this stuff, its convoluted and difficult and may require many readings. Give it a chance and do some of your own research, I’ll attempt to muddle through it further at a later date.
Mensch, J.R. (1996). Knowing and Being- A Postmodern Reversal. University Parl, PA. The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Foucault’s histories are broken down into two classes, ‘archaeology’, and ‘genealogy’, Gutting states he does not locate Foucaultian histories in any strict scientific sense of the term, as in they are not archaeological in the scientific sense, but rather are located in a much more fluid realm in which they are “retrospective” descriptions, and are “driven much more by the specific historical subject matter than by prior methodological commitments”. As such he proposes
…tracking Foucaultian histories along four dimensions: histories of ideas, histories of concepts, histories of the present, and histories of experience. (Gutting, 2003, p. 7)
Keen observers will see in this language a similar use to the metaphysical discussions of philosophers of the Enlightenment, Gutting notes that Foucault speaks ill of these traditional theories, but still parallels his histories of ideas (in particular) along them sometimes, for example a central theme in his The History of Madness is Descartes’ discussion on the possibility that he is mad as a grounds for doubt. Due to my recent investigations into pragmatism I might surmise that Foucault’s discussion of ‘concepts’ will bring him into conflict with philosophers of science, as surely an atheistic, naturalistic analytic philosopher who discusses the categories of scientific investigation will have differing thoughts to a Continental Postmodern, post-structuralist (if these labels even apply) philosopher like Foucault who discusses concepts, and conceptual structures across disciplines, but alas, I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Gutting states that much of Foucaultian histories fall under the genre of “the history of concept’s” which he adopted from his friend and mentor Georges Canguilhem:
This approach flows from an insistence on the distinction between the concepts that interpret scientific data and the theories that explain them. By contrast the standard Anglo-American view (…) is that theories are interpretations of data and therefore define concepts in terms of which data are understood. On Canguilhem’s view, concepts give us preliminary understanding of data that allows us to formulate scientifically fruitful questions about how to explain the data conceptualized. Theories then provide different – and often conflicting – answers to these questions… As long as concepts are regarded as functions of theories, their history will be identical with that of the development of theoretical formulations. But for Canguilhem concepts are “theoretically polyvalent”; the same concept can function in quite different theoretical contexts. This opens up the possibility of histories of concepts that are distinct from the standard histories that merely trace a succession of theoretical formulations. (Gutting, 2003, p. 7-8)
Foucault demonstrates this use of Canguilhemian concepts through many different forms, provided by Gutting, the most interesting of which is the way in which Foucault, provides accounts of the empirical sciences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in his The Order of Things. Although Gutting admits this text is a simple history of the relevant concepts of this field, Foucault goes further on Canguilhem’s method in this work;
For Canguilhem concepts correspond to disciplines, and the history of a concept is written within the confines of the relevant discipline. But Foucault links apparently very different disciplines by showing similarities in their basic concepts. (Gutting, 2003, p. 9)
An example of how he does this is when he argues that the Classical empirical sciences of “general grammar, natural history, and analysis of wealth” share a closer common conceptual structure with each other than their modern counterparts, that is philology, biology and economics (one might feel a twinge of Wittgenstein’s “language games” and “forms of life” as a possible explanation of this phenomenon), Foucault calls this phenomena an “episteme”: that is a “system of concepts that defines knowledge for a certain era” (p. 9). The result of this method by Foucault means that now the historian is now not limited to define a discipline by its own terms, one may deal with the first-order concepts of say biology (such as nervous systems, gaseous exchange), but one may also use second-order concepts as Foucault did such as “representation and historicity” (p. 9) that, as Gutting states are the “conditions of possibility for the first-order concepts.” (p. 9).
