A dialectical Approach

Kerry Bingamin c. July 2020 IG: @fascined

Updated 08/16/2021.

Drafted by Eli Namay from material developed in conversation with Jack Langdon & Emma Marsano. This material was in turn developed from many conversations among members of Shred’s Steering Committee.

Editorial input from Jessica Aszodi, Micah J. Fleck, & Ruby Pinto.

Our dialectical approach is influenced by a broad range of traditions (influences for each point listed below) and can be expressed as a set of philosophical starting points or underlying assumptions. We feel that all inquiry and communication about that inquiry comes with underlying assumptions. In this broad sense, an underlying assumption is not a good or bad thing, it’s just a piece of knowledge that the reader / inquirer must hold true in order to believe whatever narrative or piece of information they are taking in / trying to communicate. These underlying assumptions become a problem, and knowledge becomes reified—symbols get mistaken for that which they represent, or take on the status of natural force, rather than human construct—when these assumptions aren’t talked about in the open, or worse are actively driven into an audience’s subconscious (ex. the use of advertising to manipulate our desires and sense of self).

This list of philosophical starting points / underlying assumptions is here to 1) communicate the ways in which it seems we can know the world, and therefore the processes we think we should use to explore it (that is, our epistemology); And, 2) the assumptions we are using as starting points to embark on deeper inquiry of various issues / questions / areas. These assumptions are based on a mix of both our own first hand experiences and personal research, as well as reasoning and deduction.  

Who we are:


We grow and develop as a part of the natural world.


Life changes / develops / evolves over time. This development is not characterized by linear complexification & progress but by diversification and niche fulfillment that moves in all directions. That is, life moves toward stretching out into all the nooks and crannies of what is able to be sustainable (like extremophiles). 


There is a relationship between the environment, the development / evolution of life, and communication between living things. 


There is a relationship between the emergence of nervous systems, the emergence of brains, the various capacities to experience and communicate that arise therefrom (ex. emotions, use of signs, symbolic thought, & language), and social organization.

Note: This emergence / complexification ≠ better, more valuable, more worthy of life, more willing to dominate or deserving of the right to dominate. 


Our capacity for symbolic thought  and language opens up existence in a dual world. One of immediate tactile experience and emotional feedback, and a second, virtual world of meaning, narrative, and symbols. 

How we can know the world:


 A ≠ A: The  symbols / words / concepts that we use  in the virtual world we inhabit  are different from events and processes in  the material world. This, ☞ ♫, is not a sound. This, ☞ “Tree” / 🎄, is not a tree. Even if we accurately measure the dynamics of a process in the world, these measurements will not themselves be that process. 


We are using symbols and language all the time to communicate, navigate society, and learn about the world. Symbols are ubiquitous. They completely surround us in our everyday life, and are the medium of our ongoing inner voice. 


Symbolic thought is useful and can’t be avoided when we do certain activities, but it is not the only way to experience or know the world.


We can never fully encapsulate the complex dynamics of the world with any set of symbols or one frame of reference (again, A ≠ A). But, we can do our best to use symbols to clearly indicate (point) to dynamics that actually exist in the world, while reflecting on our socio-economic biases, and the analytical frame(s) we are using.


We can’t reduce “sociology” / “economics,” down to “psychology,” down to “biology,” down to “chemistry,” down to “physics.” We can never accurately indicate (point) to and explain all of the dynamics in the universe (from black holes, to human societies, to quarks), with one framework that everything reduces down to. We need different analytical frames for studying different phenomena that happen at different scales, and/or we need to reflect on how different frames connect.  We reify  complex events or dynamics in the  world if we try to reduce them down to one analytical frame, (“it’s just physics,” “it’s just biology,” “it’s just the market,” “it’s just their culture”). This thinking  leads to racist, patriarchal, or otherwise overly deterministic explanations that can be used to defend oppression, exploitation, and the ruling class status quo. 


