Autumn-winter 2004
 

 

  Autumn-winter 2004

  PRAGMATISM, HUMANITIES AND EPISTEMOLOGICAL OF CULTURE
  Asim Mujkić
 
 
This text attempts to point out certain emancipatory contributions of Pragmatism to a self-conception of Humanities in general. My approach to this problem is based on one of the most intriguing insight of Pragmatist philosophy – questioning of the foundationalist strands or privileged language games of pluralist network of culture. The approach could be viewed epistemological, but I am concerned more about its ethical and political consequences. This basically anti-essentialist point dwells on the concept that not a single language game within a plural network of culture has epistemological priority based on which it could aspire a privileged position, simply because not a single description of the world could be considered to be somewhat closer to what we as human beings, or what reality is in itself. Or, as Nelson Goodman points out: “There are very many different equally true descriptions of the world, and their truth is the only standard of their faithfulness…None of them tells us the way the world is, but each of them tells us a way the world is… there are many ways the world is, and every true description captures one of them” . Furthermore, each of these descriptions is historically situated, and as such, each of them could be viewed as a tool formed on the basis of real human needs and interests.

Both individuals and cultures are, in fact, plural universes in a sense that both are open sets of numerous descriptions used for their self-understanding, and self-creation. The very history of human culture and philosophy, in general and very often quite contrary to desired intentions, shows that there cannot be some kind of central or essential description that would center this self-understanding, or that we could call the essence – essence of individual, essence of this or that particular culture, etc. In this sense, Pragmatism teaches us that there are no privileged points of our selfhoods or cultures. The belief which holds that there are essential descriptions, that there is the way human being or culture is apart from context of their relations generates metanarratives – foundationalist stories which tend to – either in subtle or in a more oppressive way to measure (commensurate) human beings and cultures in accordance to their founding principles.

The main intention of this text is to try to offer a contextual vocabulary that might be capable of responding to requests of an anti-essentialist thought, a vocabulary of the post-philosophical culture (Rorty) which could be considered as a plausible tool for coping with prevailing problems of our present culture.

The cultural dilemma Humanities in general, and especially in countries in transition – such as Bosnia and Herzegovina - are faced with in recent times could be summarized as following:

First: should we long for a metanarrative, some kind of theory, or vocabulary that would center our cultural network; This is the case of «privileged», «strong»-Humanities that are viewed by the rest of society, and by themselves, as foundation force of «national», «ethnic», generally «rightist» spirit. If I would like to continue to play with this idea I might viciously conclude that this is a reason why there are, actually, no Humanities departments on Bosnian universities. Privileged «founding» humanities as metanarratives are foundations of comprehensive doctrines, ideologies, or any kind of collectivist doctrines. In Bosnian or Balkans case we speak about authentic national or ethnic poetry, literature, history, etc. By “collectivist essentialist humanities” I mean: justification procedures intervowen into one homogeneous comprehensive doctrine consisting of various essentialist narratives ( such as, myth, religion, history, language, ethnic customs, various cultural achievements, etc) that is shared by certain social group who generally think that they are somewhat closer to the will of God, truth, goodness, true human nature, than any other group of people. Being made a political agenda, projected into the public sphere, collectivism grounded by such humanities, reveals itself as dismissive of other groups, as well as of individualist tendencies within its own group, which it views as disintegrational danger. As a matter of fact, all new nation states of ex-Yugoslavia are to certain extent engaged in foundation-building of their ethnic-national spirits, mobilizing and homogenizing vocabularies – now histories are being rewritten, entire new literary and poetic genres are being created to «reflect» true, authentic vox populi. Being somehow more authentic than the other, neighboring, new identities are created to be as much distinct as possible, it is easy to conclude that central characteristic of political and cultural organization in the region is its centeredness around a collectivist metanarratives.

