As usual, Rick Roderick proves to be a great go-to guy on Nietzsche. In this series of videos (one lecture put together by Daniel Horne), he takes on the accusation that Nietzsche is taking a relativist stance towards truth, or as it can be labeled, a 'perspectivist' stance. Roderick does an (as usual excellent) exposition of Nietzsche's.
It starts with ideas about one's belief about one's beliefs. Nietzsche is attacking the idea that one usual thinks that one's beliefs should be held by everyone else - your belief about your belief is that it should be everyone's belief. That's dogmatism, not universal truth. But it parades around as truth.
Roderick sees Nietzsche as attacking dogmatism in a very traditional Socratic way, not as practicing metaphysics. In fact, he doesn't think Nietzsche gives a positive account of Truth at all. Before characterizing what N. is up to, he provides the classic refutation of the relativist position which Nietzsche is often accused of holding:
Let’s say you take the strong relativist way of stating that, which is “There is no truth”. That’s the strong relativist way to state it – if there were any relativists – “There is no truth”. And then the philosopher asks “Well, if there is no truth binding for all”; “No truth”, for a philosopher, since that amounts to the same thing… for most mainstream positions. “There is no truth”. What’s odd about the statement “There is no truth”? Well, we know what’s odd about it. What’s odd about it is there must be one. Namely that one; the sentence “There is no truth” must be true. This is how philosophers refute things; because if it’s not true, then there is truth.
So it looks as though the relativist is involved in what philosophers call a “self referential paradox”. Namely, the relativist can’t state his or her position because in stating it they must appeal to the notion of truth, which their position attempts to undermine. That’s the Socratic, and still a standard refutation of relativism.
OK, so we've dispensed with the idea that Nietzsche is giving an account of Truth and that it is relativistic. Roderick rightly notes that Nietzsche is concerned with what counts as true and what counts as false. [FYI, he has a funny little aside about Tarski's Theory of Truth] What Nietzsche is interested in is why human beings developed a notion of truth and how it is deployed in language and social interaction.
To tie this back to the attack on dogmatism and belief, if truth is a mechanism for announcing what counts as true and what counts as false, then truth is essentially a mechanism for saying 'this is what I hold as true', 'what I believe is true', 'what is accepted as true', etc. It's not a metaphysical assertion. Dogmatism (belief about one's beliefs) mascarades as Metaphysical Truth, when is really a statement about beliefs. So truth is really a mechanism to support the articulation of beliefs in social contexts. It's a way of signalling to others whether you agree with their beliefs about their own beliefs (share their dogmatism) or not.
In that sense it has utility in articulating assent or contention - in defining one's stance vis-a-vis another. Roderick will tie this to a concept of power that will lead naturally to Foucault and that makes for an interesting further exploration.
I think it’s very important to recognize the developmental/evolutionary slant to Nietzsche and how his trieb-theory precedes values/facts rather than picking a side in this later distinction.
another angle on the truth/power knot is via Stanley Fish and the struggles between rhetoric and philosophy, one could read Nietzsche as championing the homo rhetoricus:
the point raised about how taking an idea/image/remark out of context and abstracting from it can lead to philosophical err-ancy (and fly-jar theories) is fascinating because of course this is also a mode of making works of art…
here is a recent interview with Alva Noe on taste/sense making, how to make aspects of the world present, and optimizing experience/performance.
The “self referential paradox” has always seemed a pretty silly way to refute relativism, because I think it misses the point of certain kinds of relativisms. I still think Nietzsche is a cultural relativist of a sort.
I would happily follow Nietzsche’s argument that “truth” is tied up with a certain socially constructed interested attitude toward the world and that claiming objectivity beyond that attitude is a kind of arrogance, intellectual imperialism, or ethnocentrism as the case may be. The problem of truth could be translated into the problem of meaning, and as the world does not “mean” anything by itself, meaning is created through cutting up the experiential continuum, relating things to other things, and through metaphorical extension. This should not lead us to nihilistically abandon any search for truth, as long as we understand it in more limited terms. This is why I can say that yes, truth is culturally relative from my academic point of view, though the statement would make little sense from a point of view that was different enough.
