Absolutist Epistemology

We know that something happened because we have relied upon someone who saw it happen and recorded and reported it (even in cases where we know what happened as a result of recordings made by some measuring instrument, someone had to read and report what was recorded by the instrument). Here’s a way of mapping this out. Let’s take a scene, say a fist fight between two individuals, with a small group of spectators. Let’s call the combatants “Jake” and “Nate.” Jake started the fight for obscure reasons, Nate fought back fiercely and briefly had the upper hand, then Jake landed a few solid blows to the head, wobbling Nate, who tried to get back into things by fighting dirty, but is ultimately knocked for good by an kick to the stomach. The fight comes to an end, which is already implicit in the simple statement, “Jake and Nate had a fight,” since “a fight” refers to an event with a beginning and an end. And, of course, we can imagine a varied range of spectators, some of whom knew Jake and Nate, some of whom knew one but not the other, some of whom egged Jake on, some of whom just wandered by and wondered what the fuss was about, some of whom had a rooting interest, some of whom were disinterested observers, etc., etc. Those spectators, and the combatants themselves, will tell others what happened: “Jake kicked the sh*t out of Nate”; “Jack wantonly assaulted Nate”; “Nate put up a good fight but was caught off guard by a violent assailant”; “two pathetic losers swung at each other like 50 times and connected maybe 5 times”; etc. And then the people they have told will “know what happened.”

Now, someone who wants to know “what really happened” will seek out other observers and piece together a more comprehensive account. But no one can be interested in “what really happened” at every event we hear referenced, directly or indirectly—or even more than a very tiny portion of them. For most of us, one of those partial initial observations will become the story, insofar as the event makes its way into the community’s discourse—“do you remember, it was right here, about 10 years ago, that Jake totally demolished Nate.” At that point it would take an enormous effort to create a more comprehensive picture, and only very exceptional circumstances would lead anyone to make the effort. The “received” version of events will make its way into the community’s discourse in various ways and at various levels—in references to Jake as a “tough guy” or “bully,” or to Nate as “that poor guy” or the one who “turned his life around after being attacked”; perhaps mothers and fathers tell their sons to be, or not to be, “like” Jake or Nate. In principle, but not really in practice, we could trace the series of speech events which led to these “epithets” being attached to the two men in “public memory.” In claiming that we “know what happened” or we “know who Jake and Nate are” we are relying upon, implicitly trusting, many people, many of who we don’t know but trust indirectly because we trust directly someone who trusted someone else directly who… eventually someone who can attest to having seen what happened. When we talk about knowledge, we are talking about networks of trust and networks of meaning—if Jake and Nate’s fight has worked its way into the public memory it is because it meant something to enough people to keep them talking about it. And by “meant enough,” I mean became an event that in its representation enabled some new anthropomorphization of the community, i.e., provided a means for constructing their humannenss in a new way. Let’s widen the sphere of inquiry here considerably by noting that all of our most basic, tacit, knowledge, has exactly this same form: we are absolutely certain we know the meaning of almost all the words we use regularly and, in fact, they rarely fail us, but we only know what all these words mean because we have heard others use them who have heard others use them who in turn…

So, in discussing epistemology, the theory of how we know, we should be focusing less on refining instruments of observation and protocols of investigation and more on clarifying who we trust, how much, and why. But this can’t be sorted out in any formulaic, quantitative manner either (I trust the NY Times 22% when it comes to political stories, 46% on the Arts and Leisure section…), nor could the chain of trust usually be followed more than a couple of links. If we flip the question, though, it might become more manageable: rather than “who do and can I trust,” the better question is “how do I present myself as trustworthy?” The former question is folded up in the latter. You present yourself as trustworthy, first, by demonstrating an awareness of the vast chains of trust implicit in any statement you make, and some preliminary mapping of the same; and, second, by letting others know which link in the chain you are tugging on. The particular “link” is the center of your discourse, and it is around that center that you provide the “mapping.” If I want to know whether Jake and Nate were goaded and lured into their battle because people were laying bets on the outcome, I’m going to be “tugging” at the chain differently than someone who wants to know whether they were drunk, because they want to show some link between alcohol consumption and violence. (What ideologies do is systematize the process of “tugging,” so the same mapping comes up every time—in the end, the chains of trust are broken and you have no choice but to trust the ideologue if you want any orientation toward events at all. If you look at our political commonplaces, you will see that they are “chunks” that can be endlessly repeated and inserted in discourse in various ways, but resist any attempt to construct even plausible, hypothetical chain of trust—that is, that can give good answers to the question, “who saw what that led them to say this?”). In order to pursue the question of what really happened, I have to approach the chain of trust with specific questions, and displaying trustworthiness entails being transparent about doing so.

