[OPE-L] When is Bob your uncle?

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Thu Jan 05 2006 - 12:36:31 EST

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for your comment and I don't obviously want this discussion to
degenerate into some kind of trivial pursuit, and I have noticed that
kinship appelations can convey different sort of meanings (e.g. in Irish or
Maori culture). I don't have a lot of personal experience of American
culture. My cousin might be my cousin, but also not my cousin, and so on. In
English idiom, you say "sugar daddy" for example, and in Dutch you say
"suiker oompje" (sugar-uncle). Nevertheless I believe anthropologists,
statisticians and demographers do have some standard conventions to describe
kinship relations objectively and universally.

I worked on an official statistical classification of household and family
arrangements once (without fully resolving the issue), the argument being
that the standard classification was biased, because e.g. it did not make
explicit same-sex relationships and assimilated these relationships to other
categories. You might think this is all relatively straightforward stuff,
but goodness when you try to measure that, there's a lot of issues to
consider; the good old nuclear family just isn't so prevalent as you might
think, and there are all sorts of curious permutations out there.
Nevertheless, you have this task of quantifying these kinship structures in

Question then is, to what extent is my postulated "structure" objectively
real, and to what extent is it an artifact of survey design or of a
theoretical presupposition? But practically you cannot easily solve that
with a theoretical generality, you have to get quite specific, and figure
out what you can validly measure. In that sense, I am always a bit
suspicious of Althusser's "theoretical practice", and through many mistakes
and some successes, I acquired a different idea about how theory is, or
ought to be, formed, if that is the task. Althusserianism is good, I think,
if it gets us to "think structure" and to the way issues are specifically
problematised, but if it is just theory theorising itself, I'm afraid
nothing much will get solved.

Isaac Deutscher suggested once in an essay, that Marxism was about coming to
grips with large, specific issues affecting humanity, and in his book on
Stalin, that Marx provided a convenient "toolkit" for radical thinkers to
frame the "big(ger) picture" about society. But actually that implies a lot
of research work beyond theorising, since if the issue is not only specific
but also large, there's lots to find out. The categories we use, have to
interact with the empirical material to see how they specifically apply. And
so I am always a bit hesitant about talking about these epistemological or
ontological questions, because I tend to think they do not really permit of
a "general" answer, you have to look at a specific problem, the abstraction
has to be an abstraction from something tangible.

It seems that after Marx formed his materialist interpretation of history,
he had little interest anymore in general questions of epistemology and
ontology, regarding them as mainly scholastic; problems of knowledge were to
be resolved through practical inquiry - whether or not we could know
something, became a practical question, it could not be resolved simply by
theorising in general. As we discussed before, this does not however rule
out philosophy, because creative philosophy can provide useful insight and
correctives with regard to the processes of abstraction and specification
that we use.

Engels commented though that "Ideology is a process accomplished by the
so-called thinker. Consciously, it is true, but with a false awareness. The
real motivating forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it
simply would not be an ideological process at all. Hence, he imagines false
or ostensible motivating forces." The suggestion here is that ideological
thought lacks objectivity, precisely because it works over only
"thought-material", without tracing the origin of ideas in practical life
and showing the real connection between what exists, and how this is
perceived. It is thought in some sense profoundly disconnected from the real
context to which it refers. In that case, "theoretical practice" could just
as easily become an 'intellectual ideology" and perhaps - as Althusser
sometimes suggests, it partly always is (calling into question any easy
demarcation of science from ideology).

In reply to Howard, I don't think Marx argued for a unified science in
general, he argued for a unified science of human history, but in any case I
wonder to what extent this is meaningful, since it would assume some kind of
grandiose, shared scientific consensus... we can see what happens if
everybody has to swear by "dialectical materialism"...


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