A Situated Historicity: or, a Brief Explanation of Why We Are Actually Able to Know Things

There is, floating about in the space of reasons, a family of arguments (or something like arguments) that has caused no shortage of ink to be spilled in the last century. This family of arguments turns on a simple principle: since we can only know things as they appear to us, we cannot know things in themselves. Let ‘appear to us’ cover a multitude of theses: falling under our concepts, our historical condition, forms of perception, their historical relation to us. In one way or another, things in themselves are closed off from us by the very things that make them knowable. There is just a whiff of pop-postmodernism here in that there is no vantage point outside of the ‘appear to us’, no final, a priori court of appeals. The only vantage point is within the condition in which we find ourselves, and this condition is a firmly historical one. All the theses mentioned above – concepts, relations, perception – are historical and since any knowledge we have comes by way of these theses, all our knowledge is historical. Thus, if all our knowledge is historical, then there is no fixed, necessary, immutable principles by which we may know – no detatched, disemboided a priori, context-free, unconditioned knowing.

Consider the above a drawing of the logical skeleton of historicist epistemology. If it is indeed the case, then no piece of knowledge can be a-historical, and nothing a-historical can be a piece of knowledge. Is this conclusion, however, valid? Does it follow from the premis – that we can only know things as they appear to us – that we can’t know the thing in itself? I don’t see how it does in a way that doesn’t beg the question. But let’s look a bit harder at the logical skeleton. The ‘appears to us’ appears to me to be roughly equivelant to a causal explanation. To translate the historicist claim into causal language, if we know how we acquired a piece of knowledge, then we can undermine the results of the process of acquiring. There is no shortage of examples of this skeleton clothed with different skins: from the sociobiological (E.O. Wilson) to the metaphysical (Berkely, Fine) to the linguistic (Lucy) to the historiographical (Kuhn) to the purely social (Bloor). All of these thinkers and their arguments share the common structure outlined above.This line of thinking is attacked by James Franklin in his essay on mathematics and morals:

Take an electronic calculator. Why does the calculator show 4 when you punch in 2+2? On the one hand, there is a causal story about the wiring inside, which explains why 4 is displayed. But the explanation cannot avoid mention of the fact that 2+2 is 4. On the contrary, the wiring is set up exactly to implement the laws of arithmetic, which are true in the abstract. The causal apparatus is designed specifically to be in tune with or track the world of abstract truths. If it succeeds, the causal and abstract stories cooperate, and the explanation of the outcome requires both.

Clearly, people are not calculators, but what the above example shows is that there is, contrary to historicism, no conceptual difficulty with a harmonizing of both causal and abstract. To re-translate: things can ‘appear to us’ (the wiring of the calculator), and we can know the thing in itself (2+2=4). There is simply no difficulty here. If the historicist line of thinking is flatly invalid, and we have good reason to think that there isn’t any conceptual difficulty with the harmony of the causal and abstract, where does this leave us?

Before moving towards an answer, it should be made clear that none of the above arguments dispute the idea that knowledge is in an important sense historical. What ought to be disputed, however, is the idea of historical conditioning. This is the crux of the arguments against the historicist picture: while it is true that all knowledge is historically situated, it does not follow from that that all knowledge is historically conditioned, by which is meant that our historical conditioners prevent us from gaining any kind of real knowledge of the things themselves. Where conditioned epistemology says that we cannot rise above our condition, situated epistemology says that by the very act of knowing we have risen above our situation. Recall the calculator example. While the calculator has a situated story – the causal process – it also tracks non-situated, abstract truths. To mix the metaphors somewhat dangerously, the calculator, in the situated act of knowing, knows something non-situated. The contexts, conditions and situation of the calculator has been transcended without any denial of the embodied and situated causal story of how it acquired knowledge. Conditioning is a prison: situated-ness is freedom.

Perhaps the most troubling consequence of historicism is the most unintuitive. The a-historical is woven into our existence at the most concrete level: mathematics shows this to be the case. But if historicism is true, and nothing a-historical can be a piece of knowledge, then historicism brackets off perhaps the deepest substrate of existence from investigation. Given that mathematics exists, and that the truths of mathematics are a priori (and hence a-historical) then there could be no other outcome. Historicism is, then, far from a truly historical epistemology, since it has no choice but to bracket out the abstract (and perhaps even transcendent) immanent within history. The reality of what we experience transcends our experience of it, and it is just this transcending that allows real, historical knowledge.


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