Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Talking the Talk

I won’t blog today about the other papers at the Governments and Communities in Partnership conference – I’ve sketched some notes on some interesting convergent themes, but I’ll try to sum those up in a post tomorrow. I did want to post a copy of the talk I delivered below the fold – the talk is significantly shorter than the paper, but also significantly longer than a standard blog post, so be warned…

Some funny things from the session where I delivered my paper: first, the members of my reading group, evidently put out that my paper prevented our regular Monday lunchtime meeting, invaded the session (if by “invaded” you understand “slipped into the back and sat in the most shadowy corner of the conference room, from which they promptly slipped back out once I had finished speaking”).

A technical glitch meant that the session began ten minutes late, which ordinarily wouldn’t have had much of an effect. This conference has been designed, though, to allow people to swap and change between concurrent sessions – so people could, for example, attend paper 1 from one session, and leave when that paper was done, being reasonably sure that paper 2 from another session would begin promptly on time. This meant that the entirety of the ten-minute delay had to come out of the first presentation, which, as luck would have it, was mine.

This had two impacts on my presentation: first, there was no time for questions afterward (this was likely a good thing, as my piece was so abstract, compared to the other papers I saw at the conference, that I’m reasonably certain no one would have had any questions to ask…) – instead, people were directed by the facilitator to my blog. The facilitator had evidently followed a footnote in the paper back here, and found it very striking that I would post work online – particularly work that I have specifically posted because I believe it needs additional revision. Before, during and after the panel session, she made a point of telling me how surprised she was at the “openness” of it all.

The second impact was that, contrary to my normal practice, I actually had to read the talk I had written, to make sure that I kept strictly to an allocated time substantially shorter than what I had expected. I hate reading talks, and I generally feel strongest and most comfortable giving ad-lib presentations. But, given the complexity of what I was trying to cover, the fundamental strangeness of my talk for this venue, and the time constraints, it seemed the best thing to do at the time…

The side effect is that the talk below is reasonably close to what I actually said, and provides a decent simplified and potted version of the full-length paper. I’ll give advance warning that this talk contains no footnotes or literature references, as the talk was not distributed at the conference, and I would expect readers to consult the published version of the paper for this purpose.

Talk for Conference on Governance and Communities in Partnership: from Theory to Practice

Since my paper for this panel is essentially a philosophical one, I’m conscious of not quite living up to the billed objective of this conference, which is to bridge the divide between theory and practice. So before getting into the content of my paper, I feel a certain obligation to reflect on the question of why it might be valuable to write – to research – intellectual history, social theory or philosophy, when our goals are essentially practical ones. This is a question that often haunts my work, since I’m an intellectual historian and social theorist by training, but find myself often working on practically-minded projects – the most recent of which is an ARC Linkage Grant devoted to re-imagining the potentials for suburban development on Melbourne’s northern fringe.

My defence of the need for philosophical reflection stems from a strong belief – a belief backed by historical experience – that it is in practice often very difficult for decision-makers – whether elected officials, government officers, activists, or members of political movements – to understand and predict the likely consequences of their actions in our peculiarly dynamic social context. Forced always to satisfice – to make choices and select among options with insufficient time and information at our disposal – we rely on instinct, an instinct that is often, I believe, heavily shaped by the aesthetic of the moment. At certain times, specific ideas resonate – certain concepts feel right, seem exciting, have a particularly intuitive quality at particular moments in time.

And my concern is that, if we’re not careful – if we’re not reflexive – these resonant ideas provide a kind of path of least resistance – a sort of conceptual gully into which all of our political initiatives will drain, sometimes for the better – because resonant ideas are often the sources of enormous social, cultural and political creativity – and sometimes for the worse – because resonant ideas tempt us to confuse the intuitive appeal of an idea with that idea’s empirical accuracy, and therefore to be temporarily blinded to the potential downsides of our political choices.

When I read Mark Considine’s background paper for this conference, my immediate sense was that Considine was asking us whether concepts of network governance might represent just this sort of resonant idea – and challenging us to slow down, step back, and try to gain critical purchase on the empirical basis for the ambitious claims made in the name of network governance. I think this is a vitally important project, and one that calls for the kinds of insight that philosophy and social theory can bring to bear. I also think it is a very large project – one that we are hopefully covering collectively, across the full range of papers presented at this conference, but not one that I could personally hope to resolve in a single piece.

In preparing my paper for this conference, I therefore asked myself what I could potentially contribute to this collective effort. My answer was that I could perhaps make a small contribution by analysing the way in which a few other important social theorists and philosophers have tried to make sense of the relationship between our historical experience and our political ideals. My hope is that, by learning from their insights – and from their mistakes – we can better prepare ourselves for the challenge of dealing self-reflexively with the compelling, intuitive, resonant ideals of our own time.

In a few moments, I’ll summarise the key points from my paper, which, for those who haven’t had the opportunity to read it, focuses primarily on Marx, Habermas and Rorty. Before I do this, however, I want to make a quick digression into the concept of self-reflexivity – which is a term that occurs perhaps once or twice in the paper, but which is quite central, as a concept, to my work.

Self-reflexivity is, like network governance, one of the resonant concepts of our present moment in time. A number of works on self-reflexive social science were published during the past couple of decades and, although the concept of self-reflexivity has a long intellectual history, I think we must consider that there might be some special reason for the appeal of this term in recent historical experience. I have my own opinions about why self-reflexivity might particularly resonate in recent history, but I will leave these aside for present purposes. I just want to flag for consistency that, with self-reflexivity as with other historically-prominent concepts, I believe that we have a special need to be wary – to try to maintain our intellectual agnosticism – our sense of the distinction between our aesthetic preferences, and our empirical knowledge.

This commitment to intellectual agnosticism, however, does not mean we need to shy away from using resonant concepts. The challenge is, while using these concepts, to begin to work our way toward an understanding of why they appeal so much to us, so that we can then make a fully informed decision about how we can productively use them.

For our purposes, I want to concentrate on the different senses in which the term self-reflexivity is used in the social science literature. I suggest that there are three main understandings of this term, each with differing epistemological implications. First, for some authors, self-reflexivity is simply a convenient term for careful and thoughtful method that seeks to remove the researcher’s individual bias from the research process. In this sense, self-reflexivity is compatible with a positivist epistemology – with the concept that we should aim for some kind of objective truth, and that the researcher’s contingent biases need to be eliminated in order to attain true knowledge. Self-reflexivity in this sense is the search for observer neutrality and, from this perspective, political ideals represent one among many potential biases that can deflect us from the truth.

A second really common use of the term self-reflexivity aims in a more relativistic direction – sometimes against the conscious intentions of the authors who advocate this approach. In this sense, self-reflexivity is again a way to determine the researcher’s individual bias – not, this time, in order to eliminate this bias, but in order to demonstrate that individual bias is intrinsic to the research process, cannot be eliminated, and therefore must be acknowledged in order to appropriately relativise the results of the research process. Self-reflexivity in this sense is often understood as a political act, because it often seeks to undermine the apparent neutrality of positivistic approaches, arguing that this neutrality serves as a mask for particular social interests. This attack on positivism comes at a high cost, however, as this approach points to no arbiter, other than subjective experience, through which conflicting truth claims could be adjudicated.

A third use of self-reflexivity – the use that I adopt in this paper, and in much of my other work – differs from both of these approaches in that it is not primarily concerned with individual bias. Instead, this third approach to self-reflexivity sees self-reflection as a tool by which a researcher tries to understand the collectively shared historical experiences that make certain forms of thought more likely to arise in specific historical moments.

This form of self-reflexivity seeks to bridge a gap between the other two common definitions of self-reflection: it argues that, by understanding the contingent, historical character of our fundamental concepts, we can then explore and justify the extent to which those concepts are true for us – are useful expressions of the potentials of our particular historical moment. This approach to self-reflexivity views knowledge as neither transhistorically objective, nor relativistically subjective: it views knowledge as historical and collective, and seeks to ground our political ideals in those shared historical experiences through which we have demonstrated to ourselves that certain forms of community have become possible.

With these foundational concepts out of the way, I’ll turn now to a synopsis of the major points in my paper. I begin with a discussion of Karl Marx – a theorist who is usually read for his trenchant critique of class domination. In this paper, I seek to appropriate Marx, not so much as the firebrand of working class revolution, but as something like a critical anthropologist of capitalist society. I should stress that my intention is not to enter into the endless debates over Marx’s “true intent” – as a theorist with strong interest in pragmatist philosophy, I am far less concerned with what Marx “really meant”, than with whether and how we can use Marx as a source of useful inspirations for our own theoretical and practical work.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the two passages I highlight from Marx – an odd diversion on Aristotle, and a footnote on political economy – are somewhat off the beaten path – selected because they suggest some useful concepts for understanding resonant ideals. The first passage, taken from the first chapter of Capital vol 1, follows a series of sections in which Marx appears to be logically deducing that “value” is measured by labour time. The passage is interesting to me precisely because it breaks the flow of the preceeding logical deductions, which a reader would otherwise be tempted to view as expressions of Marx’s own approach.

In turning to Aristotle, Marx asks quite an interesting question: if we can derive a concept such as socially average labour-time through force of logic alone – and if any ordinary reader of Capital can follow the movement of this logic – why couldn’t Aristotle do the same? Marx then cites an extraordinary passage in which Aristotle actually considers the possibility of something like labour-time, only to reject the possibility. Surely, Marx suggests, if logic were the only mental attribute required to grasp the concept of labour-time, Aristotle of all people would have derived the logical conclusion that socially average labour-time was the basis for exchange. Surely, the passage suggests, we are not seriously claiming that even an average intellect of the contemporary era has a stronger command of logic than Aristotle possessed.

If we are not claiming this, however, the implications are quite radical – and not for the reasons that Marx is usually regarded as a radical theorist. Marx is here suggesting that he has led us into a conceptual trap – drawing us down the garden path of logical deduction, luring us into believing that we have followed his argument through our deductive powers alone when, in reality, we have found these “logical” deductions persuasive for a very different reason entirely. That reason, according to Marx, is historical experience – specifically, the experience of living in a society that, unlike Aristotle’s, offers widespread and everyday exposure to forms of social practice that do rely on something live socially-average labour time.

Marx revisits this point from the opposite direction in one of his characteristically sardonic dismissals of political economy. In footnote 34, Marx notes:

Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions to them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. Thus there has been history, but there no longer is any.

This passage hits again on the notion that there is an enormous temptation to view our concepts as “natural” – as discoveries, as logical, as “common sense” – even when we know, as the political economists must also have known, that our concepts are of quite recent historical origin.

The question of how to be self-reflexive, I suggest, is essentially and primarily a question of how to avoid this temptation – how to remove ourselves from the thrall of resonant concepts sufficiently to get a grasp on why we really believe them – why they really seem so logical and sensible to us, even though we know that people of good will and high intelligence in other historical periods have not stumbled upon these same concepts.

For Marx, the answer to this question does not involve a simple debunking or relativisation of political economy. It is not enough to pick at empirical flaws with the self-understanding of a resonant ideal – as so many present-day researchers must realise, having fought frustrating empirical battles against the dominant political and economic ideals of the past few decades. Instead, to use Adorno’s phrase, we need a way to grasp how “false consciousness is also true” – that, for an idea to resonate widely – particularly if the idea resonates in the face of strong empirical flaws – something in our shared historical experience may be working to render that idea socially plausible at our moment in time.

The project of self-reflexive research is therefore a simultaneous project of empathy and critical agnosticism – we need to understand the reasons for the power and appeal of resonant concepts while, as Benjamin has suggested, retaining our scepticism and critical relation to the historical origins of those concepts.

Having established this ideal for self-reflexive research, I then turn to two contemporary theorists who are also committed to the idea that objectivity and relativism do not exhaust our options for grounding political ideals: Jurgen Habermas, and Richard Rorty. I won’t replicate here my analysis of these two authors, but I will briefly highlight my main contentions.

Habermas is often taken, particularly in the planning theory literature that provides the basis for my empirical research, as a sort of philosophically robust theorist of community consultation. The bulk of Habermas’ serious theoretical work, however, is concerned with more than how we can talk to one another. Habermas is concerned with theoretical self-reflexivity – with how we can explain the historical emergence of our core scientific concepts and political ideals, without relativising those ideals away.

In the paper, I go into Habermas’ specific theory in some detail. For present purposes, I’ll say only that Habermas’ argument, at base, tries to ground democratic ideals in fundamental structures of human communication – suggesting that speech itself is the origin and foundation point for the appeal of democratic institutions. This position allows Habermas to claim a universal status for democratic ideals, but also causes problems, because Habermas has to answer the question of how ideals purportedly grounded in human communication, only come into political prominence rather recently in human history. Habermas has an answer to this question, but this answer is, in effect, that other societies artificially restricted the emergence of these natural implications of human speech. His argument, I suggest, is ultimately very similar to the political economists’ tendency to treat other societies as artificial, but our own as natural.

Rorty, by contrast, offers a more thoroughgoing historical theory. The cost, however, is universality: Rorty appears to believe that a thorough historicisation of knowledge must also involve an explicit admission of ethnocentrism – a dividing off “our” parts of the world, and “our” political ideals, from other parts of the world, with differing ideals.

Thus even theorists explicitly committed to a concept of self-reflexivity appear to reconstitute this recurrent antinomy between ideals that are universal because they are grounded in something outside of contingent history, and ideals that are historical, but therefore speak only to minorities within the human community.

The question with which I end the paper is: is this antinomy inevitable? Is there no way to reach for something like historical universals – ideals grounded in shared experiences that are historically specific to our time, but also sufficiently widely spread throughout the world that, pragmatically, they can function as universals for us. I believe that something like this is possible – although I readily acknowledge that this is not an argument I can develop, or perhaps even make plausible, in a conference paper.

My intuition is that a productive route into concepts of historical universals might be found through a reconceptualisation of how we understand “capitalism”. Our current conception of capitalism, I suggest, is a conflicted one – on the one hand, notions like “globalisation” suggest that we believe that there is some sense in which capitalism should be conceptualised as a global social relation; on the other hand, our common definitions for capitalism are divisive, both historically and geographically.

Capitalism is customarily understood in terms of the social institutions of the market and private property – understood, that is, in terms of systems of distribution of social wealth. According to this definition, large segments of the world were not “capitalist” during the middle 20th century, and the world as a whole was less capitalist in the mid-20th century than it was in the 19th, or than it is now. The market and private property as institutions have waxed and waned and, if we see them as the central defining institutions of capitalism, then thinking carefully about capitalism as a social relation will probably not give us much purchase on the issue of historically universal ideals.

Important bodies of social theory have commented on this limitation of trying to classify societies in terms of the prevalence of the institutions of the market and private property, have noted the tendency for broad, macro-sociological transformations to ramify on a global scale throughout modern history, and have suggested that it is at least as important to define the forces that periodically drive social transformations across the world, as it is to subdivide and classify segments of the world according to the prevalence of institutions such as the market and private property.

I suggest – and in this context it can be nothing more than a suggestion – that developing a better understanding of the forces that drive global changes can also help us with our problem of uncovering the kinds of common, global experiences that might make it possible to discuss historical universals. I suggest that the concept of capitalism might give us some analytical purchase on these forces – but only if we begin to understand that capitalism is not defined by the institutions of the market and private property. If, as a thought experiment, we were to take seriously the notion, often expressed offhandedly in the sociological literature in any event, that the modern era is capitalist, and then ask ourselves what we could possibly mean by this sort of claim, we could perhaps arrive at a definition of capitalism that would see the market and private property as two social institutions that have mediated capitalism, but not as the only social institutions that have, or conceivably could, mediate this social relation.

In the paper, I suggest a tentative alternative conceptualisation of capitalism as a form of social life that perpetuates pressures for economic growth – that reconstitutes the need for the expenditure of human labour, no matter how high our productivity becomes, no matter how wealthy our nations become. The market and private property can certainly transmit these pressures – so, however, can institutions that are often understood to be opposed to the market and private property, like the state. This definition may begin to give us some purchase on the unintended consequences of so many idealistic movements of times past, who directed their energies to the overthrow of concrete institutions like the market and private property while, however, building the core compulsion toward growth into the institutions designed to replace them.

I recognise that these are large and somewhat abstract claims – I don’t claim to have grounded them here, or even to have fully sketched their implications for what Mark Considine has called our “practical inquiry with a normative agenda”. My goal for the moment is nothing more than to provide a starting point – one which can hopefully be improved and amended as we continue the process of exploring and teaching ourselves the potentials our shared history has made possible.


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