The self as painting: we become who we are through repetition and representation. Encumbered only by our imagination and the culture in which we find ourselves, we craft ourselves through iterated projects of self-representation. We might find the materials available to us limiting, in which case we might seek out a more diverse palette of cultural ideas through which to express that which we are and wish to be. We might also seek to refine our technique, extending the range of our potential selves by expanding our capacities to represent them. But the process is fundamentally repetitive. We begin within constraints but once we start painting, it’s up to us what we do. The freedom exercised through this is one of redescription, in Richard Rorty’s sense, something which Roy Bhaskar once critiqued as relying on a ‘free-wheeling’ conception of freedom: it doesn’t hook on to the world, to the definitive ways in which things are at any given point in time, with all the constraints and limitations which this entails. 

Its appeal rests on the prospect of everlasting freedom. We can dispense with any one painting once we grow dissatisfied, throwing it away to restart in pursuit of ever richer and more vivid representations of our self. But there is an element of fantasy in this, refining our representation of self potentially at the cost of losing touch with the reality of who we are and where we are at any given moment. To craft the self as painting represents a private project of self-creation. It approaches the challenges of existence in an aesthetic register, one which cuts us off from our selves and from others in an ever-so subtle way, while holding out the (always retreating) promise of endless freedom in inner life, whatever the world out there holds for us and what we care about. 

The self as sculpting: through a sustained engagement with the material we find in our selves and our lives, we gradually produce the person we aim to be through our crafting of self. The process is subtractive, rather than additive. We select, refine and remove in a way that is path-dependent, often finding unexpected limitations which follow from the whole sequence of past choices we have made. The further we go in this process, the less room for manoeuvre we have because our form becomes progressively more concrete with time. To become who we are depends on what was latent with us, but how this comes to take the form it does depends on the world we have found ourselves in and how we have chose to make our way through it. 

We shape the clay but we do not choose it and our understanding of the range of possibilities latent within it will always be constrained by circumstance and experience. When the promise of the protean self is ubiquitous, tempting us with the idea that the only limit on who we can be is our imagination, the limitations of the clay can seem suffocating. But there is a freedom within these constraints. A profound, challenging and subtle freedom which refuses the reduction of existence to aesthetics. 

Rarely can a film have been as timely as Denial. It tells the story of the libel action the holocaust denying historian David Irving took against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, alleging that she had damaged his professional reputation as a historian by claiming he had wilfully distorted evidence. The film recounts the events leading up to the trial, before focusing on the trial itself and ending with the judge’s ruling that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism…[4][65] therefore the defence of justification succeeds…[5] It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.[66]

The film seems remarkably salient at a time when the liberal punditry seems to have uniformly endorsed the notion that we have entered a post-truth era, concisely defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“. The importance of truth, the urgency of fighting for it, runs through the film and is explicitly invoked in the framing of it as a cultural product, as Rachel Weisz makes clear here: “It’s a true story, it’s a fight for truth and justice“.

The writer David Hare expands on this point in the same clip, explaining how “it’s not based on a true story, it is a true story … the words from the trial are the exact words. I don’t attribute to David Irving any line that he is not on record as having said, everything he says, we know he said“. It was great to discover this because I found the trial scenes riveting, though found it hard to wonder if the whole thing would have worked better on stage. The film seems to have underwhelmed critics, rather unfairly from my point of view, perhaps suggesting it was motivated by a commitment to realism of a sort liable to prove underwhelming on the big screen. However what struck me most about the film was the epistemological confusion underlying it, something which I think reflects a lot about the contemporary discourse of ‘post-truth’ and its limitations.

