Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category
The Open Borders movement is based around a simple idea – in most cases, people should not be restricted in their movement across borders. This idea was featured this weekend in The Atlantic. The article presents the case and discusses the academics and writers who congregate at the Open Borders blog, which is run by Vipul Naik.
Michael Huemer, a philosopher, boils down the argument with the hypothetical story inspired by the “Starvin’ Marvin” South Park character:
[Marvin] is very hungry and is trying to travel to the marketplace to buy some food. Another person, Sam (Sam has a large number of nephews and nieces, so we’ll call him Uncle Sam), decides to stop Marvin from going to the marketplace using coercion. He goes down there with his M16 and blocks the road. As a result, Marvin can’t trade for food and, as a result, he starves. So then the question is, did Sam kill Marvin? Did he violate his rights? Almost anyone would say yes, Sam acted wrongly. In fact, if Marvin died as a result, then Sam killed him. It wouldn’t be that Sam failed to help Marvin. No, he actively intervened….This is analogous to the U.S. government’s immigration policy. There are people who want to trade in our marketplace, in this case the labor market, and the government effectively prevents them from doing that, through use of force.
I was also cited for discussing open borders strategy:
“Open borders will become a reality when the public stops believing that immigrants are a threat,” sociologist Fabio Rojas recently wrote, comparing the open borders movement to the gay rights movement. “Even if a pro-immigration referendum fails to pass, it will still serve the function of forcing the issue onto the public stage. These actions won’t change the minds of those strongly committed to anti-immigration policy. Instead, they will make immigration seem ‘normal’ to a later generation of people.”
Check it out.
About two weeks ago, there was an interesting post at Econlog about the relative importance of civil rights for libertarians. The issue is that libertarians often hype other issues, like taxes, more than civil rights. Not too much discussion about discrimination, Jim Crow, and so forth. A blogger from the pro-immigration website Open Borders asked how often libertarians argued against, for example, segregation.
I think the commenters (myself included) got it right when we said “some, but not much.” In other words, from time to time, libertarian intellectuals did talk about the evils of segregation. Usually, the issue is couched in terms of the use of state power to prohibit blacks from holding property and practicing certain occupations, like the law. Sometimes it was a commentary on what was good and bad in the Black freedom movement. There is the occasional talk of opposing colonialism. But overall, it was not an overwhelming response.
The relatively weak answer to Black oppression is puzzling. Opposing Jim Crow was a no brainer from the libertarian point of view. Blacks had been slaves, which is the antithesis of personal freedom. Then, after Reconstruction, they had been subjected to humiliating and painful legal regulations in addition to extensive personal violence. While libertarians may disagree with liberals about the remedy for state violence and segregation, you would think that they would have been marching arm and arm with liberals in the 1960s.
But that didn’t happen. Black repression takes a back burner on the libertarian shopping list. But why? I think it has to do with the sociology of elite libertarians. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week, I wondered why there was a decline of “social theorist” as a self-identified niche in sociology. It’s not that people don’t write social theory. On this blog, we spend a lot time discussing books that might be called “theory,” like Reed’s book on interpretive social science or Levi-Martin’s on social structure. Rather, as a whole, social doesn’t produce a lot of people who say “I’m a social theorist.”
In the comments, there was a strong discussion that focused on my hypothesis that empirical work is simply more competitive. Coming up a genuine advance in social theory is much harder than doing solid empirical work. One commenter then responded, if I may paraphrase, that in the long run theory wins out over empirical work.
At first glance, this seems intuitive. We all Weber, but how many of us read, say community studies from the 1920s? I bet John Levi-Martin’s book on structure will be read more than the latest p* article in Social Networks.
Upon further reflection, it’s not clear at all. What we now call “theory” was often “empirical work” in an earlier era. My view is that “theory” is a vague term that is retroactively applied to some sociological work that is highly successful.
For example, most of Durkheim’s major books are considered “theory.” Some are purely theory (e.g., Rule of Sociological Method) while others are doggedly empirical (e.g., Suicide). Some “theorists” write abstract theory (e.g., Parsons) while others mix and match (e.g., Alexander’s book on Neofunctionalism is almost bereft of traditional empirical work, while his recent stuff is motivated by empirical example). Still in others, it’s hard to tell where abstract theory begins and empirical commentary begins (e.g., Simmel).
Maybe that’s the deeper lesson. What becomes canonical theory in the future is hard to predict. So just try to do your best. We’re in a golden age of middle range theory and data and sociology. That’s where the profession it at right now, and that’s where the theory of future is being born.
Here’s a recent book chapter worth reading: “Why Behaviorism Isn’t Satanism.”
The history of comparative evolutionary psychology can be characterized, broadly speaking, as a series of reactions to Cartesian versus pragmatist views of the mind and behavior. Here, a brief history of these theoretical shifts is presented to illuminate how and why contemporary comparative evolutionary psychology takes the form that it does. This brings to the fore the strongly cognitivist research emphasis of current evolutionary comparative research, and the manner in which alternative accounts based on learning theory and other behaviorist principles generally receive short shrift. I attempt to show why many of these criticisms of alternative accounts are unjustified, that cognitivism does not constitute the radical lurch away from behaviorism that many imagine, and that an alternative “embodied and embedded” view of cognition—itself developing in reaction to the extremes of cognitivism—reaches back to a number of behaviorist philosophical principles, including the rejection of a separation between brain and body, and between the organism and environment.
Key Words: animal, cognition, behavior, cognitivism, behaviorism, evolution, learning, psychology
The discussion over “bleeding heart” libertarians got me thinking a lot about the foundations of various political ideologies. For example, what is the ultimate intuition for modern liberalism? There isn’t a single one. They come in a few flavors:
- Reformist: Some policies simply need fixing and government is the best way to do it. Think Keynes – we just need the state to manage aggregate demand so business cycles aren’t too bad. I put arguments over public goods in this camp.
- Redistribution: It’s inherently unfair that some people don’t have enough income, thus was have to use government to redistribute income.
- Rawlsian: If we weren’t wedded to our specific interests, rational people would prefer liberal policies to manage risk over the life course and provide collective goods.
- Utilitarian: On the average, liberal interventions in the economy and society work out pretty well.
There is one intuition for liberalism that isn’t popular, but it deserves some thought. I call it “sociological liberalism.” It goes like this:
- People and groups can’t be separated. People treat each other in bad ways because of strong personal attachment to groups. Thus, we should proactively create policies that counter people’s tendency toward tribalism.
This is different than other justifications of liberalism. For example, it’s not Rawlsian in that we have to argue about what people in the ideal state would care about. It not fundamentally about redistribution of income or ad hoc reform. It’s about a basic feature of human psychology – the strong, perhaps too strong, attachment to our family, religion, ethnic group, etc. – and how that’s counter our belief that people should be treated with respect.
West 86th has an article by Ben Kafka on the subject of bureaucracy. Kafka’s main point is that philosophers, and political philosophers especially, have consistently misunderstood administration. In the 19th century, there was this belief that if we could just use science, we could administer ourselves to peace and stability. In the 20th century, philosophers, especially those with a left bent, felt that the problem of administration had been solved. It was so easy, anyone could do it. The intuition isn’t crazy. Kafka’s points out that these statements came on the heels of the French Revolution and its aftermath. People simply wanted rational rules that could easily be applied.
So how would a modern orgtheorist respond to the utopian philosophers? I think we’d say that administration is hard (and often brutal in the case of socialist nations) for the following reasons:
- Limited knowledge – aggregation of knowledge is hard, though bureaucracy makes it a little easier
- Self interest – Since administration is set up to deal with massive resources that owners can’t directly supervise, you get principal-agent problems
- Mission creep – a consequence of the principle-agent problem. Since it’s hard to monitor bureaucrats, it’s hard to keep a lid on them.
- Asymmetry – bureaucracies often have the upper hand over individuals because they don’t rely on a single person E.g., if this lawyer can’t fight anymore, a new one will be hired. In contrast, an individual can easily be outlasted in a conflict.
- Myth and ceremony – Rather than solve problems, states and organizations may expand bureaucracies to show they’re dealing with the problem
Thus, administration is a tool with limits and it comes with its own problems.
In disgust research, there is shit, and then there is bullshit. Colin McGinn’s book belongs to the latter category.
It gets better:
The sad fact is the reader would learn more about disgust by reading Mad magazine.
For the rest of us—those who actually care about disgust, or aesthetic emotions, or scholarship at all— the book is bound to disappoint. “Who can deny the mood-destroying effect of an errant flatus just at the moment of erotic fervor?” he writes. McGinn’s book is just such a flatus, threatening to spoil an exciting intellectual moment for the rest of us. Sometimes with books, as with farts, it’s better to just hold it in.
Nina, don’t damage the fine reputation of Mad magazine.
My friend Jason Stanley has a blog post up at the New York Times‘s Opinionator section that might be of interest to you social theorists out there. Jason’s a philosopher of language who teaches at Rutgers. He attacks a distinction which is by now extremely well-entrenched in social theory generally and in specific theories of action in the sociology of culture, the sociology of organizations, and elsewhere—namely, the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge:
Humans are thinkers, and humans are doers. There is a natural temptation to view these activities as requiring distinct capacities. When we reflect, we are guided by our knowledge of truths about the world. By contrast, when we act, we are guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions. If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge. …
Most of us are inclined immediately to classify activities like repairing a car, riding a bicycle, hitting a jump shot, taking care of a baby or cooking a risotto as exercises of practical knowledge. And we are inclined to classify proving a theorem in algebra, testing a hypothesis in physics and constructing an argument in philosophy as exercises of the capacity to operate with knowledge of truths. The cliché of the learned professor, as inept in practical tasks as he is skilled in theoretical reasoning, is just as much a leitmotif of popular culture as that of the dumb jock. The folk idea that skill at action is not a manifestation of intellectual knowledge is also entrenched in contemporary philosophy, though it has antecedents dating back to the ancients.
According to the model suggested by this supposed dichotomy, exercises of theoretical knowledge involve active reflection, engagement with the propositions or rules of the theory in question that guides the subsequent exercise of the knowledge. Think of the chess player following an instruction she has learned for an opening move in chess. In contrast, practical knowledge is exercised automatically and without reflection. The skilled tennis player does not reflect on instructions before returning a volley — she exercises her knowledge of how to return a volley automatically. Additionally, the fact that exercises of theoretical knowledge are guided by propositions or rules seems to entail that they involve instructions that are universally applicable — the person acting on theoretical knowledge has an instruction booklet, which she reflects upon before acting. In contrast, part of the skill that constitutes skill at tennis involves reacting to situations for which no instruction manual can prepare you. The skilled tennis player is skilled in part because she knows how to adjust her game to a novel serve, behavior that does not seem consistent with following a rule book.
… But once one begins to bear down upon the supposed distinction between the practical and the theoretical, cracks appear. When one acquires a practical skill, one learns how to do something. But when one acquires knowledge of a scientific proposition, that too is an instance of learning. In many (though not all) of the world’s languages, the same verb is used for practical as well as theoretical knowledge (for example, “know” in English, “savoir” in French). More important, when one reflects upon any exercise of knowledge, whether practical or theoretical, it appears to have the characteristics that would naïvely be ascribed to the exercise of both practical and intellectual capacities. A mathematician’s proof of a theorem is the ideal example of the exercise of theoretical knowledge. Yet in order to count as skilled at math, the mathematician’s training — like that of the tennis player — must render her adept in reacting to novel difficulties she may encounter in navigating mathematical reality. Nor does exercising one’s knowledge of truths require active reflection. I routinely exercise my knowledge that one operates an elevator by depressing a button, without giving the slightest thought to the matter. From the other direction, stock examples of supposedly merely practical knowledge are acquired in apparently theoretical ways. People can and often do learn how to cook a risotto by reading recipes in cookbooks.
Jason develops the point a bit more in his post and rather more rigorously in recent book, which I haven’t read in any detail as of yet. I won’t say that I’m entirely convinced, and in particular I wonder whether the argument he’s making is going to turn on some very fine-grained aspects of technical philosophy of language which I’m not really in a position to assess. However, the strong division between practical and theoretical knowledge is such a shibboleth in social theory—variously entrenched in Wittgensteinian, phenomenological and cognitive versions—and such a great deal rests on it, that it’s worth taking the time to think against it once in a while to see where that goes.
Our friend Kieran has a series of posts on his research at Leiter Reports, the leading academic philosophy blog. Aside from writing on economic sociology, Kieran has begun an ambitious project analyzing the way that philosophers evaluate each other. Three posts so far, each well worth reading:
- The overall pattern of department evaluations.
- Descriptive analysis of who does the ratings.
- Specialties and raters.
I’ve seen this project presented in workshops. There is much more and it is very good. Can’t wait to see more posts.
There is a new web site, Open Borders, that collects arguments for the view that people should freely move across borders in most cases. It just got started, but it has both empirical and philosophical arguments, as well as arguments from different political perspectives. One stop shopping for people who want to hear, or disagree with, the argument that freedom of movement is a basic human right.
A few days ago, philosopher Colin McGinn wrote an op-ed in the New York Times demanding that his discipline drop “philosophy” as its name. The essence of his argument is that what used to be called “philosophy” bears little resemblance to what now dominates academic philosophy.
To understand this exercise in meaning construction and boundary work, it helps to understand what modern philosophy professors do. I think it might be described to outsiders as “using precise language to understand conceptual and logical issues.” So, a philosopher who looks at sociology might ask what we mean by “society” or “actor,” and then examine the meanings of these terms and their logical implications. If you want a great example on our blog, see Omar’s recent discussion of social constructionism.As you can imagine, that sort of intellectual work is a bit different than what used to be called philosophy, or what defines heterodox types of philosophy.
What’s at stake in this argument? I think this is an exercise in purity that uses the physical sciences as its claim for status. Consider the following passage:
Our current name is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people. But it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”
I am very partial to this argument. I think that sociology is a science in the common sense use of the term. Sociologists collect data, test hypothesis, and argue about the link between theories and observation. We just do it about people, while physicists do it about energy and matter.
But I am not about to let McGinn off the hook. I don’t think that the practice of philosophy is as pure as he makes it out to be. There are important chunks of the academic discipline that don’t fit into a physical science model. For example, there are quite a few people who do history of thought. And earlier types of philosophy are not completely divorced from the discipline.
Nor would I buy McGinn’s argument that being systematic is enough to make you into something like chemistry. Yes, philosophy is systemic, but falsifiability through logic is qualitatively different than falsifiability through experiment or observation. That’s why I’ve always thought that philosophy is akin to purely logical fields like math and pure statistics, more than chemistry and physics.
In the end, through, I approve of McGinn’s status seeking exercise. Systematic investigation of logical arguments is different than art history or music performance. As a member of a discipline whose mission is to discover what is correct, I can recognize that philosophy is also about “rightness” and less about judgment. But I am happy to let philosophy live in a sui generis position that is different than the physical and social sciences until they can show me that they are engaged with a reality that exists beyond our heads.
Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch of libertarian theory: laissez-faire – hands-off, as long as it’s voluntary, it’s ok. Now, there’s two sides to this coin. You have the right to do good and bad. With regard to race, the libertarian position implies that we should be equally tolerant, for example, of people who want to live in mixed race neighborhoods and those who wish to live in segregated neighborhoods. As long as force isn’t used, we should tolerate it, even if we don’t approve of it.
That brings me to Ron Paul. He’s been dogged for years by inflammatory racial articles in his newsletters. If you read them, you’ll see that they are disgusting. The puzzling part is that there is not much to indicate that Paul himself hates Blacks. In fact, some of his arguments about policy might have been written by the most bleeding heart liberals. For example, he has publicly argued that the drug war disproportionately hurts minorities and has racist origins. Most observers have guessed that the inflammatory articles have been written by someone else who is very racist.
The problem with a philosophy of hyper-tolerance is that you attract repulsive people, like Paul’s racist associates. That’s doesn’t always happen. ACLU style free speech activists rarely share beds with the neo-Nazis whose rights they defend. But sometimes it is a problem. Since libertarian philosophy dictates a tolerance, but not an endorsement, of people who dislike other racial groups, hyper-tolerance may come off as a signal of approval for racism. Furthermore, followers of a hyper-tolerant philosophy, like libertarianism, may seek short term political gain by building coalitions with repulsive people. And of course, truly evil people, like hard core racists, may dress up their views with a sheen of tolerance. The result? The philosophy of tolerance co-mingles with the repulsive.
That’s a problem for libertarianism as a social practice. For it to become more mainstream, it will have to move beyond policy and come up with a more serious theory of social practice. It has to be a philosophy that breaks out of utilitarian arguments over economic policy, and provide an ethic beyond minimalist tolerance. Otherwise, libertarians who care, like Paul does, about the drug war, foreign wars, and other issues of wide appeal will be left explaining why their room mate has a David Duke poster on the wall.
I’ve come to the conclusion that political beliefs aren’t logically coherent things. Instead, the things you believe signal who you are rather than a judicious application of abstract principals. That’s why we get angry when we talk about politics. A person who disagrees with me isn’t saying that I have misapplied an abstract idea. They are directly attacking my identity.
If you believe that, then political ideologies reflect how we see ourselves, which leads me to one sentence summaries of political theories:
- Conservatives: I’m tough.
- Liberals: I’m a nice person.
- Green: I like turtles.
- Marxists: I want your stuff.
- Libertarians: Get your hands off my stuff!
Add your own pithy summaries in the comments.
Why are there so few anarchists in the academy? That’s the opening question in David Graeber’s book (free pdf) Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Check it out.
Here are the opening two paragraphs:
What follows are a series of thoughts, sketches of potential theories, and tiny manifestos—all meant to offer a glimpse at the outline of a body of radical theory that does not actually exist, though it might possibly exist at some point in the future.
Since there are very good reasons why an anarchist anthropology really ought to exist, we might start by asking why one doesn’t—or, for that matter, why an anarchist sociology doesn’t exist, or an anarchist economics, anarchist literary theory, or anarchist political science.
What’s the *real* difference between continental and analytic philosophy? For example, the wiki claims that continentals are more into historical work and less into discrete problem solving. These issues still strike me as superficial differences. In principle, couldn’t the claims derived from a historical view be translated into the plain language style that characterizes analytic philosophy? So I have a few questions for the professional philosophers who might be reading this blog:
- Are analytic and continental philosophy incommensurable? Is it literally impossible to translate the claims from one into the other?
- Is it a label problem? Do analytics and continentals do different things and it’s really a fight over who gets to use the word philosophy?
- Is it a real dispute over truth claims? Do analytics and continentals agree that they are actually talking about the same things, but they really think they have different answers?
- Is it just style? Maybe they agree on a lot, but the analytics and continentals simply can’t stand the radically different presentations of argument.
- Is it sociological? Maybe analytics and continentals agree on problems, can understand each other, and would produce similar answers to problems, but they simply fighting over turf defined by their respective founding figures.
Yes, I know that each term denotes a wide range of view that share a family resemblance. Yada yada. I’m more interested in how much weight might be given to the five different explanations.
After my talk at GMU on Friday, I was lucky enough to have dinner with a fun group of policy folks and economists. The discussion ranged over a lot of great topics, but here’s one question I’d like to share: Are there really any conservative economists?
This question may surprise you because economics is considered the most conservative branch of the social sciences. To get the discussion, let me explain the definitions. First, by “economist,” they clearly meant a professional PhD holding economist. Not the policy wonks you’ll find around DC. Second, by “conservative,” they mean someone who is socially conservative – anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-drug legalization, a Bill Bennett style culture warrior, pro-life, evangelical Christian, etc.
The observation was that economists range from liberal (e.g., Paul Krugman) to libertarian (e.g., Milton Friedman). And this is backed up by survey evidence. On social issues, economists tend to be fairly liberal, even in comparison with other social scientists. They are conservative when it comes to economic policy such as minimum wages and price controls. It was argued that economists are rarely socially conservative, while many are economically conservative.
Do you buy this observation? Can you think of prominent economists who are socially conservative?
I am re-reading Foucault’s “The Order of Things” and I have a few posts summarizing my thoughts in the pipeline. So if you want a Foucault/Order post on a particular topic, just comment/email/tweet me about it. Two posts in mind: one on how sociologists absorb Foucault and another on evaluating the main claim of Order. Other ideas are welcome.
There’s a certain resistance to dichotomizing: the truth is somewhere in between, it’s more nuanced, processual, interactional etc — both “x” and “y” need to be considered — so we’ll call it “z” (say, “structuration”). But, as I’m preparing for an entrepreneurship-related PhD class tomorrow, most of the papers we read indeed tend to set up a dichotomous relationship between two things. Despite problems with these types of contrasts (it’s usually pretty easy to see where the argument is going), I still find the exercise of extremes very valuable. Theories, after all, idealize and need to focus on something (usually in reaction to its opposite, sorta).
So, here are some of the entrepreneurship-related dichotomies that popped up:
- structure versus agency
- macro versus micro
- exogenous versus endogenous
- observation versus theory
- experience versus thought
- supply versus demand
- backward- versus forward-looking
- discovery versus creation
- something versus nothing
- actual versus possible
(The truth can be found on the right-hand side.)
Many of the above dichotomies — in one way or another — hearken to classic debates in philosophy: rationalism versus empiricism, realism versus constructionism, etc. I don’t think that organizational scholars will solve any of these classic problems, though obviously there are comparative opportunities vis-a-vis the things that we study: collective action, social process and interaction, value creation and so forth.
Below the fold you’ll find some of the (somewhat eclectic) readings that somehow relate to the above dichotomies of entrepreneurship: Read the rest of this entry »
Harold Garfinkel, who brought phenomenology back to the core of social theory, died last week in Los Angeles. His best-known work, Studies in Ethnomethodology, has led a double life. It’s put to work in introductory courses so that people can read about breaching experiments, and maybe do some minor ones themselves while pining for the days before IRBs. Here its contents are often played for laughs, or the general lesson that social life is a funny old thing and simultaneously more rulebound and more fragile than one might expect. On the other hand, the essays are a thoroughgoing and deep critique of the Parsonian approach to theorizing action, and relentlessly problematize the ongoing accomplishment of everyday life.
In the 1980s, the main problematic of social theory was micro- vs macro- and how to reconcile them. A common line of argument was that macro-theory required microfoundations, and these foundations were to be sought in the stable preferences and actions of (perhaps rational) individuals. Garfinkel’s vision of micro and macro was very different. Unlike the perhaps difficult but ultimately comforting search for a well-founded base to build society on, the ethnomethodological approach was more like the discovery of subatomic states and quantum-mechanical phenomena: way up there in the world of big celestial bodies, things looked orderly and stable, and there was some plausible prospect of discovering laws of society. Even a little further down the scale you could see where the structure was, even if it was inevitably messier. Studies in Ethnomethodology, however, zoomed in even closer on the micro-level and found that it wasn’t a level at all, that everything was constantly on the verge of going completely to hell, and that chaos loomed at every turn. Even today, when I read the breaching experiments it’s still striking just how quickly things move from an ordinary, boring interaction to a bunch of confused, upset, and very, very angry people who don’t know what is happening.
It turned out to be difficult to build on the discovery of the foamy, swirling reality that society was supposed to rest its weight on. Beyond some passing remarks I’ve seen in print or heard in person by those who were connected with Garfinkel and his circle, I don’t really know (nor do I much care) why the research program stalled out or became marginalized in the way that it did. Maybe it was the problem faced by a lot of phenomenological work, which finds it hard to reconcile its key insight (based on first-person experience) with a generative research program. Maybe it was a failure to transcend a little cult of personality. Maybe it was opposition from better-positioned competitors. I don’t know. Either way, it seems like a waste. But the core contribution is still there, and Garfinkel represents a vital link between the Husserlian tradition of the early 20th century and contemporary developments in the theory of social fields.
Yale’s Open Courses projects has some very interesting offerings, including Shelley Kagan’s famous course on Death, and Chris Hayes’ Introduction to the Old Testament. Right now they’re featuring Foundations of Modern Social Theory taught by the terrific Iván Szelényi, seen here in full flow and looking rather like a dapper, more genial and engaging version of a statue to some cold-war communist party leader. The course really does take a “Foundations” approach, starting with Hobbes and spending quite a bit of time on Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Smith—not so common in sociology these days. Marx, Weber, and Durkheim get multiple lectures to themselves, while Mill, Nietzsche, and Freud get air time as well. Great stuff.
Richard Swedberg and Wendelin Reich have written an engaging Theory, Culture & Society piece capturing Georg Simmel’s many aphorisms. For Simmel fans, definitely worth reading.
This article contains an analysis of Georg Simmel’s aphorisms and an appendix with a number of these in translation. An account is given of the production, publication and reception of the around 300 aphorisms that Simmel produced. His close relationship to Gertrud Kantorowicz is discussed, since she was given the legal right to many of Simmel’s aphorisms when he died and also assigned the task of publishing them by Simmel. The main themes in Simmel’s aphorisms are presented: love, Man, philosophy, Lebensphilosophie and art. Two of Simmel’s aphorisms are also given an extended analysis. It is suggested that the skill of writing a good aphorism, both when it comes to style and content, has much to do with what we call the art of compression. It is also suggested that what ultimately attracted Simmel to the form of aphorism was its capacity to hint at something that is richer than the reality we are currently experiencing.
aphorisms ■ Gertrud Kantorowicz ■ Lebensphilosophie ■ Georg Simmel ■ sociology
If you read/speak German, then you can find a wealth of free, classic (and more obscure) sociology-related books online. Here’s a sample of books that you can download for free from google ebooks:
Gustav Ratzenhofer, 1907. Soziologie. (OK, I hadn’t heard of him either. Omar has. It appears Ratzenhofer was an Austrian General and Sociologist. Hey, it’s a free book, people.)
Georg Simmel, 1892. Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie, (Genau.)
Georg Simmel, 1906. Kant. (Simmel’s lectures from the University of Berlin.)
Georg Simmel, 1908. Soziologie: Untersuchungen ueber die Formen der Vergellschaftung. (Classic.)
Ferdinand Tönnies, 1887. Gemeinshaft und Gesellschaft.
Max Weber. 1921. Gesammelte Politische Schriften.
G.A. Cohen on the German Ideal of Freedom:
If logic is more your thing, there is also a lecture by Alfred Tarski, a tutorial with Gilbert Ryle, or a boxing match between John Roemer and Jurgen Habermas.
There is a disconnect between how some social scientists see themselves versus how they see their subjects. Scientists theorize about the world — they develop hypotheses, models, they reason, imagine, simulate, then test and revise, etc — and regular folks, well, learn more myopically via observation and experience. Behaviorism of course represented an extreme case of the latter – a stimulus-driven, passive view of human behavior.
But I’ll go on a limb and say that I think that the “scientist model” is a far better conception of all human activity. Everyday living and interaction is scientific activity of a sort: we have models of the world that we constantly update and revise. Importantly, these models have an a priori nature, decoupled from experience. Does experience matter? Sure. But, I think the a priori factors matter just as much, even more. How one conceptualizes the a priori depends on one’s field and purposes, but it includes the following types of things – human nature, choice, reason, imagination, intention, conjectures, hypotheses and theories and so forth.
Readers will of course recognize the above dichotomy as the rationalism versus empiricism debate: reason versus experience. Empiricism, very often, looks deceptively scientific. After all, it’s easy to count things that we can observe. Experience and history are master mechanisms behind gobs of theories — tracing, counting what happened in the past appears scientific. In some cases it is. But, the stuff that we observe and perceive is heavily theory-laden (no, not in that sense), and observations and perceptions might simply be epiphenomena of a priori “stuff.” And, experience might simply “trigger” rather than cause outcomes. Furthermore, experience and history are only one of many, possible worlds.
The “poverty of stimulus” argument relates to this. Varieties of the poverty of stimulus argument show up in developmental psychology, linguistics, philosophy, ethology and other areas. In short, the upshot of the poverty of stimulus argument is that outputs and capabilities manifest by organisms far outstrip inputs such as experiences and stimuli. The work on infants, by folks like Elizabeth Spelke and Alison Gopnik, highlights this point: children have clear, a priori conceptions of their surroundings. Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s notion of language capabilities as the “infinite use of finite means” relates to the poverty of stimulus argument. Some varieties of decision-making models (depending on what types of “priors” they allow) also fit. Ned Block’s “productivity argument” fits into this. As does, perhaps, Charles Peirce’s notion of “abduction.” Etc.
The above discussion of course is a very Chomskyan view of human nature and science. But, this tradition goes back much further (well, to Plato). In my mind, one of the best, historical primers on some of these issues is Chomsky’s Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (be sure to get the 2003 edition, with McGilvray’s excellent introduction). A very, very under-rated book.
Overall — I’ll go out on a limb, again (no one reads the last paragraph of loose, jargon-laden rants/posts like this anyways) — I don’t think the social sciences have come to terms with the scientific problems associated with experience-heavy arguments and the crucial importance of the a priori (however conceived). I think there are lots of research opportunities in this space.
The received wisdom is that there is an “Atlantic divide” between Europe and North America vis-a-vis organizational research. Joel Baum, using citation data from three compendia, finds that the “Atlantic divide” is essentially a myth.
Here’s the abstract:
It is customary among contemporary organization theorists to equate North American and European scholarship with objectivist and subjectivist metatheoretical positions (respectively), treat these positions as mutually exclusive alternatives, and debate which is best suited to understanding organizational phenomena. Fueled by this dispute, questions of bias and fears of colonization are readily apparent in academic reviews of three recent “handbooks” of organizations. Caught in the current of these tensions, I was prompted to assess the status of this “Atlantic divide.” To do so, I examined the three recent compendia in terms of the rhetoric academic reviewers employed to characterize them and the geographic locations, preferred journals, and university affiliations of scholars who refer to them. The results are striking. Despite the unanimous typecasting of the volumes as epitomizing either objectivist North American or subjectivist European traditions, the geographic distributions of researchers citing them are indistinguishable. Citations to each compendium are, however, clustered within particular journals and among authors with particular university affiliations—but neither the journals nor universities are neatly North American or European. Current associations of these traditions with North American and European scholarship thus seem driven more by academic rhetoric than authentic continental distinctions. I examine the roots of this rhetorical mapping and explore its implications for the field. I advocate abandonment of the myth of the Atlantic divide and exploitation of perspectives that do not privilege the subjectivist–objectivist dichotomy.
Key Words: organization and management theory; subjectivst versus objectivist perspectives
Here’s a previous post highlighting Joel’s work on journal versus article-effects.
Intellectual breakthroughs are almost always the product of group deliberation, discussion, and debate. And the greatest breakthroughs may be more likely to come from people on the margins of mainstream intellectual thought – from people who have a clear vantage point to observe the dominant perspectives but who are sufficiently external that they are free to argue against that perspective and think creatively about possible alternatives. It’s a good hypothesis anyway.
The documentary, Arguing the World, beautifully illustrates this point as it tells the story of four intellectual pioneers of the latter half of the Twentieth Century – Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol. The four men belonged to a group of radicals who would debate political philosophy while students at the City College of New York in the late 30s and early 40s. At the time, students at the college would gather during the lunch hour, and often during class as well, in different alcoves, where they could get to know other people who shared a similar identity and who had similar interests. Conveniently positioned next to Alcove No. 2, where the Communist Party members and sympathizers met, were the Trotskyists in Alcove No. 1. The communists were closer to the radical mainstream at the time (at least among CCNY students), while the Trotskyists consisted of students who believed in some aspects of socialism but who were also disillusioned with Stalinism. If the purpose of Alcove No. 2 was to convince and persuade other students of an ideological point of view, the point of Alcove No. 1 was to question every point of orthodoxy and to debate, debate, debate.
This little corner of the room produced a number of intellectual luminaries, including four of the most important sociologists of the last 50 years: Bell, Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset and Philip Selznick. (Selznick actually recruited Glazer to join the Columbia sociology department after they graduated from CCNY. Bell would spend one year in the graduate program as well.) It’s hard to imagine any other undergraduate clique that produced a more important group of intellectual thinkers than Alcove No. 1. Howe went on to become the leading theorist of the Old Left socialists. Kristol became “the godfather of the neoconservative movement.” Bell stands out as a writer of big idea books, perhaps one of the last great sociologists of this type. Glazer was equally bold, sometimes spearheading controversial research, always questioning the orthodoxy of liberal ideas. Lipset pioneered modernization theory in political sociology. Selznick, of course, was very influential in shaping the fields of organizational sociology and law and society and did much more public theorizing in the later stages of his career. None of the thinkers were ever conventional in their outlook, which is part of what made them so influential. Especially during their early years, they pushed and shaped the boundaries of social theory rather than working within them. (I think it’s fair to say that Kristol and Howe became more dogmatic as they moved into politics. The sociologists in the group, perhaps because of their commitment to intellectual progress over partisan loyalty, were continually moving on to new projects and ideas and were thus more able to maintain their peripheral positions throughout their careers.)
The movie is a must-see for any social theorist. In addition to telling the story of these four men, it also concisely depicts the intellectual struggles of the Old Left vs. the New Left and the repercussions of the activist Sixties on American universities. The one big fault of the movie, in my mind, was that it didn’t do enough to show how the activist Sixties were, in fact, an intellectual revolution of a very similar kind. While the movie mainly focuses on the stubborn resistance of Howe and Bell to the Tom Haydens of the New Left (who reminded them of the radical utopian thinkers they clamored against in the Thirties), real transformation in thought came, once again, from activists and intellectual leaders who were positioned on the margins, feminist theory being the outstanding example.
Might the world be structured, as Leibniz thought, so that every part of matter is divided ad infinitum? The Physicist David Bohm accepted infinitely decomposable matter, and even Steven Weinberg, a staunch supporter of the idea that science is converging on a final theory, admits the possibility of an endless chain of ever more fundamental theories. However, if there is no fundamental level, physicalism, thought of as the view that everything is determined by fundamental phenomena and that all fundamental phenomena are physical, turns out false, for in such a world, there are no fundamental phenomena, and so fundamental phenomena determine nothing. While some take physicalism necessarily to posit a fundamental level, here I present a thesis of physicalism that allows for its truth even in an infinitely decomposable world.
Via a friend on facebook —- a documentary/film inspired by Heidegger and Continental Philosophy, with commentary by Hubert Dreyfus and his students. More here: Being In The World movie.
- Tao Ruspoli is also behind the movie Fix.
- Here’s a link to podcasts of Hubert Dreyfus’s über-popular Man, God, and Society in Western Literature course at UC Berkeley.
A few weeks ago, I began a series of posts on the subject of small government rhetoric. My main point is that most people who push for small government don’t really mean it. In this post, I’d like to elaborate on an another point. Small government policy faces some big obstacles. The first and foremost is that people love government. And they love big government.
I don’t think this is particularly shocking. A few facts:
- Most people have government programs that they love a lot. Conservatives love the police and the military. Liberals love social services. The difference between liberals and conservatives is not that one is for more government and the other wants less government. They just want government to do different things.
- There are some big programs that most people support, like Medicare.
- A consistent finding of polls is that people who favor cutting government rarely favor cutting specific programs like Social Security.
- It is remarkably hard to cut government, even in America. Only recessions can dent state budgets, and then only temporarily.
- People may slam government in the abstract, but they love specific people a lot. You know the old joke, “Congress is a bunch of thieves, but my representative is great!”
- Surveys show that few people are hard core libertarians, who favor cutting both defense and social programs. In other words, lots use libertarian rhetoric but not many people actually support libertarian policies (privatizing old age benefits, drastically reducing defense).
One puzzle that remains is the persistence of small government rhetoric. What gives? My analysis is cynical. I think a lot of politics is group status politics in disguise. Small government rhetoric is convenient. It’s an easy justification to attack resource transfers to unpopular groups. For example, Tea Party conservatives oppose the bailout, a hand out to corporations. But few have called for systematically cutting back the Federal Reserve or the Treasury. Another case: immigration. They believe that immigrants are unjustly sucking up jobs and tax dollars. So cut the services that they use. The small government position is more palatable than saying “I hate banks” or “I hate Mexicans.”
So what’s a serious small government proponent to do? First, proponents of limited government should make it clear that they aren’t conservatives, Tea Party people, liberals or whatever. Second, focus on issues of high relative impact. For example, liberals and conservatives have pretty much failed on some important issues like the drug war, stopping needless war, and developing a humane immigration policy. These are all policy domains that lead to bigger, and unneeded, government. They are policy areas where you won’t be swamped by other interest groups. Third, counter-signal. If you really believe that small government is good for everyone, why not work for some low status people? Fighting for estate tax repeal or lower capital gains may have some abstract policy merit (or not), but I’m sure it won’t persuade people to really adopt your position. Instead, why not pick a fight that shows you favor freedom for everyone and not just people in your tax bracket?