Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Sociology of Knowledge

Theatricality, Critical Standpoint, and the “Reality” of All Moments of Social Experience

Okay… this post originated as a comment to add to the discussion with roger and demet in the thread below, but grew a bit cancerous, so I’m elevating it to post status. What I’ve done here is to replicate the content of my final comment to roger, and then added underneath it what would have been a new comment, in order to get everything together in one place. Note that there is lots of other substantive material in the comment thread below – I’m lifting this content up because I can’t remember whether I’ve put it all into one place like this on the blog…

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The thing that’s most difficult to “get” about Marx’s critical standpoint is that it doesn’t require occupying some sort of Archimedean point – or, for that matter, some singular point immanent to the phenomena it criticises. There’s instead this constant sliding around from point to point – and the “points” themselves are subject to adaptation and interpretation – they don’t always have to be enacted in exactly the same way. Marx will flit from one perspective to another, looking back over his shoulder at the previous perspectives, in a sense looking askance at them, showing how odd certain claims look when viewed from the perspective of other dimensions of social experience.

The end result doesn’t occupy some one ideal position – but it’s also not “perspectival” in, say, a Mannheimian sense, where perspectives are regarded as inhering in social groups. The operation of the text simply wouldn’t work if Marx didn’t have some sense that whatever we had accidentally constituted – whatever perspectives are opened up in collective practice – weren’t potentially available, as performative stances, for social actors to move in and out of (where part of the critical barb derives precisely, then, from the revealed arbitrariness of the actual actors who occupy some specific position).

So the whole operation of the text is driven by a sort of Benjaminian commitment to make our history citable in more of its moments – and then to foreground the potential for other forms of selective citation or inheritance of the possibilities for social development that we accidentally produce, but are too prone to treat as though these are fated to remain in their present form.

Or something like that… ;-) What I’m trying to express is that I’ve run into great difficulty communicating the distinctiveness of the critical standpoint on which the text relies – which is neither a traditional singular “standpoint” (whether immanent or transcendent), nor is it “perspectival” (although there is plenty of analysis of “perspectives” in the text). It’s a standpoint in constant motion, and one which relies on a fundamentally creative possibility to adapt the elements we find lying around us, rather than taking those elements as something fixed and given…

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One other point that I was just thinking in the background, which I’m not sure has made it onto the blog completely clearly: the other bit of work that Marx’s theatricality does, aside from generally allowing him to highlight a multiplicity of perspectives and generate a very complex and agile sort of critical standpoint, is that it allows him to link “forms of subjectivity” and “forms of objectivity” together in a very unusual way.

The more Hegelian interpretations of Marx tend to understand, programmatically, that this is somehow part of the “package”: that part of what Capital is trying to do is talk about forms of subjectivity and objectivity using the same basic categories. Those approaches just tend to vastly underestimate the complexity of the argument, such that you end up with a relatively small number of categories that are understood to replicate, in a fractal manner, at different scales or in different aspects of experience. Marx will suggest things like this, from time to time, but this is only scratching the surface of the argument.

The more interesting move is to decide to treat different aspects of social practice as performances – which means not only that they are artificial, contingent, etc., but that they can be thought of in terms of performative stances, which are combined with particular sorts of practical orientations. Forms of subjectivity and objectivity are thus linked, not because they all share “the commodity form” or something like that, but because what we do, when we engage in a particular practice, is adopt a specific performative stance, while seeking to achieve certain kinds of practical impacts on other people and/or nonhuman objects. In this sense, forms of subjectivity and objectivity are intrinsically interrelated, not because one can be reduced to the other, or because one is related to the other by a more or less mystical concept of “social form”, but just because that’s what a practice is – a combination of a specific performative stance combined with an attempt to have a particular sort of impact on the world.

On this reading, Marx’s doesn’t have one, or even a small number, of basic social forms he’s analysing: he has dozens and dozens. In the third chapter of Capital, for example, he breaks down something that is often casually grouped together – “using money” – into several major sorts of activities, and then he breaks each of those activities down into different stages, each of which involve different performative stances and practical objectives. Each one of these opens up different perspectives onto the “same” social process (including perspectives that do not recognise how they participate in a process that also necessarily involves perspectives other than their own).

All of this, however, relates to aspects of social experience that are potentially intersubjectively meaningful – this is why it is possible to analyse them in terms of performative stances. In addition, there are whole other dimensions of social experience – and here we begin to get to the thing the Hegelian interpretations of Marx do tend to grasp, but they grasp it as though it’s the only thing going on – that relate to the unintended and indirect consequences of all these performative activities, which also generate consequences that then confront social actors, demanding responses of some sort of other.

So social practices are presented as each potentially having several layers of consequences – some of them immediate and easy to discern, some of them quite indirect and arising only because a whole constellation of practices are taking place in tandem, enabling them to generate aggregate effects they would never create in isolation, or even in tandem with a different constellation.

Because it’s very difficult for social actors to anticipate these indirect consequences – in part because they are indirect, in part because these consequences often do not resemble (and may even “contradict”) the more direct consequences of individual practices, in part because the consequences require a very particular combination of different practices to arise – such consequences can be plausibly interpreted as not arising from social practice at all. (It’s more complicated than this, but this is the most basic version of the argument – the one that’s already implied in the commodity fetish discussion.)

These aggregate, emergent consequences are patterns of social behaviour that initially become visible in observations made of the movements of material goods. Because no one sets out to create these patterns, and because the practical conditions required to generate the patterns are so complex, the patterns are plausibly interpreted as not being contingent social phenomena at all, but instead as arising from some inherent capacity for self-organisation that arises when material objects are allowed to interact “free” of human intervention. Capital implies that this very distinctive sort of social experience primes us to expect that a “material world” – as it exists in itself, free of anthroporphic projection – would be a lawlike, spontaneously self-organising realm: our secular, disenchanted conception of material nature is, in Marx’s account, the specific form of anthropomorphism of our time.

Capital is designed to show – I think – how this distinctive unintentional aggregate effect is inadvertently constituted, as people go about their everyday lives, engaging in various intersubjectively-meaningful practices that involve specific performative stances and generate distinctive sorts of impacts on other people and on nonhuman nature.

To understand the critical standpoint of the text, what is most important is to see that – like Hegel – Marx steadfastly refuses to allocate quanta of reality among different parts of social experience. In his account, both the overarching, aggregate, emergent effect and the various intersubjectively-meaningful practices from which it ultimately arises, share an equivalent ontological status. One is not more “real” than the other. All of these elements of social experience are potentially citable – and appropriable – as raw materials around which we can innovate in constructing new forms of history with the materials we have lying ready to hand…

The Fetish and the Commune

Marx makes significant edits to Capital between the first German edition in 1867 and the second in 1873 – edits that begin to be articulated in his revisions for the serialised French publication of Capital between 1872 and 1875. Revisions are particularly heavy in Capital‘s opening chapter – where the concept of the fetish character of the commodity is massively expanded and gains its own section. When interpreting the dramatic structure of the first chapter, as I’ve done on this blog off and on for the past few years, I’ve followed the text as it stands after the revisions of the second German edition. I would have done this even if I had regarded these revisions as fundamentally altering the meaning and structure of the first edition but, as it happens, there is textual evidence from the first edition that Marx understood the dramatic structure of that original edition to be very similar to what I find in the edition familiar to us: a text that enacts three different perspectives on the wealth of capitalist societies, and then destabilises even the final perspective by suggesting that it is still not fully adequate to express the characteristics of that wealth. In Marx’s words (using Hans Ehrbar’s extremely useful side-by-side German-English version of the first edition) these are the final sentences of the equivalent to our current opening chapter:

The commodity is immediate unity of use-value and exchange-value, i.e. of two opposite moments. It is, therefore, an immediate contradiction. This contradiction must develop as soon as the commodity is not, as it has been so far, analytically considered once under the angle of use-value, once under the angle of exchange-value [by which, in this edition, Marx means what will be called “value” from the second edition], but as soon as it is placed as a whole into an actual relation with other commodities. The actual relation of commodities with each other, however, is their exchange process [which is what Marx will explore in the following section]. (cf. Ehrbar 148)

So: three voices, the first two of which do not have the capacity to show how the contradictions in the commodity can be developed in practice – the third of which does potentially lead in a more promising direction, but not in the form in which it has been presented in this opening chapter. The revisions for the second edition, on my reading, bring out the distinctions between these voices more clearly – at which point Marx, in a typical move, excises the little bit of stage direction I have quoted above, ending the chapter instead on the Dogberry and Seacoal exchange that, in the first edition, takes place in the paragraph prior. The edits to the chapter – which include a much clearer terminological distinction between exchange-value and value, as well as the expansion of the discussion of the fetish character of the commodity – each seem, on my reading, ways of cashing out more clearly the claims of its original concluding sentence.

Particularly in Marxist Humanist readings of Capital, it is common to argue that the revisions to the first edition were provoked by Marx’s experience of the Paris Commune, which, it is suggested, for the first time give him a sense of the standpoint from which the fetish character of the commodity can be penetrated: the standpoint of freely-associated labourers.

Peter Hudis, for example (159-60), argues:

Remarkably, there is no section on commodity fetishism in the 1867 (first) edition of Volume 1 of Capital. It was only between 1872 and 1875, in revising Capital for the French edition, that Marx created a section entitled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and Its Secret’. Marx introduced certain crucial changes to his discussion of commodity fetishism in the French edition, which he said ‘had a scientific value independent of the original’. One of the most important changes concerned his effort to answer the question of ‘whence arises this enigmatic character of the product of labour, once it assumes the form of a commodity’. It is only with the French edition that Marx answered this to his satisfaction, by stating, ‘Clearly from this form itself’. With this change, Marx makes it clear that what explains the fetish is the very form assumed by the product of labour, the very nature of the ‘peculiar social character of the labour’ which produces commodities. This new formulation, as well as the new section on commodity fetishism as a whole, explicitly posed the abolition of fetishism as centring on the abolition of value-producing labour.

What intervened between the first German edition in 1867 and the French edition of 1872-5 which explains Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism? The Paris Commune. The changes introduced in the French edition reflect its impact…

The activity of the Communards thereby allowed for a new leap in thought. Commodity fetishism cannot be penetrated by enlightened critique which assumes a privileged standpoint outside the value-form; nor can it be stripped away by pointing to a hidden essence obscured by the ‘illusion’ of fetishism. Instead, ‘The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surround the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes as soon as we come to other forms of production.’ The emergence of a new form of association pointing to the transcendence of the value-form in 1871 provided the vantage point for penetrating the secret of the fetish. Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism after the Paris Commune reveals the impact of the workers’ revolts on the creation of his central value-theoretic categories.

Hudis’ argument subtly displaces the form in which Marx presents his discussion of the free association of labourers. In Marx’s text, the sentence on how the mystery of commodities vanishes when we confront other forms of production, does not immediately lead into the discussion of freely-associated labourers. Instead, that passage describes the hypothetical Robinson on his island, then moves to a discussion of medieval serfdom, then to a discussion of labour in common within a patriarchal household – and only then to a discussion of freely associated labourers. Moreover, when this more emancipatory example is introduced, the text makes clear that the point is not specifically to put forward a model for future social development, but rather to come up with an example that closely parallels the component aspects of commodity production that have been put forward earlier in this chapter. By omitting all of the other examples Marx considers, and juxtaposing the example of freely-associated labour directly with Marx’s claim to reveal the “magic and necromancy” that surrounds commodities, Hudis makes it sound as though the discovery of the possibility for freely-associated labour is what allows Marx to penetrate the mystery of the commodity form.

Hudis seems unaware that the first edition of Capital – published in 1867, prior to the Commune – already includes the passage on freely-associated labourers (cf. Ehrbar 2009: 120-22). It immediately follows a discussion of Robinson on his island. In other words, the first edition of Capital already contains the nucleus of the passage Hudis presents as new to the French edition – and that nucleus already contains the central insight Hudis argues is pivotal to Marx’s post-Commune critique of the fetish.

What is new with the later edition is that the two earlier examples – Robinson on his island, and freely-associated labour – are now joined by two further, historical examples. What Marx changes, in other words, is a passage from the original edition that included only hypothetical examples: he beefs up the passage by adding a couple of real-world examples from actual historical cases. The nature of this change suggests that Marx might have been worried that, without real-world examples, it would seem utopian to suggest that the fetish-character of the commodity was not in some sense inherent. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but the logic of this revision does not suggest that, when he speaks of an association of free labourers in this context, he has the very real-world example of the Commune in mind. This point should not be too surprising, however, given that the text expressly says that this more emancipatory example has been chosen for the parallels it offers to commodity production, rather than as a recommended model for future social development.

I have written elsewhere on the function these examples serve within the architechtonic of Marx’s argument: they allow him to demonstrate that you can take some of the same component practices that – in their present configuration – help to reproduce capital, and reconfigure them into new forms in which they can be shown no longer to generate this unintentional aggregate result. If I am right about what Marx is trying to show, revising the passage to add historical examples would make sense: otherwise it could appear that Marx is unable to show – other than by ungrounded hypotheticals – that it should be possible to transform social relations in such a way that the fetish character would no longer exist. For this purpose, Robinson on his island – or a hypothetical future society of freely associated labourers – are useful thought experiments, but could leave a nagging doubt about the practical reality of Marx’s claims. The historical examples thus bolster the argument by identifying actual examples of social relations that, while by no means ideal, nevertheless help illustrate that the fetish character of social relations is not an inevitable result of material production – or even of class domination. This strategic goal, I suggest, drives these particular revisions.

Essence, Appearance and Elster

Since I’m writing on Elster… another bit that caught my eye in passing…

Elster (1985:124-25) understands that Hegel is being name-checked when Marx appeals to notions of essence and appearance in discussing the relation of value and price. Because, however, Elster assumes Marx is attempting to explain movements of price via his theory of value, he accuses Marx of missing Hegel’s point:

Marx frequently referred to a distinction between ‘Wesen’ and ‘Erscheinung’, essence and appearance, in economic life. I shall not go deeply into the darkly Hegelian origin of these notions, except to suggest that in his best-known application of them Marx may have misunderstood Hegel quite radically.

The appearance, that which appears, allows for two different antonyms. First, it may be contrasted with what is hidden, and accessible only by the mediation of thought. In this sense one may say that behind the appearance of a table is the atomic structure that forms its essence. This, broadly speaking, is how Marx conceived the relation between labour values and prices. The former are of a different and more fundamental ontological order than the latter, which, however, are the only ones that appear to the economic agents. Prices are on the surface of things, in the double sense of being immediately observable and of being explicable in terms of a deeper and more fundamental structure. Secondly, one may focus on the local character of the appearance – since what appears always appears to a person occupying a particular standpoint and observing the phenomena from a particular perspective. Hence any given appearance may be contrasted with the global network of appearances that is not tied to any particular standpoint. As far as I understand Hegel’s theory of essence and appearance, the second interpretation is the correct one. It says that the essence is the totality of interrelated appearances, not something that is ‘behind’ them and of a different ontological order.

Needless to say, I believe that it is precisely this second sort of analysis that Marx puts forward. Elster overlooks this possibility because he is misled by the peculiar presentational strategy that leads Marx first to speak in the voices of positions he intends to criticise, only in order to destabilise and relativise those voices as the argument moves on. Marx deviates from Hegel, not in wanting to view essence as persisting in some different ontological dimension than appearance – this is what he criticises political economy for doing, when he asks why it has never pursued the question of why a specific content appears in a specific form. He differs from Hegel in wanting to mobilise this sort of framework to make more visible the potential to disaggregate the parts that contingently generate a particular set of unintentional aggregate consequences like value.

Ironically, a few pages after the quotation above, Elster cites later passages in Capital – by which point, of course, the text has gathered the resources to be more explicit about its method – to suggest that Marx sometimes adopts a better understanding of the essence/appearance distinction – at which point Elster (126-27) argues:

We are dealing here [in the discussion of the wage form] with a generalized form of fetishism, that is structurally induced illusions about how the economy works. One might be tempted to conclude that the proper place for the essence-appearance distinction is not in economic theory proper, but in the sociology of economic thought…

One might indeed. Perhaps, in fact, one should. By not recognising the reflexive, iterative character of the text, Elster misses a great opportunity to realise how the essence-appearance distinction always already operates – even in the earlier sections where Marx has not yet tipped his hand and is still ventriloquising idealist metaphysical presentations in the main body of his text.

Notes on I.I. Rubin’s Qualitative and Quantitative Value Theories

I unfortunately don’t have the time to write on this topic properly, in a way that would make it accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with I.I. Rubin’s work on value theory. It might, for that matter, look a bit alien to people who are familiar with Rubin, since these are more personal notes to preserve a set of associations, than a worked-out argument… But for what it’s worth…

The rediscovery of I.I. Rubin’s work in the 1970s is one of the events that opened up new paths for understanding Marx’s value theory. Rubin’s work opposes substantialist interpretations of the category of value – interpretations that would, for example, understand value as something calculable from labour-time inputs – or interpretations that viewed Marx’s theory of value as oriented to explaining movements of commodity prices. Rubin argues that such interpretations miss the sociological dimension of Marx’s value theory – a dimension which Rubin attempts to recapture by focussing on how Marx’s category of value relates to an analysis of “production relations”.

So far, so similar – at least in superficial terms – to my own attempt to push into the foreground what I tend to call the “anthropological” character of Marx’s argument: like Rubin, I have tried to suggest that Marx is analysing the peculiar qualities and consequences of a distinctive form of social relation – and that the liminal ontological characteristics attributed to categories like value, abstract labour and capital reflect the anthropological peculiarities of the relation being analysed.

In other respects as well, Rubin seems to hit close to aspects of Marx’s theory that I have tried to foreground. In particular, Rubin seems to grasp what I have characterised as the retroactive determination of categories like value and abstract labour. He highlights that “social labour” is constituted as a subset of labouring activities, when the action of market determines objectively what sorts of labouring activities will succeed in counting as part of social labour – a subset that is smaller than the universe of privately-conducted labouring activities that are undertaken without prior knowledge of the volume of demand for the products those private labouring activities produce.

So much, so similar…

More askew, however, Rubin introduces what has become an influential distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” dimensions of Marx’s theory of value. The dimension I have just described – the culling process that constitutes “social labour” – falls onto the “quantitative” side of Rubin’s dichotomy. He associates it with the analysis of the magnitude of value, but distinguishes it from the analysis of the form of value – which, for Rubin, is what properly falls on the “qualitative” side of Marx’s theory – and thus on the side amenable to sociological analysis.

What seems to motivate this distinction is an assumption that social relations (“production relations” in Rubin’s inflection of Marx) must be fundamentally intersubjective in character. Searching about for some sort of intersubjective relation to which Marx might be referring in the opening sections of Capital, Rubin seems to hit on the sorts of social contract relations discussed at the opening of Capital‘s second chapter – the intersubjective relations of mutual recognition presented there as being at the heart of commodity exchange between formally autonomous, private producers. This move then skews Rubin’s analysis in a number of strange ways.

First, it leads him to a strangely utopian presentation of capitalist social relations as relations of equality between autonomous individuals (a presentation so positive-sounding in its implications that he must constantly backtrack within his own discussion to point out that the relation omits other important forms of equality, etc.).

Second, it leads him to understand the argument about the fetish character of the commodity as an argument about how these intersubjective relations take on an strangely objective character. This is a difficult circle to square, since social contract relations of mutual recognition are, in many senses, the ideal-typic, almost definitional, archetypes of intersubjective social relations, and are thus difficult to confuse with something objective and beyond the personal control of social actors. Rubin attempts to square it by identifying the only seemingly “objective” thing he can find in the social contract presentation: the fact that the social relation is “mediated” by an exchange of objects. He then tries to argue that this sort of mediation confers an objective cast on the social relation – a move that relies on the naturalisation of the “objective” character of objects (as though “things” naturally strike people as “thingly”, and thus a social relation mediated by the exchange of things would necessarily acquire an objective flavour). Rubin is historically savvy enough for this to cause him some worry: capitalism is hardly unique in mediating social relations by means of objects. This leads him to suggest that there is something more objective about our objects – partially because they are somehow not embedded within social relations in the same way, partially because the relationships being mediated have a form of personal autonomy within a general framework of complex interdependence established by market relations. These specific moves have filtered their way into more recent adaptations of qualitative value theory – particularly in Postone’s work.

I don’t have time for a fully adequate presentation of all of the reasons I think this constellation of moves is problematic, but I can suggest the direction of my criticisms by pointing to the third issue with Rubin’s approach: that he does not consider that Marx’s “sociological” analysis was attempting to confront a very different sort of social relation – one that has “objective” characteristics, not because an intersubjective process is mediated by things, but because the relation is simply not intersubjective in the first place. The phenomena Rubin groups on the “quantitative” side of his dichotomy – which he associates with the magnitude, but not the form, of value – should, I suggest, have instead been positioned as precisely what Marx’s “sociological” analysis is trying to explain.

Marx argues that political economy has grasped – somewhat imprecisely, but grasped nevertheless – the content of value: that somehow, somewhere, a pattern of social behaviour is being enacted that constitutes human labour as equal, and as measured by socially-average labour-time. What political economy does not grasp – because, Marx suggests, it is more worried about understanding the quantitative ratios in which commodities exchange – is the peculiar objective form in which these contents present themselves. This objective form relates to the way in which this content is not deliberately constituted by social actors via any intersubjectively-meaningful process, but instead arises unintentionally, as an emergent aggregate effect, from the tandem operation of a complex constellation of other social practices that are not oriented directly to achieving this specific goal.

As a result, when political economy first discovers this strange pattern – the ongoing enactment of a peculiar sort of lawlike pattern of social behaviour – this pattern does not appear to be generated in any obvious way by human social practices: after all, quintessential, archetypal social practices are intersubjective – and the pattern discovered by political economy results from nothing intersubjectively meaningful. Instead, the pattern is observed first in the movements of material goods. The pattern therefore appears to arise, not due to human actions, but due to some sort of intrinsic capacity for self-organisation inherent in the material world. The discovery of this pattern, in this way, not only disguises its social origin, but also makes it plausible for the material world to be perceived as a spontaneously self-organising realm that operates according to its own immanent laws that arise independently from human action. In other words, the material world starts to look… material. Objective. Secular. Devoid of anthropormorphic determination. Our intuitive secular sense of materiality emerges, from this account, as a very peculiar sort of anthropomorphism – wearing the perfect asocial disguise…

By reducing the sociological to the intersubjective, Rubin presents a near miss: he captures part of the argument about the non-intersubjective social relation through which “social labour” is enacted, but he relegates this topic to the “quantitative” side of the theory of value, and assumes the real meat of the argument must pertain to some sort of intersubjective relation. The set of moves pioneered by Rubin continue to be put forward by more recent attempts to understand the peculiar “objectivity” of the social relation Marx is trying to grasp – many of which replicate Rubin’s one-sidedness – the same one-sidedness analysed in Marx’s discussion of the fetish character. Marx’s attempt to break the identification of the “social” with the “intersubjective” is therefore lost – as is his complex analysis of how we collectively constitute this sort of complex, layered, mutifaceted social, only some portions of which intuitively appear social to us at first glance…

This is a very truncated exposition of this point, and not edited… – apologies… A student is bearing down at the door, unexpected, so I’ll put the post up rather than defer… More another time…

Placeholders on Alfred Sohn-Rethel

When I have a bit more time, I’ll try to follow up on my recent over-generalised reflections on real abstractions with a more grounded post on the different ways in which this concept is deployed in the works of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Theodor Adorno. I’ve been trying to decide on a topic for an upcoming conference, and a comparison of these two authors on the issue of real abstractions may not be a bad organising concept for a paper – but I can perhaps test the waters here before I make final commitments. As I’ve been considering the concept tonight, I’ve been paging somewhat idly through some online selections from Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour: a Critique of Epistemology, reminding myself of the main lines of Sohn-Rethel’s work.

I always find myself strangely affected by Sohn-Rethel’s writing, which expresses an eager and breathless excitement about the insights that led him to his life project, and a sense of passion and urgency about what he is trying to communicate. His preface sketches with a poignant brevity the crisis that informed the development of his intellectual work:

I was stirred by the political events, partaking in discussions at street-corners and public meeting-halls, lying under window-sills while bullets pierced the windows – experiences which are traced in the pages to follow. My political awakening started in 1916, at the age of 17 and still at school, when I began reading August Bebel and Marx. I was thrown out of home and was part of the beginning of the anti- war rebellion of students in my first university year at Heidelberg in 1917 with Ernst Toller as a leading figure. For us the world could have fallen to pieces if only Marx remained intact. But then everything went wrong. The Revolution moved forward and backward and finally ebbed away. Lenin’s Russia receded further and further into the distance. At university we learned that even in Marx there were theoretical flaws, that marginal utility economics had rather more in its favour and that Max Weber had successfully contrived sociological antidotes against the giant adversary Marx. But this teaching only made itself felt within the academic walls. Outside there were livelier spirits about, among them my unforgettable friend Alfred Seidel, who in 1924 committed suicide. Here, outside the university, the end of the truth had not yet come.

There’s something immensely moving in this formulation – the sense that the “end of the truth” – the dying away of revolutionary hopes – did not happen suddenly, all at once, but instead fell in stages, hitting first the university, and then much more slowly descending on those outside. Sohn-Rethel’s response was to bury himself in a detailed study of Marx, in an effort to hold on to the revolutionary momentum – but also to understand more about why this momentum was fading away:

I glued myself to Marx and began in earnest to read Capital with a relentless determination not to let go. It must have taken some two years when in the background of my university studies I scribbled mountains of paper, seizing upon every one of the vital terms occurring in the first sixty pages of Capital, turning them round and round for definitions, and above all for metaphorical significance, taking them to, pieces and putting them together again. And what resulted from this exercise was the unshakeable certainty of the penetrating truth of Marxist thinking, combined with an equally unshakeable doubt about the theoretical consistency of the commodity analysis as it stood. There were more and other things in it than Marx had succeeded in reaching!

The result – and I’ll try to summarise the contours of this argument more adequately when I can treat Sohn-Rethel’s work in more detail – was an eventual insight that Marx’s theory might be most relevant to something other than economic analysis – that Marx’s work might provide some important, if undeveloped, pointers for the development of a self-reflexive critique of the concept of the transcendental subject. Sohn-Rethel sees in this line of analysis a means to move beyond epistemological arguments, which he regards as predicated on explaining fundamental categories as somehow immanent to the subject or to mind. He also sees an opportunity to respond to Kantian and post-Kantian approaches without a detour through Hegelian dialectics, which Sohn-Rethel regards as fundamentally bound to an untenable notion of immanence to mind.

To move beyond these impasses, Sohn-Rethel picks up on elements of Marx’s work that suggest the possibility for a form of abstraction that does not reside purely in thought – a “real abstraction” as I generally intend this term. Sohn-Rethel’s specific argument about the nature of this real abstraction is not quite the one I would make (again, I’ll leave this critical point aside until I can write on his work in greater detail), but he nevertheless situates his problem on a terrain very familiar to me, asking how we can understand the practical collective enactment of an abstraction, which can then no longer be understood adequately in terms of mere conceptual generalisation from more concrete entities:

It is not people who originate these abstractions but their actions. ‘They do this without being aware of it.’ In order to do justice to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy the commodity or value abstraction revealed in his analysis must be viewed as a real abstraction resulting from spatio-temporal activity.

Significantly, Sohn-Rethel also argues – and here I would agree – that the concept of real abstraction is both tacitly central in Capital, and that this locates Capital much more on the terrain of a critical social grounding of philosophy and natural science, than of a critique of political economy narrowly understood:

Althusser believes that Capital is the answer to a question implied but not formulated by Marx. Althusser defeats the purpose of his search for this question by insisting ‘que la production de la connaissance … constitue un processus qui se passe toutentier dans la pensee’. He understands Marx on the commodity abstraction metaphorically, whereas it should be taken literally and its epistemological implications pursued so as to grasp how Marx’s method turns Hegel’s dialectic ‘right side up’. The un-proclaimed theme of Capital and of the commodity analysis is in fact the real abstraction uncovered there. Its scope reaches further than economics – indeed it concerns the heritage of philosophy far more directly than it concerns political economy.

Like Adorno, Sohn-Rethel will try to make sense of the notion of a real abstraction in terms of the division of mental and manual labour – a step that I will examine more critically when I can treat the argument in more detail. My suspicion with both authors is that their attempts to understand fundamental aspects of modernity in terms of the mental-manual labour split (and, more tacitly, their attempts to understand capitalism primarily in terms of the market or commodity exchange) end up blurring some key historical distinctions between modern and nonmodern societies, to the detriment of the theories’ ability to grasp some core dimensions of modernity. Nevertheless, Sohn-Rethel’s work does represent an exceptionally ambitious attempt to unfold an analysis of a real abstraction, while exploring often-overlooked epistemological and philosophical implications of Marx’s work. I’m looking forward to having the time to write on the subject in greater depth.

Vague Generalisations about Real Abstractions

So… I’ve been in several conversations recently where I’ve tried to clarify something by mentioning the concept of a “real abstraction”, only to realise that my interlocutor expresses familiarity with the term, but means something very different by it than what I’m trying to convey. As with the concept of “theoretical pessimism”, I understand “real abstraction” in a somewhat technical way – to refer to a form of argument that claims that at least some forms of abstraction should not be understood as the products of a conceptual generalisation, but should instead be understood as a particular kind of entity that is directly, but unintentionally, constituted in collective practice (more on this in a bit). What I’m finding is that the term “real abstraction” has various other technical and non-technical meanings, each more or less closely bound to particular visions of the object, standpoint, and mechanism of critique. I thought I would toss some generalisations onto the blog on the diverse meanings of the term, both to clarify (or further obscure…) what I’ve meant by the term when I’ve used it in other posts here and elsewhere, and as part of a process of deciding whether it causes too much confusion for me to retain this particular phrase.

I’m finding that perhaps the most common interpretation of “real abstraction” that crops up in local conversation, takes the term to signify some sort of superlative abstraction. So the phrase “real abstraction” is understood to be trying to draw attention to concepts that are really, really abstract – by distinction, say, to concepts that are less abstract, and therefore hug more closely to concrete experience. This usage remains very closely bound to the conventional meaning of the term “abstraction” – where an abstraction is a kind of conceptual generalisation – and generally positions “real abstractions” as worse than… er… other kinds of abstractions. It sets up, in other words, a kind of normative privileging of concepts that hug more closely to what it takes to be concrete experience, views abstraction as something a thinking subject effects when reflecting on data (ruling out the possibility, for example, of “abstraction” as a particular kind of immanent structure or an actively and directly generated product of collective practice), and does not consider the possibility that we might miss some aspects of the “real” if we regard the qualitative characteristics of abstract entities solely as a kind of averaging out of the qualitative characteristics of concrete entities.

Even where interlocutors share a more similar “frame” to mine – even where they view a claim about “real abstractions” as an argument that something determinately abstract might be constituted in collective practice – there is a strong tendency to want to equate a “real abstraction” with an illusion, to view a “real abstraction” as a socially constituted form of appearance whose presence is masking some underlying “concrete” reality that critique is meant to uncover. This understanding of “real abstractions” is often put forward by people who see the market (or, sometimes, money) as the quintessential “real abstraction”, and who are interested in criticising the ways in which certain ideals or forms of thought they associate with the market, function to deflect attention away from the actual existence of domination in concrete practice. In this understanding, the forms of thought and practice associated with what is regarded as the “real abstraction” of the market are thus positioned as illusions that need to be unmasked to bring an underlying reality more clearly into view.

There is also a mirror-image position, which also sees a “real abstraction” as something constituted in collective practice, but which places the opposite “charge” on the abstraction: instead of treating the “real abstraction” as an illusion and as the object of critique, this approach views the “real abstraction” as the underlying reality, and sees other social institutions or forms of thought as illusory, or at least as more contingent or particularistic in character. This understanding of a “real abstraction” often arises from forms of critique that see some sociological group – the proletariat, the poor, the marginalised – as a “real abstraction”, where the abstraction is taken to arise because collective practice has placed a particular population into such a position of abject impoverishment or disempowerment or exclusion that they are reduced to what is most essentially, almost biologically (or spiritually), human – and are therefore positioned as the only social group with direct access to something like universal ideals, the only social group whose experiences render them capable of leading a genuinely universal movement for the emancipation of themselves and all other groups.

Okay. Broad brush strokes, I realise. There are many, many theoretical positions that couldn’t easily be lumped into any of these gestural categories. And now that I’ve run through these contradictory understandings of “real abstraction”, I’m beginning to wonder whether I should just drop the term… But before I make this decision, I’ll at least try to gesture at what I mean by the term – if only because I’ve been using it on this blog and in other writings for some time.

The basic idea, for me, behind the concept of a “real abstraction” is the claim that there are at least certain types of abstractions that are not being fully understood when they are interpreted as conceptual generalisations. When an abstraction is treated as a conceptual generalisation, it is being treated as though it arises from a process of subtraction – treated as a residual or a remainder, as whatever is left behind after a certain amount of qualitatively determinate properties has been stripped away in some kind of analytical process. Abstraction is here positioned as a form of pure or abstract negation, lacking its own determinate qualitative characteristics, but containing only those residue characteristics that persist once other attributes have been averaged out or peeled away. By contrast, I would understand the concept of a “real abstraction” to be an attempt to provide a sociological explanation of how at least some abstractions are constituted through collective practice – and are thus available to think, because collectively they are being enacted – they are existent entities constituted in and through collective practice. This process of collective enactment – like all processes of collective enactment – then confers determinate qualitative characteristics which are best understood as actively constituted in their qualitative determinacy, rather than as passively left behind after a process of generalisation away from more concrete characteristics.

From my perspective, even the more sociological approaches mentioned above don’t quite succeed in unfolding this kind of analysis, because they position “real abstractions” asymmetrically in relation to other dimensions of social practice, treating “real abstractions” as either illusions or essences, and therefore as entities that do not exist on the same practical plane as other sorts of social phenomena. This privileged positioning (whether negative or positive) of “real abstractions” tends to facilitate dichotomous visions of critique: visions that view the abstraction as an illusion and as the object of critique, because the abstraction is perceived to have occluded the qualitatively determinate reality of rich, sensuous, concrete existence; or visions that view the abstraction as the reality and as the standpoint of critique, because it reveals what is most essential and universal and unable to be stripped away.

I tend, by contrast, to restrict the term “real abstraction” to a form of analysis that steps outside this dichotomy, by taking seriously the notion that certain things that we experience as “abstractions” are not negativities left behind when everything has been stripped away, but are instead socially-constituted positivities – actively constructed with their own determinate qualitative characteristics generated (unintentionally) in collective practice – representing neither illusion nor essence, but rather alienated potentials. Such potentials are contingent, in that they are the results of collective practices that could well have been different – that, in other periods, seem to have been different – but they are also real, for us, in our time, which has (albeit quite accidentally) brought them into being. Their “abstract” character, however, places these potentials at risk for not being recognised as such – for being mistaken for conceptual generalisation, or for human nature, or for illusion – all interpretations of real abstractions that can be criticised for the ways in which such interpretations impede our ability to seize actively on the positive potentials we have generated in this peculiar form (I say this, realising that the point would need to be developed in significantly greater detail – for present purposes, I’m simply trying to hand wave at the way the concept of a real abstraction might function in a reworking of the concept of social critique, within a framework that rejects the structure of an unmasking and debunking critique).

So… Nice grand claims about the strategic intentions behind a technical term I still haven’t deployed in more than the most gestural way in any actual social theory… ;-P In spite of my criticisms above, a very, very rough sense of what would be involved in deploying the concept of “real abstraction” in something like the sense in which I use it, can be found in some analyses of the market as a “real abstraction”. The argument would go something along the lines of: in one dimension of the social practices that bring markets into being, markets express a genuine, collectively enacted, indifference to the determinate properties of the goods exchanged, the labours used to produce those goods, the purposes for which those goods might be used, etc; in other dimensions of social practice – including other dimensions of the social practices that bring markets into being – these determinate properties are directly and profoundly relevant. The tension between these two dimensions of social practice provides a “real” – or practical – collectively enacted, basis for rendering socially plausible the existence of certain kinds of dichotomous concepts – between exchange and use value, abstract and concrete, etc. Both poles of the dichotomy, however, are equally qualitatively determined by social practice – one pole does not reflect an essence and the other an appearance (although it may be socially plausible for essence-appearance interpretations to arise). Both poles – and the tensions between them – generate determinate potentials, the exploration and expression of which can then provide standpoints for criticism of the ways in which available potentials are being held back or restrained by the existing organising of social life.

To be clear, I offer the example of the market above because I suspect it will be at least somewhat familiar to most readers – it’s not unlikely that people will have read works using something like the technical notion of “real abstraction” I deploy, with the market as the case example. I feel some discomfort with the example, however, as I think that focussing on the market as a “real abstraction” reinforces the tendency to define capitalism in terms of the market, and makes it difficult to understand some periods of capitalist history. My own work focuses instead on the collective constitution of a long-term and non-linear pattern of historical transformation – on this pattern as a “real abstraction” – and can be seen, in some senses, as a critique of approaches that rely on a focus on the market. I’ll leave this issue aside for present purposes, however, since my main goal here is outline various meanings that seem to have attached themselves to the phrase “real abstraction”, and to explore briefly how these different meanings lend themselves to different conceptions of social critique.

Substitutions

It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks, gearing up for the new term, and also standing in for a colleague who has been away. It’s a strange thing, taking someone else’s course for a brief period of time – particularly during the first couple of weeks of a new term, which tend to set the tone and expectations for the rest of the course. I wonder just how far I’ve deviated from what they would have done with their students early on.

The course is called “Social Construction of the Self”, and I’ve had a great deal of fun watching how the students dealt with this concept. For the most part, they have dealt with it as many academics do (at least tacitly): treating the concept of social construction as what L Magee often calls “an irregular verb” – expressing positions that can best be characterised as: he is constructed; she is constructed; you are constructed; they are constructed; I am objectively true… Over and over in class discussion, the students expressed that they understood this social construction stuff – no sweat: all these other societies, all the rest of human history – constructed. No problem. But they persisted in using metaphors of unveiling, of discovery, of peeling away the layers – such that their current perspective somehow always ended up being positioned as the unconstructed truth that all those other – visibly constructed – positions just hadn’t yet managed to reach.

It was lovely – I had enormous fun with this. I gave examples, I drew pictures, I asked questions, I poked and prodded – and I completely, utterly, and absolutely failed to put a dent in the reflex asymmetry and exceptionalism of the students’ positions. It’s not that the students rejected the notion of social construction – that would have led to a very different sort of interaction. It’s that, as far as they were concerned, they were accepting the notion (which itself is interesting, and perhaps indicative of the students’ belief that a course with this title “expects” them to accept its namesake concept – by rights, I’d expect at least some students to query the premise – but I’ll leave this issue aside). It’s just that the position they thought they were accepting, involved some kind of recognition of how all those benighted and unenlightened other folk had constructed things – thus covering over the truth that we have now unveiled. It was glorious – I don’t think I managed to communicate to a single student the question of what it might mean to think about the “construction” of their own positions. So now I’ll be missing the course the rest of the term, wondering whether I would have remained so ineffective if I’d had the whole thirteen weeks…

While I was being ineffectual in other people’s courses, I decided I would do further damage by evangelising my particular views on academic writing. I do this, of course, to my own students all the time – but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to interfere with someone else’s students, as well. I have three major demands for student writing: that they treat other texts as arguments, rather than as authorities; that they empathise before they criticise; and that they write in order to effect a change in their reader.

The first is fairly easy to explain, and is basically just an iatrogenic issue related to how they were taught to write in high school: most students come to university inclined to treat all texts like encyclopaedias – as repositories of consensus information, rather than as arguments or attempts to effect a particular change in their readers. This leads to students seizing and rephrasing random bits of text, and then tossing a Harvard cite to the source in parentheses, with no attention to whether that text might be making a tendentious claim, whether it might disagree with the text they cite in the next sentence, etc.

The second is also reasonably easy to communicate, although very difficult for most students to do: I want students to demonstrate that they’ve made the attempt to make sense of a text – by paying very, very close attention to what it says, and how, before they leap breathlessly into judgement, telling me whether they agree or disagree. Learning to get into someone else’s text is difficult, and students don’t get as much practice doing this as I’d like (I gather this must be more of an issue for me than it seems to be for many other staff – which makes some sense, given that I’m generally teaching history and theory, while many of the other courses students take will focus more on pre-professional training). When the course theme allows it, I tend to spend a great deal of time on this issue in my classes.

The third is perhaps the strangest thing to attempt to teach. I used to express this point by telling students that academic writing involves making an argument. This seemed like a close approximation of what I was after, given that students in my courses are generally writing academic essays. This instruction, though, seemed to lead students in some strange directions. What I tended to get on initial assignments was something I’ve been calling “argumentative show-and-tell”: students would write whatever they were writing and then, in the final paragraph, and often with no relation to what came before and no supporting evidence or analysis, would suddenly burst out with something like, “But I think x…” End of essay.

I found this pattern very confusing, until I realised that this was how students were interpreting my request that they “make an argument”: they thought an “argument” was, essentially, a stance – a declaration of their position. And they treated this stance or position as if it were something like a static and fixed possession – something they could describe, but not something that had any intimate connection to the process that structured and motivated their writing as a whole. More fundamentally, there was something strangely autobiographical in their approach – the reader was somehow not in the frame – they weren’t writing to persuade someone else to think a particular way, or to effect some transformation in another person, but rather to make some kind of authentic declaration about themselves. I’ve found that this final point – writing for a reader – structuring writing to attempt to effect some specific transformation in those who encounter the writing – the most difficult to communicate successfully.

Cultivating – and Surviving – Networks

Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, and thoughts spinning vaguely from trying to absorb far too many new concepts during my very short mid-term break, I found myself jolted to full attention unexpectedly this morning, after stumbling across the extraordinary new blog adventures in jutland. With only a couple of extraordinary posts up at the moment, author ibbertelsen demonstrates a virtuosity with asking particularly complex and layered questions – in this case, questions about the interconnectedness of recent, interpenetrating, shifts in theory, cultural practices, and technologies that together seem to draw upon and reinforce concepts of decentred and networked models – whether applied to thought, society, or nature. Importantly, ibbertelsen recognises that the most important question to ask when confronted with these shifts is not the representational question of the truth or falsity of the models – not: are these new models an accurate way of describing the phenomena they seek to describe? Instead, given the resonance or growing intuitive appeal of such models, the key question becomes what the impact of these shifts will be – the ibbertelsen’s own words:

Whether any of this true, and which of the new models are right or wrong (scientifically), is up for grabs. My questions, however, are not along those lines. They rather concern the cultural consequences of new models for thinking, of the multiplications and clashes of “cognitive models” that don’t match, or don’t confirm our necessary assumptions, and the way these models don’t just inform but transform our thinking practices. The jury (in so far as we still have juries rather than brain scans) is out on whether culture can survive the new models, with their new practices and assumptions, whether they are right or wrong or a bit of both.

So here is my question: Can we survive dynamic, networked thought? Networked perceptions? The blurring of thought, perceptions and actions in dynamic networks? Can culture in general (I know, which culture specifically am I writing about … but that’s part of my point), can art, can democracy, science, religion, etc survive the new mobilities in perception and cognition/thinking models, practices and yes – perhaps thinking processes themselves (thinking processes that now include perception, action, affect, sensation all in shifting brain-body -world dynamics, to the point that we may no longer be able to talk about, or even assume, “our cognitive processes”).

Part of this is that as thinking/perception, sensation, affect and action all become more networked, more dynamic, more mobile, they are also more “mobilized” in Isabelle Stengers’ sense of the word, in which models and rhetorics are “mobilized” in order to stabilise certain practices, interests, disciplines, (models of affective and cognitive control in the workplace for example, or education, to help maximise productivity). Can we survive this (often “scientific”) “mobilization” of thought, perception, affect and action?

Sub-question: What are thought, affect, perception and action when they are now so obviously in such complex are fully mobilized circuits? Are they anything stable or even nameable at all? (I don’t claim to be able to answer this question, but a basic beginning might be here).

I might add a question of my own (regular readers will no doubt guess what it will be): how should we understand the resonance itself? Ibbertelsen’s non-representational insight primes this question: understanding the emergence and appeal of any concepts or metaphors is separable from determining the truth value of those concepts (if “truth” brought concepts into being and compelled people to believe them, it becomes difficult to understand the sorts of sudden, interdisciplinary shifts to which ibbertelsen is drawing attention). So the question becomes: why are we particularly attentive to the possibility of networked models, particularly receptive to metaphors of distributed processes, now? Can a better understanding of how the intuitive plausibility of such concepts is itself constructed, also help us develop a more active relationship to this resonance, such that we can shift from asking “what impacts will this shift have”, to asking “what potentials could this shift hold”?

And speaking of resonance: Stengers’ work, of course, has been “in the air” recently – I would be remiss if I didn’t also point folks to the most recent rounds of the ongoing (should one say evolving?) discussion of Stengers and Prigogine over at Larval Subjects.

Ontology Matching as a Service Industry

One of my more amusing experiences this term has been being the point person for students with questions about ontology. My best guess is that this is happening because of a public lecture I gave early in the term, which among other things was tasked with trying to make sense of the concepts of ontology and epistemology for novice researchers in the social sciences. Since then, I’ve had a steady stream of students referred to me by other faculty, who want me to explain to them “what an ontology is” – or, worse, what their ontology is… (Everyone wants their own, it seems…)

Now, thanks to L Magee, I have some place to refer them. LM offers a tantalising – illustrated and in full-colour – selection of ontologies for all your research needs. I might suggest that this post casts the concept of “ontology matching” in an entirely new light: forget monitoring how people achieve intersubjective consensus in the face of incommensurable worldviews! Turn that fancy software of yours into an Ontology Matching Service! Students can answer a series of targeted questions in the privacy and anonymity of their homes, and then be matched by your ARC-backed, empirically validated, software, to their very own personalised ontology – a sort of conceptual dating service for researchers who may feel too shy or too busy to develop their own paradigm or conceptual scheme.

To What End

The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.

~ Michel Foucault

(1982) “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview”, in L.H. Martin (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, London: Tavistock, p. 9-15.

What is this strange thing about writing that requires courage? Where is the risk? Why is this task so fraught?

“It’s the problem with reading so many primary sources,” L Magee suggests the other day, when we discuss this issue, “You think you have to be that good.”

I mention that I am relatively good with situational pieces – the context is known, and bounded. It’s developing the boundaries that is difficult for me – deciding when it’s okay to stop. LM shares this worry: “I say to myself, how can I possibly write on this, when I haven’t read…” I wince, as LM manages to list some works I also don’t know – I feel the boundaries pushing farther back. Involuntarily, I remember ZaPaper discussing how research is fractal: no matter how much you drill down, things never seem to become less complex – if you don’t rein things in, ZaPaper argues, “One ends up investigating everything and writing nothing”.

In my conversation with LM, I change the topic quickly to get my mind off of all the works we have convinced one another we must read (I’m actually embarrassed to list the things LM and I are planning to read together this term – embarrassed because it’s simply absurd, the number of works – the number of fields – we are frantically trying to cover, in our quest to feel vaguely adequate to the problems we are posing. I’m reminded of Scott Eric Kaufman’s search for complete world knowledge – I think that’s a fairly good description of what we’re telling one another we’ll manage to cover in the next six months…).

I offer that I do better when I have a specific audience in mind, when I have some idea what concepts are shared, and what concepts need to be developed and explained in detail. “Write for me, then,” LM volunteers, “Let me be your audience – then you’ll know to keep things simple, break things down.”

LM is being modest – as if I haven’t received the most thorough criticism of my work in our conversations – I hardly need to be simple in our discussions.

The issue, though, isn’t really audience, or situation – or even background – these are all deflections from the core challenge, which concerns the question or problem. Writing begins in earnest for me when I’ve decided what the core problem will be. Knowing the audience or the situation makes this easier, because the universe of possible problems that interest me can be narrowed to the much smaller set of problems that jointly interest me and specific interlocutors, or that intersect with some specific situation. But the core issue is still defining the problem.

At the moment, I’m balancing across a few core problems, and have been writing at a level of abstraction high enough that I could keep all of these problems suspended at once. This was useful, very useful, for a period. But now I need to move back to something ever so slightly more concrete (realising that this term only ever applies in a slightly ironic way to my work), which will force me to leave some of these problems to the side for a time. As a step in this direction, over the next couple of months LM and I will be working on a proto-collaborative project from time to time, starting with a set of reflections on The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, and tentatively organised around the question “Is There a Logic of the Social Sciences?”

Ironically, this topic picks up on the very earliest theoretical question I addressed on the blog: whether it is viable or productive to seek to understand the emergence of the social sciences, and the relationship between the social and the natural sciences, with reference to some kind of strong ontological distinction between forms of human practice, or the properties of social and natural worlds as objects of knowledge. When I first addressed this issue here, I contested the validity of this kind of theoretical move, but left (as an exercise for the writer… ;-P) what a developed alternative might look like. We’ll see whether this collaborative dialogue allows me to pick up on some of these issues in a more adequate way – and how the question comes to be refracted when translated into a more interactive exchange.

I should note by way of apology that I pulled an unintentional bait-and-switch to get LM on board with this vision of a collaborative project. We’ve been talking about doing some form of collaborative writing for some time, but have both been too busy to undertake anything more involved than what we’ve attempted from time to time on the blog. Now that our schedules are lightening a bit, we returned to the issue of collaborative writing with a more serious intent. I suggested an upcoming (low key) conference, LM suggested something around The Positivist Dispute, and I proposed that perhaps we could look into the competing meanings of “the critical tradition”, as this concept was central to this debate. All well and good, and so we shared dinner and a nice conversation around what we might write, and then, just when all seemed settled and we were wandering into the subway station to go home, I was suddenly hit with the concept and burst out, “You know of course what we could do instead? We could also look at the whole notion of the logic of the social sciences – maybe title the presentation is there a logic of the social sciences?”

LM blanched, and reminded me that I had recently been lamenting that, when I present, people tell me I am… er… scary: did I really think, LM wanted to know, that presenting on this particular question would assist me in overcoming that perception? I found myself rationalising – oh, it won’t be that big of a deal – no one will show for the presentation, really, because the topic is just too abstruse – if people do show, it’ll just seem like a discussin of a dead debate, etc. LM seemed sceptical, and began to list people that would be likely to attend. I suspect I’m too tempted by the topic, by the problem, to let other concerns get in the way… This reaction no doubt has something to do with what tends to happen when I present… So here we are – at least for the moment – having decided to open a discussion on the blog, and then see what develops from here that we might (or might not) turn into a presentation in a couple of months.

Note that we haven’t settled on any particular order or schedule for posts. I’ll try to write something over the weekend to get things started – most likely focussing solely on Popper and Adorno’s original contributions to the debate, and exploring how the competing notions of critique yield different concepts of the social sciences. We don’t have any specific plans for what will fall out of this discussion – whether it might yield some kind of joint presentation, duelling presentations from competing stances, or a decision that the topic isn’t productive for what we each want to write at the moment – these decisions will emerge over time. Hopefully we’ll both find it productive for our current writing, not knowing how all of this will end…

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