Is the discursive material?

Howie Chodos howie at
Fri Jul 14 09:06:54 MDT 1995

I, too, feel that we are making some progress in our discussion, and I share
Leo's sense that this kind of interaction helps each of us sharpen and
deepen our understanding of these issues.

What struck me about Leo's most recent post is how Kantian it is. I find
this curious (and here people with a better sense of the history of
philosophy than I have may be able to shed some light on this) because Kant
is probably the key figure of the Enlightenment against which many versions
of discourse theory are a contemporary reaction. The Kantian noumena, or
thing-in-itself, is unknowable precisely because of the limitations of human
cognition. Kant argues, if memory serves, that it sets limits, in a general
way on what we can know. Compare with Leo's argument:

>But if we accept that it is not possible to know 'trees-in-themselves'
>outside of human interaction with them, that in other words, there is no
>extra-discursive or non-discursive knowledge of 'trees' and that 'trees' have
>no meaning except through social practice,  I do not see how that
>relationship of limitation can be established as anything more than a general

But Leo draws a different conclusion from this than does Kant. For Leo this
implies that:

>The horizons of our knowledge will
>change with history, but they will not disappear. In this way, the
>non-discursive is the outside of meaning, beyond the reach of our knowledge.

Once again, I am not sure that the conclusion Leo draws is the only one
which follows from the premise. Why do limited horizons imply that the
non-discursive is completely beyond our knowledge? Is the discursive itself
any less subject to the limitations of our knowledge? The problem here is
how to avoid the slippery slope to a relativist position which denies that
any knowledges can be "better" than any others, that denies us the ability
to exercise our rational judgment (as limited, circumscribed and truncated
as it may be) in choosing from amongst different interpretations of both
discursive and non-discursive reality. I prefer a position which, while
acknowledging the limitations to our knowledge at any particular time, also
says that it can be knowledge "of the world out there", as it works
independently of our knowledge of it.

I also have a problem with another formulation that Leo uses. He says:
"Discourse or the discursive (which is just a adjectival description of the
field of discourse) is the form of all social practice." I am prepared to
grant this insofar as we are referring to "social practice", that is our
conscious activity in a social context. But the implication of the way Leo
has framed his argument seems to be that this exhausts the field of the
social. While I agree that social activity is filtered through the
discursive, I want to resist the idea that there are no aspects of the
social which function independently of our knowledge of them, and in this
sense constitute aspects of reality that are related to us in the same way
as "nature" itself. This does not mean that they can be completely
independent of all human action, but rather that they pre-exist the action
of individuals. It does mean that in principle we can know and understand
social phenomena "objectively".

To repeat something I've argued before (based on Bhaskar): we need to
understand the differences between the social and the natural ontologically.
The natural reproduces itself independently of our intervention. The social
is reproduced only through the activity of conscious, intentional, human
beings. Despite this important difference both fields are accessible to our
(limited) cognitive processes in basically the same way, though the
"openness" of the social reduces the extent to which we can predict
outcomes. The fact that the social is reproduced through our (discursive)
activity means that the discursive itself acquires a material dimension. I
too want to get beyond some of the false dichotomies, but I remain convinced
that an understanding which reduces the social to the discursive is not the
answer, and I am not persuaded that Leo has avoided this problem.

Howie Chodos

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