Re: [OPE-L] Anita's Chocolate Cake

From: Andrew Brown (A.Brown@LUBS.LEEDS.AC.UK)
Date: Wed Nov 09 2005 - 05:27:54 EST

Hi Stephen,
(1) Levins and Lewontin are materialists. They are not idealists. They are not 'relativists' about this key aspect of ontolgy. They don't sit on the fence here. They are materialists. They are also non-reductive and dialectical in their materialism. This means they argue not only for the universal proposition that all the world is material but also for a range of universal ('dialectical') properties of this universal matter. You name a few yourself (motion, change, importance of specificity, etc. - recall that they broadly endorse Engels' dialectics of nature, even if he got most of the details wrong). Now, your position has not stressed that dialectical materialism entails a commitment to such universals. Such a commitment would make (the caricature of) a 'post-modernist' uneasy, I think.
(2) The question of different conditions of existence being more or less 'important' than one another surely depends upon what we mean by 'importance'. I would suggest that there is a tendency in your previous posts to conflate 'causal' importance with any kind of 'ontological' importance whatsoever. Hegel and Marx use terms such as 'determining moment' and 'cell-form' rather than 'causal importance'. This is precisely to engage with the difficulties of offering a hierarchy of abstractions for a complex whole, where everything determines everything else but where the whole self-reproduces entailing some real order and development through time. You would seem to deny any such hierarchy tout court but does not this make it a miracle that the manifest features of, say, capitalism survive through time? In any case, such a tout court denial would seem to be an unwarranted a priori bias.
Many thanks,
-----Original Message----- 
From: OPE-L on behalf of Stephen Cullenberg 
Sent: Wed 09/11/2005 01:55 
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Anita's Chocolate Cake

	Thanks for your reply and nice example of Anita's Chocolate Cake.  By emphasizing Anita's labor in the production of the cake, I think you've extended my example.  Some might say that your extension is evidence of layers, or levels, of causality, but I would resist that.  You've added to the complexity of the event (the cake) that I first specified, but that does not to my mind mean that you have added another level (more primary? you didn't say that exactly, but many would) of causality.  You've asked a lot of hypothetical questions and shown a certain a priori bias, some of which seem so obvious that to deny them would seem ridiculous (an in grown toenail vs. heart disease).  But to really explain the (differential) effect of each of the examples or conditions of existence that you mention would require an empirical analysis, one which could lead to potential surprise, and recognize the importance of variation or difference.  I would suggest that our insistence on one or another condition of existence as "more important" than another is a political or aesthetic choice and not an ontological one.  Ontology cannot tell what aspect(s) of reality or social life we want to change, only we can do that.
	Let me ask you a question in return.  Granted Anita's labor is one of the constitutive elements in the making of the cake, but so too is flour.  If I told you that the flour used in Anita's cake was bought from a large national wholesaler, etc., etc., would that extension of the conditions of existence of the cake be any more or less important than the extension you much more vividly detailed?  Perhaps more important for the politics of labor or exploitation, but any more important for the constitution of the cake? 
	Interstingly, my example of the cake can also be found in Lewontin, Rose and Kamin's Not in Our Genes, and I think is consistent with the overall approach of Lewontin and Levins in their Dialectical Biologist (by no means am I trying to imply that they are postmodernists, but I do think their approach is close to what I think).
	There is a nice review in the May 2005 MR of Dialectical Biologist:  Dialectical Nature: Reflections in Honor of the Twentieth Anniversary of Levins and Lewontin’s The Dialectical Biologist by Brett Clark and Richard York.  If I could just quote from part of the review, I think Clark and York capture well what I have called constitutive causality and provided a hint of the scientific approach of experimentation or cause and effect that Ian has supported.
	"A dialectical stance is essential in order to understand the material world in terms of its own becoming: recognizing that history is open, contingent, and contradictory. In a time when ruling-class ideology permeates every pore of the social world and genetic explanations reign as justifications for social differences and inequalities, the work of Lewontin, Levins, and Gould liberates scientific research and social knowledge from the social constructs of “bad science.” 
	In The Dialectical Biologist, Levins and Lewontin reject one-sided notions of mechanical reductionism and superorganic holism (common in ecology) and the hierarchical conceptions of life and the universe that they both generate. In presenting their approach, they critique both idealism and reductionism within the natural sciences. Instead Levins and Lewontin argue for a dialectical and materialist approach that understands that the world “is constantly in motion. Constants become variables, causes become effects, and systems develop, destroying the conditions that gave rise to them” (279). The universe is one of change due to existing and evolving contradictions, which force transformation in the conditions of the world. “Things change because of the actions of opposing forces on them, and things are the way they are because of the temporary balance of opposing forces” (280). "
	Perhaps we could talk about what is right or wrong with Lewontin and Levins rather than the more loaded term postmodernism, because for me they come very close to how I think.
	BTW, I fully understand Paul Z.'s concern and am happy for the list to move on to more pressing topics. 

