Theory literacy & its application
On how theoretical assumptions provide specific foundations producing specific varieties of knowledge:
Methodologically, comparison is a great way of understanding what exists, what is possible, and how alternative approaches and projects function. In the contrasting discipline of Linguistics, theory tends to be based on the distinct philosophical ontological assumption that the knowable world is a projection of human discourse—oral and/or written language. In a world of language, there is no inequality, no violation of shared commonality. There is only difference within language. Thus, in the philosophical linguistic ontology, the diminishment of difference is injustice. Recall Burke from Unit One: Arguing that when democratic Enlightenment theorists reduce inequality, they reduce the beautiful, natural difference that is Excellence, and so they reduce justice, is the conservative social philosophers’ political argument.
Conceiving of injustice as strictly the diminishment of difference, philosophical-linguistic ontology historically emerges from and is built for supporting the reproduction of high-inequality societies. The world-as-text assumption foundation justifies linguists’ disciplinary knowledge, including against the social scientific knowledge that arose within the struggle toward Western Enlightenment.
Social scientific knowledge distinctively assumes that humans exist together in an historical, material, embodied way within a knowable world that exists in but also beyond our linguistic networks. Corrollaries:
- Social scientific ontology distinctively recognizes inequality, the violation of human commonality, as injustice.
- Scientific knowledge is not only about what is, but also what can be. Fully specified science is descriptive (identifying trends), predictive (identifying the trajectory of trends), and normative (identifying alternatives we can socially construct).
In linguistic theory, “aporias” are empty spaces, treated as black boxes beyond knowledge, that within language structure the linguistic world, which for linguists is the whole world. Linguistic theory’s “aporias” correspond to the material world in science.
However, in science, the world beyond discourse is not treated as a black box, but is rather the focus of scientific knowledge-seeking. Recall from Marxist historical-materialism: In science, we strive to mobilize across space and time our distinctively human, material capacities to know the world. These capacities include not only our logical and emotional capacities, not only our social communication capacity, but also our hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and proprioreceptor senses as well. With our distinctive human physical manipulation capacity (manual dexterity), we can build technological augmentations for our capacities, to further help us know the world beyond human language networks. Through scientific method employed across the community of shared scholarship to compensate for our human limitations, this aggregate knowledge will be incorporated in theory, in language according to democratic methodology, changing language in a distinct way. We think the virtue of scientific knowledge for democracy is that science is fundamentally built to involve a diversity of people, including a wide range of non-elites, in continually probing and searching for knowledge beyond elite exceptionalist, strategic interests. Scientific findings thus are not transcendental “truth,” but have validity. The ongoing conflict between elitist philosophy and scientific validity, as between inegalitarianism and egaliberte, is which is more just: transcendental truth, perhaps cherry-picking history, but always secured strictly by righteous power and entitlement, or validity, a provisional truth based on methodically apprehending and collectively interpreting aggregations of knowledge across humans.
How do contrasting ontologies, epistemologies, and corresponding theory assumption bases impact the knowledge we produce?
Consider this case of the equivalence Mill (1869, “The Subjection of Women”) was arguing between slavery and patriarchy.
For a disciplinary Linguist, what is important is that slavery involves race, whereas patriarchy is about gender, and these concepts reflect distinct linguistic networks. A discourse theorist would argue that connecting patriarchy to slavery in terms of their function, as Mill did, creates an injustice against racialized people because it erases linguistic difference. Erasing linguistic difference is the ultimate injustice within philosophical-linguistic theory. You might recognize that this is a type of justice philosophy, the elite, conservative justice of the exception, which is oriented to find injustice where solidaristic connections are made between non-elite majorities and non-elite minorities. German idealism, including its Nietzschean, Weberian, and Ordoliberal branches, developed this approach through the German university system, originally dedicated to training the princely managers of European monarchies.
Perhaps ideally, exception-justice theory could be incorporated in democratic knowledge, could correct for science’s focus on aggregating positional knowledges and finding central trends. However, instead, in a capitalist society of manufactured scarcity, exception-justice theory tends to be deployed as a proprietary antithesis to scientific knowledge. In that context, it relies on righteous moralism.
For example, in a 2018 account of the Nazi construction of Asperger’s as a designation allowing for special socialization of sub-social boys into productive German society, a writer, L. Sheffer, married into Silicon Valley tech wealth, links Dr. Asberger’s cruel Nazi treatment of non-Asberger child deviants to the welfare state, in its social coordination functions that impinge on the lives of the exceptional. The conservative logic and morality are structured to support elite interest: opposing state intervention in market power.
