Fusing Horizons

IT WOULD HELP here, perhaps, to attempt another summary of the main line of our argument, and in this way to bring out another dimension of the view of human agency we are proposing.
We identified above (Chapter 1) one of the main motivations for the turn to mediational epistemologies, starting with Descartes. This turn is powered by a sense of good critical method. In order to challenge established views, you may have to make what is merely taken as granted explicit; it may be very useful to break some claim down into its component elements, or the separable bits of evidence it relies on; it may be essential to split a merely factual claim from a questionable valuation, or to make a sharp distinction between our take on things and the way they really are.
All this is very true and often crucially important. The basic error was to ontologize this method, to conclude that because this is often the good way to think, it is somehow the way the mind always works, so that we are supposed always to be taking in bits of explicit, neutral information, and combining them. Only we often do this sloppily, inattentively, or too much under the spell of some external authority, and we need to be called back to a more careful, reflective construction.
Against this, our claim has been that in fact our original way of being in the world, coping with reality, finding our way about, reflects a kind of understanding in which none of these distinctions between explicit, analytical elements figure, no more than those between fact and value, or belief and reality. Ontologizing method, reading the explicit, atomic bits of neutral information back into our everyday commerce with the world, not only distorts our everyday reality, but hides from us what an achievement critique is. We fail to see how it requires a shift in our stance to the world, disengaging ourselves from the ordinary meanings of things, decentering ourselves from our involvements in our surroundings.
The Heideggerian term “primordial” (ursprĂŒnglich) has been used to make this point. Ordinary, engaged coping is primordial, not only because it is in fact our first way of being in the world, which we can never wholly abandon, but also because the decentered, critical stance can only arise from within this ordinary way of being, suspending it completely in relation to our objects of study, but always relying on our everyday coping skills.
Of course, one can understand the motivation for this ontologization. To start with, the whole foundational enterprise is hopeless unless we can dig down to rock-bottom bits of explicit evidence, on which the edifice of science can be reared. This undoubtedly must have weighed with the pioneers of the tradition, like Descartes and Locke. But even after foundationalism is abandoned, the hope for total clarity about human reasoning, and/or for a clear scientific account of it, continues to confer a premium on the atomic and the explicit. We can see this with computer-inspired models of human thinking which have been popular in our age. These too require computation on explicit bits of information, and have no place for the (gestalt) holism of our being in the world. And certain modes of critique base themselves on the (unfounded) belief that factual premises can always be split from evaluative ones in our deliberations.
Now another feature of good method, at least from Descartes’ point of view, was that it forced us back onto our own judgement, each to his or her own. We cannot take these matters on authority, but each of us must be assured that the basis of our thinking is really clear and distinct, and that the chains of argument are so as well. There is an animus in this line of thinking against taking things from established tradition, or on external authority. We are called in the end to be “self-responsible” in our critical thought.1
This feature of critical method, valid as it often is, has been ontologized, so that it is assumed that the primary subject of knowledge is the individual. And this too has generated an immense distortion of the human condition. We cannot go into the full significance of this here; that would require at least another book. But some aspects of it are directly relevant to our argument.
Once we realize that critique is only possible through a shift in our stance, and once we reflect that shifts of this kind develop and enter our repertory with the evolution of human culture, we see right away that it is a huge and potentially fatal oversimplification to think that critique is simply realized in and by self-responsible individuals. True, it is sometimes the case that one person stands out against an erroneous consensus (and our modern Western culture has tended to celebrate this kind of case); and it may happen that such a heroic figure may even invent a new kind of critique; Socrates, Descartes, and Kant can be seen as examples. But even the most innovative move, which adds something new to our historical repertory of critical stances, doesn’t come ex nihilo; it builds on the already established modes; and even the heroic innovator had first to be trained and socialized into these, before striking out on his or her own. How much more do we ordinary followers need to receive the tools of our own critical work from our culture?
