Generative Anthropology is Bullshit
Adam Katz is well regarded as an insightful political theorist in the scene which surrounds this journal. His work has many influences, but it leans heavily on Eric Gans' Generative Anthropology in his writings. In spite of his influence, the originary hypothesis (the centrepiece of Gans' theory) itself has been subject to much scepticism. It seems that many people like Katz as a political commentator but dislike Generative Anthropology. This scepticism towards Generative Anthropology I argue is warranted and Katz's best insights should be retained without this unnecessary baggage. The problems with Gans' theory connect with a broader trend towards highly speculative and epistemically defective theories in the online right. This often results in the endorsement of some form of pseudoscience or pseudophilosophy. I contend that Gans is ultimately guilty of both, albeit in a mild and relatively innocuous form. Thus, the question of the demarcation of science from pseudoscience and the nature of both this and pseudophilosphy are relevant. Consequently, this discussion will be framed in the context of Moberger's philosophical understanding of bullshit (where it becomes a rigorous philosophical concept not just a pejorative), of which pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy are two sub-types. Moberger defines bullshit as a "lack of epistemic conscientiousness, meaning that the person arguing for it takes no care to assure the truth of their statements" (Hendricks 2020).
If Gans is guilty of bullshitting (in this technical sense) in his theory of Generative Anthropology, it seems more plausible that whatever explanatory power Katz's writings have must be derived from the wide variety of other credible historical and anthropological sources that he deploys such as Olson and Tomasello. In fact, the speculative nature of Generative Anthropology runs against the rest of Katz's resources that are decidedly non-speculative in nature. The irony of this is that the liberal theoretical tradition which Katz so often critiques was founded upon speculative anthropological accounts of civil society, a theoretical foundation which Graeber (one of his other major influences) overtly attacks as illegimate. This isn't intended as a rigorous critique of the content of Gans' theory, rather it is a general and somewhat light-hearted critical commentary on its speculative anthropological form. If speculative anthropology is found wanting epistemically, any conclusions we draw from it can be dismissed easily as the argumentative foundation for why we should believe it is vulnerable. This is a big problem for Generative Anthropology and Generative Anthropology-based political theorizing, and a reason to reject it and prefer other theoretical approaches. Or at the very least, would be cause to reform it by excising the nonviable speculative aspects of it. While Generative Anthropology itself seems fairly harmless, it does speak to a broader issue with speculative theories and questionable engagements with science and philosophy in the online right more broadly. Thus, this case study is also of a general interest as it serves to highlight why using speculative methodologies in political theory are deeply problematic.
Frankfurt first introduced the idea of bullshit as a philosophical concept. For Moberger, "According to Frankfurt's analysis, the essence of bullshit is unconcern with truth. Unlike the liar and the honest person, who both have their eyes on how things are, the bullshitter is indifferent toward the truth [..] thus, the distinguishing feature of bullshit is that it stems from a lack of concern with the truth of one's statements". While Frankfurt isn't explicit about this, what he is getting at is the issue of a "culpable lack of concern with truth" (Moberger 2020). For Moberger, this "relevant form of culpability is specifically epistemic"in nature. Consequently, the act of bullshitting is independent of the truth of a theory as such as it is an epistemic failing, and in principle a bullshitter can accidentally say something true by pure luck. However, in general the two tend to run together and consequently those that engage in bullshit ought to generally be disregarded. Moberger (2020) points out however that this epistemic culpability can be understood in two ways.
"Being culpably unconcerned with truth can be understood in a narrow and a wide sense, however, and Frankfurt tends to run these two senses together. It is one thing to be culpably indifferent toward the truth of one's statements. It is another thing to be culpably unconscientious with respect to the truth of one's statements. Those who are indifferent toward the truth of their statements are of course lacking in epistemic conscientiousness, but the converse need not hold. One can care about the truth of one's statements without taking care with respect to them. Being intellectually humble, honest and discerning even to a minimal degree is, unfortunately, not guaranteed by a desire that one's statements be true."