For the conservative wealthy mother of a child on the autism spectrum, justice is a state free of democratic redistributive capacity, a social contract that permits economic elites to retain wealth without redistributive taxation or income and wealth compression, while the responsibility is laid upon presumably-brutish sea of Muggles to adjust, like the servants they are, to the autism-spectrum Silicon Valley inheritors of society’s wealth. To market this elite interest requires a moving–emotionally manipulative–story, ostensibly about Asbergers, connecting and reducing the welfare state to shameful, murderous Nazis…who did not kill boys designated with Asbergers. No matter the leaps and strains in the story (this time, putatively about Asbergers). Painting elite interest as moral crusader for the most vulnerable and marginalized is the feminized half of the inegalitarian conservative social order. In place of egaliberte, elites shall gift us a society of patronage (and servitude). Then when conservatives retell another cobbled, holey, moralism-patched account of why everyone should support inegalitarian absolute private property right, the tale is always marketed (as M. Pridmore-Brown did in the March 29, 2019 LRB) with hype around how brilliantly nuanced and complicated the argument is–That is conserva-code for crookedness and emotional manipulation.
To demonstrate the “truth” of exception-justice theory, a Linguist might gesture to a justice-of-the-exception argument forwarded by a community of African-American philosophers, such as the claim that slavery is an exceptional, incomparable experience of difference. This project argues that 99%-solidarity arguments such as Mill’s are injustice, from within the difference morality of the justice-of-the exception paradigm.
By contrast, a Sociological social scientist would be more likely to understand Mill’s argument about the slavery nature of patriarchal relations within the historical-materialist theory of capitalist development, in which capitalist relations (allocating to a small elite exclusive ownership and control over the means of production) repeatedly rely on and reproduce a “sea of appropriated work” (Jason Moore 2014), such as both slavery and patriarchy, among other kinds of expropriation.
Because it is based in a democratic-justice paradigm, does this mean that social science cannot forward a morality argument like a discursive exception-justice paradigm can?
No. Sociologists can gesture to, for example, Du Bois’ democratic justice arguments finding homologies (similarities) between the development of patriarchy, slavery, and racism (among other injustices, like ecological destruction) in the history of capitalist relations. Today, scholars of color including Angela Davis, Sedef Arat Koc, Glenn Coulthard and Leanne Simpson, et al, forward democratic-justice arguments rooted in social science and other (eg. indigenous) historical-materialist paradigms. Likewise, climate scientists have found their moral voice in recent years.
Moralism is a classic crutch propping up inegalitarianism. Although exceptionalist knowledge tends to be especially defended with moral arguments (eg. Burke), moralism is not an exclusive property of any one kind of justice paradigm or political wheelhouse. As the philosophical materialists, and as Dewey, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft maintained, democracy requires moral development, toward a capacity to balance goods (or “pleasures”) over a lifetime and across lives. Yet advancing democratic capacity requires us all to learn theoretical literacy and scientific craft, rather than to lean on moralistic discourse.
Feminist social reproduction theorists JS Mill, M Wollstonecraft, V Woolf, and E Clews-Parsons would argue that education for democratic development requires us to rigorously study the theory and practice the empirical skills to move beyond reproducing an inegalitarian, gender-segregated society disposing feminized people to specialize in the moral regulation of segregated private worlds, as a social-reproductive complement to men disposed to be club conservatives bound to exploitation and imperialism.
Historical context: Social science knowledge v. Social philosophy knowledge
In the 20th century, as part of their neoliberal mobilization to reorient liberalism, as it’s centered on private property right, back toward the conservative wheelhouse of inequality and inegalitarianism, conservatives organized scholars around the claim that scientific, democratic social knowledge is unjust and requires correction–specifically correction with the elite-governed justice-of-the-exception paradigm. To make this claim, some conservative scholars depicted science as nothing more than state-subordinated scientism. Others, such as conservative economists, practiced and proliferated scientism.
Yet arguably, the neoliberal project to demonstrate that the elite-interest-governed justice-of-the-exception best represents the interests of the most marginalized non-elite peoples tends to be a co-optative reaction to democratic justice approaches and projects. Along with scientism, restoring justice-of-the-exception theory is part of a “neoliberal” conservative restoration project explicitly formulated to disrupt, dismantle, and replace democratic knowledge development.
 Ontologies: philosophies of what exists. Epistemologies: philosophies of how we know.