The avowed realism of the film obscures the inevitable cuts that the constraints of story telling necessitate. Irving had sued another historian at the same time, though the case did not go to court. He threatened a further historian with libel if passages concerning him weren’t removed from an upcoming book, prompting an American edition to be published with them but their erasure from the British edition. My point is not to criticise the film for excluding these details, despite their obvious relevance to the story, as much as to highlight the exclusions inherent in narrative. Likewise, with the court case itself, where the selection of a few incidents from a long trial were expertly used to dramatic effect. Again, these aren’t criticisms, just a reminder that even factual narratives (a term I prefer to ‘true story’) inevitably entail selecting from the pool of available facts, within the (media and genre specific) constraints of effective story-telling.

Much of the film can be read in terms of rallying forces for a defence of truth. The drama of the film rests on success in this endeavour, after overcoming much initial adversity. But framing the hard-drinking, hard-thinking Scottish barrister as a hero sits oddly with the commitment to truth in the film. After all, he’s lionised for his rhetorical skills, his capacity to pick apart the authority of Irving in a performatively compelling way. His most succesful tactics have nothing to do with the presentation of evidence, but rather involve getting under Irving’s skin in order to unsettle and undermine him. The concern here is not truth but persuasion. Specifically, the persuasion of a solitary judge, after Irving the litigant was persuaded to dispense with the jury because both sides agreed that the common folk could not be trusted to adjudicate on the truth when the relevant facts were as complex as they were in this case. Furthermore, the only thing that ensures the barrister is not cast as a mercenary is his deep commitment to this truth. This is slowly established over the course of the film, with Lipstadt eventually discovering that this is not just ‘another brief’ for him after all.

What made this film impressive to me was the way in which it explored the mechanics of persuasion in court, specifically how it was established convincingly that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence in order to establish the case for holocaust denial. In other words, it concerned the discursive machinery through which facts are consecrated and rendered socially efficacious. The apparent narratological inevitably of this being accompanied by a paean to truth speaks volumes about what has come to be accepted as ‘post-truth’. We might speak more accurately of post-fact. This is how Will Davies framed it in a New York times essay:

Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

The declining efficacy of facts is understood to be problematic because it undermines appreciation of truth. But reality always permits of multiple characterisations. As Roy Bhaskar put it on pg 55 of Reclaming Reality, “facts are things, but they are social not natural things, belonging to the transitive world of science, not the intransitive world of nature”. Facts are produced through interventions in the world, drawing on the labour of others and applying conceptual tools we rarely built ourselves. This is why a serious discussion of someone like Irving cannot avoid interrogating his proclaimed status as a professional historian, what this means and how it should shape our assessment of his capacity to marshal facts in authoritative ways. Indeed, this was crucial to making the case against him.

But if we see facts as self-grounded things, already made and waiting in the world to be discovered, it becomes difficult to acknowledge this. This might not matter when ‘our’ facts are socially efficacious, happily endorsed by all those we encounter and reflected back to us as common sense in the culture we engage with. But when these start to break down, the construction of ‘truth’ faces a fundamental tension: if facts are given then conflict over them must in some way reflect non-factual considerations, but if non-factual considerations consistently influence ‘matters of fact’ then facts cannot be given. This creates a crisis when we reach a situation in which facts have been ubiquitously weaponised. As Davies put it, “If you really want to find an expert willing to endorse a fact, and have sufficient money or political clout behind you, you probably can”.

This inconvenient truth could be ignored as long as there was a consensus in place. One which has now broken down, with the apparent mystery of our ‘post-truth’ era going hand-in-hand with a profound mystification of the political dimensions to how the consensual era of ‘truth’ preceding it was established. My point in writing this isn’t to preach constructionism. I share the ethos of Bhaskar’s book, one of the most powerful works of philosophy I’ve read: reclaim reality. Reclaiming reality involves recognising the reality of social construction, but resisting the dissolution of ‘truth’ into this. Figures like Irving thrive in the space opened up by the antinomies of (post)truth. If we reclaim reality, we can starve them at an epistemological level, before defeating them at a political level.