As Gutting mentions this discursive look at the “intellectual subconscious” of scientific practices was the focus of much of Foucault’s work, predominantly handled by his archaeologies:
Archaeology is an important alternative to the standard history of ideas, with its emphasis on the theorizing of individual thinkers and concern with their influence on one another. Foucault suggests (…) that the play of individuals’ thought, in a given period and disciplinary context, takes place in a space with structure defined by a system of rules more fundamental than the assertions of the individuals thinking in the space. Delineating the structures of this space (the goal of the archaeology of thought) often gives a more fundamental understanding of the history of thought than do standard histories centered on the individual subject (…). (Gutting, 2003, p. 10)
Foucault’s motives for embarking on this journey are due to the fact that he finds the current institutions, disciplines, and social practices “intolerable”, his archaeologies are about using the past to point to some aspect he felt needed addressing in the present, usually to the aformentioned categories. That Foucault used the past to speak about the present might be considered standard fare states Gutting, particularly for Enlightenment thinkers who might think that where we are now is inevitable given our history, where Foucault’s thought is unique is in his ability to show the contingency of history and thus current thought:
Intolerable practices and institutions present themselves present themselves as having no alternative: How could we do anything except set up asylums to treat the mentally ill? How deal humanely with criminals except by imprisoning them? How attain sexual freedom except by discovering and accepting our sexual orientation? Foucault’s histories aim to remove this air of necessity by showing the past ordered things quite differently and that the processes leading to our present practices and institutions were by no means inevitable. (Gutting, 2003, p. 10)
The example Gutting uses to demonstrates this is Foucault’s history of madness in which Foucault assaults our modern conception of madness and mental illness, stating there have been alternative conceptions of madness throughout history (such as madness as a “moral fault” in the Classical Age, rather than as antisocial and/or dangerous behaviors as we do now), but that neither definition and practice of madness and the treatment thereof deserve special placement as having access to the “truth about madness”, no, to Foucault they are “social constructions, intelligible and apparently compelling in their own periods…” (p. 11) Moreover Foucault sees modern psychiatry as less about being a triumph of scientific objectivity and more as a “product of scientifically and morally suspect forces peculiar to the social and intellectual structures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (p. 11)
This is a very short look at Foucault’s histories and an even briefer look at his archaeologies, Gutting goes into an interesting analysis of Foucault’s views of ‘man’ for example how he is in a perplexing position to be “both an object in the world, but also an experiencing subject through which the world is constituted.” (p. 12) Modern thought takes this to be the only such conception of man, but as Foucault notes this is just “one contingent construal of that reality” (p. 12) Although as interesting as this analysis is, it only serves to demonstrate the same critique presented by Foucault’s look at psychiatry and as such I left it out. In our next post we will look at his genealogies.
***Edited*** I’m adding here what I thought would turn into a second blog, but as I’m not reading this book anymore, I’ll simply attach my final notes:
Finally let us look at Foucaultian his genealogies. Gutting states:
We have seen how Foucault’s archaeological method is an outgrowth of his use of Canguilhem’s history of concepts. Similarly his genealogical method can be understood in terms of his desire to write histories of the present. In fact, in one use of the term, Foucault simply identifies genealogy with history if the present, regarding it as any effort to question the necessity of dominant categories and procedures. More narrowly, genealogy is a history of the present specifically concerned with complex casual antecedents of a socio-intellectual reality (in contrast to archaeology, which is concerned only with the conceptual structures subtending the reality). (Gutting, 2003, p. 12)
As we see above to Foucault his histories are less about objective facts, and more about perspective, that is he adopts different different historical approaches to discuss particular historical realities. In particular his genealogies are an out and out attack on Enlightenment notions (grand narratives) of ‘inevitable progress’ by tracing the origins of practices and institutions to their ‘contingent’ and ‘petty causes’ (p. 14). This view has been criticized, many think that Foucault should not be called a historian, and thus not judged by the standard norms of histiography, and Gutting agrees, insofar as he thinks Foucaultian histories have an agenda, but, even if looked at from a strict historiographical perspective Foucault’s histories may still provide us with a solid historical footing “they may still be adequate to their task of grounding a historical critique of current malpractices.” (p. 15)
Gutting, G. (2003). ‘Introduction’, in G, Gutting (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, New York, New York. Cambridge University Press.
For the moment, let us take a second out of our discussion on Feminism, or rather, Bell Hooks’ view of such, and take a very brief look at Postmodernism (here after “PoMo”), particularly in relation to science. Recently I read The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, 2004 (I recommend the Cambridge Companion series on just about any topic they have, they’re a great resource for interpreting complex authors and movements – for a look at what they have to offer, see here) and although many of the chapters were interesting, and indeed deserve a more, shall we say, ‘interested’ review and critique than that which will be presented here, I will only be looking at, and discussing Ursula K. Heise’s chapter, entitled ‘Science, technology, and postmodernism’ today.
