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Ocularcentrism, Phonocentrism and the Counter Enlightenment Problematic: Clarifying Contested Terrain in our Schools of Education

by Phil Francis Carspecken - 2003

Our schools of education today host two important counter-Enlightenment discourses, criticalism and postmodernism. Graduate students inevitably encounter both discourses when taking their required classes in research methods, along with modernist modes of thinking embedded within mainstream research methodologies. These three modes of thought and practice—the modernist mainstream, criticalism and postmodernism—are also found within such educational fields as curriculum studies, multiculturalism, literacy and social foundations. Differences between criticalism and postmodernism are difficult to articulate, and confusion abounds. Both criticalism and postmodernism have distinguishing features based on their challenge to ocularcentric and phonocentric theories of truth that can be found underlying the assumptions of mainstream social research methodologies. Ocular- and phonocentrism also operate within the popular cultures of modernity. This paper clarifies differences between postmodernism and criticalism through a very partial exploration of ocular- and phonocentric theories of truth and meaning. The alternatives opened by these counter-Enlightenment discourses are reviewed and compared. The problematical relations between knowledge and representation, knowledge and power, and sameness and difference are simultaneously explored, as is the concept of self. The essay argues that certain popular postmodern themes are importantly insightful but best relocated within a criticalist framework. Criticalism provides a more promising direction for counter-Enlightenment thought and practice, but criticalism is an unfinished project in need of further work.


For historically contingent reasons, graduate students in our colleges of education must grapple quite explicitly with some ancient but persistent philosophical questions. The natures of truth, knowledge, meaning and the self compose a terrain highly contested by competing discourses. Required classes in research that all graduate education majors must take have become sites in which French postmodernism and poststructuralism, as well as continental criticalism, have found a home and a place to grow. Students must navigate through exposure to these two counter-Enlightenment discourses in addition to modernist versions of knowledge that are embedded within traditional research methodologies. Their exposure often results in confusion. What, actually, might be wrong about the assumptions carried within mainstream educational research? What is the difference between postmodernism, poststructuralism and critical theory? Many professors of education also seem confused. Each discourse seems holistic in its most general structures and can appear to be incommensurable with the other two. An implicit answer to questions from students and professors alike is often of the form, ‘‘if you have to ask you will never understand.’’

The same competing discourses also occupy our educational disciplines of curriculum theory, multiculturalism, cultural studies, literacy studies, social foundations, and others. But it is especially within our discipline of inquiry that the concepts of truth, knowledge, sameness, power and self have become the conceptual centers of a difficult problematic.

Readers familiar with schools of education will recognize the problematic that I am describing. A major source of counter-Enlightenment thinking is our growing use of qualitative methodologies in educational research. It is here where French postmodern and poststructural modes of thinking have been most welcomed. And it was most likely a qualitative educational researcher who coined the term ‘‘critical ethnography.’’1 These are the two most prominent discourses that oppose the worldviews of modernity within schools of education: postmodernism and criticalism.2 They are not really two singular discourses but rather discourse-clusters, for there are many competing views and practices that self-identify as postmodernism, and a variety of theoretical positions that self-identify as criticalism. It is important to acknowledge the differences within each discourse-cluster but that there are two distinctive clusters seems undeniable.

In the case of postmodernism, a bit more must be said regarding differences within a broader orientation. There are some who wish to emphasize the distinction between postmodernism and poststructuralism, others who consider the various theories and subdiscourses associated with each as part of a single broad orientation. I am taking the latter position in this essay. Here I will be concerned with only some widely disseminated themes traceable to Foucault and Derrida. These themes may be found within much of the poststructuralist literature, yet they are themes that did not originate in an explicit critique of structuralism. They are themes, moreover, that have been used to claim an end to the period of modernity in philosophical, social, literary and aesthetic thought. Therefore, I use the term ‘‘postmodernism’’ rather than ‘‘poststructuralism’’ for the most part in this essay to indicate a broadly conceived orientation associated with both.3

The sense of holism that one finds in each discourse-cluster, criticalism and postmodernism, pertains to vocabulary, stylistics, and even the identity repertoires for those who claim allegiance to one discourse or the other. Though each of these three canopy traits is constantly changing within both discourses, the innovations seem to follow tacit generative rules such that new formations can be quickly recognized as either postmodern or criticalist.

In this essay I simplify things by mainly referring only to the criticalist and postmodernist discourses, setting aside many important differences between specific theories and orientations and ignoring some popularly made distinctions between postmodernism and poststructuralism. Occasionally I use plural expressions like ‘‘postmodern discourses,’’ but I generally stick to the singular. Readers are asked to understand that this essay is concerned only with a few highly influential themes in the case of postmodernism - root metaphors and conceptual strategies that have been chosen because they appear to be near the heart of a popular discourse-cluster. The limitations of this essay in relation to criticalism, by contrast, consist in its focus on the core principles of a contemporary, emerging version of criticalism, rather than with the broader criticalist perspective with which these principles are aligned. In each case something is in focus that is essential to an extensive orientation, discourse-cluster, or just ‘‘discourse’’ as I hereafter refer to it. Both discourses, the postmodernist and the criticalist, challenge the assumptions embodied in mainstream methods of social research - assumptions that also play important roles in popular culture and in traditional ways of thinking about curriculum, gender, ethnicity, schooling and society. It is these two discourses together that I will be referring to with the expression ‘‘counter-Enlightenment problematic.’’

The challenge to mainstream research methods and modernity as a whole is important. It provides hope for those of us who wish educational studies to remain a contribution to popular debate and social critique, rather than a technical instrument in the service of a social institution at risk of withdrawing from our public sphere. But this important challenge to Enlightenment thought is hampered by lack of clarity, particularly when it comes to understanding criticalism and postmodernism together. Clarifying the counter-Enlightenment problematic would not only lessen confusion amongst students and professors, it may point toward a more unified critique of modernity that is badly needed today.


Questions about the nature of knowledge, truth and their relationship may be taken as most central to the problematic generated by these competing discourses. From investigations of these two concepts we soon find ourselves embroiled with competing understandings of representation, power, the self, and what is meant by the term ‘‘same.’’

Let us begin, then, with knowledge and truth. Both criticalism and postmodernism question deep-seated assumptions about truth that have dominated the popular cultures of modernity and have dominated as well within mainstream research methods in the social sciences (educational research obviously included). Friedrich Nietzsche was an early critic of these same assumptions. He frequently expressed the idea that ‘‘truth’’ is nothing but a metaphor, a false identity claimed between two essentially different entities or processes. Truth is a metaphor that we have forgotten to be a metaphor. Of all the endless metaphors that come into play when people claim something true, those based on sight and voice seem most primordial:

A nerve-stimulus, first transcribed into an image! First metaphor! The image again copied into a sound! Second metaphor! And each time he leaps completely out of one sphere right into the midst of an entirely different one. (Nietzsche, quoted in Spivak, 1976, p. xxii)

The image arises as a metaphor for something it is not. This seems to be a form of knowledge when the metaphorical relation is mistaken for an identity, or a sameness relation4. Truth concerns the relation between picture and world in our cultural mainstream. Knowledge obtains when picture and world are in correspondence with each other. The picture is mistaken to be the world. Nietzsche asserts that it is the difference between picture and world that is of significance. Their sameness is only an illusion produced by metaphor. Nietzsche’s quotation therefore puts a core assumption about sameness, based on visual metaphor, into question.

Moreover, Nietzsche attributed the process of generating metaphors to the will of those asserting truth claims. The equation between picture and reality, image and world, is not a neutral correspondence naturally and passively generated during the process of receiving sense information. Rather it is an active process owing to the will of the subject. Knowledge and power are inescapably connected in Nietzsche’s writings. Knowledge is a result of a will to knowledge, which is a version of his famous will to power. It comes, Nietzsche thought, from a ‘‘figurative drive’’ that generates metaphors. And these metaphors have their ultimate ground or validity located only in the will of the agent who asserts them. Because all metaphors are at bottom a relation between differences rather than samenesses, Nietzsche believed knowledge claims to be powerful acts of dissimulation, whose origins in ‘‘untruths’’ are forgotten or perhaps never noticed. Knowledge claims, therefore, are acts of will. This means that something about the nature of the self, or the selves who express ‘‘will’’ in their claims about what is true, would be fundamental to the nature of knowledge.

What, then, of representation? For Nietzsche, at least at the time he wrote the sentences quoted above, representation works through another metaphorical process linking voice to image. Because they are also metaphors that are generated, the vocal representations characteristic of language are just as suspect as the pictures supposedly generated by sense stimulation. Vocal representations are also products of the figurative drive, the will to power. They have no ultimate unambiguous ground in a correspondence between meaning (‘‘image’’ in this case) and its linguistic representation (‘‘voice’’).

Nietzsche’s quotation therefore challenges mainstream assumptions about the relations between:


Sameness and difference,


Knowledge and power,


Knowledge and representation,


The self and all the above.

The structure of this paper is dictated partly by its concern with these four troubled conceptual relations. Because various influential theories about these conceptual relations tacitly take their logic from root metaphors involving sight and voice, the ocular and the phonetic, attention to ocularcentrism and phonocentrism also dictates the format and organization of this essay.


Nietzsche calls the image ‘‘first metaphor,’’ the sound (voice), ‘‘second metaphor.’’ The idea that the image is the most primary of all metaphors that enter into thought and expression has been taken to be a particularly

‘‘modern’’ or Enlightenment notion by quite a few authors. Martin Heidegger, for example, wrote, ‘‘The fact that the world becomes picture is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age’’ (quoted in Ree, 1999, p. 5). And indeed, a core theme of modernity has been the primacy of seeing in notions of certain knowledge. In popular culture, seeing something and feeling sure that it exists as it appears is taken to be paradigmatic for certain and true knowledge. This paradigm grounds the most widespread versions of the correspondence theory of truth. In the research courses that doctoral students take in our schools of education, as well as in many of our other social science departments, seeing-as-knowledge is a deeply implanted assumption. The bottom line for certain truth is taught to be that which is given in ‘‘observations.’’5

Because careful investigations can reveal visual perception to be a much less certain form of knowing than it first seems and because ‘‘other ways of knowing’’ do take place, this paradigm underlying Enlightenment assumptions about truth will be called ocularcentrism. Ocularcentrism has been and remains a major foundation for the correspondence theory of truth - the theory that direct access to knowledge, free of bias and power, comes through the senses. Of all the senses, vision is here taken to be paradigmatic (see quotation from Augustine below). Signs and language are then explained in terms of correspondences between themselves and reality as directly perceived.

Notice that Nietzsche’s critique does not really get to the heart of ocularcentrism, for he casts the situation in which metaphors are produced still in terms of an original and natural process of perception. He simply claims, without explanation, that perception involves the production of a metaphor rather than a pure representation. We still have a fundamental duality at the heart of this situation, one that informs many secondary dualities - image and nerve stimuli, subject and object, consciousness and perception. More penetrating critiques of ocularcentrism will be discussed in sections below.


Ocularcentrism has been and remains a major theme in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment culture and social science. But in many refined Western philosophies since the Enlightenment the limitations of ocularcentrism have been well understood. A number of nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers believed they found a deeper and more fundamental foundation for truth than the certainty we humans tend to experience when seeing something before us. This deeper foundation supposedly resides in our common experience of hearing our own voice and knowing simultaneously what we mean by it. Philosophies of this sort, authored by such prominent continental thinkers as Husserl and Saussure,6 have been famously examined and deconstructed by Jacques Derrida who named their core assumption ‘‘phonocentrism.’’

Phonocentric theories of truth are not widely distributed in popular culture, nor in mainstream research methods. Their common argument, however, is that the identity of voice and meaning is tacitly assumed by other theories of meaning, such as ocularcentric ones. Playing with the quotation from Nietzsche, the logic would go something like this: ‘‘A meaning, translated into a voice: first metaphor! The voice, describing stimulations that impart images: second metaphors!’’ One can indeed present arguments favoring the idea that principal dualities invoked by ocularcentric thinking - dualities between the one who sees and the object seen, for example - already presuppose more tacitly understood and more epistemologically prior relations between voice and meaning. The inner voice in correspondence with an inner meaning (i.e., ‘‘thought’’), constructs a larger conceptual duality: consciousness and world or subjectivity and objectivity. And it is only through this larger duality that conceptual distinctions between inner and outer, nerve stimuli and image can be formulated. This phonetic paradigm for certainty is that of hearing one’s own voice and knowing simultaneously what one means. From this close relation between two things, meaning and voice, a number of core dualities are argued to owe their constitution (see discussion of Derrida below). Phonetic theories of truth have been revealed to be as problematical, under close examination, as ocular theories. For this reason I follow Derrida and call them ‘‘phonocentric.’’

Phonocentric theories of meaning also attempt to ground a correspondence theory of truth. This time the correspondence is between a sign and its meaning rather than between a perception and its object. If true, this would solve some problems presented by ocularcentric correspondence theories. If I say ‘‘meadow’’ at a time when I am not seeing a meadow, what grounds the meaning of the term? If I say ‘‘freedom’’ and thus indicate something that cannot be literally seen at any time, what grounds the meaning of this word? It might be that concepts like ‘‘meadow’’ and ‘‘freedom’’ are ‘‘ideal objects’’ – concepts -  are expressed by words in singular correspondence with them. Without some sort of theory like this it would be difficult to move from an ocularcentric correspondence theory of truth to a theory of signs and language7.

Notice that Nietzsche’s statements on metaphor fall short of a full critique of phonocentrism just as they fell short in the case of ocularcentrism. The voice, for Nietzsche, represents a meaning (‘‘image’’) but does so metaphorically instead of through a relation of simple correspondence. We still find a duality between image and voice assumed. It is only their relation that Nietzsche puts into question. There are deeper criticisms of phonocentrism than this and these will be discussed later on in this paper.


Ocularcentrism and phonocentrism are at the root of most, if not all, correspondence theories of truth. Correspondence theories of truth have long been discredited in formal philosophy but they live happily, if implicitly, in mainstream research methodologies within the social sciences8. Correspondence theories of truth either take or assume a relation of identity between a duality of some kind, making this foundational for other dualities. Many versions of correspondence theory exist, each emphasizing a different duality explicitly but most implicitly assuming ocular or phonocentrism at bottom. There are theories emphasizing duality between interpretative schema and contents, appearances and the forces that produce them, a system of words and a system of reality, mind and matter, consciousness and phenomena, an ideological system and a social reality that produces both it and its own inverted or distorted appearance through it. At the bottom of them all we generally find either ocularcentric or phonocentric assumptions - beliefs that either ocular or auditory perception provides access to, as Hume put it, things that each ‘‘be what it seems and seem what it is’’ (in Davidson 2001, p. 37).

Counter-Enlightenment thought has challenged ocular- and phonocentric theories of truth, along with the notion of truth as correspondence, right from its beginning in the eighteenth century (Berlin 2000).9 The main purpose of this essay is to explore themes of the counter-Enlightenment problematic as we find it today in schools of education and social science departments - within the discourses of postmodernism and criticalism. The parameters of this problematic include different ways of critiquing ocularcentrism and phonocentrism. The diverse ways in which postmodernism and criticalism deal with these two centrisms correspond to different understandings of knowledge and power, knowledge and representation, sameness and difference. An additional parameter is the concept of self.

By beginning my discussion with phonocentrism and ocularcentrism it will be natural to first introduce postmodernist themes influential today because these themes have risen very explicitly from an attack on phonocentrism in some cases, ocularcentrism in others. We later see, however, that some very popular postmodern discourses are themselves ocularcentric at bottom, and flawed as a result. Principles core to a contemporary version of critical theory will next be explored in relation to these same three pairs of concepts and the ocular and auditory paradigms of certainty. The last section of the paper suggests convergences between some postmodernist themes and criticalist principles and explores the question of whether a way out of this problematic might be possible. If a way out is possible this will help to remove the barrier of incommensurability between postmodern and critical discourses. That would make possible more communication and debate between the diverse communities they represent. If my suggestions prove to make the good sense I think they do, then certain postmodernist formulations now popular among some educational researchers will be found flawed and the criticalist perspective will be found most promising but nevertheless in need of further work and development.



Oswald Spengler wrote the following about ocularcentrism in The Decline of the West:

The act of fixation by two eyes…is equivalent to the birth of the world, in the sense that Man possesses a world - that is, as a picture, as a world before the eyes, as a world…of perspective distance, of space and motions in space….This way of seeing…implies in itself the notion of domination. The world-picture is the environment insofar as it is dominated by the eyes….The world is prey, and in the last analysis human culture itself has arisen from this fact. (Quoted in Ree, 1999, p. 4; italics in original)

In Spengler’s passage we see a theme later expressed more moderately by some postempiricist philosophers of science (Hesse 1980) and the early Habermas (1971)Fscience as the pursuit of that kind of knowledge that allows for control and manipulation of the environment so as to make it something to exploit. However, Spengler and other critics of Western culture, particularly Western culture since the Enlightenment, find ocularcentrism at the heart of all knowledge within this tradition. Power is related to knowledge which is related to visual perception, a theme to be picked up and developed in new directions by Foucault during the 1960s and 70s (see section below). For Spengler and the pre-Foucaultian critics, however, power was not linked to knowledge as a shaper of what is known, but rather as part of the motivation for acquiring knowledge and using it.

Ocularcentrism is at work in most epistemological theories that make sense experience the foundation for certain knowledge because seeing is generally taken to be the paradigm for perception. Long before the Enlightenment Augustine wrote:

Seeing belongs properly to the eyes. But we even use this word ‘‘seeing’’ for the other senses when we devote them to cognizing….We not only say, ‘‘See how that shines’’, when the eyes alone can perceive it; but we even say, ‘‘See how that sounds’’, ‘‘See how that is scented’’, ‘‘See how that tastes’’, ‘‘See how hard that is’’. (Quoted in Heidegger, 1962, p. 215, §36)

As already discussed, other critics of modernity have moved in a different direction. Western culture, they claim, has been phonocentric. It has been characterized by what Julia Kristeva (see Ree, 1999, 5) called ‘‘the phonetic consciousness,’’ which regards the voice and in particular hearing one’s own voice as a paradigm for self-conscious certainty. The difference between an emphasis on the eye and an emphasis on the ear corresponds to two different convictions about what sort of knowledge is most certain. In one case it is the knowledge a subject acquires when seeing an object, in the other case it is the knowledge one has of the meaning of one’s own utterances.

