Universal vs. local

Liberal postmodernists say that we cannot have universal social theories, only local ones. I agree. But I have a different notion of the meaning of the word “local” than they do.

A dose of perspective

According to astronomers, the part of the universe that we can observe from Earth is a sphere 460 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 km across. Our galaxy alone is 1 000 000 000 000 000 km across, containing possibly 400 000 000 000 stars with at least as many planets, and it’s estimated there are 100 000 000 000 galaxies just in the observable universe, which is not even the whole universe.  It seems overwhelmingly probable that there are many, many other sentient species out there.

The universe is about 13 720 000 000 years old.  The Earth itself is about 4 540 000 000 years old. The human species achieved anatomical modernity only about 200 000 years ago, and acquired behavioural modernity (including language and symbolic thought) a mere 50 000 years ago. The Neolithic Revolution, sometimes (a bit misleadingly) called the Agricultural Revolution, began about 12 000 years ago, providing the enabling conditions for permanent settlements, cities, and what we think of as civilization. Writing was invented practically just last week, about 5200 years ago in Mesopotamia and (completely independently) about 2600 years ago in Mesoamerica.

If we map the whole 200 000 years of human existence on to the space of one calendar year, then relatively speaking the first invention of writing happened nine and a half days ago, i.e. in the middle of last week. On that same calendar, the earliest reasonable starting point for modernity – Columbus’s arrival in the Americas – happened just 22 hours ago.

So when I read Enlightenment theorists who claim to have discovered universal truths about, e.g., morality or epistemology, I am a little incredulous. I doubt that if and when we can travel to other planets and meet sentient aliens, or even if we learn to communicate with dolphins and whales, we will discover that their morals or their ways of knowing the universe are those of the European Enlightenment.

The very lowest I’m willing to set the bar for a coherent meaning of the word “universal”, used without qualifications as in a phrase like “universal truth”, is “universal among human beings”.  This is an anthropocentric, and therefore highly parochial, sense of the word “universal”. “Human-universal” would be a more precise term. But since epistemology is a social practice, perhaps we could take the “human-” as implied.  So in this case a properly rigorous use of the term “universal” would mean “applies without fail to all human beings who have ever lived and ever will live”. I’m not aware of any social theories which meet this standard.

But conversely, when liberal postmodernists dismiss Marx’s analysis of capitalism as a “grand narrative”, I’m just as incredulous. Depending on how you slice it, the capitalist mode of production has existed for not more than 500 years, or 0.25% of the history of the species. Even taking into account Engels’s analysis of the origins of private property in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, the scope of Marxist claims about human history only covers about 6% of our total chronology so far.

That seems pretty local and contingent to me.

What thoughts do you have?

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