[Paleopsych] Hedgehog Review: Linda Martín Alcoff: Reclaiming Truth Talk: Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary

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Linda Martín Alcoff: Reclaiming Truth Talk: Between the Absolute and the 

          Linda Martín Alcoff is Professor of Philosophy, Political
    Science, and Women's Studies at Syracuse University. Her books include
    Feminist Epistemologies, co-edited with Elizabeth Potter; Real
    Knowing: New Versions of the Coherence Theory of Knowledge;
    Epistemology: The Big Questions; and Thinking From the Underside of
    History, co-edited with Eduardo Mendieta. Visible Identities: Race,
    Gender and the Self is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

          Catherine Elgin has usefully diagnosed a "bipolar disorder" that
    continues to incapacitate philosophy and much of contemporary social
    theory. Its unwitting sufferers oscillate between equally unhappy
    alternatives: the absolute and the arbitrary.

          Following Elgin, I will define the absolute position as one
    committed to the belief in determinate or absolute truths, as opposed
    to relative or pluralist ones, and committed to the possibility of
    discerning truth in a way that is agent-neutral, or better,
    agent-transcendent--that is, not dependent on the position or
    perspective of the person discerning it. Both those espousing
    absolutism and those espousing arbitrariness share this
    conceptualization of truth as absolute, but differ in whether or not
    they are fatalistic or optimistic in regard to its attainability.
    Those at the absolute end of the spectrum believe that absolute truth
    is attainable, while those at the arbitrary end of the spectrum
    believe it is unattainable.

          Many who want to cure philosophy and contemporary social theory
    of this pathology and transcend the dualism of the absolute and the
    arbitrary argue that we need to leave behind truth talk altogether.
    [4]^2 They say that it unnecessarily creates absolutist requirements
    and makes everything non-absolute look like it can have nothing to do
    with truth and must therefore be arbitrary. Many who take this line of
    argument see themselves as following in the pragmatist tradition. I
    will argue in this paper that the attempt to transcend the bipolar
    disorder of the absolute and the arbitrary is not served well by
    dispensing with truth talk. By truth talk I mean here not simply the
    use of the word "true" but the idea that truth is substantive, that it
    is not collapsible to or a mere extrapolation from procedures and
    concepts of justification. In short, truth talk brings in the world.

          This is a large conversation with many participants. To make my
    project manageable, I will look at just two of those involved in this
    discussion: Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam, who are today surely the
    main competitors for the title of head pragmatist. Both Rorty and
    Putnam repudiate absolutism. Thus both have adopted some of the main
    premises on which the repudiation of truth relies, but they have come
    to different conclusions about the viability of truth and
    representation. To compare their positions, I will take up a specific
    example of a recent feminist argument in the discipline of history, in
    order to consider just how plausible, or relevant, the arguments for
    and against truth talk appear in relation to this example. The example
    comes from Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse's excellent, recent
    study of personal life and the emergence of the English middle class
    in The Imaginary Puritan: Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the
    Origins of Personal Life.

          Philosophers too often pick relatively easy cases, such as
    simple perception or claims in the natural sciences that have a lot of
    empirical evidence and appear neutral, such as the existence of atoms
    or electrons. The question of truth is much more difficult in complex,
    multi-variable, explanatory accounts or theories in the social
    sciences. In cases where empirical evidence is at least a part of the
    argument, but the grounds for justification are highly interpretive,
    can we ever claim truth? Even if we think we can't, it is not so easy
    to dispense with this arena of inquiry as inappropriate to truth talk,
    since it spans received knowledge from evolutionary biology to
    Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Moreover, there is much at stake in
    these debates in the social sciences, much more than in how to
    characterize electrons ontologically.

          I chose the particular example I will discuss for two main
    reasons. First, it is explicitly feminist and thus useful because some
    will be suspicious about its truth status just on those grounds: how
    can a claim be both objective and politically motivated? Yet every
    large claim in the social sciences necessarily begins with some
    assumptions, and the choice of assumptions almost always reflects some
    broad political values. It has become especially clear in the domain
    of historical narrative that political values inform the choice of
    narrative, as between, for example, a story of "discovery," an
    "encounter," or an "invasion." Nor can we simply add such various
    accounts together to achieve the truth; they often directly conflict.
    Thus, arguably, feminist arguments simply make explicit what is there
    all the time.