The paradigm for phonocentrism has already been explained as that of hearing one’s self speak and knowing what one means in the same moment. But phonocentric theories actually take their first step by moving from this common experience of actual speaking to an associated experience: thinking a word or expression, ‘‘hearing’’ this purely inside one’s mind, and knowing the meaning of one’s thoughts simultaneously. This is not an ostentatious step to take. Much of our thinking that is in words and sentences does produce a sort of inner sound within us. We even subvocalize while thinking often enough, slightly moving our mouths and throats while in thought. In this extended case, where the voice is now a ‘‘phenomenological voice,’’ an ‘‘inner voice,’’ but not a literal material voice, and where hearing the voice is no longer through the ear but rather something occurring within consciousness, the distinction between meaning and symbol, referent and sign, most dramatically seems to disappear. A sameness breaks in two. A thought is found to be a meaning and a sound simultaneously. From the ‘‘meaning’’ we acquire the concept of an ‘‘inside’’ and from the ‘‘sound’’ we acquire the concept of an outside: consciousness and world. Truth is correspondence and all correspondence in any way dependent on the distinction between inner and outer seems to reside here with the phenomenological voice. From this sameness the correspondence of sign and referent, signifier and signified, seems to have a ground. An expression means what it means to me when I think it. When I say it to another it invokes the same experience within her, thus preserving sameness of meaning for us both.

Derrida (1973) writes of this in the following passage, making a distinction between writing and speaking to display the special status given to the voice in Western philosophy and metaphysics:

every nonphonic signifier involves a spatial reference in its very

‘‘phenomenon,’’ in the phenomenological (nonworldly) sphere of experience in which it is given. The sense of being ‘‘outside,’’ ‘‘in the world,’’ is an essential component of its phenomenon. Apparently there is nothing like this in the phenomenon of speech. In phenomenological interiority, hearing oneself and seeing oneself are two radically different orders of self-relation. (p. 76)

Derrida’s deliberate contrast between the voice, the ‘‘phonic signifier,’’ and the written sign, a ‘‘nonphonic signifier,’’ is an initial move in his eventual deconstruction of phonocentrism. During the course of this deconstruction ‘‘writing’’ turns out to have a more primary status than speaking. But by the end of Derrida’s deconstruction it makes no sense to argue that anything at all is ‘‘primary’’ - neither speaking nor writing. Because a sign indicating an external object (or a category of external objects) is meaningful whether or not the external object is present, ocularcentric theories of knowledge invite the complication of ‘‘ideal objects,’’ or ‘‘meanings,’’ or ‘‘concepts’’ associated with signs. Phonocentric theories could seem a promising way to explain that complication. If the object signified is not present how do we know what the signifier means? How do we understand a word like ‘‘meadow’’? Perhaps we understand because it is a meaning or concept that is present to our minds. But it is presence itself that Derrida eventually deconstructs. This deconstruction will be discussed in detail later on.

With the term ‘‘phonocentrism’’ a criticism is lodged against assumptions about the relation between signs and their ideal meaning. The term ‘‘ocularcentrism’’ lodges a criticism against assumptions about how subjects come to know objects. Of the two, phonocentrism is more deep-seated for it seems to be at the heart of the subject/object distinction, the external/ internal distinction, the knowledge/world distinction that are already assumed by theories that take seeing to be their paradigm of certain knowledge. An ocularcentric theory, that is to say, already presupposes categories dependent on phonocentric metaphors. Derrida (1973) writes:

The history of metaphysics…can be expressed as the unfolding of the structure or schema of an absolute will-to-hear-oneself-speak. (p. 102; italics in original)

Nevertheless, phonocentrism is not as immediately intuitive as ocularcentrism within Enlightenment culture. It clearly suggests itself whenever one asks such things as how a sign based primordially on visual experiences of objects brings its reference to consciousness when the actual object is not present. Or how other types of signs bring an abstract concept to consciousness. But few social researchers ask these questions or, even if they do, regard them as relevant to the conduct of research. So it has been in philosophy, rather than science, that phonocentric correspondence theories have been explored.


Power and Knowledge

The Enlightenment tradition with its correspondence and representational theory of knowledge found its way into science and philosophies of science alongside the notion of ‘‘value neutrality.’’ Value neutrality and correspondence as truth have pre-Enlightenment origins in the ‘‘new learning’’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when both the rationalist and empiricist traditions emerged. I am referring here, of course, only to Western cultural history. The ‘‘new learning’’ was a liberalizing movement opposed to dogma and church authority. Value neutrality was accordingly a principle of ‘‘power neutrality.’’ It was a way to distinguish knowledge from authority and tradition. A rose is a rose is a rose to the empiricist (and early rationalist) no matter who perceives it, no matter what cultural and religious traditions would have it be. Knowledge is the same for all, independent of the values and interests of particular people or groups.

Hence, when Francis Bacon claimed, ‘‘knowledge is power,’’ he meant that knowledge tells us how things work and thus how to use and manipulate things so that we become more powerful in our pursuit of goals. He implied as well that all people could access this power no matter what social position they held, thus freeing themselves from dogma and authority. This way of understanding the power and knowledge relation is consistent with the culture of modernity and with Spengler’s critique quoted above. Bacon’s famous dictum really means that knowledge itself is not power but rather a tool that provides power. Power is located in all subjects as a potentiality that knowledge can manifest and enhance. Our knowledge makes us more powerful in realizing our various desires and goals. Bacon’s proclamation was intended to distinguish between knowledge and belief, between true and false knowledge.

For knowledge to be a tool of power in Bacon’s sense it must be true knowledge. ‘‘Knowledge’’ in this case is simply synonymous with ‘‘true knowledge.’’ But knowledge and power can be related in different ways than this. Knowledge can also be powerful, figuratively speaking, if it is false. This is particularly the case when we consider social, normative, and moral knowledge. If the ‘‘knowledge’’ of large numbers of people falsely dupes them into mistaking their subordinate social position to be legitimate, natural, inevitable, or even not a subordinate position, then this knowledge will be powerful for the small group of people in superordinate positions. The power of false knowledge like this resides once again in actors, not in knowledge per se, and in this case it is the limitations put on the range of action of the many (by believing false knowledge to be true) that makes the few more powerful.

This idea emerged historically as ideology theory (Abercrombie 1980). Classical ideology theory emerged with influence in the nineteenth century. It contrasted knowledge that is distorted by the socially constructed interests of the powerful - that is, ideology - with true knowledge. Emancipation requires liberation from false beliefs. Thus ideology theory relates power and knowledge in a manner that simply extended Bacon’s famous statement - power resides in the subject, and knowledge will either enable (a la Bacon) or inhibit (a la ideology theory) this power that has its location in the potentialities of desiring, needing and acting subjects.

Power-Knowledge: The Gaze

A popular postmodern/poststructural theme today has it that knowledge is power literally, not as a figure of speech. According to this view, true knowledge does not provide power and false knowledge does not constrain and restrict power. Rather, when we say ‘‘knowledge’’ we must also mean

‘‘power’’ and we can most accurately use the expression ‘‘power-knowledge’’ to get this across. There is no difference between true and false knowledge and there is no such thing as a subject that exists aside from power-knowledge.

This theme has origins in the work of Michel Foucault (1979, p. 27). The idea here is that before the true and false distinction, before even the categories of ‘‘the subject’’ and ‘‘socially constructed interests,’’ is knowledge. And before knowledge, is power - which is to say that knowledge and a host of related things are generated by, and convey, power. Knowledge here is most often taken to be synonymous with the expression ‘‘discourse-practices.’’ This is because knowledge is part of a pattern of activity, a practice. Discourse-practices construct all categories of ‘‘the subject’’ and thus the subject’s ‘‘interests.’’ And in many versions of this view even the subject’s desires and ‘‘needs’’ are products of discourse-practices. Discourse-practices are generative of subjectivity and as such they are power itself. Hence those who take this theme seriously do not speak and write of power and knowledge but rather power-knowledge.

This theme is very popular in some circles of educational researchers today (Popkewitz, Franklin, and Pereyra, 2001). It has been formulated in a way that takes ocularcentrism to a new level because it retains the metaphor of ‘‘seeing’’ in its concept of knowledge and uses the same metaphor in its concept of power. Seeing is ‘‘the gaze’’ and the gaze is power-knowledge. Foucault with his famous example of the panopticon introduced the paradigm of a gaze that both constructs the subjects gazed at and subjugates them simultaneously. The panopticon was the ‘‘enlightened’’ prison proposed by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Bentham proposed the idea of architecturally designing prisons to allow for the observation of all prisoners at once by a single guard. The design kept the observer unseen to the prisoners who were in individual cells. The cells had special windows that would provide backlighting to keep the prisoners completely visible. Seeing-without-being-seen is the paradigm for power here. Such power, paradigmatically represented by the panopticon, is a kind of surveillance. This metaphor of the gaze as power-knowledge is discussed in many publications by Foucault both directly and implicitly through other metaphors that he employs (Foucault, 1979, 1980, 1983, but especially 1979, p. 205 and 2000, p. 58).

Foucault took Bentham’s proposal to paradigmatically represent the workings of power-knowledge and this has had a major influence on a number of scholarly and research communities. The panopticon is not just a metaphor for the ‘‘social science’’ of our post-Enlightenment period, it is an embodiment of that ‘‘science,’’ it is a proposed practice made within a larger discourse-practice growing at the time of Bentham. And the important thing is not that the panopticon would have allowed an efficient method for prison guards to control prisoners but that it was a proposal made within a discourse-practice (by a discourse-practice) that had also constructed the very subjects of prisoners and prison administrators. These subjects are products of the so-called ‘‘science’’ of criminology, whose initial emergence is paradigmatically represented in the panopticon. Power-knowledge is generative.

Criminology is an example of a discourse-practice that constructs its subjects and their social relations from within. Foucault’s studies of the history of the prison, the insane asylum, and sexuality are studies of discourse-practices - ways of seeing, talking, writing and acting that construct the subjectivity of those that the talking is about. The discourses construct what then may be seen, understood, and subjugated.

‘‘Knowledge is a regime,’’ writes Foucault (1979, pp. 27–8). Knowledge and power are two sides of the same coin. And power is not the subject-centered ability to get what one wants or manipulate things according to one’s interests by knowing how things work. Power is not what Bacon thought it was. Neither is power the result of false knowledge, ideology, that limits the range of action available to subordinated subjects. Rather power is something objective from the start, subjectless and anonymous - that which constructs desires and interests and subjectivity in the first place.

Butler (1990) writes from the fundamental imagery of gaze theory in her discussion of the law, which consists of discourse-practices that embody

‘‘juridical power.’’

In effect, the law produces and then conceals the notion of a ‘‘subject before the law’’ in order to involve that discursive formation as a naturalized foundational premise that subsequently legitimates that law’s own regulatory hegemony. (p. 2)

The power of the discourse-practice is first generative, in that it creates a category of subjectivity within a basically arbitrary complex of knowledge- practices. It is secondly ideological, in that it masks the fact that it has created its own subject by seeming to represent it. The ‘‘subject’’ of a discourse-practice is a mere product of the categories at play within the discourse-practice, but these categories appear to represent ‘‘natural essences’’ outside. Representation is a mask that hides generation. There are no essences, only discourse-practices and ‘‘power.’’ Poststructuralist and postmodernist writings consistently use the term ‘‘essentialism’’ to mean something bad. There are no essences, but discourse-practices create the suggestion of them. Theories are essentialist if they appear to be about something that has an existence outside of themselves - if they appear to represent a reality that does not ontologically depend on theories. Or, more subtly and accurately, theories are essentialist when they seem to be about something outside of the referenced essences that more everyday cultural discourse-practices construct and that the theories, another level of discourse-practice, purport to explain.

In summary, the logic of Foucaultian themes goes as follows: A discourse- practice constructs subjects but then appears to represent them, and in so doing masks their origins in the generative processes of the discourse-practice itself. The subjects so constructed are also subjugated to an unseen, anonymous and subjectless gaze. Thus knowledge is both generative and subjugating power, representation is deception, sameness (the subject categories generated such as ‘‘prisoners,’’ ‘‘the insane,’’ ‘‘legal subjects’’) is a product of power.

Gaze Theory Undermines Itself: Second-, Third-, and First-Person Articulations

The Second Person Articulation. Gaze theory is built from a root metaphor that implicates the three formal speech positions.10 The second person position constructed is that of being subject to a gaze, the third person position is found when we conceptualize society and its institutions as a ‘‘network’’ of discourse-practices, and the first person position is revealed when we ask what it means for anyone to claim to know that this theory of knowledge, power and society is a true theory. All three perspectives are built within the root imagery and it is illuminating to examine articulations of gaze theory from each of the three. I begin with the second person articulation.

The second person position implicated by gaze theory is the position of the prisoner being observed within the panoptic prison. It is also the position of the woman living within a patriarchal culture where the very category of ‘‘woman,’’ and many other categories as well, turn out to be constructed in relation to a generalized male audience. It is the position occupied by minorities who find their own self-perceptions strongly formed from a generalized, internalized, white perspective. It is the position of those living in postcolonial nations whose construction of themselves will often favor the view, the gaze, of a generalized European audience. Foucault’s idea that discourse-practices construct subjects would merely be a sort of extreme modification of ‘‘labeling theory’’ if it did not speak to the internalization of the gaze. The power of the gaze is that of an internalized hegemonic other whose position subjects take in the construction of their identities. One’s identities are a range of ‘‘me’s,’’ of second-person categories resourced and constrained by cultural milieu. We produce these identities for ourselves but only by taking the position of culturally provided abstract others to metaphorically gaze back upon ourselves, placing ourselves in this way within the second-person position.

This second person articulation of gaze theory makes good sense, but remains unfinished with Foucault. Certainly in institutional settings one is a subject before the law, a subject within a prison, a subject within an asylum, a student, a patient, and so on, only in some socially constructed sense. In less institutionalized settings the same insight applies to many other features of what it means to be a subject. It applies to sexuality and the self, for example. But this insight articulates most convincingly if understood in terms of the dialogic construction of the self within cultural conditions. In contrast to Foucault, I would argue that power and subjectivity are most primordially related through the dialogic structure of the self that splits between an ‘‘I’’ and multiple ‘‘me’s.’’ To gaze back at one’s self through cultural categories is to be both an ‘‘I’’ who gazes and a ‘‘me’’ who is gazed upon.

Foucault does not conceptualize things in this way at all. Indeed, he would no doubt regard the very idea of a distinction between the ‘‘I’’ and the ‘‘me’’ to be the product of a discourse-practice, a form of subject-centered reasoning that his work has shown to be incorrect, or at least historically contingent. But I believe that the appeal of his theory of the gaze and power-knowledge derives from an insight he expressed, and this insight is better captured with the dialogic theory of subjectivity and the self. The insight captures what it is like to find one’s self and even think of one’s self as a prisoner, woman, student, patient, and so on. It captures but misarticulates what it is like to regard one’s self through such categories but then feel that something is wrong with it, oppressive about it. The ‘‘I’’ is a structure within us all and it differs from any ‘‘me’’ we may identify with. The ‘‘I’’ is not limited to the prison guard, the doctor, the teacher, or any powerful unseen ‘‘other,’’ but is a part of us all, in all contexts.

Were this not the case it would make little sense to use a term like ‘‘subjugate’’ when writing of the power of discourse-practices. The ‘‘me’’ is not what is subjugated. What is subjugated has something to do with the ‘‘I-and-me’’ relation, something about a problem, or constraint, or a lack of fit in this relation. If I use labeling theory to argue that labels like ‘‘prisoner’’ subjugate people, I distinguish between the label and the person in order to give sense to the concept of subjugation. If I move beyond labeling theory to argue that it is the person or subject who is produced, but allow no ‘‘I’’ to this subject, no structure of the self that differs from the ‘‘me,’’ I have nothing left over for subjugation. No prisoner is only that, only a prisoner.

We produce our selves through expressive activity or ‘‘praxis’’ (see section on criticalism below). We generate our ‘‘me’s’’ in distinction from the ‘‘I’’ but with a longing between them that I will relate to Derrida’s

‘‘longing for presence’’ in a later section. Power is most primordially to be found in the processes of self-production, an idea closer to Nietzsche’s will-to-power than to Foucault’s external gaze. Indeed, it is only by adding the idea of internalizing an external gaze to Foucault that his insight comes to the fore. When cultural conditions are oppressive, this is because they do not facilitate but rather inhibit the orientation of subjectivity toward freedom, autonomy and the expressive development of self through praxis. Such an orientation remains unexplained and inexplicable within a theory that places power outside the subject. But I have more to say about this in the section on criticalism later.

For gaze theorists the ‘‘gaze’’ has its ontological grounding in a quasi-objective ‘‘discourse-practice’’ that fully constructs all subjects and subjectivities within it. There are no subjects and subjectivities that are not within a discourse-practice. For critical theorists the gaze has its ontological grounding in the internalized generalized other (Mead, 1934). The ‘‘I’’ and ‘‘me’’ distinction is hugely important for the version of critical theory I find promising. The ‘‘I’’ has no qualities and is not an entity but is rather the experienced difference between awareness and all of one’s specific qualities, all of one’s life-narrative and ‘‘personality.’’ Reflection and self-expression give us the difference. This difference makes sense of the term ‘‘oppression’’ because it provides us with something that is oppressed (and thus not fully generated by a discourse-practice). What is oppressed is not the ‘‘I’’ but the dynamic I-me relation. Thinking of the self in this way gives us an explanation for the historical fact that oppressed people can become aware of their oppression and challenge it, a fact that Foucault acknowledges but does not well explain. Because of the I-me difference we can become conscious of the discourse-practices within which we live and of the ‘‘me’s’’ they supply for us. Because of the I-me difference we can create and protest and change. The gaze, for the critical theorist, is culturally constructed but the subject constructs herself through it and often enough in opposition to it.

The Third Person Articulation. Thus the second person articulation of gaze theory coincides with the way in which a critical theorist would explain cultural oppression but it leaves out the all-important distinction between

‘‘I’’ and ‘‘me’’ - the distinction through which critical theorists (at least those who adhere to the genre of criticalism that I do) articulate this same insight. Power for the critical theorist has an expression here in the conditions through which people construct their identities. Power for the gaze theorist is conceptualized as a quasi-objective generative force - it resides in the ‘‘discourse-practice’’ itself such that a discourse-practice is not a condition for self-production but its very source.

