"Knowing Self in Power and Truth"
Linda Martín-Alcoff works in the areas of continental philosophy, epistemology, feminist theory, and race theory. From her first ground-breaking anthology, Feminist Epistemologies (Routledge, 1993), through her recent collection of autobiographical pieces by contemporary women philosophers, Singing in the Fire (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), to her upcoming book on identities (forthcoming with Oxford UP), Alcoff's work has been marked by an interest in knowledge's relation to historical/social context and subjectivity.
In her book, Real Knowing (Cornell UP, 1996), and in many articles, she argues, in opposition to many post-structuralists and pragmatists, for the preservation of a notion of truth as partly referential albeit inextricably tied to a context. Furthermore, and in connection to this, she also critiques pure proceduralism in the normative dimension, defending instead a notion of normativity that is substantive but context related, thus, not universal or absolute.
Alcoff, the daughter of a Panamanian professor of history, is conscious of her half Latina identity. And her philosophical interventions oftentimes look at the connections between one's knowledges and one's particular positions as epistemological subject. Her next book will continue in this vein, sketching out a programme in what she refers to as 'political epistemology' that explores and exploits the emancipatory potential of the dynamic, constitutive, and ever present relations between knowledge and knowing self.
I. Knowledge in the Contexts of Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, and Post-Structuralism
Marquez: You use phenomenology, hermeneutics, and post-structuralism to do critique. Can you explain how these three elements come together in your philosophical interventions?
Alcoff: I think of phenomenology and hermeneutics as approaches or orientations to philosophical problems that each help to reveal different aspects of an idea or object of analysis. Phenomenology counsels us to consider how the idea is related to lived experience, and hermeneutics instructs us to consider the effects of historical context on the interpretation and understanding of ideas. Both phenomenology and hermeneutics are necessary for philosophical analysis. For example, in regard to something like "the body," phenomenology would suggest that we check how our philosophical representation of the body is related to our lived experience of embodiment. Sometimes this might cause us to reassess the philosophical representation but at other times this might cause us to experience differently our lived embodiment. Hermeneutics, on the other hand, would suggest that we avoid assuming that what we understand today by a phrase like "the body" is what that phrase has always meant, or that how we understand it today is natural and self-explanatory. Thus, both phenomenology and hermeneutics help us to develop a critical and reflective consciousness about everyday beliefs and intuitions as well as the very formulation of philosophical problems. (For a good example of how to do this, by the way, see Jack Caputo's essay, "Heidegger's Scandal: Thinking and the Essence of the Victim," in which he uses both phenomenology and hermeneutics to critique Heidegger's formulation of the problems of philosophy). Post-structuralism is a different kind of fish. It's more of a substantive theoretical tradition (such as existentialism, for example) than it is an approach or a method. Like existentialism, it is an historical development of a collection of thinkers who sometimes disagree, but there is a family resemblance among them nonetheless. These days I find myself more often frustrated with the limited way in which post-structuralism allows philosophy to proceed than I find it useful. It's too unmoored and undirected in its critique, and I hate its strategic reductionism of everything (i.e. truth is strategic, articulations of the "good" are strategic, epistemology is strategic, and so on). Derrida's critiques of metaphysics and Lyotard's critiques of epistemology were interesting, useful, and partly right. Deleuze and Guattari's attempt to think metaphysics differently is sometimes pretty interesting (though its real fruitfulness has not yet been shown). Irigaray has done a convincing archaeological analysis of some of the hidden forces behind western philosophy. But I believe that post-structuralism has about outlived its usefulness, in my view. It is still stuck in critique, but what we need now is a new vision, and I haven't found any of the recent attempts to pull an ethics or politics out of post-structuralism at all useful or convincing, which shouldn't be surprising since that is not what it was intended to do.
Marquez: Your work reminds me of Marilyn Frye's work in The Politics of Reality. You both use a robust phenomenology that looks inside and outside the self and in between selves to do critique. How/Why did you settle on that way of doing critique?
