Knowledge and politics
 across the North/South divide

The following discussion draws from a lengthier essay we published in Portuguese as part of a dialog with Boaventura Sousa Santos, who is a leading proponent of “Southern epistemologies.”1 Sousa Santos is a distinguished left-wing scholar and a prominent figure in the World Social Forum. A professor of sociology in the School of Economics at the University of Coimbra (Portugal), he has also taught in the United States at Yale University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Important works of his have appeared in English, including Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (2014) and, as editor, Cognitive Justice in a Global World: Prudent Knowledge for a Decent Life (2007).2 

In this article we focus our discussion on Sousa Santos because his arguments concerning the radical discontinuity between processes of knowledge and practices of politics in the global South and the global North are especially incisive. Sousa Santos’s work—because of his location within the Portuguese academy and the world of Lusophone scholarship (Africa, Asia, Brazil, Oceania, Portugal)—is less well known in the United States than the work of widely translated, often English-language and US-based writers such as Arturo Escobar, Aníbal Quijano, and Walter Mignolo. Nevertheless, Sousa Santos’s ideas contribute powerfully to the same postcolonial and postmodern milieu in which the aforementioned “postdevelopmentist” academics thrive.3 Edward Said’s presence also looms large within this milieu because of his penetrating critique of “Orientalism”—the idea that Westerners project their own stereotypically exotic images and fantasies onto the Middle East (and, by extension, onto other parts of the non-Western, non-Northern, and formerly colonized world) in ways that reflect colonialist attitudes when attempting to describe or to interpret other cultures.4 

The debate over “Southern epistemologies” is an important one, no matter which side of it you end up taking. At stake are the conditions and very possibility not only of cross-cultural understanding in the liberal, touchy-feely sense, but also of global emancipation of the world’s exploited and oppressed in the politically revolutionary sense. If fundamental truths about human society and history are not capable of englobing the lived realities of the South and North as well as the East and West, then there exists no basis upon which to ground knowledge of the social processes that must be transformed in order to usher in a world free of exploitation and oppression. It goes without saying that efforts to develop global political strategies would be severely hobbled if there were in fact no pivotal truths held in common.

Sousa Santos and others in the postcolonial and postmodern milieu are well intentioned with regard to desiring the emancipation of peoples across the globe. The question is whether their ideas, in the end, contribute to this goal or ultimately thwart global solidarity. Everyone agrees that the ruling classes of the North and South and East and West are our enemies. But where revolutionary socialists affirm deep intersections of interests among ordinary peoples of the global South, North, West, and East, postcolonial and postmodernist intellectuals perceive an unbridgeable gap. Many activists are familiar with this kind of prejudice, since they encounter it whenever they are told that they can’t understand a particular form of oppression because they do not suffer under it themselves.

One of Sousa Santos’s best-known contributions is the aforementioned edited book, Another Knowledge Is Possible, which Verso published in 2007.5 In their introduction, Sousa Santos and his two coeditors, João Arriscado Nunes and Maria Paula Meneses, explain that the book’s main objective is to show the destructive consequences of the epistemologies (ways of knowing the world) that the global North has devastatingly imposed on the rest of the world through capitalism and imperialism. Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses propose an alternative epistemology which, while not rejecting modern science out of hand, situates it in the context of the diversity of existing forms of knowledge that can be found dispersed among the variety of contemporary societies.6 At first glance, their proposal seems to make perfect sense: who, after all, would disagree with the notion that the peoples of the global South have the right to produce and practice their own knowledges free from Northern scientific norms? On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the alternative epistemology Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses put forward ultimately weakens rather than strengthens the ability to build emancipatory social movements on a global scale.

We want to emphasize from the outset that we do not oppose the idea that those of us in the global North should be “learning from the South.”7 We also agree that, because the motives and drives of capitalism and imperialism can distort the methods and results of scientific activity, the official “canon of knowledge” should be opened up. Nevertheless, rather than accepting an entrenched dichotomy between South and North in matters of knowledge production and emancipatory politics, we seek to affirm the conditions of possibility for solidarity, both in science and in social struggle.

