- Realism, Universalism, and the Science of the Human
It is arguably a peculiar fact that a book announcing itself as a defense of objectivity and realism would begin by assuring readers of the political efficacy of its theories. After all, the critique of objectivity and realism within progressive cultural criticism of the past several decades has taken for granted that claims to objectivity and realism are suspicious in part because of their pretense to value-neutrality. But Satya P. Mohanty’s ambitious and wide-ranging Literary Theory and the Claims of History joins with other recent attempts to lay claim to a refurbished realism that not only overcomes variously construed limitations of postmodernism but fully answers to the charges leveled against “traditional” objectivity or “naïve” realism [see Alcoff; Livingston]. Such a project can in part be analyzed against a broader critique of postmodernism and poststructuralism advanced through reconsideration of Enlightenment ideals, including, most prominently, the ideals of universalism and its less abstract cousin, cosmopolitanism [see Anderson]. The reconstructions of both universalism and realism have claimed a greater intellectual integrity and coherence than the forms of postmodernism that they challenge and a more promising ethico-political vision, one that more convincingly acknowledges the place and claims of marginalized others. These reconstructive projects thus fundamentally challenge the familiar postmodernist idea that claims to universalism or objectivity themselves enact forms of privilege or exclusion that inherently disable any properly egalitarian or nonviolent relation to others.
Mohanty would appear to combine the universalist and realist ambitions, insofar as he asserts a moral position based on Kantian notions of autonomy and dignity at the same time that, in epistemological terms, he elaborates a “postpositivist realist alternative.” Maintaining that the critique of objectivity within postmodernism is propped up by an outdated understanding of scientific method and theory, he argues that the more sophisticated theories within current philosophy of science elaborate epistemological models that are fully compatible with a generalized hermeneutical method, precisely because they acknowledge both the theory-laden nature of all inquiry and the larger social and historical contexts of knowledge and experience. Before elaborating this realist alternative, however, Mohanty situates his project by forwarding a number of critiques of “constructivist postmodernism,” critiques that enable us to better gauge the motivations behind his work. Foregrounded at the start are what Mohanty sees as the [End Page 3] harmful political and ethical consequences of relativism, skepticism, and constructivism. According to Mohanty, while the claims for diversity and difference in the 1960s “had a political edge,” at this historical moment they are used primarily for conservative ends, via a state-sponsored bland multiculturalism that diverts attention from the blunt material issues of race politics . In broader ethico-political terms, moreover, relativist arguments that display skepticism toward the possibilities for rational exchange between variously construed collectivities and cultures lead not to a proper respect for the other but rather to indifference. As Mohanty puts it, to deny the possibility of “general criteria” for “interpretive validity” is “to assert that all spaces are equivalent, that they have equal value, that since the lowest common principle of evaluation is all that I can invoke, I cannot—and consequently need not—think about how your space impinges on mine or how my history is defined together with yours. If that is the case, I may have started by declaring a pious political wish, but I end by denying that I need to take you seriously” [131; Mohanty’s emphasis].
Beyond these harmful consequences, however, lies a more fundamental problem. In its monolithic assault on Western Reason and the unified subject of humanism, constructivist postmodernism has deprived itself of any coherent account of human agency and rationality. Without a philosophical anthropology establishing the “capacities, tasks, and limits that might make up a specifically human existence,” Mohanty argues, it becomes impossible to account properly for cultural practices and historical agency, for the self-understanding of cultures and the historical transformations they enact [138...