Gans is clearly not guilty of the first sense of culpability as he is clearly sincere in his advocacy of his theories. There is no reason to think that he is being purposefully dishonest or is in any way a man of bad character. In fact, the opposite is demonstrated in his rejection of 'woke' progressive ideological trends in an academic setting shows real courage. So it is his theories and methods that are under question, not his overall character. The issues with his speculative approach and why he considers this type of theorising to be worthwhile are likely an artefact of the kind of sloppy thinking encouraged by literary studies as a discipline. So, rather than implying any malice on Gans' part the flaws of Generative Anthropology most likely derive from institutional failings in modern academia that have allowed this kind of thing to run rampant. To return to the topic at hand, for Moberger (2020) "the wider notion" of bullshit "is more appropriate for characterizing" it anyway. If we "consider astrology, for example. The term 'bullshit' certainly seems applicable to astrology, but taken in the narrow sense this presupposes that proponents of astrology are indifferent toward the truth of their claims. This seems wrong. Astrology should be classified as bullshit even if its proponents are sincere in this regard". The same logic can potentially be applied to the originary hypothesis. To do this however, we would have to establish the notion that Gans engages in a the required of lack of epistemic conscientiousness to fit Moberger's categorical schema.
This is trivially easy to do, as the originary hypothesis is entirely speculative and has no empirical support whatsoever, yet is performatively treated within Generative Anthropology as something with comparable truth to the findings of conventional anthropological work. If this is not the case then the entirety of their corpus is purposeful nonsense built on a known fiction. However when confronted with this, advocates of Generative Anthropology will sometimes retreat to the position that it is merely a heuristic. This is a highly questionable form of motte-and-bailey argument that will be addressed in section 4. Ultimately, the very fact that Gans is willing to engage in anthropological speculation without evidence, and then draw sweeping conclusions about politics and ethics, is enough to demonstrate an egregious lack of epistemic conscientiousness on his part as there is no reason to believe that that any of his constructions have any basis in reality whatsoever. This speculative anthropological method is bullshit, the question remains of what specific type of bullshit it is, pseudoscience or pseudophilosophy remains.
One last issue is worth briefly addressing though: namely what is meant by truth, as Moberger expresses no position on this issue. The concept of truth itself is subject to much debate. A problematic theory of truth attributed to DeLanda was proposed by Hunter (2021) in an earlier issue of this publication, which is largely compatible with the general position expressed here, is one potential stance to take on this. Additionally, this essay also operates from the assumption of ontological and scientific realism. These are both easily defensible postulates, see DeLanda (2002), Worrall (1989), Ladyman (2001), Bhaskar (1998) and Hunter (2021) for arguments in favour of this. Ultimately, one could utilise one's truth theory of choice here, and the gist of this argument and Moberger's will hold, the only exception would be appealing to anti-realist relativism. Such an appeal would essentially be a denial of 'truth' actually meaning something coherent and intelligible in the first place, which is not a viable position anyway.
The issue of Generative Anthropology's scientific pretensions can serve to further illustrate Gans' epistemic unconscientiousness. This is where Moberger's use of the philosophical concept of bullshit to take a stance on the demarcation problem comes in. The demarcation between science and pseudoscience is a notoriously thorny issue, as the traditional view espoused by Popper centring around the notion of falsifiability is undermined by arguments from the history of science, showing that in practice scientists do not act as Popper expects. Thus, Popper's notion that a theory that is falsified by a single failed experiment or observation is incorrect as theories are often retained in spite of this, and justifiably so. This occurred in the case of Newtonian mechanics when the orbit of Uranus did not adhere to its predictions. Instead, scientists looked for another planet that may distort Uranus' orbit and used Newtonian mechanics to predict Neptune's location. Thus an anomalous finding, rather than leading to a key theory's abandonment, facilitated a new discovery. A wide variety of responses have been given to this issue ranging from alternate demarcation criteria such as shifting the focus away from individual theories and toward research programs (Lakatos) or outright scepticism of demarcation as a whole and the insistence on a detailed case by case analysis of questionable science (Laudan).