Now let’s stick with the postmodern version of gaze theory and look at its other articulations. From the second person perspective on gaze theory we may quickly move into a third person perspective such that we model society almost geometrically as a network of centers, gaze-centers constructed by various discourse-practices with origins nearly lost in historical time. There is not one center, not one gaze, but a complex network of multiple gazes, multiple discourse-practices. In this model those who live, culturally, near some of the centers have been constructed as powerful and those who live at the margins have been constructed as powerless. This ‘‘model’’ or ‘‘scene’’ stands just behind the commonly used postmodern metaphors of the ‘‘center’’ and the ‘‘margin’’ or ‘‘periphery.’’ We ‘‘see’’ this model in our mind’s eye, see societies modeled as complex networks of centers and peripheries with the objective forces of power-knowledges generating the regions we view.

As soon as we start talking or writing about centers and peripheries and objectively modeled knowledge-discourse-powers we have moved from second to third person position in our perspective. Gaze theory articulates into a third person position when it is used to conceptualize society-wide or even global social relations. It gives us a sort of ‘‘objective model’’ of society as if we could stand back and look at what its basic structures are. The forces that produce this geographic array of centers and peripheries are discourse-practices and power-knowledges that operate much like forces in nature. They just happen. They are not the result of choices, deliberations, or even innate desires because those things are all subjective and all constructed by the forces at play.

‘‘The subject is dead,’’ is a Foucaultian slogan, and by this is meant that power is not something tied to agency but rather totally constitutive of agency. It is from this sort of image that currently popular writings on ‘‘rationalities’’ and ‘‘epistemologies’’ (in the plural) are articulated to provide a view of all human reasoning and action from the outside (Popkewitz, Franklin, and Pereyra, 2001). All human knowledge takes the form of power-knowledge, discourse-practices, that grew from multiple and non-unified points of origin to combine into ‘‘regimes.’’ Within any such discourse-practice it will seem that all categories of knowledge are universal and true. But from this outside, third-person perspective we can see that all such categories are actually contingent. It is from this image that writers often discuss the marginalized, those who live outside the centers of power, at the edges of its domains, and whose voices are silenced.

The First Person Articulation. Now comes the question of self-reference, the acid test for any theory of knowledge. Can the theory explain itself as a type of knowledge? There is an implicit but crucial first-person position presupposed by gaze theory that lies almost hidden and just behind the third-person articulation. This first-person position is not fully articulated by gaze theorists for to do so would be to undermine gaze theory itself. The third-person position is an objective view of knowledge, power, and discourses that has them appear as forces. All knowledge examined in this way is power-knowledge - a force that constructs both what is known and the knower.

But what about we who use this theory? Is not the theory itself another type of discourse-practice that constructs us and our objects of knowledge? Are not we who use this theory trying to subjugate everything to our gaze, and doing this as subjects? Are not we the ‘‘unseen’’ who gaze? This conclusion would not be accepted by gaze theorists and yet it is implicitly claimed by them. We who occupy the first-person position of those who theorize about all knowledge and all power and all of society, we also must then be within an objective sort of discourse-practice. But then who is to say that our model is correct or incorrect? We cannot, because we are within it and subject to it. There is no distinction between knowledge and power that would provide us with criteria for distinguishing between correct and incorrect, better or worse, more or less accurate. If it is anonymous power alone that generates all theories, and not some distinction between accurate and inaccurate, right or wrong, then all theories are equivalent when it comes to arguing for one or another. Why, then, accept this model at all? If knowledge is simply equated with power then how can we know that knowledge and power are or are not distinct? If our subjectivity is constructed from ‘‘outside’’ then how can we reflect to compare arguments? Why not just assert a contrary theory and thereby simply align ourselves with a different discourse-practice? Since no discourse-practice can be argued to be more valid or correct than any other, there is no reason not to do so.

In fact, as soon as we reflect from the third-person position to notice ourselves within a discourse-practice the possibility of saying ‘‘no’’ to the model presents itself. The ‘‘I’’ and the ‘‘me’’ distinction cannot be avoided in our experience and those who advocate gaze theory cannot help but implicitly assume this distinction. The model made it appear, tacitly, that this gaze theory version of knowledge was a privileged one, the only view that is more than a discourse-practice because it is claimed to be a ‘‘true’’ view of the situation. But the model has not built self-reference adequately within itself. Gaze theory cannot explain why it above all other theories of knowledge is correct, which would mean that it is ‘‘knowledge-without-power,’’ yet it claims itself necessarily to be just this. The model contradicts and undermines itself when we reflect from the third person position it readily provides to notice the first person position of the theorist and those who use the theory. This is ocularcentrism at a new level.

In other words, the ocularcentrism of gaze theory is unexamined by those who use it. Its use has been less self-reflective than have theories based on the modernist versions of ocularcentrism that gaze theory opposes. It clearly fails the self-reference test. A contradiction results when one asks about gaze theory’s own status as a piece of knowledge and looks for answers in its own terms. It’s best insight is that delivered by the second-person articulation - which, as an insight pertains to an understanding of cultural power in terms of the dialogic structures of the self. But that particular idea, an idea that has been around since at least Hegel, appears here in truncated form - the ‘‘I’’ deleted to leave us with only a ‘‘me’’ incapable of self-reflection.

To summarize this discussion of gaze theory, ocularcentrism has been argued to be at the heart of our most widely distributed and accepted versions of the correspondence theory of truth. Gaze theory is a popular alternative to the correspondence theory of truth. It is an alternative for it has challenged the power-neutrality of correspondence theories of truth. Instead of correspondence we have construction and generation. Systems of representation do not really represent; they produce. Yet it turns out that gaze theory is even more ocularcentric than are correspondence theories of truth. Gaze theory appears to have taken one feature of the correspondence theory of truth, the metaphor of seeing something as paradigmatic for certainty and for knowledge itself, and then dropped one side of the correspondence dualities and suppressed the other. The side it has dropped is the side of real things that exist in independence from our knowledge of them, the side of ‘‘objects’’ and ‘‘essences.’’ The side it has suppressed is the side of the subject who knows, for this side has only been displaced and hidden as the first-person position of the gaze-theorist and her audience. The ‘‘I’’ and the ‘‘me’’ distinction remains necessarily within gaze theory but the ‘‘I’’ has been denied to all human beings other than those who advocate this theory. Gaze theory itself has masked its own ideology of privilege and when the mask is removed we find a self-contradiction.

Is this failure at self-reference connected with the ocularcentrism of gaze theory? And what, if anything, is wrong with ocularcentrism at the level of correspondence theories of truth? Perhaps we should return to them since gaze theory proves to be self-contradictory.

The next section will discuss another postmodern theme to show exactly why we should be suspicious of ocularcentrism in any form. Gaze theory has treated the relation between knowledge and power, and the relation between knowledge and representation, in ways that sought to escape Enlightenment assumptions based on ocularcentrism. But gaze theory is more guilty of ocularcentrism than our mainstream beliefs in a correspondence theory of truth. The next section concerns other postmodern themes that put the sameness and difference relation in the fore.


The other postmodern theme I wish to discuss in this paper receives an A1 on self-reference. This is deconstruction, probably the best challenge to ocularcentrism we have available even though it is better known for its more explicit and equally devastating challenge to phonocentrism. The founding father is Jacques Derrida, a Zen master of Western philosophy.


Derrida’s many writings reveal the workings of a ‘‘metaphysics of presence’’ in many of the classical works of Western philosophy. The ‘‘metaphysics of presence’’ is built on a deep assumption that being is presence, that truth is based on presence, and that knowledge originates in presence. Derrida (1973) writes:

within philosophy there is no possible objection concerning this privilege of the present-now; it defines the very element of philosophical thought, it is evidence itself, conscious thought itself, it governs every possible concept of truth and sense. No sooner do we question this privilege than we begin to get at the core of consciousness itself from a region that lies elsewhere than philosophy, a procedure that would remove every possible security and ground from discourse. (p. 62)

The concept of ‘‘ground’’ is tied to a belief in presence. This is easy to understand with respect to the ocularcentric correspondence theory of truth, though Derrida dives deeper than this in his deconstruction of presence. In terms of the ocularcentric correspondence theory of truth, particularly in its most widely used versions, the paradigm for certain knowledge is having an object before one and seeing it, thus knowing it to be much as it appears to be.

We then move from this ground of certainty to naming what is before us with a word or ‘‘sign.’’ This is a paradigm for certainty that inhabits many of our assumptions in mainstream inquiry - the concern we have with measurements, observations, interrater reliability and so forth. Observation is the bottom line. Validity and reliability are constructs designed to ensure undistorted observation. Observation presupposes presence.

But what is presence? Husserl, the founder of philosophical phenomenology, analyzed the appearance of things, phenomena, with great care. He did so by assuming all along that phenomena are continuously experienced as presences before consciousness. The category of presence itself becomes problematical when its conjuncture with a theory of time comes into the foreground. There is a temporal problematic associated with the concept of presence. The idea that something can be present to us to give us certain knowledge of itself and its properties requires some notion of time. What is present to us is present within a moment. It is always a ‘‘present now’’ that was not just before and will not be in the future. Neither the past nor the future can be present, only the ‘‘now’’ can be. The term ‘‘present’’ brings spatiality and temporality together, which is why it is best indicated with two indexical expressions: ‘‘here’’ and ‘‘now.’’ Derrida’s early work on Husserl exploited the problems that arise when one examines this idea of a ‘‘now,’’ a ‘‘moment,’’ carefully.

Husserl heightened our attention to experience and put the idea of existence into question. He explained that what is before us in a moment of presence is not really an existing thing but rather a perspective on what we infer to be (‘‘constitute as’’) an existing thing. Phenomena, not things, are what present themselves to us in experience. If I look at a pen on a table I can be certain that a perspective on the pen is before me (a phenomenon) but not that a ‘‘pen’’ exists there. I cannot see all sides of the pen at once, nor do I have certain knowledge that I am not dreaming or hallucinating or misperceiving. An innovation of Husserl’s was to acknowledge all those sorts of uncertainties that accompany perception so as to emphasize what is left once those have been stripped away. What are left are phenomena. In the case of the pen what is left is a phenomenon from which I automatically infer (‘‘constitute’’) the full pen. I do not have certain knowledge of anything else in this experience, certainly not of the pen’s actual existence:

These objects of experience point to a hidden mental accomplishment and to the problem of what kind of accomplishment this can be.

(Husserl, 1970, p. 94)

Husserl put existence into brackets (via ‘‘phenomenological reductions’’), as something to explain later after all the details of experiencing phenomena are carefully examined.11 From the ground of certainty that we know phenomena when they are present to us we can conduct our further philosophical investigations. This ground of certainty was called ‘‘the principle of all principles’’ by Husserl (1962):

No theory we can conceive can mislead us in regard to the principle of all principles: that every primordial dator Intuition is a source of authority (Rechtsquelle) for knowledge, that whatever presents itself in ‘intuition’ in primordial form (as it were in its bodily reality), is simply to be accepted as it gives itself out to be, though only within the limits in which it then presents itself. Let our insight grasp this fact that the theory itself in its turn could not derive its truth except from primordial data. Every statement which does nothing more than give expression to such data through merely unfolding their meaning and adjusting it accurately is thus really, as we have put it in the introductory words of this chapter, an absolute beginning, called in a genuine sense to provide foundations, a principium. (pp. 83–84, §24)

‘‘Within the limits in which it then presents itself ’’ can be understood in terms of the distinction between phenomena and existing things. ‘‘Primordial data’’ is here phenomena experienced in a moment of presence.

Phenomena can be present to us only within a moment. So the principle of all principles, and, by extension, the correspondence theory of truth (and, by implication, typical versions of ocularcentrism12), are each dependent on assumptions about time. We need to understand what a moment is if we are to understand what a ‘‘moment of presence’’ is. Husserl noticed that when experiencing a phenomenon during a moment in which it is present to us, our experience is partly informed by experiences just temporally prior. I notice the pen, move my eyes to see another side of this ‘‘same’’ pen, and the experiences I have while looking draw upon my just previous experiences and do so prereflectively. Thus a phenomenon itself involves and requires past phenomena (see Husserl, 1970, p. 158). The same is true if I just stare at the pen without shifting perspectives. While I stare, moments pass by. Each time I consciously notice a moment I mark off a distinction between past moments of noticing. The past moments contribute to any moment of my conscious perception.

Husserl called this feature of present-experience ‘‘retention.’’ Each moment in which a phenomenon is present to me retains something of my experiences during the moment just gone by. In addition, there is ‘‘protention.’’ Each moment in which a phenomenon is present to me is partly constituted by expectations of the immediate future:

The perspectives combine in an advancing enrichment of meaning and a continuing development of meaning, such that what no longer appears is still valid as retained [i.e.: retention - Carspecken] and such that the prior meaning which anticipates a continuous flow, the expectation of ‘‘what is to come,’’ [i.e.: protention - Carspecken] is straightway fulfilled and more closely determined. (Husserl, 1970, p. 158)13

Derrida’s deconstruction works upon the problematical concept of ‘‘retention.’’ Derrida (1973) quotes Husserl: ‘‘[The] now-apprehension is, as it were, the nucleus of a comet’s tail of retentions’’; and: ‘‘ya punctual phase is actually present as now at any given moment, while the others are connected as a retentional train’’ (p. 62).

But if a moment in which a phenomenon is present to consciousness consists of retentions and protentions then what happens to the ‘‘principle of all principles’’? Husserl claimed that retentions and protentions are also phenomena present to consciousness, to ‘‘direct intuition,’’ but this seems clearly wrong. A retention is not a phenomenon present to me, it is more like the trace left by a phenomenon just gone by. It is like a primordial form of memory, not a moment in which an object is present to consciousness without mediation of any kind. And yet any and all phenomena have retentions and protentions. Retentions and protentions are detours to presence. They reference ‘‘real’’ presences that have just passed or are just about to come and that are therefore absent in the moment. As something present, they would be present-traces and work like signs to signify that which left them behind. They are experiential mediations, which is exactly what Husserl wanted to avoid for his ultimate ground to knowledge - the principle of all principles.

The Trace

The Ocular Metaphor. Derrida deconstructs Husserl’s use of presence in a number of ways but the way in which he pits Husserl’s own reasoning against itself on the matter of retention is probably the most well known. Because of retention presence is inhabited by absence. A retention is not what is retained but rather its imprint or trace on a present to which it no longer belongs. Presence is inhabited by absence. The comet’s tail of retentions are signs of what left them. We can see the comet and we can see the tail all at once. But if the tail is a set of retentions that are understood to be retentions in the moment of presence, then they are not simply something present but the marks left in moments gone by. They are absences, signs, traces. In addition, because this paradigmatic image of the comet with a tail gives us the idea of traces, the tail, as also phenomena - that is, as present-traces - we can deconstruct the concept of trace. A trace itself, if it is a present-trace, has its own retentions and protentions and thus includes traces of traces. The logic produces a regression: traces of traces of traces…

Notice that this reasoning offered by Husserl has an ocularcentric frame. The comet, its tail, the punctual now and its retentional train, are images that invite us to examine how we see things. Indeed, the concept of presence is perhaps most immediately accessible through an examination of visual perception. We see any object and about this object is a sort of invisible frame that makes its appearance possible. This frame is the moment in which we see it. It is also ‘‘presence’’ as an abstraction. It is like the frames that compose movies and videos. It is the background that makes the foreground possible, the ultimate horizon upon which all phenomena must be experienced. Once we notice that all phenomena have a sign-structure through their retentions and protentions, presence becomes the final signified. Once we take the logic of necessary retentions and protentions to any and every phenomenon we understand that this ‘‘final signified’’ works as a presupposition in perception and is something that cannot actually be signified but is rather a sort of ultimate trace or archetrace. Derrida (1973) writes:

The present becomes the sign of signs, the trace of traces. It is no longer what every reference refers to in the last instance; it becomes a function in a generalized referential structure. It is a trace, and a trace of the effacement of a trace. (p. 156)

The Phonetic Metaphor. The metaphysics of presence goes deeper than ocularcentric theories of truth and knowledge. Husserl himself was fully aware of difficulties that an ocularcentric correspondence theory of meaning would entail. As explained already in sections above, if one tries to ground meaning in ocular experience such that a word or expression means something by corresponding with sense experiences then we have the problem of how words and expressions mean anything at all when what they refer to is not present at the time they are used. We also have the problem of words and expressions whose meaning pertains to abstract concepts.

As also mentioned already, this is not everywhere a problem in Husserl’s philosophy because the meaning of words and expressions for Husserl involves correspondences, actual identities, between expressions and ‘‘ideal objects.’’ The voice, rather than visual perception, is paradigmatic for Husserl’s theory of ideal objects, meaning, and signs.

Husserl distinguished between ‘‘expressive’’ and ‘‘indicative’’ functions of signs. Signs ‘‘indicate’’ when they are clearly distinguished from what they represent. Obvious indicative functions in language use are exemplified by indexicals such as the personal pronouns (‘‘I,’’ ‘‘you,’’ ‘‘she’’), the demonstrative pronouns (‘‘that,’’ and ‘‘this’’), the adverbs ‘‘here,’’ ‘‘now,’’ ‘‘yesterday,’’ ‘‘tomorrow,’’ ‘‘today’’ and the adjectives ‘‘actual’’ and (of course) ‘‘present.’’ If I say ‘‘I,’’ ‘‘you,’’ ‘‘that,’’ or ‘‘this,’’ then I must depend on shared contexts to get my meaning across. My terms indicate people and things outside the actual expressions I use. My words ‘‘point’’ rather than express. Indication is thus a concept with an ocular sort of frame. The metaphor of pointing at something informs the concept of indication in an essential way. We have to see the pointing finger and see what it points toward.

Expressions, on the other hand, were believed by Husserl to unite meaning and signification, with the voice taking paradigmatic position. This is only purely evident when thinking one’s voice and knowing the concept that is expressed at the same time. I can think the phonetic word ‘‘red,’’ hear it within my mind and know the concept it expresses simultaneously. Thus the voice has a special status for Husserl (and many other philosophers as well). Because voice and meaning seem to be simultaneously perceived together, no trace seems to crop up - no retentions.

The ‘‘apparent transcendence’’ of the voice thus results from the fact that the signified, which is always ideal by essence, the ‘‘expressed’’ Bedeutung, is immediately present in the act of expression. This immediate presence results from the fact that the phenomenological ‘‘body’’ of the signifier seems to fade away at the very moment it is produced; it seems already to belong to the element of ideality. It phenomenologically reduces itself, transforming the worldly opacity of its body into pure diaphaneity. This effacement of the sensible body and its exteriority is for consciousness the very form of the immediate presence of the signified. (Derrida, 1973, p. 77)

The signified was ‘‘always ideal by essence’’ for Husserl who thought that meaning is most primordially a matter of ‘‘ideal objects’’ brought to presence by expressions (rather than indications). Notice that the traces involved with primordial perception could be thought of as the first form of indication. They are pre-linguistic signs that indicate what left them. Expressions, on the other hand, supposedly escape the trace structure for their appearance before consciousness is their meaning. Their sensual properties (the phonetic form they possess) do not point but rather serve as transparent windows to the meaning they convey.

