Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Conversations Abroad

So since I’m not writing anything lately, a couple of folks have taken it on themselves to try to continue conversations I’ve been neglecting. I thought I would take advantage of a few rare minutes online to post some pointers, at least, so that other folks were aware of the discussions going on.

Carl from Dead Voles has a post up, continuing the discussion that started here over the relationship between theory and practice, attempting to correct my… diplomacy with a bit of front-and-centre analysis of the problem of unintended consequences in attempting to think through any project of political transformation.

Praxis has decided to have a conversation about my larger project (the project that won’t make it into the thesis in any but the most gestural form) – without me :-) This has the benefit that folks are posing objections over there, for Praxis, rather than me, to field – my current plan is to let Praxis resolve all the objections being raised, and then to claim that of course such responses had been part of my project conception all along. (I should note by way of passing that Praxis is being very generous in calling the threads spliced together from our conversations a “project” – I think I had a project at one time, but it seems to have been mislaid somehow along the way. I suspect Praxis of ulterior motives, however – of attempting to lure me back to work that has never quite found an academic space, and on which my thoughts are currently at best rusty and ill-formed…)

I’m still a ways off from meaningful ability to comment or post – apologies for the extended silence. Hopefully I can pick up the pace a bit in a couple of weeks.

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2 responses to “Conversations Abroad

  1. Carl June 16, 2008 at 3:53 am

    Hi NP! Diplomacy – for creative destruction to happen every china shop must have its bull. Bull is a specialty of mine.

    Speaking of creative destruction, I just got to read a draft of a paper on Schumpeter that seeks to align him with gropings toward non-linear theories of change. It says some interesting things about the cause/effect prejudices built into deterministic analytical schemas (which disappear once multiple variables and feedback loops are introduced, along with the fantasy of prediction).

    It also addresses ‘unintended consequences’ by pointing out that they’re symptoms of bad theory, specifically attempts to linearize causal inputs and effective outputs in terms of some restricted dimensionalization of dynamic state spaces. Staying in linearity requires theories to be ‘patched’ each time an unexpected outcome occurs (in my own work I argue this is exactly what marxists have tended to do with proletarian action), but it would be better to scrap the linear model altogether and produce dynamically richer theories.

    So ‘unintended consequences’ is a joke to tell on folks who are trying to get camels through the eyes of needles. The nasty truth of more adequate non-linear, multivariable, dynamic theories is that they do not offer predictive certainty or definite accounts of exact outputs from inputs. Of course, in practice neither do linear models, but at least they promise such certainty in some eventual perfect future where all the ‘exogenous’ variables have been cleaned out.

  2. N Pepperell June 21, 2008 at 5:51 am

    Hey Carl – Sorry for the delay – and also sorry for still being in fog mode… On Schumpeter: that sounds plausible enough to me. My urban planning theory courses have tended to thematise the issue of unintended consequences and non-linear historical dynamics (whether these are the specific themes that communicate to the students, I couldn’t say :-) ). I’ve seen the occasional advocate, though, of promising certainty, regardless of whether it could be delivered. :-)

    I really like your comment about theories that “patch” themselves when something unexpected occurs – it’s always an interesting issue, at what moment an empirical observation comes to figure as a refutation, and at what points we’re willing to disregard observations, assuming we’ll resolve them another time…

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