The motion up for debate opens up references to a controversy that began more than fifty years ago. Indeed, the question how the social sciences and parts of the humanities, should relate to their subject of research, their slice of knowledge making, has not lost any of its topicality. This includes epistemological foundations, questions of method as well as the issue of how scholarship can contribute and is to contribute to solve societal problems – more precisely, which societal problems and contribute what kinds of recommendations at which level.
The controversy referred to as the “positivism dispute” was fought primarily between the representatives of critical rationalism and critical theory. One can safely claim that today, poststructuralist theory – which is in part still waging the stances of critical theory, yet for different reasons and with partly fundamentally different implications – and positivism oppose one another with largely incommensurable stances. With reference to a scientific pragmatism – or realism, if you will – and societal responsibility, those who do not regard policy recommendations as part of the service to be rendered by science and who thus negate the motion put before us, are reproached with the set phrase of the “ivory tower”. Or, to cite Georg Lukács, arguing from the vantage point of marxist political practice, with the metaphor of the “Grand Hotel Abyss”, inhabited by critical theorists focusing only on theory driven scholarship and – faced with society’s grave problems –, offering nothing other than diagnoses on the social totality and contributing nothing toward solving particular problems.
The arguments against the positive disciplines – „die Einzelwissenschaften” – and their heuristics are, however, lodged rather differently. They are not ignorant of Karl Popper’s dictum that “knowledge … does not begin with perception and observation or the collection of data or facts, but with problems”. The refusal to comment with advice and suggestions on problem solving processes on a global-social level is well founded; and one can illustrate the relevant differences in this “old” debate in a form that also does justice to the questions concerning cultural property. Allow me therefore to recall why the motion before us has different answers, and why the disciplines concerned with society can take more than one position vis-à-vis their subject – and why, which is important to state at the outset, this should be so.
We can begin with the critique of the primacy of scientific explanations. It is based on the deductive-nomological model – a model which assumes in analogy to the methods of the natural sciences that specific or particular societal phenomena can be explained via sets of quasi mathematical-logical sentences. Then there is the method of trial and error, that is, the effort to falsify via experimentation. In this practice we see an intrinsic methodological individualism that recognizes institutions, but addresses influencing variables only partially. Then there is the critique of nominalism which places the reflection of methodology ahead of the structure of the object to be researched – as is e.g. typical of a heuristical approach. This goes hand in hand with the tendency to block the metaphysical and thus the placement of the “positive” as the only relevant material within a scientific system – which, ironically, can only be done via acknowledging the metaphysical (see Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests).
The side taken here conceptualizes society as riven with contradictions, ripe with social antagonisms as well as unforeseeable contingencies, or in short, as the non-identical social totality. A string of logical sentences thus cannot explain a phenomenon that is so complex. The conjunction of individual and particular social phenomena is such that they can only be regarded as a whole and cannot be taken apart into separate factors – and this in turn challenges experimental research as well as the definition of single terms that neglects taking in account the additional structures of social reality (see e.g. Max Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory).
These reservations against such a positive, or positivist approach – consisting of positively defining a particular problem like the one around Cultural Property, analyzing it with methodological and logical consistency within a seemingly given frame of reference, drawing conclusions from this heuristical approach, thus finding solutions on the basis of a social reality via logical operations, and then making recommendations for the better design of societal processes – these reservations have been proven to be prevailing and topical within the research carried out within this group. The question of how to optimally distribute bundles of rights and bonds (?) between the different actors involved, are a prime example why the positive analysis of particular aspects of social life has to miss the point of the problem at hand: the myriad of facets that would have to be considered as analytical categories for the elicitation of a better allocation relate to each other so contradictorily that the analytical gaze almost automatically averts from the particular to the abstract. from a confined problem to the total context. Trying to align the particular in face of this “bigger picture” must then seem like a farce.
These sets of old problems then increase in face of a global simultaneity. Relating to Cultural Property, one would for example have to refer to a twofold indeterminancy of the notion of culture that well-nigh forces the diagnosis on one that the problem in hand ist not unanimous, not simple, and at the same time rational and irrational. Most importantly, however, one would have to realize that the subject matter does not yield to the logic that positive heurisitcs try to impose on it – “the subject matter”, to cite Adorno, “resists the bare systematical unity of connected statements.”
Quite rightly, the question what culture, and much less what Cultural Property is, has not been answered within the research group and its sub-projects: a term cannot be identical with its object where there is a multiplicity of objects and terms juxtaposed in numerous discursive fields. The notion of “culture”, e.g., is twofold indetermined because neither is it secured knowledge what culture ist, nor is there a sufficient overview what culture can be in its various contexts and in relation to social totality. To define culture reductively; to elicit characteristics common to its specific manifestations; to determine their structure and functions (with good reasons functionalism and structuralisms have been critiqued in the humanities for their theoretical short-comings, especially as to their inability to theorize on inconsistencies, conflicts and inequalties!); and on the basis of this approach to make “recommendations” on how to define things the “optimal” way – this is indeed a spurious course of action that both elicits questions about the criteria of the optimal and – more importantly – about how such criteria can be thought so immediate, so identical, in face of social totality and cultural complexity. To phrase it differently: if the ideological pretence of society is multiplied by a global synchronicity, how then is it possible to define a best way without being apologetic of social conditions on a global scale?
In such contexts, the creation of typologies would inevitably results in enumerative definitions (cf. Amitai Etzioni’s theoretical reflections on these issues), the falsificatory drafting of recommendations would not result in a reduction of complexity, but rather in its increase: if there is no clarity about what the problem is, and if the falsificatory approach fails as early at its definition of its subject matter, then every attempt whatsoever at solving the problem is necessarily arbitrary because of its selective choice of reference points. The basis of the resulting analytical as well as of recommendatory work would presuppose a holistic and thus closed social system that can be described by a set of logical sentences, and that has a logic of its own that at the same time determines and is adopted by actors when making recommendations to reform a given situation.
A critique of this conception of a holistic and closed system with a logic of its own is in face of – among other factors – the multliplicity and synchronicity of contradictions, disparities and – in the last instance – logics of their own indispensable. (And such a critique has indeed been made repetetively, see for instance Alfred Schmitt’s work on epistemology, but also generally the anthropological critique of a holistic approach that finally – quite rightly – abandoned the concept of holism.) Given these aspects, a claim for a “culture of recommendations” has to be met with refusal if one is not to deny these differences, and if one does not want to contribute to a reductionist justification of the total context. This total context does, in relation to Cultural Property, indeed not prompt optimism. To end on a positive note, however, it should be noted that the explication and critique of procedures and structures relating to Cultural Property has the potential to analytically embedd particular phenomenons into larger contexts, to investigate the ideologies that interpretate these phenomenons; thus creating room for the articulation of resistances and unsolvable inconsistencies. In the last instance, this is a form of recommendating, too.