Alcoff: That's a flattering comparison. Marilyn is a good analytic philosopher who often starts from linguistic usage to do critique and has the ability to come up with wonderfully concrete and memorable examples. I have learned from both elements of her work. It is fairly common in some parts of analytic philosophy to use concrete examples to do philosophical analyses. Often, however, those examples are made in the form of wild thought experiments (the violinist tied to one's back, the brain in a vat), or excessively simple descriptions (Descartes' wax, or Wittgenstein's bricklayers). Marilyn makes use of more real world examples of social interaction (meeting a person of ambiguous gender and not knowing how to act). I try to do that as well. The point is not to make a real event the absolute judge and jury of philosophical ideas, but to have a dialogue between the event and philosophical analysis—where each interrogates the other. In this case, her concrete examples have layers of complexity fruitful to unpack. I did not consciously settle in on any one way of critique. My philosophical training was pretty much split evenly between analytic and continental traditions, and I actually find the two work very well together. I do believe in exploring how things look from "inside" the self, as you put it, but that is never sufficient. Because what is "inside" is constitutively related to what is "outside."
Marquez: Your approach is not only phenomenological but also post-structuralist. However, in opposition to many post-structuralists, you want to preserve a notion of truth as something more than justified belief, and a normative dimension that goes beyond the notion of "this is how we do it here". Why is that so? And can you explain from your philosophical point of view how one takes that middle road between absolutism and relativism that seems to escape most post-structuralists?
Alcoff: Truth has a referential aspect to it, and it is a mistake to think that if we reject naive referentialism then we have escaped reference altogether. I disagree with those in the pragmatic tradition, such as Putnam, who argue that the concept of truth is built out of our understandings of justified beliefs, and does not go beyond this. It's easy to demonstrate that ordinary linguistic usage does not sustain such a view. Lots of times we hold out the possibility that a completely justified claim may yet not be true. What we want in seeking truth is not simply justification, but to know what is really the case. Consider the example of the sexual abuse of children. In some of these cases, there is a lack of sufficient evidence even for the victim herself to know for sure all of what happened. But the truth matters enormously. This is not to deny that that truth may have multiple layers, that it may be open to a certain variability in interpretation. But the basic facts of touching, feelings, words spoken, actions taken, have less variability and have a referentiality to events that we aim for in aiming for the truth.The middle road between absolutism and relativism allows for interpretation that is indexed to historical and cultural context, but this doesn't give us a dysfunctional relativism. Contexts, if I can put it like this, can speak to each other, can question each other, and can even be unified. Relativists like Rorty think that cultures are like linguistic prisons with no escape; he's apparently never met a person fluent in more than one language.
Marquez: Your relationship to Foucault is strong and deep but not devoid of conflict. Can you briefly explain what you consider to be the richness and the limitations of Foucault's (rather than "a Foucaultian") perspective?
Alcoff: Foucault is enormously important to me. Foucault provided a critical analysis of European modernity almost as useful as Marx's critical analysis of European capitalism. His account of discipline helps us to see modernity's "freedoms" very differently; his critique of the pathologization of the modern subject helps us gain some distance from the hegemonic psychological discourse of our own time; and his account of the interweavings of power and knowledge points the way forward to reviving and resuscitating an impotent epistemology. That said, I also find Foucault very problematic; he was androcentric and Eurocentric and shamefully unconcerned about the particular forms of violence suffered by women and children. And I am worried about the way in which Foucault's work has been taken up in feminist theory and LGBT studies to justify the repudiation of identity politics and identity based political movements. But you want me to stick to Foucault himself, and not the Foucaultian institution. I have found Foucault particularly useful for my own philosophical work because he combines two of my main interests: the analysis of subjectivity, and the analysis of knowledge, and he approaches both with an effective historical consciousness (to import Gadamer's phrase) of the political context within which both develop. Lyotard and Habermas are the other two principal continental philosophers who do epistemology, but Lyotard's account is too one-dimensional and focused on the challenges to knowing, and Habermas's early wonderful work has been left behind in an increasingly untenable pure procedural model. Foucault has many problems as well—he does not pay enough attention to reference especially—but as I said before, he gives us a good place to begin by announcing the equal importance of the power and the knowledge aspects, without reducing power to mere strategy or opportunism. I think Foucault gives us an invaluable starting point for reconfiguring the problematic of epistemology, but it is only a starting point.
Marquez: Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and Alasdair MacIntyre all have tried in their different ways to reformulate an Aristotelian naturalized perspective in order to avoid the very same problem of relativism that you seek to avoid. How does your own immanent perspective differ from their Aristotlelian naturalized points of view?
