Social Imaginary and World Disclosure

Some Limitations of the Concept of World Disclosure

(Geoff Boucher 13/11/2013)

I have criticised Taylor on three grounds:

  • Lack of emphasis on material domination
  • Neglect of dissent and critique
  • Exclusively moral focus

Now I want to focus on the final one of these, by suggesting that intersecting with the social imaginary there must be a cultural imaginary, responsible for the formation of personal subjectivity through the maintenance of underlying meanings in the lifeworld. If the social imaginary functions as a social cement because it provides the understandings that make cooperative actions (ie social practices) meaningful, then the cultural imaginary concerns the formation of individual life histories through the integration of cognitive, normative, expressive and teleological elements of the lifeworld into shared patterns of significance. There are two basic reasons for this supposition:

  • An existential reason. Although it is a political embarrassment for forms of contemporary theory that wish to reduce subjectivity to its social component, methodologically eliminating interiority in quasi-behaviourist fashion by means of linguistic reductionism, biological individuation implies the privacy of experience in a psychological sense as well as the uniqueness of a person’s embodiment. Against the dogmatic conflation of the linguistic communication of experience with its linguistic constitution, the findings of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens and neo-pragmatic perspectives such as Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key imply that experience is partly formed from sensory images that, although they can be conceptualised as signs (specifically, as indices and icons), do not behave as linguistic signs (that is, as symbols). That the fact of biological individuation, with its attendant psychological interiority, is non-trivial is attested by the monumental three volume History of Private Life (edited by Philippe Aries), which traces the multiple trajectories of the practices and meanings that emerge at the joint between the social and the personal, from antiquity, through the medieval world and the Renaissance/(Counter-)Reformation, and into the modern world. Throughout Western history, individuals have been more than just clones of their social order. At the most general level, they have located themselves within that intersubjective space that is partly a representation and partly a presentation of individual experience (i.e., a communicative space where reference to the uniqueness of the “feeling of what happens” can be to some extent shared). This is also an imaginative universe within which individual life histories take shape as the stories of socially recognised personalities, life histories that are significant to the experiencing individual not just because they are accepted, but also because these project forms of individual satisfaction onto the social and natural worlds. In other words, the potential contradiction between biological individuation and social being entails the myths that we live out and constantly adapt in everyday experience, especially the myth of privacy, by which the interiority of incommunicable experience becomes intersubjectively accessible.
  • A social-theoretical reason. Taylor’s social imaginary maps subjectivity onto the social system (economy, polity, the fiduciary system, the societal community, or, the economic, the political, the juridical, the ideological). It says nothing about the cultural system, that is, the forms of cognitive, normative, expressive and teleological symbolization that form what Habermas, for instance, calls the “lifeworld”. Taylor’s social imaginary emerges as a distinct region of beliefs from the darkness of a tradition in complicated evolution; it corresponds to “theology,” having little to say about the “religion” that it codifies. The cultural imaginary, on this suggestion, relatively unifies the forms of knowledge that make experience communicable, that is, which make learning processes arising from social practices, possible.

I am now going to go right out on a limb, because I want to speak about an idea that has been germinating for some time, but which is very far from being theoretically worked out.

I propose, following Theodor Gaster, to call this an “imaginative topocosm”. The imaginative topocosm locates individuals in the multiple worlds of possible experience (objective, social, subjective, extra-mundane) and somewhat restricts the possible forms of their relation to these by virtue of the cultural knowledge that its forms of symbolization render plausible. The imaginative topocosm is a contested space of communication/disclosure, constantly subject to the revision of what counts as plausible/implausible, shareable/idiosyncratic. One example of an imaginative topocosm is the biblical one perpetuated through medieval Christianity, which consists of a vertical spiritual hierarchy defining the spatial world, with all kinds of possible irruptions between levels, and a kind of eschatological sine curve defining temporal expectations, with some definite possible destinations. Contestation of this imaginary took all kinds of forms, from poetic representations of mystical visions that courted charges of heresy, through village variants that syncretically incorporated pagan beliefs, to philosophical reworkings of theology in light of Hellenistic theories that, via Thomism, sedimented themselves into the cultural imagination.

We might therefore suppose that all individuals must cope realistically with four existential dilemmas:

  • Finitude
  • Embodiment
  • Individuation
  • Thrownness

Human beings are limited, mortal beings who must deal with the life cycle including the process of ageing (finitude). They do this as embodied entities who experience love and hate (at least), coping with the facticity of their sexuation and the physical situatedness of the body (embodiment). The biological individuation of species members means minimal psychological uniqueness, irrespective of the conformity of personality structures in the society in question, with corresponding demands for the formation of a viable psychological identity around a narrated life history (individuation). And, finally, these finite, embodied individuals find themselves “thrown” into lifeworlds that demand imaginative engagement in order to insert the self into the world as a significant participant.

It seems to me that the imaginative topocosm of Western European culture is:

  • Heteroclite: defined by the antagonism between Jerusalem and Athens, it is also influenced by the line of pagan mysticism that culminates in Romanticism
  • Fourfold: it consists of “private life,” defined through finitude, embodiment, individuation and thrownness into the world.

