Saturday, 7 July 2007

Social epistemology and/or deconstruction

A couple of years back I emailed Steve Fuller about some issues surrounding his most recent research on the fraught relationships between biology and sociology. I've pasted his answers and my questions below. This exchange helped secure him as one of my examiners. Earlier this year I got to meet him when he came to Oz on a speaking assignment. My impression of him was that he was a generous guy, who only appeared polemical when not given sufficient time and space to elaborate his positions. For the record, here is the exchange.
Here are my answers to your questions. Before getting to them, the first point to make about deconstruction is that its image as a moment in the history of philosophy has changed considerably in the English-speaking world since On Grammatology was translated in 1976. I say this as someone who was starting college then and got very much taken up in the wave of French post-structuralist thought burst on to the Anglophone scene at the time. The first – and for many the lasting – impression of deconstruction was precisely as Coulter and Searle suggest, namely, as bound to a narrow sense of ‘text’ as word. In fact, back then, this kind of intellectual austerity was seen as very ATTRACTIVE to the likes of me. I remember the Derrida-Searle exchanges in the old journal Glyph (and then later Searle’s blistering critique of Culler’s ‘On Deconstruction’ in the NY Review of Books), and what struck me at the time wasn’t exactly that Searle misread Derrida but that he didn’t see why Derrida would fixate on words so much. Searle failed to see the significance of logocentrism, the writing/speech split, etc. Also, Derrida was first read against the backdrop of an ambient anti-humanism, if not exactly nihilism, associated with the various ‘death of the author/subject’ theses purported by Barthes, Foucault, etc. (The origin of the term ‘deconstruction’ in Heidegger also contributed to this view.) Finally, in terms of the kind of expansive interpretation of ‘text’ you suggest, that was then associated not with Derrida but with Paul Ricoeur’s turn to semiotics, which still retained a humanist view of intentionality. As for Derrida’s own subsequent defenses of deconstruction (i.e. the things you cite), he may be simply thinking through things he hadn’t considered before the early reaction to his work. In any case, does it really make sense – from a strict deconstructionist standpoint – to treat Derrida as some kind of ‘final’ authority on deconstruction? As I see it now, there would be nothing wrong with Derrida having changed his mind over the years about the point of deconstruction. But certainly 25 years ago, that would have raised some methodological problems. And maybe that’s really where the confusions lie: People like Paul De Man and Jonathan Culler, who did the most to turn deconstruction into a ‘method’ force-fed it to smart Ivy League graduate students. They came to believe that Derrida was proposing some kind of counter-intuitive deep reading technique, whereas Derrida’s own line always seemed anti-methodological much more like the later Wittgenstein, i.e. deconstruction is ‘always already’ happening in the circulation of texts, whether you realize it or not. Texts ultimately deconstruct themselves, though we might try to become attentive to this fact and disabuse ourselves of certain presuppositions about the constancy of meaning, etc. My first book Social Epistemology takes that point very seriously, which is why I spend the second part problematizing the role of ‘translation’ as a medium of transmitting an idea intact – a presupposition of most legitimations of science, even today.OK, here are my answers to your questions:1. Yes. In fact, if you look at the function of a distinction like ‘realism/constructivism’ in a philosophical argument, you’ll quickly see that, whichever stance one adopts, the other seems to be presupposed and in fact gives meaning to it. So, you never see a philosopher of science be a realist about everything – some things, e.g. gods, are ‘constructed’, say, from real psychological states. Similarly, constructivists are never constructivist about everything. This