‘‘Expressions’’ are always going to be forms of speech, paradigmatically ‘‘internal forms of speech’’ - the ‘‘inner voice’’ we hear when we think. The voice appears to overcome problems with ocular versions of the correspondence theory of truth because the duality of signifier and signified seems overcome with the voice (unlike the pointing finger). With the internal voice two things (sign and its meaning) are experienced as one.

Consciousness is a concept based on the difference between the ultimately subjective and all objectivity. It is what is always the ‘‘inside,’’ in distinction from all exteriority or what is generally called ‘‘the world.’’ Derrida argues that the concept of consciousness is a metaphor constructed from our sense of an inner voice when we think. The phenomenological voice is wholly inside and it delivers the sense of consciousness, or self-consciousness through auto-affectation. The voice auto-affects such that it hears itself when it appears, or it raises the metaphor of consciousness each time it appears - consciousness that thinks and hears itself think wholly within, such that it is wholly autonomous from the world outside:

The phenomenological voice would be this spiritual flesh that continues to speak and be present to itself - to hear itself - in the absence of the world. (Derrida, 1973, p. 16)

The notion of ‘‘ideal objects’’ is dependent in turn on the concept of consciousness. Ideal objects, concepts, are within consciousness in a timeless sort of way and they come before consciousness through expressions of the inner voice. This is what grounds meaning, insuring that words and expressions will always mean the same thing with repeated use, and always mean the same thing to me as they do to you (for my empirical expressions to you will awaken your consciousness of the same ideal objects). The concept of ‘‘circle,’’ for example, is eternal and it will be brought before consciousness as the same concept each time the expression ‘‘circle’’ occurs. The whole structure of this theory of meaning is phonocentric, dependent on the concept of presence that accords with hearing and understanding the inner voice in one moment:

This ideality is the very form in which the presence of an object in general may be indefinitely repeated as the same. (Derrida, 1973, p. 9)

Ideal objects, concepts or meanings, are eternally the same. Their expressions can be repeated indefinitely to always mean the same thing.

Yet a careful examination of Husserl’s own arguments eliminates the hard and fast distinction he wishes to make between expression and indication. This examination is conducted by Derrida (1973) in the third chapter of Speech and Phenomena:

We see unmistakably that in the end the need for indications simply means the need for signs. For it is more and more clear that despite the initial distinction between an indicative sign and an expressive sign, only an indication is truly a sign for Husserl. (p. 42)

There are a number of reasons for this that I will not review here. Some of them involve the fact that whenever real language is used to communicate with another, with an alter-ego, indication is unavoidable: ‘‘As soon as the other [the alter-ego] appears, indicative language…can no longer be effaced’’ (p. 40). Through a number of further steps outlined by Derrida this casts the idea of pure expression and pure interiority into incoherence. In my own words, the other person or the generalized audience necessarily accompanies thought and therefore necessarily brings nonpresence into the presence of the inner voice. For the alter-ego is a subjective domain necessarily non-present to us. And ‘‘inner speech,’’ thought, is an inner dialog with specific or generalized others. This is a point emphasized in the criticalist discourse to be discussed a little later on. Thought is not a matter of ideal objects embodied within expressions but rather a matter of internalized social interactions. Indications are unavoidable and hence the trace structure is at play within phonocentric conceptualizations of meaning as much as they are at play within ocularcentric conceptualizations.


With the corruption of ‘‘pure inner expressions’’ comes the collapse of the concept of a purely inner realm, consciousness, and the collapse of Husserl’s notion of ideality - ideal objects - as the ground for sameness. Instead of ideal meanings that always come up as the same to provide a foundation to signs - such that an infinite repetition of signs could in principle take place with them always having the same meaning - Derrida (1973) shows that repetition is what comes first. It is repetition that gives us the idea of ‘‘the same.’’ In fact, repetition is what gives us the notion of ‘‘presence’’: ‘‘The presence of the present is derived from repetition and not the reverse’’ (p. 52).

But what, then, is repeated? We could never know. It is a repetition of signs that signify what could only be known in a moment of presence, but presence has been deconstructed. Hence instead of ‘‘repetition’’ we should use another term, perhaps ‘‘sign-iteration.’’

Sous Rature

Now the idea of a moment in which a phenomenon, as well as a meaning, is present to a consciousness has been undermined. Phenomena cannot be known as what they are in themselves because they are at least partially constituted by traces of the immediate past and foreshadows of the immediate future. Meanings cannot be said to always be the same with sign usage because phonocentric presence has been deconstructed. This undermines Husserl’s principle of all principles. With it goes all correspondence theories of meaning, truth and knowledge.

So what is named with a sign? A sign, representation, word, can only name another sign, representation, word. It stands for something that stands for other things that are traces of other things and there is no ground. Because there is no ground, nothing to be known with certainty, the correspondence theory of truth in all its forms falls apart. With the deconstruction of presence ocularcentrism falls apart; phonocentrism falls apart.

From here many subsequent deconstructions can follow as when one domino falls to hit another within a carefully laid array, causing a cascade. A name is a sign that re-presents but with the undermining of presence what is to be re-presented? Presence was the ultimate reference of all signs, because it was the one concept that was always the same, a required condition for knowing anything with certainty, a required condition for naming any phenomena. The idea we are trying to capture here is something that would ground this deconstruction of presence by making sense of the regress of traces we have encountered. How can this idea be named?

We understand that contemplating presence reduces the notion of phenomena to that of trace but only by arriving at ‘‘trace’’ as another phenomenon. As Derrida (1973) writes, ‘‘hence it requires another name’’

(p. 15). As already alluded, we could name it the ‘‘arche-trace.’’ But this will not really do either:

The trace is not only the disappearance of origin - within the discourse that we sustain and according to the path that we follow it means that the origin did not even disappear, that it was never constituted except reciprocally by a nonorigin, the trace, which thus becomes the origin of the origin. From then on … one must indeed speak of an originary trace or arche-trace. Yet we know that that concept destroys its name and that, if all begins with the trace, there is above all no originary trace. (Derrida, 1974, p. 61)

Thus we could invent some method of writing the term trace to indicate a meaning that includes the understanding that this special trace is not really a trace. We could draw a line through the word ‘‘trace’’ to indicate that we mean what the word first suggests along with the understanding that this is not what it means, because its meaning undermines itself. That would bring process rather than mere presence into the picture. We could write: ‘‘’’ We could do this with other words that directly depend on a belief in presence: , , . The word must remain legible, but must also be crossed out.

Derrida calls this method of writing ‘‘sous rature’’ or ‘‘under erasure.’’ Because the ‘‘concept’’ of sign refers to something that is prior to and constitutive of the distinction between being and non-being, Derrida has this to suggest for signs: ‘‘…the sign  that ill-named , the only one, that escapes the instituting question of philosophy: ‘What is … ?’’’ (in Spivak’s introduction to Derrida’s of Grammatology, 1976, p. xvii).14


All the terms used by Derrida to indicate what we are left with when presence is deconstructed are meant to be temporary and not to be held onto. This includes ‘‘trace,’’ ‘‘arche-trace,’’ sous rature and others. Most famous of them, though, is probably the term ‘‘differance’’ (with an ‘‘a’’). Since this is one of the most widely known of Derrida’s constructions I will not review it here in any detail. I have reviewed and discussed differance elsewhere (most recently Carspecken, 2002; also Carspecken, 1999a, essays 2 and 3).

The written word differance in French sounds the same as the French word for ‘‘difference.’’ But by writing what sounds the same in a different way, Derrida draws attention to several things at once. A written difference suggests different meanings, thus drawing attention to indication over expression and showing up phonocentrism. The written word differance indicates both ‘‘differing from’’ and ‘‘deferring to.’’ Signs differ from what they indicate or stand for and they defer to presence as the authority for their meaning. Presence, however, is never directly experienced. Each

‘‘moment’’ of experience defers temporally to moments just gone by and moments just about to come (retention and protention). That gives us the notion of differing from and two senses of deferral (temporal deferral and deferral to authority). All use of signs, all thinking, and all experience depend on these three processes taken together and represented as differance.

Derrida (1973) writes:

Differance is to be conceived prior to the separation between deferring as delay and differing as the active work of difference. Of course this is nonconceivable if one begins on the basis of consciousness, that is, presence, or on the basis of its simple contrary, absence or nonconsciousness. (p. 88)

However, we cannot escape beginning ‘‘on the basis of consciousness, that is, presence,’’ unless we begin with its opposite ‘‘absence or nonconsciousness’’ which, anyway, is simply the constituting binary for the idea of presence. One cannot think ‘‘presence’’ without contrasting it to its opposite. All concepts presuppose presence and presence deconstructs. Therefore:

Such a play, then – difference - is no longer simply a concept, but the possibility of conceptuality, of the conceptual system and process in general. (p. 140)

Differance is not a concept, yet without it no concepts are possible. Perhaps then, to indicate the  twice at once:

The Self: Power and the Longing for Presence

Power and ‘‘Sameness Claims’’. So much else can be hauled on board from the flotsam of Derrida’s many travels. Derrida has illuminated many things while deconstructing them and some of these may be (and have been) taken on in positive terms rather than left deconstructed. Of special interest for the themes of this paper is the idea of the ‘‘longing for presence,’’ which does have positive implications for those of us who do not wish to only deconstruct. Humans crave security, at various levels and of various types depending on the person, and knowledge-claims are one way to generate a sense of security. As seen at the beginning of this paper, Nietzsche wrote of the ‘‘will to power’’ which has a ‘‘will to knowledge’’ or a ‘‘figurative drive’’ as one of its manifestations:

The so-called drive for knowledge can be traced back to a drive to appropriate and conquer. (Nietzsche quoted in Spivak, 1976, p. xxii)

From this perspective knowledge claims never are neutral but are assertions of power across a void. They are raw assertions that a metaphor should be taken to be an identity. Those who make claims to knowledge and understand their arbitrary, power-driven nature at some level of understanding must, according to Nietzsche, practice ‘‘active forgetfulness’’ to simply keep on in the world. All actions must be ‘‘acting as if,’’ supported by the power or will of the actor alone. Being is the will to power for Nietzsche (see Heidegger, 1991).

Nietzsche’s ‘‘acting as if ’’ can be expanded after Derrida to ‘‘acting as if the belief in presence were true.’’ The power asserted with the ‘‘figurative drive’’ is a power to be, to exist as a self. It stems, implicitly from Nietzsche and explicitly from existentialist philosophy, from a longing to be - a longing for presence in the particular form of finding one’s self, present to one’s self, so that one’s existence and validity can be known with certainty. It is a longing for presence.

Various postmodern writers have used this insight, in modified forms true to Derridian iteration (or ‘‘dissemination’’; Derrida 1976) to support a general skepticism toward any and all social theories, research claims and the like. Without presence, theories and research reports may be viewed as ‘‘mere’’ products of the will to power of those who write them - a product of their longing for self. Theories are massive identity claims. The categories they use will be ‘‘sameness claims’’ that mask real differences or explain them away in terms favorable to the theorist. The basic idea here is that with the deconstruction of presence all theories are rather like arbitrary assertions of power emitted from their authors. The insight is transmuted in those versions of postmodernism that draw upon Foucault by regarding theories as the epiphenomenal surfaces of discourse-practices that assert power anonymously, subjectlessly.

The core terms of any theory are claims that certain things are ‘‘the same,’’ or are in the same category, when in fact ‘‘reality’’ is radically heterogeneous. Thus some postmodern researchers celebrate difference, deconstruct the theories of others, and avoid theorizing themselves. They see their work as opening spaces, promoting liberty, freeing the cultural terrain so that many voices may be heard.

The reader will see how easy it would be to combine the deconstruction of presence, articulated only as the idea that all categories are sameness claims without ground, with Foucault’s notion of discourse-practices. However, a full disciple of deconstruction would be wary of any universalizing value claims - claims, for example, that it is better to end oppression than contribute to it, better to open possible spaces than to close them down, better to liberate than to subjugate. All claims, including these, will be subject to deconstruction if one fully takes on the implications of differance, fully understands it and tries to live authentically by it.

The Self. Associated with the longing for presence, then, is the concept of self. The self is another construct dependent on some notion of presence, as I alluded above. The self, however, is dependent on a belief in presence in a peculiar way. Hegel’s manner of thinking about this was to locate the emergence of the self in the quest for certainty (Hegel 1967; Carspecken 1999a, essay 3). To talk about ‘‘self ’’ is also to talk about the longing for a certainty that the self exists and exists as a locus of subjectivity that can never be objectified. To be objectified is to bring before consciousness. The self essentially involves the desire to know itself but to know itself as that which can never be known (never be objectified).

Because of this contradictory longing for certainty humans seek recognition from others. They cannot be certain of their existence ‘‘on their own’’ because the self is precisely that which cannot be seen or heard or in any other made present. So it is through the affirming gaze of another that we seek our own certainty of our existence. If we cannot make ourselves present to ourselves we can at least, perhaps, make ourselves present to others.

The affirming gaze of another that is sought after is often not that of a literal other person but that of a generalized other with which we position-take to gain some understanding of who we are and what we are worth. When we do this we get a ‘‘me,’’ a perception of our ‘‘I’’ deferred from - mediated by - the position of another so that it is a ‘‘you.’’ This is adding formulations produced by George Herbert Mead to those of Hegel - Mead (1934) gave us the ‘‘I’’ and ‘‘me’’ distinction in his bifurcated theory of the self. To perceive ourselves this way, as a ‘‘you,’’ is to construct a ‘‘me.’’ Yet what we seek cannot in the end be a ‘‘me’’ but must rather be (an) ‘‘I’’ (see earlier discussion within the gaze theory section). The longing for recognition is never going to be satisfied because of the dialectic of the ‘‘I’’ and the ‘‘me’’ (see Carspecken, 1999a for extended discussions of this and its relation to methodological theory).

This longing for recognition is a longing to have ourselves before us to give us pure certainty of our true being. It is a longing for presence that can never be satisfied. Gayatri Spivak, in her translator’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1976), expresses this as follows: ‘‘to recognize that one is shaped by differance, to recognize, that the ‘self ’ is constituted by its never-fully-to-be-recognized-ness’’ (xlivis).

The longing for presence is the ‘‘drive’’ Nietzsche wrote of that, as a figurative drive, manifests as a will to knowledge. This is due to the essential relation between truth claims and others who will either affirm or deny them. To make any truth claim, even those as trivial as declarations about the weather, is to include an identity-claim. According to Nietzsche and some postmodern thinkers today, all truth claims are power claims that assert the being of the self who makes them:

Linguistic means of expression … accords with our inevitable need to preserve ourselves to posit a crude world of stability, of ‘things’.

(Nietzsche cited in Spivak, 1976, p. xxvi)

Power is often taken up as a central issue from the detritus of Derrida’s deconstructions in some of our contemporary postmodern discourses. Unlike the objectified model of power we find in Foucault’s discourse-practices, the power theme appears here more in line with Nietzsche’s insights. Power is the claim to existence of subjects who must live without any certain grounds, without anything but their power. Power informs efforts to gain recognition, for all knowledge claims holistically claim whole worlds within which the one who claims has a place. Power is a feature of human motivation in this case.

This is an important insight of Nietzsche’s brought up again by Derrida, though indirectly as a sort of retrieval made by others from the debris of deconstruction. Of course, Nietzsche’s positive claims about power are themselves deconstructable from a Derridian perspective. His claims are insightful and important to any discourse on truth and thus methodology, but better treated from a criticalist perspective as we shall see later.


Where we see the influence of Derrida on educational research it is usually in combination with themes from Foucault, all the themes iterated, modified, disseminated, but recognizable just the same. That sort of synthetic thinking has been artistically performed by Lather (1991), for example. Such performances usually emphasize the way in which representations of reality actually impose sameness claims upon what is an irreducible heterogeneity. The logic roughly takes the following form: First follow Foucault to think of knowledge as discourse-practices that employ certain categories. From the third-person articulation of gaze theory locate groups of people with respect to various ‘‘centers’’ of power- knowledge-practices through the metaphors of ‘‘margin’’ and ‘‘periphery.’’ Then examine the discourses available for thinking of research problems, collecting data and interpreting it. Research on ‘‘gender’’ will invoke the categories of ‘‘sexuality,’’ ‘‘male,’’ ‘‘female,’’ ‘‘sexual preference’’ and so on. In lay cultures discourses pertaining to race and ethnicity include categories like ‘‘Blacks,’’ ‘‘Whites,’’ ‘‘Hispanics.’’ In educational research discourses include categories like ‘‘whole language,’’ ‘‘standards,’’ ‘‘effective schools’’ and many more. Next interrogate these categories by borrowing a little from Derrida to notice that each category is a ‘‘sameness’’ claim. Each category will put a lot of differences (or at least things that cannot be known to be the same) into one category as if they were the same in some ‘‘essential’’ way. If the categories are categories about people then these sameness claims can silence differences and subjugate one group of people to a discourse-practice that favors other groups of people. Subjects are constructed in this way. Even their desires and intentions can be constructed in this way when discourse-practices are lived within. Finally produce an ethnographic text that avoids or at least problematizes sameness claims from the very discourses that suggested the research in the first place. Add voices other than your own to the research report. Disrupt the hegemony of the principal author, of the research discourse. Experiment with formats to this same end. Raise more questions than provide answers and do more deconstructing than constructing.

The beautiful and powerful book Troubling the Angels by Lather and Smithies (1997) is a brilliant and inspiring example of this sort of approach. It is an approach that follows postmodern insights to make ‘‘knowledge’’ something other than the representations we employ to communicate. It disrupts representation to get us closer to that which cannot be named, that which is ‘‘too big,’’ that which is perhaps ‘‘knowledge’’ in the most profound sense of the word - wisdom.

Fine (1998) takes a similar position when she writes:

Renato Rosaldo contends that there are no ‘‘innocent’’ ethnographers. When innocence is sought, Rosaldo writes, the ‘‘eye of ethnography [often connects with] the I of imperialism’’ (Rosaldo 1989: 41). The project at hand is to unravel, critically, the blurred boundaries in our relation, and in our texts; to understand the political work of our narratives; to decipher how the traditions of social science serve to inscribe; and to imagine how our practice can be transformed to resist, self-consciously, acts of othering. (p. 140, bracketed passage in original)

That quotation comes from Fine’s article ‘‘Working the Hyphens.’’ Fine discusses the problems facing all social researchers when anything and everything they might have to write in their papers and reports will necessarily use discourses of one kind or another. And all discourses involve the power-knowledge connection, making people into ‘‘others’’ through their sameness claims. What can a researcher do so as not to unwittingly make more sameness claims, make people into others, silence them, produce just another artifact from their own will to knowledge? Fine’s excellent article keeps the issue a problematic but opens possibilities for the reader. New uses of style can help to break-up the totalizing sameness claims of the traditional research report. Really collaborating with one’s participants can help as well - let them co-author the work or write alongside.

