Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Apropos of Nothing

I’ve been struggling for the past several weeks to work out how to explain the existence of a particular problem. I’m not there yet, but am stuck in a way that made me hope that writing might help shake things up a bit. I thought I’d post around the issue, focussing on some thoughts provoked by reading David Bloor’s (1976) Knowledge and Social Imagery, which among other things sets out the principles underlying the “strong programme” in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Aside from trying to get my thoughts moving in a productive direction, this post foreshadows a tangent the reading group may undertake in the new year, when we’ve discussed incorporating an arc on the sociology of knowledge, and also picks up on a few of the themes that have emerged in the ongoing conversation between this blog and Larval Subjects, for those who have been following that conversational arc.

In Bloor’s account, the strong programme seeks to develop a sociology of scientific knowledge with the following attributes:

1. It would be causal, that is, concerned with the conditions that bring about belief or states of knowledge. Naturally there will be other types of causes apart from social ones which will co-operate in bringing about belief.

2. It would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure. Both sides of these dichotomies will require explanation.

3. It would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of cause would explain, say, true and false beliefs.

4. It would be reflexive. In principle its patterns of explanation would have to be applicable to sociology itself. Like the requirement of symmetry this is a response to the need to seek for general explanations. It is an obvious requirement of principle because otherwise sociology would be a standing refutation of its own theories. (pp. 4-5)

In terms more commonly used on this blog, the strong programme commits itself to an immanent, historical and self-reflexive account of scientific knowledge, and thus shares some common interests with critical theory as I generally define the concept here. The strong programme is thus critical – as I also am – of approaches that seek to explain scientific errors in historical and sociological terms, while behaving as though scientific truths are not similarly subject to historical and sociological analysis. It aims itself at approaches that (tacitly or explicitly) behave as though errors arise from artificial historical and sociological distortions of an underlying natural truth, while the recognition of truth – whenever it might occur – requires no explanation, as though truth itself were a causal factor in bringing its own recognition into being…

At the same time, the strong programme’s commitment to a particular vision of historical causation – and a related lack of attention to questions of how one might use an immanent analysis to ground non-relativistic standards for assessing historically-available forms of perception and thought – differentiates this approach from critical theory in ways that ultimately, I suspect, would undermine the strong programme’s ability to achieve its own ideal of self-reflexivity. For present purposes, though, I want to leave aside this issue – which I suspect would require a fairly elaborate argument, and which in any event I might not be ready to discuss adequately at this point – to focus on a more overt, surface-level problem for self-reflexivity within Bloor’s account.

Bloor argues that the view that truth requires no sociological explanation derives from an – often tacit – teleological conception of knowledge, one in which truth drives toward its own historical realisation, such that historical and sociological analysis is required only for those causal factors that impede this teleological drive. Bloor asks:

What can it mean to say that nothing makes people do or believe things which are rational or correct? Why in that case does the behaviour take place at all? What prompts the internal and correct functioning of an intellectual activity if the search for causes is only deemed appropriate in the case of irrationality or error? The theory that tacitly underlies these ideas is a goal-directed or teleological vision of knowledge and rationality… (pp. 7-8)

Bloor opposes this teleological model to what he calls the “causal model” characteristic of the strong programme. Where the teleological model, Bloor argues, confines historical analysis to a “sociology of error”, the strong programme seeks a form of sociological analysis capable of understanding both “true” and “false” forms of knowledge as the products of similar causal forces:

How does this [teleological] model of knowledge relate to the tenets of the strong programme? Clearly it violates them in a number of serious ways. It relinquishes a thorough-going causal orientation. Causes can only be located for error. Thus the sociology of knowledge is confined to the sociology of error. In addition it violates the requirements of symmetry and impartiality. A prior evaluation of the truth or rationality of a belief is called for before it can be decided whether it is to be counted as self-explanatory or whether a causal theory is needed. There is no doubt that if the teleological model is true then the strong programme is false. (pp. 8-9)

What I find most intriguing about Bloor’s analysis, however – particularly with reference to the ideal of self-reflexivity – is how he concludes this section. For much of this discussion, Bloor has set up a clear opposition between the teleological model and the strong programme. His account suffers somewhat from how it stands poised on the Weberian abyss of uncertainty over how, having defined the two models clearly, and established that both can be regarded as internally consistent, it might justify the choice of one above the other (Bloor suggests, in the end, that “methodological considerations” might drive the choice of one above the other (p. 9) – an explicit position clearly weaker than the tacit passion he manifestly feels about the issue). For present purposes, I’ll pass over this problem to focus on a different issue: the quite extraordinary pulled punch that Bloor throws in the conclusion to this section, where he suddenly and unaccountably mentions that, in spite of his prior critique of the teleological model, he must nevertheless acknowledge that the strong programme still retains some of the teleological model’s core assumptions. I’ll quote Bloor’s own words at some length, to provide the context for his comments:

If explanation is allowed to hinge on prior evaluations then the causal processes that are thought to operate in the world will come to reflect the pattern of these evaluations. Causal processes will be made to etch out the pattern of perceived error, throwing into relief the shape of truth and rationality. Nature will take on a moral significance, endorsing and embodying truth and right. Those who indulge their tendencies to offer asymmetrical explanations will thus have every opportunity to represent as natural what they take for granted. It is an ideal recipe for turning one’s gaze away from one’s own society, values and beliefs and attending only to deviations from them.

Care is needed not to overstate this point, for the strong programme does exactly the same thing in certain respects. It is also based on values, for example: the desire for generality of a specific kind and for a conception of the natural world as morally empty and neutral. So it too insists on giving nature a certain role with respect to morality, albeit of a negative kind. That means it too represents as natural what it takes for granted.

What may be said, however, is that the strong programme possesses a certain kind of moral neutrality, namely the same kind as we have learned to associate with all the other sciences. It also imposes on itself the need for the same kind of generality as other sciences. It would be a betrayal of those values, of the approach of empirical science, to choose to adopt the teleological view. Obviously these are not reasons which could compel anyone to adopt the causal view. For some they may be precisely the reasons that would incline them to reject causality and adopt asymmetrical, teleological conceptions. But these points do make clear the ramifications of the choice and expose those values that are going to inform the approach to knowledge. From this type of confrontation, then, the sociology of knowledge can proceed, if it so chooses, without let or hindrance. (pp. 9-10 italics and bold text mine)

What an extraordinary concession! And from a theoretical approach that puts forward an ideal of self-reflexivity! Bloor is here saying that his approach relies on an explicit, but ungrounded, concept of nature as its normative standpoint – that this concept will remain ungrounded – and, moreover, is a central normative concept structuring, not only the sociological technique, but the object to which that technique will be applied: scientific knowledge! Bloor has here, in my opinion, gone well beyond declaring that the strong programme will not be able to achieve its self-reflexive ideal: he has conceded that a significant dimension of his object of study will forever remain beyond his analytical reach… I find this nothing short of astonishing – although, to be fair, I think that many approaches tacitly fall into exactly this position, but lack the honesty and clarity with which Bloor acknowledges the problem, and for which he should be commended.

Bloor’s defense of this remnant of nature at the core of his analytic approach deserves further attention. While acknowledging that his approach does rely on a concept of nature, Bloor suggests that this concept is rendered less problematic because it is “morally empty and neutral” and “of a negative kind”. Interestingly, this morally negative, empty and neutral concept still functions as a normative standard: it is used to assess and reject other understandings of nature that are judged to be less empty, neutral and negative. Bloor doesn’t appear to perceive a contradiction between describing his concept of nature as “morally neutral” while also deploying it to make normative judgments. Bloor’s “neutral” concept of nature apparently also drives specifically toward the search for “general” knowledge – a concept of knowledge whose qualitative specificity would not seem, in an intuitive sense, to be empty, neutral or negative in its implications, but which here is mentioned in passing as though it possesses an obvious compatibility with notions of what nature ought to be like, when stripped of its positive moral attributes and reduced to an absence, a lack, a negativity…

It may be very difficult for me to express why I find this position so significant. I have a long-standing interest in the ways in which critical values in recent history are so often articulated as negations – as what remains, once all qualitative attributes are stripped away – as voids. The concept of nature Bloor uses above; the common narrative of “secularisation”; the Weberian notion of “disenchantment”: all of these approaches, and many others besides, tacitly or explicitly position themselves as speaking from the standpoint of an absence: they focus attention on what is qualitative, specific, historical and social, while treating the alternative as nothing more than what remains when those qualitative, specific, historical and social trappings have been stripped away. The negative itself is conceptualised as pure absence, pure lack – and therefore seems not to be in need of explanation, at least not of an explanation that would seek to account for its particular qualitative character. This remains the case even when, as above, quite specific qualitative attributes are explicitly ascribed to the negative – such as the determinate quality of capturing what is general or universal in experience.

One of the questions I am trying to figure out how to ask – so that it then becomes easier to consider what type of answer might be adequate to the question – is how we might understand the history and the sociology of what presents itself to our perception as an absence. How can we denaturalise what appears to our experience as nothing more than what remains, when everything artificial has been stripped away? How do we grasp the determinate positivity of what we experience as a negation?

My intuition is that this will prove to be a multifaceted historical problem, necessitating that we come to terms with the constitution of a complex historical context that simultaneously: (1) casts certain specific forms of social practice – concrete institutions and cultural forms and social practices – as social, as artificial human creations with an identifiable history and a sociology – and thereby gives us unprecedented historical access to concepts like “social context”, while also (2) generating another layer of social context that, although just as much the product of historically-specific social practice, has a very different qualitative character: not sharing many of the attributes we have taught ourselves to perceive as social, it is therefore plausibly perceived, when contrasted to more concrete elements of our social context, as nonsocial – it provides, in fact, an experiential basis that renders intuitively plausible some of our dominant conceptual models for nonsocial environments.

Such an historical experience, I would suggest, has the potential to react back on our perceptions of physical nature – shaping our expectations about the sorts of knowledge we expect to find, and the sorts of experiences which we will recognise as generative of meaningful and relevant knowledge about the natural world. I would therefore expect an approach focussed on understanding such a complex historical context to lead to a very different kind of sociology of scientific knowledge than an approach that – like Bloor’s – holds at its centre, unquestioned, a form of perception constitutive of the phenomenon it hopes to explain.

To be fair to Bloor, he does try to provide a type of self-reflexive account of why there might be key forms of perception at the core of scientific thought that are not readily subject to interpretation: he does so by appealing to Durkheim’s analysis of the sacred – arguing that all societies hold sacred certain fundamental concepts derived from the organisation of social life, and that scientific concepts hold this status in our social world (ch. 3). This form of argument is potentially useful in foregrounding the notion that perceptions of the natural world might relate in some qualitatively specific way to our experience of the social world. It also, though, tacitly treats all societies the same – reaching for the “generality” of explanation that Bloor takes to be a “morally neutral” standpoint for his analysis – and therefore doesn’t explore the potential that doxic concepts might actually become so for different reasons, and perhaps in qualitatively distinctive ways, in different forms of social life.

As well, I am not clear that Bloor has given us greater clarity by telling us that key forms of scientific perception are treated as “sacred” in our society: when Durkheim uses this concept, he maps specific relationships between qualitatively specified perceptions of nature, and qualitatively specified stratifications and institutionalised practices within particular societies. Bloor doesn’t offer an equivalent analysis for our social world to account for our equation of “nature” with “morally neutral”, “negative” and “general”. Without this kind of determinate analysis, I’m uncertain whether his application of the concept of the “sacred” to modern science casts greater light on our central question – or just restates that question in other words…

At the same time, I’m also concerned about the centrality Bloor accords to causation as the definitive target of historical and sociological analysis. I’m concerned first in the sense that the pride of place accorded to causation, particularly when combined with the emphasis on causes that are general in nature, seems to understate the descriptive and analytical task that motivates any search for causes: the search for causes is integrally bound with how we construct the object of our analysis – and qualitatively divergent visions of causation might be required to understand the creation and reproduction of different kinds of historical objects. Second, I’m concerned at the mechanistic and lockstep understanding of causation suggested by elements of Bloor’s text – as expressed, for example, in his discussions of how his approach might be able to derive predictive laws of historical development (pp. 15-19). If I’m correct about the complex and layered character of our historical context, this kind of mechanistic vision of historical causation might prove insufficiently nuanced to allow us to grasp what I intuitively suspect is an unusually dynamic and fluid social context, with complex feedback loops between mutually constitutive, but loosely coupled, forms of historical agency and constraint.

But I should also say that I’ve read Bloor’s book very, very quickly, so the chances of my missing central aspects of his argument are somewhat high, and I’m very happy to be corrected on these gestural critiques…

All of this – as with everything else I seem to be writing these days – is terribly underdeveloped, and almost certainly able to be thought in better ways… I’ve posted this only because I’ve felt recently like I’ve been spinning my wheels on this issue without achieving any forward movement, and my hope is that a post – of however mediocre quality – might get things moving on my end. Apologies for the draftiness of the work…

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