Worldliness and Metaphysics in Librarianship
Author: Sam Popowich
Expected: Summer 2024
Over the course of many decades, developments in society, politics, and philosophy have gradually challenged our conceptions of truth, certainty, and even knowledge itself. Amid such uncertainty, we often find ourselves trying to find solid ground on which to construct consensus, make arguments, agree or disagree, share experiences, coordinate action, and many other social endeavours that appear to require some kind of solid ground on which we can build. To do this, we are often tempted to reach for concepts and principles that appear unquestionable, common sense, and eternally true, concepts and principles like “accuracy”, “democracy”, “intellectual freedom”, “individuality”, “rights” and even “information” and “knowledge” themselves. In order for such concepts to function as solid ground for discussion, they must be considered to be separate from issues of power, wealth, class, gender, race, sex, disability, and any other human concern that might implicate them in the very arguments we hope that they will ground. Such conceptions can be thought of as “metaphysical”since they stand above and beyond our social and physical reality.
The American pragmatist philosopher William James called such concepts “solving names” since, once they have been found, they solve all problems of terminology or value. In Solving Names I argue that such metaphysical concepts operate throughout librarianship, grounding our policies, procedures, and values, and shaping and organizing how we think about library work, what we can and cannot say about the profession, and policing our professional interactions. I further argue that far from being truly “metaphysical”, these concepts are in fact deeply implicated in broader social dynamics of power and oppression. Rather than being pure and disinterested, they are “worldly” – subject to the very pressures and dynamics that they try to ground. Instead of being beyond critique, it is in fact more important that metaphysical principles that underpin professional discourse be tested and analyzed and their worldliness exposed.
Drawing on Marxist and analytic philosophers like Stuart Hall, Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W.V.O. Quine, and literary scholars like Edward W. Said and Richard Rorty, Solving Names looks at alternative ways to think about the metaphysical concepts often used in library discourse. The book critiques the dominant western view of “knowledge”, “science”, “professionalism”, “reason”, and “intellectual freedom”, and investigates questions of equity, diversity, and inclusion, climate change, technology, and politics within the profession, with an aim to clarifying some of the underlying causes of controversy and debate that have been prominent in librarianship in recent years.
Sam Popowich is an academic librarian at the University of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, Canada. He has an MLIS from Dalhousie University and an MA in Music and Cultural Theory from Carleton University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Political Science from the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship: A Marxist Approach (Library Juice Press, 2019) as well as numerous articles on the politics and philosophy of librarianship, Marxism, technology, and politics. He is a Section Editor for the Journal of Radical Librarianship.