Alcoff: I am less familiar with Sen's than with Nussbaum's or MacIntyre's accounts, but my sense of all three is that they try to develop a minimal common denominator in order to provide a means for cross-cultural critique, so that we can have a yardstick to judge various practices by. And they do have a naturalized approach to what that common denominator is. My problem is not so much with their naturalized approach but with the ahistorical and decontextualized way of finding and presenting the natural. In other words, Sen and Nussbaum take Aristotle to be in a sense timeless and culturally universal. In contrast, I think the applicability of Aristotle should be on the table, not set aside as the grounds for being able to be at the table in the first place.This might seem to put me in the camp of the proceduralists, but your question assumes (rightly) that what I do share with the group of three you mentioned is their critique of pure proceduralism. I don't think such a beast exists, and that we are always putting forward substantive values in setting out procedures. Those values need to be open to critical reflection, and historical and cultural self-awareness (which calling them universal absolutes tends to foreclose). Sen seems to me to be closer to proceduralism than Nussbaum because he doesn't give a list of the actual human capabilities' attributes as she has done. I agree with much of Eva Kittay's critique of Nussbaum's list and listmaking. The issue of cognitive disability is a good case, as Kittay points out. Nussbaum uses our historical and cultural moment's understanding to suggest that people with severe cognitive impairment cannot exercise human capabilities, but this is just the kind of claim we need to be careful to remain open about as we are able to learn more from the cognitively disabled themselves (I'm thinking about the astounding changes in the way we think of autism now that some persons with severe autism have been able to write down their thoughts—on this see Doug Biklen's amazing work).So we need a substantive universalism that will not close the door to its own cultural and historical locatedness. Two good examples of this are Satya Mohanty's discussion of moral objectivism and Edward Said's work at the end of his life on humanism. Mohanty suggests that at this historical stage we really have no idea whether there are moral universals because, given the pattern of colonialism, we have never truly tried to find out through real dialogues across difference. So he suggests we start the process. I think he is right to make this at least partly an empirical question. Said suggests that humanism involves the capacity of self-critique and that that critique must involve a consciousness about power as well as history and culture. This approach seems to me to be smarter than the capabilities approach alone, which can devolve into dogmatism. Humanism can be universally applied, but this means simply that critical and reflexive dialogues are universally applied. Relativism is not entailed from recognizing something's cultural embeddedness. One must be honest about one's own embeddedness and be open to learning something new. The anthropologist Renato Rosaldo is very good on showing why cultural relativism (which he supports) in no way entails ethical relativism (which he rejects). There may be some versions of cultural relativism that do entail ethical relativism, but this is not the kind that Rosaldo, Said or many others including myself would support. In fact, the whole point of developing a critical self-awareness of one's own positionality is to aim toward greater truth and understanding, not to stop the process of critique by claiming a relativism born of the particularity of one's intellectual foundations. The more one comes to understand that particularity (i.e. one's embeddedness), the more expansive and reliable one's judgements can become.
Marquez: Your immanent approach uses concrete, particular data, and descriptions of instances of daily life to develop philosophical positions. In this regard, it is very empirically informed. However, you do not use much data coming from the natural and social (a.k.a., human sciences). Are there reasons beyond sheer contingency why you do not use contemporary scientific knowledge in your work?
Alcoff: I'm not a philosopher of science and so I don't trust myself to say original things about the natural sciences. I wanted at one time to go into philosophy of science—I wrote an M.A. thesis on Kuhn, and I had originally been a physics major in college—but good work in philosophy of science really requires one to have a high level of knowledge in at least one field. I have heard physicists and other scientists make fun of the work by some of our leading philosophers of science who seem to many of us to be really well-informed! But I do read widely in the social sciences and try to use that to inform my work. Probably over half of the bibliographical entries in the book on identity I am finishing up now come from the social sciences. In working in women's studies and in critical race theory in particular, our work has to be informed by the empirical work on social movements, history, and so on. In fact, one of the main ways I criticize the critics of identity politics is their amazing inattention to any real empirical studies of identity politics in action, of which there are now quite a few and some very good ones. Instead, the critics will share personal anecdotes or simply move to idealized representations. But when we are trying to think about something like social identities, it is not enough to do conceptual analysis without relating concepts to real practices.
Marquez: What is your take on the notion of human nature? Do you think that there are universals (temporal or atemporal) that apply to our species and that philosophers should take into account as data or horizon in their analyses?
Alcoff: My answer to the previous question on neo-Aristotelian approaches relates to this. If there is such a thing as human nature, I believe like Marx that it is historical and dynamic. Thus it cannot play the absolute yardstick role that it has in much European modernist philosophy. It's such an ideologically laden concept that it seems to be more dangerous than it is useful.
II. Identity, Knowledge, Politics
Marquez: Can you talk about your Panamanian background?
Alcoff: I was born in Gorgas Hospital, in Ancon, Panama. My father, Miguel Angel Martín, was from a very interesting and kind of well known family in Panama City. His father had owned a pawn shop in Balboa, and his brother and sisters (my aunts and my uncle) all were teachers at the main high school in the city. They were middle class but far from wealthy, and the neighborhood where my father grew up looks like a very poor neighborhood by U.S. standards. Family legend has it my aunt Ida demanded that the President of Panama give the family a loan so they could finally purchase a home, and he did it. She was quite a beauty, with a strong personality. My father had apparently been something of a troublemaker as a teenager, so the family did what is often done in such cases, which is to send him to live with friends somewhere far away. In this case it was Florida, where he finished high school and then went to Florida State University. There he met my mother, a white Floridian from a poor family who had made it to college on a scholarship. They married immediately after she finished her B.A. My parents had my sister Vicki in Florida, but my father was having trouble finding work. With both a B.A. and an M.A. from FSU, he was only able to get a job driving an ice cream truck. So they moved to Panama, which was back to Panama in my father's case. And there I was born. My mother worked as a secretary at the U.S. base there known as the Southern Command—the seat of operations for all U.S. military activity in Latin America. She was the secretary to a General (she had majored in business, but in those days that was the equivalent to secretarial school for women). My father did not work that I know of. They had a difficult relationship and she felt very alone. So when I was still a baby, my mother decided to leave him and return to Florida. I thus grew up in Florida with her and my older sister. My father has now passed away. He eventually got his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and became a Professor of History at the University of Panama, where he taught his whole career except during a period of the Torrijos dictatorship in which he lost his job for almost ten years. Besides my older sister, I have two younger sisters, Leslie and Aleika, and a younger brother, Rafael (we all have different mothers). When the Twin Towers fell on 9-11, my husband and I spent the day on the couch watching CNN and trying to get through to his family in New York (it turned out they were all ok, but traumatized). I had not felt so close to war since 1989, when I spent another day on the couch watching CNN and trying to get through to my family in Panama the day after the U.S. invaded. When I finally did get through on that day, I spoke to my brother who was crouching under his dining room table watching U.S. planes hitting targets in his neighborhood. I remember a colleague in Syracuse saying to me later that week that I must have felt so glad to be in the U.S.—but I didn't at all. It felt like being behind enemy lines. The demand that has become more insistent since 9-11 that Latinos here in the U.S. should assimilate and be loyal is so clueless about the conflicting feelings we so often have about living in the north. How can one be loyal to a country that oppresses our families?
Marquez: Speaking of conflicting feelings, there appears to be at least two big ideas about what America is: (1) "White America" (in this case borrowing the term from Eminem) and (2) the "America" of Walt Whitman's Democratic Vistas. The two Americas can be simplistically contrasted saying that one is antiliberal and the other one is liberal in J. S. Mill 's sense of the term. We could say that the first one is not much different from any other so-called closed, traditional society. While the second one is conceived by some as the first true open society (a la Popper) that self-consciously engages in collective "experiments in living" (like Mill puts it) and that allows for individuals to do likewise. To me, the United States' present external War on Terrorism is a reflection of an internal war between two camps adhering to these opposing visions of America—camps that unfortunately seem to be evenly divided and thus deadlocked.
At least from our particular historical standpoint, an experimentalist, fallibilist epistemology, a democratic politics, and an open society seem to be mutually implicated in a constellation plotting the basic reference points for a form of life that would be congenial with the vague vision of America (2). And perhaps Latinos in the U.S. can be seen as representative of a kind of epistemological subject who on average can feel the division between these two Americas more intensely than the average monocultural white American.
Do you see epistemological subjects as being differently useful/capable to perform certain epistemological tasks? And if so, do you perceive this to be presently the case with regards to Latinos at this particular historical point in the U.S.? I am not suggesting that Latinos will save the world, but only that perhaps different experiences of being-in-the-world embody different epistemological ways that enable and nourish different political and social forms of life. And that Latinos' hybrid, mestizo, syncretic nature has on average an advantage when it comes to promoting the form of life of America (2) at the dawn of the 21st century.
