Last week I wrote about how epistemic strategies frame very different notions of truth. This week, I’m going to focus on two particular strategies, methodological individualism and dialectical hierarchy, to unpack some controversies between liberal and counterhegemonic politics.
Epistemic strategies are loosely grouped sets of assumptions that we use to organize our perceptions of complex phenomena. Epistemic strategies aren’t doctrines or theories, or even metatheories. Rather, they are patterns in the choices we make about how to organize information as we build metatheories, theories, and doctrines. Being somewhat prior to reason, they are not subject to direct rational confirmation or refutation, although they can be debated using informal logic and appeals to experience or to imagination. I suspect that for most people the choice of an epistemic strategy is intuitive rather than conscious, a product of habitus rather than logos. The upshot of all this is that when people argue about a common object of concern but use different epistemic strategies, arguments that seem rational and even self-evident to one person will seem crazy or stupid to another. Becoming conscious of epistemic strategies can help us to understand each other across deep epistemic differences — although it’s still up to us to figure out how to resolve our differences.
I’ve described five general epistemic strategies: methodological individualism (MI), compositionism, tangled-systems theories, dialectical hierarchies, and holism. These are derived, with some modifications, from Kontopoulos (1993). I should mention that these five categories are artificial pure types, and it might be quite common for people to mix the types indiscriminately in their own thinking. But focusing in on pure types helps clarify a few issues.
The short version goes like this: in dialectical theories, truth is produced by the operation of objective social forces, forces which simply cannot be said to exist in MI theories. Conversely, MI theories presuppose a freedom and autonomy of individual conscience which appears simply impossible in dialectical theories.
MI and Liberalism/Libertarianism
In MI, the social does not really exist as such. There are just individual people and their actions.
This means that truth can’t really be social in any robust sense of the word. If truth is non-relativistic, it’s because of some invariant relationship between the physiologically inherited cognitive equipment common to normal human beings and an objective reality. Relativistic truth must vary with each individual subjectivity. Some combination of the two is also possible.
I don’t want to overstate the relation between epistemic strategies and political ideologies; this relationship is actually pretty loose, one of affinity rather than necessity. But MI is a convenient strategy for liberals and especially for libertarians because of the importance it assigns to individuals.
If the social doesn’t really exist as such, i.e. what people call “the social” is really only the aggregated actions of human individuals, then social constraint is really just a matter of power exercised by some people or groups of people over others. In this framework, the maximization of human freedom can be thought of in terms of the abolition of any power or domination beyond that minimum which is needed to secure the conditions of individual liberty.
Let’s consider this with respect to sexism. In the purest MI framework, it makes sense to say sexism is nothing more and nothing less than a pattern of individual men exerting dominance over individual women more often than the reverse. Or, if you will, sexism is any instance in which a person’s freedom is constrained on account of their gender. Even if we are talking about millions or billions of individuals, sexism is still about individuals, because individuals and their actions are all that exists.
Consider also a statement like: “Canada is still a systemically sexist society”. What does this statement mean and in what sense could it be true?
For an MI thinker, this statement could mean that most people in positions of power and authority in Canada behave in ways that actively discriminate against women, and perhaps also that they do so intentionally. It could also mean that the laws and policies of the Canadian state, along with the policies of most businesses and other important institutions, are designed to discriminate against women.
As for the truth of such a statement: In MI relativism, it could be true as a statement of individual experience. The problem of course is that the opposite statement could also be true on the same grounds. There are ways this discrepancy could be resolved but they are all in some way value-laden and political.
In MI non-relativism, on the other hand, the statement is a claim about an objective reality. It is not possible for the statement and its opposite to be simultaneously true. To decide the truth of the matter we would need to turn to a rigorously value-neutral, nonpartisan, apolitical social science. We would need aggregate evidence, statistics; individual experience (anecdotal evidence) would count for fairly little. Also, the claim of systemic sexism would count as a pretty large claim and the evidence for it would need to be robust.
Dialectics and Counterhegemony
In theories that pursue a strategy of dialectical hierarchy, truth is bifurcated. How so?