This affirmation does not ignore the unequal relations of power and dominance that characterize many aspects of North/South relations. It does, however, disrupt a facile antithesis (Northern knowledge vs. Southern knowledge) that suggests that knowledge is “culture-bound” (“true”—or “producible and reproducible”—in only a single society or regional set of societies). That perspective leads to an untenable view of knowledge as culturally insular (that is, to being “stuck in your own head” or being “imprisoned by your own culture’s mindset”). It also leads to the adoption of an equally problematic posture of “cognitive incommensurability”—meaning the lack of a basis for sharing knowledge between and among individuals or groups that differ culturally from you and your group. (You’re inevitably “stuck in your own head” and “imprisoned in your own culture,” so of course you “can’t understand what you don’t directly experience yourself.”) In matters of knowledge, insularity and incommensurability erect serious barriers to achieving global solidarity.

We structured our earlier Portuguese-language article as a point-by-point response to the nine theses on knowledge and politics that Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses set forth in their introduction to Another Knowledge Is Possible. The title of their introduction is “Opening Up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference.” For the ISR, we have limited ourselves to four of our original nine points. These have been revised and address questions of (1) intersectionality; (2) postcolonial studies and human rights; (3) diversity in ways of knowing the world (epistemology); and (4) the objective nature of reality (ontology) in relation to the socially constructed nature of truth (history).

In the second thesis of Another Knowledge Is Possible, Santos Sousa, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses conceptually separate the ideas of mobilization, subjectivity, and identity. Here “mobilization” refers to groups engaged in social action; “subjectivity” refers to “subjects,” meaning persons (individuals or groups) insofar as they are subjugated by a social order; “identity” refers to an individual or a group considered as a social actor or agent.

In contrast to the authors’ attempt to treat them separately, these entities remain functionally interrelated in practice and give rise to a continuous flow of reciprocal determinations. The authors implicitly acknowledge this fact when they write, “The collective identities associated with these different forms of struggle are the emerging result of the struggles themselves, even when based on pre-existing conditions or collectives.”8 Thus their persistence in disjoining such entities is unfortunate because it is only within the linkages among struggle (mobilization), subjectivity, and identity that we can discern the foundation for affirming that culturally different individuals and groups can come to share core ideas and values. The elaboration of common interests and desires on the basis of shared struggle represents the promise embodied in the very concept of “emergent collective identities.” Moreover, it clarifies why merely symbolic (discursive) proclamations of alternative individual or group identities cannot be equated with fully effective material acts of changing the world.

Let us consider cases of what is often termed “identity politics.” These will illustrate and confirm two points: first, that the symbolic creation of new identities requires materialization in political practices; and, second, that identities are never singular, a fact that opens up the possibility of solidarity.

For example, the recognition, celebration, and appreciation of Afro-American culture within the African American population in the United States helped centrally to consolidate an Afro-American identity. But Black liberation would have been impossible without the organized struggles carried out by the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Black Panthers, or the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, as well as by other, lesser-known groups. In this way, the formation of Afro-American identity during the twentieth century required materialization in social practice as a condition for Black self-emancipation.

What is true for the forms of struggle that powered the 1960s Black liberation movement, creating new Afro-American identities from older Afro-American subjectivities, is also true for other self-determining assertions of identity (Black Lives Matter; the National Organization for Women; the LGBTQ movement; Aztlán and the Chican@ movement; the American Indian Movement). Indeed, the successful emergence of such identities requires materialization in social practices, and in that sense mobilization can precisely be said to transform “subjects” (individuals and groups as passively defined by a social system) into “agents” (individuals and groups as actively transforming a social system).

There subsists, of course, a certain reification of “identity” in what we have just affirmed. Even identities based on self-determination—ones that are articulated for the purpose of self-emancipation—in fact lack seamless homogeneity. They may be said to embody their own (stronger or weaker) contradictions in particular historical conjunctures, such as tensions between oppressed people occupying different class locations, women of color and white women, Cuban-American Latino/as and Mexican-American Latino/as, gays and lesbians, Native Americans who continue to live on reservation territories and those who have relocated, full-time workers and the precariat, Oprah and Sojourner Truth.

Moreover, and now in a positive sense, identities lack seamless homogeneity because aspects of any individual subject’s identity simultaneously converge with other social identities, even when the individual’s subjectivity is constructed by an identitarian discourse as, in its essence, divergent. That is why it is necessary to introduce the concept of “intersectionality” into any discussion of “identity.” Indeed, for our purposes “intersectionality” has much to contribute to discussion of the relations between the identities of the global North and the global South insofar as these bear upon Northern versus Southern forms of knowledge and on the role that such knowledges might acquire in the furtherance of human freedom.