These various stances of disengagement or of decentering are developed in language, which shows here as elsewhere a crucial articulative function. Language not only serves to describe what we have already identified and singled out, but can also be used to give expression to new ways of talking, thinking, questioning—and therefore bring them for the first time into our repertory. Socrates is once again a paradigm example, honored in our tradition. We now have (partly thanks to Plato as well) a new word, “dialectic”; but this doesn’t serve to describe a preexisting reality; rather this word serves to focus our awareness of a novel kind of questioning exchange, which was born along with it. Similarly, “idea” comes to be used in a new way by Descartes, with a new technical sense, to designate something which didn’t figure in people’s self-understandings previously, a basic unit of information, purely in the “mind.” Kant also widens our repertory in giving the term “critical” itself a new and specialized meaning.2
These great thinkers gave us new concepts; but we shouldn’t simply focus on these. It is not just that our repertory of description has been enriched, in the way a good botanist, for instance, can enrich it. What we have been given are new ways of carrying through criticism together. New moves arose within existing forms of conversation, which ended up transforming these conversations. Before Socrates, Athenians certainly argued about what was really just or pious, but the turn to a collaborative but agonistic search for a definition which would not collapse into incoherence was a new (and maddening) mode of continuing the argument, a new direction of inquiry. Against the whole atomist thrust of the mediational position, we have to remember the primacy of the conversation here, both the matrix in which the new move could be made, and the transformed kinds of exchange which it enables and which flow from it.
This point has been made in the last century in a host of ways. Wittgenstein has shown how we cannot grasp the meanings of certain terms unless we see how they figure in the (social) language games they arise in. And these games in turn need to be placed within the whole Lebensform they help to constitute.3 Others have pointed out that in order to understand a given use of a concept, or the sentences in which it figures, we have to identify the genre of discourse in which it occurs. Construal cannot be of single sentences; we need to know the “text” in which they are embedded. And many of the genres of “text” are in fact exchanges, conversations in which, for instance, the reference of the pronouns in one “speech” passes through the referring expression occurring in others.
This foregrounding of the primacy of conversation, of the language games of critique over the individual moves of disengagement or decentering into a critical mode, enriches the understanding of human agency which we need to recover from the mediational distortion. In the Heideggerian language invoked above, primordial agency, in its engaged coping, operates within a repertory which is shared; the agent is not first an individual, but one among others, whose joint participation within shared forms is essential—even in establishing that segment of my repertory in which I can come to function alone.
Underlying our explicit, decentered, disengaged, even solitary thinking is a more basic contact with reality, not only with the world with which we are at grips, but also with those others who are at grips with it together with ourselves.
What emerges from the brief discussion in the preceding paragraphs, is that there are two main avenues of refutation of the mediational view, which we outlined at the beginning of Chapter 2. In general, in Chapters 2 to 5, we have been following the first axis of refutation, that which challenges the centrality of mental representations to knowledge. But this leaves untouched the second line of argument, which targets the monological focus of traditional mediational theory. Mediationalism, from Descartes on, as we have just seen, is partly powered by a sense of what good method is; and this method is understood as paradigmatically monological, carried out by and in individual minds. But now it is time to take up the second theme in the above paragraphs, and underline the primacy of conversation in human linguistic life. The methods and forms of critique, the ones we draw on and operate within, are established first in our culture. True, some of us are Socrateses, and help to originate hitherto unknown forms, but these only become part of the heritage of our successors because they are taken up by the culture we bequeath to them.
In Chapter 6 we will be operating clearly on this second track.


As we’ve just noted, a very important area in which we want to distinguish something like scheme and content is where we are dealing with the very different “takes” of very different cultures on nature and the human condition. Here as well, the view we have been defending cannot allow that these differences are insurmountable or inescapable. The embedded view, in fact, offers resources for recognizing differences of scheme, without generating arguments for nonrealism. The conception of the knowing agent at grips with the world opens possibilities quite different from those available on the mediational view. There may be (and obviously are) differences, alternative takes on and construals of reality, which may even be systematic and far-reaching. Some of these will be, all may be, wrong. But any such take or construal is within the context of a basic engagement with/understanding of the world, a contact with it which cannot be broken off short of death. It is impossible to be totally wrong. Even if, after climbing the path, I think myself to be in the wrong field, I have situated myself in the right county, I know the way back home, etc. The reality of contact with the real world is the inescapable fact of human (or animal) life, and can only be imagined away by erroneous philosophical argument. And it is in virtue of this contact with a common world that we always have something to say to each other, something to point to in disputes about reality.