I suspect that the modern western cultural imaginary involves a radical break with the medieval topocosm:

  • The shift in the meaning of death
  • A definition of inclusive and universal humanity located in the capacity to suffer and the valorisation of human happiness, understood as pleasure, as a legitimate goal
  • The romantic utopia of companionate marriage
  • The provisionality of the imagination and the indexing of spiritual orders to personal visions

Now, if anything might qualify as the product of world-disclosing language use, then it would be the imaginative topocosm of a society. What I want to do next is to distinguish between two versions of this idea, between, that is, relativism and relativity.

The lazy interpretation—ontological relativism

There are analytic and hermeneutic versions of this. I am going to use QUINE and Heidegger as examples (QUINE is an interpretation of Quine).

The analytic version is presented by QUINE (here is a link to his paper on “Ontological Relativity”).

The claim made in that paper is that meaning and reference are distinct—the planet Venus can be referred to by two expressions, “the evening star” and “the morning star,” whose meaning is different (because the observation statement is different). Then the paper proposes that we have to deal with the “inscrutability of reference” and the “indeterminacy of translation”.

  • Reference: every symbolic language (including a natural language) presupposes an “apparatus of individuation” in its syntax together with certain ontological commitments in its semantics. But it is perfectly possible to have two theories of the same domain (or two natural language descriptions of the same stimulus) that deal equally well with the evidence but which imply completely different ontologies. For instance, mathematics (a theory) relies on numbers, but numbers can be constructed as Frege-Russell sets (based on relations of equivalence) or as Neumann (and later, Zermello-Frankel) sets (based on the null set). To what does a mathematical theorem refer, then? We could adopt a truth-semantic approach, and be agnostic about this: the theorem is consistent, but its referent is merely a theoretical posit with instrumental (i.e., mathematical) significance. QUINE thinks that we should have the courage to recognise that we are dealing with two ontologies, relative to the mathematical theory. In “Ontological Relativity,” the example is a native informant pointing out a rabbit to the anthropologist and exclaiming “gavagai!” QUINE’s claim is that we cannot decide whether what is meant is a rabbit’s ear, a young rabbit or a whole adult rabbit, without making some assumptions about how the informant’s natural language’s “apparatus of individuation” divides the world up. The referent of “gavagai” is relative to an analytic hypothesis about the divisibility and individuation of things in the target language, so that it is perfectly possible that two anthropologists will arrive at ontologically distinct manuals of translation for the native discourse (e.g., in manual one, the living whole animal precludes separate iteration of its parts (part-rabbit is always just “rabbit,” as with “water”), while in manual two, the separate parts retain their identity irrespective of their combination with other parts). Alex Orenstein explains it like this: “The essence of inscrutability of reference is the phenomenon that, given an empiricism with its observational base made up of holophrastically construed [i.e., the sentence is the unit of meaning—GB] observation statements, the question of the referents required for the truths that we accept in terms of the base turn out to be whatever objects serve to preserve these truths” (70).
  • Meaning: QUINE’s treatment of meaning aims to demolish an “irresponsible semantics” based on the “myth of the museum,” “in which words were related to ideas much as labels are related to the exhibits in a museum”. The target, then, is the view that meanings are ideas, or perhaps, abstract entities known as “intensional objects” (such as properties and predicates). The myth of the museum states that a sentence is meaningful when there is an object (an idea, an intensional object) that is its sense. As Orenstein explains: “According to the [mythic] view, two expressions are synonymous when they are related to a unique meaning, like two labels for the same painting, so that two sentences are said to be synonymous when they express the same proposition. QUINE thinks that it is not necessary to posit abstract entities of this kind because the meaning of a sentence is just its coordination with observable behaviour. But what that entails is the possibility that two manuals of translation might equally well account for observed behaviour (for instance, responses to the anthropologist’s formulating interrogative sentences about “gavagai” whilst holding up bloodied rabbit portions), yet provide entirely different equivalents in the translation language. “The manuals might be indistinguishable in terms of any native behaviour that they give reason to expect, and yet each manual might prescribe some translations that the other translator might reject”. Meanings are relative to the analytical hypotheses that formulate the interpretation between target and translation language.

Now, the problem here is that despite having separated meaning and reference, QUINE appears to have collapsed them after all: meaning determines reference. This is problematic, because it excludes the possibility of learning processes. When a scientific paradigm shifts—for instance, an astronomical theory—on QUINE’s description, the new paradigm now refers to something entirely different from the old paradigm. This leads rapidly to the notion of incommensurable worldviews that tempts hermeneutics into its flirtation with contextualism, that is, with forms of relativism whose flipside is a despairing scepticism. What is rendered inexplicable on this account is the rather common phenomenon that scientists, for instance, document the improved accuracy that their theoretical advances make possible, without that necessarily entailing a dogmatic belief in a metaphysically realist conception of the referent. On QUINE’s view, scientific advance is nonsense, since “learning processes” actually consist of shifts sideways. And yet Quine, the author, as a naturalistic empiricist, is clearly committed to this kind of process, up to and including the fact that his own philosophy was mainly dedicated to clearing away unnecessary ontological posits in order to make conceptual advances possible.

As Cristina Lafont points out in her book on The Linguistic Turn in Hermeneutic Philosophy (pp264-265), QUINE defends the implicitly relativist view when he maintains that “meaning determines reference within each fixed ontology”. Now, that might mean the factual claim that in order to decide what thing, or part/stage of a thing, is described by a sentence, we have to know the global system of classification, with its implied ontology, that the language in question uses. That is trivially true. But it might also mean that the referent of a statement is provincial, that is, is located within the language, i.e., the referent is intralinguistic, not extralinguistic, then this is certainly false.

