Relativities of Truth and Oppression

In this post I will briefly discuss five general ‘epistemic strategies’ that people use for thinking about the social world, and I will speculate about the implications that these have for how truth is socially structured.

Let’s consider epistemic strategies in terms of five broad categories:

  1. methodological individualism
  2. compositionism
  3. heterarchy, or tangled-systems theories
  4. dialectical hierarchy
  5. holism

These are strategies for understanding our experiences of social relations, that is, for converting social experiences into knowledge of the social. However, if we treat “truth” as a form of social practice, then these strategies have implications for the social structure of truth.

1. Methodological Individualism (MI)

The social world is assumed to be comprised entirely of individuals and their actions; social relations do not generate any nonsubjective forces.

Truth can take one of three general forms:

(A) Non-relative truth is plausible if and only if we suppose that

(i) the world and all its qualities exist completely apart from human subjectivity, and

(ii) all normal human beings have a common set of cognitive equipment which equips them, under the right conditions, to arrive at the same perceptions of the world.

One has to say all “normal” human beings because obviously there are no truth-claims which all human beings would agree to.

However the requirement of some normative standard leads immediately to a “No True Scotsman” fallacy and to an overtly political controversy over the specification of whose perceptions count as normative.

(B) There being no autonomously acting social forces, relative truth must be relative to individual human subjectivity, which makes truth variable from one person to the next.

I don’t know of any sociologists of knowledge or any significant theorists at all who take this position, although anti-relativists seem to love to accuse all relativists of it.

(C) A and B could both apply; truth could be partly a product of variable individual subjectivity and partly a product of innately human-universal perceptions of the real.

See for instance Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What

2. Compositionism

The social universe is assumed to be comprised of a plurality of institutionalized forms of practice, each of which exerts and objective (external) force on individual actions. However, these multiple institutions do not combine to form totalities or systems.

(A) Non-relative truth is implausible in a pure compositionist strategy.

(B) Relative truth is a property of institutionalized  epistemic practices which are shared among groups of people and which constrain individual perceptions. Truth is local, contingent, dynamic. Translation from one epistemic domain to another is possible but something is always altered in translation.

See for instance Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition; Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. 

(C) A combination of relative and non-relative factors is plausible in a mixed MI-compositionist strategy.

See for instance Berger & Luckmann, The Social Construction of Everyday Life.

3. Heterarchy, or Tangled-Systems Theories

The social universe is assumed to be comprised of a multiplicity of social systems which interconnect, overlap, combine with, and contradict one another in complex ways, with no single system at the root of all others.

(A) Non-relative truth is implausible. Microscopic systems like genetic influences on cognition are admissible as social forces alongside macroscopic systems like global capitalism. The dual determination of micro and macro means that nonsubjective, human-universal factors like genetics have variable effects depending on their social systemic context. So supposedly non-relative factors become relativized.

(B) Relative truth is produced through a messy tangle of locally institutionalized epistemic practices; individual interpretation, conformity, and dissent; cultural diffusion; imperializing or hegemonizing projects; and so on.

There are no full-blown examples, but elements of this position can be found in Foucault’s later work, in Giddens, in Bourdieu’s treatment of reflexivity, in actor-network theory, also in queer studies (e.g. Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet), and perhaps the feminist concept of kyriarchy.

(C) Heterarchy tends to swallow any other epistemic strategy combined with it, given that it already potentially includes them all.

 4. Dialectical Hierarchy

The social universe is assumed to be organized by a single great opposition between two opposed social forces, which together form a totality. The struggle between them drives all significant social change.  There can be considerable complexity within each social force, but ultimately the thesis-antithesis duality supersedes every other social category or identity, whether social actors realize it or not.

(A) Individual subjectivity is a thoroughly social product. Non-relative truth is plausible only with reference to a teleological goal towards which the dialectical contradiction inevitably tends.

This is Marx’s position, I think.  There might also be radical feminists who take this position vis-a-vis gender instead of class, and one finds shades of this in anti-racist thinking, radical Indigenism, and so on.

(B) The relativity of truth would imply that each pole of the dialectical contradiction — capital and labour, for instance, understood as social forces rather than as social groups — engenders its own regime of truth. Each such regime is true on its own terms, both cognitively and practically, and each is false in terms of the other. The only possible way to synthesize the two would involve a social revolution which would abolish the dialectical opposition itself.

This would be my position if I were more of a Marxist and less of a tangled-systems theorist. If there are any Marxists who consciously take this position I would love to chat with them!

(C) I guess one can combine a dialectical relativism with a non-relativism by reinterpreting dialectical theories along methodological individualist lines. Personally I think this is really stupid and leads not to a true combined strategy but to a form of MI that cares about the plight of the working class but can’t really explain why without invoking metaphysicals. This kind of thinking leads to the notion that ideology is all about the capitalist class deceiving the working class.

See for example, E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory; Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent.

5. Holism

Societies are assumed to be functionally integrated organic systems like living organisms or superorganisms. Each part is a product of the whole and is constituted by its functional relation to the whole.

See for example Herbert Spencer or Oswald Spengler, and to a lesser extent the other figures in the tradition of sociological functionalism. The ultimate form of this, of course, is the theological notion of the Great Chain of Being.

A. Non-relative truth is plausible either as an effect of universal functional prerequisites common to all societies or as a teleological outcome of social evolution.

B. Relative truth is plausible if neither of the above conditions obtains, in which case each society, civilization, or culture defines its own regime of truth, incommensurate with all others.

This position is often associated with the cultural anthropology, although the accuracy of that association is debatable.

C. The plausibility of a combined strategy depends on the possibility of synthesizing holism with its polar opposite, MI. In the strongest forms of holism, individuals have no significant independent capacity for producing truth.

Synthesizing a soft holism with a soft MI was the life work of Talcott Parsons.

Conclusion: Truth and Oppression

All of these points about truth can be made about oppression, or indeed about almost any other widespread social practice.

 Truth and oppression are linked in several ways. The claim to being oppressed is a kind of truth-claim. Oppressed groups want to know the truth of their oppression in order to be able to overcome that oppression. Groups accused of engaging in oppressions usually refuse that claim as false. Establishing common truths about oppression is crucial to democratic politics. And so on.

In the next couple of posts I will address these issues more closely by considering how the claims made by theories of cultural hegemony make sense within the epistemic strategy of dialectical hierarchy and how they appear when viewed using the assumptions of methodological individualism and tangled-system theory.

So, next up: cultural hegemony theory vs. right-of-centre liberalism and libertarianism.

3 thoughts on “Relativities of Truth and Oppression

  1. Pingback: Libertarianism vs. Counterhegemony | The Practical Theorist

  2. Pingback: Visions of Life After the Revolution | The Practical Theorist

  3. Pingback: Beyond Hegemony and Counterhegemony | The Practical Theorist

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