Trying to clear my thoughts about “Logocentricism”

When thinking about the horrors of this course, or when someone asks me why I don’t think “logocentricism” is a bad thing, I have this analogy that flicks through my mind. It’s never quite crystallised. It has problems that I have never ironed out. Perhaps writing it down will help, so here goes.

You wash up on a desert island. There’s nothing really about, it’s basically a sandbar, but a box has washed up with you and it happens that it is a lifeboat construction kit. All the bits necessary to make a boat are in it. You open up the box. Instead of just one instruction manual there are thousands. What is worse, as you begin reading, it’s clear that some of these manuals will not result in a working boat. Many manuals might work okay and some definitely will not, but amongst all this mess there are potentially a small multitude of manuals that will result in a working boat. Finding the ones that work will take logic, and some of the ones that don’t work might be quite poetic despite being useless, and so you grow fond of them on an aesthetic level. Years later, presuming you survive, you look back fondly upon the one that suggested you could place the parts near each other and hold the boat together with the mere power of thought, despite the fact that if this had been your only option it would have killed you.

Cultural pluralism strikes me as something similar to this. So, for example, I can say a Maori concept like mauri is a lovely aesthetic concept, but it doesn’t mean anything, just like very roughly similarish concepts like “life force” or “innate intelligence” or “vital energy” don’t mean anything in English, and the equivalents in other languages don’t mean anything either. They are empty predicates, to use some epistemological jargon, meaning that they are words about things which do not exist in the real world. “Vampire” and “unicorn” are also empty predicates – there exist neither vampires nor unicorns. Many of my ancestors back in pre-European Aotearoa (and Polynesia before that, and Asia before that), who were real people and as fully human as I, and who matter to me in a funny and sentimental way, they had these prescientific beliefs, but I am not committed to “preserving those beliefs” any more than I am committed to preserving or rekindling the cultural beliefs and languages held by my Celtic ancestors – nor, I hope, is any other Maori person. I’m not less Maori because of any of this, and anyone who dares suggest so is being stunningly racist. Being Maori, there is no way in which I can negate the fact that I am Maori, nor is there any good reason I would want to.

Westerners do not own logic or science. It is true, science has been warped hideously in the past by colonial imperialism, but primarily into logically inconsistent and totally dehumanising messes. Cultural theorist Aijaz Ahmad is quick to point out that colonised people who appropriate the logical and egalitarian aspects of “Western” thought  – particularly Marxism and historical materialism – are not “recolonising themselves”, but taking up the tools of their liberation.  Just as bourgeois culture has a great deal to offer the working class, if the working class appropriates it, so logic and science have a great deal to offer indigenous people. Workers and indigenous people need not adopt irrationalist, spiritualist platforms simply because nastier elements in society have sometimes laid their own exclusive claims on being rational and naturalistic.

It comes down to mediating all these cultural beliefs we are stormed with every day through a gauze of logic and reason. We pick and choose what works, and there are potentially multiple logical approaches, not just one. There is some level of subjectivity in this process, but also room for objectivity through methods like science, from which we have learned that things like “mauri” or “vital energy” do not exist. I might potentially still use the word mauri occasionally, but only in the ways I use other empty predicates like “soul”. These are vague poetic devices that hold no useful role in terms of understanding the world systematically and carefully. They just exist for colour and comfort – they are just linguistic and conceptual toys – which are perfectly legitimate reasons for words to exist and get used.

I sort of feel like… …if we don’t try to be logical – at least try, even if we fail – we’re going to be trapped on that island and die, or we’re going to make a really fucking crappy boat and drown.

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One Response to Trying to clear my thoughts about “Logocentricism”

  1. oilymud says:

    (moving this comment over from FB cos I’ll lose it there, and it seems worth remembering if I’m to get clarity on this) The first thing my lecturers would do is accuse me of having an overly teleological narrative. What is this “boat” symbolising in the real world? Are you saying there is some sort of “end point for humanity” similar to this boat? And I suppose I’d just have to say that the boat symbolises “any real world problem we might want to understand.” The boat is not a utopia, it is merely the future.

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