Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: March 2005

Soundtrack to Development?

I went to a community festival in Whittlesea this weekend, in part to see how the Whittlesea Council was using the event to promote sustainable practices, and in part to see how VicUrban was using the event to advertise its new Aurora development. I won’t go into detail about the visit here, but the highlight was wandering into the VicUrban promotional area and seeing, alongside a model of stage one of the Aurora site, Aurora marketing materials, and VicUrban staff promoting the development to potential residents, a platform in which a singer was performing – at a volume that must have posed some difficulties for the nearby marketing staff, and standing in front of a VicUrban banner and the Aurora insignia – “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”

It was one of these weird moments I’m honestly not sure how to interpret. Was it an example of postmodern self-referential ironic marketing? Did someone actually approve the performance of this particular song, even though Aurora is a greenfield development, assuming that the development’s environmental intentions made the song a good choice? Was the singer actually not part of the VicUrban entourage, but had the fate of performing that particular song under that particular corporate banner?

I suppose I’ll never know…

Dichotomy of Enlightenment?

I wanted to conclude this series of posts on Bent Flyvbjerg’s work with a brief discussion of his analysis of Habermas and Foucault. To many social theorists with a critical orientation, Foucault and Habermas appear to represent the key theoretical paths available to social critique. It is therefore common for a theorist to choose either Habermas or Foucault, with Habermasian theorists insisting that Foucault lapses into nihilism, and Foucaultian theorists asserting that Habermas advocates an oppressive consensus that leaves no room for difference. Flyvbjerg falls on the Foucaultian side of this theoretical divide, and I will suggest below that this choice causes him to miss some of Habermas’ core strengths and understate some of Foucault’s core weaknesses. A less partisan approach to both theorists, I suggest, might lead beyond a simple choice between the two, and onto a more adequate conception of critical theory.

Flyvbjerg criticises Habermas for seeking universal normative standards as the basis for his critical social theory. Flyvbjerg cites Habermas’ concept of the ideal speech situation – Habermas’ contention that, as beings who engage in communicative practice, all humans universally and necessarily understand the potential for the development of uncoerced consensus achieved by free and equal participants engaged in rational communication.

Flyvbjerg objects to this concept on two levels: he argues, first, that Habermas’ ideal speech situation can never be fully realised in practice – that power is always already present in any communication – and that Habermas’ approach therefore necessarily involves a gap between “is” and “ought”, between ideal and practice; he argues, next, that the actual realisation of the ideal speech situation – with its aim of universal consensus – would necessarily be oppressive in that it would suppress the inherent difference and diversity that always characterises all human communities. Flyvbjerg goes on to claim that Habermas’ approach involves a completely uncritical appropriation of modernity, while it leaves Habermas blind to the reality of power relations in contemporary society.

These are very common criticisms of Habermas from a Foucaultian approach, and yet they represent fundamental misunderstandings of the strategic intent of Habermas’ theoretical claims. By exploring that strategic intent a little more closely, it should be possible to assess Habermas’ work in a more balanced light, appreciating his insights, as well as developing a more targeted critique of the weaknesses of his approach.

Contrary to Flyvbjerg’s assertions, Habermas’ theory is not weakened by the observation that an ideal speech situation can never be realised in social practice, nor is it challenged by the observation that power relations will always exist in any human interaction. Similarly, Habermas does not seek to achieve universal consensus as some kind of prescriptive social ideal. Critiques based on the notion that universal consensus would be oppressive are therefore somewhat beside the point.

Instead, the strategic intent of Habermasian concepts such as that of an ideal speech situation, or of different action orientations that social actors can assume toward one another in a speech situation, is to demonstrate that all humans have access to critical forms of perception and thought, which they can then direct against the power relations embodied in existing social institutions, practices, and ideologies. The important thing for Habermas is not whether we can attain an ideal speech situation in our social practice: it is whether, as social actors, we can conceptualise what an ideal speech situation would be, if one could exist – whether we have been exposed to some form of perception and thought that introduces us to concepts of freedom, equality, absence of coercion, intersubjective agreement, and other normative standards Habermas brings to bear in his social critique.

Habermas’ intent is explicitly counter-factual: he believes that, if he can demonstrate that we have access to these critical forms of perception and thought, he can then account for the possibility that a social critique of an existing social institution might emerge – that people might declare that a particular social institution is, in fact, riddled with objectionable power relations – while still remaining within the boundaries of a secular, materialist social scientific analysis that does not appeal to religious sensibilities.

