U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Epistemic Left As Object Of Inquiry For US Intellectual Historians

Last week, I wrote a little bit about my current relationship to Theory, and found myself stumbling into a term which I thought I had borrowed from the great intellectual historian Peter Novick: “the Epistemic Left.” While it is possible that Novick used the term somewhere, I am pretty sure that I botched the reference. In fact, what Novick discusses, at length, in ‘That Noble Dream” is a very different phenomenon: the strange aversion of so many American left historians (and, more broadly, left intellectuals) to methodological experimentation. Until recently, most left US historians and intellectuals (let’s agree, for now, that by “Left US historians and intellectuals” we mean people who think or study the past, guided by commitments to large-scale projects of collective emancipation) hewed tightly to a fairly old-fashioned ideal of objectivity. For this reason, we might distinguish between an “Epistemological Left”––an intellectual formation rooted in the framework of nineteenth-century science and committed to universalist ethics––and an “Epistemic Left.” This latter would include encompass thinkers motivated by the same emancipatory or utopian desires, but who are open to or eager for non-objective and non-universalist ways of seeing, knowing, reading, and understanding.

Could such a distinction yield intellectual historical insights that are of value, or facilitate the creation of a new narrative of post-World War II thought? I think that it might. Furthermore, I think that such a study might help us build a new historiography of the US Left—one that does not eschew the gains made in recent years to include a wide variety of grassroots activisms in the story of struggle, but that makes room for reflection on books, articles, seminars, and symposia (and, more recently, social media activity and blogs) as significant elements of the Left constellation.

Having established this research intention, we should reflect briefly on what we think we might get out of its pursuit.

First, I think that a new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left we would enable us to transcend the highly localized and often very distorted intellectual histories generated by Left polemicists.

A new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left would help us to bring out the political implications (for better or for worse) of Left-identified interpretive projects that stay mostly silent about questions of praxis.

A new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left would allow for a productive differentiation of “jargon” (the bugbear of anti-Theory critics in all times and places) and the specialized language of political mobilization that seems to be necessary for any collective movement to gain ground.

A new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left would assist in transforming accounts of the function of the academy within rich countries in a moment of profound crisis for mature capitalism.

A new narrative of the history of the Epistemic Left could help us move past scandal-oriented itineraries (the revelation of details regarding this or that thinker’s past, the Freud wars, the Sokal hoax), which leads to the transformation of history into a gossipy and complacent catalogue of follies.

Emphasizing the second term in “Epistemic Left” also might work to forestall the category errors and fallacies of misplaced concreteness that dog histories of postmodernism and poststructuralism. In many such histories, methodological necessity is often translated into desideratum. The temporary suspension of commonplace presuppositions––the facilitating condition for the achievement of a novel perspective––is presented as an elaborate act of trolling. Wordiness and linguistic play––usually a side-effect of an attempt to craft an alternative interpretive modality––is taken as evidence of authorial vanity. Most significantly, the struggle to reveal the situated and constructed quality of a given social force is rendered as an all-out assault on some phobic object (truth, the gender binary, race, subjectivity, rights, etc.). The obvious motivation underlying so much of the work of the Epistemic Left (the creation of new techniques for melting the glue that keeps contingent political arrangements in place) is ignored; and political projects are thereby travestied and presented as so many adolescent efforts to épater le bourgeois.

What I am not proposing is any sort of hagiography or glossing over of contradictions and problems. Many projects of the Epistemic Left have been failures, and many of the successes have been hamstrung by internal limitations. What I am proposing is the creation of a more sensible set of criteria by which to measure success and failure.

Here, we have much to learn from the social historical literature of the last half century. We no longer evaluate social movements by asking whether they achieved all of their goals, immediately, in exactly the ways they originally intended. We are attentive to what George Lipsitz calls “the long fetch of history.” We understand that what makes political projects work is often also what makes them fail; what makes them virtuous is sometimes what makes them blind to deep problems; what makes them inclusive in one respect might make them exclusive in others.

One important takeaway from social history is that normal politics often seeks to rig the game so that no form of extra-systemic protest is ever licit, no aspiration to equality ever “fair,” and no systemic critique ever legible. The greatest threat to the Epistemic Left has always been (and likely will continue to be) the notion that politics as such is impossible. We cannot aspire to anything more than administration. Subtending this powerful belief is the idea that intellectuals are unnecessary. Power needs only the advice and counsel of experts. For all of its many faults, the Epistemic Left has never stopped pushing back against this ideological offensive. That makes it history worth telling, and properly.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt,

    While I think pursuing a link between epistemology and politics is an intriguing prospect, my feeling is that it’s generally a dead end. The idea that theories of knowledge and normative commitments are linked is a different line of thought entirely, and one to to which I subscribe. But I see no sense in which any sort of specific political commitment–left or otherwise–can be yoked to such an idea.

