Re: [OPE-L] Derrida's ghosts

From: Ian Wright (wrighti@ACM.ORG)
Date: Mon Nov 07 2005 - 13:56:37 EST

Hi Steve,

Not too surprisingly, I disagree with your basic ontology. Let me try
to explain why. However, I think we are quite far apart, so I'm not
sure the exchange would be very productive -- so I understand if you
do not wish to engage.

An important feature of scientific labour that distinguishes it from
other kinds of activity is the experimental method, which is
theoretically-informed practical engagement with the world. Social
science appears to differ from the physical sciences because we have
less power to construct controlled experimental situations. So often
we construct models, and experiment with them as proxies. This is an
extra level of indirection, so there are more opportunities for error
and bias. But at this level of abstraction, there is not much

The interesting question that Bhaskar asks, in a Realist Theory of
Science, is: What must the world be like in order for experimental
activity to be possible? Without expanding on the full argument, the
answer he gives is that there must be a sharp distinction between
causal agents, or mechanisms, and the events they generate. That's
because the aim of an experiment is to remove as many of the multiple
causes of empirical events as possible, in order to isolate and
understand the causal powers of underlying mechanisms. For example,
Mendel controlled for accidental pollination in order to reveal the
mechanism of inheritance; Ricardo controlled for supply and demand in
an attempt to reveal the mechanism of a real cost structure, etc.
Scientific labour, to be possible at all, requires that reality be
stratified, have hidden depth. Scientific work occurs; hence reality
is stratified.

Given this, we can make sense of the historical separation of science
into distinct fields, which can be ranked when trying to explain the
pattern of events we empirically notice. Some mechanisms are more
important and pervasive than others, more deep: gravity is the obvious
example, as it constrains all activity on the earth, although it does
not determine it.

Are more interesting example of the ranking of mechanisms and causes
is Marxist theory. For example, Marx spent most of his life studying
economics at a high level of abstraction because his theory of
historical materialism maintained that economic mechanisms constrain
what may possibly happen in civil society and politics. In an
important sense, therefore, an understanding of economic mechanisms is
more important for the purposes of a radical critique of society,
than, say, an analysis of the opinions of great political figures.
Economics constrains, but undertermines, social life.
The reason Marx wants to abolish classes, and raises it as the most it
as the most important political goal, is not because it is desirable
in itself, not because Marxists subjectively decide this is a good
thing, but because it is the most important cause of many of the ills
in society.

We can argue about that theory. But my feeling is that postmodernism
writers in general do not understand the difference between an
experimental approach to knowledge generation and a speculative
approach. They don't understand the unique features of scientific
labour. So the concrete labour of astrology is not much different from
the concrete labour of an astronomer. The theoretical claims of one
group in society have equal status to any other etc. Postmodern
relativism, in this sense, is an attack on scientific labourers.

Best wishes,


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