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The Future of Theory

Jason Ananda Josephson Storm

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eBook - ePub


The Future of Theory

Jason Ananda Josephson Storm

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For decades, scholars have been calling into question the universality of disciplinary objects and categories. The coherence of defined autonomous categories—such as religion, science, and art—has collapsed under the weight of postmodern critiques, calling into question the possibility of progress and even the value of knowledge. Jason ?nanda Josephson Storm aims to radicalize and move beyond these deconstructive projects to offer a path forward for the humanities and social sciences using a new model for theory he calls metamodernism. Metamodernism works through the postmodern critiques and uncovers the mechanisms that produce and maintain concepts and social categories. In so doing, Storm provides a new, radical account of society's ever-changing nature—what he calls a "Process Social Ontology"—and its materialization in temporary zones of stability or "social kinds." Storm then formulates a fresh approach to philosophy of language by looking beyond the typical theorizing that focuses solely on human language production, showing us instead how our own sign-making is actually on a continuum with animal and plant communication.Storm also considers fundamental issues of the relationship between knowledge and value, promoting a turn toward humble, emancipatory knowledge that recognizes the existence of multiple modes of the real. Metamodernism is a revolutionary manifesto for research in the human sciences that offers a new way through postmodern skepticism to envision a more inclusive future of theory in which new forms of both progress and knowledge can be realized.

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Part I: Metarealism

1: How the Real World Became a Fable, or the Realities of Social Construction

The ‘real world’—an idea that is of no further use, not even as a compulsion—a useless idea, an idea that has become redundant, hence a disproved idea—let’s do away with it!
NIETZSCHE, Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer
To remove altogether the “realistic” temptation to use the word “world” in the former vacuous sense, we should need to eschew once and for all a whole galaxy of philosophical notions.
RICHARD RORTY, “The World Well Lost”
How did we get the idea that some people had stopped believing that the world was real? In many academic circles, “postmodern antirealist” is such a routine condemnation that the two terms are regularly assumed to be synonymous. Postmodernism, deconstruction, and poststructuralism are all commonly characterized as types of antirealism.1 Realists often see themselves as saving modern philosophy from postmodernism. But the putative split between realism and postmodern antirealism is chiefly a phantom opposition. It organizes polemical confrontations while simultaneously obscuring the actual similarities and differences between various thinkers. Even philosophers who explicitly line up for or against “realism” as such are typically talking past each other or disagreeing about issues that are basically irrelevant for those of us working in the human sciences.
These organizing debates around realism could therefore almost be dismissed except for two things: the only way for metamodernism not to be inadvertently lumped together with antirealism or realism is explicitly to unravel at least some of the conflict; and more importantly, I want to suggest a better notion of what it means to refer to something as “real.” Reassessing the semantics of the “real” will put us in a position to undercut another key opposition in the human sciences—namely, that between reality and social construction. Real things are often supposed to be mind-independent while socially constructed things are supposed to be mind-dependent. But, surprisingly, the crucial notion of mind-dependence has largely avoided serious scrutiny. In this chapter I remedy that.
Scholars in the human sciences who see themselves as realists or antirealists will want to know why they’d do better to avoid such affiliations. Thus, the project will advance in what I want to suggest is the metamodern mode, which is dialectical, by transcending a perceived opposition, after which it will show the benefits of this kind of philosophical movement. Scholars who presume incompatibilities between real and socially constructed or real and mind-dependent will want to know that this presumption is incoherent. Scholars who have already argued that something can be both real and socially constructed will benefit from this chapter’s articulation of a more sophisticated notion of the real.