However, Derrida’s contribution to our intellectual history is not meant to be a positive one in the sense of providing us with a theory. Artistic works like those of Lather, Smithies, and Fine are needed, welcomed, and important. But explaining them cannot really make full use of deconstruction. All sameness claims can be deconstructed, so it makes no sense to argue about ‘‘real differences’’ being hidden or ‘‘real voices’’ being silenced. In such formulations, different voices and people are each assumed to be ‘‘the same’’ in themselves and this is just as deconstructable as are the categories used to group them together. What is right about deconstruction would have to be relocated within an epistemological framework that is somehow neither phonocentric nor ocularcentric if it is to be used for social critique. Such an epistemological framework is subtly presupposed in works like Troubling the Angels. Explicating it is important because there are many papers sent off for publication that claim postmodern credentials and yet do so only to justify failed, sloppy, biased work. By claiming postmodern credentials critics who accept the claim are silenced in their criticisms, for what standards for good or bad research can be upheld after the deconstruction of presence? I believe criticalism shows promise for explicating such standards without them being hegemonic sameness claims. Postmodernism is a discourse filled with insights that cannot be neglected in any effort to discuss truth, meaning, knowledge and the self. But those insights do not need to leave us with only our power for self-assertion. This will be the subject of the next section on critical theory and pragmatism.



‘‘Signifier’’ and ‘‘signified’’ are lexical markers for many postmodern discourses, often used as if the correspondence between them is the key issue for all theories of meaning. The belief that signifiers are ‘‘univocal’’ with neutral and certain meanings has been undermined with the deconstruction of presence and, to be accurate, other postmodern analyses of signs. Instead we have ‘‘multivocal’’ signs caught up within relations of power. Representation is knowledge, within what I am calling the postmodern orientation, but representation is to be understood as a mask hiding the process by which the represented has been constructed. What is represented is generated by power, either power as a quasi-objective force or an assertion of will. Sameness and difference relations are necessary to all forms of meaning but take configurations dependent on the powers at play. The self is either a product of discourse-practices that appear to have no doors through which one might exit, or an insecure locus of will within a sea of uncertainty. Ocularcentrism and phonocentrism underlie the competing Enlightenment belief in value-neutral knowledge, power-neutral knowledge, and the promise of a certain and secure world freed from dogma and authority. Some postmodern themes take ocularcentrism to new heights in order to reveal the play of power in all forms of knowledge. Other themes simply subject ocularcentrism and phonocentrism to the consequences of their own logic: total deconstruction. From within the postmodern orientation a major conclusion to be drawn is that social-cultural research is best practiced more as a mixture of art, play and politics than as ‘‘science.’’

If the only positive theories of knowledge, truth, and meaning depended on singular correspondences between signifiers and signifieds, or any other sort of core correspondence, then there would be little else to say. But in fact correspondence has been abandoned by philosophers working within most any tradition for quite some time. This is so even while correspondence remains a paradigm in popular thought as well as in mainstream social science methodology. Davidson (2001) writes:

The solution [to conceptual problems concerning subjectivity] y is to get rid of the metaphor of objects before the mind. Most of us long ago gave up the idea of perceptions, sense data, the flow of experience, as things ‘‘given’’ to the mind; … Of course people have beliefs, wishes, doubts, and so forth; but to allow this is not to suggest that beliefs, wishes and doubts are entities in or before the mind, or that being in such states requires there to be corresponding mental objects. (pp. 35–36)

Davidson, the ‘‘postanalytic’’ philosopher, is here expressing a widely acknowledged critique of correspondence and presence from within a tradition that has had nothing to do with deconstruction, nor with issues of power, in its analyses of meaning. This tradition has not given up the project of explicating a positive theory of knowledge. Correspondence is no longer taken to be core to the way meaning works in daily life but this does not imply that meaning is something only produced by power, nor that the concept of ‘‘truth’’ must be abandoned, nor that our implicit and constantly used concept of ‘‘sameness’’ turns out to be some sort of nonsense. The tradition from which Davidson works is now producing promising formulations that intersect remarkably with contemporary versions of critical theory.

The version of criticalism to be adumbrated here includes a particularly compelling alternative to correspondence theories of truth and meaning. I think this version holds the promise of retaining postmodern insights, presenting a viable challenge to Enlightenment modes of thought and practice, and yet escaping the self-contradictions of gaze theory (easily done) as well as the social-practical dead ends of pure deconstruction15 (done not quite as easily). Because this essay is absolutely focused on the question of meaning I will refer to this version of criticalism as ‘‘critical epistemology.’’ Epistemology, however, is an organic component of this version of critical theory more generally. My use of the expression ‘‘critical epistemology’’ should not mislead the reader into thinking that epistemology is taken to be an autonomous discipline in critical theory. It is not. Rather, ‘‘critical epistemology’’ is an expression meant to prioritize one perspective on something much larger than a theory of knowledge.

The broadly understood discourse of criticalism is complex and much internally divided. I don’t have the space nor desire that would be required to review and compare versions of criticalism here. Suffice it to say that in colleges of education students are often exposed to critical ethnography, sometimes to Frankfurt School critical theory, and occasionally to contemporary critical theory as formulated by Habermas and others in his school. Critical ethnographies seldom explain what is meant by the word ‘‘critical’’ other than the sense of critiquing social and cultural forms (for reviews, see Kincheloe & McLaren, 2002, 1998; Carspecken, 1999b). Theory at the level of epistemology is left implicit in such works, which is another reason for my choice of emphasis and expression: ‘‘critical epistemology.’’ The original Frankfurt School spawned diverse interpretations of critical theory through the publications of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Fromm. Haberma- sian critical theory differs a great deal from that of all the original members of the Frankfurt School. Criticalism is thus a very complex and internally divided discourse with commonalities mainly concerning an emphasis on critical reason as opposed to positive theory, and an attack on scientism as ideology. Critical theory in general has thus been counter-Enlightenment from the start even though Habermas has famously called for ‘‘more Enlightenment’’ rather than the abandonment of the Enlightenment project altogether.

Contemporary critical theory of the Habermasian school has been significantly altering and refining the sense that can be given to ‘‘critical reason.’’ It is particularly with respect to this important project that we find intersections with the writings of Davidson, Brandom and others whose work has come from the analytic tradition in philosophy. It is here as well that we find compelling counter-Enlightenment, but not postmodern, articulations of the relations between knowledge, representation, power, sameness and the self.

In other publications I have discussed some of the same principles and ideas that will be found here, but I did so by beginning with an examination of the inaugural work for critical ethnography: Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor (1977). I have argued that an implicit theory of praxis may be unearthed and explicated from Learning to Labor. This implicit reformulation of praxis theory has relevance to the concept of truth and speaks to the insight of a longing for presence (Carspecken, 2002, 1999a, essay 2). I used the expression ‘‘praxis epistemology’’ in those publications. In this essay I take a different strategy by summarizing the same key principles in relation to themes that cropped up in the section above on postmodernism - knowledge, representation, power, sameness and the self.

Hence, my purpose in taking both criticalism and postmodernism as part of a counter-Enlightenment problematic is not simply to compare these two discourses in order to make the argument that criticalism is better. I wish to adumbrate one version of criticalism that I think is both better than postmodern discourses and other versions of critical theory. I wish to make the point that criticalism itself needs clarification and further development. As just explained, I call this version of critical theory ‘‘critical epistemology,’’ but toward the end of this paper I start using ‘‘praxis epistemology’’ as well. Praxis epistemology is an expression used to simply emphasize aspects of critical epistemology that can be consistently extended toward convergence with various postmodern insights.


A Triangle Rather Than a Duality?

Ayer (1956) wrote: ‘‘it is only with the use of language that truth and error, certainty and uncertainty, come fully upon the scene’’ (p. 54). This idea is widely accepted by Anglo-American analytic philosophers. The concept of truth does not initially arise within the framework of a duality dependent on a belief in presence. It arises first of all in communicative contexts. The relation between signifier and signified is not primordial for understanding meaning and truth. Instead, the relation between people living in an assumedly common world is. Davidson (2001) has repeatedly proposed his theory of a foundational triangle to replace the traditional schemes based on dualities:

The basic situation is one that involves two or more creatures simultaneously in interaction with each other and with the world they share; it is what I call triangulation. It is the result of a threefold interaction, an interaction which is twofold from the point of view of each of the two agents: each is interacting simultaneously with the world and with the other agent. (p. 128)

Critical epistemology is in basic agreement with Davidson’s triangle. However, prior to the distinction between self, other, and common world is the existence of intersubjectivity.16 We find intersubjectivity presupposed already as soon as we distinguish between any pairs provided by this triangle: self and other, self and world, other and world. I have argued elsewhere that this always-already presupposed intersubjective ‘‘realm’’ may be found through phenomenological investigations of how we experience thoughts and meaningful acts (Carspecken, 1999a, essay 3).17 Phenomenological and quasi-phenomenological investigations of how we think, act meaningfully, and understand the meanings of other acts reveal intersubjective processes already at work. We can discover how the three vertices in Davidson’s triangle are constructed experientially. From this we can speculate on how the triangle became constructed outside the experiences had by we fully socialized adults (and thus outside the boundaries allowed by phenomenological method) through considerations of both human ontogenesis and anthropogenesis.18 These ‘‘outside’’ speculations have been conducted by Mead (1934), Habermas (1987b, ch. 5) and others (Aboulafia, 1994). This is not the place to review these various investigations, though some of the discussion to follow will be suggestive in relation to them.

Intersubjectivity as Position-Taking

Intersubjectivity is more primary than presence.19 But what is intersubjectivity?

Intersubjectivity can be found to have been always-already presupposed, but implicitly, each time we think or act meaningfully. It is not presupposed as some sort of simple ‘‘substance’’ or through some simple knowledge-imparting perception. It is rather a process that has always already occurred when we notice it. In this way it is ‘‘primary’’ rather in the way that Hegel’s concept of Geist was primary for his philosophy. It is no coincidence, of course, that Hegel initially seemed to have vacillated between basing Geist on intersubjectivity and basing it on reflection (Williams, 1997). Ultimately, Hegel opted for the process of reflection as what he wished to universalize and generalize with his notion of Geist, which has been taken to be unfortunate by some commentators. Like Geist, intersubjectivity is not known through a model or a mere representation of any kind. It is rather an implicit process that is involved in the very formulations we can work up to make it explicit. Like Geist, intersubjectivity has self-reference built within it: it must be already assumed in order to describe it or theorize about it. The process of ‘‘explicitation’’ (Brandom 1994, p. 114), moving implicit understandings toward explicit articulations, is the core process involved in theorizing about intersubjectivity.

Let’s see in rough terms how intersubjectivity is always already at work whenever we think, act meaningfully, or understand the meaning of another act. If I say, ‘‘I love that oak tree in our backyard,’’ I have presupposed a distinction between experiences that I alone can access (for example my feeling of love, and in general my feelings, intentions, desires and fears) and experiences I have that I can assume to be shared with others (such as the tree in my backyard). I had to already have had an understanding of privileged versus shared experiences, and thus an understanding that more than one subject exists. I had to implicitly take the position of others to know that my feeling of love is not directly accessible to them in the way it is to me (thus I could in principle lie about it, hide it from others). I had to implicitly take their positions to know that the oak tree is something they could see, smell, or bump into if they visited my backyard. This is part of what is meant by intersubjectivity: position-taking with others so as to, among many other things, distinguish between privileged and shared access. Furthermore, I had to assume common understandings of language use and in fact many other cultural matters shared between myself and people who heard or could in principle have heard my utterance. I had to position-take in order to have some understanding of what others would think of what I said, what they might say in turn, what they would expect me to say in turn and so on. Language use, values, and cultural norms are items involving shared access but not shared access through the senses. Rather, the shared access assumed here has to do with forms of practical, cultural knowledge, much of which is implicit.

This is another sort of triangle that is related to Davidson’s. The three vertices of this triangle correspond to three formal ‘‘worlds,’’ or formal ontological domains, that have been formulated by Habermas (1981, ch. 1):


An objective world to which there is multiple access through the senses (‘‘the’’ world assumed in communicative interactions - the third person position is foregrounded),


Subjective worlds to which there is only privileged access (‘‘my,’’ ‘‘your,’’ ‘‘her,’’ worlds assumed in communicative interactions - the first person position is foregrounded),


A social or normative world composed of norms, values, ‘‘rules’’ (see below) that are not accessed through the senses but to which there is multiple access (‘‘our’’ world assumed in communicative interactions - the second and first person plural positions are fore- grounded).

These are formal ontological realms presupposed in communication - ontological because each pertains to a distinctive type of existence, and formal because they are in the first instance pragmatic infrastructures that differentiate between three categories of claims constituting meaning. Therefore, the idea is not that there are three ways in which things exist but rather that communication requires existence claims pertaining to three categories. Norms, values and rules are claimed to exist only in the intersubjectivities of social groups. Objects available to the senses are claimed to exist in space and ‘‘external’’ time. Feelings, intentions and desires are claimed to exist in the ‘‘internal time’’ of single subjects, the spatial dimension being irrelevant to this subjective mode of existence. The distinctions generating these three formal ontological domains require intersubjectivity, tacit position-taking.

But we cannot literally take the position of others. Position-taking is taking the position of another person or of a group, but only through culturally and experientially constructed social typifications (Carspecken & MacGillivray, 1998). When we human beings learn to interact with others, initially with our primary care-takers, we quickly learn to recognize social typificationsFtypical situations involving more than one person and located in particular types of physical-temporal settings. Because human infants learn to recognize social typifications they can anticipate what others will do in various situations, and how others will respond to one’s own acts in various situations. Crying loudly when alone with mother may regularly result in a comforting response, but crying loudly when mother and father are both there may result in a different response. Crying loudly with mother on a bus may result in yet another kind of response. These are three different social typifications. Then, as ontogenesis proceeds, we humans learn to actually position-take, not literally with mother or father but with the location they occupy in the typifications through which we interact with them. We learn the roles they play with us such that we could play them ourselves from the first-person position. And in fact, when playing, children do act-out the roles of others which they experienced initially only from the second-person position. Children act out one role, then the complementary role, then shift back to the first and so on. They have a doll cry loudly, then talk to it as mother would, then perhaps cry some more.

As we continue our development we internalize typifications with all the roles included and learn position-taking in this way. We can take the first, second and third person position with respect to any act within any typification familiar to us. Unfamiliar situations are first understood from within a familiar typification which is then modified as interactions proceed. This is basically the hermeneutic process, the hermeneutic ‘‘horizon’’ reformulated in terms of typifications.

All three formal positions within a huge number of culturally produced typifications are learned in generalized ways. The general structures acquired are not specific to one person but are rather positions that any anonymous member of a cultural group could occupy, including ourselves. Of course, general structures aside, many typifications remain specific to particular other people we know well, and this involves the nesting of typifications in interesting ways. Specific role structures associated with the way we interact with familiar people take on their sense because they are modifications of more general role structures broadly distributed within a cultural group.20 In daily life typifications nest, intersect, expand, modify and layer in all sorts of ways that may be captured by the qualitative researcher.

Position-taking is the essential process for understanding the meaningful acts of others, for understanding our own acts as we monitor them from the second and third person positions of typifications, and for anticipating how others understand our acts. Position-taking is what structures higher levels of thought as well. It is the basis of what we mean by ‘‘reflection.’’ Thinking is dialoging internally.21 Reflecting is taking a second and/or third person position in relation to one’s own thoughts.

All of this is again congruent with theories of meaning developed within analytic philosophy since Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein tied meaning to an understanding of ‘‘how to go on’’ with an action or interaction. He used the word ‘‘rule’’ to convey this sense of how to carry on. Other philosophers have found this use of the concept of ‘‘rule’’ by Wittgenstein compelling. Davidson (2001) writes:

Interpreters simply judge that a speaker is following the same rule they (her interpreters) are following if the speaker goes on as they would. Put in terms of meaning: we judge that a speaker means what we would if we were to utter the same words if she goes on as we would. (p. 113)

In other words, interpreters undergo position-taking with the one who is interpreted. We get a sense of what a speaker means by understanding what we would mean if we had produced the utterance ourselves. This happens automatically, holistically, implicitly and effortlessly, without conscious deliberation in most cases. We also understand the form through which the actor would continue because we understand how we would continue were we making the same utterance. This is not in terms of specific words and contents but rather in terms of the pragmatic and semantically inferential form of the continued action. Finally, the speaker has an idea of the form through which we should act in response to her because she understands how she would respond if someone addressed this utterance to her. So it is a matter of moving back and forth between first and second person positions, with plenty of monitoring as well from the third-person position. How would this interaction look to Mom? To my colleagues? To people from China? The third-person position is usually the position of a culturally constructed, but internalized, generalized other (Carspecken & MacGillivray, 1998).

Davidson, in the passage quoted just above, uses the word ‘‘rule’’ in line with Wittgenstein’s original work. But the concept of ‘‘rule’’ here is subtle. It must not be confused with explicit rules like those to be found in a book on etiquette. Rather, rules of interaction are (mainly implicit) ‘‘norms.’’ Norms are both the medium and outcome of social action22. They are drawn upon as one acts and then claimed anew, sometimes with alterations, during the course of an act. It is through norms, ‘‘rules,’’ that position-taking is made possible. They are the hinges upon which we swing from first to second and third-person positions. It is only because of norms that position-taking is at all possible. I will say more about norms and rules in a section on ‘‘sameness’’ below because they are essential in the constitution of sameness claims that are necessarily entailed in all meaningful acts, but only as fallible claims.

Typifications and Power. Because position-taking is not literal we can and do often make mistakes with respect to understanding other people. One manifestation of power in social life involves the extent to which people have or do not have the rights and/or resources necessary to negotiate equally the nature of the typifications through which they interact with others. In fact, cultural discourses are partly composed of (or ‘‘carry,’’ depending on how we model it) typifications that can force others into positions they do not identify with. When this occurs, and it occurs frequently in all cultures, then people could in principle challenge the positions in which they find themselves placed. Typifications do not ‘‘construct the subject,’’ they rather resource and constrain the subject. They can mislead the subject in terms of her identifications and self-perceptions. This means, of course, that a particular theory of the subject or self is entailed by this view. More on that later.