Intersectionality is a concept put forward by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw and developed in various ways by Patricia Hill Collins, the Combahee River Collective, Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, and others.9 It is meant to capture two realities: first, that an oppressed individual, such as a Black woman, experiences multiple forms of oppression simultaneously (gender, race, and, in the majority of instances, social class); and, second, that systems of oppression transcend singular identities. Thus Black men are ensnared in the same practices of racism that afflict Black women. Forms of oppression and exploitation based on sexual preference, social class, religion, and ethnicity similarly cut across gender boundaries, nationalities, races, and creeds. In all of these cases, the isolation and vindication of a singular identity masks the fact that multiple oppressions are integrated into an overall social system and  the fact that those who suffer a particular form of oppression that others do not suffer still have an interest in allying with those others, since at some point(s) the oppressions each one experiences intersect with the oppressions experienced by others.

Views of knowledge and of politics based on intersectionality thus avoid the worst consequences of the kinds of identity politics that have become so fashionably dominant in the academic world. Intersectionality means precisely that one has an interest in fighting against all forms of oppression and exploitation. Moreover, it means that one does not need to experience a specific form of oppression in order to be an effective fighter against that oppression. In this sense, intersectionality reveals the limits of social movements based on identity, including those whose politics reify identities of South and North. 

Postcolonial studies and human rights
Before turning to the question of the manner in which Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses counterpose Southern epistemology to Northern epistemology, it is useful to recall briefly one criticism of postcolonial studies offered by Vivek Chibber in his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013).10 Chibber argues that postcolonial studies, despite certain strengths, ironically reintroduce a methodological Orientalism. 

Where the conservative discourses of Orientalism posit the East as profoundly different from the West, postcolonial studies installs a similar dichotomy. In the case of Another Knowledge Is Possible, of course, that dichotomy is the South versus the North. Defining itself over and against the universalizing character of aspects of Marxism—which affirms a common set of fundamental needs and interests shared among the majority members of all human populations, even amidst their other preferential differences—postcolonial studies claims that the majority of Africans, Asians, and South Americans, for example, have fundamental needs and interests that are radically other from those of North Americans and Europeans. This claim is based not merely on the idea that subjects are influenced by (their) culture, but on the idea that subjects are fully constituted or fully determined by (their) culture. That perspective, as we have already noted, leads straight to “cognitive insularity” and to “cognitive incommensurability.” In other words, it leads to the errors of thinking that what is knowable is limited to your own culture and that there exists no means by which you can truly come to comprehend what others know since they belong to a different culture (“stuck in your own head”; “unable to understand what you don’t directly experience”).

According to Chibber, such a perspective entails a theoretical premise that the socialization of subjects “is so strong, [and] their culture and cultural indoctrination so overriding, that it can erase their understanding of their basic needs and interests, like the importance of physical well-being or individual harm.”11 Chibber holds instead that, although culture is always an important element, culture cannot be construed as so absolute if it means that people ignore their basic needs. Much remains at stake, therefore, in postcolonialism’s thoroughgoing form of cultural determinism, as well as in its understanding of how individuals acquire knowledge of the world. When set in the context of postcolonial studies’ way of conceptualizing South/North differences, such stakes surface as especially high for the foundation and pursuit of global human rights. 

If one wants to propose a global struggle against oppressive and exploitative practices of each and every kind, it is crucial to affirm that the world’s population of exploited and oppressed share interests independently of religious, sexual, national, ethnic, and racial differences. However, postcolonial studies maintain precisely the opposite: that Westerners and Northerners are not motivated by the same concerns as Easterners and Southerners, who may not even think of their interests in the same terms. In other words, Southerners and Easterners embody a fundamentally different consciousness from that of Northerners and Westerners. For Chibber, that idea is reminiscent of the imperialist and colonizing gaze of those who denied human rights to Africans, Asians, and the indigenous peoples of South America, North America, and Australia. Chibber explains, “If you think people in post-colonial cultures deserve the same rights as people in rich countries do, you can only make that argument if you also believe they have the same needs and interests as the latter. To deny this is to insist that Easterners and Westerners [Southerners and Northerners] live in different worlds. Such a theory can’t possibly sustain and support international movements [for human emancipation].”12

Epistemology and the “ecology of knowledges”
We will now seek to overlay on to the terrain of epistemology (ways of knowing the world) our contention that the project of global emancipation is crippled by the assumption that different peoples inhabit hermetically disparate (sealed and insular) cognitive worlds (that they are culturally “stuck in their own heads” and can only “cognize,” or understand, their own individual worlds). Earlier we noted that the authors of “Opening Up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference” assert an epistemological primacy for the global South over and against the global North with regard to the ability to discern the oppressive character of the dominant mode of production, validation, and distribution of knowledge. They affirm, for example, that “the structures of power and knowledge are more visible from the margins.”13 There is much to be said in favor of their assertion; indeed, it recalls the important “standpoint theories” elaborated by radical thinkers from the Marxist Georg Lukács (History and Class Consciousness [1923]) to the feminist Nancy Harstock (Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism [1985]).14 The authors’ assertion becomes questionable, however, when iterated in the context of an overriding North/South epistemological divide.

As it stands, their argument fails to recognize that marginalized, oppressed groups exist in the North—and that these actually constitute the majority—so it falsely homogenizes all subjects in the North into one gigantic and undifferentiated Oppressor. Similarly, it fails to recognize that elite, oppressive groups also rule in the South, so it falsely homogenizes all subjects of the South into one gigantic and undifferentiated Oppressed. Such an essentialist construction of Northern and Southern lived experiences distorts reality. It implies that Northerners perforce perceive and understand the world in one way, while Southerners perforce perceive and understand it another way.

By failing methodologically to recognize that the distinction between Oppressor and Oppressed, as well as that between exploiter and exploited, cuts across hemispheres, Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses catastrophically undermine their own call not only for what they define as global social justice, but also for what they term “global cognitive justice,” by which they mean a practice of producing knowledge based on principles of “emancipation” and “solidarity.” This form of knowledge production is impossible in the North, they allege, because Northern science is carried out as a practice of “regulation” that results in a “monoculture” of knowledge. By way of contrast, the form of knowledge production practiced in the South is said to be based on “emancipation,” which results in “multiculturalism,” that is, a pluralistic “ecology of knowledges.”

Ironically, in their single-minded effort to contrast what they perceive to be Southern cognitive multiculturalism against what they perceive to be Northern cognitive monoculturalism, the authors suppress, not only the political existence of oppressed subjects in the North and oppressor subjects in the South, but also the variously shared cognitive standpoints of the exploited and oppressed in both the South and the North.15 How, indeed, can any emancipatory solidarity arise on a global scale if inhabitants of the North and inhabitants of the South are each imprisoned within their own separate worlds of understanding?

Because Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses are concerned to develop a pluralistic “ecology” of knowledges, they find themselves forced to address the charge that their project leads them into a philosophical cul-de-sac: namely, the dead-end of relativism. They first attempt to rebuff this charge with the following thesis: “In practice, knowledges operate as constellations of knowledges. The relativity of knowledges is not synonymous with relativism.”16

This formulation is acceptable if we substitute the expression “the relativity of knowledges” with the idea of “the contextual sensitivity of knowledge.” Given the authors’ particular emphasis on the multiplicity of knowledges, however, their version of “relativity” risks precisely morphing into a form of “relativism” by default. If no concept of objective truth is retained—one that can provide a baseline to help distinguish between what counts as knowledge and what remains mere belief or superstition—then the idea of a “plurality of knowledges” devolves. Here we do not mean to imply that there are not cases in which it is impossible, or at least not yet possible, to say what is true and what is not; nor do we want to imply that there are no cases in which beliefs and superstitions convey truths. It does mean, though, that we are capable of distinguishing the knowledge that “the earth revolves around the sun” from the perception or belief that “the sun revolves around the earth.” It also means that we can distinguish the knowledge that humans evolved out of nonhuman life forms from the literal belief that the Sky God had sex with Mother Earth, or that Yahweh created the world in seven days in the year 4004 BCE, or even that the Big Bang gave rise to all existing matter (a much more likely candidate for truth, but still not definitively demonstrated).

The authors’ second attempt to rebuff the charge of relativism subsequently takes the following form: “As an epistemological problem, relativism is less about criteria of validation than about the criteria for establishing hierarchies of validation or their absence.”17 Their concern here seems to be not so much with the activity of validating knowledge (that is, distinguishing truth from falsehood), but rather with acts of rank-ordering knowledges (presumably with the Eurocentric tendency to award higher status to “Northern scientific” knowledge over “Southern ‘nonscientific’” knowledges). Nevertheless, establishing hierarchies of knowledge, as well as the proper contextualization of specific knowledges within those hierarchies, remains a crucial endeavor if indeed we are to take seriously the role of knowledge in promoting social change.

For example, all kinds of truths can be found, wholly or partially, in nonscientific “belief systems” and in what analytic philosophers call “folk wisdom.” Moral insights in religion or philosophy, beneficial treatments in alternative medicine, “talking cures” facilitated by shamanic practices—all of these sometimes furnish knowledges that were not discovered on the basis of normalized scientific activity. Moreover, even the assertion that “the sun revolves around the earth” can be said to contain its own element of (phenomenological, or experiential) truth, since it represents reality from the perspective of how we experience it through our natural human senses. But such knowledges can and should be “hierarchized” in relation to specific contexts, goals, and actions. “The earth revolves around the sun” provides knowledge that will help you in interplanetary travel; “the sun revolves around the earth” will not.

In this regard, the arena within which the authors focus their greatest attention and concern is, not surprisingly, the sphere of social action. Here they strongly suggest that Southern epistemologies offer strategies, tactics, and visions for radical social change that are unavailable in the global North. To this end, they cite the international solidarity campaigns pursued by the Brazilian Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST, or Movement of Landless Workers), as well as the Argentine piqueteros and their tactic of attacking neoliberalism at points of distribution (that is, by blocking roads at factory and refinery gates) rather than at points of production (that is, by striking or occupying plants, yards, enterprises, and shops, in which the piqueteros could not engage because they were unemployed or locked out). Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses also cite the ecological dreams of greater harmony between human societies and nature that are articulated within many indigenous cultures, as well as by a handful of modern nation-states such as Bolivia (we are thinking here of sumak kawsay or the doctrine of buen vivir, “a decent life”).

 These are all important, desirable, and necessary phenomena. It is disingenuous, however, for the authors to imply that social movements in the North fail to display similar strategies, tactics, and visions. The Justice for Janitors movement, the Illinois Road Warriors (Decatur), Greenpeace—these contemporary movements for social justice, to name only a few, constitute well-known examples in the United States and Canada of what the authors mistakenly construe as effects of exclusively “Southern” epistemological practices.

Efforts to validate knowledges, therefore, as well as to hierarchize (contextualize) them, cannot be dismissed out of hand as sinister crimes of intellectual imperialism. Such efforts are essential for understanding why society (and sometimes nature: tuberculosis or AIDS) must be transformed (“emancipated”) in various ways, as well as for knowing how to do it. There can and should be a plurality of effective knowledges in this respect, but any such “ecology of knowledges” must be an “ecology of knowledges,” with knowledge here being defined as a set of results that successfully conforms to contextualized theoretical, empirical, and action constraints.

Indeed, the social structures that we must change in order to achieve a world of “social and cognitive justice” are real (in the sense of philosophical realism). Because they are not merely nominalist (names or nouns) entities created in discourse, a knowledge of them is required in order also to understand best how to change them.

Insofar as Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses insist on a foundational divide between Northern and Southern epistemologies, they thus obscure the truth that the same basic structures of “reality”—for example global capitalism, at one end of the spectrum, and thermodynamics, at the other—operate in both places. Insofar as they refuse to assign greater or lesser historically rational validity to the ideas that seek to represent those structures, the authors weaken—despite their best intentions—the basis on which human beings can move collectively not into a utopian realm free of determination, but rather “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination.”18 

Reality is objective; truth is social and historical
In their ninth thesis, Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses state that “the transition from a monoculture of scientific knowledge to an ecology of knowledges will make possible the replacement of knowledge-as-regulation with knowledge-as-emancipation.”19 The authors go on to assert that the success of any shift toward a conception and practice of knowledge “as emancipation,” in contrast to a practice of knowledge “as regulation,” can only result from a concurrent set of transitions toward “post-capitalist horizons of radical democracy.” In this they are surely correct.

Nevertheless, their argument suffers from the construction of a slapdash and, indeed, furtive analogy between forms of knowledge and forms of politics. Their erroneous formulation results from a “category mistake” (that is, from an error of logic where concepts belonging to different categories are inappropriately related). In the Northern practice of “knowledge-as-regulation,” the co-authors consider the starting point to be “ignorance,” which they then overlay onto “disorder,” by which they mean a sociopolitical form. The Northern way out of epistemological ignorance and social disorder is thus described as a simultaneous move toward “knowledge as order” and toward a “society of order.” Together, these now twinned forms of knowledge and politics make up “knowledge as regulation”—which, in the view of Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses is the defining feature of a “monocultural” social formation.