		OK, let's consider this example more.  To begin with, the "ingredients" for the cake
		not only include those you mentioned.  Making a cake is a productive and re-
		productive activity.  One therefore has to include labor activity as an ingredient. 
		To do that, one must recognize that the baker, as the creator of the cake,  is also
		constitutive of the cake.  To the extent that the cake is a product created by
		an individual baker, then all matters which are constitutive of the individual baker
		are also constitutive of the cake.
		With this as background, let us see whether it is or is not possible to rank 
		an individual factor in the creation of the cake as more or less causally important 
		and having a greater or lesser explanatory power as all other factors.
		Suppose the chocolate cake is being made by Anita De Los Santos, a chef 
		in Caracas who grew up in a wealthy family in  San Juan, Puerto Rico,  and 
		was trained at a famous culinary school in Paris.  Her specialty is pastries.
		Do you want more detail?  OK.  Anita has been a feminist since she was in 
		her teens.  When she first became a socialist in 1975,  her role models were
		Lolita Lebron and Rosa Luxemburg.  She has three children (2 girls and 1 boy,
		ages 4, 7, 9),  is divorced, and is 48-years-old.   She moved to Caracas 2 years 
		ago in order to support the Bolivarian Revolution.  Although a  socialist and a
		feminist, she is also a devout Catholic and supporter of Liberation Theology.
		She attends church every Sunday.  The cake that she made is for a birthday 
		party for her 7-year-old,  Mariarosa. 
		Anita, being a middle-aged person, has various health problems, including
		an in-grown toenail, dandruff, and heart disease (she had a mini-stroke a 
		year ago). 
		I could provide more detail if you wish.
		As planned, Anita returns from work in the evening and bakes the 
		chocolate cake for Mariarosa.   The date:  Wednesday, November 5,
		Now, is it or is it not possible that some of the above factors are more or
		less causally important in the constitution of the cake?
		I'm going to stick my neck out and say that the fact that Anita has an
		in-grown toenail is probably of  little importance in the baking of the
		cake?  Do you agree?
		I'll also go out on a limb and add that for the constitution of Anita
		herself,  the fact that she has heart disease and had a stroke is
		more important (and has greater explanatory power in considering her
		overall health condition) than the fact that she has dandruff and an in-
		grown toenail.  Do you agree?
		I'll further stick my neck out and claim that the proportion in which
		she added sugar, flour, milk, eggs, water and chocolate has greater
		explanatory power in considering the outcome (the quality of the
		cake) than the fact that she at one point in her life wanted to grow
		up to be like Lolita Lebron.  Do you agree?
		I'll further stick out my neck and assert that what temperature she 
		cooked the cake and for how long has greater explanatory power for 
		considering the outcome than the fact that Anita is a Catholic who
		goes to church on Sundays.  Do you agree?
		I'' further claim that the skill she acquired as a chef having trained at
		a Parisian culinary school is now more important in terms of  the quality
		of the cake than the fact that Anita is divorced.  Do you agree?
		Now, I will agree with you that it is difficult or impossible to develop a 
		legitimate _scale_ for accurately and quantitatively ranking all of the factors
		(direct and indirect) that went into the baking of the cake.  _Despite that_,
		I still think it's possible in some legitimate but unscientific way to attach 
		greater or lesser causal importance to some variables.  Do you agree?
		In solidarity, Jerry

	Stephen Cullenberg              
	Professor of Economics        
	University of California           
	Riverside, CA 92521             
	Office:  951-827-1573
	Fax:      951-787-5685

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