Data / information does not exist in the universe in “pure,” “objective” form. There is always a process of interpretation, which is affected by the people who carry it out, and their value systems, which are shaped by and/or are in response to the socioeconomic dynamics they live within.


Other than human made technology (machines, bridges, cars, etc.), the world (including human societies) operates based on organic logic rather than engineering logic. In organic logic, diversity and complexity grow from a whole; parts are heterogeneous (intertwined / grew together) at every level; distinguishable parts of a whole have no separate existence prior to the whole. Here, saying something has organic logic, does not mean we cannot change it, or that we cannot be intentional about how we interact with it. This is not a statement of biological determinism. 


Subject and Object, cause and effect are interchangeable. There is no universal passive object and no universal active subject. We both make and are made by our environments.


Motion and change is characteristic of all natural systems. The world is in a constant state of change and motion. 


The philosophical framing that helped give birth to the scientific revolution — and along with it white-supremacist/ imperialist/ patriarchal/ ecocidal capitalism — was ideologically influenced by the proto-capitalist societies from which it was born. During the European Enlightenment, an a priori (before gathering evidence) assumption was made that the universe was a kind of machine that could be universally understood through reductionist methods. Reductionism assumes that the best way to understand ourselves and the world around us is to break things down to smaller and smaller constituent parts, to see how these parts add up in a linear way. This was done in the context of the explicitly dualistic worldview of European Christianity, which ordained a hierarchy of being that started with a transcendent “God-the-Patriarch,” moved to divinely ordained royalty, then to nobility, then subjects, then lower racial casts, then the rest of the lower beings of the planet. It was in the context of this dualistic political and philosophical assumption — God-as-transcendent-Patriarchal-other —  that “Mind” (the locus of our “selves”) was separated out from “Matter,” creating the basis for the assumption that the universe operated as a clock (complete with a wise, old, and of course “white” clock-maker). In reality, this philosophical frame only over-simplified the complex dynamics of the universe, pushed aside difficult questions about the intertwined nature of things, and opened the door for the myopic, one-dimensional power of reductionism to totally run amok. This framing is dog-whistle divine ordination, and is continually used to paint ideological / racist biases in the sciences as “objective.”

The gulf between activities labeled as “social sciences” and “humanities” on the one hand, and the activities labeled “natural sciences” on the other, stems from this ideologically driven Universe-as-Machine assumption. This is a false divide between these two realms of activities, and only reflects methodological challenges at best, and ruling class ideologies at worst.


Ruling class ideology depends on the ideologically driven assumption of Universe-as-Machine reductionism that stems from European Enlightenment. Often, there is a false dichotomy between the fetishized privileging of this as the only way to really know the world, and total relativism (total social / mental construction of reality). The following example may be a promising solution to what we feel is a false dichotomy:

Form and structure exist in the world as constraint (limitation of possible outcome). For instance, take the shape of a whirlpool. A reductionist worldview might suggest that the structure of this whirlpool can only be understood by breaking it down to its smallest parts, or mixed with an eliminitivist perspective it might be said that the form is only a mental construct (albeit a useful one). A relativist, social constructivist perspective might suggest that the form of the whirlpool is a mental construct, totally contingent on how the observer has been socially conditioned to view whirlpools.

The form of the whirlpool actually exists as constraint. Water comes down stream, hits a rock, knocks around against other molecules, then exits the whirlpool and moves downstream. The form cannot be found in the reduction of the process down to the molecules of the rock, nor the molecules of the water. The form persists and can be pointed to, because the constraints of the system persist — out of the flow of water coming down stream and the obstruction of that flow by the rock, emerges the form of the whirlpool. Constraints (limitations of possible outcome) can be indicated to and measured. While there is a dialectical relationship between the interpretation of this indication / measurement and the frame of reference / socio-economic background of the observer, it is not totally contingent on this. 


Synthesized from many conversations, writing sessions, and resource sharing among the Shred Steering Committee.