is where guys like Alan Sokal of ‘Science Wars’ fame get an intuitive foothold. So deconstruction is quite useful in bringing out the dialectical interdependency of binary oppositions. To me this means that the real action in the argument is occurring in some other conceptual space that displaces the original binary.2. It seems to me that deconstruction does not have any substantive commitments to the sorts of issues raised in the ‘right to be born’ cases. In a sense, the lawyers on either side of the case could use deconstruction to undermine the opponents’ claims insofar as they are supposed to be based on some sort of metaphysical foundation whose legitimacy precedes the case at hand. In that respect, deconstruction is an ideological ‘wild card’. You may know that deconstruction’s impact on legal theory has been very mixed. While it was originally appropriated by left-leaning theorists (especially Critical Legal Studies), it’s not clear how much they have been helped by it, since the left traditionally has relied on just as metaphysically a robust conception of law as the right, if not more so. At most, deconstruction seems to open up space for courtroom manoeuvring by positing new grounds on which to assert rights. Social epistemology of course has no problem with deconstruction as a critical device but it also has a vested interest in defending the concept of ‘the social’, though it does so not in terms of metaphysical foundations but prospective ideals whose justification lies in those who take responsibility for realizing them. 3. Perhaps the best way to address this point is simply to say that deconstruction does not really make sense as a project of its own. It is really parasitic on the existence of metaphysics, in much the same as therapy is parasitic on neurosis. If we were able to conduct our lives, politics and science without making metaphysical assumptions, then there would be no need for deconstruction. Such would be a purely experimental orientation to the world. But deconstructionsts say this is impossible and so their labour will never be without demand. Moreover, not only do deconstructionists say that it is impossible live without metaphysics but this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as they see metaphysics everywhere. This can have a very corrosive effect on even vaguely emancipatory projects, which is something I think Habermas sensed early on, even if he ended up in exaggerated misreadings of his opponents. Take, for example, ‘the social’: It’s quite an easy target of deconstruction, especially with the decline of the state and other institutions that have traditionally claimed to represent society. Perhaps the most sinister sort of deconstruction involves portraying ‘the human’ as an ‘essentialist residue’ of the social, which needs to eliminated. This sort of deconstruction, which I associated with Bruno Latour in science studies, dovetails with the anti-essentialist view of species that characterises Darwinian thought, which motivates the Darwinian Left. (I have attached a couple of papers that discuss this more – one from Futures and the other from History of the Human Sciences). 4. Generally speaking, ethics and politics needs to replace metaphysics as the basis for any kind of action, especially at the collective level. This means that instead of indubitable foundations based on apriori concepts, immutable objects or innate genetic capacities, we must turn to decisions that are binding on, and have received the consent of, those who would be governed by them. This is what social epistemology is about. When someone like Remedios distinguishes me from deconstructive approaches, he is really drawing attention to the fact that deconstruction does not appear to be tied to any specific moral or political project, and that all it can point toward is the ultimate indeterminacy of metaphysical foundations. The work of Joseph Rouse, though he too claims to be progressive, has much of this character. Last year in the journal, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Remedios published a version of this contrast between Rouse and me, to which we responded. You might find that of interest.I hope this helps

