Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Theoretical Fragments

I don’t quite have a complete post on either of the following points, but thought I’d toss them up as free associations for the day…

(1) Thinking What We Know

One of my recurrent struggles, in writing about social theory, is communicating how someone’s formal theoretical system often doesn’t “allow” them to think things that, in practice, they “know” are true.

My recent conference paper, for example, gestured at some of the problems that derive from trying to define capitalism in terms of the institutions of the market and private property: my argument is that, once you accept this definition, you lose the ability to explain theoretically certain things about capitalism that many people assume are true – e.g., that capitalism is global in scope, or that the rise of capitalism and the rise of “modernity” are intrinsically bound together in some meaningful way. The market and private property are not appropriate concepts to enable us to ground these sorts of insights or intuitions into capitalism – they are simultaneously too expansive in their historical scope (“markets” of various kinds have existed well back into history) and too narrow (private property has been suspended or diminished in importance at various points in recent history without this undermining other trends that we would regard as “capitalist”).

It may, of course, be the case that the definition is correct – that capitalism should be defined in terms of the market and private property – and that it is our historical intuitions that are wrong: perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to capture the “globalness” of our contemporary history, or the distinctiveness of modernity, via a concept such as capitalism.

I am interested, though, in the issue of how we could ground these sorts of historical intuitions – what kinds of theoretical concepts might make it possible to grasp and make sense of these sorts of historical insights. I am also interested in preventing the sorts of conceptual mistakes that I think sometimes occur when people move, often without realising it, from what their theoretical categories logically allow them to say, into broader claims that are grounded on historical intuitions that cannot be grasped within their theoretical system.

I find it very difficult, though, in practice to convince someone that a theoretical system in fact does not ground insights that are historically plausible for other reasons. I find myself in situations where, for example, I will note that the common definition of capitalism can’t really make sense of the mid-20th century as capitalist, where my interlocutor will respond, e.g., that of course they know that the mid-20th century is capitalist – what gives me the impression they aren’t aware of this, etc. I’m trying to work out a better vocabulary for expressing that my critical target is the logical implications of the theoretical categories, rather than the historical awareness of the theorist…

(2) How Do We Value Labour?

I’ve recently been playing with alternative definitions of capitalism, trying to stumble across a good vocabulary for describing what I suspect is best understood in terms of a long-term, unintended pattern of social practice – a pattern that can be (and, historically, has been) replicated via a range of concrete social institutions, and that therefore should not be defined in terms of any specific configuration of concrete social institutions.

In recent papers, I’ve been toying with describing this long-term pattern of social practice in terms of “growth”. For many reasons, though, I’m not particularly enamoured of this term – among other things, it troubles me to use a “fashionable” term of critique (not because I have some principled objection to fashionable concepts, but because fashionable concepts tend to become freighted with a blurry range of meanings, increasing the chances for someone to read extraneous content into what I’m trying to communicate – and my concepts are fuzzy enough as it is, without loading them with a range of unintended meanings…), and I’m finding that, in practice, some readers are inclined (not unreasonably) to interpret my references to “growth” in terms of quantitative expansion – of stuff, of population – and thus to assume that I’m making some kind of argument about the psychological consequences of exposing humans to quantitatively more and more, e.g., wealth, population, etc. – when what I’m actually after are the qualitative dimensions of the pattern: a better understanding of how our perceptions and thoughts are shaped in specific qualitative directions through our practical exposure to this dimension of our historical experience.

Ironically, I’ve gotten myself into this situation by trying to avoid speaking in terms that I thought would be even more freighted – specifically, to avoid what might otherwise be a tempting move to reappropriate and reinterpret the phrase “labour theory of value”. This move would be tempting because, I suspect, one useful way to describe the long-term pattern of social practice that characterises capitalism would be in terms of social pressures and incentives to reconstitute the expenditure of human labour, regardless of how high productivity or material wealth becomes. From this standpoint, one can then examine particular institutional configurations of capitalism to, e.g., identify the feedback loops and incentives that, in a particular context, help to perpetuate this pattern – but one can also abstract from concrete feedback loops and incentives, recognising that it is theoretically possible to transform a wide range of social institutions and practices while retaining “capitalism” – as long as capitalism is understood in terms of the underlying pattern of practice…

I’m by no means the only person who has suggested that the “labour theory of value” might mean something like this. But the overwhelmingly more common interpretation of the phrase “labour theory of value” sees the term as a claim about how, in spite of appearances, labour inputs have some determining role in the creation of material wealth or in setting the prices of goods – and that then sees critique as a process of “unmasking” these misleading appearances, in order to reveal the true social centrality of the working classes. It would be something of an understatement to say that I find such claims empirically problematic and, in any event, I am not generally trying to construct an “unmasking” or debunking critique – I therefore regard this conventional vision of the labour theory of value as beside the point for my work, and have avoided using the term to prevent my claims from being distorted by the conceptual gravitational field exerted by this much older and better known theoretical tradition.

