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Martin Savransky is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He works at the intersections of philosophy, postcolonial studies & political ecology. Thiago Pinho talks with him about Pragmatism and the politics of the pluriverse.
My first question is simple and direct, while being a little personal too. What is the importance of Pragmatism, in your new book Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, and in your career in general?
Photo portrait © Lukas Bartkus 2021
I’m not sure it’s such a simple question, but I’ll try to give you a simple answer. To my mind, Pragmatism is nothing more but also nothing less than an art of consequences. Pragmatism – especially in the tradition of William James, which is the one I’m closest to – is appraising our ideas, questions, propositions, and concepts in terms of the consequences they’re liable to generate. This is critically important both to the ways in which I relate to philosophy and to the manner in which I seek to compose a certain philosophical experimentation. I have immense interest in the great feats of philosophical and metaphysical abstraction, but especially insofar as they constitute propositions – ways of opening up what I call ‘possibles’ (or possibilities for transformation). Pragmatism in these terms is to ask of our ideas that they disclose the possibles they allow. It’s the intensification of a certain philosophical and political sensibility that rejects the comfort and protections of the abstract, of universal principles, to dare affirming the risky and experimental task of learning to live in a world without intellectual foundations. While Pragmatism has often been reduced to a mere theory of truth, the fact is that for James the meaning of truth is existential before it is cognitive. Which is to say that Pragmatism, above all, is an art of living dangerously! And as you’ve noticed, these questions and risks, and forms of philosophical experimentation tend to follow me wherever I go.
Isabelle Stengers, who I know has influenced you throughout your career, makes a distinction between ‘thinking about’ and ‘thinking with’. It is evident that that’s not a simple semantic difference, but something deeper, as we see in your book.
In fact, this is in some sense a question of style. Part of the reason many social scientific and philosophical texts have such a regrettable style has to do with the way in which these disciplines have been formed. Certain habits and patterns of thought have developed that understand their task as one of producing knowledge of various aspects of social life or of the world, yet they simultaneously neglect the way in which the disciplines participate – whether they like it or not – in a certain poetics of knowledge. But disciplines participate in the worlds that they ask questions of, or make claims about, and they do so by and as they ask those questions and articulate those claims.
It is precisely at this point that we can begin to sense the difference between ‘thinking about’ and ‘thinking with.’ For instance, I never sought for Around the Day in Eighty Worlds to provide an exegesis of James’s thought – that is, think about his thought. Exegetical exercises can be rewarding and important. But something else is at stake when one attempts the rather more difficult and experimental task of ‘thinking with’ – not only thinking with other thinkers, but also with other practices, modes of living, and ways of composing the world. When I relay James’s thought as part of that task, the challenge is not simply to elucidate the meaning of various concepts, let alone to dissect a series of passages from his books, to arrive at some abstract conception. Thinking with James is rather to seek to grasp something of the vision and sensibility of his thought in order to reactivate it, to enable it to reignite the imagination. Once again, there is a Pragmatic dual question here: what possibilities might a certain reading of James render us capable of perceiving, and what differences might those possibilities make ? If in this book I try to think with James – as well as with many other worlds, even if not exactly eighty, as the title suggests – it is in order to explore profoundly interesting questions about the nature of reality and the different ways in which we participate in it; about how certain modern forms of realism have become forms of colonization; and about how we might render one another capable of transforming the ways we inhabit the world.
Speculation is an important method for you, and the background of your book. Why?
In a way, the question of speculation is simply the other side of the coin of the Pragmatism question. Pragmatism always asks what difference a concept is capable of making in response to certain problems. It is also at the same time an attempt to connect concepts to the possibles the concepts intensify and dramatize. A kind of philosophical experimentation gets underway in the very act of weaving together Pragmatism and speculation, differences and possibles, which I call Speculative Pragmatism. It involves thinking with the present in order to render ourselves capable of imagining our worlds in other ways. This is what to my mind distinguished the Pragmatism of someone like James from that of John Dewey, or indeed, from the contemporary Pragmatism of someone like Richard Rorty. Rorty’s approach appears to dominate the understanding of Pragmatism these days and sadly it has completely abandoned the speculative dimension of James’s work, reducing Pragmatism to a sort of language game and a very impoverished nominalism.
