(Mis)Reading Epistemologies

In a recent post entitled, “The Horrors of Materialism,” Levi Bryant argues that “The presence called for by the tradition of epistemology is no longer sustainable. Everywhere we just encounter citation.” His bold assertion ends with a series of open-ended questions: “And at that point, I wonder, what becomes of the dream of philosophy? How must we conceive of knowledge, and knowledge as it relates to emancipation?” I would like to address his brief argument regarding what he perceives are the untenable aspects of “the tradition” of epistemology, as well as hazard a few answers to his speculative questions.

Epistemology has multiple traditions, ones that are more than developing justificatory norms and procedures for verifying truth claims. As feminist epistemologies have illustrated, epistemic concerns strike at the roots of power. Miranda Fricker develops her account of epistemic justice and the ways in which power, conceived more or less through Foucault’s insights on the matter, acts to undermine the testimonial and interpretive capacities of knowers. Linda Alcoff (along with Charles Mills) has stressed the importance of racialized epistemologies. The knowledge of being, of our identities,  and the things around u are not confined to the “metaphysics of presence” that Derrida warned us against throughout his work. Rather, contemporary or critical epistemologies (what we might call the ethics of the power of knowing) are occupied with how thought and knowledge (not to be taken as necessarily co-present) are differentially impacted by gender, sex, race, class, and a host of positionalities that are subject to relations of force.

You’ll indulge my philosophizing for a moment. From Hume to Kant, and even Hegel, Bryant reminds us of the rather outmoded ways that metaphysics has molded the specificities of “true” knowledge. But Bryant seems to forget that so-called canonical readings of these thinkers (in particular Hegel) leave our contemporary vision of knowledge limited. There is a poverty of thinking present in Bryant’s pleas. Heidegger, for one, doesn’t seem to make the claims that Bryant imposes upon him. There is no coterminous presence of Being and thinking, nor of being and thinking. Thinking, and if we ever really engage in it, only ever turns toward Being, allows for the experience of Being—but has never, and possibly may never, be co-present with Being itself. Indeed, his Letter on Humanism makes this clear: “Language is at once the house of Being and the home of human beings.” It is language and its relationship to thinking that bring about the metaphysical concerns Heidegger posits. But Heidegger is quick to clarify that it is the human being’s historicity, thus materiality, that allows them to be at home within language. History and materialism are not without experience. Furthermore, as Hegel describes “Life as a process…Life as a living thing” so too is the living and embodied moments of thought. Why is Bryant concerned here?

Then Bryant makes an interesting point, one of which I was unaware. The history of philosophy has loathed materialism because materialism points out the impotence of thought. How? Because the body, he claims, withers. Materialism reminds us that thought finds its impotence through the material body. Because our minds must necessarily degenerate. Because our bodies must necessarily cease to be. But this does not end thought, nor does it bring about an end to thinking Being, nor the power of thinking at all. In fact, our mortality is itself a call to be more thought-provoking—a call to overcome not the impotence of thought itself, but the world-historical processes that engender the chains on certain bodies, chains that suggest these bodies are indeed either incapable of thinking, or should be hidden from thinking’s power.

Hegel did not boast that we are merely present with those things around us— he did not argue that we think things, as things, into existence. Rather, he offered a way to think about the nature of things that Kant was unable, or unwilling, to do. There is no other side of this reality. There is only this side of reality. And this side of reality is instituted through the coordination of self-consciousnesses, of minds. And these minds do not mirror the things they perceive. There is always mediation, always a negation, always a contradiction, always an otherness. As Hyppolite points out in Logic and Existence, the Phenomenology does not refer to man or human, but consciousness. Hegel does not privilege the human. We should read him as such anyway–or in the very least move away from Hegel the teleologist, the humanist, the liberal.

I am reminded of a quote from Hegel, namely that philosophy is not simply the love of wisdom. His apparent goal was to raise philosophy to the level of Science—not to be mistaken with scientific thought, of which he was critical throughout the Phenomenology. Logic, as in the logic of Kant, of propositions and claims to truth, are ultimately futile endeavors that fail to account, fully, for the objects they dismember (like the mathematician and a triangle in her proofs of the Pythagorean theorem), our theories of knowledge must do better. Philosophy, that is, must do better. It should produce the conditions of freedom for these inter-constituted “Hegelian” minds. And that is indeed radical. That is political and emancipatory.

I am not sure of the epistemologies Bryant has been reading. I am certain, however, that such theories of knowledge have led him down a wrong path to mistake a field of lucrative investigation for a fallow desert of propositional logic. The epistemologies that are truly emancipatory speculate as to the very authorities that have produced knowledge, and how to undo them. These theories not only recapitulate Foucault or Fanon; they go beyond them to envision how situated knowledges produce revelatory speculation. How knowledge production can be epistemically just or unjust. How the axes of oppression, and their very political and contestable conditions, help construct the authorities that Bryant fears is “citation” (and rightfully so!)

So, how must we re-think knowledge for emancipation? I would hazard the following. It is the ethics of knowing and the intersection of feminist, critical race, queer, and trans* theories that enable a reassessment of our contemporary condition as knowers.

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