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In my previous article, I began exploring the philosophical foundations of the social justice movement where I noted that the social justice movement utilizes the philosophy of existentialism as its metaphysic (i.e. the fundamental nature of reality).[1] Existentialism reduces reality to the individual and his subjective perceptions. People are what they are based on how they experience their existence, and they seek to create meaning and purpose for themselves. This philosophical position also affects the epistemology (i.e. methods of knowing) of the social justice movement, which I would like to examine here.

Because existentialism places emphasis on the subjective lived experience of the individual as the basis for reality, the social justice movement will be disposed towards a version of empiricism as the means for knowing reality. Empiricism is the claim that sensation is the primary if not only path to gaining knowledge. It is by sensations that people form ideas and concepts by which traditions are established. As a result, knowledge is inductive and tentative as one’s experience can change over time.[2] Obviously, empiricism is foundational to the scientific method. Existentialism, however, is a more radical form of empiricism. Whereas traditional empiricism would claim that reality imprints sensations upon one’s mind that faithfully represent reality, existentialists would balk at this idea.

This position appears to be born out of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that reality was divided into two realms. The noumenal realm is reality in itself while the phenomenal realm is reality as one perceives it. Reality as perceived is primarily a construction of the mind, and the mind supplies laws that order our perception. The noumenal realm sends the mind sense data which is then processed via innate structures of the mind (i.e. categories of understanding). Just as a building is structured to route people in certain directions and into certain rooms so also the mind is structured to perceive sense data in certain ways. These structures are necessary (i.e. a priori) in order to experience and understand anything. The noumenal must exist to send the data, the data is real and of a specific kind, and our mind must interpret that data in a specific way leading to unquestionable truth about the data. While the phenomenal realm is known with certainty since everyone has the same mental structures, the noumenal, however, is not. Just because the noumenal sends certain sense data to our minds does not mean that the data represents what the noumenal is in itself. It is just how the noumenal appears.[3] As a result, there is skepticism of any metaphysical (i.e. noumenal) understanding of reality. What one knows is merely empirical appearance (i.e. phenomena), not what actually is.[4]

By emphasizing the primacy of the subject’s mind, Kant’s radical epistemological theory almost completely severs knowledge from reality as it is. Knowledge is how the subjective mind interprets the sense data reality sends to it, not a conception of reality as it is. Existentialism takes this primacy of the subjective mental seriously but dispenses with the notion that everyone interprets the data the same way. People might agree on basic interpretations of the sense data, such as space, time, and matter, but disagree on many other fundamental issues, such as human nature and morality.[5] An existentialist worldview, consequently, embraces a kind of skepticism like Kant does. One cannot claim to know a reality outside one’s own interpretations of the sense data.

Due to this philosophical heritage, the social justice movement also appears to employ different hermeneutical (i.e. philosophy of interpretation) methods to analyze claims. A hermeneutic of suspicion seems to pervade the movement. This theory states that the claims of individuals contain disguised meanings that betray a person or theory’s ideological bias and that people often impose their ideological bias on the claims of others obscuring the true meaning.[6] A person must sift the claims and actions of others to discover the meaning that is often obscured or unrecognized. This sifting leads to the use of two interpretive methods. First, deconstruction reveals the hidden cultural and ideological bias in claims/texts and shows how such bias has dominated history by oppressing other worldviews as well as other interpretations of claims/texts. Second, reader-response method focuses on the reader/interpreter of a claim/text by emphasizing their experience with and meaning of the claim/text over the author’s meaning.[7] In other words, the social justice movement wants to expose privileged socio-political positions and re-evaluate them according to less privileged positions.

For example, a woman criticized Hobby Lobby on social media for selling faux cotton stalks because cotton was picked by African-American slaves.[8] One might think that Hobby Lobby was merely selling a decorative item, but supporters of a hermeneutic of suspicion would counsel otherwise. They would claim that cotton can have different meanings to different people based on history, culture, and ideology. When you deconstruct the event, they claim, you will realize that Hobby Lobby (which is owned by a white, Christian family) is imbued with certain historical, cultural, and ideological biases. As a result of this bias, Hobby Lobby only sees a decorative item where as others read differently and respond with a micro-aggression. Hobby Lobby, consequently, needs to be made aware of its privileged position.[9] These hermeneutical methods also explain the LGBTQ worldview where words like “sex,” “gender,” “male,” and “female” have no concrete meaning and can denote whatever the individual desires. Appearances are saturated by individuals with certain subjective meanings, and people must be made aware of their biased and privileged viewpoints.

This method is not without its criticism. Some point to the Sokal and Grievance Study Affairs where bogus articles were published by academic cultural studies journals as evidence that the social justice worldview is an intellectual fraud.[10] Such a claim is understandable when knowledge is reduced to the subject and his experiences. Any claim can ascend to the pedestal of truth when subjective experience and objective reality are not appropriately differentiated.[11] The question then is who has the power to enforce their particular worldview, which I will address in my next article.

[1]See Graham Floyd, “The Philosophical Foundations of the Social Justice Movement: Existentialism,” https://epecarticles.com/2019/05/25/the-philosophical-foundations-of-the-social-justice-movement-existentialism-graham-floyd-ph-d/, accessed June 4, 2019. For the page image, see http://www.quickmeme.com/p/3vuoor, accessed June 6, 2019.