The category mistake involved in the authors’ subsequent explanation of Southern “knowledge-as-emancipation” surfaces even more blatantly than in the case of Northern “knowledge as regulation.” Here the starting point is also ignorance, but this time the authors overlay ignorance onto the political form of “colonialism.” As a consequence, they contend that “knowledge-as-emancipation” becomes the Southern way of moving out of colonial ignorance (that is, out of Northern scientific monoculture) toward a form of “knowledge conceived of as solidarity” (that is, toward a plurality of knowledges, devoid of hierarchies).

The major weakness of this way of opposing Northern “knowledge-as-regulation” and Southern “knowledge-as-emancipation”—at least insofar as it is developed in “Opening Up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference”—should now be apparent. Its weakness flows directly from the authors’ direct conflation of forms of knowledge with forms of politics. Indeed, the actual opposite of ignorance is not cultural or political solidarity, even though a lack of solidarity may result from ignorance. Rather, the actual opposite of ignorance is epistemological clarity (rationally justified ways of knowing reality) and ontological truth (knowledge in accord with fact and reality), as these are best constructed historically. 

Of course, we—like the authors—have wrestled with the difficulties of trying to negotiate the fact that some knowledges are rationally grounded in both theory and practice, while at the same time such knowledges are socially produced and therefore remain historically open to revision, deepening, or even refutation. In this respect, however, we have found perspectives provided by Roy Bhaskar and his philosophy of “critical realism” to be helpful.

Bhaskar proposes a “critical” philosophical realism, one which conceptualizes the knowledge process as an inferential one. This process involves the distinction between real objects, which belong for Bhaskar to an “intransitive dimension” (ontology—the world as it exists independently of human consciousness), and objects of knowledge, which belong to a “transitive dimension” (epistemology—the world as known through human interactions with natural and social reality).20 Bhaskar’s critical realism 

explicitly asserts the non-identity of the objects of the transitive and intransitive dimensions, of thought and being. And it relegates the notion of a correspondence between them to the status of a metaphor for an adequating practice (in which cognitive matter is worked into a matching representation of a non-cognitive object). It entails acceptance of (i) the principle of epistemic relativism, which states that all beliefs are socially produced, so that all knowledge is transient, and neither truth-values nor criteria of rationality exist outside historical time. But it entails the rejection of (ii) the doctrine of judgmental relativism, which maintains that all beliefs are equally valid, in the sense that there can be no rational grounds for preferring one to another. It thus stands opposed to epistemic absolutism and epistemic irrationalism alike. Relativists have wrongly inferred (ii) from (i), while anti-relativists have wrongly taken the unacceptability of (ii) as a reductio of (i).21 

Christopher Norris has noted favorably that this argument “enables Bhaskar to defend both the basic rationality of science as an enterprise aimed toward better, more adequate grounds of judgment, and also the need for critique as a process of reflective understanding that questions ‘absolutist’ truth-claims by revealing their partial, self-interested, or socially motivated nature.”22 Moreover, what keeps Bhaskar from falling back into idealism or empiricism—despite his acknowledgment of epistemic relativism and the distinction it brings between real objects and objects of knowledge—is his view that “it is the nature of objects that determines their cognitive possibilities for us.”23 In contrast to empiricism, for which “reality” is simply given in experience, and equally in contrast to idealism, for which “reality” is something we construct ourselves, critical realism emerges “from the conjunction of two premises: (1) If scientific activity occurs (or makes sense) then there must be real generative mechanisms in nature; (2) scientific activity does occur (makes sense).”24 As Norris explains,

The strongest case for scientific realism is that which starts out from particular examples of the growth in knowledge typically achieved through a deeper (causal-explanatory) account of objects, events, processes, properties, microstructural features, etc. For such advances would themselves lack any remotely plausible explanation were it not for the fact that the object terms and predicates in a valid scientific theory can be taken as referring to (or quantifying over) a real-world physical object domain and its various integral attributes.25 

It is important for our present purposes to underscore that Bhaskar’s theory of critical realism has relevance for the human and social sciences as well as for the natural sciences. Society, in Bhaskar’s view, is “a stratified system of structured realities.”26 This means that some processes taking place in society are more fundamental than others, and that these more fundamental processes serve as (pre)conditions out of which develop other so-called “higher” and more complexly determined processes. In the same way that the processes of physics act as more fundamental causes in the natural world than those of chemistry and biology and that the processes of physics are in fact preconditions for the emergence of specifically chemical and biological processes, so also do the processes that organize the material production of human life (economy) act as more fundamental determinants than, and serve as preconditions for, the other (relatively autonomous) processes involved in the constitution of human groups (sociology, politics) and individuals (psychology).

