Re: [OPE-L] Anita's Chocolate Cake

From: Stephen Cullenberg (stephen.cullenberg@UCR.EDU)
Date: Tue Nov 08 2005 - 20:55:23 EST


Thanks for your reply and nice example of Anita's Chocolate Cake.  By emphasizing Anita's labor in the production of the cake, I think you've extended my example.  Some might say that your extension is evidence of layers, or levels, of causality, but I would resist that.  You've added to the complexity of the event (the cake) that I first specified, but that does not to my mind mean that you have added another level (more primary? you didn't say that exactly, but many would) of causality.  You've asked a lot of hypothetical questions and shown a certain a priori bias, some of which seem so obvious that to deny them would seem ridiculous (an in grown toenail vs. heart disease).  But to really explain the (differential) effect of each of the examples or conditions of existence that you mention would require an empirical analysis, one which could lead to potential surprise, and recognize the importance of variation or difference.  I would suggest that our insistence on one or another condition of existence as "more important" than another is a political or aesthetic choice and not an ontological one.  Ontology cannot tell what aspect(s) of reality or social life we want to change, only we can do that.

Let me ask you a question in return.  Granted Anita's labor is one of the constitutive elements in the making of the cake, but so too is flour.  If I told you that the flour used in Anita's cake was bought from a large national wholesaler, etc., etc., would that extension of the conditions of existence of the cake be any more or less important than the extension you much more vividly detailed?  Perhaps more important for the politics of labor or exploitation, but any more important for the constitution of the cake?

Interstingly, my example of the cake can also be found in Lewontin, Rose and Kamin's Not in Our Genes, and I think is consistent with the overall approach of Lewontin and Levins in their Dialectical Biologist (by no means am I trying to imply that they are postmodernists, but I do think their approach is close to what I think).

There is a nice review in the May 2005 MR of Dialectical Biologist:  Dialectical Nature: Reflections in Honor of the Twentieth Anniversary of Levins and Lewontin’s The Dialectical Biologist by Brett Clark and Richard York.  If I could just quote from part of the review, I think Clark and York capture well what I have called constitutive causality and provided a hint of the scientific approach of experimentation or cause and effect that Ian has supported.

"A dialectical stance is essential in order to understand the material world in terms of its own becoming: recognizing that history is open, contingent, and contradictory. In a time when ruling-class ideology permeates every pore of the social world and genetic explanations reign as justifications for social differences and inequalities, the work of Lewontin, Levins, and Gould liberates scientific research and social knowledge from the social constructs of “bad science.”

In The Dialectical Biologist, Levins and Lewontin reject one-sided notions of mechanical reductionism and superorganic holism (common in ecology) and the hierarchical conceptions of life and the universe that they both generate. In presenting their approach, they critique both idealism and reductionism within the natural sciences. Instead Levins and Lewontin argue for a dialectical and materialist approach that understands that the world “is constantly in motion. Constants become variables, causes become effects, and systems develop, destroying the conditions that gave rise to them” (279). The universe is one of change due to existing and evolving contradictions, which force transformation in the conditions of the world. “Things change because of the actions of opposing forces on them, and things are the way they are because of the temporary balance of opposing forces” (280). "

Perhaps we could talk about what is right or wrong with Lewontin and Levins rather than the more loaded term postmodernism, because for me they come very close to how I think.

BTW, I fully understand Paul Z.'s concern and am happy for the list to move on to more pressing topics.


OK, let's consider this example more.  To begin with, the "ingredients" for the cake
not only include those you mentioned.  Making a cake is a productive and re-
productive activity.  One therefore has to include labor activity as an ingredient.
To do that, one must recognize that the baker, as the creator of the cake,  is also
constitutive of the cake.  To the extent that the cake is a product created by
an individual baker, then all matters which are constitutive of the individual baker
are also constitutive of the cake.
With this as background, let us see whether it is or is not possible to rank
an individual factor in the creation of the cake as more or less causally important
and having a greater or lesser explanatory power as all other factors.
Suppose the chocolate cake is being made by Anita De Los Santos, a chef
in Caracas who grew up in a wealthy family in  San Juan, Puerto Rico,  and
was trained at a famous culinary school in Paris.  Her specialty is pastries.
Do you want more detail?  OK.  Anita has been a feminist since she was in
her teens.  When she first became a socialist in 1975,  her role models were
Lolita Lebron and Rosa Luxemburg.  She has three children (2 girls and 1 boy,
ages 4, 7, 9),  is divorced, and is 48-years-old.   She moved to Caracas 2 years
ago in order to support the Bolivarian Revolution.  Although a  socialist and a
feminist, she is also a devout Catholic and supporter of Liberation Theology.
She attends church every Sunday.  The cake that she made is for a birthday
party for her 7-year-old,  Mariarosa.
Anita, being a middle-aged person, has various health problems, including
an in-grown toenail, dandruff, and heart disease (she had a mini-stroke a
year ago).
I could provide more detail if you wish.
As planned, Anita returns from work in the evening and bakes the
chocolate cake for Mariarosa.   The date:  Wednesday, November 5,
Now, is it or is it not possible that some of the above factors are more or
less causally important in the constitution of the cake?
I'm going to stick my neck out and say that the fact that Anita has an
in-grown toenail is probably of  little importance in the baking of the
cake?  Do you agree?
I'll also go out on a limb and add that for the constitution of Anita
herself,  the fact that she has heart disease and had a stroke is
more important (and has greater explanatory power in considering her
overall health condition) than the fact that she has dandruff and an in-
grown toenail.  Do you agree?
I'll further stick my neck out and claim that the proportion in which
she added sugar, flour, milk, eggs, water and chocolate has greater
explanatory power in considering the outcome (the quality of the
cake) than the fact that she at one point in her life wanted to grow
up to be like Lolita Lebron.  Do you agree?
I'll further stick out my neck and assert that what temperature she
cooked the cake and for how long has greater explanatory power for
considering the outcome than the fact that Anita is a Catholic who
goes to church on Sundays.  Do you agree?
I'' further claim that the skill she acquired as a chef having trained at
a Parisian culinary school is now more important in terms of  the quality
of the cake than the fact that Anita is divorced.  Do you agree?
Now, I will agree with you that it is difficult or impossible to develop a
legitimate _scale_ for accurately and quantitatively ranking all of the factors
(direct and indirect) that went into the baking of the cake.  _Despite that_,
I still think it's possible in some legitimate but unscientific way to attach
greater or lesser causal importance to some variables.  Do you agree?
In solidarity, Jerry

Stephen Cullenberg             
Professor of Economics       
University of California          
Riverside, CA 92521            

Office:  951-827-1573
Fax:      951-787-5685

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