People will generally challenge typifications that provide no desirable place for themselves to the extent that power does not prevent such challenges. Power can work through the use of sanctions imposed on those who object to their cultural positioning, and power can also work through a lack of alternative typifications and discourses in a given culture. In this latter case power often takes on the form described in gaze theory earlier in this essay. It works through hegemonic control of the other positions within typifications, the positions which actors take with respect to themselves to get an idea of who they are, what they are worth, what they are expected and not expected to do. That sort of power is complicated for it brings us again to the theory of the ‘‘I’’ and the ‘‘me.’’ I reserve discussion of it for a later section.

Meanwhile, notice that we would theorize the sorts of concerns expressed by Fine in ‘‘Working the Hyphens’’ (see previous citation) through the theory of typifications. The position of power often occupied by a researcher puts the people studied at risk of being positioned subordinately - not having any voice in determining the typifications at play. Critical ethnography must make the effort to disrupt the traditional power of the researcher by making as many features of the research as possible open to equal negotiations between all those affected by the project.

Intersubjectivity and the Internal Relation Between Truth and Meaning

By the time we can do things like say, ‘‘I love the oak tree in our backyard,’’ we have come a long way in terms of both evolution and human development. We are constantly position-taking without noticing it. We have learned countless numbers of typifications and continuously use already learned ones to construct new ones.

The meaning of all utterances is a matter of the inferences we tacitly make when hearing them, rather than a matter of signifiers and signifieds. Such inferences depend on intersubjectivity, on taking the position of others with respect to meaningful acts. These inferences are normed in terms of commitments and entitlements made between people with every meaningful act (Brandom, 2000/1994). To understand the commitments and entitlements is to understand the meaning of the act. A certain subset of all the commitments made and entitlements issued by a meaningful act are claims referencing states of affairs within each of the three formal ontological realms emphasized by Habermas: the social-normative, objective and subjective realms.

These claims are called ‘‘validity claims’’ by Habermas (see especially 1981, p. 38), rather than ‘‘truth claims,’’ to be sure to include claims concerning the subjective and normative worlds as well as the objective world. The meaning of an act includes an understanding of what conditions would have to be fulfilled for the various validity claims to be valid. The idea that meaning is a matter of the conditions that would have to be fulfilled for a statement to be true goes back to Frege and is called the truth-conditional theory of meaning. But most truth-conditional theories of meaning consider only ‘‘objective’’ truth claims entailed semantically. The sense of objectivity in these theories is extended from the world of multiple access to all propositional contents whose truth does not depend on the subjective state of the speaker nor even the existence of the speaker (with rare exceptions).23 Because we wish to include claims other than these we shall follow Habermas and refer to validity claims rather than truth claims. In addition, the speech act rather than its semantic portion alone is where validity claims abide.

Validity claims originate in meaning and are internal to it. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein (1974) wrote: ‘‘To understand a proposition means to know what is the case if it is true. (One can understand it, therefore, without knowing whether it is true)’’ (p. 21, 4.024; parentheses in original). Later on Wittgenstein (1975) wrote: ‘‘To understand the sense of a sentence means to know how the issue of its truth or falsity to be decided’’ (p. 43, IV). Davidson (2001) expresses a more contemporary version of this, inclusive this time of what the speaker intends:

an interpreter (correctly) interprets an utterance of a speaker only if he knows that the speaker intends the interpreter to assign certain truth [validity] conditions to his (the speaker’s) utterance. (p. 111–12)

Let’s not call this relation between truth and meaning a matter of ‘‘assigning’’ however. And let’s also make the point that the interpreter never knows with certainty what the speaker intends. We understand a host of validity claims, usually implicitly, whenever we understand meaning. No assigning is done, rather validity claims constitute meaning. We don’t understand and then assign, we simply understand. And because of privileged access we never know for sure what anyone intends, all we can do is pick up (through inference) what the speaker or actor claims to intend.24 People can and do lie, pretend, mask, and deceive. That is to say, in addition to all other features of meaning that we can unpack from our understanding of an utterance, one of the claims must be a subjective one concerning the intention of the speaker. We must understand what conditions would have to be met for the claims of intention carried by an utterance to be true as well as what the utterance is about.

Habermas expands the idea of truth-conditional semantics to what we might call validity-conditional pragmatics. Many validity claims are involved with every utterance and they fall into the three categories of subjective, objective and normative. Each type of claim would only be true if certain conditions were met. In addition, the speaker commits herself to supplying support for each type of claim by speaking. Every time any of us acts meaningfully our expressions tacitly carry ‘‘promissory notes’’ that others can ask to be ‘‘redeemed.’’

Validity claims become explicated and foregrounded in everyday life when a misunderstanding occurs or when one of the claims internal to a meaningful act fails to win the consent of the other to its validity. In these cases the speaker is formally committed to defend her validity claims or change her position on the matter. For example, if I say ‘‘I love the oak tree in our backyard,’’ you might reply:


‘‘But Phil, I’ve seen the tree and it is a sycamore’’ (disagreement over an objective claim)


‘‘Phil, how could you love that tree? You never give it any attention’’ (disagreement/misunderstanding involving one of the subjective claims carried by the act)


‘‘Phil, this is hardly the time to talk about trees! This is a working lunch and we have much to get done!’’ (disagreement/misunderstanding over normative claims associated with the typification each party thinks should apply to the situation)

If I hold to my original utterance I must be willing to defend any of these challenges unless I decide to let the misunderstanding go, use power to force your agreement, or break off communication with you. If I opt for understanding I then either find your point of view more compelling than my original position or I defend the claim in question. If my defense, my argumentation, makes sense, you will come around to consenting to my claims unless you decide to break off communication, use power or simply change the subject.

Consent to validity claims provides them with support. Consent is an essential structure for validity (and thus ‘‘truth’’). ‘‘The point isn’t that consensus defines the concept of truth but that it creates the space for its application’’ (Davidson, 2001, p. 129). When there is a misunderstanding or a disputed validity claim argumentation can take place in an effort to restore consensus. Consensus won in this way supports the validity claim, but only if it comes freely, without being forced or influenced by power relations (see the section below on power).

Fallibility. Because validity claims are constituted by the expectation of consensus under the right conditions, all validity claims are fallible. Consensus-under-the-right-conditions would ultimately mean an eternal omniscient audience cognizant of all historical and cultural changes in human history. This is impossible for several reasons, the timeless condition being the most obvious as I have stated the matter here. The omniscience condition interestingly runs us right up into the presence problematic again. The audience would have to fully understand everything that went into the validity claim including the intentions of the one who made it, and privileged access denies this sort of understanding. The speaker would have to know that the audience really did understand the validity claim instead of just acting as if it understood, and privileged access prevents this knowledge as well. The presence of one domain of subjectivity to another is the line that cannot be crossed, nor even reached. In terms of objective validity claims, a full understanding of an object in the world would indeed require having it fully present without mediation. And this is impossible as we have seen from our discussion of Derrida. Truth is therefore always a matter of claims and all claims are fallible even when something like full consensus is achieved. Consensus reached can be expected to change as time and history and personal experiences change.

Though fallible, validity claims are nevertheless orientated toward a presupposed ideal state in which full consensus would be won if the claim were true. Real empirical situations vary in ways that can be measured against this presupposed ideal. Thus though all claims are fallible there are standards by which to judge claims as having strong or weak support. This is a hugely different consequence from those consequences that follow deconstruction.


Power and its relation to knowledge come into the Habermasian framework adopted here through the emphasis placed on consensus for supporting validity claims. All validity claims assume that an unbiased audience would consent to them if they understood them as the speaker does. If I make validity claims knowing that none of my colleagues will agree with them I still do so with the expectation that extended argumentation could win them over. Or perhaps I do so with an idealized audience in mindFfuture colleagues perhaps who will agree with me in time, perhaps even people who will agree with me after I have died. All validity claims, all truth claims, are audience-dependent though our audiences are very often abstract generalized others who occupy distant relations to us in time and space. Without the assumption that some audience (even if it is not an empirically possible one) will or would agree with a claim, no claims would be made. Meaning itself would not exist. And this presupposed agreement would have to come without force or coercion. It would have to come from others who are free to disagree, who are only won over by ‘‘the force of the better argument.’’

The Ideal Speech Situation and How It Has Been Misunderstood. Habermas

(1981, p. 25) calls this principle of his critical theory of truth ‘‘the ideal speech situation.’’ An ideal speech situation is presupposed as a regulating limit case in all meaningful acts. In actuality, an ideal speech situation cannot be reached because there will always be distortions of one kind or another in real social situations. But the ideal is presupposed just the same, as a limit case by which to measure the success or lack of success of real communicative acts. This is precisely why it is ‘‘ideal.’’ The ideal speech situation is one in which all people affected by a validity claim have an equal voice in arguing for or against it. All participants are motivated only by the desire to understand and reach an agreement. All participants are autonomous and take responsibility for their claims. All participants are open to criticism.

The ideal speech situation has been frequently misunderstood by interpreters of Habermas. One common misunderstanding is the belief that Habermas is simply saying that human beings can and should construct communities, institutions and cultures in which the ideal speech situation is frequently actualized. Such critics claim that Habermas is naive with respect to the ubiquity of power in human relationships. A related and also common criticism of the ideal speech situation is the belief that Habermas thinks communication can be fully transparent so that two or more people can in principle completely understand each other. This also seems naive. People never fully understand each other and even fail to understand themselves completely. Meaning is never fully transparent.

Both criticisms misunderstand the concept of the ideal speech situation. The idea is that undistorted communication is a necessarily presupposed standard in all speech acts. It is not something simply asserted to be a ‘‘good thing’’ that we should strive for (though this value claim can be made and is made by Habermasians for at least many, but not all, communicative situations). It is presupposed by us all, every time we act meaningfully. It provides a regulating limit case by which people, in everyday life, really do determine the success or lack of success of any communicative endeavor. If someone leaves a meeting organized for a free discussion of ideas feeling that it was not a very successful one, then the reasons for its failure will pertain to these regulating principles: ‘‘Bill dominated the discussion and no one else could get a word in,’’ ‘‘The men wouldn’t listen to the women and ran the whole show,’’ ‘‘Several people were threatened by the new ideas and wouldn’t listen to reason,’’ ‘‘The students were afraid to speak their minds because some of those professors would have discriminated against them later on.’’ The ideal speech situation can be approached empirically the way that a number series can approach a limit in mathematics. It can be approximated to as yet unexplored degrees of refinement even though it can never be realized fully. That is why it is called a ‘‘limit case.’’ And like the limit in a mathematical series that is essential to the series itself, it constitutes the nature of communicative action. Its power as a discovery by Habermas and other communication and critical theorists is that it serves as an internal standard by which to measure the existence, nature, and effects of various forms of power.

The Separation of Power and Knowledge. Hence knowledge and power are carefully distinguished in critical epistemology through the concept of the ideal speech situation. If they were not and if, as we find in Foucault’s writings, knowledge were equated with power, then it would be impossible for those subjugated to discourse-practices or ideologies to challenge them from within. The distinction between knowledge and power is an internal standard for critical ethnographers and for all people generally to determine whether a culture is sexist, racist, classist, colonizing, or oppressive in any other way. If a theorist finds a cultural formation or discourse to be oppressive then those subjugated by it could also in principle find it oppressive according to critical epistemologists. Not to assume this is to take a very arrogant position indeed. Moreover, if a theorist can detect a culturally oppressive situation she does so by taking an insider’s position with respect to it rather than by imposing her own standards of liberty and freedom upon it. If she does not do this then she assumes that her privileged position as theorist is the only cultural position having some sort of universal standard on what is right and wrong, good and bad. And that idea is self-contradictory, besides being arrogant, as the previous discussion on gaze theory has shown.

The power and knowledge distinction emphasized by Habermas is therefore compelling in many respects. It provides us with a theory of cultural oppression that does not merely assert the culture of the academic or researcher to be universal. It provides indicators of oppression internal to all cultures. It explains how it is that oppressed people can come to be aware of their oppression and struggle against it. The knowledge gained by a social scientist in research can and should follow the principles of the ideal speech situation to invite the voices of those ‘‘being studied’’ into the research process and to allow those voices to change the pre-existing ideas of the researchers. This theory gives us standards by which to design and undertake research that will result in well-supported claims and well-articulated articulations of the research limitations.

There are, however, certain gaps in this theory of the knowledge and power relation. These are discussed in the section on praxis epistemology later.

Sameness and Difference

Sameness for the critical epistemologist is not rooted in the relation of a sign to what it signifies nor in assumedly shared identical experiences. Rather,

‘‘sameness’’ is most primordially a category that pertains to ‘‘sameness of meaning.’’ All speech acts come with the claim that their meaning is or will be the same for the actor as it is for the audience.25 If expectations are met then actors proceed with sameness claims working. That is not to say that meanings really are the same when expectations are met. If expectations are not met then sameness claims can be problematized and discussed. But such discussions will never result in finally certain knowledge that something is the same for you as it is for me, nor that something I experience now will be the same when I experience ‘‘it’’ tomorrow. We never get to the bottom of sameness claims nor do we need to in social life. As long as sameness claims work to coordinate action between people they are assumed valid though at bottom they are always fallible.

Habermas (1978b) links the notion of sameness to the concept of ‘‘rule’’ as it has been discussed by Wittgenstein and those who have refined or modified his work:

The ‘‘identity’’ of a meaning cannot be the same as the identity of an object that can be identified by different observers as the same object under different descriptions. This act of identifying an object about which the speakers are making certain statements already presupposes the understanding of singular terms. Symbolic meanings constitute or establish identity in a way similar to rules that establish unity in the multiplicity of their exemplary embodiments, of their different realizations of fulfillments. It is owing to conventional regulations that meanings count as identical. In this connection, it is important to recall Wittgenstein’s remark that the concept of rule is interwoven with the use of the word ‘‘same.’’ (p. 17)

The identity of meaning, from this perspective, is not a perceptual identity based on presence. It is rather the identity of an implicit understanding of how one can or should act in a given social situation. One ‘‘recognizes’’ such identities intersubjectively, which means that one recognizes by taking the position of others (again, not literally for that is impossible, but through typifications) in relation to the acts that exemplify ‘‘rules’’ or norms:

One has grasped the meaning of a rule when one has learned to understand the exhibited formations as examples of something that can be seen in them. (Habermas, 1987b, p. 16)

Difference is importantly structured by the distinction between first, second and third person positions. Because privileged access reduces position-taking to a matter of ‘‘approximate position-taking,’’ there is always possible difference when meanings are conveyed. Yet sameness is an unavoidable claim. Nothing can be said, written or thought without making sameness claims - even statements like ‘‘there are no samenesses, there is only radical heterogeneity’’ make all sorts of sameness claims.


That completes my outline of basic principles for critical epistemology. The previous sections should have made it clear that no ocular- or phonocentric paradigm for certainty is appealed to in this epistemological theory. Sameness and representation are understood to be a matter of necessary but fallible claims and limit cases. Representation, relatedly, is not the crux of meaning or truth but rather a secondary effect of making explicit what already pertained implicitly through expectations and inferences.26 Power is distinct from knowledge and yet power cannot be wholly removed from interaction - its equalization is again a presupposed limit case.

There are postmodern insights, however, that still beg for consideration from a criticalist position. One of them pertains to the presence problematic. Another to the significance that ‘‘longing’’ might have for our understandings of knowledge and the self. The manner in which ‘‘limit cases,’’ ‘‘necessary formal presuppositions,’’ and ‘‘necessary formal distinctions’’ crop up in so many places within the theory of communicative action might have important ontological implications. The distinction between what ‘‘is’’ and ‘‘what is necessarily presupposed as possible’’ might be relevant not only to the questions of how we communicate and how we use concepts like knowledge and truth implicitly, but also provide clues about what constitutes the nature of human longing and empowerment. More theoretical push on certain aspects of the criticalist principles reviewed above can clarify issues suggestive in this regard.

I begin this sort of push in this final section of the paper to move toward something I am currently calling ‘‘praxis epistemology.’’ Postmodern insights are convergent with praxis epistemology. I lead up to a sketch of the main ideas by beginning with an examination of Habermas’s distinction between action oriented toward consequences and action oriented toward understanding. This will bring us to an exploration of how ‘‘presence’’ appears within the framework of critical epistemology. From this perspective the normative validity claim is found to have a peculiar and special status closely associated with a theory of the self. And from there I show that the longing for presence may be clarified in terms of a desire for recognition that simultaneously informs epistemological theory and a substantive theory of human motivation. Truth, desire and existence are interlinked.

Action Oriented Toward Consequences Versus Action Oriented Toward Understanding

Habermas (1987b, Ch. 5, 1987a: Chs. 9, 10 and elsewhere) makes an important distinction between action oriented toward consequences and action oriented toward understanding. He does not make this distinction as something that is upheld absolutely in empirical cases but rather, once again, in terms of formal, presupposed principles that structure communicative acts. Nevertheless, it is a hard and fast distinction on this level of what is presupposed.

In the case of action oriented toward consequences Habermas sides with the position that would have knowledge powerful when it ‘‘works’’ to supply good means for attaining desired ends. Power is located in the actor here - in the ability of an actor to realize her aims. This is rather like Bacon’s conceptualization of the relation. In the case of action oriented toward understanding Habermas treats power primarily as something that distorts communicative situations. The power of agents must be equalized in the ideal speech situation. Moreover, in terms of the motivations of the actors in an ideal speech situation power is almost set aside entirely because the participants must not be motivated to have power over each other but must rather seek only a mutual understanding.

The basic distinctions made by Habermas in this regard are important. They help us understand, among other things, what is wrong with the concept of ‘‘power-knowledge.’’27 However, it seems to me that the concept of power used by Habermas in this case is narrower than it need be. By expanding what we mean by power we can link the Habermasian framework with some of the insightful postmodern work alluded to in my discussion of Derrida.

It is not only instrumental action that is oriented toward consequences. It makes sense to speak of ‘‘goals’’ that are purely captured by reaching an understanding with other people. People do not attempt to reach an understanding with each other only in order to repair communication breakdowns so that instrumental sorts of action may subsequently continue in coordination with others. If I ask you for a pen and you claim that I should get it myself we may then discuss the norm in question so that we reach an agreement. Then I will get my pen and you will continue with whatever you were doing before I interrupted you. That would be an effort to reach an understanding over a disputed validity claim so that instrumental goals can be better pursued in coordination with others. But we could just as well start to discuss, for intrinsic reasons, the interesting issues implicated by my (initially implicit) claim that you ought to help me out, and your counter-claim that I ought to do things for myself. What are the ultimate norms, ethics and morals that should abide between human beings? Should we favor individualism over cooperation? Why?