I hadn’t realised this was still online. It’s a very useful resource:

An interesting post on An und für sich reminded me of this question which I’ve long wondered about the answer to. From what I know of speculative realism, Graham Harman is the thinker who appeals to me most and I have some of his papers on my reading list. But it’s a long list. I’m really intrigued by this ‘realist turn’ in philosophy, as well as the different forms it has taken and the reasons for its popularity. Not intrigued enough to actually get round to reading up on the topic though unfortunately. So while this doesn’t appeal:

For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.

Is Putnam’s critique therefore no longer relevant? The problem, it seems to me, is that in a laudable attempt to dethrone an anthropocentric epistemology from philosophy, these contemporary versions of realism are still dependent upon theories of access to and translation of the real. For example, to characterise the absolute in terms of hyper-chaos, as Meillassoux does, implies a judgement whereby chaos and order can be distinguished. It further implies that the possibility of order is a legitimate product of chaos. But if this is the case – if order and our ability make sense of things are themselves possibilities produced by the absolute – then we are in no position to judge that the absolute is ‘ultimately’ chaotic. We do not advance beyond Kantianism, in which the absolute provides the supersensible basis for our knowing of the world, whilst remaining unknowable in itself. Attempts to give an ultimate characterisation of that absolute lead to antinomy. It would be interesting to construct such a Kantian contemporary antinomy, in which the absolute could be rationally proved to be both order and chaos.

In OOO, the concept of translation has been explicitly used by Graham Harman. Objects, he claims, relate to each other indirectly, via translation: taking up the sensual images of other objects, whilst remaining inaccessible to relation in their withdrawn interior. However, if such ‘translation’ is to result in new objects (parts fitted together to make a machine, for instance), we have to ask what is it that constitutes the inaccessible interior of the new object? The answer must be: a system of differences, of translations, of mutual interpretations. So, having dethroned human epistemology from philosophy, OOO has arguably displaced questions of access, translation and interpretation into the absolute ‘itself’.

It does nonetheless lead me to wonder about its relationship to critical realism (by which I mean Archer, Lawson, Sayer, pre-dialectics Bhaskar etc). I just finished Bhaskar’s Reclaiming Reality and it’s left me newly aware of quite how radical his conjunction of the philosophy and sociology of science was, as well as how the combination of the two was critical to the formulation of realism of the sort I’m drawn to. Without these aspects of critical realism, I suspect it might have ended up being much closer to what seems* to be the Kantian dead end Meillassoux is stuck within.

*Note the italics! I’m very open to being corrected here.

In contrast to the scorn which Rorty’s name now provokes in some quarters, it’s arresting to see the esteem in which he was held by Roy Bhaskar in the late 80s, albeit in the context of a trenchant philosophical critique. He commends Rorty’s “eloquent critique of the epistemological problematic” but intends to argue that Rorty remains captive to this problem field in ways he himself fails to recognise (Bhaskar 1989: 146). In doing so, he advocates a philosophical post-narcissism which is capable of elaborating “non-anthropocentric pictures of being” through taking Rorty’s project of ‘de-divinisation’ and pursuing it much further than Rorty was either willing or able to do (Bhaskar 1989: 147).

His initial target is Rorty’s account of science, particularly his easy imputation of chronic success in “the prediction and control of nature”. In this claim Rorty reveals himself to have accepted Hempelian assumptions about natural science, in effect committing himself to a basically positivist account. Much of Bhaskar’s critique proceeds from systematically exploring the ambiguities which are entailed by Rorty’s failure to distinguish between the intransitive (ontological) and transitive (epistemological) dimensions of science. Once we begin to draw this distinction, Rorty’s constant invocations of ‘redescription’ come to seem much more modest in their conclusions, though Rorty himself fails to recognise this:

Thus redescribing(td) the past in a revolution way can cause(id) radical new changes, including a new identity, self-definition or auto-biography: but it cannot retrospectively cause(id) old changes, alter the past (as distinct from its interpretation). It is not surprising that Rorty should slip from transitive to intransitive uses of terms like ’cause’ – it is endemic to empirical realism, the epistemological definition of being in terms of (a particular empiricist concept of) experience. (Bhaskar 1989: 152).