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empiricism; accessed June 4, 2019; Peter Markie, “Rationalism vs. Empiricism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/rationalism-empiricism/, accessed June 4, 2019.

[3]Nicholas F. Stang, “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/; accessed June 4, 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanuel_Kant, accessed June 4, 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendental_idealism, accessed June 4, 2019. For Kant, reality conforms to the mind since the mind imposes certain interpretations of the data. For example, Kant considers space and time to be interpretations that every mind necessarily imposes in order to understand the data; however, one does not know that time and space actually exists as interpreted or even at all. We merely have an appearance. The transcendent (i.e. reality as it is) is merely ideal (i.e. appearance); however, the ideal is real on an empirical (i.e. sensational) level. The sensations actually exist and must be interpreted a certain way. Since everyone has the same categories of understanding, these appearances are universally true. For example, some claim that color is merely light waves reflecting off of objects. Objects are not actually colored, but they send sense data to your visual cortex which appears as a color in your mind. Since everyone’s mind is built to interpret the data the same way, everyone (except for the impaired) see the color red when they look at a stop sign.

[4]One should be able to see the relation Kant’s theory has to a nominalist metaphysics and indirect realist theory of perception. One can only have an appearance of realty in their mind since objects do not share properties or natures. Appearances are deceiving leading to skepticism regarding objects in themselves.

[5]Existentialism seems more disposed towards the tabula rasa (i.e. blank slate) theory of the mind of traditional empiricism. This theory claims that individuals are born without built-in mental content; therefore, most if not all knowledge comes via experience or perception. This theory is opposed to innatism where the mind is born possessing certain knowledge. This theory explains why the social justice movement embraces the LGBTQ worldview. If sexuality, gender, race, etc. are just social constructs, then there is nothing innate to the mind that forces an individual to believe a certain way regarding these things. While there might be hallways in the mind, there is nothing to force the data into specific rooms. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabula_rasa, accessed June 19, 2019.

[6]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeneutics_of_suspicion, accessed June 5, 2019; G. D. Robinson, “Paul Ricouer and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion: A Brief Overview and Critique,” http://individual.utoronto.ca/bmclean/hermeneutics/ricoeur_suppl/Ricoeur_Herm_of_Suspicion.htm, accessed June 5, 2019. Paul Ricouer, founder of the hermeneutic, applauds the three masters of suspicion: Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. All three of these men critiqued the cultural viewpoints of their day by claiming to expose the hidden meanings behind reigning philosophical systems, namely religion, as well as the privileged positions of these systems. Interestingly, Nietzsche is considered to be an existentialist, and Marx has been linked to the ideology. See Steven Crowell, “Existentialism”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/existentialism/, accessed June 11, 2019.

[7]Nancy Holland, “Deconstruction,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/deconst/, accessed June 6, 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction, accessed June 6, 2019; https://www.britannica.com/topic/deconstruction, accessed June 6, 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reader-response_criticism, accessed June 6, 2019. Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, believed that words never represent an object, sense datum, or concept. Words are always understood via other words ad infinitum. Further, words have multiple meanings. Culture, metaphor, and temporal distance from the author causes words to be redefined. As a result, it is impossible to ever discover an objective meaning to any word. All words and their meanings are social constructs. All meaning, subsequently, is subjective to the individual or culture and is supplied to the text/claim rather than something independent of the text/claim. Further, all texts/claims assume a binary hierarchy where one concept dominates the other, such as mind and body, good and evil, or nature and culture. One must recognize these oppositions as the social constructs they are, not real oppositions. Unfortunately, some of these oppositions have become “privileged” through cultural domination, and one should recognize and reconsider this privileged position. This process, however, never ends in objective meaning but infinite word play. It is purely a critical tool and does not point the way to any truth. As a result, a reader can only know their own response (i.e. meaning) to the text/claim.

[8]https://www.foxnews.com/lifestyle/woman-says-hobby-lobbys-cotton-display-is-offensive-gets-blasted-on-social-media, accessed June 6, 2019.

[9]Consider also deconstructed claims which state that holding a door open for a woman is sexist, that wearing certain jewelry is cultural appropriation, that liking white meat is racist, and that mathematics is infected with whiteness. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2988310/How-smile-reveals-man-s-SEXIST-Beliefs-women-betrayed-facial-expressions-claims-study.html, accessed June 6, 2019; https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/01/pc-culture-2017s-most-ridiculous-moments/, accessed June 6, 2019; https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/08/racist-microaggression-list/, accessed June 6, 2019; https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/10/math-racist-university-illinois-professor/, accessed June 6, 2019.

[10]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair, accessed June 6, 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grievance_Studies_affair, accessed June 6, 2019. In each case, academics wrote articles from a social justice viewpoint that incorporated absurd claims to see how intellectually rigorous social justice journals were. The hoaxers argued that these kinds of journals and their associated intellectuals would accept any claim so long as it appealed to their ideological biases and utilized appropriate jargon. Both affairs were a critique on postmodern cultural and grievance studies for using poor or improper intellectual methods to advance their claims.

[11]One should not confuse the truth of the experience with the truth of objective reality for they are not necessarily the same. For example, a mentally ill individual may experience that he is talking to another person when in reality that “person” is a hallucination. While it is true that he has such an experience, it is appropriate for others to differentiate between his experience and objective reality. Contrast this example with a child who burns their hand on a hot stove. In this case, the experience of the burn is reflective of reality. The stove is hot and painful to the touch.