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Postfoundationalism for Life

in the latest issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly, there’s a fine article by James Smithies entitled “Digital Humanities, Postfoundationalism, and Postindustrial Culture.”

One could easily guess what “postfoundationalism” might be, but if, unsure of yourself, you happened over to Wikipedia, you would have found this illuminating entry:

Postfoundationalism is a theory of epistemology denoting a rejection of an assumed or given authority for a specific action or belief, but arguing, in dialectical fashion, for a rationale for action or belief.

How shall we restate this proposition? Postfoundationalism is about arguing for rationales while admitting that rationales are fundamentally baseless. Postfoundationalism assigns authority to actors engaged in dialectic while denying those actors any . . . authority.

But actually, that definition doesn’t seem to me that much more fraught than the one Smithies quotes in the article (from Paul Healy’s “Rationality, Dialogue and, and Critical Inquiry: Toward a Viable Postfoundationalist Stance.”):

a robust context-transcendent truth standard which, in virtue of preserving the ‘aporetic tension’ inherent in the distinction between what is true and what we hold to be true, suffices to ensure that proffered knowledge claims are held open to critical scrutiny in an indefinitely extended array of situated forums.

“Context-transcendent,” but “situated.” An “aporetic tension” with “an inherent distinction” that provides a “truth standard.” It better be robust!

It helps to know that “postfoundationalism” is a term of great moment in academic theology (Smithies acknowledges this in a footnote). Over there, it pertains to the very difficult matter of how to continue discussing God (a foundation if ever there was one) while still being a respectable modern philosopher. It’s hard work. Thomas was a foundationalist, and so was Luther. Calvin certainly was. Even those on the apophatic side of things (John of the Cross, Maximus the Confessor) were foundationalists. From an ethical standpoint, they were divine command theorists and natural lawyers. They were notionally monarchists of one sort of another, but really they were Christians awaiting the coming Kingdom. If it was time to move beyond foundationalism, they certainly hadn’t got the memo.

Of course, nothing about postmodernity prevents one from studying Calvin or Thomas. Or anything, really. The problem is being a Calvinist. Arguing for Thomism. Inhabiting these systems honestly enough to put their propositions against those of another. How does one do that knowing that no “system” can be said to rest on any “assumed or given authority.” Well, we just have to be “post” about it. But how, in the end, is this any different from being a “pretend” Calvinist, a crypto-Lutheran, or espousing a Thomism arguendo?

It should be obvious by now that I don’t find “postfoundationalism,” by itself, a sufficiently robust epistemology for tackling problems like these – not because I reject the premise about given authorities, but because adding “post-“ onto the beginning of a word like “foundationalism” might mean nothing more than “back to work!” or “let’s get on with it!” Rorty might have approved of that suggestion, as would Wittgenstein. But they both might have added that we don’t necessarily need an epistemology to tell us that.

At this point, I should really defer to Smithies’s article, because I think he provides a much more robust account of how one can “get on with it” while still doing so in a critical, theoretically-informed way. That he chooses to call it “postfoundationalism” certainly doesn’t detract from his account, and there is certainly precedent for using the term the way he does.

Back when I was actively doing text analysis, I disagreed with everyone around me about what I might loosely call the “meta-ethics” of what we were doing. I accused many people of scientism, argued strenuously for avowedly anti-foundationalist views of text analysis as a practice, and generally tried to show that most “results” in text analysis were really just other forms of narrative without special claim to truth value. I wrote a book on all of that if you’re interested.

But when it came to actually doing text analysis – writing code, designing algorithms, testing results – I was a Calvinist. I’d still argue with my peers, but more often than not, one of us was wrong. That sample size is off. That numerator is wrong. That lda implementation is slow. Period. (Or rather, Semicolon). I’ve given talks about how data always comes to us already narrativized. But at some point I’d stop doing that and run the numbers.

One aspect of our present dilemma in dh, it seems to me, is whether all of this amounts to false consciousness or merely failure to develop the proper form of dual consciousness. If the former, then we are rightly doomed (perhaps I should have said “damned”). If the latter, then it falls to us to discover the precise relationship between “getting on with it” and thinking critically about that same activity. Such discussions have been going on for a lot longer than critics of digital methods care to admit, but that doesn’t mean that the problems are any less difficult or any less in need of clarification.

More and more, though, I am drawn to the notion that this is really an ethical problem in disguise – a matter not of providing philosophical justification for how we might have our cake and eat it too, but of discerning what it means or should mean to be a professor, a scholar, a student, or a technologist (or a humanist, or a human). Whether the various normative theories in philosophical ethics can provide any greater comfort is another matter, I suppose, but I see no “ought” arising from the “is” of postfoundationalism or its cognates, and I see the general discourse around dh becoming mainly a debate about whether it is a good or an evil thing to do.

Perhaps we should ask the theologians? Alas . . .

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