Friday, June 16, 2006

Politics As If Epistemology Mattered or Who Is Still a Realist?

Advice Overload for the Democrats - This article by staff writer Michael Grundwald, published in the Washington Post on June 11, 2006, is a good summary of recent analyses of the Democrats' problems and advice given to them on how to win the midterm and future elections against the background of the Republicans' serious current problems.

The article makes a thoroughly constructivist argument, namely that the 'diagnoses of the party's ailments, and prescriptions for cures' tell us more about the biases of those analysts and 'advice-givers' than about 'the party's [and here one is tempted to add the word: 'real'] prospects of regaining power.'

This is an epistemologically and politically important point. Every observation always tells us something about the perspective the observer is coming from, and about his or her interests. Hence we all operate with what might be called 'interested constructs.'

Since, as constructivism instructs us, we don't have direct and - as it were - immediate access to 'reality', all we have are our observations. But if this is the case, how could we then, as Grundwald does (and along with him, many others) differentiate between the prejudices of intellectuals and consultants on one side, and the 'real' possibilities of the Democratic Party on the other?

Empiricists would respond that it's all a matter of using the 'right' methodology and research design when examining your data. To which constructivists in turn reply that given the complexity of the world and infinite cause-and-effect-relationships, any model by necessity is highly selective in its choice of variables. In short, data are 'man'-made.

If we have to abandon the correspondence theory of truth for epistemological reasons, perhaps it's time to adopt a pragmatist understanding of truth for political reasons. Since we cannot know 'reality' as it 'really' is anyway, why not finally give up this ancient 'quest for certainty' (John Dewey) in favor of an understanding of truth as that which is good for us, given our convictions. If we believe pragmatists like Richard Rorty, the choice for liberals/progressives should be easy: We should give absolute priority to reducing the suffering of others by becoming more sensitive to their pain, based on the realization of our common humanity. For this argument, see his Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, published in 1998.

At the end of the day, for constructivists, the challenge of course is how to be 'realistic' in a world whose 'reality' we cannot access; or better yet, inspired by Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities, how to become more interested in real possibilities rather than possible realities?

"'Reality' (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes)."
Vladimir Nabokov


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