Bhaskar’s point is not to impute anti-realism to Rorty, though the latter surely does come to this in his later work. For Bhaskar “the crucial questions in philosophy are not whether to be a realist or an anti-realist, but what sort of realist to be (an empirical, conceptual transcendental or whatever realist); whether one explicitly theorises or merely implicitly secretes one’s realism and whether and how one decides, arrives at or absorbs one’s realism” (Bhaskar 1989: 153). Bhaskar is in agreement with Rorty’s repudiation of the ‘Archimedean point’ outside human history and the notion of ‘correspondence’ as standing between world and language. However he finds it problematic, as well as internally inconsistent, for Rorty’s realism to adopt such a whiggish approach to actually existing science – imputing a continual extension of our capacity to ‘control and intervene’ with one hand while bracketing the philosophy of science with another. He shares Rorty’s anti-foundationalism and applauds his  “vigorous assault on its attendant ocular metaphors, mirror imagery and overseer conception of philosophy” (Bhaskar 1989: 157).

So what’s the problem? Rorty’s peculiarly positivistic stance finds expression in his assumption that an individual represents a closed system. Bhaskar addresses this point in a dense critique which I won’t attempt to summarise but is an astonishingly accomplished analysis which is worth studying in detail (Bhaskar 1989: 161-162). His attention is to better understand “A Tale of Two Rortys”: a tension which runs through his work and precludes him from offering either an adequate understanding of scientific activity or a sustainable account of human freedom. In essence he finds himself reproducing a linguistified version of the Kantian distinction between people as empirical selves and as moral agents. Rorty is attempting to combine a physicalism which sees individuals as closed causal systems, in which it is possible (in principle) to predict every movement of a person’s body by reference to microphysical states, with an affirmation of the discursive freedom of human beings.

However it is this freedom to ‘re-describe’ which is the cause of all the problems. He fails to distinguish between objects changing and requiring a new description and an unchanged object being redescribed. In this sense ‘redescription’ comes to be detached from the characteristics of the objects being redescribed. Yet this is central to Rorty’s account of human freedom:

Man is the describing, redescribing being. Among the entities man can describe in a new, and abnormal, way, is himself. By making a new, incommensurable description of herself ‘stick’, she makes it true; and thus ‘gives birth to’ (to use Harold Bloom’s term) or ‘creates’ herself – which is to say ‘overcomes’ her previous or past self. Moreover, only by describing herself in a totally novel way can she capture or express her idiosyncrasy, uniqueness – or rather achieve it, achieve her individuation – for anything else would reduce her to a (more or less complex set of formula(e), a token of a type (or set of types). Such radical self-redescription (which could be nicknamed ‘me-‘ or ‘we-‘ description) is the highest form of description. For not only does the redescription redescribe the describer; but in the process of redescription – of wining it, of making it stick, of achieving recognition for it – it makes the (re)description true; so achieving the identity of subject and object, by creating it. (Bhaskar 1989: 171)

On this picture we are left with a notion of freedom as “caprice, discourse, capricious discourse and creative discourse” (Bhaskar 1989: 173). Even this highest form of freedom within Rorty’s account, the possibility of ‘creative discourse’, falls short because it operationalises freedom in abstraction from the material dimension of social life. Rorty’s account makes it difficult to see how we could ever come to identify or transform structures which engender a diminution of human freedom. It also fails to recognise the constraining effects they may have on freedom even in his own narrow understanding of it. As Bhaskar observes, “it is now easy to see how the notion that ‘man is always free to choose new descriptions’ can encourage the voluntaristic position that man is always free to choose any description” (Bhaskar 1989: 176). Rorty’s discursive freedom should not be repudiated in and of itself but should rather be contextualised in terms of a much deeper sense of freedom and, crucially, a notion of emancipation which “depends upon the transformation of structures rather than just the amelioration of states of affairs” (Bhaskar 1989: 178).

What is a ‘fact’? This deceptively simple question provides a route into the most pressing issues concerning the philosophy of science. In a short essay, “Philosophies as Ideologies of Science: A Contribution to the Critique of Positivism”, Roy Bhaskar offers a compelling answer to this question which impressively incorporates an epistemic account of knowledge alongside a sociological account of theories of knowledge. It is directed towards a critique of positivism which, he writes, “is, in the first instance, a theory of the nature, limits and unity of knowledge”. On the positivist account, knowledge is of events which are revealed in perception. The generalisation of such knowledge involves identifying the patterning of such events, in space and over time, with sense perception being understood to exhaust the possible objects of knowledge (Bhaskar 1989: 49). Underlying this is an (often implicit) ontology of closed systems and atomistic events. However Bhaskar also claims that any theory of knowledge also presupposes a sociology “in the sense that it must be assumed, implicitly if not explicitly, that the nature of human beings and the institutions they reproduce or transform is such that such knowledge could be produced” (Bhaskar 1989: 49). This conception of “people as passive sensors of given facts and recorders of their given constant conjunctions” has important implications (Bhaskar 1989: 51). Given that constant conjunctures are worked for in laboratories rather than discovered in nature, it follows that the intelligibility of the objects of scientific investigation must be understood as ontologically independent of the activities of human beings but conversely that the concepts under which we encounter them must be seen as part of an irreducibly social process of science.

Thus experiences (and the facts they ground), and the constant conjunctions of events that form the empirical grounds for causal laws, are social products. But the objects to which they afford us access, such as causal laws, exist and act quite independently of us.

Now positivism can sustain neither the idea of an independent reality nor the idea of a socially produced science. Rather what happens is in a way quite extraordinary – for, as in the interests of a particular conception of philosophy, it allows a particular conception of our knowledge of reality to inform and implicitly define the concept of the reality known by science, these ideas (absolutely minimally necessary conditions for an adequate account of science) become crossed, so that we have a naturalised science purchased at the expense of a humanised nature. (Bhaskar 1989: 51)

It is in this ‘transference’ that we begin to locate the ideological implications of positivism. Positivism bequeaths us an alienated understanding of science, repudiating its social nature, as well as a mystified account of nature, cleaved to our putative sense perceptions of it. This is what leads to the reification of facts. If we view “what is apprehended in immediate sense-experience as a fact constituting an atomistic event or state of affairs, existing independently of the human activity necessary for it” then we come to see ‘facts’ as self-subsistent and independent of human activity. Furthermore, as Bhaskar puts it, “when the conjunctions of such facts are reified and identified with causal laws, science becomes an epiphenomenon of nature” (Bhaskar 1989: 52). In coming to such a view, where ‘facts’ can be read from ‘nature’, we deny the social character of science, particularly “its character as work involving the transformation of antecedent objects, both material and ideational” (Bhaskar 1989: 52). The point is not to repudiate ‘facts’ but rather to recognise the grounding of facts on things and constant conjunctions on causal laws. Human beings produce facts but they do so through collective labour of a particular sort, orientated towards both material and ideational objects, which seeks to intervene in and accumulate knowledge of a natural world irreducible to this labour.