Moberger (2020) seeks to add clarity to these debates where, claiming that even if the distinction between science and pseudoscience is fuzzy, it is still substantial, and supervenes on the distinction between bullshit and non-bullshit. One example of the complexity of the demarcation problem, that Pigliucci (2021) recently discussed, where in some cases, contrary to popular opinion, pseudosciences do not always "lack empirical content". Pigliucci points out that "Astrology...has plenty...But that content does not stand up to critical scrutiny. And astrology is a pseudoscience because its practitioners don't seem to be bothered by the fact that their statements about the world do not appear to be true". Pigliucci explicitly echoes Moberger's views regarding pseudoscience being a form of bullshit on this point. However, it was Ladyman (2013) that seemingly inaugurated the connection between Frankfurt's concept of bullshit and the demarcation problem however, utilising it as a means of articulating the difference between pseudoscience, non-science, bad science and science fraud. Thus, the idea of employing the philosophical concept of bullshit in this context has proven fruitful. Ultimately, Moberger (2020):
"Suggest[s] that we understand pseudoscience as bullshit with scientific pretensions. Bullshit consists in epistemic unconscientiousness, but what do scientific pretensions involve? Here we can distinguish between a wide and a narrow sense. In the wide sense, to make a claim with scientific pretensions is simply to take a stand, in the sense of asserting a proposition, on a scientific issue. In the narrow sense, scientific pretensions also involve a certain mode of presentation – an aura of scientificness. We can thus distinguish between bullshit that takes a stand on scientific issues, and bullshit that does so while wearing a lab coat, as it were. We can call them wide and narrow pseudoscience, respectively (cf. Hansson, 2017, sections 3.2–3.4, 3.2–3.4)."
GA does not fit the narrow sense of the term but explicitly fits the wider sense by the very nature of its central claim: to explain the origin of language. A question clearly empirical in nature and within the purview of not just anthropology but also biology, linguistics and cognitive science. If the origin of language isn't a scientific issue, then I don't know what is – and, via the originary hypothesis, GA is clearly taking a stand on this and postulating a specific real-world event to explain this. Gans (2020) describes his views as follows:
"The originary hypothesis is not anti-scientific. Yet neither is it comparable to the kind of hypotheses that are taken seriously in the sciences, including the human sciences. A hypothesis, whether in physics or sociology, is only of value if it can be tested empirically. A purely heuristic schema that purports to model the early development of language is not testable/falsifiable in any conceivable manner."
He even states;
"Social-science anthropologists, as well as linguists, unanimously consider that the originary hypothesis is not "scientific" because it is unfalsifiable. The idea of a hypothesis that can be made plausible only by reference to its consequences, that is, of a heuristic hypothesis, is unacceptable in domains where conclusions must be based on the analysis and prediction of data." (Gans 2021)
As mentioned, the origin of language is clearly an issue that falls within the purview of the sciences, yet Gans weighs in on the issue with a rival entirely evidence free approach nonetheless with full awareness that this is not acceptable scientific practice. He instead chooses to ignore the appropriate scientific practices and take a stance on a scientific issue using speculative anthropology. A clear sign of epistemic unconscientiousness. This is the precise kind of thing Moberger is setting out to identify and condemn in his discussion of the wide notion of pseudoscience. Oddly enough, the originary hypothesis is also an almost perfect example of what Popper was getting at with his original definition of pseudoscience. Gans, in explicitly admitting its unfalsifiability, tacitly acknowledges this. The problem with this is that Generative Anthropology predicts nothing specific which can be observed and can be used to explain away many observations in an ad hoc way. That it is simultaneously seen to support Gans' neoconservative political committments, Katz's reactionary/'postliberal' views and the more standard progressive positions of the rest of Gans' followers shows that, like Freudianism, the lack of epistemic constraints enables it to be deployed in defense of pre-conceived biases. We need not accept Popper's theory as a whole (as mentioned, there are good reasons not to) to recognise that, to the extent that Generative Anthropology purports to be an authority over the human sciences or make claims that fall into the domain of the social sciences, its lack of predictions and ability to accommodate multiple contradictory interpretations in a manner similar to psychoanalysis is at least disturbing. Gans and Katz both refer to the originary hypothesis using the term 'model'. This adds more weight to the claim that Generative Anthropology has scientific pretensions, as this is a use of the language of science to attempt to grant credibility to what is in actuality simply armchair speculation.
