Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Against the Subjective Theory of Knowledge

The story begins in France, post-1968 and post-decline-and-fall-of-the-French-Communist-Party.  The legitimacy of power in France, the country of the Grandes Écoles, historically depended on claims to expertise, and the Communists had offered a pole of opposition based on “scientific” Marxism.  When Communism collapsed, how could the French left oppose power?  The response was to refound the movement on a posture of radical subjectivism: the experts’ claims to truth, derived from their so-called master narrative, would be refuted by a deeper truth derived from the subjective experience of the oppressed.  Their subjectivity would no longer be reduced to a chunk of data to be processed by the ruling experts; no, being the very substance of truth, it would be available only to those who had actually lived this experience and would have precedence over all external claims.  Take that, technocrat!

This radical subjectivism was smuggled into the United States, wrapped in innocent-looking volumes of cultural criticism, where the context was different.  Elite claims to power in the US are not generally based on expertise in the French manner, and in any case there had been a deep debate between Left and Right over the question of democracy versus technocracy in the 1920s, Dewey against Lippmann.  The US Left, in the decades following this debate largely adopted the optimistic view that radical democracy could embrace expertise, and the belief that science and political radicalism are compatible can still be seen in current activism over climate change, among other topics.  (True, a minority current on the left appeared in the 1970s which challenged scientific claims to knowledge, and it still exists, but it has little political influence.)

Initially the subjective theory of knowledge presented itself in the American context as a more radical assertion of freedom and personal difference.  It fed a pre-existing expressive conception of what it means to engage in political action, which has always had an appeal in the US, but before long it attached itself to identity politics.  According to the new subjectivism, racism came to be understood as the result of a discourse grounded in white non-experience of racial oppression, and so also sexism, a product of male discourse.  Such oppression, it was believed, could be challenged only by counterposing to these discourses of exclusion the truth inhering in the experience of people of color, women and other marginalized groups.  In this process the critique of expertise became a critique of rationalism applied to issues involving identity.  Rationalism was regarded as a rigged contest, a fig leaf for the dominant discourse, against which resistance could be grounded only in direct personal experience.  If you didn’t have the experience of oppression, no matter how cleverly you argued, you couldn’t know, and if you had it no one could tell you otherwise.  Voice was not a means for putting forward evidence; voice removed the need for evidence.

To be very clear, I am not arguing against subjective experience as a basis for knowledge.  Experience is real, and so is the meaning we attach to it.  An examination of racism or any other social problem would be seriously incomplete and probably misguided if it didn’t take account of how this condition is experienced subjectively.  I am not making a case for a supposed “objective” approach to understanding (a false ideal), nor for categorically putting externally observable data above subjective self-report.  That would be extreme.

Nevertheless, two types of problems have arisen from adhering to the opposite extreme that privileges subjective experience beyond all other forms of knowing, one at the individual level and the other collective.

The individual problem is that our experience, and the inferences we draw from it, is often a poor guide not only to the external world but also ourselves—who we are, what motivates us, and how we interact with others.  Cognitive psychology is nothing if not a litany of human foibles.  Autobiography is valuable, but not necessarily more truthful than biography written by others.  Your friends can tell you things about yourself you scarcely imagined.  A foreigner can often observe aspects of a culture that are invisible to those immersed in it.  Knowledge from within is valuable, but so is knowledge from without, which means radical subjectivism is lousy epistemology.

This problem has practical consequences.  In the 1980s America went through a period in which the subjective reports of children concerning possible child abuse were privileged over virtually any external evidence, and the result was the persecution of many innocent daycare workers and a wave of dubious “repressed memory” denunciations of parents.  Of course, many children were and are abused, and many adults are culpable, but the categorical privileging of child testimony or memory over all other forms of evidence clearly resulted in gross injustices.  The same critique can be applied to recent formal and informal determinations of violation and oppression on the basis of gender and race that privilege the self-reports of the (presumably) violated and oppressed.  When Rolling Stone messed up in its false exposé of “A Rape on Campus” two years ago, for instance, it had clearly been led off the rails by its assumption that the rape testimony of a woman possesses an existential truth that normal journalistic evidence-gathering cannot evaluate—but testimony can be wrong, even if it is offered in all sincerity.  Again, this is not to devalue what people say they have experienced; personal testimony is always crucial evidence.  But it can’t be the only evidence, or even the evidence that overrules all other.  Us humans are simply too fallible.