The second option – let's call it: unprivileged, subversive, or «leftist», «weak»-Humanities - which I would prefer to talk about. This option could be considered maybe as descendant of Renaissance Humanism which «was neither a philosophy nor an ideology. It reflected no fixed position towards religion, the state, or society» .
In that respect I suggest a notion of Humanities placed in a context of what Lyotard describes as «disbelief toward metanarratives». In other words, I do agree with basic notion of humanism as a «set of presuppositions that assigns to human beings a special position in the scheme of things» (Audi, entry «humanism»), but wholeheartedly dissagree with a concept of humanist metanarrative which would be considered to have a special position in the scheme of other narratives in sense that it somehow grasps the true features of what is really and truly human. To my view, it is a matter of bad intellectual taste to infer from the claim on unform biological structure of human beings that there could be uniform metanarrative which reaches the essence of «what is like to be a man». Developed further, and in an analogy to a previously mentioned Goodman's point, it could be said that there are many ways the man is, infact, as many as there are imaginative, useful descriptions of what he/she is, without a possibility to privilege any of these descriptions. Playing on in tune of Nelson Goodman, it could be said that none of these descriptions tells us THE way the human being is, but each of them tells us A way the human being is. Following the line of thought of Richard Rorty it could be said that culture is a set of tools from which we pick up various tools when needed for various purposes. Not a single piece of tools should be considered to have privilege, epistemological or ontological. This is so, «because it is the impossible attempt to step outside our skins – the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism – and compare ourselves with something absolute» .

In that light, Pragmatism opts for a second alternative. The main anti-essentialist epistemological features of Pragmatism that I borrowed from Rorty point us to the conclusion that:
• Beliefs are useful rules of actions;
• All possible descriptions of reality are equally relational and extrinsic, in the sense of having been chosen in order to gratify various human needs and interests;
• All the traditional problems of metaphysics and epistemology arise only in certain sociocultural situations; and
• We think only in order to solve problems .

Being such, Pragmatism as an anti-essentialist strand of contemporary philosophy is an appeal to understanding without a promise of salvation, or of transcendental refuge. The context of this thought suggests that our self-understanding, our coping with reality, of our self-creation is always lingual. In such a linguistic horizon within which our self-understanding is being carried out, gathered is our historicity, presence, and the possibility of our own projects. The anti-essentialism in Pragmatist theory of knowledge, as Rorty would put, makes clear that it is useless to ask whether one or the other vocabulary is somewhat closer to Reality. Being rules of action, beliefs serve different purposes and interests. We cannot say on any epistemological basis which of human interests and purposes “deserve” a higher position in our culture.

If we drop essentialist intentions of overall commensurability then preconditions are met for a democratized discourse that might liberate the very much-needed space for imagination and self-creation as presupposition for growth of humanities. With the “loss” of essence of “being human”, but also in Balkans context, “loss” of Serbhood, Croathood, or Bosniachood, a loss of what it would have looked like out of the context of daily human needs and interests, we, in fact, do not lose “humanity”, nor feelings of belonging to a certain culture or ethnic group such as Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs, as often ascribed to this perspective. What we had really lost is the concept of “humanity in itself”, or “ethnicity” in itself - perrenial concepts taken out of social interactions. In other words, we are losing a concept for which it had been claimed from the beginning of human thought to as existing, yet no one has had ever proved it as such. What is left, however, is a concept of humanity as selfhood with endless plurality of relations, interactions and interpretations. What has been lost is, in fact, a very small portion of this plurality, which is the world of essentialist, foundational imagination that had been privileged to the detriment of the rest of imaginative intentions.

This loss is felt in today’s Humanities. We still cannot openly say that the endless plurality of human imagination is what makes Humanities. On contrary, we feel forced to redress our claims in more “serious”, scientific outlook, especially when applying to research funds. We still have to pretend that our claims have epistemological weight, that we indeed have our own scientific methodology of research, that we, somehow, know the way things really are in themselves, that what we do is not babbling. What is humanistic intellectual anyway, viewed from this perspective:

Maybe “a sort of people who read books in order to enlarge their sense of what is possible and important – either for themselves as individuals or for their society”… that their social function cannot be “teaching or research… communication of knowledge, but rather something like stirring the kids up”… a sort of people who just want “to read a lot more books in the hope of becoming a different sort of person. So the real social function of the humanistic intellectuals is to instill the doubts in the students about the students’ own self-images, and about the society to which they belong”