          My second reason for choosing this particular example is that
    the feminist historians I will discuss are on the side of dispensing
    with truth talk. Inspired by deconstruction, Armstrong and Tennenhouse
    refuse to describe their claims as more truthful or likely to be true
    than other claims about the actual historical past. They approve of
    Foucault's approach, whose "histories no more presume to say what
    things, people, words, thoughts, or feelings are now than they do to
    say what these things used to be" and therefore want simply "to
    demonstrate how they were written into existence in one way rather
    than some other." [5]^3 In other words, the truth claims made by
    historians can be only about representations, without shedding any
    reliable light on the actual content of what is being represented.
    [6]^4 Thus, their retreat from truth is motivated precisely by the
    view that in the absence of the absolute, truth claims about the
    actual historical past have to be let go in toto. [7]^5 Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse unnecessarily belittle their argument, I will argue, by
    retreating from truth talk; they are in fact arguing over the
    historical truth.

          Let me turn now to what will have to be a brief and truncated
    rendition of the example. In a series of powerful critiques, Armstrong
    and Tennenhouse have analyzed two apparently contradictory historical
    accounts of the formation of the family in seventeenth-and
    eighteenth-century Britain. Though the two accounts under analysis
    offer different histories of the family, they both privilege a
    normative rendition of the nuclear family with a fairly traditional
    gendered division of labor, one in which children "need their mothers"
    and "obey their fathers." Both assume that such families are both
    natural and good because "a small number of individuals who are
    together for a long time without outside interference tend to care for
    one another as for themselves." [8]^6 In other words, both of these
    accounts take the affective ties that emerge from that sort of family
    as "exempt from history," [9]^7 that is, the way things naturally are.

          The first account that Armstrong and Tennenhouse analyze is
    Peter Laslett's highly influential history of the British family in
    his The World We Have Lost (which began in the 1950s as radio
    broadcasts, was published as a book in 1965, and went on to become
    "one of the most frequently cited books written on the topic"). [10]^8
    According to Laslett, "Time was...when the whole of life went forward
    in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled
    objects, all to human size. That time has gone forever." [11]^9
    Laslett's thesis is that in the pre-industrial family of early modern
    England, in which work and family were combined in one unit and one
    location, there were fewer people interacting regularly together, they
    spent more time together, and as a result "enjoyed a closer emotional
    bonding than was the case during the modern period." [12]^10 Moreover,
    "Englishmen...felt they were parts integrated into an organic whole,"
    [13]^11 with the result that neither modern alienation nor class
    antagonism existed. Armstrong and Tennenhouse explain:

      By an almost invisible logic of internalization, [Laslett] reasons
      that even "the head of the poorest family was at least the head of
      something." That each of them was on top of some little heap of
      humanity apparently made it possible for heads of households to
      identify with people higher up on the social scale in a way that
      became impossible once the workplace was detached from the home.

          Laslett goes so far as to characterize pre-modern England as a
    "one-class society." [15]^13 One of the most important implications of
    his claim, and what came under much debate later, is that the
    political upheavals in England of the 1640s and `50s had no impact on
    the basic way most people lived or understood themselves; only the
    destruction of the nuclear family through industrialization could
    bring significant change, and the changes it brought about for
    people's emotional and personal life were, for Laslett, all to the

          Armstrong and Tennenhouse also look at Lawrence Stone's equally
    influential history of personal life in his book The Family, Sex and
    Marriage, 1500-1800, which argues, against Laslett, that family ties
    that were volitional rather than founded as economic units made for a
    much happier life. Stone also argues that privacy and size made an
    enormous difference in the capacity to develop happy relationships,
    and it was only after the "Open Lineage Family"--Laslett's ideal
    type--was replaced by the "Closed Domesticated Nuclear
    Family"--Stone's ideal type--that the household became the site of
    personal happiness. In regard to the Open Lineage Family, prevalent in
    the sixteenth century, Stone bemoans the fact that "[r]elations within
    the nuclear family, between husband and wife and parents and children,
    were not much closer than those with neighbors, with relatives, or
    with `friends.'" [16]^14 The Closed Domesticated Nuclear Family, by
    contrast, was the product of what he calls "Affective Individualism,"
    in which the privacy surrounding the family somehow constituted
    privacy for individuals within the family, wherein each could develop
    personal autonomy.

          Stone also takes issue with Laslett's preferred family because
    of its treatment of children. In the early modern period, the use of
    wet nurses and the widespread tendency to hire children out ("about
    two out of every three boys and three out of every four girls were
    living away from home" from just before puberty until their marriage)
    made it virtually impossible to have a "single mothering and nurturing
    figure." [17]^15 Stone sees this as the "denial" of maternal
    affection, and he uses this fact to explain both the passionate
    religious enthusiasms of the period, as well as its high degree of
    casual violence and antagonism, on the grounds that the natural
    emotion rightfully found in mother-child relations had to be deflected
    into other channels. [18]^16

          Where Laslett paints a regressivist story in which we have lost
    a world of happiness and equality, Stone offers a progressivist
    history in which the chances for personal happiness have been
    enhanced. They differ in the value they confer on privacy and in the
    optimism or suspicion by which they regard families based on economic
    relationships. But Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue that, despite these
    important differences, both Laslett and Stone make naturalistic
    assumptions about the impact of family structure on affective life and
    privilege traditional gender roles within the family, including
    especially the role of the mother as almost the exclusive nurturing
    figure. [19]^17 Thus, Armstrong and Tennenhouse charge Laslett and
    Stone with romanticizing and revering the traditional family and
    neglecting to acknowledge the ways in which their own beliefs and
    preferences about personal life have shaped their analysis. This
    cultural terrain, that is, the family, is, as Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse point out, "as close as one comes to sacred ground in a
    modern secular culture." [20]^18

          Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue first and foremost that there
    is, to put it mildly, questionable evidence for Laslett's and Stone's
    various claims about the affective history of the family. They make
    some of the very traditional empirical charges that historians use to
    challenge each other's accounts--that their claims are based on
    generalizations from evidence that is insufficient, too limited in its
    scope, and too amenable to contrary interpretations. But the most
    interesting aspect of their critique for our purposes is that they
    charge Laslett and Stone with using history to offer support for
    contemporary ideological convictions espoused in present-day pop
    psychology, as well as embedded deeply into our collective common
    sense. They argue that historians cannot use their own emotional
    proclivities or current beliefs and practices in regard to personal
    life as any kind of ground to theorize the affective lives of people
    long since dead. They argue, in other words, that interior life itself
    needs to be historicized.

          I take it that what it would mean to historicize interior
    affective life is not just that one recognize that personal life has
    undergone changes and chart those changes--both Laslett and Stone do
    that--but that one recognize the possibility that our needs and wants,
    the conditions necessary for our personal happiness, and the texture
    of our emotional bonds, can change over time. And they change not just
    in the sense of shrinking and atrophying or developing and
    flourishing--which would presume a single, unified process and
    character to human life--but actually change in content and causal
    effect. If this is right, one might well be led to think that
    truth-claims about the historical interpretation of affect are simply

          While reading through their book, however, one cannot help but
    develop the firm conviction that Armstrong and Tennenhouse are also
    working with assumptions, and that these assumptions play a critical
    role in their ability to perceive the weaknesses in Laslett's and
    Stone's accounts. In other words, all of their criticisms cannot be
    put in the form of a Pyrrhonic skeptical question which takes an
    agnostic position equally to all claims. Some of their assumptions
    they make explicit, others they don't (and I think their argument
    would be more persuasive if they did). But the obvious question arises
    as to whether their arguments are any more legitimate than those they
    critique. If all historians must work with some assumptions when they
    try to make sense out of the din of history, and if at least some of
    these assumptions cannot be proven by uncontroversial empirical
    methods, then perhaps the deconstructionists are right and we need to
    read history exactly as we read literature. Let me explain why I do
    not think that we have to end up there.