People often get into conversations oriented toward reaching an understanding for the intrinsic value of being understood and understanding others, as well as for the enjoyment we experience when exploring ideas. And when such understandings are reached there is a sense of more power involved. People are empowered when they feel understood, recognized, appreciated. This is a huge human motivation. The ‘‘will to power,’’ the ‘‘will to knowledge,’’ and the ‘‘longing for presence’’ discussed above in the section on Derrida have relevance for critical epistemology right here with the concept of ‘‘action oriented toward reaching an understanding.’’

The Extra-Linguistic Reference, the Thing In-itself, and Presence

This being so, what would motivate agreements between people when they are attempting to attain an understanding for purely intrinsic reasons? The motivating principles and standards are different for each type of validity claim. In the case of objective validity claims, an extra-linguistic ground is presupposed in the form of a world of objects and events to which there is multiple access. This is a key principle supplying a standard, a presupposed ground, for reaching consent on such claims. The force of the better argument here would include whether or not predictions linking antecedents and consequents in a world of multiple access are born out. In the case of subjective validity claims a different extra-linguistic ground is presupposed such that those engaged in discussion find reasons to believe that a subjective state has been authentically and sincerely expressed. Once again, standards for reaching consensus include some associated with a formally presupposed extra-linguistic domain.

Now notice that the concept of presence crops up as a secondary structure to the presupposition of an extra-linguistic ground in the case of both objectivity and subjectivity. A claim pertaining to the extra-linguistic domain that is presupposed for all objects in a world of multiple access will formally presuppose the concept of an ‘‘object in-itself,’’ aside from the appearances it may take on for various people. Hence disputes over the nature of an object will be structured by the appearance vs. reality distinction, with an extra linguistic reference falling on the side of ‘‘reality.’’ An effort to refine any claim about what a thing is in-itself, away from ‘‘appearance’’ and in the direction of ‘‘reality,’’ takes the form of a movement from the horizon of all possible action expectations that have this object as their commonality toward pure knowledge-imparting perception.

Imagine that I ask you to hand me a pen that I assume to be in view for us both, and you reply with, ‘‘What exactly do you mean by ‘pen’? I see no pen here.’’ Our subsequent discussion could then be about how to define ‘‘pen’’ and why I call an object before us a pen but you do not. The word ‘‘pen’’ then becomes stripped away from expectation horizons in which we use the term with respect to coordinated projects within a world of multiple access, projects that might require picking up, writing, throwing, and so on. We would find the concept of pen as an ‘‘object in-itself ’’ to have been implicitly assumed within such a stable but flexible horizon of many learned action expectations. We learn names by learning how to use them competently in everyday communication with its complex contexts. The objects and concepts that these names ‘‘stand for’’ are limit points implicated by the appearance vs. reality distinction. This distinction will come into play whenever what is assumed to have the status of multiple access turns out to be problematical. To discuss what a pen, or this pen, is ‘‘in-itself ’’ requires the refinement of objective claims in the direction of an extra-linguistic reference stripped away from action expectations. This moves us toward an already implicit concept of the object’s being alone. And that moves us, smack-bang, into the presence problematic.

We cannot know what the object is in-itself from the perspective of Derrida’s deconstruction because of the temporal dimension in perception (the idea of its being depends on the concept of presence which deconstructs when we examine the concept of a ‘‘now’’). From the perspective of critical epistemology this knowledge is impossible because we cannot remove intersubjective expectations from anything we call ‘‘knowledge.’’ The impossibility of ever knowing for sure what an object is in-itself is due to the fact that this very idea of an object in-itself already presupposes differences between first, second and third person positions. All objects can only appear to us, in a knowledge-imparting way, ‘‘readymade’’28 for some possible sort of communication about them.29 ‘‘Presence’’ and ‘‘object-in-itself ’’ are concepts that would not exist without intersubjectivity. They specify approachable limit points with a boundary that cannot be crossed. Ultimately this is because we can never know whether people understand our utterances as we understand them ourselves, we can only know whether they speak and act as if the understanding is the same.30

The same is true of subjective validity claims. ‘‘I feel sad’’ references a state of sadness that is extra-linguistic. Refinements of this sort of claim move within a logic dictated by the distinction between one’s ‘‘self-knowledge’’ and one’s ‘‘performance.’’ The extra-linguistic reference crops up in this case on the side of ‘‘self-knowledge.’’ Self-knowledge, however, remains within intersubjective mediation. As soon as the feeling, ‘‘sadness’’ in this case, is knowledge-imparting, or in other words a feature of what one can call ‘‘conscious knowledge,’’ it has been communicatively prepared or in other words ‘‘grasped’’ from within but only through taking first- second- and third-person positions in relation to it. We do not have direct access to our own subjective states without mediation. Presence is again pointed towards, in this case in relation to a ‘‘raw’’ subjective state, but once again it is never to be reached.

The Peculiarity of the Normative Validity Claim

In the case of purely normative claims we have a special situation whereby the force of the better argument does not include appeals to an extra-linguistic reference. The structuring binary opposition here is neither appearance vs. reality nor self-knowledge vs. performance but rather what ‘‘is’’ vs. what ‘‘ought’’ to be. Neither side of this formally presupposed opposition is extra-linguistic in structure. Habermas (1987b) has discussed this peculiarity of the normative claim in several places within chapter five of The Theory of Communicative Action:

Cognitive dealings with perceptible and manipulable objects, and expressions of subjective experiences are in contact with external or internal nature through stimulation of our senses or through our needs and desires. They are in touch with a reality that not only transcends language but is also free of symbolic structures. Human cognitions and expressions, however shaped by language they may be, can also be traced back to the natural history of intelligent performances and expressive gestures in animals. Norm consciousness, on the other hand, has no equally trivial extralinguistic reference; for obligations there are no unambiguous natural-historical correlates, as there are for sense impressions and needs. Nevertheless, collective consciousness, the paleo-symbolically supported normative consensus, and the collective identity supported by it secure for experiences of obligation contact with a reality that is, if not free of symbols, at least prelinguistic - they are ‘‘older’’ than interaction mediated by grammatical speech. (p. 61)

Habermas’s idea is that prelinguistic symbol usage (that is, use of symbols prior to grammatical differentiations that allow for semantic and not just pragmatic expressions of the distinctive validity claims) fuse all three validity claims and function, among other ways, to generate intersubjective unity in early social groups. A single gesture intersubjectively understood but used prior to grammatical differentiations will simultaneously mean: ‘‘You should such and such’’ (normative claim), ‘‘I intend by this utterance such and such’’ (subjective claim), ‘‘The situation apparent to both of us at this time is such and such’’ (objective claim). To be intersubjectively understood is to have a meaning that transposes first- second- and third-person positions simultaneously.

The Relation of Normative Claims to the Self. The third-person position is particularly important because it generates the normative claim in distinction from a power claim. Implicitly the normative claim is issued from the third-person perspective in the form: ‘‘Anyone in your position at this time and place should such and such.’’ And it is simultaneously from this position that a ‘‘me’’ emerges from the structure of intersubjectivity. A ‘‘me’’ comes forth as a ‘‘good me’’ in opposition to understood possible ‘‘bad me’s’’Fnormative claims and identity claims are co-emergent. The ultimate negative internal sanction for violating a norm is a self-acknowledged negative judgment on one’s own being as a person. Shame and guilt both seem derivative from a negation of self issued by the self. In such cases the ‘‘I’’ makes an identification opposed to the ‘‘me-claim’’ carried by the act that is judged as in ‘‘I could have acted otherwise, I could be a better person than I have been.’’

An important positive internal sanction for following a norm is acting and then recognizing one’s own ‘‘me-claim’’ in an affirmative manner. Each act carries the potential for self-discovery and, more minimally, self-maintenance, self-production and reproduction. In terms of positive self-discovery the ‘‘I-me’’ relation comes into harmony though the ‘‘I’’ still remains something beyond any ‘‘me.’’

The previous quotation from Habermas (1987b) is located in a section where Habermas is speculating about the origins of symbolic systems and symbolic consciousness in prehistoric times. The identity of each member of the group is dependent on this intersubjective unity, this sense of belonging, this group identity. The generalized other of the group furnishes the position through which each member position-takes, acquiring in the process an idea of who they are themselves as well as an understanding of group norms. In the complex and fully linguistic societies of today the same processes are at work in the development and maintenance of social selves. The normative claim of today, differentiated out through grammatical and pragmatic distinctions between expressives, imperatives, propositions and the like, harks back to a claimed intersubjective identity of group life. It has roots in the emergence of the human self. Normative claims are tied up with identity claims and existential needs. Intrinsically motivated conversations about the grounds for normative claims cannot avoid existential issues. Why should I do such and such (aside from any utilitarian consequences)? The answer takes different forms on a developmental continuum that begins with something like, ‘‘Because I will be recognized as a valid self if I do,’’ and moves along through progressive understandings of, ‘‘Because I will be able to recognize myself as valid if I do.’’

The Normative Claim Is More Primordial Than Subjective and Objective Claims. Habermas also argues in that same chapter that the form of both objective and subjective validity claims may have evolved via metaphoric extension from the normative claim, which seems to be evolutionarily prior to the other two. The normative claim not only has a special status in that it has no extra-linguistic grounds, it has special status in that it may be more primordial than the other claims and in that the other claims may depend on it in their very constitution. This should not be surprising when we remember the point made by Ayer (1956) that was quoted once already in a previous section: ‘‘it is only with the use of language that truth and error, certainty and uncertainty, come fully upon the scene’’ (p. 54). We must first have intersubjectivity, emergent and maintained, before we can have differentiated validity claims. And normative claims articulate the very heart of intersubjectivity. They are most primordial. They appear as soon as actors coordinate activities through the implicit assumption that a meaning is the same and they are co-emergent with the human self.

Normative Ground. Normative claims have an intrinsic relation with the self, but what significance does that have with respect to the question of ground? Could not normative grounds be simply the implicit norms of a tradition? Then discussions of normative claims for intrinsic reasons would amount to not much more than a process of making explicit what was already there in implicit form for people with a shared culture and tradition.

Normative grounds could not be merely what is implicit to a particular form of life because cultures do change, sometimes and partly, through challenges to normative traditions, arguments conducted from the inside about what norms ought to hold, what norms deserve consent. This is not a matter of revealing through explication what the cultural norms implicit within traditions are, but a matter of what the cultural norms ought to be. The concepts of ‘‘justice,’’ ‘‘citizen,’’ ‘‘rights,’’ ‘‘equal before the law,’’ and many others, were developed from inside a culture by members who challenged traditional normative structures and argued for new ones. A process of culturally internal reflection and critique occurred. Standards other than those supplied by tradition had to be in play. These standards cannot be extra-linguistic in nature, nor can they be subjective or objective.

Habermas often says that ‘‘generalizable interests’’ serve this function of supplying ground for consent on normative claims (for example, 1981, p. 20). But ‘‘interests’’ suggest needs, desires and motivations. A core

‘‘interest’’ to all human beings would be the ‘‘interest’’ in having and maintaining a self. This is an interest that is wholly intersubjective in constitution and its ground would accordingly not reside in an extra- linguistic domain. It is an interest that cropped up as a sort of emergent property as soon as norms entered the scene.

Hence the connection between normative claims and the structures of self is of interest to us because it implies a ground for normative validity claims. There is something extra-cultural about existential needs that is relevant to all questions about what norms deserve consent aside from any utilitarian contingencies they might serve.

Praxis Theory and the Desire for Recognition

The logic so far has gone as follows: Actions oriented toward understanding are often conducted for intrinsic reasons and not just to repair misunderstandings so that coordinated instrumental action, cooperation, may continue. But if this is so, then what motivates action oriented toward understanding when it is conducted for intrinsic reasons, and what standards or grounds are referred to when consent in such situations is reached? This question becomes most poignant when the normative claim is considered. The normative claim has special status because there is no extra-linguistic reference associated with it and it is codependent and coemergent with the self. Finally, the normative claim seems to be most primordial of the three validity claims. The other two validity claims depend on normative claims in so far as they must be expressed, and to be expressed is to make have assumptions about identical meaning already in place - that is, norms.

Praxis. Contemporary reformulations of praxis theory (see Carspecken

2002, 1999a, essay 2) are convergent with the place we have reached in this line of thinking. The desire to have one’s self recognized, ultimately by one’s own self, is a motivational structure implicitly core to praxis theory because praxis theory in its Marxist version originated as the idea that humans ‘‘produce themselves’’ through their work and interaction with others (see Carspecken 1999a, essay 2, and Carspecken, 2002 for extended discussions of this). The basic insight in praxis theory may be reformulated with respect to the theory of meaningful acts adumbrated here. Meaningful acts are motivated in part, at varying levels of foregrounding and background, by the identity claims they put at stake.

In fact, all truth claims are motivated and some of the motivation is internal to the claim itself - a desire that can be fulfilled only if the claim is indeed true and worthy of the consent of others. Nietzsche’s idea that knowledge claims are expressions of a will to power no doubt comes from this insight. To claim truth and find your claim supported is to become empowered. However, the desire that most intrinsically motivates claims to truth cannot be satisfied unless the claim proves to be worthy of the consent. Only retarded stages of development leave a person resorting to power alone in winning consent to existential claims because such consent is inherently unsatisfying. (This is definitely not to say that there are not an enormous number of instances of power claims in everyday life.) To be worthy of the consent of others means the claim must be recognized in its own right as valid without the use of force or mere persuasion. And yet, few things empower the self more than the experience of expressing a potentiality and then recognizing one’s self within and through the expression. This is not being empowered in the sense of having power over others, it is the power of being. The longing for presence is a longing for self-knowledge. Its most common human manifestation occurs in meaningful action.31

The Desire for Recognition. The insight in praxis theory drew upon Hegelian themes that in some ways provide a better articulation of it. In particular, the drive for recognition that Hegel made so much of in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1967) is an appealing avenue to take in trying to answer the question of a normative ground, which we have now found related to the question of an existential ground. Recognition needs appear to be emergent with the rise of a symbolically structured self and its division into an ‘‘I’’ and a ‘‘me.’’ The recognition people desire must come from equals, from others free to negate so that their desired affirmation would be provided in an informed and unforced manner. The social conditions for true affirmation of the self, recognition of the self, are pretty much identical with those articulated by Habermas as the ideal speech situation. This is of course no coincidence. When attempting to reach understanding with others for intrinsic reasons the desire for recognition is often, though not always, a key motivation. It is key, for example, when we express as yet untested ideas and performances before an audience. Instead of mere consent, it is recognition that is sought. Instead of consent proceeding purely from the ‘‘force of the better argument’’ we have recognition proceeding from the ‘‘force of who we (hope we) are.’’ We claim our being through our meaningful actions. Our being is chronically, necessarily, uncertain and dependent on the ‘‘gaze’’ of others.

By ‘‘gaze,’’ however, we mean something that begins with the responses of real others and ends with an internalized abstraction, the generalized other, from which we attempt to gaze upon our selves. The ocular metaphor perhaps arises only after this maturational process and then to represent the more fundamental categories of ‘‘expecting’’ and ‘‘responding to.’’ A response to the me-claim of one’s own act transposes the three formal speech positions in relation to the claim, providing an objectification of personal identity that an ocular metaphor represents rather well. Developmentally, the ‘‘I-me’’ distinction is first born with the acquisition of norms and it then forms a ground upon which a developmental play between autonomy and objectification proceeds. The ‘‘I’’ is what is autonomous because it is the locus of pure subjectivity, that heart of the self that can never be objectified, can never be ‘‘seen.’’ The ‘‘me’’ is the objectified self acquired by taking the position of generalized others. The ‘‘I’’ seeks itself, desires recognition so that it can know itself. Humans are not satiated by validated identity claims because no ‘‘me’’ can really be a subject, it is always an objectification, it necessarily lacks autonomy. The ‘‘I’’ must be able to come up with something unexpected to be an ‘‘I.’’ Thus it is the ‘‘I’’ that we desire to know but as an ‘‘I’’ it cannot be known in any of the forms through which we customarily ‘‘know.’’

As Hegel understood, the contradiction involved in the desire for recognition drives a developmental process toward a telos of self-knowledge, self-actualization, self-realization. It is the ‘‘I’’ we seek in the gaze of the ‘‘I.’’ The ‘‘I’’ is both closest to what we mean by ‘‘myself ’’ and yet what is most radically other to us.

Normative Ground

Finally, what do these points about the relation between the normative claim and the desire for recognition suggest in terms of normative ground? A ground and standard is implied that have to do with the teleological structure of the self, whose mode of being has been described in Hegelian and existential philosophies as ‘‘being-for-itself ’’ (Hegel, 1967; Sartre, p. 1956). The telos of the desire for recognition is both ground and goal.

An exploration of normative ground can go in one of at least two directions to reveal the significance of ‘‘being-for-itself ’’ to epistemology. One direction moves toward an articulation of the conditions in which full self-recognition would be possible by examining the limits of normative argumentation. The other direction moves into regions opened by acknowledging the necessity of norms for the sameness claim that constitutes all instances of meaning. I will here only consider the second of these directions.

Intersubjectivity presupposes norms that depend on significant symbols

(minimally, gestures) whose ‘‘significance’’ rests in a presupposition that they mean the same thing to the one who emits them as they do to the one who receives them. Wittgenstein’s theory of ‘‘rules’’ has everything to do with this. Sameness of meaning is given by ‘‘rules,’’ or ‘‘norms,’’ intersubjectively recognized through their exemplifications. To be certain that two people understand a meaning in identical ways would be the same as for two people to fully understand and consent to norms. Norms, as we have seen, require the structure of a generalized other from whose position a person gages her own actions. And once the position of a generalized other is internalized a ‘‘me’’ in distinction from an ‘‘I’’ emerges having existential value to the actor. It is the judgment of the self by the self from the position of an internalized audience that sanctions norms (positively and negatively) most fundamentally.

Trying to become certain of the sameness of any meaning reveals the limit condition of two subjects who know each other perfectly to understand the meaning in an identical way. The presupposed ground is another manifestation of presence but this time the presence of two subjects who mirror each other identically through an infinite number of moves back and forth. The norms recognized through the gaze between mirrors have risen up from a dialectic of sameness and difference that, metaphorically, pulls and holds these mirrors apart.

That is the presence longed for in the ‘‘longing for presence.’’ It could only be by having another subject present to one’s self in the sense of knowing that other as it knows you, and knowing it knows that you know it, and so on through an infinite number of moves, that one would ever complete the telos of self-hood and find an end to praxis. It is impossible to attain communicatively even while its structures were generated by communication.

The paradigm for certainty in praxis epistemology, then, is neither that of seeing something and feeling certain that it is as it appears to be nor that of phenomenologically voicing an expression within thought and simultaneously knowing what it means. Certainty simply has no paradigm, it is rather the telos of a longing for presence. The most basic domain in which to consider certainty for praxis epistemology is the domain of meaning. When people push on the question of certainty in order to better find themselves, find security, delight in the discovery of new thoughts and ideas, then principles that had always been in the background move forward to become problems. Most basic of them is the problem of meaning. G. E. Moore is famous for having frequently asked students and colleagues, ‘‘What exactly do you mean?’’ People in everyday life often enough ask similar questions of themselves and others. No final answer can be formulated but we do understand what conditions would be required for it. They would be the impossible conditions of pure and certain intersubjective recognition in which self and other both would be fully known. These conditions could be called ‘‘intersubjective presence.’’ The quest for certainty peels back toward a quest for the self that is structured by an unreachable limit case in which difference and sameness would be united within the self-recognition of all subjects through a universal and purely refined generalized other.

Intersubjective presence is impossible to attain outside a religious experience. But it implicates regulating principles for truth claims that are much the same as the principles that Habermas has in mind with his ‘‘ideal speech situation.’’ Praxis epistemology adds substance to these formal conditions. It acknowledges the relation of truth to human longing and opens a space for understanding how the relation between power and knowledge may be understood in ways additional to those of distorting communicative contexts and subjugating others.

Nietzsche was therefore on to something when he wrote that truth is the will-to-power. Unlike Nietzsche, however, we would not consider the ‘‘will-to-knowledge’’ derivative from a will-to-power but rather put things the other way around. The quest for the self, the desire for recognition, the yearning for presence come together in a longing for knowledge. Action oriented toward understanding must be grasped in terms of a ‘‘yearning for understanding.’’ Self-expressive acts are powerful when such understanding is reached, as they can be in part if conditions in line with justice, equality, and openness are approximated. Truth, even in its most mundane manifestations, is a concept unavoidably bound up with such things as desire, fear, yearning, freedom, fulfillment and the self. That is an insight partially articulated in some of the postmodern literature but generally only as a way to deconstruct notions of standards and reality. I am arguing that critical epistemology, praxis epistemology, suggests these same relations in a much more compelling way. If more fully explored and articulated these understandings would be useful and would alter the landscape of social research.


Ocularcentric and phonocentric paradigms of certainty both appeal to grounds used, along with many more, to offer support in everyday knowledge claims. They take them to be really indisputable sources of self-evidence upon which formal theories may be built. In everyday life, however, such things remain claims only - claims always vulnerable to criticism. Minimally, we can always in principle ask a fellow human, just as she can always in principle ask us, ‘‘What exactly do you mean?’’ And when trying to answer that question one must begin a process of articulating implicit assumptions rooted in tacit fields of intersubjectivity.

Critical epistemology is a theory of knowledge, truth, and power that is exactly this: an articulation of already understood but implicit assumptions and structures used during the course of everyday life. It is not a theory based on the claim that one source of certainty can be identified such that formal principles may be constructed upon this foundation. Its articulation is meant to show that much has already been laid down in the course of human pre-history and in the course of development undergone by all of us with communicative competence. That is the sense to be given to the idea that intersubjectivity is more primordial than subjectivity or objectivity. What we call conscious thought and explicit communication work at the tip of a collective, developmental pyramid.

Hence, the claim that any theory of knowledge and truth cannot avoid making, the claim that it is itself a true theory, necessarily takes a self-consciously fallibilist form for critical epistemology. The theory cannot be known to be true with certainty. It can be found to work as if true if others recognize things they implicitly knew already in its formulations. Because it claims to have correctly articulated structures at work in all intersubjectivity and thus all communication, arguments against it should always turn out to presuppose what they attempt to deny. Arguments against this theory ought to always presuppose that they themselves can be understood and consented to without the use of power to compel or manipulate consent. If such arguments can be produced then the critical theorist is bound to acknowledge that the theory is flawed. Until then, my argument has been that criticalism offers a better challenge to Enlightenment discourses than do the postmodern themes reviewed in this paper.

The final sections of this paper were devoted to my belief that criticalism remains an unfinished project. Further work within and upon the criticalist framework is needed such that convergences with certain crucial postmodern insights, already suggested by the principles of critical epistemology, become more fully worked out than I have been able to do here.


1 I personally first came across the expression ‘‘critical ethnography’’ when reading McLaren’s Life in Schools (1989). I spent much of my time as a graduate student at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, U.K., where the inaugural works in critical ethnography originated, and I do not recall ever hearing the expression used there. In a personal conversation, Peter McLaren has told me that he is not sure who coined this expression but thinks it very likely he coined it himself.

2 Though postmodernism and criticalism are both counter-Enlightenment discourses, and both are counter to modernity, this is for very different reasons. Habermas, our most prominent contemporary critical theorist, is well known to have called for ‘‘more Enlightenment’’ rather than an abandonment of Enlightenment altogether. His work is certainly counter-Enlightenment but in a way that differs greatly from postmodern discourses because Habermas believes that the social, political, economic and cultural formations that characterize modernity express deformations of an Enlightenment potentiality he fully welcomes.

3 A fairly recent author characterizes ‘‘postmodernism’’ in the following way: ‘‘For the past few decades postmodernism has been at the center of debates about philosophy, history, culture, and politics, including feminist theory and politics. Its theoretical rationale can be found in poststructuralist modes of social and cultural analysis and its concerns are echoed in postmodern cultural practices. The range of theories broadly described as ‘‘postmodern’’ includes writers as diverse as Lyotard (1924–), Baudrillard (1929–), Derrida (1930–), Lacan (1901–81), and Foucault (1926–84). Among women theorists Julia Kristeva (1941–) and Luce Irigaray (1932–) have been particularly important’’ (Weedon, 1998).

4 ‘‘Sameness’’ and ‘‘identity’’ relations are considered throughout this essay but there are basically three forms in which such relations appear within theories of meaning. One form is indicated here: identity or sameness as a symmetrical relationship (here between image and object of perception). See for example Davidson (2001, 33) on this sort of relationship. Another sameness relation discussed later on concerns the manner in which a name, or concept, is applied to diverse ‘‘things’’ as a category - making them seem to be ‘‘the same’’ when in actuality they may differ fundamentally. Names for various social groups based on class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity embody contested sameness claims of this type. The third relation of sameness and identity concerns meaning, the idea that the meaning one person receives from a communication is the same as another person - the same, especially, for the one who is communicating and the one to whom the communication is addressed. All three senses of sameness will be discussed in this paper.

5 Of course, the concept of observation has been modified in its post-empiricist versions but these modifications, at least as they are presented in texts on social research, retain the metaphor of seeing while adding other metaphors such as seeing through a window, seeing through lenses, or seeing through schema (see Guba, 1990a. For a discussion and critique see Carspecken, 1996, ch. 1; Carspecken, 1999a, essay 1).

6 An emphasis on the voice over sight is also important in the work of the American pragmatist, George Herbert Mead (1934). The voice receives some special attention in Mead’s concept of ‘‘the significant symbol,’’ which is in turn crucial for understanding Mead’s treatment of sameness - sameness of meaning in this case. However, Mead did not use the voice to argue for a correspondence theory of truth. Mead’s most fundamental concepts have to do with interaction rather than with perception. Vocal acts have the special property of producing a response in the actor as well as in those acted toward, and this is what drew Mead’s attention. Mead’s theories of meaning, thought and the self have been taken up by contemporary criticalists, with important modifications, as later sections of this paper explain.

7 Phonocentric theories need not take the relation between voice and meaning to be causally primarily, only experientially and/or epistemologically primary. ‘‘Meadow’’ means meadow perhaps only because we first saw or otherwise experienced meadows. The constitution of ideal objects can be theorized in various ways and the processes involved in such constitution can be regarded as having always already occurred by the time we are able to reflect on the structures of experience. Hence the conceptual centrism may be located with the voice without implicating a position on causality or the original determinants of meaning.

8 This includes, as many readers will know, those philosophers who work within the Anglo-American analytic tradition whose roots extend through the Enlightenment tradition and back to its pre-Enlightenment roots. See Davidson (2001, pp. 36, 41 and elsewhere), and Brandom (1994, p. 5). Social science methodologies not only provide few, when there are any, acknowledgments to the counter-Enlightenment tradition that extends as far back as the Enlightenment itself (Berlin 2000), they also lag behind our ‘‘mainstream’’ philosophical traditions whose origins are firmly within Enlightenment thought.

9 Alternatives to the correspondence theory of truth also have strong roots in rationalism, in Kant’s idea that the fundamental unit of awareness is judgment rather than perception, in Frege, Wittgenstein and others who would not be called ‘‘counter-Enlightenment.’’ The minority theme of ‘‘inferentialism’’ in Enlightenment philosophy has been slowly developed from a view that could coincide with modified correspondence theories into a stark challenge to them (see Brandom, 1994). Inferentialist philosophy today has converged markedly with those portions of Habermasian critical theory dealing with rationality and meaning. Inferentialist philosophy (Brandom, 1994, 1999) has accordingly become an important counter-Enlightenment movement though its roots lie outside the original counter-Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

10 My argument here could be misunderstood. I am not claiming that Foucault thought of ‘‘the gaze’’ in a way that would render it divisible into first- second- and third-person perspectives. Because Foucault found subject-centered reasoning to be a modernist form of thought that has come to its dead-end in this post-modern age, and because the three formal linguistic positions used here could seem subject-centered, he would no doubt have rejected my arguments. However, Foucault’s theory is intertwined with a metaphor, the gaze, and this metaphor is certainly one that brings along with it the differences between first- second- and third-person position. The idea of the gaze is simultaneously understood, necessarily, from our experiences of gazing (first-person), being gazed upon (second-person) and observing people who gaze at other people. If the metaphor with which a theory is interwoven carries this structure then this structure will be important to the theory unless the theorist explicitly deals with it. Foucault did not and the discourse of gaze theory implies these three positions implicitly whether those who use it are aware of this or not.

11 Roughly speaking, in Husserl’s phenomenology what is certain is phenomena but phenomena as such are not immediately noticed because of the processes of constitution. Constitutions take place as acts of consciousness and generate our sense of things as existing in space and time or as existing in our mental sphere only and other such modes. To move from the ‘‘natural attitude’’ where constitutions are taken as givens in experience (as in naı¨ve empiricism) to a more alert attitude in which phenomena are noticed in distinction from constituted modes and properties one must employ ‘‘reductions.’’ Thus, put crudely, ‘‘constitution’’ and ‘‘reduction’’ are movements in opposite directions. Constitutions take place automatically and without conscious intention but reductions require deliberation.

12 The argument here is simply that Husserl’s phenomenology probes much more deeply the assumptions made in ocularcentric correspondence theories of truth. Husserl’s philosophy is much more subtle than typical ocularcentric theories, therefore if his investigations of perception can be deconstructed then ocularcentric theories in general can be deconstructed.

13 See also Merleau-Ponty (1962, p. 69) for a nice summary of retention and protention in line with his own version of phenomenology.

14 This is clearly based on the following from Derrida (1973) in Allison’s translation: ‘‘Is not the sign something other than a being - the sole ‘thing’ which, not being a thing, does not fall under the question ‘what is …?’’’ (25)

15 In my opinion, there is much value in pure deconstruction but not as something to preach to others (for that sort of thing immediately contradicts its central point) nor as something to use for building social movements or conducting research. Pure deconstruction has many parallels with certain Buddhist methods. It is a kind of high art capable of aiding individuals in personal growth. But like the Zen koan, pure deconstruction is not meant to be a doctrine, nor anything that conclusions can be drawn from and then asserted to others. Social research and educational theory are a very different ‘‘game’’ to be played which has certain assumptions one must take on when choosing to play it. It’s a form of bad faith to try to bring formulations produced within a practice of pure deconstruction as if they were axioms or certainties from which to assert theory or call others on their choices for practice. Where pure deconstruction affects one’s own life practices it should probably do so silently.

16 Technically, the point here is that the existence of other and world need not be known, only presupposed, to have meaningful acts, thoughts and reflections.

17 Intersubjectivity may be found as well when conducting phenomenological investigations of perception that is knowledge-imparting, because knowledge-imparting perception is a special sort of meaningful act, structured through the possibility of conveying what is only perceived (from within a much more complex holistic experience) to others. It is knowledge-imparting perception that correspondence theorists and phenomenologists are concerned with. See Carspecken, 1999a, essay 2).

18 In Four Scenes for Posing the Question of Meaning (1999a) I suggest that the question of how intersubjectivity is constituted and what constitutes it must be explored through different ‘‘scenes’’ each of which begin with certain assumptions but these assumptions differ from scene to scene. Intersubjectivity is simply found phenomenologically within some of these scenes. It is explained from a third-person objectifying position from scenes that start with ontogenesis or anthropogenesis (thus precluding phenomenological accessibility). But to begin with a scene is to take a leap of faith and not to begin with certainty. The best we can do is show strong coherence between the conclusions derived from each scene.

19 Once again, this can be understood by considering carefully what perception in its knowledge-imparting forms really is. Perception as knowledge-imparting is always emphasized when presence is brought to the foreground. It is a special sort of project (organized series of acts) that would never happen if the one undertaking it were not already socialized, already a communicative being. It is focusing on a small subset of overall holistic experience such that what is perceived could in principle be described to another. Thus knowledge-imparting perception is not a matter of two things facing each other in a moment of presence. A third party is always there: the others to which the results of examining perception could be conveyed. The experience itself is constituted by this possibility; therefore, intersubjectively. This exercise of staring at something and trying to determine how it seems to come before us, or thinking of something with a similar purpose in mind, brings the presence problematic to the foreground but it need not lead to any deconstructions. The deferrals involved are clearly related to the shifts that must take place between first- second- and third-person positions when anything at all becomes knowledge-imparting - when anything at all is meaningful.

20 These arguments about acquiring intersubjectivity are an example of the sort of thinking that must be done outside phenomenological investigation. They are helpful for getting the basic idea across but of course much empirical research could be reviewed and conducted to fill in gaps and make the general idea fully convincing. Meanwhile this sort of argumentation, like that which can be conducted on the evolution of intersubjectivity within our species, can only in the end correlate well with more phenomenological modes of investigation.

21 Thought seems to vary between being very image-based and being almost literally a type of dialoging, with many forms in-between. Image-based thought is also intersubjectively constituted the moment it is noted, for its ‘‘appearance’’ within is constituted with the potentiality of talking about it, ‘‘presenting’’ it for another. Image thinking evolves in several stages from occurrence to expression, acquiring more intersubjective constitution the further along it goes.

22 Giddens’ formula for ‘‘structure,’’ that it is ‘‘the medium and outcome of action,’’ works with irresistible precision for the concept of norm. See Giddens (1979).

23 See Davidson (2001, p. 129).

24 Actually we understand a range of possible claimed intentions, generating a distinctive horizon of validity claims. This is called the ‘‘meaning field’’ in my version of critical ethnography (Carspecken, p. 1996).

25 This is often enough a subtle sameness claim, for a series of sentences can be expressed with the point or central meaning being that the audience is not expected to understand them as the actor does, or with the point being a question: ‘‘Do you understand what I just said as I do?’’ But the sameness of meaning claim then pertains to the claim of the audience not understanding other contents carried in the expression, or to the question of whether they do or do not. Meaning is a matter of horizons within which multiple contents and claims are linked, plus a central ‘‘point’’ being made that centers the sameness claim. The ‘‘point’’ of a meaningful act is often not what is semantically emphasized. See Carspecken (1999a, essay 3).

26 A specific theory of meaning that takes inference to be more primary than representation and then explains representation in terms of inference has been developed by Brandom (2000, 1994). Brandom offers an explanation of object-reference (thus representation as reference) in terms of anaphora (one indicative function) and then an explanation of anaphora in terms of substitutional inferencing. More phenomenologically, representation and the ‘‘objects’’ of representation can be grasped as secondary when one realizes that holistic experience always comes first, each and every moment in the flow of life, and that it requires a differentiation process to move from wholes (that fuse subjectivity, objectivity, the ‘‘I-feeling’’ and normative structure) to parts. I have explored some of this in Four Scenes for Posing the Question of Meaning (1999a).

27 See Habermas’s (1987a) sharp and compelling critique of Foucault in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

28 The phenomenological argument would be that within experience, noticing an object, feeling, intention, concept etc. is noticing something already constituted by communicative structures even before its name comes to mind. ‘‘Noticing’’ itself must not be modeled ocularcentrically. ‘‘Noticing’’ is having possible ways of acting-next on hand. Noticing something is being ready to act.

29 A meaningful act arises within the actor always already with a claim to identical meaning. The meaning of a meaningful act, including those that foreground singular terms such as ‘‘pen,’’ is constituted by the three formal speech positions and this is experienced by the actor via internalized audiences or generalized others whose position she automatically takes as soon as the act arises. The presence problematic has to do with the fact that actual audiences may or may not conform to internalized ones, and whether or not they do can never be known. The normative claim has special status (see discussions ahead) because any act of meaning foregrounding any of the three validity claims includes the notion that others ought to conform to the internalized audience position held by the actor.

30 A correlate of this is that we can never understand precisely what we mean by our own utterances either. We move our utterances from implicit/holistic forms toward explication/ differentiation often enough simply to try to get a better understanding of them ourselves - meaningful acts clarify and interpret their own point. Yet to understand them ourselves we must position-take with internalized audiences.

31 The longing for presence is also important in spiritual practices based on either relating the self to an ‘‘ultimate’’ generalized other (a concept of God) or to let go of the effort of trying to find one’s self through expressive acts (a meditative practice). In the first case the implicit unattainable limit concept of an omniscient other to which one need not act in order to be understood is conceptually represented and contemplated. In the second case an ‘‘effortless effort’’ is made to detach from an otherwise ubiquitous process that might be described as ‘‘identity investment’’ in meaningful action.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 6, 2003, p. 978-1047
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11546, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 6:37:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Phil Carspecken
    University of Houston
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    Phil Francis Carspecken is professor of Inquiry and Philosophy at Indiana University's School of Education. He teaches and conducts scholary work in the fields of critical qualitative research methodology, social theory, social philosophy and philosophical issues in inquiry.
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