How are we to understand this possibility of communication? We can think of it on two levels. First of all, in virtue of the way we are all as human beings in contact with the world through engaged coping, we share something important. We all have to find our feet within the boundary conditions of the same world, on the basis of the same kind of bodies, basic capacities, and so on. Moreover, we all share the same basic needs: food, clothes, shelter, rest, and the like. This virtually ensures that when we enter a new culture, even with no preparation at all, as when explorers land on a hitherto unknown continent, both sides can start to learn each other’s language; they know that everyone will pick out as salient middle-sized moving objects, so they can teach each other the word for “rabbit.” They understand that it is useless to point to a rabbit which is obscured from the interlocutor’s view by a tree. They know that everyone needs food, so they can request it, barter it, and so on.
This is a level of communication which everyone recognizes, and we are not saying anything here with which our mediational opponents will disagree. But this leaves untouched the most difficult kind of differences. Our first level is the universally human, and is closely linked with our similarity as organic beings—in certain cases, even with what we share with the animals. But the intractable differences which seem to defy understanding are at the level of culture, or of the specifically human meanings, which are disclosed in language. Things we might describe in the following ways: the religion and the rituals of this society seem strange to us, we cannot see why anyone would ever adopt these, they may even be repugnant; or what seems to us their code of honor seems unbalanced: they strain at trivialities and let important things go by; their attitude to death, both their own and that of others, is hard to understand: in our eyes they are too easily willing to inflict death or suffer it; what we might describe as their political system defeats our understanding: they don’t seem to have a government at all. As we shall see later, there is a problem with this way of describing the differences, but it can do as a handy fashion of identifying the phenomenon.
Here we are dealing not with what we might call life meanings, which we share as biological creatures, but with meanings on a moral, or an ethical, or a spiritual level, having to do with what are seen as the highest goals, or the best way of life, or moral obligation, or a noble style of being, or virtues of one kind or another. Let’s call these “human meanings,” because they’re the kind of thing we find among humans, as linguistic and cultural beings, and not among the other animals. Of course, these two levels are only notionally separated. In actual human life they are profoundly interwoven, as we shall discuss below.
These human meanings are connected to a point or purpose. And we can fail to see the point. We can perhaps locate it in general terms, as in the above descriptions, where we said that their religion was strange, or their code of honor unbalanced. But this identification doesn’t resolve the puzzlement; it just situates it. When my interlocutor flies into a rage at some (to me) anodyne remark, I can’t see for the life of me what there is here which damages his honor. The point d’honneur here quite escapes me.
Indeed, it can be so opaque that the question arises whether I have located the right general description; maybe it’s not a matter of honor at all. More profoundly, maybe this society doesn’t have a dimension of concern which corresponds to the term I’m using. Maybe they don’t have points of honor. Maybe they don’t have a religion, anyway in something like the sense that term has for us. Here we can see why locating what the differences are about can be a far from innocent move, and may quite block further understanding. We will recur to this below.
In any case, on this cultural level, the difficulty is that we are unable at first to see the point of their moral, ethical, or spiritual meanings. And yet we do manage to communicate, at least sometimes. We overcome the barriers and come to see what they’re about; whether or not we actually come to want to espouse this way of life or not, we come to understand what is important to them. How is this possible?
Mediationalism frequently has the effect of making us question whether it really is possible, because it suggests that each culture develops its own scheme defining its human meanings, which the members of that culture cannot escape. Where the schemes are different, communication breaks down. Hence the interdict accepted in certain circles on the Left, until recently, on anyone in a hegemonic position trying to articulate the worldview of someone in a subaltern position, whether it be anthropologists explaining the outlook of the society they had studied, or a man explaining the standpoint of women, etc. There always had to be an illegitimate “appropriation of the voice” of the less powerful by the dominant.
Less radically, even if some understanding is allowed, the mediational picture tends to encourage a kind of relativism. The different standpoints a...