Moberger provides a general guideline for how to identify pseudoscience, as "a good rule of thumb is to keep an eye out for classical fallacies such as ad hominem, straw man, false dilemma and cherry picking. Such fallacies occur in all kinds of contexts, but what signifies bullshit is that they occur more systematically." This is relevant as the entirety of GA appears to rest on various types of faulty generalisations, the most foundational of which being its axiomatic use of mimesis. To the extent that it builds on something based in the real world, not the mind of its creator, this depends on the axioms it postulates. While Gans is coy about the specific nature of his methodology he ultimately employs a form of deductive argument, a method that Lawson (2013) shows to be inappropriate for the social sciences. See my paper in the first issue of this journal, Econofuturism (part 1) for a detailed exposition of this.
Generative Anthropology builds itself up from 3 fundamental movements: a postulation of axioms, the construction of the hypothesis and the deduction of the modes of language and the rest of Gans' complex theoretical construction. All 3 steps are contentious. We will focus on the first only, as, if Gans fails on this point his theory doesn't get off the ground. This also further illustrates his epistemic sloppiness. For starters, the use of the deductive method presupposes the extreme surety of one's axioms. They must have comparable strength to laws in the natural sciences. It is well known that such laws, or even universal generalisations are thin on the ground in social science and likely don't exist at all. For example, Gans provides no real scientific argument for mimesis to be treated as the necessary and exclusive elementary unit out of which socially mediated abstract cognition is composed. In some of Gans later writings we see vague invocations of Tomasello's far more respectable work, but the basis for Gans' postulation of axiomatic mimesis in his model is the equally suspect speculative anthropological theory of his mentor, Rene Girard. Typically, axioms in a deductive argument are based off a well supported empirical generalisation, based in turn on some real-world research. Ultimately Generative Anthropology provides no serious argument for mimesis as being fundamental and that human behaviour is reducible to this. At best we see a form of unjustified reductionism. Katz (2021) himself articulates the reductionist logic going on here where he claims:
"There is a powerful and, indeed, I think irrefutable (I've never seen someone even make an attempt at refutation) logic to the originary hypothesis, as long as you are willing to start with the undeniable fact (one even attested to by Aristotle!) that human beings are especially imitative. If you accept that human beings are imitative, can you set a limit to imitation—what does any human do that can't be traced back to the imitation of another human?""
Aside from being a clear case of the appeal to ignorance fallacy, there are 3 claims that can be extracted from this passage about imitation. (1) That imitation is a noteworthy human trait. This is reasonable and could plausibly be supported by Tomasello's research. (2) That it is an is an essential trait. This is a non sequitur, an argument for why this follows from the first claim is needed. This point also depends on the idea that there is such thing as essences, and the idea of essential properties is a metaphysical notion that requires a rigorous philosophical defense. So to keep this claim, as well as the claim that follows from it, Generative Anthropology's rejection of metaphysics must be abandoned. Finally (3) that humanity can be reduced to mimesis and that this can be used as an axiom in the deductive argument Gans sets up. This is the real blunder here, as humanity may well have multiple essential traits (if such things even exist), such a reductive analysis in omitting them is almostly certainly leaving out something crucial. This seems like an unduly strong reductionism that Katz (2021) just handwaves in with no justification other than asserting this "can you set a limit to imitation—what does any human do that can't be traced back to the imitation of another human". The obvious retort to this is that imitation itself presupposes a model to imitate, if that model is also just imitating another model who is imitating another model, and so on, this leads to an infinite regress. The question of firstness therefore itself stands directly against this mimetic reductionism.
What evidence is given for mimetic essentialism? Strong evidence is required for such a counter-intuitive claim, it is by no means self-evident that our desires are reducible to mimesis. Despite this, none is presented, even though cognitive science is able to produce a basis for testing this empirically. This empirical work is conversely held in high esteem in phenomenology and other schools of thought in philosophy of mind which acknowledge and integrate the empirical literature into their theories. Instead of dealing with or even recognizing this massive body of evidence, Generative Anthropology defends itself with mere armchair pontificating. This shows further epistemic unconscientiousness, which is a huge problem for anyone trying to derive a political theory by appeals to the authority of Generative Anthropology. If your fundamental claims have not been subjected to epistemic rigor, on what basis can you claim the authority to reform the political system upon them?
Methodologically Generative Anthropology bears significant resemblance to the Misean branch of Austrian economics that similarly pursues an a priori deductive approach to social science explanation. 'Praexeology' is based on a set of questionable axioms, and constructs a vast entirely speculative theoretical edifice upon this bullshit foundation. This deductivism is also present in neoclassical economics and Menger's notion of barter as the origin of money that similarly lacks any evidential support. One of Katz's key influences, Graeber (and many other anthropologists) have demonstrated that it has no basis in reality whatsoever. These comparisons are apt, as Katz seemingly accepts the typical heterodox economics based critiques of these ideas as pseudoscientific on this basis. In the interests of consistency, shouldn't Gans' speculative-deductive method also be rejected on the same grounds?
Speculative anthropology, in the work of Hobbes and as exemplified in the work of Rousseau, has been the foundation of the Enlightenment political philosophy undergirding liberalism from its very origins. Therefore it seems that attempting to critique liberalism with more speculative anthropology is quite an odd choice, rather than just dismissing it entirely. To the extent that anthropology is viable as a discipline, it has to leave armchair speculations and a priori deductions behind and deal with empirical reality to be epistemologically legitimate. Consequently, the very practice of speculative anthropology demonstrates a complete lack of epistemic unconscientiousness above and beyond the use of logically fallacious arguments. Thus, deductivism and speculative anthropology is inappropriate for social science, and even if they were methodologically viable, Generative Anthropology founds itself upon axioms that lack the surety necessary for this argumentative method to work. Therefore, Gans is guilty not just of Mobergerian bullshit in general, but of bullshit with scientific pretensions, rendering it categorically pseudoscientific. Thus, Generative Anthropology is methodically unsound and Gans' decision to persist with it demonstrates significant epistemic unconscientiousness and produces a pseudoscience as a result.
While Generative Anthropology via the originary hypothesis clearly advances a scientific claim, it also possesses many of the traits of philosophy. Gans weighs in on many philosophical issues, often in a dismissive and ham-fisted manner typical of the Derridean tradition his work derives from. Thus, he is possibly also guilty of philosophical bullshit or what Moberger calls pseudophilosophy. He divides this into two categories:
"First and foremost, I have in mind a seemingly profound type of academic discourse that is pursued primarily within the humanities and social sciences. I do not mean to suggest that the disciplines in question are inherently pseudophilosophical, only that, for some reason, a whole lot of pseudophilosophy goes on within them. Often philosophical issues are raised concerning knowledge, truth, objectivity and scientific methodology, but without awareness of relevant distinctions and arguments. Let us call this familiar phenomenon obscurantist pseudophilosophy."
Moberger (2021) elaborates, stating that:
"A characteristic trait [of obscurantist pseudophilosophy] is a deferential attitude toward some supposedly great continental European thinker or thinkers, such as G W F Hegel, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre (who might or might not have themselves been guilty of pseudophilosophy). Usually, the prose is infused with arcane terminology and learned jargon, creating an aura of scholarly profundity."
This is contrasted with scientistic pseudophilosophy "usually found in popular scientific contexts, where writers, typically with a background in the natural sciences, tend to wander into philosophical territory without realizing it, and again without awareness of relevant distinctions and argument" (Moberger 2021). Sam Harris is a good example of this.
The first category seems to be an apt description of a significant portion (if not all) of Gans' output, that focuses on obscurely written literary theory. He also adopts an entirely uncritical attitude to Derrida's (bullshit) arguments against metaphysics, that are treated with similar axiomatic surety as his assumption regarding mimesis. To say this is a controversial philosophical stance is to put it mildly. In fact, Derrida is arguably the most controversial philosopher of the 20th Century. While there is not enough space for a detailed critique of Derrida, to even be able do such a thing presumes that there is an illegible Derridean argument to critique. This is questionable however, as the letter penned by Barry Smith (1992) shows. This was written in opposition to the decision to award Derrida an honorary doctorate and aptly summarises the sentiments of Derrida's detractors that I am sympathetic to, it states:
"In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly among those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, Derrida's work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour [..] Derrida's career had its roots in the heady days of the 1960s and his writings continue to reveal their origins in that period. Many of them seem to consist in no small part of elaborate jokes and puns ('logical phallusies' and the like), and Derrida seems to us to have come close to making a career out of what we regard as translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets [..] Derrida's voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all – as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) – his works employ a written style that defies comprehension. Many have been willing to give Derrida the benefit of the doubt, insisting that language of such depth and difficulty of interpretation must hide deep and subtle thoughts indeed. When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial."