Unfortunately, just such a view is implied by the claim in “Ontological Relativity” that “how to slice [e.g., a rabbit] is what ostension, or simple conditioning, however persistently repeated, cannot teach” (189). The QUINEAN claim here is that ostension is the zero degree of reference, and that no learning processes are connected to it, because “meaning determines reference within each fixed ontology”.

Cristina Lafont uses ideas drawn from Kevin Donnellan and Hilary Putnam to refute this kind of claim. In a nutshell, it comes down to the following:

  • We can refer in two distinct ways—there is a distinction between designation and attribution. When I ask at a cocktail party, “who is that woman over there drinking a martini?” the use is probably designative. I am interested in the answer to the question “who is that woman,” and the fact that she is in fact drinking water is irrelevant. But when I ask at an alcoholics anonymous fundraiser, “who is that woman over there drinking a martini?” the use is almost certainly attributive. Her turning out to be drinking water will make a great difference to her being asked to leave, or to stay.
  • Every theory designates some specific region of the world (as evidentially relevant) as part of its process of attribution (of theoretical description, including ontological population). The process of debate—that is, the possibility of dissent—relies on the “internally realist” presupposition that the designated referent can ideally be agreed on by all. That is what gives the process of statement and rejoinder its meaningfulness as a discussion “about something”.

Taylor’s view is a recasting of the lazy hermeneutics of Heidegger. In Taylor’s case, the relevant distinction is not between meaning and reference so much as between the significance and the success of a practice. Taylor collapses the two dimensions into a one-dimensional account of practice as action-cum-meaningfulness. But it is a commonplace of social history that sometimes the success of practices has been contested despite a preservation of their significance (this is sometimes known as “regulated improvisation”) and sometimes the significance of practices has been contested despite perpetuation of them as successful actions (this is especially the case with the profanation of ritualised practices into instrumental actions).

The problem with lazy hermeneutics is that it makes no sense. Different worlds are supposed to be separated out from a continuum by arche-decisions about divisibility and individuation—but from the hypothesis itself, no continuum exists before its differentiation, so there is no relevant term of comparison by which one might assert that there exist incommensurable worldviews. It is like saying that other universes exist. How on earth would you know?


The more demanding interpretation—ontological relativity.

Quine possibly did not intend to generate the QUINEAN interpretation of Quine’s papers; after all, he entitles the paper “relativity,” not “relativism”. What stops Quine from agreement with QUINE is a series of qualifications introduced along the way, but bustled over without due acknowledgement of their force. We can get to the whole series by thinking about Quine’s proposition that “radical translation begins at home,” that is, that logically speaking, speakers of a language community actually confront the same problem as the anthropologist in the field (200). If ostension cannot teach things with certainty, if “we can never settle the matter simply by ostension” (188, emphasis added), then every child must construct their own translation manual in order to learn a natural language. “In practice,” he says, directly contradicting this, “we end the regress of coordinate systems by something like pointing. And in practice, we end the regress of background languages in discussions of the coordinate systems of reference, by acquiescing to our mother tongue and taking its words at face value” (201).

So why, given this contradiction, does Quine imagine that he has successfully learnt to speak English? Because he can reproduce the relation between observed behaviour and meaningful statements as everybody else within his language community—i.e., because as a speaker, he adopts the pragmatic attitude that truth is warranted assertion, which dispenses with anxieties about correct reference and certain meaning, and joyfully embraces a degree of imprecision and uncertainty.

This pragmatic, anthropocentric dimension is under-theorised in Quine’s account. But it is present in claims such as that there is great psychological plausibility in the principle that a moving object against an undifferentiated background is probably the referent of a one term exclamation (191). Against the background of pragmatic assumptions we can manage to point successfully at “something,” and as soon as we reflect on this, we notice that this pointing was accomplished relative to a coordinate system. Just as in Einstein’s theory of relativity, it is the constant speed of light that makes it possible to meaningfully speak of the relativity of coordinate frames, so too Quine’s claim that “it makes no sense to say what the objects of a theory are, beyond saying how to interpret or reinterpret that theory in another” (202) really only has radical bite relative to the very possibility of interpretation itself, which comes down to the ability to point at intelligible things (ie to designation). By intelligible, I mean: anthropocentrically significant—e.g., a moving object against an undifferentiated background. As Orenstein says, the big ontological differences open up where “the collateral information [by which we might decide how to saliently use the sentence to guide behaviour] is remote from the relevant stimulation” (136).

