epistemology

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Sat Mar 18 12:36:35 MST 1995


 Philip Goldstein wrote:

>	I have understood Marxists to accept the Hegelian critique of the
>independently real, which is that we can only know what emerges in
>socio-historical contexts and that what emerges is, chronologically
>speaking, the contradiction of what has already established itself, so
>that no position ever encompasses the totality because opposition emerges
>out of itself. Some postmodernists who critique totality preserve the
>sense that all positions are partial and fragmentary and thereby grant
>that something escapes all positions. These postmodernists usually do not
>treat the emergence of these partial positions as a historical or
>dialectical matter but as ruptures,breaks, etc., in established
>positions.

At the risk of revealing yet further Kantian tendencies, I want to offer a
few points in reply to Goldstein. I understand him to be criticising those
postmodernists who do not "treat the emergence of these partial positions as
a historical or dialectical matter", and therefore to be endorsing the need
to examine the evolution of partial totalizations historically. But doesn't
this suggest that it is legitimate to inquire into the conditions of
possibility of those historical origins? Can't we know some important things
about the history and development of these partial totalisations that are in
fact necessary to our being able to transform the course of history? And
wouldn't this constitute one kind of knowledge whose correspondence (in
admittedly complex ways) to a reality which exists independently of us can
be evaluated? It seems to me that if one can predict even some of the
consequences of one's actions then this constitutes evidence of a
"correspondence" between knowledge and the real world. It is not a
guarantee, as there is always the possibility of both pure coincidence and
illusion. In social matters the situation is always complicated by the fact
that we are dealing with open and not closed systems. But, as I said,
"correspondence" is *part* of the story.

Just because we cannot know everything (and I agree that there can never be
a single point of view of totality located outside time and history) about
how something came about, and just because we can never be sure about where
past tendencies will in fact lead in the future, does not prevent us from
having some useful and important knowledge about the world "out there". We
may not know exactly how capitalism emerged in feudal England, but we know
that it did and, since Marx, we know much about what the conditions
capitalism requires for its expanded reproduction. Science may not have
identified every step in the link from the first bipedal hominid to homo
sapiens, but it does know the general nature of the process that got us here
and, since Darwin, it has identified a number of important links in the
causal chain. These would seem to me to be examples of limited knowledges
which have been expanded and developed over time. Their improvement is
measured, at least in part, by the extent to which they "correspond" to what
"actually happened" in a world that once existed.

BTW, in my last post I forgot to thank Guy Yasko for the references to
Williams that he posted on my behalf recently. I am now in a position to
follow up on them as I have just got hold of Williams' Marxism and Literature.

Howie Chodos



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