You talk about a ‘pluralistic realism’. What’s the difference between this and other types of realism that are around today – for example, speculative realism?
Well, realism tends to be associated with any kind of theory that says something is real, that something exists independently of us and our ideas. A great number of realisms, including some of the speculative ones, tend to be profoundly concerned with the question of how to draw the line between what is real and what is not. In a sense, each form of realism is its own way of drawing that line. But that, to my mind, ends up transforming realism into a belligerent gesture.
What I call a pluralistic realism, meanwhile, is first and foremost characterised by the refusal to draw that line. I’m more interested in problematizing the very distinction between reality and unreality, not by claiming there is no such thing as reality but rather by wagering that everything is in some sense real, and not just what is deemed ‘independent of us’. Also, what I’m experimenting with is whether we could turn realism into an empirical metaphysical project rather than legislative and abstract one. I mean, what if, instead of seeking to determine once and for all what the structure of reality is so that we can draw the line that enables us to disqualify some things from it, we connected the task of metaphysics with the question of what reality is capable of? I mean, let’s go out there and find out what’s real! Pluralism turns realism into an empiricist and collective exercise. Yet ‘going out there’ is not a rejection of metaphysics. Quite the contrary! It is rather an attempt to put our metaphysical speculations to the test of experiences, around the day, in eighty, or a thousand, worlds. If ghosts, say, are real somewhere, in some situations – for example in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami – then perhaps an entire metaphysical edifice, and above all an entire way of constructing public life, of doing politics, all of which are built upon the sheer impossibility of certain things, would be in need of serious revisions and transformations. How might we approach those transformations, if we refused to disqualify the reality of ghosts? The book explores some of these questions.
Throughout the book you use an interesting term that’s strongly related to your decolonial studies,‘world-monification’. What do you mean by that?
‘World-monification’ is a not-entirely-pretty term that I made up to label a not very pretty historical process. It is a means of dramatizing the fact that ‘monism’, the philosophical position that privileges unity over multiplicity, sameness over difference, is not merely a philosophical position that one can take up, or put down, but a socio-historical process. William James already made this clear in 1907, in his Pragmatism lectures: the world is constantly undergoing processes of unification brought about by all sorts of practices, systems, forms of communication, influences, and causes that are constructed within it and which compose it. If we think of monism in these terms, then we can read the tangled histories of capitalism, colonialism, and the exploitation of natural resources as histories of the ‘monification of the world’. It’s the process by which the world became the globe, the one ‘world-system,’ as some historians call it. Modern globalisation began as an alliance between monism and colonialism. It was a project of homogenisation, for it involved a devastation of differences. The very idea of the world as a globe not only recalls the disasters of what we have come to call ‘globalisation’, but of course the very pandemic we’re in the midst of. Which is to say that monism is not merely a conceptual metaphysical proposition, but that there’s also a historical, practical, and material process of monification.
You think we must go beyond the never-ending debates about the nature of knowledge that circulate in universities. Am I right? Perhaps we have to go in another direction?
I certainly think philosophy has somewhat overdone the importance of epistemology, or at least presented questions of knowledge as freed from assumptions of their own.
One of the assumptions is, as it happens, a distinctly modern one – and moreover, a distinctly Kantian assumption. Kant argued that as knowing beings we are fundamentally divorced from reality. We can say nothing about reality itself, because reality itself exists beyond any possible perception we could have of it. Whatever we do know is learned through some form of intermediary, which ends up being more important to whatever we say than reality itself. In the process, politics, for example, becomes subsumed under epistemology. This is why I always want to point out that there is no politics of knowledge without a politics of reality. This isn’t to say that one must somehow ignore all epistemological questions, for sometimes knowledge and our modes of knowing are indeed at stake. But the key word here is ‘sometimes’. What I argue against is the assumption, in postcolonial studies and elsewhere, that an examination of the political nature of knowledge is somehow the main way in which critical analysis (and subsequent politics) is to be pursued. I don’t share that assumption. I think there’s much more to decolonial politics than a politics of knowledge. Knowledges grow out of worlds the knowledges themselves can never hope to exhaust. As such, the worlds themselves are at stake, not simply how we know them. Reality, as James said, feels like itself – in the plural.
In philosophy we’re stuck in this Kantian scenario all the time. This is very problematic, especially when we want a more faithful commitment to reality itself; for example, when we try to follow the vitalist path of authors like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway by connecting together not only humans, but animals and objects. How can I talk about objects? How can I talk about animals? All this is strange if we’re stuck in a relationship between immediate human knowledge and an unknowable reality beyond it.
Indeed. My sense is precisely that those thinkers you mentioned, but also others such as Vinciane Despret and Isabelle Stengers, have done excellent work not least in seeking to articulate means by which one might come to learn how to take social relations seriously. There is no society without objects, things, non-human beings. We would not even be able to make sense of, let alone construct, the forms of public life we have inherited without the existence of doors, for instance, or without the millions of other-than-human organisms with which we inhabit the world and which inhabit us in turn. ‘We have never been human’, says Haraway; and she’s right insofar as she means that there is no such thing as a human being constituted without innumerable non-human beings, from bacteria to gods. As such, the assumption that objects and non-humans are simply there ‘for us’, doing nothing, is philosophically deeply questionable and also empirically untenable. There would be no us without them. If one is interested in the social world, in what we usually call ‘society’, one truly would have to be intensely trained in quite a systematic fashion to end up neglecting the presence and importance of so much that composes what one claims to be interested in studying.
Especially trained, perhaps, in political terms, because this Kantian paradigm of our separateness from reality is convenient for us, since it means we can control everything, or at least this is the impression we give ourselves. Moreover, if reality becomes nothing more than merely a ‘structure of power relations’, or if all truth is just an ‘unfolding of language games’, this creates the impression that we can finally discover the culprits responsible, as well as a sense of control. That is why we cannot go beyond a Kantian detachment from reality – because it is so convenient and warm in this Kantian house.
This is precisely what Whitehead once called ‘minds in a groove’. It’s the result of decades of disciplinary formation and training. And of course, the groove comes with many advantages: everything is susceptible to being brought back to a terrain in which researchers feel comfortable – to the kinds of explanations that social scientists already know how to articulate. There’s something very regrettable, sometimes poisonous, in this habit. It makes it very difficult to learn anything new. But the detachment from reality does make social scientists very good at discussing the power of language, of knowledge, of ideology. Yet there is also something rather counterintuitive in those contemporary metaphysical assumptions about the comprehensive power of language and knowledge. It is rather self-evident that there are things in this world, beyond language and knowledge, that make a vital difference to what this world is. One really has to work very hard to make them disappear, to always find a way of making them about the handful of notions we already know how to handle. But here we are…
Sometimes you can see this in the philosophical field here in Brazil, too. The idea, for example, that someone is smart if and only if she is able to expose the contradictions within her object of study – whether that is another person, idea or institution. This attitude is very reminiscent of what some have called ‘epistemological resentment’. Unfortunately, we’re in this resentful process all the time now. Never building, but always criticizing, destroying, or showing contradictions.
That is just what in my first book I called ‘the ethics of estrangement’. That book, The Adventure of Relevance, was concerned with practices of knowledge-making in the social sciences. But as you say, this ethics of estrangement is precisely the attitude of assuming that things are never as they seem. If that were so, the task of critique, and the purpose of one’s own critical faculties, would therefore be to go beyond appearances, seeking to gain access to a ‘really real’ realm of causes, factors, powers, and so on. I think such an ethic is indeed at the heart of many philosophies and social sciences; but it is also indeed at the heart of modern culture. It’s one of the poisons. The task, I think, is how to decolonise the imagination, to cultivate what I called an “ethics of adventure,” that is more curious than suspicious, more experimental than resentful.
• Thiago Pinho took his PhD in Sociology at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil, where he now teaches.
• Martin Savransky’s book Around the Day in Eighty Worlds: Politics of the Pluriverse is due to be published this year.