- Rethinking Knowledge: Reflections Across the Disciplines
The more disciplines talk about their methods, the less they do. Observe the scarcity of methodological problems for dentistry. This book collects papers, originally delivered as talks at a conference organized around a loosely defined notion of epistemology in the social sciences, by economists, philosophers, ethnographers, and psychologists, either reflecting upon larger issues raised by their work or trying to explain why it is relevant in the first place.
The papers belong to two gaggles of views. The first gaggle (including the economist Donald McCloskey, the philosopher Charles Taylor, George Marcus, and Michael Arbib) does something quite productive. They weigh the influence of certain rhetorical modes of thinking on their disciplines. In the second gaggle are those, including the literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Jane Flax, who offer no view of anything much, but engage in the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon sport of pseudo-philosophy. They babble about the “West” and indulge a tendency to sheer narcissism.
On to the good parts. An important recent advance is the demise of the pretense of neutrality and purity of interest among social scientists. In her essay, for instance, Marcus traces how ethnographers have progressively relinquished narratives of the exotic intended to reinforce a smug superiority of white civilizations. There is a danger: no one would be too interested in reading dozens of dissertations on the subject of graduate students in anthropology departments. Nonetheless, it is a real gain to mark the limits of an excessive reliance on the rhetoric of the “white men’s burden” and all that. Similarly, McCloskey is good at pointing out that economics is not obvious at all, and that rhetorical devices, then, have helped to shape its present form. Taylor gives a quick though not trivial history of the birth in relatively recent times of a discourse of the self, distinguishing between reflexive consciousness and the discourse of the self. Arbib shows how recherché data about brain lesions can shed light on our cognitive structure.
Now to the confusingly confused parts. There is the usual dogmatic nonsense backed by no evidence. I offer one example: “. . . the meanings or the existence of reason, science, knowledge, etc., . . . have been subjected to increasingly corrosive attacks,” Flax says in his essay. “The challenge to Western political-economic hegemony by Japan and other countries, the rise of nationalist and anticolonialist movements in the Third World, women’s movements everywhere, and antiracist struggles have disrupted the order of things” (p. 151). What worries me is the lack of thinking: can an instance be shown in which, say, the antiapartheid movement in South Africa made an impact and changed or kicked out of existence the concept of knowledge?
Herrnstein Smith is guilty of a more interesting form of bad reasoning. On [End Page 406] the one hand, we are told that all “value judgments” are relative, radically contingent, and blah blah. On the other, we are also told that this is not the same as relativism. The sloppiness is evident: it is a trivial point that lots of value judgments are relative to something else. That a dollar bill is worth a dollar is contingent upon the existence of federal reserve, a mint, and an immense set of background conditions, given all of which it is a dollar bill and not a simple piece of paper. If the contingency of judgments comes to nothing more, one is left to wonder why we need entire departments in top universities to discover it. The more insidious part is the claim that relativity is self-exemplified in discourse and that indeed all there is to assertions is the desire to satisfy one’s chosen audience (p. 36). If this is so, is there any interest in professors talking to other professors about the methodological problems of their disciplines?