There is not, really, much ontological debate about how to successfully skin a rabbit. Different ontologies come into play in the question of whether to skin it and what role it plays in the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Social Imaginary and World Disclosure

Taylor’s Idea of the Social Imaginary

(Geoff Boucher, 07-11-2013)

Charles Taylor’s account of the emergence of the modern social imaginary in A Secular Age (2007) is highly problematic and points to some of the potential limitations of ontological relativity, as opposed to ontological relativism. Taylor’s interpretive approach involves a historical ontology developed from a combination of an expressive conception of dialectical philosophy and twentieth-century hermeneutic philosophy. Its main contentions are that: (1) historical development consists of a sequence of mutations in a core set of principles that are expressed in societies as distinct epochs or ages (Taylor drops the Hegelian notion that this movement constitutes an ascending series culminating in a rational society); and (2), that this core set of principles constitutes a background network of assumptions and values that forms the horizon of expectations for individuals in that society, entering strongly into their self-identity through their social practices. The conceptual vehicle for this twofold historical ontology is the category of the “social imaginary,” which Taylor has worked up in a series of drafts between Modern Social Imaginaries (2004) and A Secular Age (2007). “The social imaginary,” Taylor writes, “is not a set of ideas—rather, it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society” (“MSI”: 1): the social imaginary is a total ensemble of pre-understandings that determines the significance of practices for the individuals who participate in them. According to Taylor, the modern social imaginary is characterised by a distinctive moral conception of society involving four things—the autonomous individual, the benevolent operation of the market, the public sphere and democratic forms of government by the sovereign people.

Taylor’s main aim in A Secular Age is to provide an alternative historical narrative to the dominant conception of secularisation as involving the subtraction of religion from Western European culture, yielding a (more or less) rational society. He refuses the mainstream sociological definition of Western secularisation, involving the institutional separation of religion from social steering mechanisms (especially the state) and the concomitant privatisation of religious practice as personal convictions of faith, redefining secularisation as the social condition in which belief in God is optional. His argument is that optional faith became a possibility because of a mutation in the medieval Christian social imaginary arising from reform pressures within the church, which allows him to re-interpret the pathway of secularisation in the West from a broadly Catholic perspective. Taylor interprets the Reformation as more influential than the Renaissance, Enlightenment deism as a consequence of anti-clericism plus the “hidden God” of Reformation theology, nineteenth century liberal humanism as a secularisation of the providential framework underlying Enlightenment deism, and the twentieth century as a period of cultural fragmentation following the “nova effect” of the decline of Christian belief and the failure of humanism to contain the nihilistic potential of its own naturalistic framework. The present situation is not entirely the current Vatican’s one of “social chaos and moral crisis” consequent upon the decline of faith, however, because although Taylor thinks that four fragments now contend in the social imaginary (liberal Christianity, religious fundamentalism, humanism and neo-Nietzschean nihilism), he also detects some hopeful potentials. First, the rise of an expressive dimension to the social imaginary centred on the value of authenticity (as a correlate or extension of autonomy) combines with liberal theology to make possible a new spirituality of quest/ioning in tune with the times. Part of the intent of the book, then, is to propose to the pro-Catholic intellectual elite that neo-traditional retrenchment is a lost cause and that, instead, the breakup of dogmatic authority in the tradition provides an opportunity for its renewal. Second, Taylor states that institutions such as democracy and the public sphere are irreversible achievements of modernity that should not be abandoned in the name of a return to a religiously-guided lifeworld. He makes the point that religious fundamentalism is a reaction to the prestige of the natural sciences that attempts to insulate tradition from criticism by interpreting its myths literally and he points to the paradox that this literalisation of language is itself a positivist gesture.

Ultimately, A Secular Age responds to the idea that religious belief (exclusively meaning Christianity, as Taylor restricts his discussion to Western Europe and its settler colonies) is irrational, which is what Taylor understands to be the underlying implication of the “subtraction narratives” of mainstream conceptions of secularisation. He does this by shifting the discussion away from the scientific status of faith’s referent and then refocusing on the social practices that obligatory and optional belief make possible. From this perspective, the question is not “at what point did the discoveries of the natural sciences finally discredit dogmatic religion amongst the popular majority?” but “how did it become possible to imagine the natural world as a mechanical totality regulated by physical laws?”—i.e., “how did the world become disenchanted, and what were the consequences?” Fairly clearly, from this perspective, the Reformation is the key (and Taylor’s discussion of its roots in late medieval Christianity is illuminating), followed by the abandonment by the post-Enlightenment humanist intellectuals of the infinitely distant deity. Less clearly, Taylor emphasises the practical rather than the theoretical aspects of modern disenchanted reason, proposing that his “basic hypothesis is that central to Western modernity is a new conception of the moral order of society” (“MSI”: 1 emphasis added). The fundamental idea is that the ideal of moral autonomy, eventually formulated by Kant on explicitly deist premises as a secularisation of spiritual dignity, cannot deliver a conception of human flourishing sufficient to render social practices meaningful without some additional assumptions. These are a secularisation of divine providence through the postulate of human benevolence that is coordinated by means of market mechanisms, together with the idea that the independent individual will enjoy social prosperity, and therefore human happiness, best, when moral independence is linked to critical debate about the public interest and juridico-political mechanisms ensuring citizenship rights. Liberalism takes shape as a kind of mutation in the medieval social imaginary, or rather, liberal humanism is disclosed as an accidental by-product of reform processes within the Christian world that ran away from their authors. The modern story is of “purposes mistook, and fallen on their inventors’ heads,” that is, a practical tragicomedy, rather than the romance of pure reason.