Underpinning this is a fallacious image of a “moment of subjectivity which is free from the effects of all pre-formed or extraneous, including theoretical content” (Bhaskar 1989: 52). For positivism this autonomized sense-experience constitutes the form in which knowledge is acquired and the reified fact the content that is expressed” (Bhaskar 1989: 54). The atomicity of events necessitated by this account of sense experience in turn entails the constancy of conjunctions as a condition for general knowledge. I’m not 100% certain I follow Bhaskar’s point here but I think he is suggesting that positivism offers no other ‘building blocks’ out of which general knowledge can be constructed, such that it becomes a matter of establishing logical relations been atomistic impressions of events rather than the achievement of deeper knowledge of natural processes. For positivism “facts and their conjunctions both exhaust the real content of science and determinate the knowable nature of the world, or fix science in its ontology” (Bhaskar 1989: 54). In rejecting the ‘reification of facts’, Bhaskar’s point is not that ‘facts’ are not ‘things’. Rather he is arguing that “facts are things, but they are social not natural things, belonging to the transitive world of science, not the intransitive world of nature” (Bhaskar 1989: 55). There are non-reified accounts of facts which he believes to be problematic, as correctly understanding the relation between facts and human activity poses a conceptual and methodological challenge extending beyond the simple recognition that we do not ‘discover’ facts in the natural world.

One might take ‘a fact’ as a synonym for a ‘true assertion’ or alternatively, to consider Strawson’s well-known formula, to attempt to explicate it as what a true statement states. But this will not do – for we make statements, but we do not make facts (rather it is as if they were made for us); and it is unclear, to say the least, how statements can do anything. Why do we not make facts? The answer is because, as the etymology of the word suggests, they are already made. In stating facts we are acknowledging results already achieved, the results being achieved (in the domain of empirical discourse) by readings, of which the varieties of sense experience constitute special kinds of skill. But of course we discover as well as state results: the facts pre-exist their discovery as results to be achieved (just as they pre-exist their statement as achievements). They must thus be conceived as potentialities of the conceptual schemes or paradigms that govern our enquiries, which when actualised constitute discoveries. A fact, then, is a potentiality actualised in discovery, sustained in practice (both discursive and on-discursive) and objectified in sense-perception (Bhaskar 1989: 60)

The cognitive structures in virtue of which ‘facts’ become possible are reproduced or transformed by human activity. However we do not as such create them because we are always positioned in relation to them and, in many senses, dependent upon them. This is why the notion of scientific labour is so important for Bhaskar’s project to critique positivism while also avoiding conventionalism. It’s in this sense that our tendency to “read the world as if it were constituted by facts” becomes important, as “what is involved in the categories in terms of which positivistic philosophical consciousness understands the concept of a fact is not therefore so much a crass mistake or straightforward error, as a superficiality which merely reflects the spontaneous consciousness of science” (Bhaskar 1989: 61). What Bhaskar is affirming is the need to become reflectively conscious of this ‘spontaneous consciousness’ in order to achieve distance from it. Facts are real but they are “historically specific social realities” and it is recognition of this which is essential for understanding how scientific progress becomes possible. The fetishism of facts also dehistroicizes them and it is in this sense that Bhaskar sees the category of ‘ideology’ as appropriate to these discussions. In other words, positivism has a social function which is “to conceal the historically specific structures and relations constituting sense-experience in science” (Bhaskar 1989: 61). More specifically, the social function of the constant conjunction is to “conceal the reality of structures irreducible to events” (Bhaskar 1989: 62).

Just invoking materialism without specifying exactly what the sense is does not get you very far. It is often claimed that ideas and ideology have a material existence ultimately rooted in physical matter. But what is physical matter? If you go down one level of the stratification of nature you come to atoms that are weird in terms of our normal conceptions of concrete materiality and in fact turn out to be not a-tomic at all! If you go down another couple of levels you are dealing with distributions in space and successions in time. You are very far removed from ‘concrete materiality’. The world of quantum fields and quarks is not the world of concrete objects and solid material things. What the belief in brute physicality as exhaustive of the world depends on is in fact a species of commodification; it is an ideological materialism that commodifies and fetishises the properties of concrete material things. By downplaying or denying the possibility of intentional agency, it is just as much orientated against the possibility of social science as is supernaturalist idealism or the resort to faith in totally transcendent, supernatural causes. In many cases I would rather not use the terms ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’: I would rather just talk about ‘science’, ‘realism’ and ‘ontology’.

Roy Bhaskar. The Formation of Critical Realism: A Personal Perspective. Pg 85