Knowing as Multiplicity

A web of difference

A web of difference

How do we approach what is real with our knowledge? This is a fundamental philosophical question related to developing an axiomatic foundation for our knowledge. We may even say it is an eternal question since it was asked by the first philosophers and it is still debated today by contemporary philosophers. The question of what is real even structures entire meta-paradigms of knowing that influence our whole civilisation. In the past and throughout much of the industrial era, the movement of modernism structured knowledge, and today, in the information era, the movement of post-modernism has become the dominant meta-paradigm for our knowledge. In terms of what is real, modernism tended to approach the real under the presupposition that everything is unified like in one big globe or sphere, whereas post-modernism tends to approach the real under the presuppositions that everything is more like a loosely interconnected web of differences.

Consequently, for modernists real knowledge tended to be formed in grand narratives and totalizing theories of everything as one big universal thing. Famous examples of such grand narratives would include the Capitalist narrative of the invisible hand organising all humans towards harmony, or the Marxist narrative of world history tending towards utopian communism, or the Christian narrative of human life structured by sin and redeemed through salvation. Famous examples of totalizing theories would include the Newtonian framework of classical mechanics where the universe is understood as governed by universal physical law, or the Darwinian framework of natural selection where the universe is understood as changing due to competition for survival. All such narratives and theories neatly organised our knowledge of what was real, whether that be political (invisible hand, communism), religious (sin-salvation), physical (laws-mechanics), biological (fitness-survival).

However, post-modernism is a meta-paradigm which affirms an age of real knowledge beyond the grand narrative and the totalizing theory that would explain the whole of reality. Post-modern thinkers believe that such structures of knowledge no longer function as real in our information age world. In order to instantiate a new paradigm for real knowledge many thinkers instantiate the following precise double movement:

A) First, the deconstruction of all grand narratives and totalizing theories of reality which would presuppose universal or absolute validity, and

B) Second, the construction of narratives and theories that operate on principles of local context and internal coherence.

This movement replaces a foundation for knowledge in terms of a singular interpretive reality (like a sphere or globe) with a reality of multiple interpretations (like a web or network). For example, instead of believing that the political sphere can be organised by one over-arching framework explaining the march of history with an invisible hand or towards world communism (or some other unified project), we have to develop multiple frameworks that are dependent on the irreducibly unique problems that present themselves to different societies (which may require both or neither of these older modern theories). Here a political-economic philosophy that functions in Europe (or certain European contexts) may not function for Africa or Asia or South America (or any other different niche).

Or in another context, instead of believing that the physical world operates solely on principles of classical mechanics we identify that there are different levels or domains of physical mechanics that depend on scale (e.g. quantum), there are regimes of phenomena where physical laws break down or do not exist at all (e.g. singularities), that physical laws may change over time instead of being immutable and eternal (e.g. universal evolution), or that there may even be totally other universes which are structured by different laws and principles (e.g. multiverse).

The result of inhabiting a post-modern universe, whether that be related to the political sphere, the physical sphere, or any other sphere of knowing, is that we sacrifice global understanding for local understanding. In other words, we gain, in principle, a field of difference (like a network), but we lose, in principle, a field of unity (like a globe or sphere). There is no longer any form of knowledge which holds all observers in relationship to the same real, but rather a form of knowledge in which each observer has their own real depending on what they are doing and how they are thinking.

This epistemological openness towards a real structured as a multiplicity can be perceived as a true liberation and breakthrough (by more progressive people), or it can be perceived as a true failure and regression (by more conservative people). On the one hand progressive thinkers may perceive this transformation as opening a new era for inquiry with less constraints and presuppositions, and on the other hand conservative thinkers may perceive this transformation as signalling a lack in our own understanding of reality since we can no longer conceptualise the whole of being.

Is there a solution to this difference internal to the meta-paradigms of modernism and post-modernism? That is one of the fundamental questions we will explore throughout this blog, and our webinars. To stay in touch sign up here for free.