Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category
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?
I’m interested in the nature of reality and particularly the boundaries and scope of the social construction of reality. I think social construction clearly plays an important role, but the question is, how “strong” is that role? For example, I think the performativity argument (and associated “strong programme”) pushes the social construction argument way too far.
But let’s get more specific: what role do categories, language and naming play in the construction of reality?
One empirical setting for actually studying this question is the case of color categories and color naming, an active area of research in linguistics, computer science and psychology. Scholars in this space have looked at whether the extant categories and names of colors of particular languages impact what individuals actually see and remember. The famous Sapir-Whorf thesis of course argued, broadly, that language, categories and culture strongly determine perception and reality. But, the color research shows otherwise. Languages with highly fine-grained distinctions for individual colors, as well as languages with relatively few (or even no!) distinctions and names for color, lead to the same perceptions and experiences of color. (Check out the citations below to see the clever way in which this is empirically tested.)
Well, almost. Recent work is making some important qualifications to the argument (articulating a middle ground, of sorts, between universality and strong construction), and there clearly is a very active debate in this space.
Here are some links to this literature:
- Berlin & Kay. 1991 (2nd edition). Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. University of California Press.
- Lindsey & Brown. 2006. Universality of color names. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103: 16608-16613.
- Terry Regier, Paul Kay, Aubrey Gilbert, and Richard Ivry. 2010. Language and thought: Which side are you on, anyway? In B. Malt and P. Wolff (Eds.), Words and the Mind: Perspectives on the Language-Thought Interface. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ke Zhou, Lei Mo, Paul Kay, Veronica P.Y. Kwok, Tiffany N.M. Ip, & Li Hai Tan. 2010. Newly trained lexical categories produce lateralized categorical perception of color. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107: 9974-9978.
- See Paul Kay’s web site.
- Also check out the World Color Survey @ Berkeley.
Now, I don’t, by any means, think that the color research necessarily is a knock-down argument against social construction. But I do think this research definitely questions the “strong” form of construction — I have opportunistically cited and referred to these and other findings to make that point. And another, perhaps unfair, knockdown argument is that no matter what linguistic categories a color-blind person has, it simply won’t matter in the perception of color.
There is of course much debate in the color literature as well and some of the work points toward a particular, softer form of construction. And, the color research of course is just one setting, and the findings may not generalize to other settings. But I do like the fact that the color research actually allows us to more rigorously say some things — with the usual qualifications and questions — about the specific role that language (as well as categories, culture etc) plays in the way we perceive the world.
In Spring a young man’s fancy turns to love. Rapidly aging academics such as myself, however, have to decide which readings to assign. This semester I’m teaching Organizations and Management to students in Duke’s MMS certificate program and Markets and Moral Order to a small group of seniors at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Both classes were a lot of fun last year (perhaps not for the students). I’ve rearranged the running order in the Orgs course a bit, as the flow was wrong last time.
If you think there’s something that absolutely has to be included in either course, I’m open to suggestions. But (I’m looking at you, Teppo) you’re not allowed to suggest something without also saying what I should drop in order to include it. Unlike the economy, a syllabus is not the sort of thing that you want to grow aggressively in order that everyone gets more and bigger slices of the whole.
Amartya Sen’s book The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009) is easily one of the best books I have read over the last couple years. Genius. The topics discussed in the book include social welfare, choice and comparative institutions, governance, philosophy, justice and equity, ethics. Here Sen gives the cliff notes at the Common Wealth Club of California (Feb 2010):
Here’s an engaging 2009 piece by Noam Chomsky that covers wide swaths of the philosophy of science — empiricism versus rationalism, the nature of will, philosophy of mind, the evolution of scientific thought, etc:
[Sorry, the journal web site does not allow one to link directly to papers, but you can easily find the volume --- though it's probably gated if you are not at a university.]
The whole paper is, sort of, addressed at (or at least linked to) the arguments of the “greats” in the history of science — Newton, Galileo, Locke, Hume, etc. One of the more interesting, big picture-type papers I’ve read in a while. (Perhaps some semi-intelligent commentary later, once I digest a few things.)
And while we’re in Chomsky mode — you might check out this recent book (the first chapter features the above article):
I wonder how many folks are serious about limited government rhetoric. Here is an easy litmus test to see if someone is actually serious about small government. Ask them what they would do to considerably scale back the size of the American federal government. These are the only correct answers:
- Massive cut backs on defense (20%): close bases, reduce standing forces, reduce deployments in Iraq and/or Afghanistan
- Massive cut backs on social security (20%): raise the retirement age; means test benefits; cut back benefits
- Massive cut backs on Medicare (21%): means test; limit benefits; age grade.
