Stephen Downes' webinar on Research Methodologies Redux (May 2014) also raised some interesting issues about the nature of meaning, and its relationship to consensus, and to language (and languages), and what exactly the limits are of the affordances of language as a meaning-making and sense-making tool.

I read his presentation as an endorsement of Feyerabend’s) “epistemological anarchism” as an intervention to underline a point, which, many decades after post-modernism has still not reached the consciousness of many, many people. But it does, I think, come over a bit strong in places.

I am, however, broadly sympathetic to radical scepticism and even epistemological anarchism that Stephen advocates. It’s in line with rigorous (European) semiotics and deconstructivism, and with Deleuze and several others (and more interestingly now, Zizek).

There are one or two points on which I differ, but they are just detail:

i) His reference to ‘truth’ I dont get, as he seems – quite a few times – to go dangerously close to seeing truth as an absolute – though I suspect he is being gently ironical, and

ii) The interesting (epistemological and scientific) point he always seems to duck – and I dont know why – is that while it is reasonable to accuse the social sciences of “empty consensus” (Latour in particular would agree with him), this doesn’t apply in the same way to the physical senses. Equations (in physics and chemistry, and the periodic table itself, which spans both) are, precisely, written in the ‘hypertext’ or ‘meta-language’ of scientific, chemical and mathematical notation which transcends particular languages to a large extent, and are the reason why most science is published in ‘English’.

Scientists (as radical sceptics, which they all ought to be) would agree that science is based on falsifiable, contingent consensus, but in the physical sciences that consensus is pretty strong! I have never understood why Stephen does not concede this point – i.e. a differentiation between weak (and ‘empty’) consensus in quite a lot of cases in the social sciences, and strong – to extremely strong – consensus in (many parts of) the physical sciences.

But that’s a little off the point – the overall point he makes, which I love, and which nudges my own thinking along a bit, is the idea that if

i) “meaning is use”, and if …

ii) meaning is articulated through language (though you need to refer to the remarks above about the meta-languages of the physical sciences, above), and if …

iii) languages are no more (and no less) than systems of contextual, Derridean ‘differance’ (the insistence that language is a system of differences, not ‘truths’ or even ‘representations’), then …

iv) meaning is contextual per language, i.e. per the way different language groups live, speak, and make sense of the world (as well as per all sorts of other things like geography, climate, etc).

… and (to concede, slightly, to the point Stephen makes about the contingency of knowledge in general) this applies even to the meta-languages of the sciences, as even these symbol systems have to be articulated, spoken and read in a particular language, which is inevitably embedded and implicated in the different systems of resonance and ‘differance’ in each of them.