This hardly seems like something to pin ones hopes of refuting the entire pre-Derridean philosophical tradition on. At the very least you would think a translation of Derrida's supposed arguments into ordinary English and then a defence of them against all challengers (particularly contemporary philosophy of science and philosophy language) would constitute a key portion of Gans' work, given the crucial eliminative role they play in clearing the slate for the construction of his own ideas. Yet this is not the case. Gans instead builds Generative Anthropology upon the tradition of Derridean deconstruction uncritically, consequently anyone that rejects this simply has no reason to care about it. Generative Anthropology therefore has no grounds to dismiss metaphysics, in fact as I argued earlier, it presupposes one. In setting up the originary hypothesis in the way that it does, a form of physicalism is implied – this should, like any other metaphysical claim be argued for, not just assumed. As it so happens, physicalism is a perfectly respectable, although far from uncontroversial, metaphysical stance that takes on a wide variety of forms, absolutely none of which are discussed by Gans in any depth or argued for. Further complicating matters, such arguments would themselves necesssarily be incompatible with Derrida's antirealist rejection of metaphysics.
The originary hypothesis if seen in a philosophical rather than scientific light may be guilty of another related form of pseudophilosophy, identified by Pigluicci (2020): the posing of a false problem then purporting to solve it. Pigliucci draws on Wittgenstein who identifies many apparent problems as in fact artifacts of language. He explicitly names Chalmers' hard problem of consciousness here. The originary hypothesis, if it is considered to be philosophical not scientific, appears to be a much stronger case of this than Chalmers, who at least has done some serious work on two-dimensional semantics to address key objections to his infamous conceivability argument and makes far more of an effort to philosophically defend his views and engage with relevant contemporary philosophical literature and arguments than does Gans. It is perfectly plausible to think that the search for an origin absent of any evidence could plausibly be considered to be simply a false problem derived from the desire for nice neat explanations with a definitive beginning. In defense of the originary hypothesis, Katz often puts the challenge to Generative Anthropology's opponents to propose an alternative model, however the epistemic obligation is with Generative Anthropology to defend its model regardless of whether than alternative is proposed. Agnosticism towards the origin of language based upon a lack of epistemologically valid means of modelling it is a perfectly reasonable view. The obligation to provide an originary account of language is arbitrarily conjured, and can therefore be arbitrarily dismissed with requisite validity.
Ultimately for Moberger "the most common fallacy in obscurantist pseudophilosophy is equivocation. This fallacy exploits ambiguities in certain key terms, where plausible but trivial claims lend apparent credibility to interesting but controversial ones. When challenged, the obscurantist will typically retreat to the safe house provided by the trivial interpretation of his claims, only to reoccupy the controversial ground once the critic has left the scene". This equivocation is seen in a common defence mounted by advocates of Generative Anthropology when confronted with the speculative hypothesis and asked to provide evidence for its conclusions or assumptions. I call this the 'it's just a heuristic bro' argument. This involves backing away from the claim that the originary hypothesis is a strong truth claim, instead claiming it is merely a heuristic meant to help with literary criticism, understanding the human or perhaps even political theory. Gans (2013) make the case for this heuristic approach here:
"The minimal originary hypothesis of GA [is not] testable or verifiable [..] the point GA shares with religion, and more broadly, with the humanities in general, is that we need to understand the foundational configuration of the human, the scene of representation with its sacred center, now. We cannot wait for some hypothetical future means of verification/falsification; we need a heuristic."
Aside from aptly summarising precisely what's wrong with religion and the humanities, the problem here is that absolutely nothing Gans says makes any sense at all if the originary hypothesis is merely this weaker heuristic claim. Generative Anthropology's claims only have force if the hypothesis and all of Gans' further deductions based upon it are true, that's how deductive argument works. Yet this defensive strategy is regularly employed to enable retreat to the safe but trivial space of a humanities heuristic, and yet nevertheless emerge at a later date to make sweeping claims about language, politics, ethics and aesthetics that only make sense if the originary scene is a truth claim comparable to that of metaphysics or the hard sciences. This is a form of the motte-and-bailey fallacy; conflating two positions that share similarities, one modest and easy to defend (the 'motte') and one much more controversial (the 'bailey'). When the controversial position is challenged, it is insisted that only the more modest position is being advanced. This retreating to the motte is then used later to claim that the bailey has not been refuted (because the critic refused to attack the motte), or that the critic is unreasonable (by equating an attack on the bailey with an attack on the motte). Thus, to the extent that Gans engages in (pseudo)philosophy, his work fares little better in this regard than it does as science. Once again, the whiff of bullshit is in the air.