I now want to approach all this in originary and absolutist terms. Every sign, or utterance, establishes a threshold: this is the level of significance at which I take note of something. Or: this thing, event, act, or feature must be marked in order to maintain the linguistic presence I have taken responsibility for. Another present, a real present, must be represented within this linguistic presence. If it must be represented in order to sustain this linguistic presence, then it must resolve some more or less pending crisis facing that presence. If I introduce that present so as to resolve or delay the crisis within this presence, I am now able to detect more distant, less probable and “thinner” crises, and represent them as well (so as to make them even more distant, less probable and even thinner or vaguer). In the process you construct a linguistic presence with feelers that keep reaching further into the past and future. But for one present to be represented within a linguistic presence, the two presents must be simultaneous. This is always possible because events “happen” when they register and are iterated so, insofar as the effects, say, of Homer speaking of Achilles slaying Hector ramify today, that event is contemporaneous with my speaking of it now. That means that the effects must be represented as effects, caught up in all the other effects of other events that are equally simultaneous. So, it’s not so much “Homer tells of Achilles slaying Hector” as it is “this is the way of referencing Homer’s narrative that I need here to displace and articulate other possible ways of referencing it (or refusing or neglecting to reference it),” making it simultaneous, here and now.

In other words, in referencing the Illiad in a particular way, I tug on a chain of trust that reaches back to Homer and his (their?) original audience. So, the “epistemological” question is whether I have tugged and therefore tightened it, or torn it. The answer lies in what will be said by others after I say this—and after I say it, I become one of those others. These others are as obliged to maintain the linguistic presence as I was, and that means proceeding under the assumption that I have both tugged the chain and torn it—like the fate of Schrodinger’s cat, we can’t know until the new linguistic presence is created. Insofar as you can see the chain being tugged, and therefore you see other chains of trust breaching the threshold of significance, you can keep tugging and tightening one of those; insofar as you see it torn, you work on repairing the breach. Both responses involve enhancing simultaneity, that is, representing my speech act as simultaneous with the presents I have represented, and as simultaneous with your own. As my reference above to the provenance of our language suggests, we are always rendering simultaneous countless presents, and we try to maximize responsibility for as many as possible. The model for this kind of semiotic presencing is sovereignty: you acknowledge that my utterance has brought into being a world you must find your way in and sustain. Even if you’re sure that I’m wrong in every possible way, morally, politically, intellectually, you will only make things right by inhabiting that wrongness.

Insofar as you have listened to my utterance you have started to obey and obliged yourself to further obedience to this imperative to submit my sovereign utterance. (Of course, we can ignore what someone says, but only because we have a prior obligation to another imperative that includes disregarding this one—that is, we are never outside of this network of trust, which has an absolutist and imperative structure.) To use a well-known example from early in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, if you are on a construction site and your co-worker says “brick” you bring him a brick—that’s what it means to “understand” him. Your responsibility to any utterance is to bring the equivalent of that brick. And what is needed is the missing present without which this particular node within the network of chains of trust might collapse. The missing present is located in whatever in the imperative (to sustain the world of the utterance) cannot be obeyed, and that present is supplied by finding a way to obey that was unanticipated in the imperative itself. If your co-worker’s wrong and you save him by bringing him, not a brick, but what he really needs you’re still obeying him. Insofar as we’re engaged in inquiry, which means we are participating in a disciplinary space, what has happened when you are not clear as to what the equivalent of “brick” is that one of the links in the network of trust has been exposed as unreliable or unaccounted for. And it must be a link that is needed now—a link we must attend to in order to attend from it to some objects framed by a new question, aiming at a new configuration of simultaneity. That link—say, an interpretation of a canonical text that someone has noticed overlooks certain assumptions underlying that text—has fallen out of simultaneity, because no threads from it can be represented in the present, which is to say the discourse in question has failed to register its effects as occurring now. That is the present that must be constituted in order to restore simultaneity, or linguistic presence. Doing so might knock other links out of simultaneity, within unanticipated ramifications. The imperative we are following in such a case is to identify who has seen what, within what set of disciplinary imperatives, and by what chain of custody has this knowledge come to us. The brick equivalent establishes an ostensive-imperative-declarative articulation that answers the question that has emerged out of the unobeyable imperative. And by “imperative” in this context, we mean primarily expectations: you follow certain rules (imperative orders) in order to elicit a specific range of responses from some sector of reality. It is when you get a response you are not prepared for, when you encounter an unnamed or even unnameable object, that the “brick equivalent” becomes necessary. In the end such a disciplinary order relies on faith and a kind of absolutism: a commitment to sustain the linguistic presence, however frayed, transmitted to you by the other.

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