Monday, March 29, 2010

Epistemology and Social Reality: A Response to Manali's Post

In her post, “Social Reality in TIME and Vogue,” Manali poses a very interesting question. It was so thought-provoking, in fact, that I could not limit my response to a short comment. The question is one worthy of a volume of books, but I'll give you my basic intuition.

It seems that in contemporary society social reality and epistemology feed off of and add to each other. One does not take from the other without providing an influence of its own. For instance, the belief that gender is biological and hence natural has effectively sanctioned the oppression of women. On the other hand, this oppression, by virtue of its being ingrained in the basic fabric of society, suggests that gender must be natural. This leads to the argument that women must be protected because they are weak (i.e. a case of epistemology influencing social reality), while the resulting apparent weakness of women leads to the mindset that women naturally need to be protected (i.e. a case of social reality influencing epistemology).

However, I think what Manali is most interested in here is what we might conceive of logically of the instant human society first manifested itself. What I believe Manali is asking is which of the two, epistemology or social reality, first influenced the other. To put it in Aristotelian terms she’s looking for a first unmoved mover of sorts. Or more simply, she’s asking the question of the chicken or the egg. I am influenced in my answer by Kant, who argues in the Critique of Pure Reason that we should conceive of the natural world as necessarily adhering itself to the structure imposed on it by our minds. Granted, Kant is dealing with metaphysics, not epistemology per se, but he is revealing the relation between the two to be quite close.

Nevertheless, if we look at Manali’s question as Kant might by analogy, it seems that epistemology is to the structure of or minds as social reality is to the natural world.

Following this analogy suggests that epistemology is that unmoved mover, at least logically if not temporally. In other words, epistemology, as the structure of our knowledge, defines how we can even conceive of society, not to mention view society as conforming to certain social realities. Please let me know if that doesn’t make sense; I’m struggling to describe the situation exactly as I conceive of it.

However, this description of the logical beginnings of the relationship between epistemology and social reality poses an upsetting question. It seems to suggest that our minds are structured in a way that has led to some terrible social realities, such as sexism, racism, and heteronormativity. In a word, it seems to make many systems of oppression “natural.” I’m not sure what to do with this, because I believe that my description of the situation is logically true, but I also do not believe that systems of oppression are natural. If anyone has a way to get me out of this paradox, or perhaps has a better way of describing the relationship between epistemology and social reality please post it.

Finally, thank you, Manali, for such a thought provoking post!

1 comment:

  1. Colin,

    Your Kantian explanation makes sense to me so maybe our epistemology does form our social reality. I present a chicken or egg question, like you said, so it is hard to come to a definate answer. Kant's view that our reality should conform to your minds gives us atleast a possible answer. I never thought of our social reality as constructing sexism or racism. That is a very interesting way of analyzing the results of social reality. Thinking of social reality like that gives it a dangerous dimension when we saying that racism and sexism stem from our social reality conforming to our thoughts. This further complicates my original question- it's not just about whether our epistemology or social reality was first but the dangerous effects that arise if one does actually come before the other.

    Thanks for a great post!


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