Is the discursive material?

jwalker jwalker at
Sat Jul 15 07:11:40 MDT 1995


Hope you don't mind my intruding on an ongoing discussion...

It seems to me you are in agreement on a couple of points, but not on
what conclusions to draw from them.  You agree, I think, that:

1. There is a world out there, whose existence and nature are independent
of human knowledge of it, and:

2. When we turn our attention to that world, trying to come to have
knowledge of it, we enter into the realm of the discursive, because our
action brings with it elements of our particular "social form".

(At least, I think you'd buy this last bit, Howie -- it's always tricky,
trying to represent what other people think!)

Howie doesn't accept, among other things, the conclusion that Leo draws
from his "Kantian" position:

> >Leo: 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.
> Howie: 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?

I agree that this conclsion doesn't follow.  Actually I think no
conclusion about the unknowability of the real world, even the Kantian
one that Howie says he accepts, follows from (1) above.

Once you acknowledge that there is a world out there independent of our
cognition, it becomes easy to fall into the way of thinking of sense-data
theorists in the early 20th century.  They thought you never see, or
sense in any way, real objects.  Real objects just cause, by means of
certina complex physical processes, images in people's heads (called
sense-data).  What sense data you perceive depends on your particular
perceptual apparatus.  But all anyone ever truly sees are these data,
which are caused by but not identical with the objects themselves.

This theory is widely rejected now, in favor of thinking that we do see
the real trees themselves, and we can know things about them.  There is
no layer of reality which lies behind what we can perceive, or know.

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.

This is another conclusion that Howie wants to avoid, and I with him.  I
take it that part of the reason why, on Leo's view, we can't know things
in themselves is that when we try to do so, we enter into the discursive,
which is a matter of social practice.  We bring with us social baggage
like our conceptual structure, oru language, our biases, etc., all of
which means that what we know is socially colored.

If something like this is right, I want to avoid it for the reasons Howie
does -- to avoid the slide into relativism, into thinking we're just
trapped inside our particular discourses unable to get out, and if others
have different discourses, well hey, they're just different, no one's
wrong or right.

I think this can be avoided, because the fact that in knowing you must
bring with you a particular conceptual scheme doesn't imply relativism of
what you thereby come to know.

John D. Walker
jwalker at

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