- Another 14% of the federal budget has to do with some type of fairly popular social safety net outlays, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or additional elderly support.
Here are some wrong answers. Saving money is wise, but cutting these items isn’t a plausible way to substantially reduce government:
- “discretionary spending”
- “administrative costs”
- preventing fraud
- foreign aid
- benefits to illegal immigrants
- the Department of Education
- the Bridge to Nowhere
In other words, about 85% of the Federal budget is about stuff that most people like. The stuff that people tend to offer for cuts, such as foreign aid or “waste,” doesn’t address the main issue. The typical proponent of small government would likely not dare cut the things that actually contribute to the overall size of government.
Which prominent sociologist was responsible for these lovely words about Stalin?
Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also – and this was the highest proof of his greatness – he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.
Three great decisions faced Stalin in power and he met them magnificently: first, the problem of the peasants, then the West European attack, and last the Second World War. The poor Russian peasant was the lowest victim of tsarism, capitalism and the Orthodox Church. He surrendered the Little White Father easily; he turned less readily but perceptibly from his ikons; but his kulaks clung tenaciously to capitalism and were near wrecking the revolution when Stalin risked a second revolution and drove out the rural bloodsuckers.
Answer below the fold…
It’s become apparent that many Republicans adhere to the theory of the expansive executive branch. Whether it be law enforcement, legislative initiative, or foreign policy, the executive branch is to be followed and given the benefit of the doubt. Of course, I think Democrats follow this in practice as well. Partisanship often requires that dissent be muted to further some agenda. However, it’s only in the Republican party that there’s been such an open endorsement of strong executive power all the way from the intellectuals down to the rank and file of the party.
This raises an interesting question. Is the expansive executive theory consistent with the principles of American government? Even though the Constitution was intended to increase executive power over the Articles of Confederation, it seems highly unlikely that the Constitution was meant to grant nearly unlimited power to the executive. In fact, the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights have so many anti-executive features in it, including things that are dear to conservatives such as the Second Amendment,* that it’s hard to believe that the Founders ever intended any other interpretation.
That raises an even deeper question about the expansive executive argument and the general intellectual tenor of the modern Republican party. It’s one thing to say that the government should switch policies. But it’s entirely another thing to move ultimate authority away from the courts and the legislature to the executive, which is what a lot conservative writings and jurisprudence suggest. What you get is a philosophy that’s less about specific policy proposals and more about proposing a fundamental shift in the way the Federal government is run.
Of course, the case is overstated a bit. No one has proposed abolishing Congress or appropriating local government, Hugo Chavez-style. But in an number of major policy domains, the shift is obvious. Congress should not decide when to go to war. They should verify what the President has done and not interfere. The Courts should not second guess police and prosecutors. Individual rights in criminal cases are subordinate to the needs of the state. These are the most egregious cases, there are more subtle cases.
Overall, I think there are many positive things about conservative thought. Tradition is important to consider, government ought not be a burden. But the trends I’ve identified above make me think that there’s been slip from these insights into an embrace of power for its own sake.
* If private citizens are supposed to own guns as a bulwark against tyranny, then doesn’t that imply some strong limits to executive power? Tyranny essentially means “executive out of control,” which means things like jailing people without due process and torturing them. I really don’t see any other way of reading the Second amendment if you start with the “anti-tyranny” interpretation.
An upcoming special issue of Erkenntnis (a journal in analytic philosophy) focuses on the topic of “reduction in the special sciences” (associated with this 2008 conference, here are some earlier versions of the papers in the special issue).
Here are some of the issues that the special issue will wrestle with:
Science presents us with a variety of accounts of the world. While some of these accounts posit deep theoretical structure and fundamental entities, others do not. But which of these approaches is the right one? How should science conceptualize the world? And what is the relation between the various accounts? Opinions on these issues diverge wildly in philosophy of science. At one extreme are reductionists who argue that higher-level theories should, in principle, be incorporated in, or eliminated by, the basic-level theory. According to this view, higher-level theories do not ultimately exhibit conceptual integrity or provide genuine explanations. At the other extreme are pluralists who take higher levels of description and explanation seriously and argue for their independence and indispensability.
As is readily evident from the abstract, one of the contributions is of particular interest to me, the piece by Jack Vromen: “Micro-foundations in Strategic Management: Squaring Coleman’s Diagram.”
Abell, Felin and Foss argue that “macro-explanations” in strategic management, explanations in which organizational routines figure prominently and in which both the explanandum and explanans are at the macro-level, are necessarily incomplete. They take a diagram (which has the form of a trapezoid) from Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.)/London, (1990) to task to show that causal chains connecting two macro-phenomena always involve “macro-to-micro” and “micro-to-macro” links, links that macro-explanations allegedly fail to recognize. Their plea for micro-foundations in strategic management is meant to shed light on these “missing links”. The paper argues that while there are good reasons for providing micro-foundations, Abell, Felin and Foss’s causal incompleteness argument is not one of them. Their argument does not sufficiently distinguish between causal and constitutive relations. Once these relations are carefully distinguished, it follows that Coleman’s diagram has to be squared. This in turn allows us to see that macro-explanations need not be incomplete.