Anthropologists constantly confront counterintuitive ways to conceptualize the world, and without a relativist stance they would be condemning whole cultures as irrational left and right. Men are parrots in this one, widows become possessed by spirits in that one, humans are naturally greedy but this greed can be transformed into a common good by an invisible hand in yet another. Clearly ludicrous stuff.
Truth then is embedded in and mediated through certain practices and horizon of meaning and must be assessed accordingly. If we want to be responsible we contextualize the practice of truth in this manner. This does obviously not mean that all statements are equally valid; it only means we understand why statements are made to begin with. In many cultural contexts the question of “truth” is completely irrelevant.
What I find less compelling in Nietzsche’s essay, is his rather silly functionalist pseudo-historical explanation of how truth became an issue in the first place. I would have thought his anti-utilitarianism would have shielded him from such flights of fancy.
To clarify further:
If we take seriously Edward Sapir’s notion of linguistic relativity, that “the worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached,” or the notion of cultural relativity in general, we understand that some arguments over truth are caused by the constitutive differences between pragmatic and conceptual schemas, and that the arguments may partly be incommensurable. Our economic, scientific, or pragmatic rationality may not be the same as rationality of others. People are able to compartmentalize their rationalities, they can be scientists and mystics or aesthetes or whatever. This helps explain why scientific worldview does not simply blow religion out of the water, they can address different areas of human lives and different practical rationalities.
that seems to ignore when people make religious claims about scientific matters like the age of earth, global warming, or the origins of man, and do people really live out overarching world-views or is daily life/coping more a matter of a loose kluged together assemblage of practices/habits (and doesn’t the compartmentalization you mention exhibit this?) and environs/situations?
if you get a chance see what you make of Dennett on the evolution of purposes:
I do not ignore the fact that religious and scientific arguments can be part of the same discursive field. It should be clear that they are not separate discourses in the West and that there is a long history of dialogue where the perspectives have been reproduced through mutual differentiation. There should be instances where they are contextually separated and where they make arguments against a common ground (creationists trying to justify their views through pseudo-science is an example). I also think that in such cases it is completely fair to argue against such views using scientific arguments. Again I am not saying that scientific and religious rationality are necessarily incommensurable, only that they can be. When we are making cross-cultural assessments the situation becomes much more tricky (and power relations much more pressing).
The question of the whether there exist any “overarching” cultural worldviews is one we have argued over before. I would argue that humans inhabit distinct cultural worlds through which they make sense of the world. I think the notion of assemblages is a poor (or flat to use Latour’s term) substitute for a robust concept of culture. Assemblages can explain certain kinds of social phenomena, but I would argue that they cannot account for the diversity of habits and practices found in ethnographic literature, unless you want to claim that such variety is only a figment of anthropological imagination. I would be tempted to say that it is on the contrary the assemblage which is a reflection of a particular ethnocentric bias, specifically a view stemming from a modern differentiated individualistic society.
Again I am not saying that cultural worldview amounts to an iron cage, or is completely consistent internally. It certainly does not exist as a complete system in anyone’s head. On the contrary it amounts to the possibility of extending and transforming meanings in practical action.
What I fail to see is how the networks, if they truly are so atomistic, are able to reproduce themselves.
why, given that they are made up of combinations of ever changing elements, couldn’t assemblages account for diversity, how could they not?
How can “robust” models count for the diversity of, and in, individuals, the failure of social sciences to have predictive powers and such?
as for re-production that is just a matter of socialization:
What I meant by diversity is diversity between distinct cultural perspectives. This view of variability necessitates cultural wholes, otherwise the distinctions merely meld into an undifferentiated formless heterogeneity since there is nothing holding collectivities together. Of course we can appeal to more or less distinct assemblages, but that is already a move towards totalization.
As for diversity within cuitures, I’d refer to the “heteroglossia” mentioned by Sahlins. As Sartre said “Valéry is a petit bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it. But not every petit bourgeois intellectual is Valéry.” Shared culture established intersubjective intelligibility, which enables improvisation, invention, etc. Action can be culturally ordered even though it is not culturally prescribed, in the same way language allows us to utter sentences without dictating what we say. Thus accounting for cultural context helps us understand how new things can be intelligible to us, and how they can potentially change the schemas through which we comprehend them.
These schemas are learned, reproduced, and transformed in social action, including socialization.
I haven’t read the Cowley article yet, but I’ll try to get to it.