1.1 Realism as Scientism

In his most famous work, Thomas Kuhn argued that when a dominant paradigm begins to collapse, scientists begin consulting philosophy, a subject toward which they are normally disdainful.2 It seems that only when they are faced with accumulating anomalies and a deepening sense of crisis do scientists begin to take seriously the work of their more humanistic colleagues. But Kuhn’s observation could just as easily be reversed, since when humanistic disciplines are in a state of paradigm collapse, they often invoke the natural sciences. Necessarily, there are good ways to use scientific findings in humanistic research.3 But many gestures toward natural science in philosophy involve superficially misusing scientific terminology or quantitative methods.4 Political theory can be spiced up with jargon wrested from pop neuroscience or complexity theory. Continental philosophy can be enlivened with phrases usurped from quantum physics or ecology. Literary analysis can be formalized by hastily adopting “big data” and pretending its subjects can be modeled like fluid dynamics, and so on.5 These are largely rhetorical moves that are compelling at a superficial glance, but further analysis demonstrates that these apparent parallels are lacking in deeper shared substance. Science seems to be useful to humanists mostly when it reinforces positions the humanities already take as givens.
As bad as superficial gestures to science may be, however, the most fulsome expression of this response to paradigm collapse is espousing allegiance toward “realism” as such, especially when undertheorized. When a discipline’s foundations are disintegrating, claiming to be a “realist” is often an attempt to both keep skeptics at bay and signal a shallow scientism. Indeed, the gradual breakdown of various guiding research paradigms in the humanities and social sciences has led to several decades of proliferating natural science–inspired “realisms” (e.g., critical realism, speculative realism, and so on).6
Some of these realisms are motivated by a backlash against the slow disintegration of the disciplinary objects—“religion,” “art,” and so on—discussed in chapter 2. To anticipate, with many disciplines becoming increasingly skeptical of the utility of their organizing categories, it should not be a surprise that the main thing some of these newer realists are interested in asserting is the reality of the disciplinary objects themselves. For instance, from its title, a “realist ontology of religion” might suggest a theological defense of the reality of some particular religious ontological claim, such as the existence of God. But when we turn toward self-avowed realists in religious studies, “realism” instead seems to announce one’s belief in “a social reality that exists ‘out there’” and a “realist interpretation of the term [religion],” which the author defines in terms of a repackaged nineteenth-century definition of “religion” as “an account that holds that there are forms of life predicated on a belief in the existence of superhuman beings.”7 I will address these notions of a world “out there” and “social reality” later, but I want the reader to register that what being a realist about “religion” seems to signify is not that any particular religious ontological claims are real, but that particular scholarly definitions should be protected from postmodern criticism.
We could approach this in a different way and ask what, beyond their disciplinary subject matter, are realists in the human sciences realists about? Although this is not meant to be exhaustive, many realisms are stand-ins for two contradictory things: a commitment to a “reality” that functions principally as a proxy for a non-specialist’s notion of the current worldview of physics, and an emphasis on “the real” as something mind-independent. These two forms of realism are then often conflated with a defense of the social scientist’s object of inquiry and presented in contrast to supposedly corrosive social constructionism or postmodern antirealism.
In the first case, many contemporary philosophers have seen the stakes of the debate over realism as being about the status of our current best scientific theories.8 These commitments are clearly on display in the new realisms. Critical realism, for instance, often takes as its inaugural moment Roy Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science and his extension of those insights to social sciences in The Possibility of Naturalism. Similarly, allies of speculative realism have argued that “the only credible metaphysic is one that is sensitive to the philosophical implications of the natural sciences” and that “it is science itself that enjoins us to discover the source of its own absoluteness.”9 Yet, on a closer reading of their work, most so-called antirealists also grant that the conclusions of contemporary scientific research are approximately accurate.10 Moreover, both realists and antirealists accept the relative reality of commonsense objects. So, what do they actually disagree about?
It would seem that realist and antirealist philosophers differ primarily in the nature of the strawman attacks they launch at each other. As Simon Blackburn summarizes:
On the one hand it seems absurd . . . to question the reality of the objects of common-sense, or core scientific theory. On the other hand realism is often seen as demanding the mythical God’s eye view, whereby we step out of our own skins, and comment on the extent to which our best scientific theory corresponds with an independent reality. . . . In the one view realism seems almost indisputably true, and in another equally obviously false or undiscussable. So there is every opening for debates in which each side talks past each other.11
Hence, although it is controversial, many philosophers have argued that the whole debate over realism is “dead” or basically a non-issue.12 This is not the whole story, however, and I will discuss debates about “independent reality” further below. But it does seem that the realist vs. antirealist argument is largely a false opposition, and many (but clearly not all) scholars in the humanities and social sciences who declare themselves to be realists without specifying or really understanding current scientific models are basically just signaling their scientism.13
(Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, literary realism has historically been in a feedback relationship to scientism—as literary accounts of what is real both reflect contemporary notions of science and produce new understandings of science.)14