Alcoff: I believe identities matter epistemologically, and their political salience is actually derivative on their epistemic salience. Identities do not determine one's political judgement or orientation (Latinos are politically all over the map), but they are rough and ready ways to categorize experiences, and from experiences we develop perceptual practices, what Gibson called affordances and Merleau-Ponty called habits of perception. That is, we are attuned to different elements in any given event or object. For Latinos, speaking very broadly, immigration issues, and having a dual citizenship of the heart, if not of the passport, are never far from the surface of our perspective on what happens in the United States. Also there is tremendous poverty and discrimination, which convey an emotional valence to our responses to political leaders who promise to help the underclass.
So, yes, I do think Latinos will make a positive difference. Perhaps the most significant potential we have to offer is the idea of an open-endedness to what it means to be "American." Because "America" encompasses a lot of territory, two continents, a plethora of nations, and several languages and cultures. Latinos are less likely than any other minority group to shed completely their old identities. Our nationalities are closer in geographical location to the U.S. than any other grouping save Native Americans. There is an inordinate amount of movement of bodies and monies between the U.S. and "home."
Chauvinists like Samuel Huntington can only see this as a threat. He seems to believe as Woodrow Wilson said that "Any man who carries a hyphen about him has a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the republic." They can't imagine a patriotism that extends beyond a single nation, a love that crosses borders. Their humanism is at best a colonial humanism, but what we hearken after is a decolonized humanism.
The idea that cultural identity cannot be transcended and that identities matter is less threatening if we think beyond mono-cultural terms and embrace and acknowledge the reality of multi-cultural identities. Monocultural identity politics can become fundamentalist, but multicultural identity politics is expansive, internally heterogeneous, and thus not at all antithetical to open and critical debate. This is what Mignolo and others mean by calling for a pluritopic hermeneutics, an account of multicultural horizons of intelligibility and meaning. I think that the late great Gloria Anzaldua's book Borderlands was taken up so widely precisely because it manifested a reflective pluritopic hermeneutics: a reflective engagement with her own heterogeneous identity without falsely smoothing over the conflicts but without a hopeless or fatalistic attitude about being multiple (as one got with the image of the "tragic mulatto" a generation ago).
The treatment of Barack Obama who is just now emerging onto the national political scene is interesting to watch as the pundits grapple with his complex identity. There are two salutary lessons that Latinos should learn from the treatment of Obama: first, that we are not the only ones with complex identities, and we need to recognize this and make alliances with others, and second, that even multiple identities can get co-opted by the power structure and used for the purpose of maintaining the status quo.
So there is definite positive potential in Latino experience for refashioning the imagery and self-understanding of the United States. But that potential is only a potential: we need leaders who will make coalition with others, as well as intellectuals who will formulate the full political fruits of the potential that exists.
Marquez: Can you tell me something about your current work on identity, in particular, as it relates to the construction of Latina identity/identities in contemporary U.S.?
Alcoff: I am finishing up a book on identity, race, gender and the self right now (perhaps it will be in press when this interview comes out—it will come out with Oxford UP). I have three chapters in the book that address Latino issues: the question of Latino identity in relation to racial categories, the relationship between Latino identity and the black/white paradigm of racial politics so dominant in the U.S., and the implications of mixed race and mestizo identity. The book as a whole is an extended look at social identities—race and gender in particular—and the way in which identity has become suspect in both political and philosophical discussions. For at least fifteen years now, identity politics has been criticized as reifying, constraining, irrational, and politically retrograde, and this critique has flowed from a certain characterization of what identities are. I am taking on the critiques both of identity and of identity politics in this book, and developing an account of what identities really are (as against their caricatured portrayal by critics). My account is a broadly realist one, so I develop a realist account of race and of gender identity. Then at the end I discuss the idea of a decolonized humanism.
Marquez: What do you see yourself pursuing next in philosophy?
Alcoff: I already have the next book half done, but at my rate of writing that only means I may finish it in five rather than ten years! But this book will be going back to epistemology, to chart and analyze the development of a political epistemology that would do to, and for, epistemology what Marxian political economy did to, and for, the study of economics. I want to lay out what a research programme of political epistemology would look like, and address its most serious challenges, which involve the question of truth and of reference in my view. And I try to bring into being a canon of work that already exists within this rubric, and then analyze the contributions of this work, from Horkheimer and Adorno, to Habermas, Foucault, feminist epistemologists, especially Helen Longino, and some of the new work relating post-colonial theory to epistemological questions such as Mignolo pursues.
Marquez: Thank you very much for your time.