From: Ian Wright (wrighti@ACM.ORG)
Date: Mon Jan 02 2006 - 20:45:14 EST
Antonio Thanks for your very interesting posts. Thanks for getting involved in the discussion. I note your general remarks about the context of this debate, with which I agree. Indeed, the debate between postmodernism and realism animates me precisely because I think it is fundamental and important. > 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. It depends what you mean by "independent". In one sense, it's obvious that the law of value is dependent on social actors for its operation, in the same sense that the laws of chemistry are dependent on the laws of physics for their operation. I don't think any critical realist would deny this. > 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 I'm not sure either I or Howard have denied this. > 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). The fact that the social architecture of capitalism is implemented via the minds and actions of social actors is, of course, a condition of possibility of social change. Yes of course, although atoms don't revolt against the laws of chemistry, people do revolt against the laws of the market. However, the crucial postmodernist claim that I object to (made for example by Resnick and Wolff in Howard's original post -- this from memory, so apologies in advance if incorrect) is that there is no method, in principle, by which different theories of those market processes can be rationally judged or compared; that there is no fact of the matter, independent of our theories of it. Now I'm not sure now whether you would agree with Resnick and Wolff on this point or not, given that you have `no problem saying that 'market processes' exist independently of any one person's interpretation'. All that follows below is essentially steps toward an argument for why this particular relativist claim is wrong. > I don't see how we can posit social structure as being > beyond our control. No they are not beyond our control. But we need to understand their real essences in order to effectively control and change them. A philosophy that denies real essences, or denies the objective existence of social mechanisms, seems to me to be methodologically incapable of building correct theories of such mechanisms and hence incapable of effectively contributing to projects of social change. > (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 independence of social mechanisms from mind is a condition of possibility of social sciences separate from psychology. Again, more on this below -- but the idea of ontological stratification, and relative independence of ontological levels explains the historical stratification of science; otherwise, the historical stratification of science into different fields is mere accident or lacks explanation. Antonio, for sake of keeping thing's short, I won't address your invocation of quantum mechanics to argue that reality is not independent of thought. I think it weakens your argument. The invocation of quantum mechanics to buttress irrealist positions is unwise post-Sokal. Anyhow, I think we can make some progress, because many of the things you say I have no quarrel with. Let me now try to explain how I understand social mechanisms to be "objective". I am not an expert in the philosophy of social science, so I'm sure others could do a much better job. The reductionist "billiard ball" model of causality, which I don't think anyone holds now, is essentially the idea that there is a "bottom level" in the ontological hierarchy at which cause and effect "really" happen. This is old-school materialism, in which everything is reducible to atoms. The postmodern claim that the social sciences cannot escape the hermeneutical circle is a similar form of reductionism. The difference is only that instead of a special "bottom level" there is now a special "top level" in the ontological hierarchy -- in this case consciousness. For example, since only minds think about and perform economic operations, the law of value cannot be an objective mechanism, cannot have existence independent of consciousness. Everything is reducible to consciousness. But in my understanding of reality, including social reality, not only is there no bottom or top level, the levels have emergent causal powers that are not reducible to each other. For example, the social architecture of capitalism, is an ontological level that supervenes on individual minds, but is not reducible to such minds, and partially controls the contents of those minds. Marx, as you know, views social actors in Capital as mere "masks" of the social roles they take. He gives the example that the contents of the consciousness of the individual capitalist is partially caused by the social relations of capitalism. Here's an example of a supervenient layer feeding back on a "lower" layer, how not all explanations are reducible to consciousness. > The discussion about overdetermination/postmodernism/ etc. etc. seems > to be to be about the question of whether the "social" can be > understood as independent of consciousness/mind writ large--and > whether, therefore, there are "objective" deep structures which can be > identified and accessed independently of theoretical/cultural > considerations/positions. > That could well be a "market" structure. This structure is not > independent (nor can it be correctly thought of as being independent) > of a number of issues of consciousness: To understand the relative independence of social phenomena, such as economic phenomena, from mind, it helps to distinguish between horizontal independence between ontological levels and vertical dependence in an ontological hierarchy. (i) Vertical dependence The prima facie persuasiveness of the claim that social phenomena cannot be "identified and accessed independently of theoretical/cultural considerations/positions" rests, I think, on the existence of vertical dependence. Just as chemistry depends on physics, social relations depend on minds. These ontological levels are vertically dependent on each other. Without people there are no markets. Absent beliefs and intentions about commodities, money, prices etc. there cannot be economic transactions etc. The social relation of market exchange is a mechanism that is implemented via individual minds and through their actions. Similarly, without physics -- no chemistry. (ii) Horizontal independence But although a "higher" ontological level may depend for its implementation on a "lower" ontological level, the higher level is not reducible to it -- there are emergent ontologies and causal powers, that is supervenient novelty, which must be explained independently of the level of implementation. Chemistry is relatively independent from physics -- has its own objects and methods of inquiry, it's own results etc. Similarly for the relation between social science and psychology. For example -- no individual wills a division of labour, but the market mechanism distributes price signals that continually constructs one. This mechanism has real causal powers and real effects. More importantly, the law of value partially *controls* individual consciousness -- it distributes income constraints over individuals that narrow the range of subjective pricing decisions they may make. > The fact that the relations are empirically observable (even if one > could ever divorce an observation from theoretical frameworks being > used) does not mean that these relations are "objective" in the sense > of being independent of the realm of culture/consciousness. The social relations may be empirically observable, but the transfactually existing social mechanisms that reproduce those relations need not be, and often are not. On a realist ontology although the existence of the law of value is partially implemented via minds and individual actions, for it requires some minimal cognitive contents, such as knowledge regarding money, exchange etc., it is nonetheless a mechanism independent of our thoughts and theories of it. For example, market exchange has been in operation for a long time, but our understanding of it has either been absent or changed over that time. Nonetheless it has (partially) controlled and caused the division of labour in the essentially the same way. The law of value, just like the law of gravity, operates absent our theoretical knowledge of it. As Marx famously mentions, if appearance coincided with essence there'd be no need for science. What is the science of political economy if not a particular kind of work to uncover the hidden social mechanisms that control our lives? What are we doing when we say that a particulary economic theory is a better explanation of a particular phenomena than another? This is a bit rushed, so apologies for bad constructions and repetition. I am trying to say that our social actions instantiate self-reproducing, supervenient mechanisms that exist independent of our thoughts about them. Consider a Mexican wave in a football stadium -- it's real essence is described by the wave equation, yet is implemented via individual minds and actions. Is the wave real? Yes. Will it collapse when everyone goes home? Yes. If Resnick and Wolff had two different theories of the Mexican wave, could they compare them, and decide whether one was true and one false? -- Yes! But from what I understand of postmodernist Marxism (which is not a great deal), it seems to me that the reality of the situation is inverted: that claim I have read is that the wave has no real essence because the two different theories are implicated in the social construction of the wave. The theories are incommensurable because they construct the object they refer to. No, this is wrong, and will lead to a degeneration of social science in the direction of an empiricism of ideology. Best wishes, -Ian.
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