          There are at least three assumptions made by Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse that we can gather just from their critique of Laslett and
    Stone. The first is that the traditional gendered division of labor in
    the family is not a manifestation of human nature. This is suggested
    in part by their demand that interior life be historicized, which of
    course assumes that interior life can be historicized. This is not a
    claim grounded in the actual existence of sufficient evidence, but a
    metaphysical claim about the flexibility of the human self, about the
    changing nature of interior life. Even if it is entered here just as a
    hypothesis that warrants investigation, it is a truth claim, or a
    claim that the hypothesis might well be true.

          Other assumptions have weaker relations to their argument, but
    still seem to play a guiding role in the path they take through this
    material. For example, one might reasonably suppose that Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse want to work with the assumption that women can have the
    same general wants and needs as men. This assumption would cast doubt
    on the claim that a patriarchal form of the family, in which the roles
    and power of father and mother are neither equal nor reciprocal, would
    be an optimal form of the family from the point of view of personal
    happiness. Laslett relates without comment that in the days of yore,
    England was an association between the male heads of wealthy families,
    and that the father ruled the family in more than name only. He does
    not consider this prima facie evidence for the possibility that the
    women in these families experienced unhappiness; Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse clearly do.

          A third assumption that Armstrong and Tennenhouse make is that
    the closed, domesticated, biologically related form of the family that
    Stone prefers is not necessarily the best form of family in terms of
    its effects on society. Stone argues that there are a number of social
    and political advantages to such a family, in creating the possibility
    of individual autonomy that will then find its way into
    anti-authoritarian political movements, for example. Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse remark that, in criticizing what he balefully calls the
    exchange of children, Stone "apparently cannot imagine...that the
    presence of other children in the family might have extended the sense
    of closeness to a community beyond the biological family." [21]^19
    This is a possibility Armstrong and Tennenhouse clearly see as a
    potential social good. This is a truth claim.

          Some of these assumptions even look dangerously close to being
    generalizations, such as the assumption that women have the same basic
    wants and needs as men. Given their demand for the historicizing of
    everything, surely Armstrong and Tennenhouse cannot countenance a
    cross-historical generalization of this sort. But here it should be
    noted that the demand that we historicize everything does not entail
    that we will then find that absolutely everything changes; it is
    simply a demand that we not assume on the basis of current sentiment
    what can and cannot change. We should, in other words, hold nothing
    back from the cultural historians' examination. [22]^20

          All of these historians, Armstrong and Tennenhouse no less than
    Laslett and Stone, are working with assumptions and even a political
    orientation. But not all assumptions have the same kind of epistemic
    impact. Thus, we can agree that all knowledge is mediated, without
    having then to agree that any given mediating influence is equal in
    its epistemic content to any other. One of the ways assumptions can
    operate in the production of historical narrative is to make some
    things appear and others disappear. Because Laslett privileges
    patriarchy, the particular points of view women may have had on the
    families he idealizes don't come into view, at least not fully or with
    prominence. In fact, he doesn't even mention them, nor is gender
    thematized in The World We Lost. Stone takes as a given that a
    central, nurturing, maternal figure--not paternal--is necessary for
    children's well-being. This assumption operates to preempt asking
    certain kinds of questions, from which other possibilities might have
    come into view. Armstrong and Tennenhouse clearly have women in mind
    when they offer some of their critical analyses about the way in which
    Laslett and Stone have naturalized a traditional gendered division of
    labor in the family.

          I am not making an argument for a prima facie privileging of any
    and all feminist assumptions, for one thing because feminists often
    disagree but also because feminists can simply be wrong. One such
    controversy relevant here is precisely over the sort of individualism
    that Stone champions. One might well think, at first blush, that
    individualism is in the interest of women, but many have rejected this
    claim. The individualist ideology of freedom and happiness assumes
    that all associations must be volitional for there to be just or happy
    relationships, which is a model of intersubjective relations based on
    public associations in voluntary organizations. Families are not like
    that; in fact, neither are communities. We are born into relations
    with specific others; we give birth to others and thus bear a
    necessary emotional relationship to them.