Now, there is a lot to celebrate in this perspective. Taylor’s notion of spiritual quest as something that is also spiritual questioning, involving doubt rather than “conviction” and interrogation of texts and authorities rather than submission to dogma, is welcome. So too is his proposal that both religion and humanism provide satisfying forms of life that involve legitimate forms of human flourishing, which is a surprisingly open response to the ferocious closure of the “new atheism”. But there is also a lot that remains invisible through the lens of a narrative about the fragmentation of a (relatively) unitary tradition, its replacement by a social imaginary that relies in a hidden way on a notion of transcendence and providence that it explicitly denies, and the beginnings of a breakup of the way of life sustained by this self-contradictory form of existence. The irreducible heterogeneity of the multiple strands in the Western form of modernity, especially the Hellenistic revival in the Renaissance and the Jewish contribution to the Enlightenment, is falsely assimilated to the late medieval moment of Thomism and its dialectical entanglement with the Reformation. The role of experimental science, ancient empiricism and epicurean naturalism in sceptical critiques of false idols in the period leading up to the Enlightenment is neglected altogether, and the shattering impact of late nineteenth century scientific discoveries on the cognitive aspects of religion, and hermeneutic procedures on its textual authority, is massively downplayed. Most importantly, Taylor focuses on the problem of nihilism—the problem of the potential meaninglessness of the modern form of life—to the exclusion of the problem of domination. He entirely lacks a social theory that might explain how the social imaginary that he describes also represents a set of ideological justifications for exploitation and oppression; and, he remains completely uninterested in the possible connections between the medieval and the modern social imaginary, and the colonisation of the rest of the world, a process which, if examined, would set ideals of charity and autonomy in the context of atrocity and exclusion.

What I want to focus on, however, is what I take to be the root of this indifference to the material problem of domination and his exclusive focus on the supposed abilities of ideas to constitute experience: I want to inquire after the intellectual credentials of the very idea of a social imaginary. For a major concept, Taylor is suspiciously vague about it. He says that it combines the notion of modern nations as “imagined communities” with the hermeneutic concept of the lifeworld. Additionally—and decisively—it flows from his approach to language, which involves the “Herder-Humboldt-Heidegger” theory of meaning as “world-disclosing” (“Theories of Meaning,” in Philosophical Papers Volume One, pp248-292—hereafter, “TM,” and the theory is what Taylor himself calls the HHH theory, involving WD, or world disclosure).

Really, my problem is with WD. Basically, theories of WD propose that every entity, as a fact-value complex connected to the phenomenon, is “always already” disclosed within a linguistically-determined horizon of expectations (or “value horizon”—Taylor uses the Nietzschean expression). According to this kind of theory, derived mainly from Heidegger and Gadamer, the lifeworld, or “tradition”—the taken-for-granted background assumptions that make practices meaningful—is not just mediated by language. The thesis is much stronger than that: language constitutes the world of possible experiences within which practices and entities appear in the first place; “language speaks,” as Heidegger announces, meaning that language has autonomy from the speakers whose intentionality is formulated within the words and syntax of their natural language; “there is no thing where the word fails,” meaning that there is no reality external to language that language refers to, hence, with mystical overtones, “language is the house of being”. Unfortunately, despite the considerable insight of Truth and Method, these grandly “apophantic” phrases are uncritically repeated by Gadamer and then transposed into the quasi-Kantian vocabulary that Taylor uses. Language becomes the transcendental locus of world constitution and—via the holism thesis that meaning determines reference—even the robust empirical realism of Kantian philosophy vanishes into what I think is a remarkably fragile linguistic idealism. And I mean idealism: Taylor speaks of practices, but because there is, on this hypothesis, no resistance of the real—because the meaningfulness of a practice and its instrumental enactment as a success-oriented calculation based on the nature of the material are the same thing, that is, because meaning exhausts reference—he can collapse a complex of practices into a briefly stated ideal without, from his perspective, missing anything. Consequences:

(1)     The horizon of expectations constituted through a natural language, which is articulated as a tradition (and especially, as an intellectual tradition—e.g., Christian theology), as a horizon (that is, a place where we are always situated no matter how far we move, a lighted-up clearing composed of thematised matters, which presupposes an endless region of darkness consisting of pre-judgements, of unthematised assumptions), has no outside.

(2)     New worlds are created through fresh articulations of the linguistically-constituted tradition, that is, where for Heidegger the poets legislate new “sendings of being,” for Taylor, the intellectuals perform the same role through their normative legislation to practices, that is, through articulating new conceptions of moral order.

Taylor approvingly cites Wittgenstein: “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life” (“TM,” 281). And, he adds, “you cannot understand a form of life as a pure detached observer” (281). Actually, both of those claims are most likely true. But in the context of the holistic HHH theory, they acquire a certain force that leads in the direction of a monolithic and totalising conception of what a form of life is. To help us to grasp this, Taylor provides us with an imaginative example: some Persians visit classical Athens.

“Observers from some totally despotic culture, dropped into classical Athens, we keep hearing this word ‘equal,’ and its companion, ‘like’ (isos, homoios). … [W]e know a way of applying them to human beings, for instance, physical likeness, equality of height. But there is a peculiar way these Hellenes have of using these words which baffles us. Indeed, they have a pugnacious and perverse way of applying them to human beings who seem to us to be not at all alike, some tall and some short, some of noble birth and some base, and so on. … [W]hat we have not yet got is the positive value of this mode of life. We do not grasp the idea of a people of free agents … [or] their conception of the dignity of man residing in his being this kind of agent” (“TM,” 275-276).

