Re: [OPE-L] Overdetermination & Science

From: antonio callari (antonio.callari@FANDM.EDU)
Date: Mon Jan 02 2006 - 18:02:00 EST

Hi Ian, Howard, Jurriaan and Jerry (and anybody else who might be reading):
Warning: LONG PARAGRAPHS FOLLOW: Read only if you are not put off by that.

I'll do my best to respond to the various postings since last
Saturday. I will write about your particular points in the context of
saying something very general about the terms of the conversation as
I see/understand it. I think those terms frame the issues, and so
clarifying them may help us get to some resolution. We'll see. These
terms concern the general question of science and objectivity.  It
seems to me that most of the objections to (or questions, or
skepticism about) the various post-modern formulations (e.g.,
overdetermination) rest on a classical (and philosophical; there is
not much that is 'scientific' about it, I think) conception of
science that posits a separation/independence of the 'real' from the
'thought' and insists on making the real the arbiter (it defines
'objective' by reference to this 'real').
['thought' here refers not to whatever any one individual thinks but
broad ways of thinking, theories, etc.: there may indeed be cases
where 'thought' refers also to what is in the mind of one individual,
as in the fieldwork of overdetermination in the case of
psychotherapy; but, i think that most of what we are talking about
here has 'thought' in its wider social being]. {So I understand it
when Howard, for example, writes: "Okay.  But how can objective truth
ever arbitrate between theories whose truths are intra-theoretic?
That was my question to Antonio." And Howard, in your posting of
12/30, while addressing Jurriaan's desire for a 'neutral
objectivity,' you also write: "Post positivist realists have argued
instead that objectivity is best captured as an understanding that
actually corresponds to the way the world is." You go on to make the
wonderful critical realist point that 'partisanship' can actually
help us access the 'real;'  but, while the point is 'wonderful'
against 'positivism,' it maintains the notion of the 'real'  I am
addressing. I have noted your disclaimer, Jurriaan.}

Now, (basically as a result of my understanding of Marxism as a
philosophy/practice of transformation--and i think Jerry has been
getting at some of this), I think this conception of
real-science-objectivity is not tenable. The weak case, which I have
already made, is that i cannot see it as applying to the world of
social phenomena (the general social processes that concern us all
here). Howard, your question (in your 12/30 posting) is indeed to the
point: when I say that causal structures (and I mean social such
structures: I'm not talking about the structure that gives rise to
hurricanes, for example--but more on that later) are not mind
independent, I am not adopting the Humean standpoint (that, indeed,
would be to take as given the 'modernist'--essentialist, and a number
of other 'ists' could be added--separation of the real from the
thought); I am indeed saying that you can't separate the way things
work (e.g., market exchange, and hence the 'law of value,' etc. )
from the way we (I don't mean you, or I singly, but 'broad
collections of people') think. You say I didn't explain the point: I
mean simply that something like Marx's law of value, or market
exchange in general, does not exist without there being general
cultural patterns (Jack Amariglio and I wrote an article some time
ago on commodity fetishism where we identified some such patterns:
private property, a culture of quantification, a notion of
individuality; there has been a lot of other pertinent work done by
anthropologists on exchange as well; and both Jack and i could
probably expand on the earlier work now). Now, I have been
distinguishing all along between the interpretation of any one person
and these broad cultural patterns: hence, I have no problem saying
that 'market processes' exist independently of any one person's
interpretation (practical and/or theoretical); but i do think that,
if there were a broad cultural change in the notion of the private,
for example, market processes would also change (and viceversa as
well, although not in any way that could reasonably be expected to be
knowable before hand). I agree with your invocation of Hegel (" Hegel
says a flung stone belongs to the devil and the meaning here is
surely that once we act our actions are subject to forces we do not
control"); i think social processes are subject to forces "we do not
control," but i'd add the qualification that we do not control them
as "individuals," because i think that indeed social processes are
controlled (but I'd say, shaped/influenced) by "us" socially,
collectively--unless somehow socialism/communism/capitalism were
reduced to a law of nature (and I think there have been such
temptations),  I don't see how we can posit social structure as being
beyond our control. (It is still possible to say that social
structures have an objective existence if 'objective' here means
independent of any one person's interpretation, and if objective also
includes an acknowledgement of the impact of 'natural' forces, etc.,
but not if objective means that these structures have an existence
independent of general mind phenomena. The referent here, for
'objective', has to be 'social' (and hence socially/culturally
constructed) not something independent along the lines of the
mind/real split. Jurriaan's example the uncle ("If Bob's your uncle,
Bob's your uncle even if nobody knows that Bob's your uncle.") seems
to me to make the point as well. I think that the category "uncle" is
a social category, and if nobody knew that Bob was my uncle, he
indeed wouldn't be my "uncle." (There could still be some genetic
link between me and Bob--but that's not a social relationship; and I
also have something to say about 'objectivity' in the scope of
natural science below).