          These are never volitional--we may choose to become a parent but
    we cannot in general choose to whom we will become a parent.
    Traditional liberal individualist notions of human relationships have
    been unable effectively to evaluate and analyze such non-volitional
    relationships; thus they have tended to ignore them, following the
    Hegelian dogma that family relations belong to the sphere of nature,
    not the sphere of culture. That kind of claim is definitely not in the
    interest of women, since it exempts familial relationships from
    political critique and suggestions for change, but feminist ethicists
    also have argued persuasively that the kinds of non-volitional
    relationships born out of families and communities can enhance
    autonomy, and can also be subject to political and moral judgement.
    Early feminist theorists who made these very individualist
    assumptions--valorizing volitional relationships over non-volitional
    ones in all cases, for example--have been critiqued, quite
    persuasively. [23]^21

          Thus I am not championing feminist assumptions in all cases. But
    at the very least, the assumption that women matter, that they may
    have an independent point of view on things, that they may have the
    same wants and needs as men, and that their optimal life situation is
    probably not to be found in a condition of life-long subordination,
    are assumptions proven useful in illuminating new aspects of the
    historical record unseen before the recent period. To argue for an
    epistemic equality between these assumptions and blatantly patriarchal
    ones--such that we can forego listening to what women say because they
    don't know their own needs, for example--is surely ludicrous.

          But what about truth? Armstrong and Tennenhouse retreat from
    truth. Although they make truth claims throughout the book, when asked
    about the implicit truth claims in their arguments, Armstrong
    vigorously denies the referential character of her claims. [24]^22 The
    book's arguments, she claims, are not about the world. She is just
    offering us a narrative to be judged by its effects in the present on
    discourses and practices. She will not claim anything approaching
    truth about the past. She is, in effect, a Rortyan.

          But a narrative can be true or false, and narratives tell a
    story about the world. Even fictional narratives offer true accounts
    about things indirectly: true ways in which human beings can respond
    to each other, be affected by a given experience, fall into trouble,
    or pull themselves out of trouble. Although we may compare narratives
    by what they each allow us to see or appreciate anew, and we may grant
    that multiple and even conflicting narratives can be informative about
    a given event, the value of a narrative generally rests on the quality
    and depth of its relation to the world. In this sense, a narrative is
    very different from a conversation, which does not require a relation
    to the world for it to be good or meaningful; conversations can
    resemble lovemaking, play, or chess matches (and philosophy
    conversations often resemble the last), with or without a relation to
    the world.

          Rorty has argued that truth talk merely gets in the way of
    conversation, posing a requirement that is as unnecessary to
    conversation as it is likely to lead the conversation off to a dead
    end. And Rorty, of course, portrays himself as carrying on the
    pragmatist tradition by this argument. To be accurate, Rorty does not
    argue against any use of the word "true" but against a specifically
    philosophical concern with the word or the concept. In itself, the
    elimination of a metaphysical project to understand the meaning of
    truth does not preclude us from calling some historical accounts true,
    depending, of course, on how one construes that metaphysical project.
    But the question does arise when Rorty eliminates talk of
    representation because then the world-content of a historical
    narrative would be dropped out. By his account, we can call Armstrong
    and Tennenhouse's account true but we cannot claim that it represents
    any truths about the way things really were in pre-modern Britain. We
    understand ourselves as participating in the contestations among
    historians over how to construct historical narratives, not as seeking
    to know the real nature of the past.

          In contrast to Rorty, Putnam does not dispense with truth talk
    in the sense of a relation with the world, nor even of realism. Though
    he shares with Rorty the view that a metaphysical project of
    elucidating the interface between thought and reality is nonsense, he
    does not go as far as Rorty in dispensing with all forms of
    metaphysical talk. The differences between Rorty and Putnam are
    especially interesting to look at because both are more Jamesian than
    Peircean, especially in their critique of scientism in philosophy and
    their tendency to psychologize philosophical quandaries. In his latest
    book, The Threefold Cord, Putnam takes us once again beyond his
    previous views, or rather, takes his earlier self to be his greatest
    foil. He argues now against metaphysical realism, internal realism,
    and pragmatic realism (all positions that he once held) and argues for
    a form of natural or direct realism. Direct realism is naïve realism
    (what we believe to be true by our best lights is true about the
    world) but it has a second-order naïveté, having rejected initial
    naïveté and then moved back to the substance of the naïve position
    after having tried, I suppose, sophistication.

