Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Reading Group


So I’ve been feeling guilty at not having gotten back to my off and on commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology. I expect this guilt to increase, as I’ve now somehow managed to get myself invited to present a paper on the subject of “Hegel and Solidarity”. Given that I’ve accepted, this suggests I should perhaps do some more intensive writing on Hegel. And solidarity. Or something like that.

Since I’m currently occupied with other things, I thought I should at least refer readers to a fantastic new critical theory blog with a Benjaminian tilt – Now-Times, whose early posts suggest that we can look forward to engaged and thoughtful explorations of the blog’s chosen themes of “historical, aesthetic and political issues from the perspectives of Phenomenology and Critical Theory”. Author Alexei is currently working through Hegel’s Phenomenology – with posts up on the Introduction and Sense-Certainty, as well as on general reading strategies – well worth a look!

A Permanent State of Beta

From the “Welcome” section of the help file for L Magee’s SOMET software, which LM has developed for one aspect of an overarching PhD project – this may be one of the best descriptions I’ve seen of the complex emotions attached to dissertation research:

SOMET is web-based software for designing and matching semantic web ontologies. It is in a permanent state of beta. It is currently part of a PhD project on measuring the degree to which ontologies and other formal systems can be matched. It is not commercial quality software in a number of respects, and should be treated with appropriate trepidation… Nor does SOMET attempt to faithful representation of all RDF and OWL constructs – in that respect it is a poor cousin to tools like Protege. Nevertheless considerable work and attention to detail has gone into its development, so – please be kind.

I should append something like this to everything I post – at least in the “Scratchpad” category.

Marking Texts

From an email exchange with L Magee, a comment on the impact of marking on everything else one reads at the time:

I find it attractive when someone attempts, and for the most part succeeds, in conveying this kind of syncretic understanding of multiple, in-themselves-complex traditions. Usually not to be emulated of course – it presupposes both impressive scholarship and some brazen arrogance towards not one but multiple “traditions” – since today I’m in belated marking mode, this takes the form of a note in the margins like “Wonderfully impressive scope – but perhaps you’re taking on too much here?”… and then realise the author is not student X but Habermas…

I do this too…


L Magee successfully completed the charity half-marathon discussed here a couple of weeks back. LM reports:

I completed it – can’t walk, can’t talk, of course, but otherwise feeling fine…

I wanted both to congratulate LM, and to repost the link to OxFam, for anyone interested in making a donation to commemorate LM’s efforts.

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…

Speech Impediment

I’ve attended a couple of fantastic seminars on Frankfurt School critical theory recently – part of a series conducted by another university. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about the series until it was well underway, and was able to attend only the final two. The regular participants were very tolerant of this strange interloper who dropped in on their sessions uninvited, and ushered me along with them to the meal and drinks that followed the final seminar last night.

As it happened, there was some discussion over dinner about my own theoretical work. I have these sorts of discussions all the time with the reading group folks, of course, but we know one another well, and have built up to discussions of our own projects, from the simpler starting point of shared discussions of other texts. And I have these sorts of discussions all the time online, as well. But – and here is the interesting thing – I had grossly underestimated the impact of those online conversations on how I currently think about theoretical discussion and debate.

So I found myself last night, trying to explain a project that, admittedly, is rather difficult to explain in the best circumstances, so I wasn’t particularly expecting to sound anything other than vaguely insane. (The visiting scholar leading the seminars listened to me for a while and then, somewhat puzzled, offered, “Well, you know… these things… I mean… One needs to put them aside for ten years or so, as it were – they are so big… And, then, maybe, one can come back to them…”)

But what I found myself feeling most acutely was a kind of chafing under the restriction of not being able to write out my response – my hands were longing for a keyboard, and I kept thinking: this would just be so much easier to explain if I could lay out a bit of background, and organise the presentation a bit more linearly – if I could just respond in email or on the blog. I spent the whole evening experiencing the… er… medium of speech as incredibly limiting, and longing for the additional expressive potentials available in online exchanges.

There is, of course, a grass is always greener dimension to this reaction: in online exchanges, I often find myself wishing that someone could just see my body posture, or hear my tone, and thus avoid mistaking my intention or affect… And, in fact, in specific respects this in-person discussion was able to be a bit more hard hitting than I can be online, precisely because it was quite easy to communicate nonverbally whether the focus were on the person, or on the ideas. I managed to get through an evening of theoretical discussion and, at times, quite pointed disagreement, without having to pay all that much attention to smoothing emotional reactions – something that can be quite difficult in online exchange.

Still… the systematicity that gets lost in face-to-face exchanges, the lost ability to post information that can quickly get a reader reasonably up to speed, if you’re coming at a common problem from an unusual or obscure perspective… (When a very bright person expressed that they needed me to define some of my technical terms – like “macrosociological” – it’s fairly clear we’re coming from vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, and some basic work in building a shared vocabulary will be required before discussion can move forward…) So I kept stumbling across these moments where I couldn’t help but long to translate the discussion into an online space.

I missed my keyboard…

Counter-Factual Immanence

One of the questions that comes up often in the reading group discussion of my project is why I don’t simply treat core concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity as something like a prioris – as posited starting points, from which the other theoretical moves can then be derived. Everyone involved in the reading group discussion presumably understands the logical contradiction involved in doing this: immanence posits that there is no “outside” to context, and therefore logically rules out the existence of “objective” grounds from which other trusted propositions can then be derived; self-reflexivity follows from immanence, and posits that the theorist remains embedded within the context they are analysing.

Both of these positions carry implications for the form of a theoretical argument, as well as for its content: to be consistent with the principles of immanence and self-reflexivity, the theorist must find the analytical categories that apply to a context, within that context itself. This is sometimes phrased in the form “categories of subjectivity are also categories of objectivity”: the theoretical categories in terms of which the theorist apprehends a context, are generated by the determinate properties of the context itself. Treating concepts like immanence or self-reflexivity as a prioris is an intrinsically asymmetrical approach, which deploys theoretical concepts whose determinate relationship to the context they grasp has not been explained. This asymmetrical move is therefore a performative contradiction, undermining the very concepts whose importance it seeks to assert.

The reading group understands, I think, what’s at stake on this logical level. Their question is, more along the lines of: who cares? ;-P Is there any practical significance to avoiding this kind of performative contradiction? Any purpose served other than a kind of pedantic desire for comprehensiveness and consistency? This is a fair question. To answer it, I may need to take a step back, and talk a bit about the special problems posed by notions of immanence and self-reflexivity for critical theory, in the specific circumstance in which critique understands itself as a determinate negation.

First to run through a few quick and somewhat simplified descriptions of ways theories can position themselves in relation to context. Descriptive or positive theories take context as a “given” and either perceive the context as essentially static, or as transforming itself in a necessary direction. The analytical categories expressed by such a theory can be understood – immanently and self-reflexively – as forms of subjectivity related to either the reproduction or the non-random transformation of the context.

Descriptive theories that adopt principles of immanence and self-reflexivity are generally normatively relativistic – tacitly retaining the notion that normative stances require a non-immanent standpoint – an “outside” from which societies can be judged – and thus viewing normative judgements as a necessary casualty of the move to immanent theory. It’s not unusual for individual theorists to embrace this relativistic understanding of immanent theory, but to produce theories with a strong normative “charge” – Weber is the obvious example. In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, Bloor might be another. Such theories tacitly break with the immanent frame – voicing a critical perspective for which the theoretical analysis of society does not account.

I always find myself wondering why theorists committed to principles of immanence and self-reflexivity don’t pay more attention to these sorts of normative “charges” in their own work: assuming the normative perspective is not a purely individual one – assuming that it resonates to some degree with others – then the presence of critical norms is a marker of complexity and nonidentity within the context. If the theory cannot account for the existence of such norms, then the context has not yet been adequately grasped: in these circumstances, I think the theorist should foreground the unexplained normative charge of their own approach, and ask how their understanding of context would need to transform, to accommodate the recognition that this context also generates such critical normative ideals… This problem, of course, does not exist for theoretical approaches that are content to embrace the context as a nonconflictual totality, which is itself then perceived as a normative ideal.

Positive theories can have a normative charge, and can therefore be non-relativistic. The normative standpoint, though, is derived from the theory’s affirmation of what exists or what is in the process of being generated by a context. The context itself – generally understood either as a non-contradictory entity, or as a conflictual entity whose contradictions will necessarily be resolved in a particular way – provides a normative standpoint. The most widely-known example of a positive theory with a critical normative charge would be the variant of Marxism that viewed the forces of production as exemplars and motivators for critical forms of perception and thought against which other dimensions of the social context could be found wanting. Other positive theories have pointed to the direction of the historical process, or to the perspective offered by society as a whole, as providing normative standpoints from the perspective of which other, more partial or more backward-looking, dimensions of social practice might be judged. The normative standards provided by positive theories take the form of asking whether particular practices or beliefs are adequate to enable some privileged existing institution, social group or trend to realise itself more fully. The realisation or achievement of a specific substantive endpoint would thus be the goal of this form of critique.

In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, some elements of Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia experiment with articulating this form of normative standard – pointing to the historical process as a sort of normative benchmark, and suggesting that forms of thought and practice can be judged by their adequacy to the dominant historical trend of the moment. Mannheim thus suggests (in some sections – the text as a whole is, I believe, somewhat contradictory) that forms of thought and practice that fall behind – but also forms of thought and practice that point ahead – can be criticised for not embodying fully the potentials of their historical moment.

Such positive theories have suffered over the course of the 20th century for many reasons – not least of which is the historical disappointment that set in, as it was recognised that the targets of early Marxist theory could be overcome, without the result being emancipatory – that the institutions of private property and the market could be superceded by conscious planning, without greater freedom resulting as the intrinsic and inevitable counterpart of this transformation. The concept of critical theory in its Frankfurt School sense emerged through these theorists’ confrontation with this historical experience, as they began to wrestle with the notion of what immanent and self-reflexive critique might mean, if it did not entail the alignment of critical ideals with some existent or trending element within the context. Their question of how to conceptualise critique as determinate negation – determinate in the sense of being in some way immanent to a particular context, and negative in the sense of not expressing the standpoint of some privileged element or totality – proved a complex and vexing one.

In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, Adorno’s contributions to The Positivist Dispute – which revolve around the notion of how certain things can be “real” or “objective”, without thereby being “facts” – are orbiting around this question. Adorno asks, in effect, how we can render immanent Popper’s understanding of science as an ever-restless “critical tradition”, how we can understand the forms of subjectivity Popper expresses, but in a self-reflexive way, by grasping the associated forms of perception and thought in their determinate relation to a specific context. Adorno argues, in effect, that the sort of restless critical perspective Popper identifies with science – which Popper frames as an intrinsically counter-factual ideal that could never be achieved – suggests the existence of something counter-factual about the context itself. Adorno then criticises Popper (I’ll leave aside for present purposes whether this critique is correct) for denying the possibility that something non-factual might also be “objective” – a criticism that hits home, for Adorno, precisely because Popper shares a largely compatible vision of the critical process as a form of negation – missing only the analysis of why even this type of eternally restless and counter-factual critique is not a pure negation, but a determinate one – one that can be analysed immanently and self-reflexively in its relation to a specific context.

Adorno suggests that, for such a counter-factual critical ideal to seem plausible, something counter-factual must exist – not only as some kind of subjective ideal or conceptual abstraction, but as an “objectivity” in our shared context. In some sense, this objectivity itself must be something that cannot be characterised or captured purely in terms of “facts” and “givens” – our context must have something intrinsically counter-factual about it, which this vision of critique then expresses. Yet how to capture, how to grasp, the reality or objectivity of a counter-factual? Adorno suggests that dialectics is required – and yet, in this and other writing, also suggests that dialectics is no longer adequate to this task: the critique of Popper thus crashes into the very point where the first generation Frankfurt School theorists themselves ran aground. For this generation – armed primarily with conceptual tools related to concepts of class domination – never quite grasps, conceptually, what it nevertheless also argues must exist: something restless, ceaseless, churning through time, at the very heart of our context – something that can dispense with concrete social institutions and practices – something that is itself a kind of “real” counter-factual – a counter-factual that instantiates itself through transformations of concrete social institutions in time. The first generation Frankfurt School theorists mean, but can never quite get their theories to say – to grasp – how a particular vision of critique can be inspired immanently by such a restless context, with its intrinsic, but ever-shifting, contradictions between what has been factually realised, and the counter-factual restlessness that smashes through all such realisations in the end. They thus never quite fulfil their own self-reflexive standard. This failure itself points to how this tradition fails to grasp the determinate character of the context – a pessimistic impasse that the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists acknowledge, but never overcome.

Habermas sees, and then recoils from, this precipe, seeking his counter-factuals elsewhere, on firmer ground – I’ve criticised his position in detail elsewhere, and won’t revisit the issue here. The reading group may look at his work later in the year, and can discuss the pros and cons of his approach at that time, if it seems appropriate to revisit this issue.

For present purposes, and in conclusion, I want to step back a bit from the sort of sketchy (and necessarily oversimplified) intellectual history I’ve tossed out above, to return to the reading group question that motivated this post: why not simply posit the standards of immanence and self-reflexivity as arbitrary ideals – as axioms, if you will – and move on from there? Leaving aside pedantic and purist concerns with logical consistency, what would be the “payoff” from trying to “close the loop” by exploring how these ideals themselves might be consistently grasped?

What I have tried to suggest – very incompletely – above is that, if the concepts of immanence of self-reflexivity are valid, then these concepts actually provide important substantive clues about the nature of our context – about what our context is. This means, among other things, that our inability to grasp such concepts – to relate them in some determinate way to our understanding of what the context is – provides an important feedback mechanism – a form of theoretical double-entry bookkeeping ;-P – to let us know that we may have another think coming, that we may need to go back to the drawing board to see what we’ve overlooked – or at least to follow the first generation Frankfurt School theorists in acknowledging openly the existence of an impasse we don’t currently know how to resolve.

At the same time, certain kinds of ideals – and I would include immanence, self-reflexivity and determinate negation specifically here – suggest that our context might contain some very peculiar qualitative characteristics. Among other things, the existence of such ideals suggests – as I’ve hinted above – that the context may be peculiarly layered, generative of a restless pattern of social practice and thought capable of tossing aside and rending asunder any institutionally embodied forms of social practice – while also embedded within, and existing nowhere other, than in those same institutionally embodied forms of social practice: such a vision of social context suggests that the contradiction between is and ought should be understood as introjected into the heart of all concrete social institutions, rather than between some institutions and others, or between totality and moment. It suggests, in other words, that something like a practical counter-factual is operative in what Adorno would call an “objective” sense – that counter-factual visions of critical tradition do not arise simply as conceptual ideals, but express something that we also do in our collective practice. It also suggests some more complicated things (you weren’t thinking we had reached the complicated stuff yet, were you? ;-P) about the historicisation of history – about whether immanence itself must be understood as something achieved, and therefore as something not true, or not true in the same way, of earlier historical periods. Similar arguments can be made for self-reflexivity.

So my position would be that the inability to deploy concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity symmetrically is a sign that something has not been adequately understood about the context and about these ideals. This failure of understanding can have practical consequences for individuals and movements trying to achieve specific goals, who may be blindsided by the unanticipated character of a context whose contours are – I have been suggesting – by no means fully defined by the sorts of concrete social institutions and practices that we all find it intuitive and easy to see.

Much critique targets the concrete – as do most movements – and perceive it as liberatory when the concrete dimensions of a social context prove vulnerable to political action. Criticisms and struggles against concrete institutions and practices can of course be pivotal, and nothing in my approach would diminish the importance of political action around such targets.

At the same time, the nonsymmetrical nature of such critiques – which aim themselves at concrete institutions, without also understanding why such institutions might be vulnerable – leaves us poised to reproduce, endlessly, the more abstract, restless, and counter-factual dimensions of our social context, without even being aware that these exist. As a consequence, we close off conscious deliberation on this practical counter-factual, confusing it – as I’ve begun to hint in various posts on the determinateness of “nothing” – with a pure negative, with what remains when everything determinate has been stripped away. I am trying to call attention to the determinate characteristics of what is often taken to be a pure negation, to demonstrate the practical basis for what is often taken to be a conceptual abstraction – and thus, potentially, to open up a realm for conscious action that is currently walled away. And all of this, unfortunately, lands me in a position where I don’t think I can slice through the Gordian knot presented by my theoretical categories – however tempting this might sometimes be – by framing them as axiomatic starting points: I suspect this would precisely and specifically direct attention away from where it is most required… But perhaps the reading group members or others will have a different view.

Been There, Done That

L Magee has recently discovered that social scientists are confused by how the Semantic Web community uses the term “ontology” to refer, not to the study of being, but to formal representations of knowledge. LM has recently fielded a suggestion that this confusion is best avoided by appending some prefix or suffix to the term “ontology” when used in its specialised Semantic Web context – e-ontology has been suggested – while reserving the unmodified term “ontology” for the standard philosophical meaning. This suggestion has understandably caused some concern, as the use of the term “ontology” has an established meaning in a Semantic Web context, and appending a suffix or prefix would break with the established conventions of this field.

As a possible resolution for this dilemma, I would suggest that LM consider instead placing a suffix or prefix on the term “ontology” when the philosophical meaning is intended.

My personal suggestion would be to use the prefix “ger” for the classic philosophical meaning. Just as the prefix “e” was intended to capture the newness of the Semantic Web concept of ontology, the prefix “ger” can capture the ancient character of the philosophical conception.

I’m sure that everyone would agree that gerontology would get the desired distinction across.

Critical Self-Reflexivity

So L Magee has apparently decided to branch out into some independent research on the question of immanent theory – and as a result has now obtained independent confirmation that there’s no place like home. Apparently, googling “immanent theory” brings up, as a prominent result, the two dialogues we’ve jointly written on the issue here. For some inexplicable reason, LM found this frustrating:

I’m thinking, I don’t need to see my own discussion with N. coming up as an authority…

But LM: don’t you trust me?