Can I ask why you posted the link to Dennett? To show that order / meaning can arise from nature through evolutionary processes? (I haven’t watched it yet)
I’ll try to simplify further. Would not the contingent circumstances through which people are socialized and through which they participate in the reproduction of culture account for individual variability just like it would account for variability within an assemblage. Some of this variability is built into a culture as a system of differences (class, gender, age, and so on, depending on the culture). Some may be completely idiosyncratic. If the idiosyncratic is to have a transformative effect culturally, it needs to be rendered intelligible in some way (I can be a political visionary, avant-garde artist, a scientific pioneer etc.).
hi v, when you say “Would not the contingent circumstances through which people are socialized and through which they participate in the reproduction culture account for individual variability just like it would account for variability within an assemblage” I have to ask what is there to “culture” other than the contingent (and specific/emerging) circumstances that people are socialized with/in, and what is the other(s) to socialization that you see at work? Is a cultural schema some-thing other than a figure of speech and if so how and where does it function, like a rule or a law or what? and how would we come to possess (be possessed by?) the same One with the same implications/resonances?
no worry on the links they are just suggestions for as time and interests allow, yes Dennett was offered in relation to the question of separate “domains” for science and religion, better perhaps to talk in terms of differing kinds of human doings/practices.
I do not think there is anything to culture beyond what is socially transmitted. There is no mystical hive mind or shared consciousness.
But what is transmitted through contingent circumstances can have great resilience, which gives cultures coherence beyond any single individual manifestation of a cultural value, and which makes inter-subjective meaning possible. We may transform cultures, but we may never step outside of them, for if what we do is intelligible we are still in the realm of culture.
What I mean by schema is, for example, the culturally specific ways in which social persons are constituted. For us one of the defining features of brother-sister relationship is gender. There are cultures where the relationship does not have to do with gender distinction at all and can be thus metaphorically extended to other relationships between same sex persons. Where we would see obvious gender dualism, they would not. Certain key metaphors are consistent in very large cultural areas, such as the botanical metaphors through which Austronesian conceptualize relatedness and kinship. Certain cosmological beliefs that have to do with hierarchy are found in all of Polynesia, cultures scattered over a vast area in the Pacific.
As I said, culture is a complex system of meaningful differences: man-woman, young-old, poor-rich, commoner-aristocrat, holy-secular, and so on (not to imply that they are all binary oppositions). Perhaps, like Valery, I am an idiosyncratic “petit bourgeois intellectual” but my social person is defined through meaningful differences to other positions in my social world. If I was not thus defined, I would be unintelligible as a social actor. This can be my fate if I move to a culture that is different enough from my own. My actions do not make any sense, I am unable to move in social space, and I conduct myself with less finesse and understanding than an infant.
I should probably make a distinction between an articulated ideological level of culture, which is itself a domain of discursive reflection, and the unconscious aspects, which Bourdieu called the habitus, unreflected dispositions and modes of bodily practice.
The reason I believe in such “shared” schemas is that I can perfectly well function in a culture in which I was raised or that is sufficiently familiar to me, but when I am taken to one sufficiently strange I am a fish our of water. We may, for theoretical and methodological reasons replace this notion of culture with that of assemblage (which claims to be more open, unbounded, does not rely on unseemly reification etc.) though I see little benefit coming from this move.
Let’s say that when I speak of schemas, what I mean is ideas that structure our experience. Money, for example, is a very complex cultural idea. There is a sensible side to money:, the coins in my pocket and the numbers on my PC or ATM screen, all the utterances and texts about money, the imposing banks and the heist films. There is also an intelligible side to money: what it means, all the potential values it can be transformed into and what it represents in itself (“what I want” “can’t buy love” “root of all evil” etc.). Money may not mean the same to me and you even if we were from the same culture. It may not mean the same to me from moment to moment. It is, nevertheless, a collective representation, that renders certain interactions inter-subjectively intelligible (I am overusing that phrase). I can also go to a culture where people do things with money I do not recognize. They may wear it, put it in a tree-trunk and claim it will grow interest, or they may burn it. Without cultural contextualization this will not make sense to me.