Still, the question remains as to whether, in trying to avoid the particular historical freighting of terms like “labour theory of value”, I’ve fallen into an even more loaded terrain by invoking the fashionable, but fuzzy and ill-defined, notion of “growth”…


5 responses to “Theoretical Fragments

  1. Robert December 1, 2006 at 9:30 am

    Should you equate ‘theorizing’ about economics to ‘theorizing’ about farming? To take a page out of Lakoff’s book, the term growth might not necessarily define an event. Rather, the event might be defined by an understanding (metaphorical or otherwise) of the term.

    I would venture that despite their cultural differences, the vast majority of ‘successful’ communities (loaded term!) have an understanding of farming (or at least think they do)

    Think of it as ‘reliving’ the physiocrats (but with the hindsight of Lakoff and Diamond).

  2. N Pepperell December 1, 2006 at 11:35 am

    I’ll have to apologise in advance in case I miss the thrust of your comments – I’m finding my thoughts running off in several different directions, and I’m not sure which one will prove closest to what you were asking about… ;-P

    On the issue of whether I should equate theorising about economics to theorising about farming – I’m guessing that you’re reacting to the discussion about “growth” above? And asking why I would be worried about a confusion between the (fairly well-defined) notion of economic growth, and the other sorts of contexts in which this term might be used, like farming?

    Apologies if this isn’t what you were asking – but, in the odd chance that it is, my basic concern isn’t so much that I’m tempted to blur these different contexts in which the term “growth” is used, but that other people – including some fairly close readers of my work – seem to be. I’m generally trying to talk about qualitative shifts – to capture what is qualitatively distinct about a specific moment in time. The problem with a metaphor like “growth”, within this context, is that most people hear it as an essentially quantitative metaphor – and, having put this thought into their head, so to speak, I then have a somewhat difficult time dragging them back to the space where I need them to be thinking, if I want to get across what I’m trying to say…

    This isn’t a problem with the reader – who is hearing the term in a more conventional sense than I am using it. I was just interested to see this problem arise, given that I had actually started using the term “growth” in order to avoid another, similar misinterpretation that I was worried might be provoked by a different vocabulary…

    I’ve written a bit on Lakoff on the blog – and, two weeks from now, the reading group, which has been on a bit of a linguistics tangent recently, will take a look at his Metaphors We Live By (and probably at the recent exchange between Lakoff and Pinker, as well) – if you have an interest in Lakoff’s work, it would be good if you could hang around for the discussion. (I haven’t posted the reading selections yet – they’ll go up on the main page once I have the time.)

    Diamond (you mean Jared Diamond?) is probably worth a discussion around these parts, as well, although there have been some very interesting debates on Diamond’s work elsewhere recently.

    I’d be interested to hear more about why you’ve invoked the physiocrats – my mind goes in far, far too many directions to attempt to respond until I can hear a bit more… 😉

  3. Robert December 1, 2006 at 1:41 pm

    I will elaborate as succinctly as I can. Having read a few of your posts (including those about Lakoff) it appears to me that you have a talent for lucid elaboration. Unfortunately, I am still developing my skills.

    To business…

    On Jared Diamond… Thanks for the links. I feel that taking ‘pot-shots’ at Diamonds’ work is akin to intellectual sloth. In seeking greater perspective, he deliberately tries to cover a lot of ground and in the process his ‘theory’, if taken in its entirety, is wrought with glaring omissions. Pointing out the non-uniformity of the ‘trees’ we fail to conceive of the ‘forest’. His book ‘Collapse’ is particularly ‘daring’ as he crosses the boundary into prediction. This is a feat that ‘greater minds’ have often (quite rightly) shied away from. Putting his ‘predictions’ to one side, I find one of his insights particularly relevant to thinking about the ‘growth’ qualitatively – namely, he points that out that hierarchical societies are (in part) successful due to their ability harness agriculture. Whatever tangent Diamond may have taken in his more recent work, the ‘anthropologist’ in him does offer his ideas a certain irreducible cohesion.

    Now let’s fast-forward to Lakoff and Metaphors We Live By (reading it at present – good stuff). I see the embodied mind philosophy (that Lakoff has grounded conceptual metaphor and metonymy) as complimentary in elaborating where the underlying traditions and customs about societal structure come from. These customs and traditions that survive in our language, and as Lakoff repeatedly emphasises the language (and metaphor) can constrain the way we understand things.

    We can now bring in (briefly) Foucault. Let us bear in mind one of his contributions in particular: society changes as the result of a shift in common thinking (or changes in conceptual metaphor??). He emphasised that ‘change’ was always better tracked through the mind of the customs house officer, jailer and police superintendent rather than through the discourse of the high priests.

    We find our way back to the physiocrats. Quesnay, metaphorically grounded in 18th century ‘medicine’ (i.e. the body is a system etc.) fuses this ‘domain’ with the agricultural cycle. Thus the birth of his ‘Tableau.’ Crucially it becomes popular because it makes sense.

    Adam Smith infuses the system with prevailing ‘morality.’ This is an idea to vast to be discussed here and many academic careers have been launched on the back of it.
    Drawing out one conclusion though, Smith fuses the Tableau with prevailing metaphorical concepts of the British tradition – particularly Nations are People and Humans Nature is Self-Interest.

    Ricardo, Mill, Marshall, Samuelson – it becomes a largely a process of formalisation and ‘metaphorical updating’ from here on in. It is not surprising that in their quest for the next ‘paradigm shift’ many start their search at Smiths’ work.

    The point is that although the ‘idea’ of ‘growth’ functions in economic theory as a quantitative measure, it invariably has qualitative dimensions riding with it. The source and impact of these qualitative dimensions are, I think, very well explained by Lakoff and this theory of conceptual metaphor.

    And now for the red herring: Maybe this is what made Gramsci so ‘angry.’ I venture with more certainty, however, that it was precisely this (the entrapment of metaphorical reasoning) that peeved of Nietzsche.

    I’d appreciate any comments you may have… 😉

  4. Robert December 1, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    If successful communities (societies) are agrarian by definition, then any ‘grounding’ must make reference to this ‘fact.’

  5. N Pepperell December 1, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    I would agree, if I can be a bit catty, that the quantitative is a kind of unrecognised qualitative… ;-P I realise, though, that this isn’t quite what you’re trying to get at via Lakoff, which has more to do with the network of associated qualitative metaphors that get “activated” when a particular concept is invoked. In my original post, of course, I wasn’t worrying so much about this “meta” level of theoretical concepts, but more about the practicalities of trying to get my readers to understand what I’m saying…

    In terms of pot shots and critiques of Diamond: yes, this tends to happen – not just to Diamond, but to other academics who write as public intellectuals. Diamond is a bit more complex, as he’s actually not an anthropologist who is popularising anthropology, but a non-anthropologist who is popularising anthropology… So he’ll annoy even more people than your standard academic-cum-public intellectual will… ;-P

    I’m generally sympathetic with “big picture” theorists, and generally also get annoyed at critiques that nit pick without understanding the big picture problem that is on the table, and taking up the challenge of showing either (1) how else you might address that big picture problem or (2) that, in spite of appearances, there is no big picture problem. That said, my suspicion is that Diamond draws some inappropriate parallels across historical periods and between types of societies – but I’d want to look at the work more formally, before I really pressed something like this.

    In terms of Lakoff: I’m looking forward to giving him another look in a couple of weeks. The embodied mind materials (not in Lakoff per se, but in some of the other works on which he leans) make me a bit uncomfortable, mainly because they seem to be motivated by a fairly explicit metaphysics – the conclusions may still be completely accurate, but I tend to want to look more carefully at the empirical materials underlying projects with this kind of motivation. My preliminary concerns with Lakoff I’ve obviously outlined elsewhere – my main worry the first time I read him was that his political works don’t seem to be applying the most interesting conclusions you could draw from his linguistic theory. It’ll be interesting to see if I read him differently, now that I know a little bit more about the linguistic tradition to which he was replying…

    In terms of your general comments about the intellectual history of the concept of growth – and, particularly, the valorisation of growth in various cultural frameworks in the modern era: my main curiosity is what makes these specific cultural tropes particularly persuasive.

    My intuition – which may end up, in the wash, being completely wrong – is that we might come closer to being able to answer this question if we think about what makes the thinking subject “the subject of its object” – in other words, whether we can conceptualise reasons that there might be a non-random relationship between the sorts of things we do, the sort of society we create, and the kinds of cultural or intellectual categories by which we then try to make sense of our practices and our society.

    So I guess my instinct would be to say that I’m not sure we can be “entrapped” by metaphorical reasoning – although I think that, given a certain context that makes particular metaphors resonant, the specific metaphors we use can have strong “material” impacts – can make a difference in the possibilities we believe are available to us at a particular moment in time…

    Hopefully some of this can be thrashed out in some greater detail when we open the Lakoff discussion again on the blog in a couple of weeks… (Not to suggest that you have to wait until then, only to note that there will be more voices in the fray at that time…)

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