The collective problem exists because individual experiences vary.  It’s one thing to hear the testimony of a single voice describing what it means to be oppressed, but when issues like racism and sexism are discussed at a social level, how can the subjective experiences of thousands or even millions of individuals be combined into a composite voice to settle issues in dispute?  After all, if each experience is its own truth, without some further processing you would have a very large number of different truths, many of them contradictory.  There’s no escaping the need for an organization that offers its own voice on behalf of the many, so the rest of us can learn this composite truth.  But who gets to do this, and what experiences do they incorporate or set aside?

The politics of this representation is always fraught.  Sometimes open competition breaks out between different groups that each wish to express the general subjectivity but selected and combined according to different criteria.  Even when groups giving voice to identity are united there is often tension between individuals whose subjectivity is downplayed or ignored and the groups that claim to speak for them.  Given the underlying philosophy of radical subjectivism, there is no basis for individuals to contest the selection process that may have excluded them, since there are no criteria for selecting subjectivities, which in any case is not supposed to happen.  (No group openly states it performs this role; their rhetoric is always universal.)  Thus identity dissidents are effectively expelled from the entire framework.  Conservatives actively seek to locate these individuals, offering them support so they can draw them into their network.  The biographies of many black conservatives, for instance, fit this pattern.

As much as I respect the role that subjective knowledge needs to play in everyday life and social science, I think the extreme version, which holds that subjective experience is immune from challenge by any other mode of knowing, is causing great damage to the left.  The first step in freeing ourselves from it is to recognize it for what it is.


Thornton Hall said...

Excellent piece.

The obstacles are enormous but simple:

Both the NYT and economics claim to present objective knowledge.

These claims are both obviously false to people who do not work for media/industrial complex or depend on its claims to truth for the stability of their worldview. Both employ Newtonian metaphors for Darwinian processes (political spectrum or Cartesian Econ 101).

The cognitive biases of our experts thus stand directly opposed to bringing their expertise in line with other's subjective experience.

Peter T said...

I don't recognise this as a good description of the theories involved. They do not so much privilege subjective knowledge as make the point that much of what passes for objective knowledge is in fact the collective subjective assumptions of dominant classes. The aim then is to identify these assumptions and get behind them - to "deconstruct" the dominant narratives. It's a powerful technique properly used.

Peter Dorman said...

Peter T: I am wholly in favor of the methodology you describe. I think I have practiced it myself from time to time within economics. That's not the target of my complaint.

Anonymous said...

Asking for people's subjective experiences can be quite useful, but the problem comes in when those experiences are then confused with causation--which reliance on those subjective experiences alone cannot provide. The role of the expert is to wield rigorous methods to figure out what causes what; the lay person usually does not have that kind of knowledge. What the expert should not do, however, is reformulate the subject's personal feeling sof motives (a la Freud, for example).

When the white worker says, "I feel poor" or "I feel taken advantage of," and then blames the black community and Democratic party for sponging off of them, then we can listen to the first claim but test the second (not immediately accept it as valid). But too much post-modernism, at least in my experience, is driven by people who really don't want to take methods (science) seriously, often because they themselves don't know what they are doing. (See your local Literature department for examples.)

Thornton Hall said...

If you ngram the use of "postmodern" in English it closely parallels the rise *and fall* of votes for extreme nationalist parties in Europe 1985 - 2002.

Thornton Hall said...

Enormous damage is done to support for objective knowledge when the objective science of climate change is wedded to psychohistory of Hari Seldon to make claims about "social cost of carbon."

Scientists should run as fast as they can to avoid being lumped in with the experts who created and manage EU.

Thornton Hall said...

Seriously not trolling:
Shouldn't all the subjective knowledge academics be pragmatists of the American School?

Why are they all so European/Marxist?

Anonymous said...

Good question about Pragmatism. I'll only take a stab here. First, Pragmatism never quite caught on the same way Marxism & other European social thought did. Partly, I suspect, it was because the latter made a bigger deal of power, which resonates for political and theoretical reasons. Some work inspired by Pragmatism, that I have read, really misses power. That doesn't mean power can't be added back in (same for the "later Durkheim" work). Second, Marxism and European social thought makes model-building easier, relatively speaking. Pragmatism provides a useful foundation for theory-building, but isn't great "theory proper."