The implications of this regarding Generative Anthropology are pretty simple. It isn't a good theory and those interested in political theory should look elsewhere. However, the epistemic issues here are illuminating as they speak to a broader problem with spurious pet theories that gain an undue degree of prominence in online substructures where they are not subject to an adequate degree of scrutiny as the skills and knowledge needed to adequately scrutinize them are not widespread. For example, the argument made here against Gans is applicably almost in its entirety to his far more popular mentor, Rene Girard. The sentimental attachment to an equally speculative hypotheses of a perennial tradition amongst so called Traditionalists is another notable case of sloppy thinking. Far worse is the endorsement of outright woo perpetrated charlatans like Sheldrake and Steiner. These latter ideas are downright destructive and pernicious. This is often combined with a turn to obscurantist pseudophilosophy and uniformed anti-science or conspiratorial rhetoric. Dugin, the nadir of online political discourse seems to be the embodiment of this negative trend. In addition to the rise of entirely speculative conspiracy theories, a return to traditional forms of pseudoscience like the rejection of evolution is also noteworthy, Jay Dyer comes to mind as guilty of both. The fact that these kinds of bullshitters are allowed to operate as online influencers with access to the vulnerable disenfranchised youth is quite disturbing.
All in all, the recent dogmatic religious turn in the online right appears to be a significant factor in this tendency towards these more extreme kinds of bullshit. However secular thinkers are not immune either as Jason Jorjani's outlandish UFO conspiracy theories demonstrate. Compared to these far more egregious examples, many of which go far beyond mere bullshit conceived of as epistemic malpractice, the speculative nature of Gans' theory and its rather silly conclusions are fairly innocuous in comparison. Thus, it is worth noting that Generative Anthropology is a remarkably harmless case of this, where accepting it merely leads one to merely have somewhat odd ideas about philosophy and the origin of language. This might provoke an impulse to write boring literary theory, but this is incredibly innocuous unlike many other cases where outright cults have formed around crank theories of various sorts. This all speaks to a trend of rejecting genuine evidence and reason-based attempts to understand the world scientifically and philosophy as a basis of political thought which must be intervened upon.
The sincerely truth-seeking tendency that motivates many to reject the bullshit of the current political order and entertain heterodox political views in the first place, is gradually being replaced with a sentimental turn from orthodox to dissident forms of bullshit. What we need in this project of proposing a genuine heterodoxical alternative to the established order is good political science and good political philosophy. Hence much of Katz can be retained (such as his innovative use of Graeber and Olson) as a contribution to this, but Gans' speculative anthropology cannot. One possible way to go about this, if Katz or his fans wish to remain resistant to the already existing cybernetic style theoretical frameworks, is to embrace Robert Brandom's system of inferentialism. Brandom shares with Katz both a language centric approach, and the desire make explicit the goings on within language and identify the norms and commitments involved in linguistic actions. This is done without the need for speculative anthropology and with the precision of the best of analytical philosophy. This is only of many potential options however, a phenomenological inquiry into language is another promising route to take in replacing the role of Generative Anthropology within Katz's thought.
Ultimately, we must be uncompromising with this anti-bullshit stance as a whole as a place to draw the line in determining acceptable methodologies. As whilst Generative Anthropology is itself seemingly rather harmless bullshit, a lot of far more pernicious bullshit lurks if we relax our philosophical and epistemic standards too much. While I have been rather hard on Eric Gans who is almost certainly well-meaning if wrongheaded – a hard line has to be taken here against epistemic unconscientiousness in all its forms, and the Generative Anthropology question is a good test case to make this point. We cannot afford to relax our epistemic standards, instead we must do the opposite and strengthen them as much as possible. What both society-at-large and the dissident right specifically need is non-bullshit social science and to underpin this, non-bullshit philosophy.
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