We should resist the temptation to score a quick ethical point here about a kind of Orientalism and focus on the false dichotomy at work here. On the one hand, the Persian observer (who understands nothing, not because he or she is non-European, but because he or she takes an impossible, external view of practices). On the other hand, the Athenian participant (a page later, Taylor confesses that his reported Persian account is actually that which the Herodotus imputes to the Persians). But what about the participant-observer, or, more generally, the dissenting participant? Not a great deal is directly known about Persian-Athenian contact (except that it was restricted), but actually, some important details can be inferred. According to Margaret Miller in Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC (2004), Zopyros Megabyxou was an exile from the court of Ataxerxes and a Persian resident in Athens, who was the main source for the accounts of Persian culture in both Herodotus and Aeschylus (90). These accounts, as Taylor’s own dramatisation indirectly suggests, do not have to do with a failure to perceive the referent of the term homoios (variously “peer” or “equal,” depending on context), but with something rather more profound. The referent is grasped, but the meaning is refused for that referent—hence the apparently obtuse literalism that appears unable (but is actually unwilling) to apply homoios in a legal and political context and insists instead on transposing its application in a natural and social context onto the public sphere (133). The point is simple: the ideal of civic equality supposes that moral likeness is more important than natural or social inequality, when the context concerns matters of public interest; the “Persians” do not misunderstand—they disagree. In this, they joined the voices of the anti-democratic reaction, such as the writer known as the “Old Oligarch”: political equality does not trump natural inequality; so-called isocracy (the rule of law) is better known as “democracy” (a term that nobody, least of all its advocates, defended), which is, in truth, ochlocracy—mob rule. Thucydides also held this perspective. The circle around Socrates, especially Xenophon and Plato, appears to have agreed; Xenophon, for instance, produces a hilariously subversive dialogue between Alcibiades and Pericles that uses the argument from natural inequality, misunderstood as civic equality, leading to arbitrary dictates from a populist majority, in order to propose an equation between democracy and tyranny. We call this dissent.

It is not a possibility that Taylor canvasses. According to him, we cannot grasp the referent of a term without locating its meaning within a horizon that fuses evaluation with description—we have to understand “the positive value of this way of life” in order to “see how [equality] functions to articulate just this horizon of concerns” with a horizontal form of the social bond (“TM,” 276-277).

So the vision we are being asked to enter is the following. Every society is its own discursive universe. Constituted through a natural language (or perhaps a family of them with a common root), these universes have a “horizonal” structure. That is, as we approach their edges, the boundary recedes; what exists does so for us, by virtue of its linguistic constitution. Fortunately, these universes are centred. Their centre is their social imaginary, which is a kind of core ethical tradition. It is ethical because it concerns human flourishing. That is, it is teleological, as opposed to deontological. So these are not really “moral orders,” but teleological frameworks—they are forms of Sittlichkeit, of ethical life. These visions of human flourishing are the social cement of ways of life. As centres of a particular universe, the social imaginary functions to inform the selfhood that is presupposed by the totality of practices constituting that universe. What that means is that entertaining the relevant “strong evaluations” of the world is a condition of possibility for grasping the totality of practices that are disclosed within any particular horizon. That doesn’t mean that the social imaginary is static, that is, that the universe is fixed. No—it mutates, partly as a result of the uneven development of its own inherent potentials (including its own contradictions), and partly, no doubt, as a result of the decisions of agents. What it doesn’t do, however, is transform itself into something altogether different, or hybridise itself as a result of contact with another universe. Instead, these universes float side-by-side through discursive space, perhaps never touching, each on a trajectory determined by the imaginative resources of its natural language. Oh—we can travel to other universes. But when we are there, in order to understand them, we must share their judgments. We must come to see their way of life as positive. And, frankly, we ask no less of visitors.

As far as I can tell, that is what is meant by WD. And it looks to me like ontological relativism.

But am I not being unfair? Isn’t Taylor, with his intellectually courageous and ethically grounded insistence on a perspective that refuses dominant linguistic, theoretical and political orthodoxies, something like the very definition of a dissenting intellectual? And isn’t his account of modernity a story about the world-changing effects of stubbornly pointing one’s finger at the ground, that is, a narrative about how (theological) disagreement caused the late medieval earth to move, with unforeseen effects?

These rejoinders fail to get to the heart of my objection, which is to WD, not to the man or his tale. It is not that Taylor refuses all forms of disagreement. He just fails to make it fundamental. And that is for internally coherent reasons. On the HHH theory, there is nothing to disagree about—not fundamentally. Sure: where there is ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction and so forth, we can disagree about the meaning of a practice. Luckily, this happens all the time. We live in a world characterised by networks of not-always-consistent ideals and by over-determined meaning complexes. So there is plenty to talk about. But there is no fundamental disagreement, that is, no acknowledgement that the referent is contested by two antagonistic descriptions. When Luther points his finger at the ground, the “place” he is pointing at is theologically defined. Taylor persuasively argues that this place was defined in advance by late medieval reformers. Protestantism is not the big break it takes itself to be. That’s fascinating—I’m convinced. But when Renaissance thinkers such as Bacon point their fingers at the ground, their referent is the earth itself, which they maintain can be described naturalistically. What this does is to deny the place of theology that Saint Francis, Erasmus, Luther and all of the other protagonists in the reform debate, affirm. And that, surely, is why the Renaissance must be written out of Taylor’s account.

I have said enough to have aired some concerns. I want to close by briefly contrasting the HHH theory with another kind of theory. For Taylor, language has three functions: expressive, disclosive and articulative (public). It expresses subjectivity, it discloses worlds, and it links these two by making public the connection between self and other/world (“TM,” 272-273). From this perspective, the referential employment of language, especially in correspondence theories of truth and in scientific contexts, involves the literalisation of utterances (“TM,” 284-285). But, says Taylor, that only works when the utterance has propositional content (assertions, questions, commands). In the case of invocations, there is no propositional content. Where the disclosive function fits is anybody’s guess, but it looks like the disclosive and the referential are the same thing. Are we, then, being asked to understand descriptions of the world as metaphors? That would make sense, if the basic task is to retrieve myth (especially biblical myth) from perversely literal interpretations that regard religious texts as pseudo-scientific theories. That is because the disclosive function appears to have entirely usurped the cognitive dimension of language: WD, with its ontological relativism.

Buhler’s organon theory is an alternative. For Buhler, language has expressive, appellative and cognitive functions—it establishes relation between speaker, interlocutor and objects/facts. On this description, I think, the cluster of phenomena that gets described as WD will turn out to be expressive, while cognitive and appellative (i.e., normative) disagreements are possible. That approach is worked out by Habermas, and I want to discuss it a bit in my next section.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Difference, Part II

(Gillian Tan: 06 Nov 2013)

Difference, Part II

Getting a handle on ‘extensive/intensive difference’ may be important. Using the framework of select Yanomami material, Viveiros de Castro suggests extensive difference is all that has occurred after myth and the speciation of beings. It is the making of ‘the discrete’ from ‘the continuous’ and, in this way, underlies all ‘order of things’. It is also inherently connected to the act of naming and of drawing distinctions.

 There are some important points related to this perhaps worth mentioning. First, the act of naming may not be consistent for people with a natural language. This may be due to mis-identification, as in the bird referred to as a ‘sparrow’ in one instance is referred to as a ‘cuckoo’ in another by the same person, or by different persons in the same instance according to different names. And mis-identification could occur due to a number of reasons. Perhaps the representation or image of the bird is inaccurately paired in the one instance against the other; or mis-matched against one person’s representation or another. There is also the likelihood that the people in question don’t really pay strict attention to these sorts of names, and they attach a name ‘sparrow’ when referring to an experience in the past with ‘sparrow’ when they have another similar experience with a ‘cuckoo’. Another possibility is that the people in question have not mis-identified ‘sparrow’ but have another name for it, given the context of their articulation.

 Yet, language is not only the act of naming (external things); it is also the act of communicating, and in this, functions differently from ‘making the discrete from the continuous’. Perhaps, in this regard, it is an attempt to return to the continuous so that, in as much as it is possible, beings can communicate and relate with others. Viveiros de Castro understands the xapiripë, or shamanic spirits, of the Yanomami as neither types nor representations, but names of relations, movements and events. They are ‘the name of the disjunctive synthesis which connects-separates the actual and the virtual…’.

 Nevertheless, we also experience mis-communication – which is how I prefer to understand disagreements; have we fully communicated/listened to the other? When mis-communication occurs, and allowing for the genuine intention to communicate on both sides, wherein lies the difference? Is this what others have called radical, or incommensurable, difference? Is this the difference of ontologies?

 [Because I have referred to him extensively in this blog, I attach a link to Viveiros de Castro’s 2007 article, The Crystal Forest: Notes on the Ontology of Amazonian Spirits].


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Difference, Part I

(Gillian Tan: 05 Nov 2013)

Taking seriously the suggestion to ‘get one’s house in order’, I thought I would use this post as an opportunity to ‘get my own thoughts in order’. This may not be of great interest to others and I will likely reveal how much of my thinking is in the order of pre-theoretical intuition, but it will introduce a few of the thinkers that have influenced my current interest in multiple ontologies, and that may be of broader interest. (Note: Parts II and III to follow).

As I am more comfortable thinking through things, I thought I would start with an empirical example that marks difference among various collectives. The land on which lives one collective of Tibetan nomadic pastoralists is a place that nourishes their animals, and by extension, the nomads themselves. This place is made up of mountains, valleys, lakes, stones, animals, trees, plants and flowers that nomads interact with and know intimately, and that not only houses life, but also has life. This same land is occupied by another collective, namely the group of disciples that have gathered around a Buddhist lama and that comprise not only Tibetans but also Chinese. Most of the Tibetans were not born in this place and none of the Chinese were. Their main interest in the place is through the lama: if he were to move, so would they. As one might imagine, there are innumerable differences between the collectives, most predicated on conditions of temporality and a few others on patterns of thought and behaviour that may be grouped together as ‘cultural’. However, none of these analytical reasons sufficiently get at a difference that is best exemplified by the kinds of relationships that the collectives have with this land respectively. The nomads, through their active and on-going relationships, with the land, with its various topographical features, and with its various entities, live out interactions of care, protection, harvesting, and worship with the place. The Tibetan and Chinese disciples, isolated in large concrete and tile buildings and devoted to Buddhist meditation, might physically live on the land, but lack active relationships with it. Both collectives share, to a certain extent, a belief system that attributes agency to nonhuman actors, that accepts the successive existence of consciousness in the train of karma, and that has a broad definition of ‘life’ and ‘the social’. Despite these similarities, the phenomenological experience of relationships is sufficiently different to entail noticeable, and palpable, differences in how people understand this land and in the effects of their actions on the land. 

