Re: Can you build subjectivity into a model?

Tibor Benke (benke@SFU.CA)
Mon, 6 Dec 1993 08:25:22 -0800

Seeker wrote to Kathleen Williams

S> I'm kind of dubious about one's ability to "model" their own
S>I can recognize all the inherent prejudices that result from things such
S>my own class position, ethnic background, national origin, cultural
S>educationa and training, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and
S>personal experiences and historical situation. It might even be possible
S>to quantify all of these prejudices into Bayesian decision-making
S> But those things do not constitute all of my own subjectivity. It
S>be tough to throw into this model such things as the activity of the
S>unconscious, what I had to eat for breakfast this morning, or my own
S>idiosyncratic aspects to which I cannot find credible systematic
S> See, I see one of the fundamental aspects of subjectivity is that
S>humans don't like having their behavior predicted... and go out of their
S>to avoid behaving as someone else predicts they will. Especially if what
S>predicted of them is something that is embarassing or shameful. You can
S>this into your models too, but it would be tough.
S> There's another problem, that of infinite regress. Any model of my
S>subjectivity must include my current cognitive act of examining my own
S>subjectivity which must include... I think you see my point. At least I
S> Seeker1

And Kathleen replied:

K>dear seeker1,
K>no argument here its very tuff stuff to do. and
K>tougher since its a first
K>time popular attempt that i know of in the long history of
K>western epistemology (maybe we should consult Sri Aurobindo on this, are
K>you out there Sri?). let's face it, we're just playing baby step mind
K>games here while the rest of humanity are out doing the real thing - ie
K>minding the rice fields. yes, I adamantly agree, very difficult, all of
K>points are well taken.
K>but we are inescapably on the exploratory path which includes this
K>of subjectivity. what alternatives do you offer? don't you enjoy
K>anyway? what else is there to do? we can't just say, oh yes
K>has too many problems so lets go back to the illusion of positivism and
K>ignore the reality of subjectivity. accept it now or accept it later,
K>there's no going back, you'll never go Holmes again. [of course, one who
K>would propose that retreat would never word it the way I just did]. I'm
K>enjoying this chat and have already stated my view a number of ways -
K>sending this back to the e-universe for takers. still awaiting the
K>real Bayesians to jump in! and Riner, don't you have something to say?

I am, as they say, "but an egg", but it seems to me that 'Western
Epistemology' fragmented during the period of 'Modernism' when it became
clear that Empiricism, Rationalism, Romanticism, Pragmatism, and Vitalism
could neither prove their own veracity nor refute each other. Marx and
Nietche, and later, maybe, Weber, noticed that social perspectives coloured
world views. Thus we have concepts like 'Veltanschaung' and 'class
consciousness'. With the Weimar Republic the Sociology of Knowledge as
developed by, among others: A. Weber (Max's brother), Scheler, Mannheim,
and Lukacs, attemted to deal with what Mannheim called a "chasm" on the
edge of consciousness. The arguments against the relativization of
knowledge: that not all subjectivity can be controlled for, that human's
don't like their behavior predicted, and that if we accept the relativity
of truth, we fall into endless regress, were made at that time. Since
then, we have had various theories which promised to overcome this problem
or claimed that it could be safely ignored, but, IMHO, no-one has overcome
it and it can't be ignored. I thought Mannheim's plan of using the
phenomenologist method of 'braketing' that which can't be immediately known
and getting on with studying what can be with the methods developed by
historians, art critics and linguists, was promising, but it seemed to be
largely abandoned. Mannheim, himself, was only able to do one study on
German Conservatism, (now available in your library in English as,
_Conservatism_) before he was forced to flee to England and get a lot more
empirical. Then he died in 1947. Most discussion of his work laments his
failure to meet the counter arguments. I wish some people could have
developed a tradition of case studies, but the epistemological debate seems
to be more fun.

Now comes Postmodernism. Frankly, it is over my head. But it does seem
to be dealing with the same epistemological problems and using methods
developed since the early twentieth century to carry out its program. I
suspect that Postmodernism will be abandoned as seeking knowledge for its
own sake becomes popularly viewed as a luxury because the ricefields need
minding and the pursuit of epistemology is thought an unneccessary luxury.

It seems to me, that it comes down to, (as many have pointed out) to a
question of the relationship between knowledge (however concieved),
authority, and the legitimation of authority. If the politicians that buy
into Postmodernism flurish, then the smart people who 'get it' will have
jobs. In the opposite case, Postmodernism will go the way of Mannheim's
Relationism. I am just afraid, that I won't like the result either way.

Sorry to intrude, but this topic *is* interesting. Unfortunately, I must
set my subscription to "nomail", since I am leaving for a week or two. But
if you are still talking about this when I come back, I will read
everything and, maybe, have a few more comments.

>@> Tibor Benke / (^)%(#)
>@> Graduate Student (MA program)
>@> Department of Sociology and Anthropology
>@> Simon Fraser University,
>@> Burnaby, B.C., Canada. V5A 1S6