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Is Metamodernism Too 'Linear'?
Unpacking a Common Critique
Claim: Metamodernism suffers from linearity.
Let’s unpack this. First, what do we mean by “linearity”? And if something is somehow linear, why does this cause it to “suffer”?
First, “linear” is a metaphor. Metamodernism is not actually a line, obviously, so the application of “linear” is a metaphorical characterization doing a certain kind of work here. But what?
Taken charitably, I believe what it is gesturing to is this: metamodernism posits as a truth that human epistemes can be thought of as being akin to a spectrum of ontologies and normativities that get relatively closer to what is indeed more justifiably true and normative. For this, it draws upon paradigms like genetic epistemology and developmental psychology to justify such claims with empirical and mathematical support.
Postmodernism left us with the insight that there are indeed qualitatively different human epistemes, but because each episteme has its own epistemology and ideology, they are incommensurable. They are simply different, not better or worse, since there is only radical discontinuity between them, without a shared basis for relative comparison, either at the level of truth or value.
The appreciation that epistemes are qualitatively different and discontinuous is crucial. But the idea that this obliterates any commensurable notion of truth and value is deeply problematic. It leads to a breakdown of sensemaking and meaning-making abilities amongst individuals, first, and ultimately to the societies of which they are a part. This leads to nihilism, despair, and anti-social, unsustainable collective behavior (all of which is what I refer to as “the meaning crisis”).
Metamodernism seeks to move beyond this impasse by contextualizing the different epistemic contexts. It does so by placing distinguishable epistemes within a spectrum or field that shows both their respective relations to one another, as well as the pattern that can be found as unfolding across them. This higher level perspective (“meta”) allows for a view of a meta-“truth” and meta-“normativity” that can be shown to develop across distinct epistemes. On the basis of this meta-perspective, a shared sense of truth and value can be brought into focus that can integrate the fragmented pluralism of the discontinuous epistemes into an integrated pluralism.
This epistemological move is itself a discontinuity with the postmodern episteme. However, because it includes the postmodern episteme, yet offers greater explanatory power (arguably), it is not simply different from the postmodern episteme, but moves beyond (“meta”) it.
Genetic epistemology, developmental psychology, and complexity science offer some of the key insights into how this is to be understood, since the advance is itself an instance of a learning process that characterizes humans in society.
Indeed, the contextual nature of knowledge—that it is contingent upon the episteme that produces it—has profound implications for epistemology and the way we understand our own cultural learning process. Piaget’s research supports a constructivist understanding of human knowledge, meaning that knowledge is shaped by our mental structures, rather than simply being passively received by them.
That said, constructivism does not mean that we cannot gain any genuine knowledge about the world. Indeed, gaining better knowledge of the world is precisely what psychological development is all about. While all knowledge does remain contingent upon the structures that condition it, it is still possible to say what claims about reality are more right than others. The conceptual learning process is progressive relative to less complex models of the world. Development allows us to say when we have moved closer to the truth.
As Michael Chapman puts this in his excellent book on the life and thought of Piaget, Constructive Evolution:
“In [Piaget’s] theory, the truth of our knowledge of the world is not absolute, but relative. We cannot assert that our model of the world either does or does not correspond to reality in any straightforward way. Given two models of the world, however, we can in some cases know that one ‘fits’ reality better than the other… Instead of an unknowable and transcendent noumenon, Piaget described the object of knowledge as a kind of ‘limit’ that can endlessly be approached, but never reached… Thus, one model of reality can be known to approach the limit more closely than another.”
In this way, Cultural conceptual learning is better thought of as ignorance reduction rather than the acquisition of ultimate answers. (Such a framing helps tie conceptual learning to the rest of the learning accomplished by the Universe, whose negentropic complexification equates to an “uncertainty-reducing” algorithm rendering reality increasingly intelligible and illuminated—see e.g., Bobby Azarian’s The Romance of Reality.)
