Re: [OPE-L] Overdetermination & Science

From: Ian Wright (wrighti@ACM.ORG)
Date: Mon Jan 02 2006 - 20:45:14 EST


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

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

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,


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