Yours Steve

Dear Steve,

Thanks for replying to my request by sending me "Back to the Future with Bioliberalism", which has stimulated considerable reflection not only on my part, but for others as well to whom I've shown it- I'd like to take up your offer then of responding by way of 4 related questions. I wouldn't ask nor expect you to answer some, most, or all of them. However, if you are able to reply even at the level of recommending some literature that could further assist me I would be most grateful.As you say in your email, the piece is the basis of the book "Reimagining Sociology" which is due out next year. As there was no reference to "social epistemology" per se in the article I was left wondering how much and what form of continuity (if any) with your previous work will be entailed by this "reimagining"? Therefore my questions might appear to relate more generally to framing assumptions not necessarily central to your critique of "Bioliberalism." More pointedly, I hope you might please be able to offer some clarification regarding any possible relationship between social epistemology and deconstruction. Part of my own research elucidates deconstruction as a post-Kantian form of enquiry thereby not presupposing the form/matter distinction (hierarchy). While I was reading Philosophy of Science & Its Discontents (2nd Ed) I thought of deconstruction when you evoked knowledge as a substance that could not always be easily gotten rid of (by arguing that it is irreducible to questions of method determining truth/falsehood, once it assumes relative independence from its producers in the form of speech, habits and the writing of books). But before this possible connection could crystallize in my mind I came across Remedios, who in Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge attempts to demarcate social epistemology from Joseph Rouse's work by arguing that ' [T]he difference between "postepistemic" and "postmodernist" is that while Fuller's notion of science is is not deconstructionist (my emphasis) because Fuller believes in the category of science, which he holds to be constructed by politics such as a constitution" (p57). Previously however (p54), Remedios describes your conception of the embodiment of knowledge in the form of "specific texts, utterances, performances, and artifacts...institutions...norms..pathways of communication..cognitive capacities..distributions of power, resources...access" etc.Now, as I don't know the work of Rouse, nor how well Remedios' interpretation sits with your own views, I can only afford the following observations. With regard to the characteristics Remedios lists on p54, I'm unable to detect anything that differs from the expansive sense in which Derrida uses the concept of "text" as inclusive of any kind of signifying chain. As pertains to p57, and the two should clearly be interrelated, what appears here could possibly be described as the latest incarnation of Searle's misperception that Derrida is obsessed with "words" at the expense of "everyday" problem-solving. As described by Lucy in Debating Derrida (p86), Coulter, a sociologist, follows a similar path, 'Coulter- as if he were disagreeing with Derrida- insists that "even if we grant the (disputed) claim that contextualisations are uniformly or inevitably both "assumptive" and "interpretive," this would not in itself bar them from invocation in resolving doubts or deciding cases of specific sorts." ...Derrida concurs with Coulter in advance, having asserted that deconstruction does "not correspond to a quasi-nihilistic abdication before the ethico-politico-juridicial question of justice and before the opposition between just and unjust" (Lucy quoting Derrida, Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, 1992 p19).Furthermore, Spectres of Marx is one of Derrida's more recent efforts to engage with "technoscience". Contra Remedios then, Derrida apparently believes in the category of "science". Finally, Derrida has consistently maintained that deconstruction cannot simply be added (a posteriori) to any "pre-existent" discourse because it is always already at work (witness in these terms the critical backlash against Michael Ryan's Marxism and Deconstruction). I've raised some of these points in part because I wasn't convinced from what little I know of your formulation of social epistemology that it need be as hostile to deconstruction as Remedios seems to imply; Indeed I can recall some of your supportive comments quoted on the backflap of Bill Martin's Matrix and Line, a book which took Habermas to task for his misreadings of Derrida. In "Strategies of Knowledge Integration" you also suggest that "sometimes" social epistemologists are inclined to be deconstructive (of categories such as "instantiationist" and "emergentist"). It follows that my first question is does the problematisation of "Godlike" views of knowledge define the role of deconstruction for social epistemology? (in order to better speak instead in the terms of "realism" and "constructivism") If it does, my second question asks if , in order to be consistent, the forging of a coalitional knowledge politics between sociology (social epistemology?) and law and medicine against bioliberalism must also involve the deconstruction of terms such as the a priori and the a posteriori as themselves presupposing a "Godlike" knowledge view which Derrida might describe as forms of "metaphysical contraband"? (i.e. for presuming that philosophy's, or rather "metaphysics", transcendental position could be explained away by "social" or "historical" discourses and in turn occupied by them- itself a kind of "metaphysical" operation). In this context, a deconstructive "presence" in the coalition might mean that the predictive power of eugenic/genetic thinking in "wrongful birth" cases for example, could be dismissed as "metaphysical", (to cite an actual case that appeared before the New Jersey Supreme Court), because no court could determine the difference between life in an impaired condition and, in the judge's words, "the void of nonexistence", before continuing, "[U]ltimately the infant's complaint is that she would be better off not to have been born. Man (sic), who knows nothing of death or nothingness, cannot possibly know whether that is so."Reviewing these questions I can see that one of the reasons they have troubled me is because deconstruction can problematize any attempted redrawing of boundaries between "the social" and "nature". Derrida's writings on the status of "the animal" attest to this. I raise this point for the one reason that it's not clear to me what if any difference social epistemology could and should claim on an ethical and poltical level to distinguish itself from deconstruction here. That this may be so is probably largely the result of my uncertainty as to what degree deconstruction relies on epistemological legitimation in comparison with social epistemology's grounding in ethics and politics. My third question then is whether this is the telling difference between deconstruction and social epistemology, even as there are obvious political and ethical affiliations to deconstruction? (notwithstanding Remedios'"post-epistemic" characterisation of deconstruction) These matters trouble me inasmuch as I would like to find a way to endorse the comments you have made about the pride of place of "welfare" in the social sciences, and I can see why this should entail the priveleging of specifically "human" traits and projects (especially to avoid the spectre of the Darwinian Left you've also described). The definability of such traits also has some bearing on aspects of my own research into violence and technology. Perhaps one of the closest points though that deconstruction and epistemology could be compared is in distinguishing between the a priori and the a posteriori in terms of the movement that occurs from ethics to "the madness of the decision" (Derrida's term) that is politics. My fourth and final question must therefore ask whether in any sense this ethical/political movement is what you also referred to by affirming sociology's need to reprioritise the a posteriori?

Thanks again for your attention.

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