Money was perhaps a strategically flexible example, almost a floating signifier. Let’s take freedom. We could argue what it means and draw from a vast background of cultural knowledge. Even if we disagreed, the disagreement itself would necessitate that we agree that we are talking of the same thing. Freedom is not an universal concept however, talk about freedom could just as well be completely unintelligible to me.
Since we are not constantly drawing blanks staring at each other in dumbfounded silence, I have to conclude that we share some kind of understanding, and since it is not always the case, I have to conclude that the understanding is cultural and relative to a variable symbolic system.
Just one more thing. It is the flexibility of cultural schemas that allows them to be adjusted to historically contingent events. This is why, as Sahlins says, history is culturally ordered but not culturally prescribed. Thus we can have no mechanical laws that would predict what will happen, but we can look back and see how cultural schemas were played out in historically contingent events.
I can predict certain things. If I go to a store they will accept my money and give me a commodity. If I go to a fancy dress-party in shorts and a tank top some people will scorn me. Since I’ve seen The Breakfast Club I’m familiar enough with American teen culture that I bet that if I go to a high school in the US I will find jocks and nerds and tough guys. If I will, it will be because those teens have internalized the same modes of behavior and social identities I’ve seen on screen.
I perhaps muddied the waters using the term schema rather arbitrarily. I was trying to be vague on purpose. I could talk about image schemas, modes of classification, cultural models (of and for), collective representations, or symbolic systems depending on my theoretical orientation and specific level of analysis. Here I am only trying to say that our experience is culturally ordered and that ordering is socially constructed through signs and actions that have both a sensible and an intelligible dimension.
v, when you say that “But what is transmitted through contingent circumstances can have great resilience, which gives cultures coherence beyond any single individual manifestation of a cultural value” how does this happen, what are the mechanisms/mechanics and measures of transmission and staying-true/re-production, given all of the limits of imitation/repetition,rule following and such (is there something at work besides human actions in relations to their environs?) ?
not sure if I passed along this Ingold already but:
Cultural values are reproduced and internalized in practical action that extend and transform them. Every time I open my mouth or place my fingers on the keyboard I am not radically reinventing language (and the world!), even if language gradually changes through use. When I talk about “my dog” and that “dog there” something between the utterances makes them intelligible even though they refer to different signifiers in different contexts.
I can track change of language historically and I can count how many times a particular sign has been used in a particular text.
Same is true for culture in a larger sense. I can observe behavior and naturally occurring discourse and I can ask people what they mean. I can look at a cultural area and say that we can see certain similarities between cultural practices, and since the area is historically connected I can hypothesize that this is no accident of independent invention. Precolonial Tonga had a chiefly hierarchy reminiscent of precolonial Hawaii and not by accident. I could even be as bold as to claim that they represent “structures of longue durée” since I can find permutations of such cultural patterns in Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands, New Zealand and even South-East Asia. If I look at a specific culture my knowledge of the larger cultural area will inform my analysis, even as I must be sensitive to regional and historical variation.
How do I know that behind any of the seeming regularity there is any true continuity of meaning? How do I know individuals use a particular language in the same way at all (mean the same things) and that its not all just a big working misunderstanding, an accidental illusion of mutual itelligibility? That we don’t live in radically individual worlds that only seem to be connected, or are connected through slightest wisps of shared contexts? I don’t, but as long as there is no way to tell it doesn’t matter. If I can perceive the discontinuity I can change my account. The problem is that we can only be more or less convincing when we talk about the continuity of social action, the proof is always circumstantial (network would fair no better than culture).
Here’s what Geertz said about cultural coherence in 1973:
“Cultural discontinuity, and the social disorganization which, even in highly stable societies, can result from it, is as real as cultural integration. The notion, still quite widespread in anthropology, that culture is a seamless web is no less a petitio principii than the older view that culture is a thing of shreds and patches which, with a certain excess of enthusiasm, it replaced after the Malinowskian revolution of the early thirties. Systems need not be exhaustively interconnected to be systems. They may be densely interconnected or poorly, but which they are-how rightly integrated they are–is an empirical matter. To assert connections among modes of experiencing, as among any variables, it is necessary to find them (and find ways of finding them), not simply assume them. And as there are some rather compelling theoretical reasons for believing that a system which is both complex, as any culture is, and fully joined cannot function, the problem of cultural analysis is as much a matter of determining independencies as interconnections, gulfs as well as bridges. The appropriate image, if one must have images, of cultural organization, is neither the spider web nor the pile of sand. It is rather more the octopus, whose tentacles are in large part separately integrated, neurally quite poorly connected with one another and with what in the octopus passes for a brain, and yet who nonetheless manages both to get around and to preserve himself, for a while anyway, as a viable if somewhat ungainly entity.”