    Epistemically radical thinkers like Richard Rorty came to embrace a form of Democratic Socialism, while many of the post-structuralists to which he sometimes allied himself–in an albeit qualified way–drew methodological inspiration from people like Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger, once enthusiastic Nazi sympathizers. Another point of note that comes to mind are the strangely similar epistemological lines of thought pursued by philosophers as diverse as Heidegger, W.V.O. Quine, and Jurgen Habermas. Each of these thinkers found common cause in lines of thinking that bore some resemblance to the tradition of American pragmatism (Heidegger’s case is much more slippery), but took radically different political positions (Quine’s conservatism had nothing at all to do with his philosophical work; Heidegger’s philosophy arguably led him to embrace National Socialism; Habermas, a qualified neo-Marxism).

    The notion that knowledge is simply “socially constructed” is a concept that itself bears more relation to larger currents of post-war conceptions of autonomy and individuality than, I think, we would like to believe. But this has nothing to do with either distinctly defined political projects or formal epistemological positions, of which there are hundreds if not thousands. And this, I think, is precisely the point. John Rawls’s idea of “Justice as Faireness,” to use another example, has just as much to do with his experience in WWII as it does with his early engagements with Christian Ethics as it does with his reading of Wittgenstein. What’s more historically interesting is the entire picture of how his political commitments come to be formed in a specific historical context. Of course, epistemological positions (especially for intellectual historians) cannot be ignored in these stories. But I believe that the idea of any sort of clear, causal link between the two is something we should avoid.

  2. Erik–thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. It is critical of my proposal, which makes me love it even more.

    I will try to work through your insightful challenges as best as I can. My thoughts on this topic are still forming themselves, so I ask forgiveness in advance if I pursue this in a freewheeling manner.

    So, let’s start with Rorty and De Man and Heidegger.

    Now, Rorty was second-generation US Left royalty, and while I am not a Rortyan, I think of my disagreements with him and his acolytes as very much internal-to-the-Party (to use an old formulation).

    Nothing can redeem anything about the Nazi past of Heidegger and De Man (though I think the case of Heidegger is the more appalling of the two).

    But the crucial thing about De Man is that the revelation of his past was a scandal. Had he moved to the US and remained some sort of public reactionary, the case would have been different. But he did not, and thus set the pattern–unbroken between the end of World War II and the recent emergence of NeoRx––that the thinkers of Theory have not ever identified as people of the Right, and have tended to welcome dialogue with people of the Left (Lacan, for example, was a liberal quietist, but happily occupied the role of radical sage).

    Heidegger is the great exception. I do think it makes sense to periodize Heidegger’s political opportunism as overlapping completely with the rise to power of the Nazis. Prior to this catastrophic failure of moral will, Heidegger was operating as a diligent student of European phenomenologists, and that phenomenology (like Freudian psychoanalysis) was, indeed, a project of the Epistemic Left (its Jewishness, so hateful to the Nazis with whom Heidegger collaborated, was part of its Epistemic Left-ness, I would argue).

    I regard most postwar Heideggerianism (whether of the Derridean, Lacanian, or American existentialist variety) as, in fact, postwar Husserlianism: it engages with Being and Time mostly as a function of the hermeneutic tradition internal to Husserlian phenomenology itself.

    Turning to pragmatism. In terms of the very important question of pragmatism’s vicissitudes, I say: yes, pragmatism can lead in all sorts of directions. But is a conservative pragmatism in fact imaginable? Is not conservatism typically beholden to foundations, suspicious of the general intellect, and drawn to rules and regulations regarding the proper limits of inquiry?

    Some reactionaries have called themselves pragmatists, and some sui generis birdbrains (such as Stanley Fish) identify with the tradition of James, Dewey, and Peirce, but these seem like parodies of pragmatism, to me, rather than good faith efforts to operate pragmatically. Rorty and Fish both fell victim to the strange belief that pragmatism was about issuing edicts and proscriptions (“we no longer ask these questions:”); whereas James, Dewey, and Peirce were much more sociable and egalitarian: (“we no longer find these questions very interesting; we don’t think anything will change by asking them, so we are going to ask some different ones”). Their books are, in fact, structured around the following notion: “look at how interesting it is to view the world in this way!” This is why I think Rorty was incorrect to nominate Derrida, rather than Deleuze, as the preeminent French neo-pragmatist.