I’ll post a final/copy-edited version of the response into the comments (once we get it back).
A while ago, I was asked a question that went something like this: “Black Studies programs were created at a time when there were few voices from the Black perspective in the public sphere. But now, we have people like Bill Cosby – public figures addressing Black topics. What is the role of Black Studies now?”
First, I think the questioner has a legitimate point. We now have many qualified people addressing issues relevant to people of color. Some, like Skip Gates, are lauded academics, while others, like Tavis Smiley, are more like journalistic commentators. Regardless, the point is well taken – just turn on the television and you’re bound to find African American social commentary.
Second, what makes Black Studies distinct in the present is its political perspective. I don’t mean that all Black Studies professors are fist pumping radicals. I mean something a bit more restrained and common sense. Black Studies professors are in the business of studying the distinct experience of the African American community. That’s not something you find much in academia and it’s a perspective the deserves to be heard.
Third, if for no other reason, we need Black Studies because it yielded the Boondocks. That’s right. The guy who writes the Boondocks, Aaron McGruder, majored in African American Studies at Maryland. In my view, the entire field has justified its existence in that way.
Movements face a tough choice in American politics – which major party is better for your interests? Third parties, as I’ve argued, are a waste of time. That brings me to Obama and conservatives and libertarians. Since the GOP was in meltdown mode in 2008, some conservatives and libertarians supported Obama. Now, people are asking whether Obama was the right choice because he pushed health care reform and other measures.
Here’s my response. In modern American politics, you don’t face a choice between limited government and growing government. American politics is about the choice between the welfare state and the war state. Roughly speaking, Democratic presidents tend to promote ambitious welfare state expansions (Truman – Fair Deal; LBJ – Medicare; Clinton – health care reform; Obama – health care reform). Republicans have tended to promote national security and war (Regan – the 80s build up, Lebanon, Star Wars; Bush I – Panama, Gulf War I; Bush II – Iraq & Afghanistan). There’s recent research suggesting that military spending serves the same purpose for GOP politicians as the welfare state does for Democrats. Of course, some presidents, like Nixon, manage to promote welfare state expansion and war making at the same time.
So we have almost 70 years of post-war American history. Limited government just isn’t on the menu. Instead you have to choose between leaders who expand the state for military purposes and those who expand the state for social purposes. I’d be interested in any argument suggesting that McCain would have sharply curtailed state growth in any significant way.
The Nation has an interview with historian Tony Judt. His new book, Ill Fares the Land, is an argument for the European style welfare state. A few clips:
There are two different considerations here. The first is the social reality of the social democratic state—the activist state, if you like—with collective responsibility across space and time for other people’s interests. That is almost inevitably going to survive in one form or another. In my world it was pretty clear which aspects of my parents’ world would survive into ours; in my kids’ world, it’s not at all clear which aspects of my world will survive into theirs. With globalization, with the fear of economic change, with the insecurities that the twenty-first century is going to bring, which are going to be far greater than those of the twentieth, the level of insecurity is going to have the paradoxical effect of throwing people back on the state much more, looking to it for everything from medical protection to physical protection to job guarantees to protection against outside competition and such. So the question is not going to be, Will there be an activist state? The question is going to be, What kind of an activist state?
And that brings us to the second consideration, which is how we think about it. We’ve emerged from a twentieth century which we’ve learned to think of as a kind of seventy-year running battle between the over-mighty state and the wonders of individual freedom. Extreme forms of individualism versus extreme forms of collective enforced authority. Roughly speaking, Stalin versus the tea party. That’s a caricature of the twentieth century. But it’s one that we have to a large degree internalized, so when people think of the political choices facing them, they think of them in terms of maximized individual freedom versus maximized collective repression, or power or authority or whatever. And then they think of any changes with one or the other, regrettable compromises with freedom or so on. We need to change that conversation so we can think of the state not as some external creature that history has imposed upon us but simply as a way of collective organization that we chose to place onto ourselves. In that sense the liberal state either has a future or it doesn’t, but it really is up to us.
Robert Paul Wolff — the well-known philosopher of politics and political economy, late convert to Afro-American studies, and author of some very good books including the best explanation of how to approach Marx’s ironic, sarcasm-laced prose style — has lately been keeping a blog, and writing his memoirs. There are some very good stories, mostly about philosophers.