From this perspective, when Flyvbjerg’s dismissively criticises Habermas against Rorty’s claim that the “‘cash value’ of Habermas’ notions of discourse ethics and communicative rationality consists of the familiar political freedoms of modern pluralist democracy” (p. 98), Flyvbjerg demonstrates how poorly he grasps Habermas’ strategic intent. For this is precisely what Habermas sets out to do: to explain, in secular terms, how these “familiar political freedoms” have come to feel so familiar – often in spite of their flagrant contradiction to the practical power relations we experience in our everyday social life. Regardless of how we evaluate Habermas’ attempt to account for the historical emergence of these values – and I am very critical of Habermas’ account – the key question Habermas raises must somehow be addressed by any critical social theory that seeks to be consistent, to explain the possibility for the emergence of critical sensibilities, just as it also explains the possibility for the emergence of power relations in contemporary society.

Where Habermas can be validly criticised, I would argue, is over his failure to achieve this goal without appealing to fundamentally asocial mechanisms for inculcating critical forms of perception and thought. For, although Habermas avoids religious or metaphysical foundations for critique, and thereby remains in the purview of “materialism” in the broadest sense, he does not truly provide an account of the emergence of fully historical and socialised critical forms of perception and thought. Instead, he offers an account of how potentials that were “always already” embedded in the logic of communication – in human speech acts as such – were historically realised under particular social conditions. Having been realised, however – and this is crucial for the resistance-oriented character of Habermas’ theory – these critical potentials can never completely be extinguished. Instead, the critical potentials embedded in the fundamental logic of human communication stand, in Habermas’ account, somehow outside of the ebb and flow of society and history – like Kantian a prioris, categories in terms of which humanity judges historically specific forms of domination and abuses of power, but not categories that are formed completely in and through a particular historical form of social life.

Flyvbjerg of course also criticises Habermas for his lack of historical specificity and, in light of his similar critique, the distinction I am drawing here may seem pedantic. The “payoff”, however, can be seen when examining Flyvbjerg’s uncritical appropriation of Foucault.

Flyvbjerg appropriates Foucault as a model for an analysis of power relations, and for an understanding of the relationship between power relations and forms of knowledge. He approves of Foucault’s consistently historical genealogical method, and cites Foucault’s meta-theoretical statements to prove that that Foucault does not regard himself as somehow outside or above the history and the power relations he analyses, but rather as operating on the same historically and socially specified plane of existence. Flyvbjerg therefore rejects the Habermasian critique that Foucault is relativistic – arguing in reply that Foucault has never believed that “anything goes” (p. 99), nor advocated “value freedom” ala Weber (p. 126). He finally cites Foucault’s belief that thought provides freedom for critical forms of perception and thought, arguing (p. 127):

For Foucault, “[t]hought is freedom in relation to what one does”. Thought is not what inhabits a certain conduct and gives it meaning. Thought is, rather, what allows one to step back from this conduct an to “question its meaning, its conditions, and its goals”. Thus thought is the motion by which one detaches oneself from what one does and “reflects on it as a problem”. Thought is the ability to think differently in order to act differently. Thought defined in this manner – as reflexive thought aimed at action – stands at the core of Foucault’s ethics, which, then, is an ethics antithetical to any type of “thought-police”. Reflexive thought is therefore the most important “intellectual virtue” for Foucault, just as for Aristotle it is phronesis.

In this account, where Habermas is at least seeking to account for the forms of perception and thought that appear to underlie the democratic institutions and ideals of modernity, Foucault appears to be postulating a generic human capacity for critical thought, as such. If Habermas’ approach falls short of a fully historical critical theory by grounding critical forms of perception and thought in specific attributes of human communication, how much shorter must Foucault’s approach fall, when it appears to ground critical forms of subjectivity in the completely decontextualised and oddly Cartesian move: I think, therefore I critique.

Both approaches – contrary to the assertions of advocates on either side – fail to take seriously the possibility that, just as we can analyse specific types of domination by embedding them in their historical context, so might we also be able to analyse our specific normative standards – those forms of perception and thought that enable us to perceive power relations as dominating in a specific way, as abrogations of a particular type of potential freedom – by embedding those in their historical context.

From this perspective, Habermas at least recognises the need to account for his own critical sensibilities, even if he fears relativism too much to account for these sensibilities in fully historical and social terms. And Foucault at least recognises the potential for a fully social and historical form knowledge, even if he does not fully understand the need to account for the emergence of critical sensibilities.

Yet these two halves do not quite combine to make a theoretical whole: for that, I would argue, we need a fully historical critical theory, one which would provide a consistently historical account of how our shared form of social life can generate specific forms of domination, together with the potential for particular kinds of freedom. It is through an exploration of this alternative vision of critical theory, I would suggest, that we will come closest to realising Flyvbjerg’s goal of achieving a future that points beyond the domination of objectivist and instrumental rationality, and toward the realisation of a shared social life governed by a more substantive form of reason.

The Social Structure of Scientific Revolutions?

In the previous two posts on 11 March and 12 March, I’ve provided fairly extensive commentary on Bent Flyvbjerg’s approach to historically-grounded critical theory. My core critique is set out in these earlier entries. Here, and in the entry to follow, I intend only to sketch out a couple of placeholders for other issues raised by Flyvbjerg’s book, issues that I hope to be able to pursue at greater length over time. In this entry, I wanted to take up the thread of Flyvbjerg’s understanding of the relationship between the natural and social sciences.

I have argued previously that, while Flyvbjerg criticises the transcendence of objectivist and instrumental forms of reason, he seems to treat this transcendence as a type of conceptual error — a flaw of reasoning that can potentially be corrected by better thinking (in this case, by an appropriation of the Aristotelian concept of phronesis as a counter-balance to keep other forms of reason in check). I have also suggested that a fully consistent historical social critique would move beyond this line of argument, to explain both the appeal of the concept of phronesis (if this is the ethical value the critical theory wishes to wield), as well as the appeal of objectivist and instrumental forms of reason. I have argued that Flyvbjerg doesn’t fully perceive the need for these final steps, and therefore falls short of providing an adequate basis for a consistent historical social critique. Here, I wish to explore some of the implications of this failure for his understanding of the relationship between the natural and social sciences.

When Flyvbjerg discusses the relationship between the social and natural sciences, he diagnoses the social sciences as suffering from the application of a standard of truth or a mode of reasoning inappropriate to their proper object. The natural sciences, in his account, can validly search for universal, historically and socially invariant, objective, and timeless truths because their object of analysis is inanimate matter, whose properties do not change across time and space. That the natural sciences have based their activities on an appropriate standard of truth and mode of reasoning is evidenced by the fact that – however slowly – these sciences do have succeeded in making cumulative progress in their understanding of the natural world. Even if theorists such as Thomas Kuhn have successfully shown that scientific progress does not proceed precisely as the scientific ideal would have it, still, Flyvbjerg argues, progress is made, and our understanding of, and command over, the material world can meaningfully be said to advance.

The social sciences, by contrast, have failed to make cumulative progress, even while struggling valiantly to apply the same standard of truth and mode of reasoning. The reason, according to Flyvbjerg, is that the social sciences have as their proper object of analysis a very different kind of object – an object that is also a subject, an active agent capable of responding to the theorist, who is in turn embedded in the same historical and social context as the theorised. This special object of analysis is suited to a very different kind of reason and mode of knowledge – which Flyvbjerg expresses through the concept of phronesis, which he understands to mean a kind of reflection on the collective social lessons learned through practical engagement with our shared history.

Without contesting Flyvbjerg’s assertion that there is a meaningful distinction between the natural and the social sciences, I would like to problematise the tacitly naturalistic way Flyvbjerg seeks to account for that distinction’s existence. In Flyvbjerg’s account, the essential distinction relates to the object of analysis: inanimate nature – matter – on the one hand; animate, self-aware humanity, on the other. What is interesting to me about this distinction is that Flyvbjerg’s own historical-genealogical method could be used to raise an interesting question: not all human cultures have divided their experience of the natural and human worlds so starkly as does ours; many cultures have lacked a concept of “matter”, in the specifically modern sense of secularised, objective “stuff”.

I suspect that, if we were to tease out this thread a bit further (and I unfortunately don’t have time to do this here), we could arrive at an interesting understanding of what the social sciences could contribute to the natural sciences: an understanding of how and why the natural sciences came into being, of how and why natural scientific questions and answers remain socially meaningful to us, that would move beyond the notion that these sciences emerged only (to rehearse what is becoming a well-worn theme) as quasi-natural “discoveries” that corrected the poor (religious or superstitious) thinking that preceded them historically.

Such an approach – and, again, I cannot develop this here – would not require a lapse into conceptual anarchy or nihilism. It would simply require an understanding of why scientific knowledge, and the forms of perception and thought that underlie them, resonate so strongly with us – why it is comfortable for us to perceive the natural world in terms of inanimate nature, and to draw a sharp distinction between nature and human social life. This form of understanding is not something, I would suggest, that the natural sciences are likely to provide for themselves – it requires distinctly social scientific (and critical theoretic) forms of historical analysis: an investigation of the socially and historically specific dimensions of our shared culture that makes appeals to objective, timeless truths, on the one hand, and instrumental rationality, on the other, make so much apparent sense to us, in this time and place.

Aside from accounting for the current transcendence of natural scientific and technological approaches, I suspect such an investigation would also cast light on something Kuhn has noticed: the historical periodisation of scientific revolutions. Where Kuhn suggests an explanation for such revolutions that is effective internal to the scientific community, he leaves unexplored the many tantalising connections between shifts in scientific interest – and in the forms of perception and thought that express themselves in the formulation of specific scientific problems and the adoption of specific types of scientific theories – and potentially related shifts in other dimensions of social life.

As I said at the outset, this entry will have to remain in the nature of a placeholder for a future analysis. I have posted this, not so much to criticise Flyvbjerg for not attempting something I am also not prepared to attempt, but to point to a promising potential line of inquiry for a critical theory that would seek to understand the social and historical basis for the transcendence of the natural sciences and the dynamism of technological development in contemporary society.

Beware Greeks Bearing Norms

In this second of four posts on Bent Flyvbjerg, I examine one of his most original contributions to the project of constituting a more historically-grounded social science is his appropriation of the Aristotelian concept of phronesis. By analysing the basis for this appropriation, I hope to cast some light on some of the limitations of Flyvbjerg’s approach as the foundation for an historically-grounded critical theory.

In Flyvbjerg’s account, Aristotle distinguishes between three different forms of knowledge: episteme, concerned with objective, universal truth; techne, concerned with artistic or technical action on nature; and phronesis, a form of contextual, intersubjective knowledge constituted through reflection on shared social experience. Flyvbjerg argues that, while forms of knowledge consistent with episteme (objective and universal truths) and techne (means-end or instrumental rationality) are quite familiar to us and are bound up in our most common definitions of “truth”, the forms of knowledge associated with phronesis have been relatively neglected. Yet it is precisely these forms of contextual, practical knowledge of our shared social experience – which Aristotle associated with the sound exercise of practical ethics and of political life – that provide the best foundation for social scientific practice.

Central to Flyvbjerg’s argument is a contrast between the intrinsic concerns of the natural sciences, technological research, and the social sciences. In Flyvbjerg’s account, it is appropriate that the natural sciences pursue episteme, given the inanimate, invariable quality of the objects these sciences study. It is also appropriate that technological invention pursues techne, given the instrumental character of the manipulation of inanimate nature through technology.

The social sciences, however, study a very different kind of object: an object that is also a subject – self aware human agents who, through their own actions, constitute the shared social environment in which both the theorists and the theorised are embedded. For the study of the collective wisdom constituted through shared social practice, Flyvbjerg argues, the most appropriate form of knowledge and standard of truth is provided by the concept of phronesis. Unfortunately, in Flyvbjerg’s account, the social sciences have instead traditionally measured their worth against the inappropriate standards of episteme and techne – and have thereby devalued the contribution to collective knowledge that the social sciences are uniquely qualified to make.

Flyvbjerg thus advocates a return to the concept of phronesis – and a rejection of the concepts of episteme and techne – as guiding principles against which social scientific inquiry can be measured. Flyvbjerg then puts a critical spin on the Aristotelian concept of phronesis by supplementing it with a Foucaultian analysis of power relations. In Flyvbjerg’s account, adopting the Aristotelian concept of phronesis shows us what kind of knowledge social science appropriately seeks, while wielding Foucault’s historical genealogical techniques reveal the ways in which power relations can structure our socialised perceptions and practices.

The result, in Flyvbjerg’s account, is the social scientific production of practical political knowledge – knowledge that is non-universal, historically-specific, contingent, and subject to change, but that nevertheless offers the only kind of truth available to guide human ethical practice: ethical standards grounded in the lessons we have historically taught ourselves through our shared social practice. Flyvbjerg thus seeks to avoid the antinomy between approaches that seek an absolute truth, on the one hand, and, on the other, approaches that reject the possibility of absolute truth – and therefore abjure truth in its entirety and lapse into a nihilistic relativism that holds value judgments impossible.

This goal – uncovering the possibility of an alternative form of truth “for us”, one which can guide critical practice and ethical judgment without asserting its objective validity for all times and places – is also central to my own work, and I am therefore broadly sympathetic with many of Flyvbjerg’s declared aims. What I wish to do here (and in the blog entries that follow) is to explore whether Flyvbjerg has fully understood what would be entailed in reconstructing a critical social science grounded on this alternative conception of truth. As a starting point, I will examine Flyvbjerg’s appropriation of Aristotle, and ask how this appropriation fits with Flyvbjerg’s stated goal of constructing an historically-specific foundation for social scientific knowledge.

On its face, Flyvbjerg’s leap back into classical antiquity for a core analytical concept appears to be a peculiar strategy for a critical social theory concerned with the historical and social specificity of practical knowledge. If we take seriously the claim that social scientists are grounded in the very society they seek to analyse, it seems counter-intuitive to reach well outside the historical parameters of that society for the ethical standards and concepts of truth in which we intend to ground contemporary social critique.

Flyvbjerg seeks to square this circle by arguing that we must reach outside our current historical period, in order to find examples of alternative approaches to truth, ones that are not dominated by notions of timeless universality or of instrumental reason. Flyvbjerg argues (p. 54):

…many people now believe that alternatives to instrumental rationalism are needed. The precise content of such alternatives, however, remains vague. The Rationalist Turn has been so radical that possible alternatives, which might have existed previously, are beyond our current vision, just as centuries of rationalist socialization seems to have undermined the ability of individuals and society to even conceptualize a nonrationalist present and future.

One way of dealing with this situation is to study the era prior to the Rationalist turn… This strategy inevitably leads back to the Greek philosophers. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are often seen as forefathers of modern science and of present day rationalism. Aristotle, however, distinguished explicitly between several “intellectual virtues”, of which epistemic science, with its emphasis on theories, analysis, and universals, was but one, and not even the most important. Aristotle added intellectual virtues dealing with context, practice, experience, common sense, intuition, and practice wisdom, especially the intellectual virtue named phronesis.

In this account, then, the leap into the past serves as a leap outside our society, whose forms of perception and thought are so dominated by universals and means-end rationality that it is difficult for us to conceive any alternatives to these modes of thought, and into a prior historical period, where very different modes of thought purportedly predominated. In making this leap, we demonstrate the historicity of the forms of thought that characterise contemporary society – we show that these forms of thought have come into being at a particular time and place, under particular circumstances – and we thereby suggest the possibility that these forms of thought could pass away. This possibility then provides the basis for a critique of contemporary society, on the basis that other forms of social life are possible.

This, then, is Flyvbjerg’s vision of an historically-specific critical social theory. But what is it, exactly, that we have historically specified?

I would argue that, if we restrict ourselves to Flyvbjerg’s approach, we have actually completed only half the historicising task. It is worth looking very closely at Flyvbjerg’s reasoning in the passages quoted above: Flyvbjerg first argues that what he calls the “Rationalist Turn” has so influenced our forms of perception and thought that alternatives generated within this society are vague at best. He then seizes a category from a form of society that, he argues, lies outside our current historical moment. He uses this category – phronesis – to reveal that the current ascendency of natural scientific and instrumental forms of reason is not an historical inevitability – to argue that things could be different and to suggest that, in light of the possibility for things to be different, the ascendency of these forms of reason can be criticised as a form of domination, with reference to an unrealised potential for the fuller expression of other forms of reason.

But where does his account historicise or socially embed his own critical forms of thought – his ability to leap into the past to seize a convenient critical concept; the resonance of the category of phronesis to our times? In isolated, gestural passages, Flyvbjerg suggests a possible answer. He argues (p. 89):

Most contemporary philosophers and social scientists have accepted the consequences of more than two millennia of failed attempts to establish a universal constitution of philosophy, social science, and social organization, having concluded that such a foundation does not seem feasible.

Without holding Flyvbjerg too strongly to passages that he most likely does not regard as central to his argument, these occasional references to “two millennia of failed attempts” provide his only apparent theory of how we could account historically for the emergence of his conception of critical social science. The accounts are strangely quantitative in character: assuming that we accept that the historical boundaries of the present moment can be pushed back two thousand years, and that Flyvbjerg’s Rationalist Turn dates back to the borders of classical antiquity, it would appear that humanity possesses quite a lot of patience with “failed attempts” to identify objective truths – enough patience that we must wonder what straw has so recently broken the camel’s back, and driven us to pursue an alternative concept of truth.

Such questions aside, this approach gives Flyvbjerg no social and historical grasp on qualitative characteristics of an alternative social science – no ability to explain why theorists should suddenly advocate this specific vision of an alternative social science, why these specific ethical standards should suddenly resonate.

Without this kind of account, Flyvbjerg’s analysis – in spite of its best intentions – may fall back into a kind of critical social science I mentioned above: one in which, even while protesting the fact of his own historical and social embeddedness, Flyvbjerg fails to offer an account of why it should be historically and socially plausible for a theorist such as himself to emerge when he does – and, even more importantly, why his concepts should resonate widely with people socialised into his historical moment.

Among other things, such an approach would require critical engagement, not just with history, but with how we as social scientists engage with history. In Flyvbjerg’s case, it would require examining why Aristotle, and why phronesis, appear salient and relevant to us now. I suggest that this would, in turn, require an analysis of whether and how our own historical moment might be generating qualitatively specific social potentials for alternative organisations of social life, alternative forms of perception and thought, in light of which other dimensions of our shared social experience could come to be experienced as forms of domination. Such an analysis might ultimately obviate the need for the leap outside of our history, by showing us how we have been recognising (or projecting) bits of our own time in the distant past, and potentially misrecognising the source of our critical sensibilities – giving our contemporary social practice too little credit as the foundation for critique.

On the flip side, it would require moving beyond a jarringly idealist moment in Flyvbjerg’s argument. For, while Flyvbjerg refers constantly to the historical and social embeddedness of dominant forms of rationality, his alternative appears to be to highlight and advocate for an alternative vision of rationality. As the sole step in a critical social analysis, it strongly suggests that objectivist or instrumental forms of rationality have become dominant, primarily due to poor reasoning. Now that a better concept of rationality has come along, Flyvbjerg’s account suggests, we can collectively correct this error of judgment and move on to better social practice.

This type of account – in which an individual theorist suddenly discovers an intellectual error perpetrated by multitudes of social thinkers before them – is both very common, and provides a very problematic foundation for a self-consistent critical social theory. For, in a fully consistent approach, even “errors” in thinking – particularly ones that resonate on a wide scale, and over a substantial period of time – are in need of social and historical explanation. It is not sufficient, I would argue, to point out the historical specificity of the forms of thought or practice being criticised: it is necessary instead to explain why it might be socially plausible (even if incorrect) for people to perceive the world in a particular way, perpetuate a particular social practice, etc.

These levels of analysis – which I would argue are required to “close the loop” in constructing a self-consistent critical theory – are absent from Flyvbjerg’s analysis. As a consequence, Flyvbjerg finds himself in the position of advocating theoretical standards for which he cannot account – becoming the “voice from nowhere” that he explicitly repudiates, because he does not provide – or even indicate an awareness of the need for – an account of how his own vision of critical theory, as well as the forms of domination that theory criticises, might have become socially plausible, as elements of an historically specific form of social life.

These are high standards – and I do not argue that I am prepared to meet them in full. I do argue, however, that they are the only standards fully consistent with an historically embedded critical social theory that seeks to understand itself in terms of “truth for us”, without appealing to normative standards that purport to be grounded in something outside of the society being theorised. But if Flyvbjerg does not provide the ideal starting point for constructing such an approach, what would a better starting point look like?

On a meta-theoretical level, one avenue into this problem is suggested by Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the relationship between history and social critique in his late work Theses on the Philosophy of History. This deliberately convoluted, aphoristic text has been variously interpreted as an example of everything from crass Marxism, to mystical religious withdrawal from the world. Without fully accepting the theoretical framework the work implies (I would reject, for example, Benjamin’s focus on class domination as a defining framework for social critique), I suggest that we can productively appropriate some of Benjamin’s insights into how our relationship to the potentials of the present, comes to shape and colour our perceptions of history.

Without systematically interpreting the entire work (which is designed such that each passage is intended to be read in light of the whole, so that the entire piece functions as a “monad”, in Benjamin’s use of the term – I may have opportunity to explore this and related Benjaminian concepts in another blog entry), I want to focus here on some core concepts that inform a few passages. In the second “thesis”, Benjamin draws attention to what he calls our “image of happiness” – and explores what constitutes that he image. He writes (thesis II):

“One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,” writes Lotze, “is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.” Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.

Peering through the mystical language, we can uncover in this passage a quite secular concept of social critique: Benjamin’s “image of happiness”, which arouses envy in us (and potentially motivates us to action, to acquire what we envy), is analogous to the concept of a standpoint of critique: the motivating values in the name of which we criticise dimensions of social life that we perceive as unfree. Where many approaches – including, I have argued, Flyvbjerg’s – understand that forms of social domination are historically specific, it is much rarer to find an approach that understands that the critical values applied by the social theorist must also be specific to the society being criticised. Benjamin, however, proposes that exactly this must be the case: that the values expressed through social critique – the “image of happiness” or alternative conception of social life, against which actual social practice is being criticised – are themselves generated by the very society being criticised: “The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed”.

Benjamin then moves on to claim that the same is true of our perception of history – that the way in which we perceive the past is itself fundamentally shaped by the potentials of our own time. Benjamin follows this theme through several “theses”, citing, for example, the appropriation of Roman history by the French Revolutionaries (Thesis XIV):

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class give the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.

And problematising the way in which historical moments attain significance in our present time (Thesis XVIIIa):

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the “time of the now” which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.

In each of these passages, Benjamin suggests that we appropriate aspects of the past because those aspects succeed or fail in being topical in our own time – because these slices of history of history gratify or resonate with forms of perception and thought that are constituted in our contemporary social context. Benjamin is not fully consistent on this point, even in the passages quoted above: where the second thesis strongly implies that the emancipatory, as well as the unfree, dimensions of social life colour our perception of the past, the fourteenth thesis suggests that only domination shapes our perception of history, while emancipation is expressed in the “leap into the open air of history”. Whatever tensions still run through these passages, I believe Benjamin does succeed in pointing to an important standard for a consistently historical critical theory. Whether Benjamin had time fully to grasp the implications of that standard and apply it consistently in his own work, we can nevertheless benefit from his concepts in working out our own approach to historical social critique.

Turning back to Flyvbjerg: if we wished to support Flyvbjerg’s appropriation of Aristotle, in a manner consistent with historical social critique, how would we go about it? A partial example of what might be involved is provided in Marx’s own examination of Aristotle, in the first volume of Capital (part 1, section 3, 3).

In this passage, Marx meticulously unfolds a series of distinctions between concrete labour (particular forms of labouring activities), and abstract labour (labour in general). Up to this point, Marx has voiced his writing in a logical, deductive style, making reference to apparently trivial, mundane examples (linen, weaving, etc.) and spending what appears to be a remarkable amount of time and text arriving at some quite obvious conclusions. The reader has long been wondering when Marx will move on to a more interesting topic, when Marx makes a curious detour to examine Aristotle’s analysis of exchange relations. I will quote Marx’s argument at length (part 1, section 3):

The two latter peculiarities of the equivalent form will become more intelligible if we go back to the great thinker who was the first to analyse so many forms, whether of thought, society, or Nature, and amongst them also the form of value. I mean Aristotle.
In the first place, he clearly enunciates that the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value – i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity in some other commodity taken at random; for he says:

5 beds = 1 house – (clinai pente anti oiciaς)

is not to be distinguished from

5 beds = so much money. – (clinai pente anti … oson ai pente clinai)

He further sees that the value relation which gives rise to this expression makes it necessary that the house should qualitatively be made the equal of the bed, and that, without such an equalisation, these two clearly different things could not be compared with each other as commensurable quantities. “Exchange,” he says, “cannot take place without equality, and equality not without commensurability”. (out isothς mh oushς snmmetriaς). Here, however, he comes to a stop, and gives up the further analysis of the form of value. “It is, however, in reality, impossible (th men oun alhqeia adunaton), that such unlike things can be commensurable” i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes.”
Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the house does represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth” was at the bottom of this equality.

This passage, I would suggest, provides an intriguing example of how a socially-grounded critical theory might go about appropriating an historical text. Marx’s reasoning in this passage is quite distinctive, and worth a careful examination.

First, he has previously drawn his reader through pages and pages of reasoning about commodities and labouring activities – pages in which he appears to be arguing that he has arrived at his conclusions (and expects his readers to arrive at their conclusions) through strict logical deduction. Those earlier sections of Capital appeared to operate within a thoughtspace that would claim that anyone who disagreed was the victim of faulty reasoning – a defect that could be corrected through rational argument that would communicate the better logic.

Against this backdrop, the passage on Aristotle forces a complete reinterpretation of what the earlier passages: if the first sections of Capital suggested that proper deduction would carry the reader inexorably toward an inevitable logical conclusion, this section suddenly claims that Aristotle – whose logical acumen no one would doubt – nevertheless was incapable of drawing the same conclusions as Marx previously has because his society was founded on very different forms of social relations.

Marx seems here to be suggesting, not only that we can interpret Aristotle’s thought in social and historical terms, but that we must also interpret our own thought – those conclusions that “natural” and “logical” to us – as equally historically and socially specific. And, among those apparently natural and logical deductions, Marx includes the critical value universal human equality – a value that was perceived at the time as a “natural” right, but which Marx here suggests is grounded in a specific dimension of our shared social experience – and, moreover, is grounded in a dimension of social experience that we do not share with Aristotle, hence Aristotle’s rejection of the possibility of universal human equality, in spite of his intellectual rigour.

Marx points to the labour market as a modern social innovation in which, in this one dimension of social practice at least, we act out the universal equality of humankind, by acting out the universal fungibility of the products of the wide variety of labouring activities in which humans participate. The forms of perception and thought that underlie this dimension of social practice are, however, potentially portable – and potentially corrosive of the forms of inequality that may characterise other dimensions of social practice. Thus Marx provides an historically and socially specific explanation for what he calls the emergence of the belief in universal human equiality as a “popular prejudice”, a prejudice which does not, however, require that people be equal in all dimensions of social life in order to be passionately felt and believed.

Whether Marx provides the best possible social and historical explanation for the popular resonance of values of equality, whether equality is the only or the best critical standard, or whether Marx consistently follows this line of reasoning in his works: these issues are beside the point of the current analysis, which is to suggest that a fully consistent, thoroughly historical form of social critique is viable, and can provide a means of meeting Flyvbjerg’s challenge: to ground the morality that informs our social critique within our own society and history. Meeting this challenge, however, would require going beyond Flyvbjerg’s own approach – beyond viewing domination as historically specific, and reaching outside our society to discover potentials for emancipation. Instead, I have argued, we need to understand the historical and social roots of the forms of freedom whose fuller realisation we desire, as well as the forms of unfreedom whose existence we protest. Only in this way can we fulfil the promise of a socially and historically embedded critical theory.

Making Social Science Critical

I’ve been reading Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. It’s one of several works I’ve been looking through as I begin to think about my own research methodology, and this post represents the first of four examining different aspects of the work.

This book, however, ranges far beyond the mechanics of social science method, touching on core epistemological issues in defence of a goal that I also share: the construction of a grounded ethics that accounts for its own value judgments in terms of the historically and socially specific forms of perception and thought that characterise our own shared social experience. Discovering in Foucault a model for this project, Flyvbjerg contends (p. 101):

Our society and history… is the only solid ground under our feet. And this socio-historical foundation is fully adequate.

In many ways, this statement captures what I think must be an essential characteristic of a contemporary critical theory. I question, however, whether Flyvbjerg’s work follows through on this insight – whether Flyvbjerg fully grasps what would be required to construct an historically-embedded approach to grounding the ethical standards we use to judge contemporary institutions, forms of thought, and forms of social practice. In the next few posts, I will try to unpack the ways in which Flyvbjerg may fall short of his goal. In this process, I will suggest some of the standards a self-reflexive critical theory would need to fulfil, if it seeks to account for its own ethical standard – for the critical judgments it makes about the social world – without appealing to a transhistorical “view from nowhere” as the purportedly objective basis for its judgments.

The basic stock in trade of social theory – critical or not – is the claim that significant dimensions of our shared practices, institutions, forms of thought and perception, and other collective dimensions of our social experience are shaped in fundamental ways by our own social practice, and are therefore historically specific and can change over time. Social theorists may differ over how much is “social”, and how much therefore can change over time. Those elements of human practice that can be demonstrated to change over time, however, are the special concern of the social sciences.

This stance, however, poses particular challenges for a critical social theory. To be completely consistent, a critical social theory bears the burden of explaining why the theorist – who is, after all, as much a part of society as anyone else – can come to be critical of aspects of the society into which the theorist was socialised. While this goal may seem relatively straightforward, it has proven elusive in practice.

Instead, critical social theory has often taken various other routes to account for the critical judgments it makes about contemporary society – from claiming that the theorist possesses a special objectivity immune from socialising influence, through to claiming that the theorist’s normative standards are “natural”, while the society being criticised is perceived as artificial. Muddying the issue even further, appeals to personal objectivity or “natural” norms are not always explicit, and can lurk in the background, even where theorists explicitly proclaim a commitment to the historical and social specificity of social theory.

Flyvbjerg is conscious of these potential pitfalls – and is valuable precisely for his efforts in drawing our attention to them. Flyvbjerg’s analysis, however, operates at the level of a theoretical stance, a kind of a priori declaration: thus he asserts, for example, the historical specificity and social embeddedness of the critical judgments we express about our society, but he doesn’t close the circle by explaining what it is about our society that promotes these forms of critical thought – or, for that matter, what it is about our society that also works against the realisation of our critical insights. Without recognising that this final step would be required for a self-consistent, historically-specific, critical social science, Flyvbjerg falls short of providing an adequate theoretical basis for making social science matter.

This is an issue I will explore in the next few blog entries, in which I examine more carefully: Flyvbjerg’s attempt to appropriate Aristotle for contemporary social science; Flyvbjerg’s understanding of the distinction between science and social science; and how Flyvbjerg approaches the opposition between Habermas and Foucault.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.