The relativity of bananas, part 4: Conclusion

In my first post to this blog I claimed that

Marx states, or at least implies, that the truth or falseness of knowledge depends on the knower’s position in social relations, particularly relations of struggle.

The time has come for me to justify this statement.

Up to this point I have discussed how knowledge, even knowledge of an apparently simple object like a banana, emerges from complex dynamic networks of physical, social, and practical relations.

A segment of a social network

So far, so good. Except that this terminology suggests a separation between these three types of relations that I don’t actually want to imply.

Terminological point #1: Let me collapse all three types of relations together under the concept of material social relations. I will use this term to refer to relations in which the social, the practical, and the physical all constrain one another.

This term requires a bit of explanation.  It might suggest that there are other kinds of social relations, non-material social relations even.  But as I use it, the phrase ‘material social relations’  reminds us to consider the physical and practical dimensions of all social activity.

Terminological point #2: Let me use the term figurations to refer to dynamic networks of material social relations. (Thanks to Norbert Elias for this term.)

I have argued that knowledge emerges from material social relations and can never achieve independence from those relations. The same argument implies that any claims that people make about truth, any standards they use to evaluate truth-claims, and any decisions they reach about what “is true” or what “is not true”, all take place within and through material social relations — including even the claim that truth somehow transcends those relations.

In other words, truth is materially-socially relative.

But what this implies about truth depends on the shape and the distribution of the figurations that produce truth.  In my published work I have discussed five general possibilities:

1) Individualist rationalism

In this view, the physical and practical dimension of material social relations, deriving from the common biophysical inheritance of human beings as organisms, predominates over their social dimension, so that all human beings approach the world with basically the same cognitive dispositions and, given sufficient resources and freedom from social interference, will reach the same conclusions about what the world consists of and how it works.

2) Functionalist holism

In this view, social formations like culture or discourse significantly determine our perceptions, our rationality, our criteria of validity, and so on, making truth socially variable. However, society as a whole organizes these formations into a bounded, internally integrated system that generates an overarching coherence and unity among all of our various narratives, producing a form of universal truth.

This truth varies according to the integrative mechanism of society, and therefore varies from one society to the next or, at least, from one type of society to the next.  The truth that a modern industrial society compels us towards differs from that which a feudal agrarian society compels its members towards, and from the truth of a nomadic forager society etc.  Universal truth is universal only within a given species of society.

I take Durkheim to have implied exactly this view in his discussion of “the normal and the pathological” in The Rules of Sociological Method, taken together with his observations about the social basis of our experience of time, space, and category in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

Durkheim’s analysis implies that early 20th-century Aboriginal Australians inhabited not only a different cosmology but a different cosmos than the one inhabited by their English colonizers. Thus, when the English forced the Aborigines to learn Christianity and Western science, they didn’t just change how the Aborigines viewed the world; they moved them forcibly from one universe into another.

A version of this thinking got picked up by classic cultural anthropologists like Mead and Benedict, and came to define one of the ways that academics popularly understand relativism: as a view that truth (and morality) vary incommensurately from one society to the next, with the implication that Westerners have no business judging the views (or the morals) of their non-modern, non-Western Others as wrong or inferior.

But unlike the cultural anthropologists, Durkheim believed that societies evolve along a linear path from lower to higher, towards the integration of disparate human societies into a single global society. This linear evolutionary process implies that the truth of a globally integrated humanity has a universal validity that the truth of locally integrated societies necessarily lacks. I think Durkheim judged the violent erasure of Indigenous worldviews by colonizers as lamentable but necessary.

3) Dialectical historical materialism

Where functionalists perceive society as an organically integrated whole, Marx perceived it as fundamentally divided by an internal contradiction. In other words, for Marx, the very principle that integrates society – capitalist production – also divides it. The very relations that connect people to each other and make them dependent on each other also pit them against each other. Society functions, but it functions like a machine whose functioning causes it to tear itself apart. (At the same time, this tearing-apart promises to give rise to a newer better society, one without an internal contradiction.)

Marx locates this contradiction in material social relations and, specifically, in relations of production.  The division of society into capitalists and workers results from the basic relation of buying and selling human labour-power as a commodity (what he called the ‘alienation’ of labour-power).  In his work, capital and labour appear not just as two contending groups of people, but as social forces generated at the two ends of the relation of this alienation of labour-power.