Most sociologists are unaware that Talcott Parsons’ son Charles Parsons is a well-respected philosopher of logic, mathematics and language. Wolff knew him as a student, and Chapter 4 has a good story about Parsons, Snr:
Charlie was a very serious, very brilliant, very compulsive young man of middle height, with sandy hair. He was an academic brat, having grown up in the family home in Belmont during the time that his father was a famous senior professor in the Harvard Social Relations Department. Talcott Parsons had been responsible for introducing American readers to the works and theories of Max Weber, the great German sociologist. But unlike Weber, whose books were deep, powerful investigations of the roots, structure, and functioning of modern bureaucratic capitalist society, Parsons produced vast, empty, classificatory schemes that were devoid of any real power or insight. Poor Charlie, who lived very much in the shadow of the great man, was in fact much smarter than his father, and I have always suspected that he knew quite well how meretricious his father’s theories were. But during all the time I knew him, he never said a word about the matter. …
One story will give some sense of the burdens laid upon him by his parents. Our second year together, Charlie very kindly invited me to join his family for Thanksgiving dinner at their colonial Belmont home. … A topic was proposed for discussion during the taking of the wine, and we entered into a lively debate, while papa sat in a corner with a pad and pen and wrote another book, nodding into the conversation from time to time without actually joining it. At issue was whether it would be immoral for the aunt to buy a new car before her present vehicle had entirely worn out. Strong views were offered pro and con, but in the end, a consensus was reached that this would indeed be immoral. At no time, I am happy to say, did the discussion descend to the level of considerations of prudence. It was all on a high moral plane.
Finally dinner was served. After we had seated ourselves around the table, Mrs. Parsons, who was herself a social scientist, turned to Ann and said, “Ann, would you bring in the potatoes, please?” She then explained to me, as the guest, “It is traditional in our family for the older daughter to bring in the potatoes.” Next, she turned to Susan, and said, “Susan, would you bring in the vegetables?” Once again, she explained, “In our family, it is traditional for the younger daughter to bring in the vegetables.” Finally, she turned to her husband, and said, “Talcott, would you carve the turkey?” Yet again, “It is traditional in our family for the father to carve the turkey.”
At first, I was utterly mystified by these elaborate explanations, until, with a flash of methodological insight, I realized what was going on. This was a collection of intellectuals who had read in books that one of the latent functions of social rituals was to preserve the unity of kin structures. So they were deliberately, by the numbers as it were, reenacting a social ritual that they had self-consciously created in an effort to reinforce the ties that bound them. It was a textbook exercise, complete in every way save for any vestige of spontaneous feeling or manifest pleasure.
Professor Parsons proceeded to address the bird, a big, beautifully cooked production to which he applied a carefully sharpened carving knife. He made a series of passes that barely damaged the turkey, producing a neat stack of extremely thin slices. Each plate received one of them, together with a spoonful of the potatoes and the vegetables, a bit of stuffing, and a dollop of gravy. Then we dug in.
Coming as I do from a culture in which eating occupies pride of place among all the bodily functions, including sex, I inhaled my plate of food almost before the others had taken up their knives and forks, and looked around expectantly for seconds. But they were not to be. The turkey, still almost whole, was returned to the kitchen, and plates were ceremonially cleared, ready to be washed, though in my eyes they barely needed it.
Nice video of philosopher Martha Nussbaum discussing her seminal book on morals, The Fragility of Goodness. Is it just me, or was television better in the past?
John Searle has written a new book that should be of interest to many of you. Following the line of thought of his earlier The Construction of Social Reality, Searle’s Making the Social World tries to explain how we create a world of institutions, like organizations and culture, from a physical world that seems to play by a different set of principles. He starts by identifying a simple principle that he thinks can explain much of what counts for social reality. Here’s an excerpt from the introductory chapter:
It is typical of domains where we have a secure understanding of the ontology, that there is a single unifying principle of that ontology. In physics it is the atom, in chemistry it is the chemical bond, in biology it is the cell, in genetics it is the DNA molecule, and in geology it is the tectonic plate. I will argue that there is similarly an underlying principle of social ontology, and one of the primary aims of the book is to explain it. In making these analogies to the natural sciences I do not imply that the social sciences are just like the natural sciences. That is not the point. The point rather is that it seems to me implausible to suppose that we would use a series of logically independent mechanisms for creating institutional facts, and I am in search of a single mechanism. I claim we use one formal linguistic mechanism, and we apply it over and over with different contents (7).
The claim that I will be expounding and defending in this book is that all of human institutional reality is created and maintained in existence by (representations that have the same logical form as) [Status Function] Declarations, including the cases that are not speech acts in the explicit form of Declarations (13).
