Wallerstein’s various essays reflecting on knowledge provide a review of the basic developments in epistemology (1999, 2004, 2006). Before the modern era, theologians asserted that they could know both the true and the good on the basis of revelation. They were challenged by the philosophers, who claimed to know the true and the good on a foundation of reason. Then came the separation of philosophy and science. Modern science claimed that it could know the truth, but not the good, on the basis of empirical observation, and the search for the good became interpretation or even mere speculation, relative to the person or social location. In the twentieth century, the truth of science also became challenged, as philosophers of science began to understand that even science emerged in social context and was influenced by cultural assumptions. Doubt was cast on the human capacity to understand not only the good but also the true. Knowledge became uncertain. Post-modernism emerged, including tendencies toward a radical relativism that reduced all truth claims to personal expression. Wallerstein considers this breakdown of the twentieth century epistemological consensus of the world-system to be a dimension of the terminal structural crisis of the system, and he maintains that the formulation of an alternative epistemological consensus will be integral to the transformation of the world-system.
I have proposed “cross-horizon encounter” as a methodological guideline for the alternative epistemology that we need to formulate. I maintain that through cross-horizon encounter, we can arrive at a universal understanding, although not an eternal or certain understanding, of the true and the good (see “Universal philosophical historical social science” 4/2/2014).
I have drawn from the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan in the formulation of the concept of cross-horizon encounter. That an essential component of the solution to our current dilemmas would come from a scholar formed in the institutions of the Catholic Church is unexpected. However, it does make sense, if we give the question some thought. The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that pre-date the origin of the modern world-system, and it is by far the largest of them. Prior to the emergence of the modern world-system, the Church was an important power in Europe. But various dynamics greatly reduced its power. Among them was secularization, that is, the separation of science from philosophy and theology, which established science as the domain for the determination of facts, on the basis of empirical observation, and reduced moral and spiritual questions to the realm of mere speculation. The Church had to accept this situation as a part of its general strategy of adapting to political realities and political powers (Wallerstein 2005). But the Church never completely made its peace with the modern situation. As a result, during the twentieth century European Catholic theologians developed a school of thought known as neo-Thomism, which sought an adaptation of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas to the twentieth century. Among the neo-Thomists was the Canadian Bernard Lonergan, who as we have seen, focuses on epistemological questions, including the question of certainty. By formulating a single method of knowing in both the realms of the true and the good, and by clarifying the conditions in which there is a high probability that understandings are correct, Lonergan established a renewed epistemological foundation for the philosophical and theological claims of the Church, a foundation that would have some creditability to the modern person.
As Catholic theologians and philosophers sought to find their place in the modern world, the people suffering from the denial of social and economic rights did not find the need to wrestle with theological or philosophical questions. They simply continued with their religious beliefs and practices, always evolving, but continually characterized by a simple piety that affirms the presence of God, the saints, and/or the spirits in their lives, sustaining them through difficulties. The poor have endured, in part, through personal piety.
But significant numbers of the people also participated in Third World national liberation movements, which like Catholic theologians, did not make peace with the premises of the modern world-system. The struggles of the peoples of the Third World provide the foundation for the development of an alternative just and democratic world-system, including alternative values and epistemological premises. Like the neo-Thomist theologians and philosophers, the intellectuals and charismatic leaders of the Third World movements have been formulating a critique of the fundamental assumptions of the modern world-system. Although Third World and Catholic critiques have been formulated from different vantage points, they nonetheless complement one another.
The complementarity of Catholic and Third World epistemologies has its counterpart in the political arena, inasmuch as Catholic liberation theology has come to the support of the political and social struggles of the neocolonized. Perhaps a global Third World-Christian alliance is emerging, as the Church increasingly is critical of the barbaric neoliberal economic war against the poor and the savage militarism of the neocolonial powers. Perhaps this alliance is symbolized by the embraces of John Paul II and Fidel and by the later embraces of Pope Benedict and Raúl, as well as by the declarations by Hugo Chávez that Jesus was the world’s first socialist. Perhaps as well such a global alliance against savage capitalism involves not only Christians but all religions persons, as is indicated by the growing relations between the Latin American progressive and leftist governments and the Islamic Revolution. There is a fundamental contradiction between capitalism at its worst and the values proclaimed by all religious traditions. And in the terminal crisis of the capitalist world-economy, capitalism at its worst has become manifest.
This takes us in a direction different from what is suggested by Wallerstein, who believes that complexity theory and cultural studies provide the basis for the reunification of historical social science. As we have seen (“The terminal crisis of the world-system” 3/28/2014), complexity theory enables us to understand that physical and social realities are characterized by order, patterns, and equilibrium for a period of time, but inevitably their contradictions lead to bifurcation and a transition to a new equilibrium and a new order. Cultural studies refers to the post-1960s movement in the humanities that rebelled against the established canons of aesthetic achievements; cultural studies has maintained that cultural works are produced and interpreted differently according to social location, thus making it necessary to deconstruct cultural works. Wallerstein maintains that cultural studies in the humanities and complexity theory in the natural sciences recognize that knowledge is socially constructed; and that in embracing one of the claims of the social sciences, the two tendencies are moving toward the social sciences. For Wallerstein, this provides a possible basis for the reunification of knowledge (Wallerstein 2004:54-55; 1999:213-17).
In my view, there are important insights in complexity theory and cultural studies, which must be incorporated into universal philosophical historical social science. However, I do not believe that these theoretical tendencies have an adequate social base for the resolution of our epistemological dilemmas.
Complexity theory and cultural studies have emerged from the preoccupations of scientists, social scientists, persons of literature, humanists, academics, and intellectuals of the core. Their concerns are far removed from the preoccupations of the great majority of people on the planet, in core and peripheral zones, for whom: the real can be observed and understood; what is written and said can be understood by those who take the time to read and listen; and moral truths are self-evident. From the point of view of the peoples of the Third World, we can know the true and the good, if we pay attention to it, and are not led astray by the pursuit of particular interests and by the defense of privilege. I will discuss the epistemological assumptions of Third World movements in a subsequent post.
I believe that the resolution of our epistemological difficulties will emerge from the premises of the social movements that are formed by the peoples of the planet. And as the movements are unfolding, we are given a message from Catholic philosophy and theology: listen to what the poor are saying, and take seriously their understanding. So here we have the key to imagining a possible path in the bifurcation of the world-system: Through cross-horizon encounter with Third World movements, we intellectuals of the North can participate in the development of a universal philosophical historical social science that educates and informs the people and at the same time is connected to popular epistemological assumptions.
Lonergan, Bernard. 1958. Insight. New York: Philosophical Library.
__________. 1973. Method in Theology, 2nd edition. New York: Herder and Herder.
McKelvey, Charles. 1991. “The Cognitional Theory of Bernard Lonergan” in McKelvey, Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science, Pp. 127-52. New York: Greenwood Press.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1999. The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century.
__________. 2004. The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
__________. 2005. “The Catholic Church and the World,” Commentary No. 159 (corrected version), April 15, 2005. [Available on Fernand Braudel Center Website].
__________. 2006. European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power. New York: The New Press.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Wallerstein, world-systems analysis, historical social science, Lonergan, cross-horizon encounter, Thomism, Catholic theology