late modern social epistemology round up; technical vs. hermeneutical correctness

by Sebastian Benthall

Consider on the one hand what we might call Habermasian transcendental pragmatism, according to which knowledge can be categorized by how it addresses one of several generalized human interests:

  • The interest of power over nature or other beings, being technical knowledge
  • The interest of agreement with others for the sake of collective action, being hermeneutic knowledge
  • The interest of emancipation from present socially imposed conditions, being critical or reflexive knowledge

Consider in contrast what we might call the Luhmann or Foucault model in which knowledge is created via system autopoeisis. Luhmann talks about autopoeisis in a social system; Foucault talks about knowledge in a system of power much the same way.

It is difficult to reconcile these views. This may be what was at the heart of the Habermas-Luhmann debate. Can we parse out the problem in any way that helps reconcile these views?

First, let’s consider the Luhmann view. We might ease the tension in it by naming what we’ve called “knowledge” something like “belief”, removing the implication that the belief is true. Because indeed autopoeisis is a powerful enough process that it seems like it would preserve all kinds of myths and errors should they be important to the survival of the system in which they circulate.

This picture of knowledge, which we might call evolutionary or alternately historicist, is certainly a relativist one. At the intersection of institutions within which different partial perspectives are embedded, we are bound to see political contest.

In light of this, Habermas’s categorization of knowledge as what addresses generalized human interests can be seen as a way of identifying knowledge that transcends particular social systems. There is a normative component of this theory–knowledge should be such a thing. But there is also a descriptive component. One predicts, under Habermas’s hypothesis, that the knowledge that survives political contest at the intersection of social systems is that which addresses generalized interests.

Something I have perhaps overlooked in the past is the importance of the fact that there are multiple and sometimes contradictory general interests. One persistent difficulty in the search for truth is the conflict between what is technically correct and what is hermeneutically correct.

If a statement or theory is technically correct, then it can be reliably used by agents to predict and control the world. The objects of this prediction and control can be objects, or they can be other agents.

If a statement or theory is hermeneutically correct, then it is the reliable consensus of agents involved in a project of mutual understanding and respect. Hermeneutically correct beliefs might stress universal freedom and potential, a narrative of shared history, and a normative goal of progress against inequality. Another word for ‘hermeneutic’ might be ‘political’. Politically correct knowledges are those shared beliefs without which the members of a polity would not be able to stand each other.

In everyday discourse we can identify many examples of statements that are technically correct but hermeneutically (or politically) incorrect, and vice versa. I will not enumerate them here. In these cases, the technically correct view is identified as “offensive” because in a sense it is a defection from a voluntary social contract. Hermeneutic correctness binds together a particular social system by capturing what participants must agree upon in order for all to safely participate. For a member of that social system to assert their own agency over others, to identify ways in which others may be predicted and controlled without their consent or choice in the matter, is disrespectful. Persistent disrespect results in the ejection of the offender from the polity. (c.f. Pasquale’s distinction between “California engineers and New York quants” and “citizens”.)

A cruel consequence of these dynamics is social stratification based on the accumulation of politically forbidden technical knowledge.

We can tell this story again and again: A society is bound together by hermeneutically stable knowledge–an ideology, perhaps. Somebody ‘smart’ begins experimentation and identifies a technical truth that is hermeneutically incorrect, meaning that if the idea were to spread it would erode the consensus on which the social system depends. Perhaps the new idea degrades others by revealing that something believed to be an act of free will is, in fact, determined by nature. Perhaps the new idea is inaccessible to others because it depends on some rare capacity. In any case, it cannot be willfully consented to by the others.

The social system begins to have an immune reaction. Society has seen this kind of thing before. Historically, this idea has lead to abuse, exploitation, infamy. Those with forbidden knowledge should be shunned, distrusted, perhaps punished. Those with disrespectful technical ideas are discouraged from expressing them.

Technical knowledge thereby becomes socially isolated. Seeking out its own, it becomes concentrated. Already shunned by society, the isolated technologists put their knowledge to use. They gain advantage. Revenge is had by the nerds.