Philosophy

The Scope of Existential Anthropology – Jackson

Such a beautifully written passage which compels you to reflect, wonder, and think …

Like other human sciences, anthropology has drawn inspiration from many disciplines and sought to build its identity through association with them. But the positivism that anthropology hoped to derive from the natural sciences proved to be as elusive as the authenticity it sought from the humanities. Moreover, though lip service was paid to the models and methods of biology, ecology, psychology, fluid mechanics, structural linguistics, topology, quantum mechanics, mathematics, economics, and general systems theory, anthropologists seldom deployed these analytically or systematically. Rather, they were adopted as images and metaphors. Thus, society was said to function like a living organism, regulate energy like a machine, to be structured like language, organized like a corporation, comparable to a person, or open to interpretation like a text.

Jackson. M (2013) Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology. (Chapter 1, The Scope of Existential Anthropology, p.3) 

Western philosophy has historically seen only what its “illusions” permitted it to see

Warren“Philosophy’s attachment to its illusions of gender neutrality functioned like Narcissus’s self-perception of himself when he looked at his image in the lake: he saw only what he wanted to see. Analogously, canonical Western philosophy has historically seen only what its “illusions” permitted it to see.” Karen Warren, 2009. 

When the issue of the absence of women and underrepresented groups in philosophy, or any other male-dominated discipline in general, is brought to attention, the reason for the absence is often attributed to the individuals themselves such as, ‘there aren’t many women in philosophy because it is not a subject that most women are attracted to’ or that ‘the Western philosophical canon almost exclusively consists of white males because there simply weren’t other voices’ or that ‘women didn’t write or take part in the philosophical debates of their times’. This simply is not true. As far as Western philosophy  (I presume as well as other domains) is concerned, one would find that women’s voices were systematically excluded or ignored from the canon. This is evident in that when you go looking for them, you find voices and perspectives that have been diminished in important ways. This is in fact what Warren did in her “recovery project”. She rediscovered names, lives, texts, and perspectives of women philosophers from the 16th B.C.E. on. She then went beyond recovery, to an “inclusion project”: a gender inclusive account of the history of Western philosophy. The result, an anthology (An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversation Between Men and Women Philosophers) of the history of Western philosophy that accounts works of both women and men philosophers.

In this distinctive work, the first book in any language to include women philosophers among their historical male counterparts, Warren pairs women philosophers with canonical male contemporaries. Primary texts of “philosopher pairs” address topics or positions that when taken together, constitute a conversation. This project dissolves the add-women-and-stir-philosophy problem – a pertinent problem that arises when attempts are made to add women philosophers whose claims, positions, and methodologies are in conflict to that of the canon, creating what might seem “more like an explosion than a mixture”. The common practice is to avoid this attempt to integrate the works of women philosophers into the canon all together and develop a distinct “women’s philosophy or philosophy by women”. Examples of such include, ecofeminist philosophy, feminist ethics, feminist epistemology, and feminist philosophy of science. Warren, in this exceptional anthology, successfully manages to integrate the works of women philosophers into the canon whilst avoiding the add-women-and-stir-philosophy problem.

Given that there are material that are inclusive of both women and men, any curricula that fails to include women philosophers is outdated and inaccurate. At least, that’s Warren’s position. Now, whether the availability of material that have recovered and included the works of excluded and ignored women has had any significant impact on any philosophy curricula is another question.

The absence of women and underrepresented groups is not news to many, especially to those in philosophy. The exclusion of women from mainstream collections is indisputable. Take a look at these three randomly selected common textbooks/anthologies used in (political) philosophy: 1) A History of Modern Political Thought by Ian Hampsher Monk, 2) Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present by David Boucher & Paul Kelly, and 3) Western Philosophy: An Anthology by John Cottingham. Of these three (~600 pages long) anthologies, you’d find only one women philosopher mentioned (in Cottingham) – Judith Jarvis Thomson. And the philosophical work included in this anthology, unsurprisingly, is one that deals with abortion and rights.

This is depressing indeed but nonetheless, a poignant indicator that “rediscovery” and “inclusion” projects carried by the likes of Warren are of crucial importance in the long and slow journey towards fair representations in philosophy.

Solitary confinement deprives dialogicity and therefore deprives a coherent sense of self

solitaryI recently came across this extremely powerful and disturbing 3 minutes video of solitary confinement and given my dialogically informed perspective, it kind of made me reflect (as well as initiate conversations with others ;-)) on the concepts of self, other and world. Solitary confinement, which can be seen as the absence of dialogicity, seems to have a devastating effect on the sense of self and I think, this video is the material affirmation.

I don’t think there can be much disagreement regarding the disturbed state of most of the prisoners in the video. Solitary confinement disrupts our sense of self-narratives for self-narratives depend on having something to narrate as well as an ‘other’ to narrate it to. Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens have described the prisoner in isolated cells as “buried alive” and subjected to “immense amount of torture and agony” through a “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain”. Looking at solitary confinement from a phenomenological perspective, Gallagher (2004), has identified a long list of experiences associated with solitary confinement:

“anxiety, fatigue, confusion, paranoia, depression, hallucinations, headaches, insomnia, trembling, apathy, stomach and muscle pains, oversensitivity to stimuli, feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, withdrawal, isolation, rage, anger, and aggression, difficulty in concentrating, dizziness, distortion of the sense of time, severe boredom, and impaired memory.”

There is little disagreement, if any at all, that solitary confinement is cruel and damaging. However, as Foucault in Discipline and Punish reminds us, the original purposes of solitary confinement, was a way for the prisoner to reflect on his crimes and return into his inner ‘true’ self. Given time to introspect in a solitary confinement, the prisoner was expected to turn his thoughts inward, repent his crimes, and eventually return to society as a morally cleansed citizen.

“Thrown into solitude, the convict reflects. Placed alone in the presence of his crime, he learns to hate it, and, if his soul is not yet blunted by evil, it is in isolation that remorse will come to assail him”

(Tocqueville in Foucault 1979: 237)

At the centre of this viewpoint is an underlying assumption which views the individual as something that exists and is capable of reasoning and functioning in isolation from others – a notion of the individual that is self-sufficient and self-contained where the necessarily interrelatedness of self, other, and world is overlooked. For philosophers such as Gardiner, this individualistic notion of the self is something we have adopted from the Western Christian notion of the soul through Cartesian-inspired philosophies. Contrary to this notion of solitary (which is built upon individualistic assumptions) as a means to come back to the inner self, deprived from contact and interaction with others, the very core of our existence is threatened.

‘‘Just as the body is formed initially in the mother’s womb (body), a person’s consciousness awakens wrapped in another consciousness … Individuality is created by and through others and the Other is part of the self.”

(Bakhtin, 1990)

Coming back to my brief musing, the fact that our sense of self seems to erode when we are deprived of interaction with others reinforces the Bakhtinian dialogical viewpoint that self and others co-develop and are two sides of the same coin. It is through our dialogical and embodied interactions with others that we are able to form and sustain a sense of coherent self. Others are essentially involved at all social and individual lived experiences. Through our encounters with others, we are able to evaluate and assess our own existence. Depriving the person of ‘others’ by subjecting them to solitary confinement, denies that essential additioal external perspective, the means by which a coherent self-image is maintained and the person risks losing the ‘self’ and disappearing into a non-existence.

Black feminist epistemology – Collins

ghana-unityShould experiences of Black women be the grounds for knowledge claims when studying and theorising about Black women? I imagine many would say yes, however, as Patricia Hill Collins points out, that hasn’t been the case. We often have two inadequate perspectives on offer for studying consciousness of an oppressed group. Either these groups identify with the oppressor, in which case they lack an independent interpretation of their own oppression, or they are seen as less human than their oppressors, in which case they lack the capacity to articulate their own standpoint. In the first case, independent consciousness is seen not as their own, while in the latter, consciousness of the oppressed group is seen as inferior. In ‘The social construction of black feminist thought’ Collins argues for the need for an alternative epistemological stance that reflects Black women’s standpoints.

Collins rejects both perspectives and asserts that Black women have been neither passive victims nor willing complies of, what she calls, the dominant ‘Eurocentric masculinist epistemology’. She traces its origins in Western elite white male structures of knowledge foundation, where Black women’s experiences with work, family, motherhood, and sexual politics have routinely been distorted or excluded from traditional academic discourse and from what counts as valid knowledge. This exclusion from the mainstream epistemology has led to what Collins calls ‘subjugated knowledge’ – expressions of experience through other forms such as music and dance.

For Collins, as for many feminist standpoint theorists, ‘all social thought reflects the interest and standpoint of its creator’ and political criteria influence the knowledge validation process. Knowledge is evaluated by a community of experts that represent the standpoint of the groups from which they originate. Credibility is thereby maintained as defined by the group from where the basic knowledge is drawn. This  alienates alternative standpoints as anomalies. Since Western structures of knowledge foundation have been controlled mainly by elite white men*, the dominant epistemologies reflect interests and views of that group while other views are systematically distorted.

This dominant, white male controlled knowledge validation process, which Collins closely associates with positivist** epistemology, suppresses Black feminist thought on the grounds that it is not credible research – for new knowledge claims must be consistent with existing bodies of knowledge that the dominant group accepts true. Thoughts that challenge the inferiority of Black women are unlikely to be generated. Such thoughts reveal the white male controlled academic community’s inadequacies and its lack of familiarity with Black women’s reality. Expressing an independent Black feminist consciousness, therefore, becomes problematic, as it is a threat to the established interpretation of reality.

Black women who achieve academic credentials face pressure from multiple sides. They must navigate between two conflicting epistemologies – representing white male interest on the one hand, and Black female interest on the other. These scholars must constantly translate and move back and forth between these two frameworks. Those who accept such institutional assumptions are rewarded, but often at a personal cost and those that challenge such assumptions face the risk of being ostracized.

Given that ‘reality is experienced differently by different groups’ is at the heart of Collins’s argument, it is no surprise that she rejects positivism as an appropriate epistemological framework to study Black women’s experience. Positivist approaches, in their strive to produce objective generalizations, fail to acknowledge that researchers have values, experiences, and emotions. She asserts, “genuine science is unattainable unless all human characteristics, except rationality, are eliminated from the research process”. I am sympathetic to Collins’s position on positivism. The very idea of “genuine science”, not only whether it is attainable, is questionable – well, at least as far as humans are the centre of enquiry. In its desire to be objective and value-free, science often makes the scientist invisible. As ideal as this may sound, it is an unobtainable utopia. There is no such thing as ‘a view from nowhere’ and science and scientists are not immune from this. The methods the scientist chooses to investigate certain phenomena (and by implication those she chooses to ignore) and the way research questions are framed, for example, affect the kind of knowledge produced. Instead of making the scientist invisible and attempt to eliminate human characteristics from the research process, science might be better-off acknowledging that science is a human endeavour. As such, passions, values, and situatedness in certain historical and cultural discourse, among many other factors, are likely to play a role in our findings. That doesn’t mean that our findings are simply invalid or flawed rather, we need to be mindful of these factors and underlying assumptions.

Since the traditional epistemological stance is not helpful in articulating Black women’s consciousness, Collins proposes an alternative way of producing and validating knowledge claims consistent with Black women’s criteria – based on the lived experiences of Black women. Black women’s lived experiences, for Collins, are more credible and believable than those who merely read or think about such experiences. These experiences that Black women share and pass on become a collective wisdom and form the basis for Black women’s standpoint. These knowledge claims rest in the women themselves and not a higher authority. Collins mentions institutional support, such as the Black church, for articulating these lived experiences. 

It seems reasonable to view Black women’s concern as more of an experiential one and less of an intellectual endeavour that could be contemplated from afar, given that Black women do live and experience oppression on a daily basis. However, given that institutions such as the church have their own values and ethical agendas, those that refuse to conform to those values and ethical guidelines are likely to be excluded and discriminated against. The obvious example is ideologies in opposition to LGBTQI people.

Collins puts forward dialogues as a method for assessing knowledge claims. Emphasis needs to be placed on extensive dialogues in communities rather than thought in isolation. For Collins, connectedness rather than separation is an essential component of the knowledge validation process. I think, Bakhtin would further agree that the fact that dialogues are missing from the modernist conception of the self reflects the lingering Cartesian residues in our modernist epistemologies. In its desire for epistemological certitude and logical coherence to establish absolute certainty, Western metaphysics roots knowledge in the solitary subject contemplating an external world in a purely cognitive manner as a disembodied observer at the expense of embodied dialogism. It is by adopting a dialogical world view that we are able to assess and evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image. The lack of dialogues in our modernist epistemologies and by extension the metaphysical assumptions of positivist epistemologies further support Collins’s criticism of positivism.

Finally, Collins identifies three key groups that women scholars who want to develop Black feminist thought need to assure in order to be credible. They must be personal advocates for and be willing to engage about their findings with ordinary Black women, they must also be accepted by Black women scholars, and they must be prepared to confront Eurocentric masculinist political and epistemological requirements. There arises a dilemma as the criteria of one groups’ credibility may not necessarily transfer to another. A dilemma, I imagine many Black women in academia experience. 

*Collins makes a careful qualification that it is not necessarily individual men that benefit from such institutional structures.  

**Collins emphasises that neither all positivist aspects are bad nor all non-positivist frameworks automatically better.

Bakhtin, Merleau-Ponty, and the Cartesian subject

 

dialogue 1To what extent are the modernist conceptions of the subject Cartesian? What of our sciences, especially the human sciences and the knowledge that emerges from them? And how can we overcome these lingering Cartesian residues? Gardiner in ”The incomparable monster of solipsism’: Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty’ explores these questions (and more). This post is an attempt to provide a brief review of this paper. 

The subject, at least in Western metaphysics, according to Gardiner, is narcissist for it is shadowed by the Cartesian view which yields to a total self-determinism and total-self-grounding. Our capacities for abstract thinking are privileged at the expense of embodied dialogism. The production of knowledge according to Western metaphysics is rooted in the solitary subject contemplating an external world in a purely cognitive manner as a disembodied observer. The locus of classical modernity, Gerdiner argues, is captured by the overwhelming desire for epistemological certitude and logical coherence in its desire to establish absolute certainty. In attempting to establish this lucidity and certainty; complex, multivalent and ambiguous reality is substituted with crystalline logic and conceptual rigour. Our obsession to transcribe the world into pure algorithmic language, as if the external world presents itself as a collection of inert facts, according to Gardiner is the epitome of  Cartesianism.  Merleau – Ponty describes this as “A nightmare to which there is no awakening”.

It is however, important to note that the status of the human sciences has evolved considerably over the course of the enlightenment and since Popper, falsifiablity and not certitude and coherence is the hallmark of science. Descartes, with emphasis on doubt stands at the beginning of this tradition and as Ian Shapiro would argue, the locus classicus of modernity is in fact doubt, skepticism, and falsifiability. 

According to Gardiner, the Cartesian self poses a threat to dialogical values and what they espouse. By seeing the world as a projection of cognitive capacities, we leave no room for recognizing otherness. Not only is the body alien to this physical subject, other selves are equally mysterious that can have no authentically dialogical relationship. It is by adopting a dialogical world view that we are able to capture the interactive nature of bodies and selves as they co-exist within a shared life world. Gardiner asserts that Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty are in agreement that modern Western thought, Platonism being the archetypal example, is dominated by perspectives that have rejected the validity of the body and it’s lived experience in favour of theoretical constructions. The utilitarian character of modern science and technology and abstract idealist philosophy reflects this. The tradition in which arguments are framed and debated in the philosophy of mind in which philosophical zombies and Martian c-fibres often take centre stage, illustrates this further. 

Gardiner argues, the privileging of purely cognitive abilities results in tendencies in equating the self to subjective mental processes. This comes at a price of the subject being abstract that dispassionately contemplates from afar. Bakhtin insists that relation to the other requires presence of value positing consciousness and not a disinterested, objectifying gaze. Without the interactive context connecting self, other, and world, the subject slips into solipsism and loses ground for its Being and become empty. For Merleau-Ponty, the world is always in a Heraclitian flux, constantly transforming and becoming and not static and self-contained. Nor is our relation with others a purely cognitive affair. World and body exist in a relation of overlapping.  My senses reach out to the world and respond to it, actively engaging with it. They shape and configure it just as the world at the same time reaches deep into my sensory Being. The perceptual system is not a mere mechanical apparatus that only serves representational thinking to produce refined concepts and ideas but is radically intertwined with the world itself. Self perception, according to Merleau-Ponty, is not merely cognitive but it is also corporal. As I experience the world around me, I am simultaneously an entity in the world. I can hear myself speaking.

The world is presented to me in a deformed manner. My perspective are skewed by the precise situation I occupy at a particular point in time/space, by the idiosyncrasies of my psychosocial and historical context of my existence. Since I am thrown into the world lacking intrinsic significance and I have to make the world meaningful, I am condemned to make continual value judgments and generate meanings. I can never possess the totality of the world through intellectual grasps of my environment, thus my knowledge of the experiential world is always constrained and one sided. As meaning of the world for each of us is constructed from a vantage point of our uniquely embodied viewpoint, no two individuals experience the world precisely the same way.  Encounter with other selves is necessary to gain a more complete perspective on the world. I am never my own light to myself. It is through encounter with another self that I gain access to an external viewpoint through which I am able to visualize myself as a meaningful whole, a gestalt.

Gardiner argues this is how we can escape solipsism – through an apprehension of oneself in the mirror of the other, a vantage point that enables one to evaluate and assess his/her own existence and construct a coherent self-image. To be able to conceptualize myself as a meaningful whole, which is fundamental to self-individuation and self-understanding, I need additional, external perspective. By looking through the other’s soul, I vivify my exterior and make it part of the plastic pictorial world.

We need a philosophy that understands nature as a dynamic, living organism that is ‘pregnant with potentials’. As embodied subjects, we are intertwined with the world, bound up with the dynamic cycles and processes of growth and change.  Insofar as our minds are incarnate and our bodies necessarily partake the physical and biological natural processes, there is an overlap of spirit and matter, subject and object, nature and culture. No break in the circuit; impossible to say where nature ends and subject begins. The self is dynamic, embodied, and creative entity that strives to attribute meaning and value to the world. We are forced to make certain choices and value judgments by Being-in-the-World to transform the world as it is given into a-world-for-me. In making the world a meaningful place, the subject actively engages with and alters its lived environment. I and other co-mingle in the ongoing event of Being. The self, as Bakhtin points out, is ‘unfinalizable’ –  continually re-authored as circumstances change.

Gardiner concludes that both Merleau-Ponty and Bakhtin object to the ‘Primacy of intellectual objectivism’ taken as the model of intelligibility which forms Western philosophy from which our sciences emerge. Such objectification of the world in modernist paradigms represents a retreat from lived experience. Genuinely participative thinking and active engaging requires an engaged, embodied relation to the other and to the world at large. Our capacity for abstract cognition and representational thinking is incapable of grasping the linkage between myself and the other within the fabric of everyday social life. Hence the solipsistic consequences of subjectivistic idealism. As Bakhtin’s ‘carnal hermeneutics’ – the dialogical character of human embodiment – emphasizes, the incarnated self can only be affirmed through its relation with the other. The body is not something self-sufficient: it needs the others’ recognition and form giving activity.