1.2 Varieties of Mind-Dependence

The second challenge to any metaphysical “realism” in the human sciences is that there is a long history of identifying the “real” as mind-independent. A few illustrative quotations follow. To William Alston, “realism” means that “the things we encounter are ‘mind-independent.’”15 For Michael Devitt, a “realist” thinks that “An object has objective existence, in some sense, if it exists and has as its nature whatever we believe, think, or can discover: it is independent of the cognitive activities of the mind.”16 Bimal Krishna Matilal: “the realist believes that the world consists of some mind-independent objects, even discourse-independent objects.”17 Hilary Putnam defines the first commitment of metaphysical realism as agreeing with the statement that “The world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects.”18
If realism is primarily defined contrastively in terms of mind-independence, to me the obvious question is: what is the opposite case? Namely, what is mind-dependence? Astonishingly, mind-dependence is for the most part undertheorized. What is worse for these debates, it could mean very different things. It could be an ontological, causal, classificatory, or universal assertion.19 I’ll discuss the last in the next section, but in the following paragraphs I will think through the differences between these (and in chapter 4 I add an additional representational subtype of mind-dependence).
First, for an entity to be ontologically mind-dependent would be to say either that the entity exists in whole or in part as a mental phenomenon (e.g., qualia, subjective sensations, or thought itself) or that it continues to exist primarily because of ongoing mental attitudes or beliefs either individual or collective (e.g., a child’s imaginary friend, which exists only as long as she believes in her; the sovereign who is only the sovereign insofar as people believe she is the sovereign; or money, which has value only as long as people are willing to treat it as such). Mental phenomena and collective belief types of ontological mind-dependence could be differentiated, as they have divergent research implications; but in general claims of ontological mind-dependence are used to suggest that the phenomena in question are in some sense mental and not purely material.
Second, for an entity to be causally mind-dependent would mean that it was either brought into being by a mind or that it has certain important features because of a mind. For instance, a motorcycle is causally mind-dependent because it was brought into being by the human minds that designed and built it. Similarly, we might say that a dachshund is causally mind-dependent as it has most of its breed-specific traits because dog-breeders have chosen to cultivate those traits. Note that causal mind-dependence does not require that the results be intentional. The depletion of the ozone layer would also be causally mind-dependent because it was the unintended byproduct of human decision-making. These causally mind-dependent phenomena are also physical phenomena. So, to say that a dachshund is mind-dependent is of little use when it is urinating on your shoes.
Third, for a grouping to be classificatorily mind-dependent would mean that it is the result of the classification activities of some kind of mind. For example, the classification of diverse minerals and organic materials into the category “gemstone” suggests that gemstone is a mind-dependent category determined by perceived aesthetic or economic value. Classificatory mind-dependence need not be observer-relative. To explain: much of the debate around mind-dependence is confused with a similarly unhelpful opposition between subjectivity and objectivity. I hesitate to use either term, but it is worth noting that while music critic Robert Christgau’s list of the best The Coup albums is subjective, that he has classified albums this way is objective. Or perhaps more helpfully, the Japanese language has a classificatory category (indicated by ) that lumps together into one category small animals, insects, fish, and demons. This is a mind-dependent category, but its existence is objective for the researcher attempting to describe Japanese linguistic categories.
Demarcating distinct aggregates is a subtype of classificatory mind-dependence. By way of example, the identification of a cloud as a cloud would seem to be partially dependent on someone picking it out as such. Otherwise, it would ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Contents
  5. Preface and Acknowledgments
  6. Note on Texts and Citations
  7. Opening
  8. Part I. Metarealism
  9. Part II. Process Social Ontology
  10. Part III. Hylosemiotics
  11. Part IV. Knowledge and Value
  12. Notes
  13. Index