    Turning to “social constructionism.” The history of the “social construction” position is, to my mind, your strongest point: strict “social constructionism” had some conservative adherents and popularizers (Peter Berger, not a leftist, was the great tribune of “social construction of reality” talk), and much of the influence on “social constructionism” in the US came from Alfred Schutz, who taught at the mostly left New School but whose own politics were mostly inscrutable.

    But Theory was never dedicated to “social constructionism” as such or for its own sake (in contrast to the way it was often treated in The New Republic and the the NYRB in the 1980s); and “social constructionism” was never as prominent in the humanities as it was in fields like law and medicine (wherein the dominant professional sensibility tended to incentivize the naturalization of contingent phenomena, requiring the strong shock of allegations of “social construction” to rouse thinkers from their slumbers).

    While it is true that one could paint Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo as right-wing “social constructionists”/pragmatists–a careful review of their thought would reveal that they are, in fact, traditional reactionaries–with overarching commitments to the exercise of power by the powerful and “American exceptionalism.”

    Otherwise, I do have difficulty thinking of reactionary strains of “social constructionism” as it has been developed on the Left. Can you cite some?

    The case of Rawls is a fascinating one, too.

    I tend to think of Rawls as an extreme case of a well-intentioned liberal thinker incapacitated by his resistance to Epistemic Leftism. By sticking with a contractarian framework while gesturing at the aleatory character of the distribution of social power, Rawls could not think about historical and collective grievance (and could not, also, properly answer his many critics on technical grounds). I suppose that I am saying that I do not think of Rawls as having been particularly epistemically adventurous or innovative (and I would say the same about Amy Gutman and Charles Taylor and James Tully and most of Michael Walzer).`

    At the same time that Rawls was working out his theory, we might note that Critical Race Theorists (working within the traditions of the Epistemic Left) generated far more powerful (and more logically rigorous) arguments for a strong role for the state in evening playing fields–historically informed (rather than abstract mental chess) warrants for the reparation of historical injustice and close analysis of the processes whereby whiteness and maleness came to shape the system through which rewards and demerits are awarded.

    It should be said, too, that Epistemic Leftism and various strains of Christian politics certain overlapped. If the latter was decisive in Rawls’s development, that would not necessarily mean that Rawls was not an Epistemic Leftist. One of the great contributions, to my mind, of Kevin Kruse’s recent work is its illustration of just how much work it took to articulate US Protestant christianity as conservative free market anti-statism.

    I would like to conclude my response, however, by acknowledging the strength of your point that no politics may be said to follow from any specific epistemological posture.

    To demonstrate otherwise, I know, is the very heavy burden of the project I am mapping out here.

    What I would like to suggest, here, is that one cannot formulate such a proposition without attending to history.

    Could it be that, in certain times and places, and under certain conditions, there is some correlation between the epistemic position of the thinker and the political coloration of her thought? That–rather than an overarching claim stretching from Thales to Chomsky––is the idea with which I am trying to play.

    In any event, thanks so much, Erik, for this wonderfully generative comment. And please give it to me if my response is inadequate.

  3. Kurt, this is one ambitious project you are presenting here! It’s fascinating but I can’t help but echo Erik’s insightful reply. It is as if you were searching for a political ontology of what you call the epistemic left. But the definition of both Left and the epistemic face the risk of becoming too vague, too broad in tracing this genealogy, even just across one century, across regions, etc. Heidegger is definitely a central figure that cannot be brushed off that easily, both his early and later work for Derridean style poststructuralism were profoundly influential, Husserl not so
    much. And I say this from what I learned in my formative years in literature classes in the mid-90s and early 2000s, when Derrida and de Man still had a profound influence in the field. I also wonder about how contemporary conservatives appropriate a “postmodern” lite form of relativism–not sure how to put this in more concrete words–to defend their positions, arguing that since everything is a social or discursive construct or an ideological formation bound to myriad interests that then they have a right to their positions, even if they are to be seen as bigoted or unscientific–climate change being of course one of the main dilemmas; as you probably know I am hinting at Bruno Latour’s reflection about this. Last
    but not least, I always have a suspicion of how, even as they pretend to follow a radical questioning of how knowledge is formed, certain theoretical apparatuses often produce in practice an enclosed, highly specialized space of followers, publications, and ironically knowledge that is passed on through these networks as a truth with capital T.

  4. Kahlil: thanks so much for this wonderful comment. Between Erik and you, I am very lucky. You are helping me enormously to properly frame this study, and I am very grateful!

    Will try to respond more directly to these thoughts in a few days, once I have had some time to think further.

    • Looking forward to your reply! Like I said, I enjoy very much the boldness of your proposal, it is necessary to think like this, connecting dots that at first sight seem unconnectable. Onward.

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