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 difference. 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, -Ian.
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