The . . . critical realism which I have expounded conceives the world as being structured, differentiated and changing. It is opposed to empiricism, pragmatism and idealism alike. Critical realists do not deny the reality of events and discourses; on the contrary, they insist upon them. But they hold that we will only be able to understand—and so change—the social world if we identify the structures at work that generate those events or discourses. Such structures are irreducible to the patterns of events and discourses alike. . . . They can only be identified through the practical and theoretical work of the social sciences . . . [through which they] may be hierarchically ranked in terms of their explanatory importance.27

Realism in the social and human sciences is a condition of the ability to act consciously to transform society. Insofar as antirealism (nominalism) discounts the possibility of identifying “social structures” as anything more than the effects of discourse, and insofar as it refuses to assign causal primacy to some of these structures over others, to those precise degrees does it weaken the basis on which human beings can move collectively—not “into a realm free of determination,” but rather “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted, and empowering sources of determination.”28 Critical realism matters in the human and social sciences, therefore, because human emancipation “depends on the transformation of structures.”29 

After this detour through Bhaskar and critical realism, we can now return to Santos Sousa, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses and their category mistake of seeing knowledge and politics as directly related rather than as maintaining a mediated (causal but indirect) relation. 

Human knowledge in its plural mode—what they call “constellations” of knowledge, in which we would include the natural sciences, the social sciences, as well as the human sciences—remains a condition for, as well as a dialectical product of, genuinely emancipatory political practices. But these practices in the twenty-first century need to be based on knowledge of something real—not on illusion or unfounded belief or on symbols and discourses divorced from rational judgments—if they are to prove globally emancipatory and lastingly effective. Not all “epistemologies” (ways of knowing) produce “knowledges” that contribute to human liberation. Some “epistemologies” produce “knowledges” that better capture reality than others do. As such, they can be judged to be more adequate than others in the sense that they better satisfy concrete theoretical, empirical, and action constraints. 

That is why it remains at best overly hasty, and at worst irresponsible, to posit a simple homology (match-up) between forms of knowledge and forms of politics such as the one that structures the authors’ opposition between Northern “knowledge-as-regulation” versus Southern “knowledge-as-emancipation.” Penicillin and Marx’s law of value cannot simply be discarded as “scientific monoculture” any more than Ouija boards and the idea of “changing the world without taking power” should be welcomed uncritically as flowerings of multiculturalism.

We should clarify, of course, that it is not the case that no relation exists between knowledge and politics. Ignorance is more likely to lead to cultural bigotry and political abuse than knowledge does. Moreover, knowledge, even in the sense of ontological truth, can be institutionalized in the service of oppressive cultural and political practices. Knowledge, however, can also be expressed organizationally and even institutionally through democratic and emancipatory cultural and political practices. It is precisely the role of the knowledge practices (the plurality of sciences: natural, social, human) to discover through the complex dialectic of thought and action (praxis, activity) the real ontological foundations of—and the real potential for—human liberation.

In concrete terms, solidarity as a political practice is grounded in the knowledge of biological equality among the races and (with small anatomical variations) the sexes. It is enabled by the culturally transmitted knowledge of shared human experiences, as well as by the empathic knowledge afforded through actual or imagined engagement with different human experiences. It is also inspired by collective visions of a world freed from oppression, exploitation, and alienation.

Global solidarity will not result from privileging an allegedly “Southern” epistemology over an allegedly “Northern” epistemology any more than it has resulted from imposing “Northern” science-for-profit (that is, science subordinated to capitalism and imperialism) on the global South. Rather, global solidarity will result from the interactions between a human epistemology (way of knowing) dedicated to discovering the means for achieving social justice, on the one hand; on the other, it will emerge from internationally shared struggles and the democratic forms of organization that prove capable of channeling such knowledge globally into emancipatory political practices.