          It's similar to Nietzsche's notion of the adult playing at
    playing like a child, thus retaining both the status of sophistication
    with the benefits of frivolous innocence. The difference between the
    adult playing like a child and the child playing is that the adult
    knows that s/he is playing like a child, knows the alternatives, and
    has made a choice.

          I don't think Putnam's second-order naïveté works as naïveté.
    One cannot, after all, return to carefree bliss in the Garden of Eden
    once one has seen what lies just beyond the gates. Putnam's realism
    and his notion of truth retain some level of their previous
    sophistication, and thus have a content. Let me explain what I mean.

          Putnam argues that direct or naïve realism correctly holds that
    "the world is as it is independently of describers." [25]^23 One of
    his aims in this new book is to show how that realist commitment can
    be squared with the fact that perception is always mediated. He wants
    to counter the skeptical conclusions of those who, like Dummett, have
    realist commitments in their account of what is required for truth but
    acknowledge that neither human inquiry nor language can transcend its
    clay feet and thus meet the requirements. As I read it, Putnam's
    strategy has two stages: (1) to argue against, once again, one of the
    primary ways these clay feet have been conceptualized--in terms of the
    "interface" idea in which sense-impressions, qualia, mental
    representations, or some such are put between human beings and the
    external world; and (2) after having vanquished this idea, to retrieve
    the meaningfulness of the concept of representation without it being
    entangled in the assumption of an interface. [26]^24 Putnam argues,
    persuasively in my view, that the concept of representation must be
    retrieved if we are to retain the possibility of discourse that goes
    beyond conversation to make claims about the world that are in fact

          Putnam thinks that it is the "interface" idea that keeps
    mediated inquiry from plausibly achieving relations with the world;
    without the interface, representation is free to refer to the world
    rather than to our image of the world. And thus we can return to a
    naïve realism. But it is not really a naïve realism that he returns
    to, for according to Putnam, representations are not thing-like
    entities at the interface of human beings and the world, but rather
    practices. And it is because they are practices that we can understand
    the mediated nature of perception without becoming anti-realists. He
    uses Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit and Cora Diamond's discussion of two
    picture faces that have the same expression as examples of the way in
    which representations can be both real, or accurate as
    representations, and mediated.

          In Wittgenstein's example, a single picture can be seen equally
    well as a duck or a rabbit. In Diamond's example, two pictures of
    faces represent the same expression despite the fact that it is
    impossible to point to features of the faces that they have in common
    and that engender the expression. In each of these examples, one
    cannot point to anything different about the drawings themselves,
    anything materially different about them, to explain either the
    distinction we make on the one hand or the similarity we find on the

          Seeing an expression in the picture face is not just a matter of
    seeing the lines and the dots; rather, it is a matter of seeing
    something in the lines and the dots--but this is not to say that it is
    seeing something besides the lines and the dots. [27]^25

          By this analogy, Putnam suggests, we can conceptualize the
    relation of human inquiry to the world. The world "by itself" does not
    cause us to see a duck or a rabbit, and yet the shapes are there in
    the world and not merely in our minds. We can affirm simultaneously
    the fact that the world does not force us to choose duck or rabbit and
    that our claim to see a duck represents a truth about the world, and
    not just about human perception or human practices, though it may also
    be about those things.

          This, however, is hardly a naïve realism. In its substance, it
    is still the internal realism that Putnam developed in his middle
    period and has been denying ever since, in that it combines the
    aboutness claim of realism and the ontological relativity thesis of
    pragmatism. It works this out by making a claim about the world that
    can explain not how it is possible to have truth at all (which is the
    metaphysical project Putnam rejects along with Rorty), but how it is
    possible to have many truths. It is, then, a realism in its claim
    about the content of truth claims but an internal realism since it
    holds that human practices must be taken into account to understand
    which truths will be accepted, or how the world will be seen, at any
    given moment.

          The swing between the absolute and the arbitrary is the result
    of a conception of truth as absolute and objective. But truth is
    neither of these things. Even in regard to historical argument about
    the past, where extrapolations are large, complex, and always
    positional, we aim at the truth, and we can be more or less

          The mistake is to think that in aiming at the truth we can hit
    it or miss it, as if truth is an "it." Thinking of truth as an "it" is
    what makes us think we cannot claim truth. But truth is as dense and
    multivalent as lived reality--and lived reality is, after all, what
    truth is about.