How might we understand different differences? And why, or how, might one kind of difference mark ‘difference’ more than other kinds, and does this provide the basis for ‘radical difference’, as proposed by Vivieros de Castro, Holbraad and others?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beginning from some concerns

 (Geoff Boucher: 01 Nov 2013)

I want to get to a position involving ontological relativity rather than ontological relativism. Then I would like to explore some consequences of this for concepts of the lifeworld and (perhaps) for some recent monadologies. My intention is to emphasise that “multiplicity” entails both agreement and disagreement, rather than the multiplication of unities. I think that this can be done without reintroducing “the one,” some kind of unity that precedes every symbolisation. But I will begin by airing some concerns and explaining how I got to the distinction between “relativity” and “relativism” in this context.


So, a first raft of questions:

Is dialogue effective? How do disagreements arise? What are these things about?

 Here is my pre-theoretical intuition. We need to talk about ontological multiplicity, because the conceptual field follows from some positions in current debate that have emerged as reasonable, particularly in light of some discoveries and developments in the sciences and culture. But when we do talk about ontological multiplicity, we need to be able to talk about something like “dimensions of experience”. We need to stop speaking in terms of holisms, such as are entailed in concepts of “ontological relativism”. We need instead to start asking about the “relativity of what?” And we need to have a way of answering that is responsive to shared points of reference and to cognate dimensions of experience, as well as to dissensus and invention.


The position that I want to explore is located in the pragmatic turn within contemporary continental philosophy and especially within Frankfurt School Critical Theory. From within this region of debate, there are interesting collections by Richard Bernstein and by Seyla Benhabib, with titles referencing a “pragmatic turn,” that I have learnt a lot from. What interests me in this field is the possibility of a re-articulation of the (pro-enlightenment and universalistic) emancipatory intentions of historical materialism. But this would be after the linguistic and intersubjective critique of metaphysics, and beyond the fixed universals of Enlightenment philosophy. The pragmatic turn seems to have a lot of contact with ontological multiplicity.

At the same time, something that I am responding to is located in another tradition, namely, post-structuralist hermeneutics. My concern with figures such as Slavoj Zizek and Giorgio Agamben, for instance, is that the radicalisation of hermeneutic philosophy, under post-structuralist assumptions about language, leads to a kind of ontological multiplicity that terminates with the advocacy of religious conversion as the model for political liberation. I think that Zizek’s position, for instance, is a rational development from his starting point, but that it is also—with its invocations of political violence in the service of arbitrary ideals, which are really only partly provocations—so contrary to the emancipatory intentions of the political traditions that he claims allegiance to, that, like solipsism in other contexts, it is an infallible indicator that something is fundamentally awry.


Meaning Holism and the Eclipse of the Referent?

 The potential problems with ontological relativism are well known: radical untranslatability / incommensurability, moral relativism, and self-undermining scepticism when not self-completing nihilism. The root of the problem appears to be with the way in which the hermeneutic critique of transcendental philosophy of the nineteenth century transposed the constitutive role in experience from cognitive structures to linguistically-mediated cultural inventories. This approach was resumed in the twentieth century in the linguistic turn with the thesis that meaning (conceptualised holistically as a relational network of signs) determined not only semantic reference, but also the existence of the referent. The consequence is that it is no longer possible to use language to refer to the same thing in different ways, because the thing is no longer the same thing: two names determine two beings. The fallacious argument that because language determines what can be known of the thing, language therefore predicates the existence of things (a conflation of predication with ostention) leads to radically idealist forms of social constructivism (e.g., the argument that biological sex is the consequence of naming). The most influential and serious versions of this derive from Quine and Wittgenstein. Precisely because these latter are pragmatic positions, they have significance for the sort of position that I have come to prefer. I am therefore going to try to set my own house in order. But I want to flag that the idea that meaning exhausts reference has important consequences for what philosophically-informed perspectives can say about dialogue between disputants over matters of fact (e.g., climate change, systemic dispossession, or the suffering of non-human animals), or between cultural and linguistic communities (e.g., normative dissent about the rightness of politically- or religiously-motivated violence, political questions about the role of religion in public debate). Faced with the multiplicity of natural languages and the contingency of the worldviews within these, the idea that meaning holism determines the existence of the referent readily translates into the misconception that communities are arbitrary but monadic—i.e., a pernicious relativism based on closed forms of holism. Normally, what progressive thinking then does is to secretly introduce a kind of pluralist meta-stance based in a theoretical language claiming to describe this situation from the outside. According to this stance, worldviews should acknowledge the anomalies that render them, despite appearances, open and not closed; and individuals or collectives should value alternative ontologies rather than, as their cultural probably directs them to do, denigrating the entities that present themselves as the bearers of these ontological concepts. This response is no doubt ethically laudable, but completely incoherent (hence, self-undermining), and that for relatively obvious reasons.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Nierika of Tatutsi Xuweri Timaiweme

The Nierika of Tatutsi Xuweri Timaiweme

The Nierika of Tatutsi Xuweri Timaiweme
Huichol yarn painting, 1980
288 x 144 cms
Detail: José Benítez Sánchez
Photo courtesy of Johannes Neurath

Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment