Several years ago, I was in deep discussions with a theologian about the base to superstructure model. He declared it to be no longer feasible after the age of information, where the Internet has reversed this model, and the base is no longer the foundation of the superstructure. Originally in the Marxist model, the base shaped the superstructure – both relations of production (where the capitalist takes advantage of the worker) and means of production (material required to produce – machines, factories, land, owned by capitalists) determine education, religion, family, media, politics. The superstructure in turn maintains and legitimates the base. However, the Internet actually inverts this model by changing the relations of production – the worker gains power and takes advantage of capitalists, and the means of production are disseminated via the internet. Now, this was a neat revamp of a classic model, but I took another look: perhaps this is not just a cute insight, but a crucial one that applies to the rest of the human sciences.
Marx’s theory of base to superstructure is largely empirical and traditional, and a bottoms up view that doesn’t deviate much from the physical sciences. Now, if the revolutions in the human sciences directly contradicts the established perspective of the natural sciences, i.e., empiricism, then the ordinary base and superstructure model is inverted, and the superstructure has priority over what we take as basic. This insight may seem incoherent, paradoxical, even, but that is due to our preconceptions that aren’t entirely our own but of our cultural baggage (Anglo-American assumptions dating back to the 17th century).
The consequences of this inversion is simple: culture has priority over nature, and society has priority over the individual. For the past 300 years, since the 17th century, culture was assumed to be subsequent to Nature, and merely a superimposition. However, Nature is itself a cultural construct, and a recent one established by the rise of 17th century natural sciences. Society has been assumed to be subsequent to individuals in the same way. But the individual self is another recent cultural construct established by the bourgeois ethic of individualism in the 17th century.
Yes, this is paradoxical for us, because the natural sciences and individualism have been entrenched deeply to the point that the assumed priority of Nature and Individual has filtered down to the average joe’s common sense. Such average Joes like us prefer to have our feet firmly planted upon the solid ground of individual tastes and thoughts, and on the rock solid facts of physical nature. However, my thesis will demonstrate this common sense to be completely false.
My subsequent blogs will begin with Saussure and the revolution in linguistics. Then I move on to Durkheim’s totemism, its limits, & Levi-Strauss’ structural anthropology and the social a priori. Then I explore Lacan’s rereading of Freud, and the limits of ego psychology. Then I investigate Althusser’s return to Marxist economics, and his concept of unconscious ideology. Finally I tie up these preliminary insights with Barthes’ semiotics. Afterwards, I will move on to structural philosophy that resembles metaphysical philosophy of the 19th century.
2 thoughts on “A new philosophy of the human sciences”
Nice post, Awet. I look forward to reading your subsequent blogs on this. The way I've come to see it is that while the rock solid facts of our physical existence are real and are experienced, the moment we go beyond experiencing them, start talking or thinking (talking to ourselves) about them, we tell stories ("explanations") about them that together form an account of nature that is essentially cultural.
Peter, I hope you’ll enjoy each of the upcoming blog entries. They will lend support to my general thesis, and a new conclusion will emerge afterwards. As for your answer it is but a couple of steps away from Richard Rorty’s. He says that no area of culture or period of history gets reality better than any other cuz there are no norms for talking about reality itself. We have norms for snow talk, Apollo talk, but not reality talk. Plus there are no second norms given by facts.