1. autonomous individual subjectivity cannot be said to exist; instead, human consciousness, identity, and all other subjective phenomena are produced through the operation of objective social forces
2. these objective social forces, which may be very complex, are ultimately organized by one overarching opposition or contradiction, which no ideal or practical synthesis can overcome as long as the current form of society persists
3. therefore, truth — not just knowledge, or belief, but truth in the empirical sense of actual or potential socially established correct knowledge – is itself divided by this contradiction.
Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony and counterhegemony takes this form, as do other radicalisms such as radical feminism, anti-racism, and so on.
Often one finds this dialectic expressed in non-relativistic terms, e.g. as a claim that the bourgeoisie systematically deceives the working class, hiding the true reality from them, and so on. This way of speaking indicates a mixed strategy; the speaker is combining elements of a dialectical strategy with non-relativist MI or non-relativist (e.g. teleological) holism. In a pure dialectical strategy, the conflict is not between the lies of the oppressor class and the truth of the oppressed (speaking truth to power) but between the truth of the oppressed and the opposed and incommensurable truth of the oppressor.
In radical feminisms, for instance, it’s not just that men and women make politically opposed claims in the manner of competing interest groups, as in liberal feminisms. Rather, the very criteria which define truth are different. Patriarchal truth is objectified and objectifying, disembodied and disembodying, vindicated through success in the domination of nature and success in the establishment of authoritarian social hierarchies. Women’s truth is embodied, local, and particular; felt rather than seen; unsuited to the needs of relations of rule; vindicated through the production and maintenance of lateral and distributed relations of reciprocity.
These two modes of truth are fundamentally opposed to one another and cannot be synthesized within the framework of a patriarchal society. This is part and parcel of the broader gendering of social life, in which it is simply not possible to be a nongendered subject or for any significant aspect of subjectivity to be gender-neutral. Every aspect of human life is organized by the ceaseless struggle between the dominant male/masculine class and the subordinated female/feminine class.
Even the fact that concrete human individuals identify as “men” or “women” is a product, not of biology, but of the social struggle; to “be” a man or a woman is to inhabit an objective category given by nature, but is rather to inhabit a social class defined through this dialectical relationship. The only possible overcoming of this contradiction will involve the overthrow of patriarchy by feminism, after which men and women as such will cease to exist and people will finally be able to just be human beings.
So the establishment of a universal, socially objective truth is a historical process involving fundamental transformation of social relations.
To go back to the claim “Canada is still a systemically sexist society”: in a dialectically structured theory, this claim means that sexism results from the dominant dialectic of Canadian society. While in MI this statement appears as a large claim requiring very substantial justification, in dialectical thinking the same statement appears almost trivially true. This is because a dialectical thinker’s default assumption is that any significant social phenomenon will be produced by the dialectic, and so will be systemic in some sense. Thus, the evidence required to prove the claim is far lower than in MI; one only has to show that sexist is common or prevalent rather than being sporadic and marginal.
However, a dialectical framework also predicts not only that the dominant class will deny that oppression (sexist or otherwise) is systemic, but that it will be impossible to prove this systematicity in the terms of the dominant class’s ideology.
Turbulence at the Borders of Worldviews
From what I’ve written above it should be clear that liberal or libertarian social theories employing an MI strategy and counterhegemonic theories employing a dialectical strategy cannot be synthesized and cannot even really debate each other, at least not in strictly rational terms. Each side depends on fundamental assumptions which appear ludicrous or just plain stupid to the other side.
Of course one finds people trying to synthesize or combine the two all the time. The results are always incoherent. But then, life is messy.
In a situation where strictly rational argument is not possible, dialogue is still possible using a combination of appeals to experience, emotional appeals, pragmatic claims, and so on in combination with modestly constructed rational arguments here and there. In other words, such dialogue is bound to be turbulent, hence bumpy, unpredictable, a bit dangerous — and it becomes more so, the more is at stake.
The best thing to do, holistically and from the point of view of democracy, is to lower the stakes, pull energy out of the conversation, calm the waters. But often that’s not feasible.
In the meantime, I think it’s useful for everyone — especially radicals, who are always at a disadvantage — to think about the structure of epistemic conflicts and the limits of rational discourse, without giving up entirely on the possibility of dialogue.