Donna Haraway and Hilary Putnam on God’s Spectacles

Though using radically different methodologies, the positions of Hilary Putnam and Donna Haraway, in their shared goal of an alternative to the traditional realist-relativist debates, have managed to come to mutually supporting claims regarding the troubles that arise from our notions of mind-independent facts. This is particularly evident in Putnam’s account of internal realism, and its associated emphasis on context and idealized justification. As if to corroborate this claim, it is striking to note the similarities that this notion has with the concept of situated knowledges as espoused by Haraway.

In particular, at least two main trends can be noticed. There is a definite resonance between their use of “God” metaphors. For Putnam this serves the dual purpose of presenting his views on how theories with different ontologies can nevertheless both be “right” and in his criticism of the notion of an impossible “God’s-Eye view” of nature devoid of any actual “eye”. In Haraway’s thinking “the god-trick” appears to be similar in kind to Putnam’s “God’s-Eye view”, yet it lacks the robustness of his ontological argument from omniscience, and would thereby benefit from it. Furthermore, the rejection of the fact/value, objective/subjective dichotomy proposed by both are mutually supported by Putnam’s elucidations of the problems of self-reference in science and logic, and given more definitive real world meaning by Haraway’s insistence on treating objects as actors. In doing so she gives a more equalized weight to the previously mentioned dichotomies.

To draw these connections it will first be necessary to examine the content of situated knowledges and internal realism. Given this groundwork, it will then be possible to elucidate these two key connections in their work, and show how they support each other. Furthermore, considering the space and language in which this paper is written, I shall treat only the realist view as problematic, not because of some conceptual inferiority to its relativistic counterpart, but because of its greater sense of being self-evident in the context in which I am writing.

At the end of his “A Defense of Internal Realism” Putnam summarizes his position as follows:

Let me conclude by saying a little more about my own picture, for I do have a picture. I don’t think it is bad to have pictures in philosophy. What is bad is to forget they are pictures and to treat them as ‘the world.’ In my picture, objects are theory-dependent in the sense that theories with incompatible ontologies can both be right […]. It is saying that various representations, various language, various theories, are equally good in certain contexts. In the tradition of James and Dewey, it is to say that devices which are functionally equivalent in the context of inquiry for which they are designed are equivalent in every way that we have a ‘handle on’.

What this position entails is the recognition of an ever-present “epistemologically impure” agent observing the world without the rejection of that agent’s observations as purely “subjective” or constructed. It thus accepts a certain degree of indeterminacy in regards to an absolute frame of reference while accepting an internal or contextual “rightness” and “wrongness” from within its context, given various degrees of epistemic quality. In such a scheme there are a plurality of justified truths in various area of human life which have no need for an ultimate hierarchy of facts for their collective validity. For example, consider Werner Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics, as opposed to Erwin Schrödinger’s wave mechanics, both theories have fundamentally different ontological claims (particles and waves), but by the equivalency of their results, and through their coherence given their own context, it is difficult, if not impossible to say which is correct in any absolute sense. In an even more general way, the context in which theories are valid could be understood in broad categories, such as physics, morality, biology, politics, without any need for an overarching absolute answer. A “moralistic” description of an event, for example, the rightful or wrongful execution of a prisoner, can equally be described by a series of physical or biological or social theories, given the context in which we choose to examine it. In this case the biological description would not be right or wrong at the cost of the physical or moral one, since the frame of references under discussion occupy different ontological spaces. As it might appear, this approach also rejects the demand for “ultimate reductions” as an artifact of the strict adherence to metaphysical realism, but it is not within the scope of this paper to address such an issue.

This position can then be placed beside Haraway’s. Like Putnam, Haraway is wary of transcendental truth claims, argues for a greater understanding of the role an embodied/human observer plays in observation, and (famously) is not bothered by the indeterminacy or vagueness that results from this position. Arguably, this vagueness comes in part from her methodological adherence to a kind of conceptual “complementarity” (to borrow the term from Niels Bohr), when describing complex real world affairs seen from different vantage points. As she has written about her position:

I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives; the view from a body, always complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. Only the god-trick is forbidden.

While the language is radically different, the content is much the same as Putnam’s; however, as we shall see, there are also important differences. Having roughly established the positions of these two thinkers, we may then move on to these differences and the more particular elements of their thoughts that reinforce each other.