Searle isn’t saying that every speech act makes the world change and therefore has a declarative effect. But some sorts of speech are intended to “change the world by declaring that the state of affairs exists and thus bringing that state of affairs into existence” (12). These declarative speech acts, then, are the fundamental units of any institution because without them humans would be completely constrained by reality as it stands now. They would be unable to create anything new.
Needless to say, the performativity folks will eat this up.
Steve Levitt, has a provocative blog post up today. Forwarding a reader’s email he asks:
“What other benefits can be found in poverty? Obviously there is a difference between the regular poverty of say, a good chunk of Western college students versus the extreme poverty of many people in Africa. Depending on the situation, I am thinking there could be a connection between poverty and with things like creative resourcefulness and happiness.” Your thoughts?
As for thoughts, an orgTheorist who shall go nameless posted this on his facebook page questioning whether Steve might have had an aneurysm. Its hard to disagree with that sentiment.
But then it did make me think of Amartya Sen’s argument in Development as Freedom. In a nut shell, Sen’s goal is to shift the debate away from mainstream economists’ notions of utility and from philosophical (sociological?) questions of justice or fairness to emphasize the capability of people to do and be what they value.
Echoing Levitt’s reader’s (puke-worthy, yet nevertheless thought provoking) comparison of Western college students and “people in Africa” (whatever that means given that it is a continent of 1 billion people and countless cultures and subcultures), Sen’s argument is, fundamentally, that poverty is relative.
If a lack of income is standing in the way of doing things you want to do — worship, vote, be comfortable — then you are poor. But those restrictions can come just as easily from social norms, religious edicts or political structure as income. At the same time, simply having a low income does not make one either poor or unhappy. The Botswanan bushman who is living a full and meaningful life within a traditional society is neither unhappy nor poor because he has full capability to achieve what he wants to achieve in life.
Sen likes to point out that in his wanderings in Calcutta’s ghettos, he never encountered anyone who said that their poverty made them unhappy. The same, I venture, could not be said of your average college student living on loans. Myself, I remember spending a few very miserable winters in Ithaca eating ramen noodles. Yet, the capabilities of the Calcuttan ghetto-dweller to achieve the things they may want to achieve are vastly inferior to the capabilities of the students. So why are they happier? The difference is, essentially, ignorance: the poor in Calcutta make-due under overwhelmingly adverse circumstances while students in the US feel worse off relative to others in society. The poor may seem happier, but their happiness is in light of their relative lack of freedom compared to the US student. Which is worse? Sen argues that happy ignorance is not bliss. I’d say I have to agree.
I’m not really a connoisseur of poetry, wish I was, but Wallace Stevens is one poet I enjoy reading. His poems are frequently about the nature of reality.
We’ve had lots of discussions here at orgtheory about the nature of reality: the role of theories in explaining or constructing reality, the relationship between theory and data/observation, perception and reality, performativity, etc. Poets have wrestled with related issues and Stevens is a master in this domain. You might, for example, read Stevens’s poem “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,” or his poem “Description without Place.” The latter poem provoked William Carlos Williams to write a poem in response: “A Place (Any Place) to Transcend All Places.”
[I would like to try some kind one-time experimental class on poetry, the 'classic novels and organizations' readings class last year was a fun experiment, though that might be a stretch.]
Here are the opening stanzas of Wallace Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar –
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.
If you ever wondered about Obama the speaker and Obama the policy maker, here’s the connection: he’s a standard issue liberal, but his rhetoric is very inclusive. It makes most folks feel like he’s on your side, even if he isn’t. How inclusive? Consider the following post from blogger Dan Drezner:
Oh, professors of introductory international relations classes everywhere are thanking their maker for Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (well, except those in Steve Walt‘s classes). It’s a gift to anyone who needs to come up with a final exam question at this stage of the semester. Pick a paradigm, and you can find a sliver of the speech dedicated to its theoretical propositions.
Later, he argues that you can find endorsements of just about any international relations theory in Obama’s Nobel speech:
- Neoliberal institutionalism
- Social construcivism
- Democratic peace theory
- Feminist IR theory (I think it’s there, but you have to squint)
- Human security
Exercise: read Obama’s speech and come up with your own interpretation. I’ll post the funniest reading of the speech, long as it’s textually based. Heck, I don’t care. Just make it funny.
Hat tip to Margarita Rayzberg, from the home office in Washington!
John Searle has argued — and he might just be correct — that social scientists are poor philosophers (he even goes after Weber, Durkheim and Simmel). I’m not sure how long we can go along publishing things that are not philosophically sound (“soundness” of course might be relative — though, as a scientific realist, I don’t think it is). That said, it’s a tall enough order to get our theories and empirics correct in any given paper, without even getting into the philosophy. But I think we can most definitely do better in spelling out, or at least being aware of, our underlying philosophical commitments and assumptions. Plus, I think that the nexus of philosophy and org theory provides a tremendous opportunity for future work.
So, whether you agree with Searle’s brand of realism or not, I’d highly recommend his Fall 2009 “Philosophy of Society” course, you can download the lectures here (or, via iTunes, just search for “phil 138″). Thirty plus hours (with more to come) of engaging lecture on philosophy and society.
A hello from Eric Abrahamson,
Thanks Sean for introducing me, hello everyone, and thanks all of you for allowing me to be a guest blogger.
I thought I would start with something that I am having trouble thinking through, the question of agentic behavior in social scientific disciplines, like Organizational Theory. So I am looking for your help as I have kind of painted myself into a corner.
I am not religious, but I vaguely remember St. Augustine’s response, in City of God, to the question: if God is good and all powerful, then why does he allow evil in the world he created. St. Augustine responds, only if God gives humans free will to be good or evil, can they choose whether or not to sin, and can God judge them fairly (let’s assume that sinners retain free will, because they do not act or think of acting to try and game God’s paradise, purgatory, hell incentive scheme, knowing full well that and all-knowing God would detect them immediately). In light of this argument, there is no causal factor, even a divine one, determining human free will to act for good or for evil.
So, it seems that “free will”, or “agentic behavior” as we now call it, is an unmoved mover. Agentic behavior is a uniquely human impulse towards making unfettered choices, including choices to alter, remove, or avoid forces limiting such unfettered freedom. Note, already, that part of any secular notion of agentic behavior includes agentic behavior to reach a value consensus, among scholars, concerning what constitutes value-driven science (be it the value to have no or divergent values).
Putting theology, philosophy, and ethics aside, let’s consider scientific research. I am interested by Psychological research indicating that higher measures of human “self efficacy” tend to cause more “agentic behavior”. But I am interested in such research, in part, because it could help overcome the paucity of research investigating why, when, or how agentic behavior has a greater likelihood of coming to light in order to heighten “self efficacy”.
In direct parallel, I think that social science generally, and Organizational Theory specifically, should continue to develop and test Organizational Theories of deterministic forces bearing on organizations and the agents who run them. However, Organizational Theory scholars could also spend more time on theory and research investigating why, how, and when organizations agentic behavior has a greater likelihood of surfacing or overcoming deterministic forces blocking further agentic behavior.
Why a focus on agentic behavior? There are many answers, but I will give only one personal one, as this post is getting long. I came back from Tanzania, this summer, having witnessed instances of abject poverty. It’s not the first time, but this time, it seemed obscene to return to Columbia and just engage in more scholarly activity that would exemplify and reinforce the what determines the (fill in something like “poverty” or “prosperity”) variety of scientific research. This, though this type of research was what Tanzanian scholars were supposed to produce in order to be promoted. I couldn’t help but think that what was needed was value-driven, scientific, and agentic Organizational Theory designed to provide more effective and efficient policy advice.
I recall a short but striking conversation with the formidable Piero Sraffa at the Economics Faculty cocktail party after Dennis Robertson’s Marshall Lectures. I well knew that it was Sraffa whom Wittgenstein had described as his mentor during the gestation of the Philosophical Investigations, but I still ventured a rather simple-minded remark about the obvious importance of the fact-value distinction to the social sciences. He turned on me his charming smile and glittering eyes. Did I really suppose that one could switch from fact to value as if simply moving a handle? His voice rose and his Italian accent grew sharper. “Fact, value! Value, fact! Fact, value! Value, Fact! FACT, VALUE! VALUE, FACT!” I beat a swift and chastened retreat. — W.G. Runciman, Confessions of a Reluctant Theorist, 18.
rorty: why the world should be more like the united states and why the united states should be more like norway
Here’s a very provocative and terse discussion/interview (mp3) with Richard Rorty — covering topics such as analytics versus historicism in philosophy, and then a postphilosophical discussion about why the world needs to be more like the United States and why the United States needs to be more like Norway.
I was rereading him a bit over the weekend, though. Ian Craib once remarked that Talcott Parsons’ approach to social theory put him in mind of an office clerk who was too intelligent for his job, and so passed the time by devising ever more complicated ways to file the very dull paperwork he was assigned. Luhmann, of course, felt that Parsons was not nearly abstract enough. I was struck by Luhmann’s opening remarks, “Instead of a Preface to the English Edition”, of Social Systems:
This is not an easy book. It does not accommodate those who prefer a quick and easy read, yet do not want to die without a taste of systems theory. This holds for the German text, too. If one seriously undertakes to work out a comprehensive theory of the social and strives for sufficient conceptual precision, abstraction and complexity in the conceptual architecture are unavoidable. Among the classical authors, Parsons included, one finds a regrettable carelessness in conceptual questions—as if ordinary language were all that is needed to create ideas or even texts. … Translating the book into English multiplies the difficulties, because English, unlike German, does not permit one to transform unclarities into clarities by combining them in a single word. Instead, they must be spread out into phrases. From the perspective of English, German appears unclear, ambiguous, and confusing. But when the highest imperative is rigor and precision, it makes good sense to allow ambiguities to stand, even deliberately to create them, in order to indicate that in the present context further distinctions or specifications are not important.
Where have I heard this sort of attitude before? Here is the “Preface to the English-Language Edition” of Distinction*:
In its form, too, this book is “very French”. This will be understood if the reader accepts that, as I try to show, the mode of expression characteristic of a cultural production always depends on the laws of the market in which it is offered … [T]he style of the book, whose long, complex sentences may offend—constructed as they are with a view to reconstituting the complexity of the social world in a language capable of holding together the most diverse things while setting them in rigorous perspective—stems partly from the endeavour to mobilize all the resources of the traditional modes of expression, literary, philosophical, or scientific, so as to say things that were de facto or de jure excluded from them, and to prevent the reading from slipping back into the simplicities of the smart essay or the political polemic.
If you are like me, this sort of thing makes you want to find the nearest Grand Theorist and beat them to death with a copy of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Confessing such irritation, of course, forces one to play the role either of positivist philistine or plain-speaking old blowhard — an unpleasant choice of critical positions which, I daresay, was just what Bourdieu had in mind when he had the barefaced cheek to type the passage above. Luhmann plays the same game. But I wonder whether an unwillingness to accommodate the simple-minded is a wise strategy for someone who cares have his work remembered at all. Even Hume took the trouble to condense and then rewrite his Treatise after it fell dead-born from the press.
* Which did make it onto the syllabus. Draw your own conclusions.
David Leonhardt’s piece in the NY Times on reforming health care caught my attention today. As I’ve come to expect from him, it’s well written and makes an important point. But for the moment, I’m more interested in its implied critique of the economy. Specifically, I have been wondering whether we are seeing a shift away from critiques which emphasizes fairness and equity and toward ones built around sustainability and I think his article helps articulate what this might mean.
The last time health care was seriously debated in the 1990s, the rhetoric centered on the 40 million uninsured: How could the richest country in the world allow that many people to go unprotected? This time around, the framing has shifted. As Leonhardt lays it out, disparities in distribution are inevitable; some people will get less out of the system than others as a matter of course. But the way we use the system is unsustainable and it threatens to bring low the rest of the economy. And that justifies getting the government involved.
This is a big shift. The argument for health care in the 90s was based, primarily, on an ideology of fairness. Leonhardt is arguing from a perspective which I see as fundamentally based on an ideology of sustainability: the health care system is so deeply intertwined with other aspects of our society that failing to act presents a fundamental challenge to the rest of society (and, by extension, the economy).
Similarly, look at the proposals for reforming the financial system which were released today. While there was a brief puff of smoke earlier this year about the excessive income of CEOs (and there is at least a token effort in this reform package at addressing that) its motivations have little to do with fairness. They are all about preserving and sustaining society. Banking—this argument goes—is integral to the functioning of just about everything we do. But it is threatened by the baser impulses of individuals acting in their own self-interest. So the government needs to act.
That, to me, is about sustainability. It is apparently what led Ken Lewis, then Chairman and CEO of Bank of America, to advocate in favor of accepting government intervention when his and other big banks were confronted with it by Hank Paulson last year:
I basically finally said: “We are so intertwined with the U.S. that it’s hard to separate what’s good for the United States and what’s good for Bank of America. So don’t do it on the basis of us being told; do it on the basis that things could get a lot worse in America and therefore for us. And they’re almost one and the same…. [W]e thought we were doing somebody a favor, or the country a favor for that matter.
What kind of regulatory policy does this lead to? Here is Columbia Business School Dean R. Glenn Hubbard reacting to the crisis last fall (before becoming one of the advisors to the Administration on the regulatory brief released today):
The financial meltdown that engulfed Lehman and the uncomfortable responses of policymakers… highlight[s] the need for regulatory reform. The problem is actually not too little regulation — both lightly and heavily regulated institutions are in trouble. And some regulations encouraged the growth of high-risk mortgage lending. We do need smarter regulation: a key step is to broaden capital and liquidity requirements and increase them during financial booms to lean against excessive risk-taking.
In other words, there came a point at which failure to act became morally repugnant—first on the part of Ken Lewis and then on the part of regulators—because doing so would undermine the broader social system. But on what basis? It is not out of an impulse toward fairness or even personal gain. Fundamentally, it is rooted in the impulse to maintain the long term stability and viability of society.
What’s going on here? The idea I’d like to explore (at some length, sorry) is whether this is evidence of a shift in mainstream critiques of the economy.
Hello Orgtheorists! I am new to blogging but I have been enjoying this blog for a while so I am really excited at the idea of joining your conversations. Thanks to Teppo, Brayden, Kieran, Fabio and Omar for letting me blog here.
I was not planning to start with a long post on the pro and cons of performativity, self-fulfilling prophecies, etc…but after Teppo’s recent post, I couldn’t resist…so here is my 2 cents on this debate. Going through the comments that followed Teppo’s posting on performativity, and similar debates on orgtheory (here, here, and here), socializing finance, organizations and markets, and old- fashioned journal articles (AJS, AMR, OrgScience), I was struck by the number of different conversations/debates/questions we manage to weave around this one perspective (notice I don’t use the t word). I started listing them and I counted at least eleven major debates:
- Realism and Constructionism
- Positivism and Interpretivism
- Nature and nurture
- Materialism and Idealism
- Voluntarism and Structuralism
- Rationality debate
- The debate on economics (and economists): How did economics become the dominant social science? Is economics wrong? Is it evil? Are economists self-interested? Are B-Schools spreading dangerous (economic) theories?
- Is the crisis ultimately the failure of Chicago-style economics? Are economists describing the economy or designing it? Or both?
- The Materiality debate: What is the role of technology (and other material artifacts) in the functioning of markets (and organizations)? What is the role of models, formula, in shaping the functioning of markets (and organizations)? Did a formula kill Wall St.?
- Do financial incentives in organizations work? When? What are their limits?
- Is performativity a theory? How is performativity different from traditional self-fulfilling prophecies? How is it different from institutional theory? Commensuration? Is performativity the future of economic sociology?
I am sure I am missing some of the key debates, and I hope readers will jump in and add to the list of debates and questions that the performativity debate has touched. It feels like performativity has become a sort of Rorschach test for organization theorists, economic sociologists, (few) economists and other social scientists who project on it their worldviews, their knowledge, their biases and enter heated intellectual duels without clear winners. Taken individually, these questions are all interesting and could be treated scientifically but all together they become a hairy mess of (ideological) assumptions, ontological and epistemological positions, methodological preferences, and ultimately the debates generate a déjà-vu feeling that might actually only reinforce our original positions (a classic example of Lee Ross’ biased assimilation).
I wonder if we are not asking too much from performativity?
Debates one through six have been discussed for centuries and will never be “resolved,” and I personally hope they will never be resolved, because the creative tension between these positions drives theoretical imagination, and, in my opinion, generates more interesting social science (see Abbott’s Chaos of Discipline for a wonderful discussion of this process). Also, why should we expect performativity to provide “the” answer to these debates? Also, why should we expect “one” answer? For instance, among scholars in the performativity arena, I bet that you will find both hard core constructionists-interpretivists, and scholars who would tend more towards a realists-positivists approach (for instace, I don’t consider myself a pure constructionist, but I know Teppo and Nicolai label me as such…), so which one is the “performativity” position?
Critics will point out that the root of these problems is that performativity has not clarified its theoretical mechanisms, defined its scope conditions well enough, and of course, provided enough empirical evidence, so it is easy to poke holes into it. My AMR paper with Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton was, among other things, an attempt to tease out the mechanisms and define the scope conditions of self-fulfilling prophecies. Much of the debate that followed was focused on the polemical qualities of the paper, on whether we like or economists or not (not a very interesting question: of course we do! of course we admire their work! And btw, last night I had dinner with three academic economists, all Princeton PhDs!), rather than its modest attempt to systematize some of the performativity ideas. Furthermore, not enough good quality empirical work has been published to better articulate the theoretical ideas and test them. The good news is that there is much development on both fronts, and I am optimistic about the future development of these ideas (many orgtheory readers are working on these problems, and this is already a key sign that something is moving!)
At the same time, I don’t think we are ever going to solve many of the debates listed above, and definitely it is not productive to address all of them together. So my suggestion will be to narrow down the scope of the discussions around performativitiy, and to do that, in my postings here, I will start from a different set of questions from the one Teppo asks. Rather than asking whether performativity is the future of economic sociology, or whether performativity is a good theory (or a theory at all), I would rather ask:
- Has performativity research been useful in my understanding of organizations and markets?
- How can perfomativity research inform my own work on organizations and markets?
I believe that these questions might help us identify whether and how performativity is helping us do better social science. I will address these questions in future posts but for now I would like to get your answers: What has performativity done for you?