Marx also claimed that human consciousness emerges from material social relations (not precisely as I have defined this term, but close enough, I think).  This implies that labour engenders a different consciousness, including different values, different perceptions, and a different rationality, than that of capital. Capital, to reproduce itself, continually imposes its consciousness on working people, but Marx saw this as a battle and one that capital would ultimately lose.

In the meantime, I take Marx’s position as implying that truth varies by one’s class position, such that the truth of labour differs systematically from the truth of capital, just as the truth of labour exploited under capitalism differs from the truth that will emerge as and labour succeeds in abolishing class society once and for all.

4) Constructionism

This view assumes that social formations like culture or discourse significantly determine our perceptions, our rationality, our criteria of validity, and so on, making truth socially variable, but that no overarching social system, whether organically integrated or dialectically contradictory, assigns these formations any overarching coherence.  Multiple truths emerge and dissolve endlessly without any larger order or purpose. Liberal postmodernists like Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard take this view.

5) Heterarchy

A fifth view begins with either Durkheim’s or Marx’s conception of an over-arching social system and says, “what if there are not just one of these but several?”. In the dialectical version of this, society contains multiple contradictions based on multiple types of material social relation, rather than the single contradiction between capital and labour analyzed by Marxians.  This view perceives complex order where a postmodernist sees contingency, but also perceives multiplicity where Durkheim perceives unity and Marx perceives duality.

I take this view.

By now, this post has gotten much longer than I intended and needs to wind up.

I have at least answered, briefly, the question of how Marxian historical materialism implies the social relativity of truth.

What this has to do with social change I will have to discuss in a future post.

4 thoughts on “The relativity of bananas, part 4: Conclusion

  1. Thanks for taking time (too much, I see) to answer my question. Probably we ought to sit down and drink beer while we talk about this, but here’s my new question to mull or dismiss as you see fit.

    I agree with you here: “Marx also claimed that human consciousness emerges from material social relations (not precisely as I have defined this term, but close enough, I think). This implies that labour engenders a different consciousness, including different values, different perceptions, and a different rationality, than that of capital. Capital, to reproduce itself, continually imposes its consciousness on working people, but Marx saw this as a battle and one that capital would ultimately lose.” NOTE, however, that the consciousness of one group can be imposed on another with some degree of success, even if in the long sweep of history, Marx predicts (still waiting…) that capitalism itself will create the conditions for workers to jointly and correctly apprehend their condition.

    But here is where my question marks pop up: “In the meantime, I take Marx’s position as implying that truth varies by one’s class position, such that the truth of labour differs systematically from the truth of capital, just as the truth of labour exploited under capitalism differs from the truth that will emerge as and labour succeeds in abolishing class society once and for all.” Does this formulation slide from “consciousness” to “truth” in a way that suggests that they are one and the same? I don’t think Marx would pose the two as identical. Consciousness, as I read Marx, is usually about the forms and categories through which people apprehend their situation: workers may not perceive themselves as being in a relationship with capital that is fundamentally exploitative, for example. But consciousness may or may not coincide with the situation itself; workers are, in fact, in a relationship with capital that is fundamentally exploitative. Consciousness is indeed relative to one’s location within a web of material social relations for Marx. Is “truth” identical here with consciousness by definition, or are you making/agreeing with the claim that consciousness is all we can know, and thus all that is real?

    Yeah, beer is probably in order.

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      • To fill in a little more: I’m subsuming “truth” within consciousness, in a particular way. The concept of truth, and all of the concepts related to it, are just that, concepts, therefore in material terms they are phenomena of human consciousness, the products of human intellectual labour. And they are social products, since concepts gain their efficacy by being adopted, used, exchanged, etc. by people relating to each other. So when Marx says that material social relations produce consciousness, I take this as including even the concept of truth itself and, by extension, all standards for adjudicating truth. So, if we assume a realist point of view, for me realism leads to this view that “truth” is a social institution as much much as “money” or “sports”. And if material relations are the basis of all social life, and material relations in class society are contradictory, then the institution of truth expresses those contradictions as much as any other institution.

        That’s a very hasty answer and probably unconvincing, but maybe it fills in a little what is otherwise a huge leap.

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