Heise states that scientific knowledge and technological rationality have been “seriously challenged” by PoMo modes of thought that have been developed in philosophy, history, sociology and cultural study and are fundamentally critical of certain social institutions and traditions of thought, based on a skepticism toward “Enlightenment assumptions about subjectivity, knowledge, and progress.” (p. 136) Heise says the critique of PoMo attempted to show that science and technology’s “narratives of progress and mastery of nature” are not “unequivocally positive forces”. (p. 136)
The postmodern moment, then, is characterized by two distinct tendencies with regard to science and technology. On the one hand, scientific insights and technological applications are advancing at a more rapid pace than ever, and some of their more spectacular developments have changed the material environment and a vast range of values, beliefs, and expectations, along with the meaning of the words “science”, and “technology” for average citizens. On the other hand, science and technology are met with ambivalence, skepticism, or resistance not only because of soe undesirable “side effects” their rapid evolution has generated, but in terms of some of their most basic assumptions about nature, progress, human observation, appropriate methodologies for creating knowledge, and the role this knowledge should play in public policies. (Heise, pp. 137-8, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)
Although the notion of PoMo technologies is one of two undercurrents in Heise’s thesis and is an interesting one, deserving of its own blog, it is her second thesis , the substantiation of scientific knowledge, or “crisis of legitimation” that I wish to look at today. Heise states that skepticism toward the tide of progress, from a historical perspective led to a parallel questioning of the justification of many modern institutions: “in particular, it led to historians and philosophers to postulate a crisis in legitimation of science as one of the pillars of western thought and society.” (p. 148) Specifically Heise refers to such PoMo authors as Jean-Francois Lyotard who argued that the pursuit of scientific knowledge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began to lose its force in the early twentieth century due to a lack of support for the “narratives” that had served to legitimate it. Two factors are noted; namely the Hegelian idea “that the human spirit itself progresses over the course of history, and that the expansion of knowledge is one of the most visible forms of this knowledge.” and the other is the “Enlightenment belief that the acquisition of knowledge contributes to the liberation and emancipation of individuals and communities.” (p 148) Lyotard argued contra to these ideals, viz. Wittgenstein that science has disintegrated into highly specialized research projects that contain very little communication with each other, that contemporary science is no longer a unified truth-seeking pursuit of knowledge but rather a disconnected series of “language games”
… in which facts no longer count, but only ‘performativity”, instrumental functioning. As critics of Lyotard have pointed out, this account falls far short of a convincing portrayal of contemporary science. Perhaps for this reason, his argument did not provoke any great resonance among scientists at the time of its publication, but it became enormously popular among scholars in the humanities and social sciences who saw its argument about the demise of large-scale metanarratives of legitimation as a defining feature of postmodernism across a whole range of sociocultural phenomena, (Heise, p. 148, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)
Heise goes on to discuss the growing “controversy” among philosophers, sociologists and natural scientists over the basic nature and function of scientific knowledge, but one really has to wonder how much controversy there is amongst those versed in the methods, protocols and theory of the scientific method. This also presents what is most interesting to me regarding PoMo, questions of legitimization are important (although the metaphysical nature of such an approach would more than likely be scorned by those same PoMo theorists, perhaps an internal contradiction in their reasoning?), only when we are exposed to possible weaknesses in theories can we plug them. But as we see with Lyotard above, the critique does not always seem fair, or even particularly educated in the “narrative” of science.
Heise states that critics of science have argued that the scientific method and knowledge have no special cognitive status, and like many other epistemological tools cannot be separated from its sociocultural context, which limits its claims to objectivity and universality. But the critics go further than this though, and state that all knowledge is socially constructed. Moreover, that scientific research is not “value-neutral, as its advocates maintain, but that fundamental beliefs and even ideological assumptions are hardwired into the definition, goals and procedures of scientific inquiry” (p. 150) Heise goes on to say that this assumption has worked to serve dominant social groups at the expense of knowledge to the “common people”, although Heise does not state exactly what the critics of science mean by this assertion, or even that this assertion can be demonstrated with any degree of certainty or reliability.
As Heise accurately states, and as you may be able to tell from the above paragraph, the advocates of science responded with the charge of relativism, and have defended
… the specificity of scientific knowledge, and the stringent procedures as well as logical and empirical controls that are applied to establish the validity of a particular knowledge claim. These procedures, they argue, account for both the changing character of scientific knowledge and its gradual progress in the understanding of nature. (Heise, p. 151, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)
The critique continued basing its method largely around Thomas Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, they viewed it “as a point of departure”, they considered science as an activity rooted in “particular sociohistorical and cultural contexts” , which derives its authority from social consensus not from any privileged grasp of reality or verification/falsification of hypotheses through empirical findings or replication of results by independent researchers. To get around the obvious charge of relativism (that always seems to follow PoMo) of their so-called “social constructivism” the critics stated that
… it is possible to admit that science is socially conditioned in multiple ways without giving up the claim that science’s particular set of social constructions provides a type of access to the natural world that is more accurate or successful from a cognitive or explanatory perspective, than other constructions. (Heise, p. 151, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)
Moreover Heise states that scientists would agree with this statement, that some “dimensions” of scientific inquiry are dependent on “social and historical circumstance”, for example in general areas and specific topics which are deemed worthy of research, or in grant giving, and how well the results are disseminated to the public all depend, Heise states, on “a particular societies structure of interest.” (p. 151) This of course seems to ignore the fact that there is no European science, or American science, or for that matter, Muslim, or Christian science, there is only verifiable, reproducible science. What is discovered and verified by the Chinese, can be peer-reviewed (and indeed, should) by anyone else. The results of scientific inquiry go to everyone – Heise’s view of science seems narrow, and self-serving.
As this post is getting long, and there is still some involved subject matter to cover, we may like to leave it here for now, and wrap up our discussion on Heise in part two.
Heise, U. K. (2004). ‘Science, technology, and postmodernism’, in S Connor (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, New York. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 136, 137-8, 148, 150, 151.