    [28]^1 I am indebted to Marianne Janack for very helpful discussions
    about the arguments of this paper. I am also grateful to Nancy
    Armstrong for her feedback on an earlier version of it. ] [29]^2 Elgin
    herself argues against truth talk at times, as does Rorty, which
    should indicate that the repudiation of truth talk can be made for
    very different reasons. Rorty wishes to dispense with a metaphysical
    description of what we know in favor of an aesthetic one, while Elgin
    merely wishes to forego the application of representational models to
    every arena of inquiry. See Catherine Elgin, Between the Absolute and
    the Arbitrary (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) 1. ] [30]^3
    Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, The Imaginary Puritan:
    Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal Life
    (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 4. In their
    introduction, Armstrong and Tennenhouse explain the epi-stemological
    assumptions of their study. They claim that "To overturn history, one
    simply has to demonstrate that words come chronologically as well as
    ontologically before the things they are presumed to represent and the
    differences that already exist among those things. Those of us who are
    willing to entertain this possibility have had little difficulty
    finding evidence to substantiate the inversion of traditional
    historical priorities"(4). ] [31]^4 They also agree with Geoff
    Bennington's view that "The claim to be able to discern the real
    continuities and thus to ground those fantasies at least partially in
    `truth' depends simply on the illusion of an intelligentsia as subject
    of science to stand outside and above that reality and those
    fantasies" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 6-7, quoting from Geoff
    Bennington, "Demanding History," Post-Structuralism and the Question
    of History, ed. Derek Attridge, Geoff Bennington, and Robert Young
    [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987] 25). They actually
    differ with Bennington's skepticism about the epistemic basis of
    historical narrative, but only because they want to redefine narrative
    as a process of discursive self-referring, a "function of the
    surface," indistinguishable from writing. Thus, rather than complain
    about history's groundlessness, they shift the historian's focus to
    the imaginary itself.
    Paradoxically, they then make the claim that they can give the
    history, in precise detail, of the emergence of this imaginary! ]
    [32]^5 Armstrong and Tennenhouse 6-7. ] [33]^6 Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse 84. ] [34]^7 Armstrong and Tennenhouse 71. ] [35]^8
    Armstrong and Tennenhouse 71. ] [36]^9 As quoted in Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse 72. ] [37]^10 Armstrong and Tennenhouse 75. ] [38]^11
    Armstrong and Tennenhouse 73. ] [39]^12 Armstrong and Tennenhouse 72.
    ] [40]^13 As quoted in Armstrong and Tennenhouse 73. ] [41]^14
    Armstrong and Tennenhouse 76. ] [42]^15 As quoted in Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse 81. ] [43]^16 Armstrong and Tennenhouse 81-2. ] [44]^17
    Armstrong and Tennenhouse 84. ] [45]^18 Armstrong and Tennenhouse 85.
    ] [46]^19 Armstrong and Tennenhouse 81. ] [47]^20 This is not to say
    that all of their feminist assumptions must be put to the test of
    history, since I am denying that this is possible. Some feminist
    claims, such as that women have the same wants and needs as men, can
    be challenged and debated through historical record, but others, such
    as that women's own views should always be consulted in assessing the
    past, cannot be coherently challenged. That is, one can accept it or
    reject it, and give reasons for doing so, but it is doubtful that the
    reasons given on one side will be intelligible to the other--such as
    that women simply don't know their own interests or cannot interpret
    the world around them. And it is the latter sort of feminist
    assumption--that women's own views should always be consulted in
    assessing the past--that I observe working in Armstrong and
    Tennenhouse's arguments. ] [48]^21 A clear overview of these issues
    can be found in Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming
    Culture, Society, and Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago
    Press, 1993). ] [49]^22 This occurred at a presentation of her work at
    the Pembroke Center, Brown University, February 2001. ] [50]^23 Hilary
    Putnam, The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body, and World (New York: Columbia
    University Press, 1999) 6. ] [51]^24 Putnam 59. ] [52]^25 Putnam 63. ]

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