Repeatedly in Putnam’s considerations of ‘real’ things he makes use of a particular kind of God metaphor. He usually utilizes it to criticize what he sees as extreme forms of realism, which attempt to make transcendental statements of the real that go beyond what is justifiable given any epistemic condition. Thus, whereas the statement “the chair is blue” is unproblematic for Putnam’s small “r” claims to realism, the moment we go beyond thinking that there are more than conventional answers to questions such as “is a chair coexists with the space-time region that it occupies, or is it identical with its matter?” we run into a difficulty. This difficulty is that: “Not even God could tell us if the chair is ‘identical’ with its matter (or with the space-time region); and not because there is something He doesn’t know”. Likewise, in “Truth and Convention” Putnam discusses the problem of the definition of what counts as an object. In the case of the divergent view of Kant and Leibnitz over whether or not Euclidean points in a plane are limits or parts, he concludes that: “My view is that God himself, if he consented to answer the question ‘Do points really exist or are they mere limits?’ would say ‘I don’t know”; not because His omniscience is limited, but because there is a limit to how far questions make sense”. Again, we see that essentially equivalent statements of questions featuring different ontological primitives turn out to be either version-relative, or so transcendent that the truth of the matter would not even be sensible to an omniscient agent.

It would appear, then, that the God metaphor seeks to draw the line between what kinds of “real” knowledge claims are justifiable in context and which are so indiscernible by virtue of differing languages as to be unjustifiable in principle. In the case of the space-time/matter decision, it is the ontological disparity between the two possible “solutions” that makes neither of them conclusively justifiable at the cost of the other. In contrast to this, the contextual positing of the “blueness” of the chair is what justifies our “realist” position, considering ideal epistemic conditions. What can at last be drawn from this is that the “God’s-Eye view” of traditional realists even goes beyond the justifiable capacities of what we traditionally attribute to omniscience.

Likewise, Haraway presents her own God metaphor along similar lines: what she prefers to call the god-trick. As she states:

The only position from which objectivity could not possibly be practiced and honoured is the standpoint of the master, the Man, the One God, whose Eye produces, appropriates, and orders all difference. No one ever accused the God of monotheism of objectivity, only of indifference. The god-trick is self-identical, and we have mistaken that for creativity and knowledge, omniscience even.

While again the language is radically different, what can be drawn from this statement is a position strikingly similar to Putnam’s. This is particularly evident in his criticism of the God’s-Eye view of truth. However, where Haraway’s God metaphor is largely presented as a reiteration of her embodied view of knowledge (i.e. we are wrong to succumb to the god-trick and think that it could possibly be otherwise), it lacks the weight of Putnam’s omniscience argument when asked to thereby demonstrate the need for more contextual considerations.

The ordering of difference that Haraway describes comes close to Putnam’s argument from omniscience, for it suggests that what makes metaphysical realism seem viable is its tendency to ignore manifest differences of context, yet it fails to draw out the implication this suggests for the contextually equivalent value of indiscernible statements/theories even given an omniscient observer. Without the supporting demonstration of the equivalent value of some ontologically different theories, this criticism can do little else than be a mere reiteration of her argument, which then calls for her to additionally posit the simultaneous validity of different contextual statements. In Haraway’s account, it seems, traditional realism, almost as an act of a malevolent will, collapses the inherent difference between systems of thought merely to satisfy its craving for the absolute, whereas by showing how even an omniscient knower would be unable to decide between certain ontologically divergent accounts whose “real world” manifestations would look identical, Putnam is able to demonstrate in a more positive manner that: “What is wrong is that Nature, or ‘physical reality’ in the post-Newtonian understanding of the physical, has no semantic preferences”.

An additional benefit of tying the God’s-Eye view argument to the argument from omniscience is that it directly allows for the preservation of a coherent method for determining the relative rightness or wrongness of a statement from within a certain ontological standpoint. It does this because the omniscience to which Putnam refers is in effect an extension (or idealized version) of what he describes as idealized justification. As he says:

the two key ideas of the idealization theory of truth are (1) that truth is independent of justification here and now, but not independent of all justification. To claim a statement is true is to claim it could be justified. (2) truth is expected to be stable or ‘convergent’; if both a statement and its negation could be ‘justified’, even if conditions were as ideal as one could hope to make them, there is no sense in thinking of the statement as having a truth-value.

From the standpoint of the omniscient adjudicator (a theoretical being with the most idealized form of epistemic conditions), if it could not decide between two theories with divergent ontologies, then it would make no sense to assign one a privileged truth-value. However, it would still be possible to discern which two theories with identical ontologies were more justified, and therefore more true.

However, it is important to note that Putnam does not equate his view of omniscience with idealized justification. More banal examples are possible and common, but even they extend to this view when we consider the degree of idealization present. As he reminds us at the beginning of Realism with a Human Face:

By an ideal epistemic situation I mean something like this: if I say ‘There is a chair in my study,’ an ideal epistemic situation would be to be in my study with the lights on […], with nothing wrong with my eyesight, with an unconfused mind, without having taken drugs or being subject to hypnosis, and so forth, and to look and see if there is a chair there.

Justification can be subject to varying degrees of impediments. Insofar as the statements we make regarding a given contextual system likewise subject to varying degrees of impediments (visual-spatial in the case of the chair), they exist on a continuum of rightness and wrongness. Yet there is no theory or statement whose very existence precludes the necessity of justification by virtue of the fact that we are human beings whose world does exhibit divergent ontologies given divergent contexts. Indeed, it could be said that contexts are only defined by the extremes of idealized justification that separate them as different contexts, and not by the gradations that make them internally comparable. Putnam’s somewhat nebulous “and so forth” in the above quotation is in fact a trailing off at the point in which his omniscient adjudicator begins to resemble his concept of ideal justification. However, it could be said that this view of omniscience is to idealized justification what frictionless surfaces are to physics: the impossible ideal whose finer degrees of approximation underlay our context specific generalizations.

What can be concluded from this is that while Haraway’s criticism of the god-trick is an important starting point for her attempt at a third path between relativism and realism, it does not present that alternative from within the criticism itself. Putnam’s articulation of the God’s-Eye view problem leads into his argument from omniscience, which turns out to be a reformulated version of his notion of truth as that which can be justified given ideal epistemic conditions. In this way it begins with a criticism that, as it evolves, demonstrates more fully than Haraway’s how we can have degrees of wrongness and rightness from within certain systems without needing appeals to absolute, observer-independent objects.

An important ramification of the equivalent truth-values of indiscernibly equivalent theories is that the traditional dichotomies between facts and values and subject and object break down. These dichotomies are themselves indiscernible. Facts are not “right” at the cost of values being “wrong”, nor does it make sense to say the same for subjects and objects. In the discussion which is to follow we shall then see how well Putnam sets up the problem, only to have it satisfactorily addressed in Haraway’s account of objects as agents.

In Realism with a Human Face Putnam provides scientific and logical examples of the problems that arise from a strict adherence to metaphysical realism and of the dichotomies to which it adheres. They take the form of his argument from quantum mechanics and the liar’s paradox. It is perhaps no surprise that quantum physics seems to permeate the discussion of both these authors, for it is the most fundamental science to date which makes the project of observer-independent reality problematic. When we reach the extreme limits of phenomenon, particles or waves, or what have you, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that our measurements do in fact alter what is observed, regardless of what standard we are using. However, what Putnam wishes to observe is that this is a paradox only if you adhere to the notion of one true theory, over and above some kind of complementarity of views.

Likewise, when he treats the liar’s paradox, he does so from the position that the statement “this statement is false” is paradoxical because we demand only one true answer from it. Nor can we escape being forced to give multiple answers by appealing to meta-languages that attempt to encapsulate the problematic self-referent in a single system of true or false. What Putnam ultimately draws from this is that: “There is always a cut between the observer’s language and the totality of languages he generalizes over”. This is yet another formulation and demonstration that the God’s-Eye view approach is untenable, for it is the very attempt to view all languages as a part of the world being examined that produces these paradoxes. Outside of this, they are not “paradoxical-in-themselves”.

The situation is much the same in the traditional divide between facts and values. To call something a fact is to accept the values used to derive it. In the case of scientific facts there are values of simplicity, objectivity, accuracy and above all truth. However, as Putnam points out, we will not inherently believe anyone who tells us something is a scientific fact without first accepting the values they used to derive it. Furthermore, some values must also be facts, insofar as we cannot even begin to make sense of any notion (relativism or realism) without them. For example, Putnam considers that justification, taken as a value, is also fundamentally a fact, since it opens up the space that makes observation possible. Rephrased, this is no more and no less than accepting a kind of relativity with rules (or realism with a human face), the establishment of the rules themselves being the necessary conditions that would make the relative values-facts possible in any context.

Outside of the value-oriented derivation of facts, statements of facts are situated in contexts that go beyond the purely factual. As Putnam observes, it is often impossible to fully extricate statements of fact from predictions, praise, and blame. Such facts of the matter as clarity, accuracy and the like take on ethical roles of praise and blame when actually applied to people and events in the world. Likewise, to say that someone is accurate or clear is to make some claim to a predictive statement about his future actions. Thus most, if not all, objective claims about people come with an inherent “praise-blame” structure built into them, making factual statements about them problematic.

Ultimately these considerations lead to Putnam’s observation that “the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world”. Yet in his discussion, it seems, objects (the products of this mind/world complementarity) are seen as only descriptive tools or boundary conditions, valid in different contexts but not jointly making up “mind and the world” to the same degree as mind. This emerges from his view that:

We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one or another scheme of description. Since the objects and the signs are alike internal to the scheme of description, it is possible to say what matches what.

While this view does suggest an alternate reading to the traditional dichotomy, insofar as objects could be said to play a role as “filters” of human perception, what is missing here is a developed alternative to how the mind and world compose each other equally, outside of the definitions proposed by relativists and realists that objects in the object/subject duality are somehow inherently inert.

Haraway’s concept of objects as actors serves to equalize the above-mentioned dichotomies. In this situation Putnam seems to delegate a more one sided end to the subject/object dichotomy, since in his conception we are the ones doing the cutting based on our own contextual perceptions. To see the distinction between their two accounts one need only consider Putnam’s account of the contextual “cutting up” when placed beside Haraway’s version of the same in the case of biology:

Biology is the fiction appropriate to objects called organisms; biology fashions the facts ‘discovered’ from organic beings. Organisms perform for the biologist, who transforms that performance into a truth attested by disciplined experience; i.e., into a fact, the jointly accomplished deed or feat of the scientist and the organism.

In essence this embodies more fully what one would mean by the statement that “mind and the world make up mind and the world”, for it gives an equivalent agency to both sides to influence each other in a like manner without the need to posit some partially-external context setting agent (us as separate from the world). Still, in Putnam’s account objects seem more inert than the subjects with which they interact, despite the ways in which he seeks to break down this dichotomy in the favor of avoiding paradoxes of non-contextuality (i.e. how situations like quantum mechanics and the liars paradox are only paradoxical when we ignore contexts).

Given the validity of Putnam’s God metaphors and the effect that this has on the traditional dichotomies between fact/value and object/subject, Haraway accurately concludes from her attempt to equalize the subject/object dichotomy that the view of objects as agents necessarily follows. As she says: “a corollary of the insistence that ethics and politics covertly or overtly provide the bases for objectivity in the sciences as a heterogeneous whole, and not just in the social sciences, is granting the status of agent/actor to the ‘objects’ of the world”. In Putnam’s account there are still traces of the subject/object dichotomy that he claims to oppose. In his previous statement the broken dichotomy is between objects and our mental representations of those objects (signs), not between objects and “us” as subjects with which they interact. While this distinction allows him to demonstrate the unity of sign and object (given its context), it nevertheless implicitly maintains the ultimate divide between subject and object. In Haraway’s treatment this semantic/perceptual second layer is largely unnecessary, since the same vital contextual component in situated knowledges can be asserted without recourse to the distinction between subject, and the signs which that subject uses to understand the world.

Thus, as has been seen, Putnam’s God metaphors (the incoherence of the God’s-Eye view, the argument from omniscience, and the equivalency of omniscience with idealized justification) have an advantage over Haraway’s because they seamlessly lead to the breakdown of the dichotomies established by the traditional realist and relativist positions. Haraway’s articulation of the god-trick serves only to reiterate her call for embodied knowledge, without leading directly into any alternative epistemic position.

Putnam subsequently does an excellent job in demonstrating the various equivalencies between fact and value and subject and object that emerge from this view, and the paradoxes that have already been seen to emerge from its alternative. Yet despite the conclusion that “mind and the world make mind and the world”, his resultant position does not, in the end, demonstrate the equivalent weight of subject and object. Objects in his system are still subservient to their contexts in a way that subjects (“us” as the interpreters of signs) are not. Haraway is then correct in stating that a major consequence of the breakdown of the subject/object and fact/value dichotomies is that objects are to be regarded as agents in much the same sense as we would traditionally view subjects.

A great deal can be learned from examining the comparative virtues of contemporary third alternatives to the realism/relativism debates, particularly when they support each other when one seems weakest. In considering just some of the virtues and pitfalls of Putnam’s internal realism and Haraway’s situated knowledges we can see this relationship emerge. What it amounts to is a widening of the space in which alternatives may thrive as they attempt to distinguish themselves from traditional dichotomies. It also adds credence to the overall project when we consider that these two thinkers, working at roughly the same time but in very different contexts, were nevertheless able to conceive of mutually supporting and reinforcing concepts that bear a notable resemblance to one another. While neither of these positions claim to be offering any final answers to some of the deepest divides in philosophy, they may just be beginning to show how a Faustian “rest in restlessness” is not only possible, but ultimately the most worthwhile view of human thought that we can bring to bear on our relationship to ourselves and the world around us.

For More Information:

Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. Routledge; New York, 1989.

–––. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge; New York, 1991.

Putnam, Hilary. “A Defense of Internal Realism” in Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

–––. “Is the Causal Structure of the Physical Itself Something Physical?” in Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

–––. Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

–––. “Realism with a Human Face” in Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

–––. Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1981.

–––. “Truth and Convention” in Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.


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