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 â€“ 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.
You know, this is an absolutely brilliant observation and example. Why don’t you give it a go, follow up these ideas with reference to phronesis, and publish in a peer-reviewed journal? Feel free to email and maybe we can discuss it a bit. I admire Flyvbjerg’s work from many perspectives, but agree, that such socio-historical grounding is lacking in the book, but would further strengthen the work’s ‘credentials’. Cheers.