The notion that culture is “a thing of shreds and patches” comes from Robert Lowie in 1920s. He was attacking evolutionist arguments that imposed arbitrary regularity and rule governed development on societies while ignoring the unique and historically random character of cultures.
Okay, I’m grasping at an answer because I do no understand the question.
No, I do not think there is anything rule- or lawlike thing beyond human action at work here. The actions themselves are a reflection of a culture as it is internalized through contingent circumstances and as it finds practical realization in unique historical circumstances. This, to me, is a standard anthropological view of the matter. Of course a culture is a system of interactions that is replicated through the interconnections of individuals (not through autonomous separate agents). What I mean is that you yourself, your personhood as it is culturally constituted, is defined against other positions within a culture (what it means to be a man is defined in relation to what it means to be a woman and so on).
Since I’ve tried to explain my view at some length, I would hope a little more detail on the critique. That is if you disagree I would hope you’d shed some light on the exact nature of the disagreement.
I could also answer by referring you to the whole corpus of anthropological literature. Its not like these issues are in any way settled, so the questions speak to what “social scientist” do at the most general level. There may be no satisfactory generalizations we can make that would transcend specific analyses. (This is partly my problem with Latour. He claimed that the particular anthropological perspective that he had learned was not suited to what he wanted to study and generalized the perceived problem). As I learned it anthropological knowledge is not cumulative in the manner of hard sciences, but rather interesting perspectives come and go and old questions become newly relevant, much like in philosophy.
For my money Sahlins has a pretty good account of structure and event, change and continuity.
Thanks for the Ingold talk, it was very interesting. I’d say I largely agree with him on cultural reproduction and on how improvisation plays part in this, though I am not terribly familiar with his other work. (I think I quoted him on “anthropology being philosophy with people in it” in one of my first posts.)
Of course I’d argue that there are many different ways in which culture is reproduced, and in which things like convention, invention, and improvisation relate to each other, shape practices, and create meaning.
I do share Ingold’s stance against meme-theory and neo-Darwinism.
Notice he attributed the simplistic genealogical model of cultural transmission more to psychologists than anthropologists (though he especially picks on cognitive scientist Dan Sperber)
If culture was merely rule-following society would resemble a factory during an Italian strike.
I think I said something before to the effect that material culture does not merely reflect a somehow a priori social system, but that the contingent properties of materiality are necessary for meaning (Levi-Strauss talks of this in The Savage Mind 1962). Same can be said of the contingent events through which culture is practically extended, even as every reproduction becomes a transformation (Sahlins).
I think we are way beyond threadjacking at this point (I’m sure these topics will come up again) but I just wanted to note this turn of phrase “even as every reproduction becomes a transformation”, and say indeed.
I would imagine that post-stucturalism(s) is in works at some level of the PEL enterprise so we can maybe work on this more in that context, in the meantime you might be interested in the “practice” turn folks:
The problem of much of practice theory is that it is very hard to imagine intentionality or agency that is not reducible to either a specific cultural order or completely random circumstances, without turning it into some form of strategic action, maximization, or self interest, and we thus end up with game-theories and fields of interaction that resemble markets of competing forces (this goes for transactionalism, various evolutionary hypothesis, and Bourdieu too).
The transformative effects of reproduction, which I have emphasized ad nauseum along with culture as lived being meaningful practical action, was a reference to Sahlins’ notion of the structure of conjuncture. He would still unfashionably claim to be a structuralist. Of course the opposite is true, every transformation is a reproduction of a cultural order.”Event is not simply a phenomenal happening, even though as a phenomenon it has reasons and forces of its own, apart from any given symbolic scheme. An event becomes such as it is interpreted.”
I apologize to the podcasters if we have hijacked this thread (I guess I have done most of the hijacking).
Rick Roderick is a discovery for me. I had never heard of him. Really great to listen to. He wakes something in me that has been asleep for so so long. I guess that’s what philosophy should be about.
Thanks for linking to him.