The loss of “foundational” concept of “human” introduces the conception of a contingent selfhood. This loss results in the loss of “foundational” epistemologically privileged truth about “man”. What we gained is pluralism of truths without essence. The truth of description or a claim becomes a matter of intersubjective agreement, of justification which always takes place within a certain linguistic practice shared by a certain group of individuals, language users. We are “left” with our particularity, without obligation to fit our self-descriptions into an imposed metanarrative on “human nature”.

By suggesting certain “cleansing” of culture from “meta” pretensions, it could be said that Pragmatism in general gives up the attempt to establish some kind of new metanarrative, whether the metanarrative on “true nature of man”, “of reality” or of “the community”. Thus, the ongoing process, which I characterize as anti-essentialist epistemological disarmament of culture, can prepare for general ethical and political disarmament since it is subversive to legitimacy of narratives with absolutist intentions. If we accept not to speak about all-commensurable metanarrative of our culture, we also accept not to reduce our individuality to certain metanarratives or to other collectivistic public vocabularies.

Furthermore, we accept that both selfhood and community within which we socialize are contingent, historical, interactive entities. It means that within a framework of what we traditionally name as a “subject”, there could exist simultaneously a plurality of different, even mutually conflicted selfhoods. The same applies to the community. Each selfhood or “group of justification” develops its vocabularies in its coping with reality, constantly constructing (poiesis) the meaning. This constant construction of network of vocabularies or language games additionally enriches cultural diversity in its constant expansion. The key to this expansion both in terms of individual vocabularies designed for individual self-understanding and self-improvement, and in terms of vocabularies of sociological groups designed for intersubjective understanding is no longer rationality but IMAGINATION. Now without possibility of finding a privileged social-linguistic construction, we are simply forced to do what we usually do – imaginative construction of language games of our self-understanding. Only imagination is capable of creating new contexts never thought of before. However, the rationality has its crucial role in the entire context: Human imagination is free to expand only in a political context founded on rational principles of constitutional democracy (yet, this is another story).

If we take these claims as epistemological guidelines then we might have good chances to end up in one entirely, as I suggest, democratized horizon of thought fully open for various kinds of narratives that would not be in position to claim more authority than any other narrative. The truth now becomes subject to justification of claims that occurs always within a particular historically conditioned linguistic practice within a particular group of peers or language users who share similar premises, interests, desires and preferences. Of course, given that they are intelligible and coherent, yet depending on rules of language games according to which certain claim could be considered as such. In such a context, philosophy would need to back from an essentialist intention phrased as the final insight in how things really are. Thus redescribed role of philosophy meets on the same ground with Dewey’s suggestion that it should be viewed as a cultural criticism.

One of the keys to a non-repressive culture and understanding is this principle which implies that, when communicating with others, we simply have to take that they have a mainly coherent set of beliefs as we do, and furthermore, that there could be no such thing as a super human instance from which we might judge who, among us humans, is closer to Real Truth. Instead of monologue of “grounding principles of culture”, now with anti-essentialism, we are “forced” to an ever-lasting interpretation, understanding, and conversation where Humanities in general have their crucial role. In our today’s culture, Pragmatism occurs as envisioned by William James, that is, as a “mediator” between the different doctrines whose goal is to enable and continue the conversation between different, sometimes opposed groups of justification within one culture. Pragmatism stands for the dialogue between the equal vocabularies, and with Rorty, sees no “higher purpose” for itself than to keep this conversation of mankind open, and going. This is a post-philosophical culture. Vision of such democratized culture could be found in Rorty’s thought described as “post-philosophical” , “poetic”, or simply “literary” culture:

“This would be a culture in which neither the priests nor the physicists nor the poets nor the Party were thought of as more ‘rational’ or more ‘scientific’ or ‘deeper’ than any other. No particular portion of culture would be singled out as exemplifying the condition to which the rest aspired. There would be no sense that beyond the current intra-disciplinary criteria, which, for example good priests or good physicists obeyed, there were other, transdisciplinary, transcultural, ahistorical criteria, which they also obeyed. There would be hero-worship in such a culture, but it would not be worship of heroes as children of gods, as marked off from the rest of mankind by closeness to the immortal. It would simply be admiration of exceptional men and women who were very good at doing quite diverse kinds of things they did. Such people would not be those who knew a Secret, who had won through to the Truth, but simply people who were good at being human” .

In that sense Humanities carry some kind of “Kain’s mark” for they are dropping the notion of what Rorty coined as “redemptive truth” – as a “set of beliefs which would end, once and for all, the process of reflection on what to do with ourselves” . Furthering this process of reflection in its plurality is all what is about in “weak”-Humanities. In fact, the entire “social role” of Humanities is now seen as provoking what I termed the imperative of self-creation through direction of students’ imaginative reflections to various contexts and alternatives of human individual self-creation, thus becoming one’s own person, “rather than merely the creation of one’s education or one’s own environment” . To cope with that plurality and ever expanding imagination, in Rorty’s view, we should “keep the humanities changing fast enough so that they remain indefinable and unmanageable. All we need to keep them changing that fast is good old-fashioned academic freedom” . Anti-essentially viewed, Humanities transcend each attempt of their institutionalization, bureaucratic quantification, methodologization thus contributing to the public rage of tax-payers, university boards and committees. They do so because they dwell on the frontier of human imagination, or on the hermeneutic frontier, ever constructing new metaphors that come from a-logical space intended to become literalized in person’s every day’s self-understanding, self-creation, that is, in every day’s coping with reality.

If the authoritative idea on paradigmatic human being is abandoned, then a human being is left to be in a way of constant transforming of vocabulary positioned to fill that vacant space of freedom. Thus de-essentialized human being is faced with what I suggested as “imperative” of self-creation, or imperative of autonomy which invites particular processing of contingencies that makes sense to him/her. So in this way, human being is called for constant idiosyncratic conversion of contingecies through his/her use of ever expanding vocabulary by literalizing the new metaphors and rejection of old literalized truths which became obstacles to such self-creation. This democratization of discourse heavily relies on what could be described as the “greatest freedom principle”. In political terms this principle is egalitarian, both liberal and Marxist, provided that deprivation of possibilities of self-creation means lack of freedom, and repressive society, which humiliates and oppresses its members, because it is not “letting them be”. From the point of unprivileged humanities, the purpose of society is “to make it possible for people to lead the sort of lives they prefer, as long as their doing so does not diminish the opportunities of other humans to do the same thing” , to associate with whom they share “similar justification procedures”. In a strangely imaginative context of Oscar Wilde, the epistemological disarmament of culture would eventually result in Socialism which is valuable since it leads to Individualism. Great works of literature and poetry, but also an anthropological study for example, “may help the reader to transcend parents, teachers, customs, and institutions (class relations) that have blinkered person’s imagination, and thereby permit her to achieve greater individuality and greater self-reliance” ; “may well change one’s behavior toward oneself or toward others, and perhaps toward things in general” .

Our response to the “call” of self-creation, which content is domain of Humanities, but not exclusively, starts with what we have got – our language horizon, our web of beliefs which descriptions could not correspond to some external authority. In such a context, instead of request for enlargement of understanding of “how things really are”, emerges the request for creation of new ways of speaking, for enlargement of vocabularies. In such context we are attempting to literalize metaphors of enlargement of human freedom.

Pragmatism withholds its secularizing and liberalizing function as a part of an overall continuation of the Enlightenment. Thanks to its anti-essentialism it maintains its vitality and usefulness in regards to demythologization of culture, struggle against essentialist authorities verified by something non-human, providing tools for critical thought and self-correction. Pragmatism indeed can, but not necessarily does offer some version of individual and society more free. But it surely offers groundless, flexible vocabulary that might help us in gaining self-confidence in our coping with reality, in our attempt to remain open, and to understand the Other.