Chapman compares this way of understanding learning to the computation of an irrational number, which can be done to increasing degrees of accuracy and resolution, but never absolutely:
“Just as successive expansions of π approach its true value as a limit, so do the successive extensions of our knowledge of the world approach reality, according to Piaget. No ‘final’ or ‘complete’ expansion of π exists, and no final or complete model of reality can be known. …Certain rules exist for the value of π, and one knows that one approaches the true value more closely with every additional step that is carried out according to the rule. In the present view, Piaget’s [epistemology]…is roughly analogous: One can know that a given model is closer to reality than another not per impossibile by comparing both models with reality itself but by gauging the distance that each model takes one away from one’s initial state of ignorance.”
The “rule” of ignorance reduction is the inclusion of old wholes in new, higher-order wholes. As this reiterates, the Universe complexifies, and one moves closer to the truth. This is the pattern latent in the evolution of one episteme to another, which is what allows us to see it as a genuine advance in our learning and not just a random change of paradigms (as, say, Kuhn intimated and Foucault declared). Such an epistemology can form the basis of a new episteme—i.e., metamodernism coming after and moving beyond postmodernism.
In fact, Piaget himself seems to have shared something of this broader worldview. The emergence of new wholes through complexification that characterizes psychological development he believed to be a process at work at all scales of the Universe. As Chapman notes:
“Piaget…believed that a tendency toward the emergence of ever more inclusive relational totalities could be observed on all levels of reality, from the lowest forms of organic matter to the highest forms of human thought and action. In terms of their part–whole structure, such totalities can be described as forms of equilibrium, and the tendency toward emergence as a process of equilibration.” Or, as Piaget himself put it in his autobiography: “My one idea, developed under various aspects in (alas!) twenty-two volumes, has been that intellectual operations proceed in terms of structures-of-the-whole. These structures denote the kinds of equilibrium toward which evolution in its entirety is striving; at once organic, psychological and social, their roots reach down as far as biological morphogenesis itself.”
Piaget’s insights into the nature of conceptual learning and human complexification are thus part of what for him, too, was a worldview of cosmic evolution reaching from Matter to Life to Mind to Culture (UTOK). Conceptual learning is just an extension of the Universal learning process at the complex level of Culture.
So, is metamodernism “linear”? If we are employing the metaphor of the line, which itself is a metaphor for forward movement, progression, advance, etc., then yes, metamodernism represents an advance over postmodern thinking with respect to truth, value, etc. Indeed, this is precisely what allows it to resolve (some of) the challenges of the meaning crisis. In that sense, it does not “suffer” from linearity so conceived, as its progressive nature is the very source of its strength, not its weakness.
However, to call something “linear” also has negative connotations and associations. It suggests simplicity, predictability, a lack of nuance and diversity, etc. Metamodernism is not linear in that respect. Indeed, it emphasizes the complex over the simple, and complexity and emergence are inherently unpredictable, and based upon diversity becoming more integrated. More than that, epistemes are not things but processes; they are not simple entities, but dynamic clusters of phenomena. Developmental theories are all simplified patterns that help bring clarity to this richness, but should not be overly reified or falsely concretized. They are models that reveal something important about reality, but should not be taken as reality itself (a point emphasized by metamodernists themselves, even if this is ignored by its critiques).
Indeed, the very model explicitly includes this inherent incompleteness and thus relative "falseness" as part of the model: the model is not true! At least in any ultimate sense. It is an approximation—if one that more accurately approximates reality than other models. But the model has built into it the assumption that it is incomplete and will be transcended in turn. That is, after all, the essence of individual and societal learning. So, contrary to those who posit that metamodernism reifies some Neoplatonic notion of reaching and abiding undisturbed in The Absolute, it does just the opposite. It posits a "limit" Absolute which we endlessly approach, but never fully arrive at, meaning existence remains endlessly dynamic, always producing new knowledge. Indeed, any theory of knowledge must include room for its own negation and transcendence. Postmodernism doesn’t, but metamodernism does.
Metamodernism’s epistemology is one of ignorance reduction. In this sense, it fits exceedingly well with the rest of what we know about cosmic evolution, evolutionary epistemology, and the complexification process in general, which is one of knowledge creation and information processing through ignorance reduction. Not only, then, can metamodernism find support for its episteme in genetic epistemology and developmental psychology, but also in complexity science and cosmic evolution. Such consilience is reassuring that we are indeed identifying something real about the world (if only in a limited, relative sense), and thus a justifiable basis for ontological and normative claims in society.