This doesn't mean post-modernism in its various guises is any better, although it did have more of a critical, hyper-charged quality to it in a way that Nietzsche when students read him for the first time.

If you want to see where Pragmatism can evolve, read John Martin's recent work. He draws on Dewey et al more than many others do. But he also has a problem with theorizing power. So...

Anonymous said...

To add one more thing, I suspect another root of this comes from Michel Foucault being more popular than Pierre Bourdieu. Both invoked power, were critical of expertise and privilege, etc., but in different ways, ultimately. Not to take anything away from Foucault, but his work has a touchy-feeling dimension to it. It is easier to grasp & apply, theoretically & methodologically, than Bourdieu's. Bourdieu isn't (wasn't) critical of expertise per so, just of experts hiding behind "expertise" to free themselves from accountability. Read through State Nobility, and you start to see that experts are not always the brightest & the best, and that expertise can be used for purposes of power--but not inevitably, if we can be more reflexive and pay attention to those subjective experiences. And his theory of fields can help us start to get out of this mess. Less so for Foucault. However, many folks outside social sciences (and too many of them in social sciences) have a harder time getting a grip on Bourdieu's work, whereas Foucault's is easier to oversimplify or misinterpret.

The Sophist said...

Replying to Thornton Hall ...

wait, what?

(1) you do believe that climate change is happening

But (2) you don't believe that it will have spillover harms

or (2') you don't believe those are being properly quantified

or (2'') you don't believe they -can- be properly quantified?

Just wanna get it straight.

Peter T said...

So Foucault, Bourdieu, subaltern history, Bakhtin are not the targets. So who are these French literary theorists who advanced radical subjectivism? Derrida?

I agree on the point about subjectivism, with the qualification that as most politics and much economics is less about what is than about what people feel about what is (so their subjective experience is very relevant to the outcomes). I'm less confident that it was the dastardly French, or the literature departments. After all, much US politics of the last three decades has been driven by the narcissism of the rich, and most of them appear barely able to read, let alone appreciate literary theory.

Anonymous said...

One could re-write your passage

The legitimacy of power in France, the country of the Grandes Écoles, historically depended on claims to expertise, and the Communists had offered a pole of opposition based on “scientific” Marxism. When Communism collapsed, how could the French left oppose power?

This way

The legitimacy of power in the US, the country of the Nobel economists, historically depended on claims to expertise, and the economists had offered a pole of legitimacy based on “scientific” economics. When economics collapsed with the global financial crisis of 2008, how could the American economists legitimise power? The response was to deny any criticism of economics, what the Sandwichman calls gaslighting.

Another anonymous

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Economics’ lack of scientific legitimacy
Comment on Peter Dorman on ‘Against the Subjective Theory of Knowledge’

Anonymous paraphrases: “The legitimacy of power in the US, the country of the Nobel economists, historically depended on claims to expertise, and the economists had offered a pole of legitimacy based on ‘scientific’ economics.”

The scientific legitimacy of economics is a figment of the imagination since the founding fathers.

In the beginning, there was Political Economy. J. S. Mill defined it clearly as a science: “The science which traces the laws of such of the phenomena of society as arise from the combined operations of mankind for the production of wealth, in so far as those phenomena are not modified by the pursuit of any other object.”

Marx, too, did it: “The real science of modern economy does not begin, until theoretical analysis passes from the process of circulation to the process of production.”

Jevons, too, did it and even re-branded the discipline: “Among minor alterations, I may mention the substitution for the name Political Economy of the single convenient term Economics. I cannot help thinking that it would be well to discard, as quickly as possible, the old troublesome double-worded name of our Science.”

Robbins, too, did it: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

The Bank of Sweden, too, did it: “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”.

Why not simply “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics”? The original title conspicuously overemphasizes the claim that economics is a science.

Science is well-defined by the criteria of formal and material consistency: “Research is in fact a continuous discussion of the consistency of theories: formal consistency insofar as the discussion relates to the logical cohesion of what is asserted in joint theories; material consistency insofar as the agreement of observations with theories is concerned.” (Klant)

Fact is: the four main approaches ― Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism ― are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, and materially/formally inconsistent.

The claim of economics to be a science has always been subjective wishful thinking with no counterpart in objective reality; accordingly, it is as legitimate as the claim of any banana republic to be a proper state.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke