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Ships on a Collision Course

Roger Caldwell revisits reality (and postmodernism, too!).

In my article ‘How to Get Real’ (Philosophy Now, Issue 42) I argued that postmodernism does nothing to improve our understanding of science proper, of the social sciences, or, indeed, of everyday life, but rather serves only to obfuscate. Jason Wasserman argues in Issue 48 that I, along with critical realists in general, have ‘missed the point’ and offers a rapprochement (of sorts). He claims that postmodernism and critical realism both have useful things to say, and can be seen as complementary, as ‘ships that pass in the night’ rather than ships on a collision course.

How, though, to effect this rapprochement? The answer, for Wasserman, is simple. Reality presents itself to us under two forms, that of meaning and value on the one hand, and that of function on the other. All that is needed is for critical realists to give up that worrying superfluous notion of ‘truth’ or ‘truth-likeness’ and the two sides can happily co-exist. This is somewhat disingenuous, simply because critical realism depends centrally on notions of truth and to give these up is to slide into the postmodernist camp without so much as a murmur. The very metaphor of ‘ships that pass in the night’ – no doubt it is a postmodernist one – scarcely suggests a constructive interaction but rather a mutual indifference, and, of course, indicates that they are heading for different destinations. In my reply, in order to ensure that the two at least actually meet, I shall try as far as possible to use Wasserman’s own examples to show that the notion of truth is indispensable if we are to talk of reality at all.

When is a knife not a knife?

Wasserman talks throughout his article about the meaning of objects and their definitions. Normally we talk of words having meanings or definitions rather than the objects to which they refer. A knife as object may have subjective meanings for its owner (as gift, ornament or ceremonial object). The word ‘knife’ has an objective meaning for users of English as a human artefact designed for cutting or stabbing.

None of this is very thrilling, and it hardly moves us into exciting ‘postmodernist’ territory. Let us consider the case where A is found dead with a knife in his body. The fingerprints on the knife are those of B who is known to have had a grudge against A. There is a subsequent trial at which B is convicted of the murder of A ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

Criminal trials in general no doubt serve a number of social functions, such as retribution and deterrence. They may serve the latter function at least even if the wrong person is convicted. But regardless of meaning and value, and of function, it remains a question of truth whether or not B in fact murdered A. In all cases it is theoretically possible, however much evidence we’ve gathered against B, that we have the wrong man. As Quine might have put it, all our theories are underdetermined by data. But though we can never establish complete certainty, that doesn’t mean there is no truth of the matter as to who and what was the cause of A’s death.

According to Wasserman “there are objectively functional processes in the world. This does not mean, however, that we are able to make objective conclusions about the meaning and value of the objects in relation. The knife still means different things in different contexts.” It is hard to make much of this. If by ‘objectively functional processes’ Wasserman means causal ones, then it is hard to see why rational inquiries shouldn’t seek to establish the existence of these causal processes. As to the meaning and value of the objects in question, we can’t reach objective conclusions about this because the objects in question have no objective meaning and value. In any event, for the purposes of a murder trial we have no need for an exhaustive definition of the word ‘knife’. Simply, the murder object in question is one we can all confidently designate with that word.

Family, Marriage, and Social Facts

Wasserman cites the case of the Ik of Uganda to show that the family is not the fundamental social unit we commonly suppose it to be. But it is no great news that ‘family’ is a fairly fluid concept, and that what constitutes a family unit in India or Somalia is very different in Northern Europe and America. It doesn’t follow from this that we are unable to talk meaningfully about such a concept as ‘family’ or, indeed, of ‘marriage’.

That the meanings and values attached to marriage differ from society to society and, indeed, between individuals in the same society doesn’t mean that marriage is a merely a subjective matter of taste. Most individuals in most societies know whether they are in fact married, and usually to whom. They have to, since usually there are legal and social consequences involved. Marriage, like money, political parties, parliaments, taxes and country clubs, is a social fact, in that it is not a subjective but an intersubjective matter, and as such not something whose existence is negotiable, or exhausted by its functionality (or lack of it). We haven’t the luxury, that is, of denying that they exist. As John Searle reminds us, “Nothing is more certain than taxes, and death.”

Social facts only exist in the context of the human world in which they are embedded. The social sciences typically study intentional entities, that is, those brought into being by the intentions, whether conscious or not, of human beings. Given that they are essentially human constructs rather than natural ones they may be subject to historical change. By comparison, the objects of study of the physical sciences, such as atoms, electromagnetic fields, sodium, bacteria and trilobites, are not dependent on human intentions. The existence of these entities precedes any human knowledge of them. Our knowledge of them doesn’t constitute the entities in question or affect their nature.

Meaning, Function, and Truth

Wasserman makes heavy weather of the distinction between meaning/value and function. The latter term is the more problematic one. ‘Function’ has had a long, if scarcely uncontentious, history in the social sciences – but it is less easy to see what it means in the context of physical or biological explanation. Lévi-Strauss once said that “Saying that societies function is trivial. But stating that everything in society is functional is absurd.” Wasserman by contrasts finds functions everywhere – he even finds the universe itself to be ‘functional’, though quite what function he finds the universe as such to serve remains unclear. For that matter, it may be asked what function a human baby has, or a rainbow, or Roger Caldwell, or Jason Wasserman?

The latter attempts unconvincingly to mesh Kant’s synthetic/analytic distinction with his functional/meaningful one. For Kant a synthetic proposition is one whose truth-value is not determined by the meanings of its terms, an analytic proposition one whose truth-value is so determined. We need independent knowledge of the world to establish a synthetic proposition like “Bush is President of the United States” (it could have been Kerry) but we need only to understand the meanings of its terms to know whether an analytic proposition like “All bachelors are unmarried” is true. How this ties in with Wasserman’s project remains obscure. Further, if you wish to follow Quine, as Wasserman later attempts to do, the attempt to use Kant becomes even more pointless, as Quine famously argues against the validity of the synthetic-analytic distinction.

Wasserman tells us that according to postmodernists “there is no such thing as objective reality since, in terms of defining objects, all ‘reality’ is defined in this way”. But all reality isn’t defined in this way, otherwise we would be unable to distinguish subjective representations of reality (social or extrinsic function) from objective representations of reality (intrinsic function, for example, that of the heart in the human body). One begins to wonder if, behind all this talk of function, there doesn’t lurk a more insidious concept, that of ‘usefulness’, and the looming sinister presence of Richard Rorty.

Science, Everyday Reality and Richard Rorty

There is an essential link between science and everyday reality. There is no privileged ‘scientific method’ and the findings of science aren’t necessarily more certain than the findings of any other rational inquiry. Whether it is a matter of establishing whether A was killed by B, if certain bacteria cause polio, whether Hitler ordered the concentration camps, or whether the earth rotates around the sun, the same standards are required, including those cited by Susan Haack as “respect for evidence, care in weighing it, and persistence in seeking it” – indeed, the same “standards by which we judge all inquirers, detectives, historians, investigative journalists, as well as scientists.”

Such inquiries are not simply a matter of words but of examining and analyzing such entities as bloodied knives, looking at little wriggly things through the microscope, turning over documents, observing planetary motions with a telescope. Science may use special instruments and specialized techniques, but the same process is at work: that of gathering evidence to support a theory. In some cases it may prove impossible to reach a solution – as in the finding “Cause of death unknown.” This finding is reached not because the investigators could not reach agreement; rather, they could not reach agreement because there was insufficient evidence to warrant one theory rather than another.

Were it all a matter of language the bother of all this sifting of evidence would be a nonsense – we could simply posit the existence of bacteria to account for polio, or in Rorty’s example, physicists could invent particles as “a device for predicting or controlling the environment.” (Quite how they could manage to do this if the particles didn’t in fact exist remains obscure). Wasserman claims that I attempt to force postmodernism “down paths most of its proponents never intended.” In fact, what I am trying to do is to show what are the unacceptable consequences of the attempt, in Rorty’s terms, “to replace the reality/appearance distinction with that between more or less useful.”

For Rorty rational inquiry reduces to a matter of rhetorical persuasiveness: science is no different in essence from politics. It is interesting to note that Rorty has attempted to persuade other philosophers – like Quine, Davidson, and Dennett – into his neopragmatist fold: all three emphatically demurred. His success is greater with littérateurs and social scientists than it is with philosophers and physical scientists: it is hard not to feel in this unequal reception an element of ‘science-bashing’, that is, a tendency to readily accept any theory that has the effect of offsetting a perceived scientific hegemony. But if science is not epistemologically privileged in this way – one remembers Einstein’s dictum that “the whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking” – then that purpose has little point to begin with. In any event if you espouse such a theory, then you must be prepared to follow through its consequences.

In Philosophy and Social Hope Rorty offers us a somewhat curtailed sort of ‘realism’. He is generously prepared to believe that such natural entities as giraffes, rocks and planets exist, and that they pre-existed the advent of mankind, but not that we can meaningfully talk about them except insofar they serve our interests, that is, whether they make life better for us. We thus have the situation that the sun and the earth are pre-existing objective realities, but there is no truth as to what they are composed of, how they originated, or what is the relation of the one to the other. Rather, in a fundamentalist Christian society it is helpful to see the sun as circling the earth. For the purposes of space travel it is helpful to see the earth as orbiting the sun. Neither theory is in any objective sense ‘true’ but to be seen as relating to the needs of the particular society in question.

For most of us, quite apart from the advantages of space travel, we believe that the earth orbits the sun because the evidence is overwhelming that it in fact does so, and, what is more, it orbits the sun regardless of the needs and preferences of human beings. As Charles Taylor notes, Kepler, in postulating his ellipses, was not simply proposing a new way of talking about the heavens, but “the enframing understanding of the whole inquiry was that this was the way they had always been, and would make sense of all observations past, present, and future.”

For Rorty there is no way to get outside our beliefs and language to find any test other than coherence. For Taylor there is a quite obvious sense in which we check our theories against reality, this being a feature of the ordinary everyday reality we all operate on. One doesn’t have to go to science to see this. Take a commonplace situation where A thinks (has the theory) that his partner is cheating on him. What does he do? He looks for evidence: e-mails, letters, telephone calls, new underwear, unexplained absences, and so on. And in most cases her frank admission “I’m going to live with X”, and her subsequent moving out, would seem to clinch the matter.

Karl Popper and those who built on his ideas in the philosophy of science sought to demarcate scientific forms of enquiry (for example, physics, chemistry, biology) from non-scientific forms (for example, astrology, the Marxist philosophy of history, psychoanalysis, postmodernism). This is no doubt a useful venture. But in the absence of a special logic of scientific discovery it is necessary to recognize the continuum between scientific method and the methods we employ in any other kind of rational inquiry. Scientific realism and everyday realism are, in this sense, one and the same.

Postmodernity versus Postmodernism

There is nothing magic in a name. If one needs a label to designate the contemporary globalized, consumer-oriented, services-based, media-saturated society there are any number available: for example, postindustrialism, late capitalism, late modernity, as well as postmodernity. It is unfortunate that the last term is associated with a body of ‘theory’ – postmodernism – that is logically distinct from it. There is something of an epistemological jump from the delineation of a society marked by fragmentation (but also by globalization) to the claim that all reality is now virtual reality (Baudrillard) or that all knowledge – scientific knowledge included – is somehow in crisis (Lyotard) or that language has somehow ceased to be referential (Derrida, Rorty).

Wasserman seeks support in Zygmunt Bauman for his ‘postmodern critique of the real’. But Bauman declares that he now prefers to speak of ‘liquid modernity’ rather than ‘postmodernity’ precisely because “I found myself in the company of bedfellows with whom I would rather not share a bed.” Nor does he see any linguistic crisis of representationalism: “our language serves our daily tasks quite well”. Of course, he speaks – as Wasserman reminds us – of meanings and values, but who doesn’t? If to do so is what constitutes postmodernism then we are all, and always have been, postmodernists.

Wasserman reminds us that “the meaning of the body is contextual.” Well, yes. But it nonetheless remains the case that the role played by the heart in the human body (that of pumping blood) is not contextual but intrinsic. Similarly, our bodies need to be biological bodies if they are also to be social ones. Wasserman asks us to “Imagine the predicament of a person with a sexual partner who viewed them [sic.] with the eye of a biologist.” Here my point is that the biologist explains how the body works in the same way as the physicist explains the phenomenon of the rainbow. My sexual partner, by contrast, is not in the business of explanation. (Nor, I should hope, does he or she regard me only as a body; if I am not seen also as a person I should maybe be advised to find another sexual partner.)

Still the question remains: what, all its rhetoric aside, does the postmodernist ‘critique’ amount to? To tell us that all human inquiry is in some way contextual doesn’t tell us very much, nor does it follow from this – why should it? – that the notion of truth is to be dispensed with. As Hilary Putnam points out: “What we say about the world reflects our conceptual choices and our interests, but its truth or falsity is not simply determined by our conceptual choices and our interests.” Who but a postmodernist would think otherwise?

The points at issue are serious ones – particularly since such large swathes of academia in the social sciences at least play lip-service to postmodernist tenets, and in some areas (social constuctivism) are saturated with them. Wasserman proposes, following Rorty, that we drop the notion of truth. If, however, the notion of truth is not something that we can even in principle drop, then reality no longer dances tantalizingly always somewhere beyond our grasp. No one, not even the postmodernist, actually lives in a factual vacuum. Our lives are already embedded in reality, some of which we can change (social facts, like governments and laws) and others that we can’t (physical facts, such as whether the earth orbits the sun). If, however, following the postmodernist, all physical facts are to be dissolved into social functions, the distinction between the two is lost. Somewhat fantastically, even the question whether the earth orbits the sun becomes a matter that is ultimately dependent on the linguistic conventions we adopt. This is not, however, a realist stance but an anti-realist one. But for most of us the significant philosophical questions –and all our practical ones – take place not in any argument between realism and anti-realism, but within the domain of realism itself. What needs to be shown is how postmodernism helps us (rather than hinders us) in answering such basic questions as: What can we know? How can we acquire further knowledge? and How can we use what we know to build a better society? If it is unable to do this – as it manifestly is – then it is hard to see that the postmodernist ‘critique’ is anything more than an academic entertainment, a sort of launching of paper boats that have no purpose beyond themselves. There is no postmodernist ship on the sea at all – or if there is, there is nowhere to go in it, nor is it likely to voyage far, given that it is so manifestly full of holes.

© Roger Caldwell 2005

Roger Caldwell is a poet, philosopher and literary critic who lives in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry, This Being Eden, was published by Peterloo Press.

Background Reading

• Zygmunt Bauman & Keith Tester, Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman (Polity Press 2001)
• Charles Guignon and David R. Hiley (editors), Richard Rorty (Cambridge University Press 2003)
• Susan Haack, Defending Science – Within Reason (Prometheus 2003)
• David Lyon, Postmodernity (2nd edition. Oxford Univ Press 1999)
• Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy (Harvard Univ Press 1992)
• Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin 1999)


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