This general argument, I think, also pertains to your question about
the definition of 'commodities.' When you say that "We want to use
definition in science not to decide how we shall use words, but in an
effort to pick out causally potent features of the world so that we
can accommodate our practice to them," I think that Resnick and Wolff
would agree with you, in a way; and what they are saying (in my
reading) is that their way of interpreting what a 'commodity is" (and
their way of reading the history of the Soviet Union) is very
important for a proper understanding of our possibilities for
building non-capitalist social structures. There is a connection
between the mind and the real, but the mind in question is a
collective one, and the real in question is a social one.  I would
not say that the fact that you define the commodity in one way and
they define it in a different way means that you can't have a
conversation (or even produce knowledge) about it, and all the
matters related to it. To my mind, it means, on the contrary, that
you can have a richer conversation (and produce a richer knowledge),
if .... my earlier point: i think that, on any particular point
(other than the point of methodology itself) your differences are
best handled on substantive grounds, not methodological ones.

Now (wow, that's a long paragraph),, I said above that that was the
'weak' argument. The 'strong' argument I will now add (and I'll have
to preface it by saying that I do not claim the expertise/voice here
that I hold more confidently with respect to the issue of social
structures) is that, in my understanding, the notion of objectivity
that the critics of postmodernism seem (to me) to be using is/may-be
untenable (or questionable) even when it comes to nature. I am
referring here not only to Heisenberg's original formulation of the
uncertainty principle (that you can know either the position of a
particle or its direction, but not both) but also to lots of other
experiments/theories since then that seem to question the very
independence of matter from thought ( a recent article in the science
section of the December 27 New York Times, "Quantum trickery: testing
Einstein's Strangest Theory," outlines the theories and experiments).
In practice, scientists have chosen to ignore this, but it seems to
me that the existence of
  these theories/experiments undermines any philosophical defense of
something "real" in the objectivist (mind independent) terms that I
have been discussing.  Some scientists do not like the implications
of these developments (but only on practical and philosophical
grounds; they can't quarrel with them as a matter of logic or
experimentation as i understand things); but that's not a standard on
which to base a defense of "objectivist real" as anything that has
structure. I myself don't mind it: I don't mind it for Marxism, which
argued/s that we make the world (not as individuals, of course, and
not under circumstances of our choosing--for the circumstances always
involve us in relationships with others we can only partially
control) but collectively (through dialogue, negotiations, politics,
class relations, etc. etc.: overdetermination).

Well. I think i want to stop here. This is a long long e-mail. I
should have been working on my upcoming class. I don't know that I
can continue this at this level of intensity myself; but I look
forward to seeing and learning from whatever responses I might get


>In this post I resopnd to Antonio's points in his post of 12/25 about
>Antonio offers a 'minimalist' definition of a commodity as something
>produced by someone for exchange.  I recognize this is informal, but it
>works for the point that there can be communist commodities, so perhaps it
>is worth emphasizing that as stated it is too minimalist.  As Engels makes
>clear in the last paragraph to section 1 of Capital (and Marx, e.g. in the
>Kugelmann letter), a commodity must be offered for *private* exchange.  This
>actually pushes the question of definition back a step, of course, but at
>some point we're going to want to be precise about what kind of social
>structures underly and give rise to exchange.  Anyway, if adding "private"
>to the definition is not to defeat the idea of communism with commodities,
>then this must be because communism is consistent with private exchange.  (I
>haven't read Resnick and Wolff's book on the Soviet Union -- I hope I can do
>so soon, but I can't turn to it now, so I will have to rely on your reports
>of it, Antonio.)
>Also problematic is what place definition ought to have in social theory.
>Antonio writes:  "So it seems to me that your difficulty here is not with
>the matter of a consistent definition of a commodity.  You have one and they
>have another . . . ."
>But how is this difference to be resolved?  Resnick and Wolff write in
>Knowledge and Class (p.32), "It is not sensible in and for Marxist theory,
>to imagine or seek after any absolute criteria of an absolute truth.  Truths
>are intra-theoretic rather than intertheoretic; they are in a very
>particular sense, relative to the theories in which they are constructed."
>If I read this right this means there isn't any argument at all because
>we're just talking past one another.  They have their truth and I have mine
>and that's that.  But that can't be right.  I agree truth claims are
>relative to the theories in which they are constructed, but their truth
>depends on the way the world is, not the theories.  We want to use
>definition in science not to decide how we shall use words, but in an effort
>to pick out causally potent features of the world so that we can accommodate
>our practice to them.  We try to give an account of how they persist as what
>they are and how they behave so we can take the steps materially required to
>transform them.  The fact that our interpretations are always a product of
>our understandings and that these always reflect difference of standpoint,
>etc., by no means makes the things understood standpoint malleable.
>The neo-cons, I recall, had the idea that reality in Iraq was up to them to
>Perhaps I have oversimplified.  I for one would welcome a much broader
>discussion of postmodern materialism across the range of issues presented on
>the list.

Antonio Callari
Sigmund M. and Mary B. Hyman Professor of Economics
F&M Local Economy Center
P.O. Box 3003
713 College Avenue
Lancaster PA 17604-3003
phone: (717) 291-3947
FAX:  (717) 291-4369

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