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31 August 2010

An Empirical Realism

When I was a teenager, I went through a nihilistic solipsist phase (oh, the follies of youth), but worked my way out of it fairly quickly with the help of my father.  I remember going to him one evening and telling him that I had it all figured out - the world is just a projection of my mind, and reality is simply an illusion.  His response ... "So what?"  Since I have a great deal of respect for my dad, and didn't really have a decent response, I went away to think about it for a while.  What I realized is that, for all intents and purposes, it doesn't really matter.  The fact is, the world is unpredictable - I can't guess what anyone else is going to say or do, and I can't be conscious of everything that's going on - which means that either the world is created by my unconscious or there's an independent world out there beyond my self.  Pragmatically speaking, there's no difference between the two, since either way, the world is external to my consciousness - the world is always at least partially unconscious for me.  Thus ended my solipsist phase (thank goodness - I'd hate to be stuck in that kind of existential meaninglessness).

I've been thinking recently about all of the different ontological perspectives, and how they fit with my own work in anthropology.  I tend to be very empirical when it comes to my work (not always when it comes to philosophy, but I tend to try to bring my philosophy into my work, so it ends up running into empiricism anyway), and what I've learned is that a genuine empiricism tends to lead to epistemology.  There are, of course, empiricisms which simply reject epistemology out-of-hand without confronting it at all, and these are what we tend to call naive realisms.  But taken to it's reasonable end, a genuine empiricism would recognize that all experience is situated and must pass through any number of psycho-social filters before we can process and analyze it.  Therefore, it's essential to understand how we know what we know and how our situation affects our experience when making claims about reality.

But epistemology has its limitations.  This focus on our own ability to understand the world around usforces us into a spectrum of choices ranging from perspectivism, where each situated entity has a different view of the world (like the 5 blind men and the elephant), to what is essentially solipsism (and perspectivism is really a weaker solipsism which assumes an independent reality, but claims that reality is molded in a way by our situatedness).  The problem here is that these ways of thinking limit us to talking about how humans relate to the world and not about how the world actually is.  Any claims about reality, then, require a leap of faith - to assume that there is a reality out there and to assume that our claim is not merely an artefact of our situatedness.

This is another way of saying that perspectivism and solipsism deny the agency of the things around us - the plants and animals, the objects, the ideas and thoughts.  These things become a simple substrate for us to project on to or to mold in our image.  Understanding this makes it easy to move forward.  Much like before, when I rejected solipsism with the recognition that the world is unpredictable - that much of the world is unconscious for me - we can move beyond (while not fully rejecting, I think) perspectivism by recognizing that the things around us affect us, and change us (this is, in my opinion, the most important insight from Deleuze, Latour, DeLanda and other recent ontological philosophers).  The world is not simply a material substrate for us to project an image of reality or mold to our conceptions, rather it is active and moving.  But things don't merely affect and change us, they affect and change one another.  Sunflowers move towards the sun, elephants knock down trees creating pasture for smaller animals, rain erodes mountains, and so on. 

What this move does is it eliminates the leap of faith associated with realism and ontology.  We can now speak from experience (empirically) about a real world beyond our selves and our perception of it.  It also empowers the things around us to alter us, and this is why we can't fully reject perspectivism, but perspectivism moves into an ontological realm.  Instead of begining from the privileged position of being the only ones who look out upon, interpret, and shape the world, we now recognize that we are only one among many things in a complex, entangled world, and that the privileged position never existed.

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