Society, nature and gods: an essay on the constitution and limits of modern knowledge


Sanjay Seth

I want to begin, in a leisurely fashion, with two stories, about worlds seemingly very different from our own. In his recent book, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, Heonik Kwon describes a region of Vietnam abounding with the ghosts of those who met violent deaths away from home. The humans who share their world with these ghosts- and also with gods and other deities, and with the spirits of their dead ancestors- are part of an eminently modern society, characterised by extensive market relations, and many of the other appertunances and symbols of modernity; and the ghosts themselves are not remnants of a time long past, because a large number of them are the ghosts of the war dead, both American and Vietnamese. These ghosts require the same things that the living require, and so are made offerings of food and drink, votive money, clothing, and sometimes, even a bicycle or Honda. There are those in Vietnam – and they include many, though by no means all, of the members of the ruling communist party- who disapprove of such offerings, and regard this as ‘illusory thinking”, but they are, Kwon tells us, greatly outnumbered by those who instead consider it a part of the nature of being and becoming in the world, that is, as an ontological question.[i]

Those who attend to the needs of ghosts make their offerings irrespective of the nationality of these spectral figures ; at a séance a deity explains to the anthropologist, “my dear foreigner, dead people don’t fight. War is the business of the living. People in my world do not remember the intentions and objectives of the war they fought while they were in your world.”[ii] Whatever their nationality or politics, ghosts have a right to exist in the social world of the living, and the rituals and offerings the living make are, part of “a constant negotiation over social and ecological space with this ontologically given, socially distinct group of beings.”[iii]

My second and briefer example concerns the distinction between nature and society – a distinction which is fundamental and axiomatic for many societies, including our own, but which, anthropologists tell us, is not so for others. According to Philippe Descola, the Achuar people of the upper Amazon “do not…share our antimony between two closed and irremediably opposed worlds, the cultural world of human society and the natural world of animal society”[iv] They have, as it were, only one society, which includes animals, spirits and plants; in their understanding, “all of nature’s beings have some features in common with mankind, and the laws they go by are more or less the same as those governing civil society.”[v] The Achuar, Descola writes, “confer the attributes of social life upon plants and animals, regarding these as subjects rather than objects.”[vi]

When we as scholars of the human sciences seek to explain and understand such phenomena, we usually engage in a form of conceptual translation. Confronted by those who believe in gods, spirits and ghosts, we treat these as manifestations of some other, intelligible phenomena. We then explain such beliefs as self-estrangement, if we are Marxists, or as in some way necessary to the representation of social unity, if we are followers of Durkheim, or in terms of some functional requirement, if we are functionalists. We do this despite the fact that ghosts, spirits and dead ancestors are ontological phenomena for those whom we are seeking to understand, not allegorical or metaphorical ones; their existence does not depend upon whether or not they are ‘believed’ in. When we confront those who do not distinguish nature from society, we smile indulgently, for we know that we are in the presence of those for whom the world is still not disenchanted, for whom, mistakenly if charmingly, the world as a whole, including nature, is pregnant with meaning and purpose. And we usually try to find a social-cultural explanation for their confusions that would render these comprehensible; or, if we are socio-biologists, we seek a natural explanation in the form of environmental or genetic constraints. In either case, the very mode of our explanation presupposes a distinction between nature and society- the very distinction which the subjects of our study cannot conceive of, or deny. In both the case of the Achuar and the Vietnamese, the understandings that the human sciences make available to us, varied as they may be, all rely upon translating the explanations and self-understandings of those whom we are seeking to understand into our own terms. Not just translating, but also overriding- for we assume that our descriptions and explanations offer an understanding superior to their own.

Of course, it is often thought to be a mark of the rigour of social-scientific explanations that they get ‘behind’ or ‘under’ the self-understandings of agents to causes and conditions which are unavailable to social actors. But note that when we apply the social sciences to our own understandings, when we invoke hidden or underlying causes to explain features of our own culture, they are ones that are part of our conceptual world. We may assent or deny if told that our erotic relations are connected to the workings of our unconscious, but we recognise this sort of explanation, for by-and-large, the Unconscious is a part of our world. The sort of explanations we offer in the above cases, however, are not always and fully part of their world. It is as if the Achuar of Amazonia and the Vietnamese of Cam Re were to explain to us that our failure to attend to the needs of ghosts, and our worship of our malign god, the Unconscious, is bound to result in a tortuous erotic life. What is at issue, in other words, is not whether we have to take the self-understandings of our subjects at face-value- we clearly do not have to do so, and the cosmologies of other peoples also regularly invoke hidden factors as explanations- but rather whether the categories invoked in social science explanations are superior to those they translate.

Where do our categories come from? Like all knowledges, they have an origin in a particular time, and place. The place is Europe. The time is the early modern period. As modern knowledge emerged and came to be defined through a critique of scholastic, other medieval, and Renaissance knowledges, all of these were condemned for confusing humans with their world- for attributing to the world a meaning and purpose which in fact belongs to us, and which we have projected onto it. One of the defining features of modern knowledge, then, was that it presumed a sharp distinction between subject and object, knower and known. It further assumed that the world was divided between a disenchanted nature, which was to be understood in terms of laws and regularities, and a newly discovered object called society, which was a realm of meanings, purposes and ends. It also reversed the order between god(s) and men, presuming that gods were to be explained in terms of men, rather than men in terms of gods.

Once novel and engaged in battle with other knowledges, this knowledge today is triumphant. The natural and human sciences which began to be institutionalised in the nineteenth century are elaborations and institutionalisations of its core presumptions. Moreover, this knowledge is global- it has not only superseded the pre-modern knowledges of Europe, but also the autochthonous knowledges of the non-western world. Max Weber once wrote that explanations in the social sciences aimed to be acknowledged as correct ‘even by a Chinese’[vii]; today, they usually are, for the only knowledge which counts as ‘respectable’ knowledge, whether the site of its production is London or Hanoi or Beijing or Delhi, is the knowledge produced within the modern human sciences. Other knowledges have been devalued and survive, where they survive- as in the case of the examples with which I began- in the quotidian, where they are often subject to the finger-wagging strictures of the postcolonial state which scolds its citizens for their ‘backward’ views.

My questions in this paper are very direct, if not simple, ones: how and why is it that we assume that modern knowledge is universal, despite its European genealogy and its historically recent provenance? And, what warrant do we have for considering this superior to the pre-modern knowledges of the West, and the autochthonous knowledges of the non-West? Are we, in short, right to assume that modern Western knowledge transcends the circumstances of its historical and geographical emergence and thus that the social sciences are ‘true’ for everyone- even though to do so is to privilege the modern and the western, over the pre-modern and the non-Western?

I

For a long time, our answer to these questions has been an unambiguous ‘yes’. There were many reasons for this, and many intellectual justifications, but the two most powerful affirmations of modern knowledge, I suggest, are associated with two proper names- the transcendental argument of Kant, and the historicist teleology of Hegel. To brutally summarise the already condensed account offered in my full paper, Kant sought to deduce universal categories of Reason which were not derived from human experience, which is varied, but were the basis for our having any experience in the first place. Kant made a powerful argument for a Reason that was universal, because notwithstanding the immense variety of human experience, moralities and notions of beauty, it was the precondition for humans having any sort of experience, morality or conception of beauty. It is testimony to the vitality of the line of argument initiated by Kant that many of the most sophisticated contemporary attempts to salvage or retrieve the idea of a singular and universal Reason, while acknowledging that Reason is of this world- such as those by Karl Otto Apel and the earlier John Rawls- do so by returning to Kant. But such defences of modern knowledge and ethics presuppose- and I here merely assert what I seek to argue in the full paper- in fact presuppose much of that which they seek to ground. And if Kantian defences of modern ethics and modern knowledge always turn out to be modern defences, which presuppose what they purport to ground, then any effective defence of them has to take that into account- in which case it has to defend modernity itself. This is what Hegel does. Working with the tradition begun by Kant, Hegel’s strategy for overcoming Kant’s aporia is, paradoxically, to acknowledge the inescapable historicity of all categories. There is no knockdown transcendental argument that will establish the truth of certain categories once and for all, only categories through which historical communities know their world and organise their place in it. But although the standards of modern morality are specific to modernity, modernity is itself an expression, and a higher working out, of a rationality immanent in social institutions, the most basic content of which is autonomy and free self-determination. Modernity thus most fully ‘realises’ or lives out and instantiates the autonomy which is presupposed by all collective life, and modernity’s self-understanding is the self-consciousness of this fact, and is thus superior to other forms of knowledge.

This account is of wider provenance than Hegel and those directly influenced by him. When in the early nineteenth century Jacob Burckhardt wrote that the ‘veil’ which made man ‘conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation’ finally lifted in Renaissance Italy, enabling man to recognise himself as a ‘spiritual individual’, he was contributing to this narrative. When early in the 20th C Weber wrote that disenchantment was what allowed men to recognize the melancholy fact that the world had never been imbued with purpose and with meaning, but that all meanings and purposes ‘out there’ were what we had ‘put’ there, he too was making the point that it was only at a certain point in the history of humankind that certain truths could finally be discerned, truths which, however, had retrospective validity. Marx too is making the same claim when he writes, in the Grundrisse, that “Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations…Human anatomy thus contains the key to the anatomy of the ape.”[viii]

Hegel’s was the first and most important version of an argument/narrative that, with emendations, could be and was pressed into service for different ends. That we are free individuals; or, that being determines consciousness, and production determines being; or, that values and purposes are human products rather than features of the cosmos- these, according to the different rescensions of this narrative, are universal truths which only became fully apparent in the modern age. But in all versions of this narrative, modernity is privileged, and modern knowledge, the self-consciousness of modernity, is thereby also privileged. Whatever form the narrative takes, pre-modern or ‘traditional’ cultures – including those of the West- are presented as being in thrall to enchantments and cosmologies, whereas we moderns have come (or been forced) to grasp the bedrock truths that underpinned these misperceptions all along.[ix] Here, the core presumptions of modern knowledge are not yet another set of parochial assumptions claiming universal validity, like a proselytising religion, but rather are embedded in an account that purports to explain both why we humans were once bound to get things wrong, and how it became possible to get them right. This is what I call the ‘once I was blind, but now I can see’ narrative.

But this argument only works inasmuch as the history invoked presupposes, in the words of even a very sympathetic interlocutor like Apel, “a dogmatically posited teleological philosophy of history.”[x] Indeed, the introduction of historicity means that if the argument fails to persuade, the results are the opposite of those intended. For once we have lost faith in the idea that the transitions between worldviews are teleological- in other words, that they represent some sort of progress – but retain the historicist emphasis that the presuppositions of thought are fundamentally related to time and culture- then, in Robert Pippin’s words, “why not just opt for some now popular conceptual scheme or framework or paradigm relativism…Why shouldn’t that be the legacy of Hegel’s historical radicalisation of Kantian modernism?”[xi]

That, I would argue, is exactly the legacy of Hegelian historicism, which, along with Kant’s transcendental argument, is the most sophisticated attempt to establish the superiority of modern knowledge and its core presumptions. The contemporary intellectual scene, I suggest, is characterised by an acute consciousness of the historicity of our knowledge, but now unaccompanied by any compelling argument for its superiority to other knowledges. Once we were confident, in David Kolb’s words, that modern knowledge was “not just another in a sequence of historic constructions”, but was rather “the unveiling of what has been at the root of these constructions.”[xii] Today, I suggest, we are coming to belatedly realise that modernity and modern knowledge are, in fact, ‘just another in a sequence of historic constructions’.

This need not plunge us into despair, or into some postmodern, relativist abyss. There are many reasons for continuing to operate with and within what I have been calling modern, Western reason, the most compelling of which is that it is closely associated with a modernity that is now global, and encompasses all peoples, albeit in differing ways. But it does mean that our knowledge has no transcendental or teleological warrant. And recognising this will allow us to confront what has been staring us in the face for a very long time, namely the inadequacy of so many of the social sciences when they are used to understand the non-Western world.

 

II

And this brings me to the next part of my paper. We recognise that the social sciences have deeply European genealogies, but we expect them with occasional adjustments and amendment, to serve to understand the non-West, because we presume that despite this Western genealogy, these categories are universal. Once we acknowledge that they are not the truth uncovered, but ‘just another in a sequence of historic constructions’, we can begin to understand and face up to the fact that they are often inadequate to their non-Western objects.

I want to suggest that the concept of ‘society’ is a particularly important and revealing example. The discovery of the social is one of the hallmarks of modern thought and the modern social sciences; where others explain things with reference to gods and cosmic forces, we moderns not only override these explanations, we typically outflank them by diagnosing these as misperceptions arising out of social causes. For us, society is at once the cause and the locale of explanation, both first mover and substance (and if that description reminds you of the Christian or Muslim God, that is for good reason, for in our arguments, society and the social frequently function in the way that God did in scholastic debates). Following the lead of Castoriadis, Laclau and Mouffe, Latour, Baudrillard, Patrick Joyce and others, I suggest that society is not something we discovered, but something we created. Keith Michael Baker, historian of the French revolution, puts it most directly and forcefully: “Society is an invention not a discovery. It is a representation of the world instituted in practice, not simply a brute objective fact.”[xiii] ‘Represented’ and ‘instituted’ do not, as I will shortly explain, mean imaginary or fictitious, but they do mean ‘not discovered’.

If for a moment we entertain the possibility that society is but a particular way of construing and constructing human interdependence, rather than an ontological given, as solid and immutable as the earth, then the question arises of how it came to be constructed. In contemporary jargon, what is the ‘constitutive outside’ of society- what has to be excluded in order to construct this concept-reality? The answer is of course complex, but I suggest two elements stand out, elements that refer us back to the two examples I began with- the exclusion/expulsion of god(s), and of nature.

The expulsion of gods and spirits occurs by bringing them under the category of ‘religion’, a category that takes the form of a genus divided into different species (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc). But understanding gods and spirits thus is itself a product of a history, and a specifically European and Christian history, as some scholars of religion have come to recognise. Peter Harrison argues that in England in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ‘religion’ was constructed along essentially rationalist lines, for it was created in the image of the prevailing rationalist methods of investigation…inquiry into the religion of a people became a matter of asking what was believed…”[xiv] . Religion’ and ‘belief’ thus emerged as mutually constitutive categories, making it possible to invent the category ‘religion’, as the genus of which different religious beliefs are the species. Thus the very notion of ‘religion’ is itself, as one scholar describes it, “a Christian theological category”[xv], “a modern invention which the West, during the last two hundred years or so, has exported to the rest of the world.”[xvi] Like many western exports, it is not always, however, a useful one- it may produce misunderstandings and unfruitful comparisons when applied to ‘religions’ that have not undergone the same history that rendered them into systems of belief.[in parenthesis we may note that it was the 19th C founder of comparative religious studies, Max Muller, who reported with some puzzlement that when he quizzed Indians who had arrived in Oxford about their religion, they hardly understood what he meant by religion, and wondered why Muller took so deep an interest in mere dogma, or as they expressed it, made such a fuss about religion.[xvii]]. The use of this category already exorcises the world of gods and ghosts; they have been relocated from the world to our minds, from ontological realities to social products. To use it is already to dismiss the self-understandings of Vietnamese who share their world with ghosts, or of Hindus who share their world with their numerous gods- 330 million of them at last count, according to one estimate.

Related, and equally important, society is constituted by distinguishing it from nature. We already know from the work of Descola and others that this distinction is not, however, made by all peoples. Bruno Latour claims- with some hyperbole- “Non-Western cultures have never been interested in nature; they have never adopted it as a category; they have never found a use for it…Westerners were the ones who turned nature into a big deal…”[xviii]Indeed, even Westerners did not always make such a big deal of it: the historian of science Lorraine Daston reminds us that in the medieval period there were not two categories, the natural and the social, but a host of them, including the supernatural, preternatural, artificial and unnatural, and that the “categories of nature and culture, conceived in yin-yang complementarity, are of relatively recent provenance.”[xix] They are, I would suggest, as recent as the early modern period, when Hobbes, Hume and others began to mock the idea that the invocation of ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ could play any role in understanding a domain of reality now understood to be characterised by its impersonal and lawlike regularities.

I am suggesting, then, that the invention of society involved a reshuffling of categories, such that gods and ghosts could no longer be treated as ontological beings, because they were relocated in the human mind and in this new object, society; and nature, conversely, was expelled from this new object. That is why when we encounter Vietnamese ghosts, and the animal and plant subjects of the Achuar, we are forced to translate. We cannot take their explanations seriously because our categories are born out of a denial of theirs: some Vietnamese might treat ghosts as ontological, empirical beings, but we treat them as signifying belief, a belief that is most likely socially rooted, and can be ‘read’ for evidence of their society’s concerns and anxieties. If the Achuar invoke nature as filled with meaning and purpose, we treat these meanings and purposes as what Achuar society has ‘projected’ onto nature. And, following the earlier part of my argument, I am also suggesting that we have no compelling reason to privilege our category of society; that this is not a ‘discovery’ of what has always been there, all along, but rather a fabrication largely peculiar to us moderns. And finally, because it is a fabrication, I am suggesting that it often it does not serve well to understand worlds that have been fabricated differently.

III

In using verbs like ‘constitute’ and ‘fabricate’ to discuss knowledge, I aim to challenge what is perhaps the most fundamental presumption of modern western knowledge, that knowledge is essentially passive, that knowledge is an act by a subject who mirrors or represents objects. I will use this concluding part of my paper to suggest that knowledge is not only a matter ‘cognizing’ a world out there, but that it helps constitutes whatever world we have; that modern knowledge is not simply the self-apprehension of modernity, but has played a critical part in constituting it. Of course, such a suggestion invites resistance. Of course, such a claim invites the charge of ‘idealism’, but that, it seems to me, is only because we have been caught too long in a metaphysics that divides the world into reality and representation, the real and the ideal, the material and the ideational. These binaries are not features of the world as such, but the consequences of certain practices and forms of organization. When I say that that our categories are constructed or fabricated, I am not thereby saying that they are fictional or illusory, that they are ‘mere’ invention and do not really exist, or that to think differently will make society, nature and religion disappear. Let me explain what I do mean, through some examples.

Timothy Mitchell argues that the distinction between real and representation, central to modern western ways of apprehending and organising the world, did not make much sense to the people of Egypt, who neither thought that way nor inhabited a world organised around this distinction. However, as the institutions and practices of colonial administration, of commodification, and, not least, of modern knowledge itself, transformed life-worlds in Egypt, modern knowledge and the social sciences became more adequate as tools for ‘representing’ that changed scene. As the distinction between the real and representation became the grid organising collective life, and as it came to undergird not only what was taught in schools and universities but also the spatial layout of the city and the practices of the lawcourt and the office, it assumed a certain reality, and now became meaningful in a way that it had not previously been.

In Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India (2007), I argued that many of the anxieties and complaints that came to center around the introduction of Western knowledge in colonial India for example, that Indian students were absorbing the new knowledge in their old ways, by rote learning, or that educated Indians were in the throes of a moral crisis, “torn” between their traditional beliefs and the new ideas they were exposed to at school and in university should not principally be read as testifying to real problems. Instead I read these complaints and controversies as indicating that the foundational assumptions that underlie them that knowledge is a relation between a meaning-endowing subject and a world of disenchanted objects (which is why knowledge has to be made one’s own, and rote learning is a failure of knowledge rather than a form of it), and that morality is a matter of “beliefs” held in something called the “mind” (hence, why Western educated Indians were assumed to be suffering a moral crisis, even though most of them seemed blissfully unaware of this fact) did not have purchase in India. I thus read these complaints as registering and indicating that certain foundational assumptions of modern knowledge could not, in fact, be assumed in India. However , as the subject/object relation came to undergird not only pedagogy but the spatial layout of the city and the practices of the law court and the office, some Indians did become subjects who experienced morality and religion as beliefs and were now capable of being rent by the conflict between different beliefs; and some Indians did become expressive subjects confronting a world of objects and thus capable of regarding (and bemoaning) rote learning as a failure of knowledge, rather than a form of it.

Another example- ‘Hinduism’, itself something of an invented term, was not a matter of beliefs, but as elite Indians sought to meet the civilisational challenge of the West, one of the ways they did so was by reinterpreting some of their practices as expressions of more-or-less coherent ‘beliefs’. In the reformulations of the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj, the Hinduism of some Indians became a ‘proper’ religion, one that now fitted the category that had once misdescribed it. A third and final example- the census, as many, myself included, have argued, did not simply ‘count’ how many Hindus and Muslim, low castes and high castes there were in India, but created new ways of thinking and experiencing religion and caste. In other words, to the degree that central concepts of the social sciences such as nature, society, religion and the like came to inform institutions and practices, concepts which previously pertained to someone else’s history now were a good, if partial, guide to understanding Egypt and India.

But if we think of ‘constitute’, ‘fabricate’ or ‘construct’ along these lines, it will also immediately become clear that such fabrications do not work on inert material, on a tabula rasa. They encounter other forms of constituting and comprehending the world, which they to varying degrees replace, displace, and reconfigure. Certain things are effaced, they disappear. Others are reorganised- religion, for instance, does not disappear, but is reconfigured as something that happens inside men’s hearts and minds (belief), and is reallocated to the private sphere. Maps and other technologies make it possible to ‘see’ things that could not be seen before, but do not necessary displace other relationships to land and landscape.

In short, modernity and its knowledges do not completely remake the world, and to the degree that they do not, modern knowledge remains inadequate to representing and understanding these worlds. That is, while modern knowledge has constituted our global modernity, it is never homologous with the entire world; or to put it another way, the world that modern knowledge creates continues to sit alongside other worlds. This, I have sought to show, is glaringly apparent in many parts of the non-West. Here, the analytical categories of the human sciences do not neatly and fully map onto the entire social space. The many and varied forms of human solidarity and belonging have not wholly given way to, or been subsumed by, citizenship; older public arenas and their rituals and practices of identity have not been completely effaced by the rituals of statehood; and the secular assumptions of the social sciences have not become the common sense of everyone.

But it is also true in the heartlands of modernity. Even here, where modernity and its knowledges are autochthonous products, and have been doing their work of transformation over many centuries, they have to coexist with other ways of understanding and hence being in the world. Whether these take the form of the popularity of astrological columns that distressed Theodor Adorno, or other practices that continue to treat the world as enchanted, they testify to the existence of realms of practice and, sometimes, institutions that are not pre-modern, and yet are not always fully part of the world modernity brought into being. Sometimes, they can be incorporated into the circuits of capital accumulation- astrology is one example, acupuncture, a rigorous ‘science’ of its own sort, is a very different example. Even medical doctors will sometimes refer patients to an acupuncturist (though often with bemusement that something premised upon an image of the body as a force field through which qi flows nonetheless sometimes seems to work). Acupuncture is no longer ‘pre-modern’ in any meaningful way- it is now taught and certified, including in Western educational institutions, and it is commercialised- but it is still the practice of a knowledge that is ‘in’ but not ‘of’ modernity.

The point I am making can be clarified by way of an analogy. In Capital 1, and especially in the Appendix, Marx distinguishes between ‘real’ and formal’ subsumption to capital, distinguishing between forms of production and, more generally, of life, that, while they have been subsumed within the sway of capital, have not been swept away or been fundamentally remade so that they are subservient to its logic. In a similar vein, and acknowledging my debt to Dipesh Chakrabarty for this formulation, I submit that in the Western world as in the non-Western world, there are realms of knowing and living that are part of the modern- they are not ‘survivals’ of pre-modernity destined to eventually be swept away- but which are neither lived through nor are wholly accessible to us through the categories of the social sciences.[xx] [That, I observe in parenthesis, is one of the reasons why we need literature and art- not because they represent the fictional rather than the real, imagination rather than knowledge, but rather because they are forms of knowledge that pertain to dimensions of the real that lie outside of those fabricated and known through the modern social sciences].

I have long been interested in how modern concepts, theories and ideologies have ‘travelled’ when they were transplanted to the non-Western world, and with what effects. In India, the country I have some modest knowledge of, modern western knowledge arrived through the coercive agency of colonialism. It began its formal career in India following Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute of 1835, which declared the indigenous knowledges of the subcontinent to be superstitious, mythic, and more generally untrue; or as Macaulay characterized them, “medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter”.[xxi] This judgement, borne of arrogance, was mistaken, but nonetheless, the knowledge that Macaulay championed has now become global. There is no place wholly ‘outside’ of it from which to engage in a critique, no way of engaging it other than by working within it and through it. I speak, then, as one of Macaulay’s misbegotten offspring, and in case there is any doubt, let me make clear that my paper has not been an argument against modern knowledge and the social sciences.

Postcolonial theory, under the aegis of which I sometimes write, is occasionally mistaken for some such thing- as the frantic attempt to show all that is today considered valuable has non-Western precedents or counterparts, or conversely, as a species of nativism which exalts all that is indigenous to the non-West. In my understanding and practice of it, it is neither of these positions, both of which are borne of a desire for the Other (the West), manifested as a plea for inclusion in the one case, and as a virulent rejection in the other. In my use of postcolonial theory, as in this paper, it is neither a matter of rejecting Europe or European thought, nor principally of developing historical accounts that show Europe to be less original and central than the conventional historical accounts would have it.

The genealogy of modern knowledge, I have suggested, is undeniably Western; it arose as part of, and as an attempt to account for and make sense of, the recent history of Europe. But that knowledge is now global, and, with differences of degree, is the heritage of most people. ‘Global’, however, is not the same thing as ‘universal’. It is not that this knowledge has risen above the circumstances of its production and revealed that it is true for all- on the contrary, the failure of the attempts to ground modern Reason, I have argued, are more apparent today than ever before. Rather, this knowledge and the historical processes with which it is closely associated have, for good or ill, refashioned the world. While they have served to constitute a world in common- our global modernity- this world continues to sit alongside other ones, worlds to which the social sciences are only a limited guide. And so I conclude by submitting that modern knowledge, and the social sciences that formalise it, have constituted our modernity, and are at once indispensable- but also inadequate- to making sense of it.

 

The article was originally published in Slovenian translation in Razpotja issue 14 (winter 2013).

 

——

Footnotes:

[i] Heonik Kwon, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, CUP 2008, 16.

[ii] Kwon, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, 135.

[iii] Kwon, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, 18.

[iv] Philippe Descola, In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia, trans. Nora Scott, CUP 1994, 324.

[v] Philippe Descola, In the Society of Nature, 93.

[vi] Philippe Descola, The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle, translated Janet Lloyd. New York: New Press, 1996, 405-6.

[vii] Weber, “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy”, in Edward Shils and Henry Finch (eds), The Methodology of the Social Sciences: Max Weber, NY: The Free Press, 1949, 58.

[viii] Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus, Penguin 1973, 105.

[ix] In Bruno Latour’s words, we moderns regard ourselves as “the only ones who differentiate absolutely between Nature and Culture, between Science and Society, whereas in our eyes all the others- whether they are Chinese or Amerindian, Azande or Barouya- cannot really separate what is knowledge from what is Society, what is sign from what is thing, what comes from Nature as it is from what their cultures require.”- We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, 98-99.

[x] Karl-Otto Apel, “Normatively Grounding ‘Critical Theory’ through Recourse to the Lifeworld? A Transcendental-Pragmatic Attempt to Think with Habermas against Habermas”, in Axel Honneth et al (eds), Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment, Camb., Mass.: MIT Press 1992, 147.

[xi] Pippin, Idealism as Modernism: Hegelian Variations, CUP 1996, 172.

[xii] David Kolb, The Critique of Pure Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 9-10.

[xiii] K.M. Baker, “Enlightenment and the Institution of Society: Notes for a Conceptual History”, in W. Melching and W. Velema (eds), Main Trends in Cultural History, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994, 114. See also, Joyce, Democratic Subjects: Joyce (ed), The Social in Question, Routledge 2002; Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, Polity Press, 1987; Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities or, the End of the Social, trans. Fous, Johnsten and Patton, Semiotext(e), 1983; E Laclau and C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso 1985; Peter Wagner, “An Entirely New Object of Consciousness, of Volition, of Thought”, in Lorraine Daston (ed), Biographies of Scientific Objects, University of Chicago Press, 2000; and the interviews in Nicholas Gane (ed), The Future of Social Theory, Continuum 2004, especially those with Judith Butler and Bruno Latour.

[xiv] Peter Harrison, ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1990, 2. See also Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993; Peter Byrne, Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion: The Legacy of Deism, London and NY: Routledge, 1989; David A. Pailin, Attitudes to Other Religions: Comparative religion in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain, Manchester University Press, 1984; and Jonathan Z. Smith Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

[xv] Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’, London: Routledge, 1999, 40.

[xvi] John Hick, “Foreward” to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991, vii.

[xvii] Max Muller, Anthropological Religion, London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1892, 155.

[xviii] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature, trans. Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, 2004, 43.

[xix] Lorraine Daston, “The Nature of Nature in Early Modern Europe”, Configurations, 6:2, 1998, 154.

[xx] See Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, Princeton University Press, 2000, especially pp. 62-71.

[xxi] Minute recorded by Macaulay, law member of the Governor-General’s Council, d. 2 Feb 1835, reprinted in Lynn Zastoupil and Martin Moir (ed), The Great Indian Education Debate: Documents Relating to the Orientalist-Anglicist Controversy, 1781-1843, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999, 166.

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