  1.  Sandra Sousa and Tom Lewis (2013). “Para além da divisão Norte/Sul em epistemologia e políitica emanipatória.” Configuracões, vol. 12: 29–45. We are grateful to Paul D’Amato and Lance Selfa for their comments, which have helped us to strengthen our original essay.
  2.  Boaventura Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014); and, as coeditor with João Arriscado Nunes, Cognitive Justice in a Global World: Prudent Knowledge for a Decent Life (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).
  3.  On postdevelopmentalism, see Claudio Katz, “Considerations on Postdevelopmentalism in Latin America,” International Socialist Review 97 (Summer 2015):
  4.  The crucially important difference between Said and the aforementioned postdevelopmentalist writers, however, is that Said never argued against the possibility of shared knowledge between the global South and North or the global East and West. Hegemonic, institutionalized epistemologies were not insurmountable obstacles for Said; real possibilities for “another world” of both knowledge and politics were to be found in empathy and in the praxis of solidarity. This was a view Said communicated in personal conversations with one of this article’s authors (Lewis).
  5.  Boaventura Sousa Santos, João Arriscado Nunes, and Maria Paula Meneses, eds., Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies (London: Verso, 2007). 
  6.  Sousa Santos, Arriscado Nunes, and Meneses, “Opening Up the Canon of Knowledge and Recognition of Difference,” in Another Knowledge Is Possible, xix–xx.
  7.  Ibid., xiv.
  8.  Ibid., xlvi.
  9.  See Sharon Smith, “Black Feminism and Intersectionality,” International Socialist Review 91 (Winter 2013–14),
  10.  Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: Verso, 2013).
  11.  Chibber, “Marxism, Postcolonialism, and the Tasks of Radical Theory,” International Socialist Review 89 (May 2013),
  12.  Ibid. Marxism is often criticized for embodying its own version of Orientalism—a criticism that Chibber ultimately discounts. Gilbert Achcar has also written incisively on this matter: “It must be already clear at this point that, whatever characterization of Oriental countries one may find in Marx’s view . . . the epistemological revolution that he and Engels initiated is the most radical repudiation of all brands of essentialism—in fact, the only radical repudiation of essentialism. If Orientalism in the pejorative sense consists of adhering to a set of prejudices about the Oriental (Muslim, Arab, Indian, etc.) ‘cultural nature,’ there is no more radical rejection of this perspective than a conception that discounts the very idea of a ‘cultural nature’ in order to explain every cultural form as the historical product of the material circumstances shaping the existence of the human group that bears the culture in question—a culture that will inevitably be altered when the material circumstances themselves change.” See Achcar, “Marx, Engels and ‘Orientalism’: On Marx’s Epistemological Evolution,” in Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 80–81.
  13.  Sousa Santos, et al., “Opening Up the Canon,” xxxiv.
  14.  György Lukács was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher. His History and Class Consciousness (1923) represented a break with both Second International economism and an emerging Stalinist orthodoxy. In the essays collected in this volume, Lukács sought to develop a sophisticated Marxist epistemology based on his understanding of Hegel and Lenin. He argued that only from the position of the exploited and oppressed working class could an accurate knowledge of the dynamics of capitalism be elaborated. He also argued that arriving at such knowledge and bringing it to bear on political practices would require overcoming the hold that reification and commodity fetishism exercise on working class consciousness. Nancy Hartsock, who passed away just this year, was a feminist scholar who compared the industrial labor of the proletariat to the domestic labor of women and who developed a critique of social power and domination from the standpoint of women’s experience.  She argued that women’s position under capitalism, especially their role in childrearing and social reproduction, afforded knowledge that could make possible a liberation from the masculinist ruling class idea and exercise of power as “power over others.” 
  15.  The authors also fail to take into account the Marxist-inspired Frankfurt School and other oppositional critics in the North and West of the practice of science under capitalism and its pursuit as “instrumental reason.”
  16.  Santos Sousa, et al., “Opening Up the Canon,” xlviii.
  17.  Ibid., xlviii.
  18.  Roy Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy (London: Verso, 1989), 5.
  19.  Santos Sous, et al., “Opening Up the Canon,” li.
  20.  Bhaskar’s distinction between a realm of intransitive objects and transitive objects parallels Marx’s affirmation in the “1857 Introduction” to the Grundrisse that the objects of thought survive “after as before outside the head.” It also follows Althusser’s insistence in Reading Capital (1965) that Marx’s materialist theses on the primacy of being over consciousness require scientific theories to distinguish between their “objects of knowledge” and “real objects.” 
  21.  Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality, 23–24.
  22.  Christopher Norris, What’s Wrong with Postmodernism? Critical Theory and the Ends of Postmodernism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990), 98.
  23.  Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality, 25.
  24.  Andrew Collier, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy (London: Verso, 1994), 22.
  25.  Norris, Quantum Theory and the Flight from Realism (London: Routledge, 2000), 55.
  26.  Collier, Critical Realism, 142.
  27.   Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality, 2–3.
  28.  Ibid., 5.
  29.  Ibid., 6.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking