Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

markets, opportunity, and justice

At the Winter commencement at Indiana University, one of our speakers, tech business leader Fred Luddy, made a very interesting comment. Basically, he said that life in a market isn’t fair, but there are always more opportunities. I am not sure if he appreciated the depth of the remark, but if you reflect upon it, you realize that it merits a lot of reflection.

Let’s start with the typical approaches to thinking about whether markets are just forms of interaction.  The classic Nozickian position is that markets are just because they are voluntary. If you voluntarily by or sell your property or labor, then the resulting state is just. The critics raise multiple objections. For example, many people think that extreme inequality is either inherently unfair (i.e., only mild deviations from equality are acceptable) or that inequality has negative consequences (e.g., perhaps the very wealthy can unfairly influence government).

I think the most profound response to the critics comes from Hayek, who argued that the “social justice” critique of markets misses an important point. Namely,  Hayek argued that to critique the market based social order you must assume that you know what the right order is and how to make it happen, and that’s a tall order. Still, Hayek’s counter-point to the social justice leaves a lot of people, including myself, a little cold.

Why? Maybe it is unwise to believe that some mystical central planner can know the “right way” to organize society, but it does seem to be the case that the market economy tolerates a lot of things that appear prima facie unjust. A lot of people can lose their jobs through no fault of their own, such as in a recession. Or there can be persistent discrimination against certain classes of people, such as women or ethnic minorities.

In my view, this observation – that markets tolerate substantial levels of injustice – is reasonable. This brings me back to Luddy’s point. What I think he was trying to communicate, in the context of a graduation speech, is that the valuable thing about markets isn’t that they create justice. Rather, they create opportunities you can pursue after you have experienced injustice. In his speech, for example, he described how a business partner had used a stolen identity to embezzle millions of dollars – which he had to pay back to investors. There was nothing just about the situation, but the interesting thing is that he still had more opportunities and could thus move on with this life.

The big idea is that a narrow Nozickian justice and other broader forms of justice are different and that markets are actually fairly good at the former but not the latter. If all we ask if that a chain of interactions be voluntary, then markets fit the bill. If we ask that all possible consequences be desirable, or that all bad actors are relentlessly suppressed and reformed, markets are definitely imperfect. But that doesn’t mean that markets should be rejected. Rather, Luddy’s comment indicates that they have a desirable trait that may promote justice along some margins. Economic opportunities, ranging from the modest taco truck to the next billion dollar start-up, are constantly being created. For many people who experience negative outcomes, they may be a way to move forward and that’s a good thing.

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December 28, 2017 at 6:45 am

levy book forum 2: political theory and the nature of society

A few weeks ago, I began reviewing Jacob Levy’s new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. The main point of the book is that you can’t have it both ways. A political liberalism that restrains the state can’t, at the same time, celebrate the civil sphere without qualification because civic associations themselves can become illiberal. Private groups can behave in fairly repressive ways that resemble what states do.

As I wrote, the book is lengthy and covers a lot of ground. In this part of the review, I want to delve a little into Part II, which examines how political theory has thought about the state. I think sociologists might enjoy this because it provides an alternative to how we think about states. In modern sociology, states, per Weber, are holders of legitimate force, or they are the place where ultimate authority is created and exercised. Perhaps a Bourdieusian might suggest that it is a place for statecraft, while a post-Bourdieusian view, like that espoused by McAdam and Fligstein (2012), would see it as an “ultimate” field that overlaps with other fields.

What does Levy draw from the discussion of states over the course of political theory? Perhaps most interesting to sociologists is the idea that modern states are not so much about violence, but rather the centralization of force and violence. Second is the response to centralization – things outside states are about self governance rather than governance by others. So, as we shifted away from the middle ages to modernity, we built big fat states, which encouraged people to assert independence in various forms (guilds, universities, etc.) There is much more to Levy’s analysis, but this captures a crucial starting point. Third, modern notions of freedoms are about trying to pull together all the concessions made to individual freedom by states during their formation. A lot of political theory is about trying to provide a more integrated account of freedom because in the middle ages freedom was defined in an ad hoc and disconnected way.

What should sociologists draw from this? One obvious lesson is that a crucial dimension of fields, such as states, is vestment in governance. In a particular field, or social domain, who has the authority? Is there a lot of self-governance? Centralized power? Or some sort of collegium model? Second, rights – political rights in Levy’s case – may be scattered or concentrated. Thus, in understanding fields, it is not about inequality or resources, but also about claims over resources and autonomy. As the case of political rights shows, rights can be broken up (e.g., right to trade, right to free speech) and effort (“institutional work” in modern jargon) must be expended to make the right more coherent in its context. The big lesson is that maybe field theory, and the sociology of states, focuses too much on resource inequality and should think more carefully about autonomy and control.

Next week, I’ll focus on Levy’s claims about the ills of private associations. Thanks for reading.

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November 9, 2017 at 5:01 am

jacob levy on nihilism and politics

Long time friend and political theorist Jacob Levy has a great op-ed in the LA Times. The issue? Don’t worry about hypocrisy (that much), worry about nihilism:

At its worst, hypocrisy can be a kind of furious projection of one’s sins onto others; think of the official filled with obnoxious self-righteousness about other people’s sexual behavior whose personal life turns out not to bear scrutiny. Or it can turn values into mere talking points, and drain them of any real force. But what the great Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar called “anti-hypocrisy” is a talking point of its own. It is a lazy substitute for making and defending real value judgments; I don’t have to be able to show which principles are good ones if I can just show that you violate your own. That strategy encourages a spiral downward; having higher standards always increases the chance that one won’t live up to them. In a culture that can’t agree on shared moral judgments but that delights in exposing hypocrites, the easy strategy might be to have no standards at all.


In a recent interview, the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked President Trump about his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying “Putin’s a killer.” Trump’s reply was astonishing: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”


…Trump’s shrug abandons that striving idealism. Why bother to have standards? Why bother to treat political killings as even worth criticizing? Why bother to acknowledge that, even granting American misbehavior, Putin’s regime today is accused of doing far worse: murdering critical journalists, assassinating political dissidents, committing war crimes from Chechnya to Syria?

Excellent. I’ll take hypocrisy that makes the world better, over nihilism any day.

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February 10, 2017 at 12:12 am

performativity in engineering: the case of moore’s law

Econtalk recently interviewed Richard Jones, a physicist who is a critic of transhumanism. In this interesting discussion, he makes the argument that Moore’s law was an example of performativity.

He uses the terminology of the self-fulfilling prophecy but his discussion is much closer to performativity. Basically, he, correctly, notes that Moore’s law is not a physical law. Microchips will not become faster by themselves. They only become faster because of the time and effort invested in them.

And why does this happen? The public discussion of Moore’s law, according to Jones. I am not knowledgeable in engineering to know if public discussion of Moore’s law did in fact drive chip development, but the point is well taken. At the very least, a belief in consistent improvement actually led to a real improvement by providing incentives.

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April 8, 2016 at 12:01 am

frederick douglass: open borders is justice

As usual, Frederick Douglass provides moral clarity on the issue of migration. In 1869, he spoke against growing anti-Chinese prejudice:

Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would. But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry? To all of this and more I have one among many answers, together satisfactory to me, though I cannot promise that it will be so to you. I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency. There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever.


But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men. I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself. Thus what would seem to belong to the whole, would become the property only of a part. So much for what is right, now let us see what is wise. And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United states, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.

“Rights wrong no man.” Amen.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 29, 2014 at 5:32 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, philosophy

john danaher explains why he blogs

I often wonder: why should someone blog? Philosopher John Danaher explains that it helps him:

2. It helps to generate writing flow states: I appreciate that the term “flow” state is something of a buzzword. Still, it has a basis in psychological science and it is something that blogging can help generate. The psychological barriers to writing a blog post are much lower than the psychological barriers to writing an article for peer review. Yet, when writing the former you can get into a flow state that can then be leveraged into writing the latter. Many is the time that I have finished writing a blog post and jumped straight into writing a more serious article.

Agree. Writing a blog post is like a warm up. The whole post is worth reading. The rest of the blog is fascinating as well.

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November 1, 2014 at 12:05 am

sorry, but social science is actually a science

Every so often, you get the journalist, or academic, who loves trashing social science. The complaints are ritualistic – you can’t do experiments, people use jargon and math, and so forth. Well, Forbes has a nice article called “Enough Already with the Sweeping Claims that Economics is Unscientific.” It makes some obvious, but important points. Yes, some academics become divorced from reality with their models, but do you actually want people to study the economy without quantitative data or theory? These complaints also seem to ignore that economics actually does use experiments and much strives toward policy relevance:

Let me just start by pointing out that it is not the case that “almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments”. Look at the CV’s of economists like John List and Esther Duflo and you can see there are plenty of experiments being done. In 2013, the study selected as the best paper from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics was for a randomized trial on how teenagers respond to HIV risk information.  If you want a concrete example of where this has made a difference, randomized treatment has been a central part of the research on the effects of charters schools. Unlike the field of astronomy, which Gobry must also think is not a science, economists do sometimes have more than observational data to go on.

And while it is true that a lot of research doesn’t use actual randomized trials, it’s also true that other kinds of research are very useful and informative. If his point was simply to argue that experiments and replication are important, and whether or not a body of research includes this should be one input among others in weighing the evidence, I’d have to agree. But of course you’d have to include external validity in there, which often counts against randomized trials. Instead of a relatively common claim about how it would be nice to have more experiments in economics, as is his style, PEG boldly overstates his case and makes incorrect absolutist claims about the importance of randomized trials.

Yes. Here’s the implication of this argument. Nearly every other social science, except history (which is a weird social science and humanities border case), has the same properties. We have ideas, we have data. Sometimes we do experiments. We collect other data. Sometimes we can replicate results. Sometimes we make progress and accumulate evidence, but other times not. This is, essentially, how science is done. The next time you hear someone trash sociology, economics, or another social science as unscientific, you have my permission to write angry tweets about them.

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October 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

michael sandel’s adam smith lecture

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September 18, 2014 at 12:01 am

more evidence for the libertarian chic hypothesis

I recently suggested that conservatives like to associate themselves with the libertarians because it looks cool, even if these groups believe very different things. There is more evidence that the conservative/libertarian fit is bad. From an article about a survey done by the Public Religion Research institute:

Sixty-one percent of libertarians do not identify themselves as part of the Tea Party, the survey showed. About 7 percent of the adult population is consistently libertarian and that includes 12 percent of those who describe themselves as Republicans.

“There’s largely agreement on economic issues – the gap is in how libertarians approach social issues, ” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, which conducts an annual “American Values Survey” on political and social issues.


Libertarians are more opposed to government involvement in economic policies than those affiliated with the Tea Party and Republicans overall, the survey found. For instance, 65 percent of libertarians were opposed to increasing the minimum wage, while 57 percent of Republicans overall supported it, the survey found.

Ninety-six percent of libertarians oppose President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare restructuring compared to 89 percent of Republicans.

But nearly 60 percent of libertarians oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while 58 percent of Republicans and those affiliated with the Tea Party favor such restrictions, according to the survey.

More than 70 percent of libertarians favored legalizing marijuana, while about 60 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members opposed such a move, the survey found.

An important tension worth exploring.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 13, 2014 at 12:01 am

the upcoming invasion of philosophy into sociology

A while back, I asked about the relationship between philosophy and sociology. Here’s some evidence that there’s some philosophical imperialism at work these days. Specifically, more and more cultural sociologists are relying on the tools of philosophy to help them stake out new territory. Three recent examples:

  • Drawing on a bunch of traditions (yes, even critical realism), Isaac Reed argues that sociology is about “cultural landscapes”)
  • Gabriel Abend draws on phenomonology to articulate his theory of the “moral background”
  • Andreas Glaeser relies also on phenomonology, and other traditions, to argue that people are stuck in a folk cosmology

The underlying theme, I think, is that cultural sociologists have moved beyond the Swidler moment (i.e., arguing against Parsons’ theory of action) and they’ve moved back into the game of semantic systems and their internal logic. This requires an explanation of how people situate themselves in a social world and how they reason about. This naturally leads (mainly) to the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, Schutz, and Berger and Luckman. But instead of letting actors become the servant of this “lifeworld,” as in institutionalism, there’s a lot more effort in explaining what is possible in that world.

If this approach to symbolic systems turns out to be of lasting value, it will be one of the rare bridges between philosophy and mainstream sociological practice.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 15, 2014 at 12:05 am

common grounds politics

In political life, we tend to see a few strategies. First, we see partisanship, which is simply a word for “I do what my team does and fight my team’s enemies.” That sets up life a zero-sum status contest. Second, we see ideological politics. People argue for politics from an abstract argument about what is demanded by their belief system. It also leads to a sort of zero sum politics as well. Any deviation from your belief is a decrease in the value in the policy. Also, ideological politics is tough unless you happen to have an already popular ideology. Ideologies entail lots of consequences that other people might not buy. Third, there is incrementalism, which is to find small, moderate policy improvements that are hard to dispute. Success is likely, but you can easily miss the big issues.

There is a fourth approach to politics that people don’t seem to take often: “common grounds politics.” Here’s how it works – survey the range of ethical systems that you are likely to encounter, such as liberalism, socialism, etc. Then focus on important issues that are fairly straightforward consequences of many, or even all, of these theories. In other words, common grounds politics is when you focus on important issues that are logically consistent with the stated ethical systems of most people you will encounter.

Let me give you an example of a policy that is common grounds and one policy that is not common grounds. I think that open borders is common grounds. It is an obvious application of egalitarian theory because we allow poor people to decrease inequality by getting jobs in industrialized nations. It should also be intuitively appealing to libertarians who favor free markets.  It is not hard to come up with arguments from conservative, socialist, and utilitarian perspectives. Also, you will notice that arguments against migration tend to invoke violations of most political belief systems. For example, should an egalitarian treat people differently just because they happen to be born in a different nation? Should a “social values” conservative support policies that make it hard for families to stay together? It’s not hard to see that open borders is a good candidate for common grounds politics.

In contrast, school privatization is not a common grounds issue. The reason, I think, is fairly obvious. The policy violates the principles of many ethical systems. For example, liberals are comfortable using the tool of taxation to redistribute resources in society and school spending is one way that is done. Conservatives are happy to use schools to promote religious values. You can come up with a utilitarian argument for why public schooling has positive benefits. I am not making a point about the validity of school privatization as a policy. I am only noting that you would need to do a lot of ethical argument in order to make most people buy into that policy.

I claim no originality for common grounds politics. In fact, this argument is a modification of Huemer’s meta-ethical position in The Problem of Authority. Huemer argued for radical libertarian politics from common grounds. He is trying to appeal a number of standard philosophical positions (e.g., Rawlsianism, Kantians, etc) to make a strong policy argument that is counter-intuitive to most people. I take a different approach. Start with people’s “folk morals” and then see what policies are consistent with that. There is no attempt to smuggle in an entirely new ethical system. Instead, look for that rare policy that is both important and obviously consistent with most people’s basic intuitions.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 14, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, philosophy

the real philosophy of social science puzzle

There is an intrinsic interest in the philosophy of social science. Ideally, we all want well motivated and logical explanations for how we should do our professional work. However, there is usually one question that you don’t hear much about – why does scholarship seem to progress in the absence of a well motivated philosophy? In other words, doctors probably have a bad philosophy of science, but I don’t see philosophers refusing the services of their physicians.

I don’t have an answer to this, I’ve only started to think about this issue. But I raise it in the shadow of our debate over critical realism and the earlier debate over post-modernism. The claim of some supporters is that social scientists really need a new theory of social science (e.g., critical realism) because social scientists rely on a flawed positivist theory. It may be true that positivist social science is wrong and that we should adopt a newer theory. This view does not take into account two issues: (a) The cost of adopting a new theory is steep. If Kieran can’t quite get critical theory after reading it for 18 months, then I sure won’t get it. (b) A new social science that proceeds along new rules of engagement may not generate enough differences to make it worthwhile. For example, now that Phil Gorski has adopted critical realism, how would his book, The Disciplinary Revolution, be written any differently? Not clear to me since  a lot of what Gorski does in that book is apply a specific theoretical lens in reading various developments in state formation. He might sprinkle a discussion of “multiple levels of causation” at the top but then he’d probably proceed to make similar arguments with similar data.

The ultimate puzzle, though, is in areas that seem to make progress even when practitioners work with a bad philosophy. This suggests that the demand for better foundations simply isn’t important for generating knowledge. Another datum is that advances in science, or social science, rarely require entirely new foundations. Take sociology. I don’t need to adopt anything new to, say, appreciate Swidler’s attack on functionalism. And I seem to be able to understand most feminist sociology by using meat and potatoes positivism. The bottom line is that, at the very least, there needs to be an explanation for the ubiquitous disjuncture between foundations and practice.

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March 13, 2014 at 12:30 am

anarchism and occupy wall street

Anarchism week: #1 Social theory; #2 OWS and public image.

A few comments, in no order, about  anarchism and OWS:

  1. OWS is probably the most important anarchist event in about 100 years of American history. Probably more important than the Battle of Seattle, in my view. You would really have to go back to the late 1800s when people really did fear anarchists.
  2. OWS represents a rebranding (sorry!!!) of American anarchism from black masks to (mostly) non-violent protest.
  3. It is an open question of how much anarchist identity penetrates the movement. It’s safe to say that anarchist egalitarian practices dominate, but does the average participant buy into a goal of a stateless society?
  4. Black bloc: OWS made anarchism come above ground. In my field work on the antiwar movement, I always found it a little disappointing that people resorted to the black bloc and often hid their identities. I am glad that OWS had allowed this movement to have a public face.
  5. Did OWS push distinctly anarchist ideas beyond organizational structure? Unclear to me.
  6. Question: Is OWS an distinctly American anarchism?
  7. Question: Will anarchism go underground again, or can OWS be used as a stepping stone to more fully integrate anarchism into American politics and culture?

Use the comments section.

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December 5, 2013 at 6:32 am

political theory question: political party theorists

A question for my brothers and sisters in political theory: There are certain individuals who embody the role of the activist/intellectual. They are highly influential in movement politics and they write or speak about movements in a very theoretical way, offering justification for the movement’s goals and strategies. For socialist politics, this role is filled by Lenin, who provided an explanation of what the communist party is supposed to do. For non-violence, King and Gandhi fill this role.

My question: Is there an analog for mass political parties in democratic societies? In other words, who is the master politician who articulates the purpose and function of the party in modern democracies? Does this person talk about how the party should manage/exploit various constituencies, especially rowdy ones like protest movements?

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October 17, 2013 at 12:01 am

what douthat gets right and wrong about conservative politics

In a recent essay in the NY Times, Ross Douthat explains the motivations behind conservative politics. This clip nicely summarizes the issue:

… For the American mainstream — moderate and apolitical as well as liberal — the Reagan era really was a kind of conservative answer to the New Deal era: A period when the right’s ideas were ascendant, its constituencies empowered, its favored policies pursued. But to many on the right, for the reasons the Frum of “Dead Right” suggested, it was something much more limited and fragmented and incomplete: A period when their side held power, yes, but one in which the framework and assumptions of politics remained essentially left-of-center, because the administrative state was curbed but barely rolled back, and the institutions and programs of New Deal and Great Society liberalism endured more or less intact.

I think that’s a good summary … for one small part of the conservative movement. And it is true. There is definitely an anti-statist element of the modern conservative coalition. There are people who genuinely think that more services should be shifted to the private sector and that the size of the tax obligation and the federal government should be shrunk.

However, the committed anti-statist part of the conservative coalition is only a small part of the story. When we take a broad look at policy, we see that conservatives routinely support all kinds of government services. For example, calls for shrinking government almost always exclude the military. Then, if we look at Medicare we find that conservative voters do not favor privatization. In other areas, conservatives have no problem expanding the size of government – building walls on the Mexican border, jailing millions of African American for drug possession, or creating more and more regulation of reproductive medical procedures such as abortion, stem cell research, and birth control. All of these require massive intrusions on the safety and privacy of millions of people who are doing no wrong to others.

So what’s the real story? I think it’s fairly simple. Committed anti-statists are the “beard” for other factions that really don’t care about the size of government. A theory of personal liberty is important and draws attention from what might be the ulterior goal. And these other factions have all kinds of goals. National security conservatives love war because it shows that they’re tough. Social conservatives simply want to roll back, or circumvent, the progress made by women, minorities, LBGT people, immigrants, and other groups that were openly repressed and discriminated against in previous eras. And there’s what I call the business conservative, who just wants tax breaks and could care less about anti-gay crusades, but has to tolerate the social conservatives in order to get these perks.

Whenever I hear a conservative claim they are for liberty or limited government, I’m always a little skeptical. The arguments for liberty, tolerance, and protection from government harassment apply to themselves, and others like them, but are rarely applied with the same vigor to people or social practices they find distasteful. The bottom line is that I’m willing to engage with writers like Ross Douthat, but not until they tell their fellow travelers that gays and Mexicans are really nothing to worry about.

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October 4, 2013 at 12:01 am

More words on critical realism: Getting clear on the basics

One thing that I found dissatisfying about our earlier “discussion” on CR is that it ultimately left the task of actually getting clear on what CR “is” unfinished (or bungled).  Chris tried to provide a “bulletpoint” summary in one of the out of control comment threads, but his quick attempt at exposition mixed together two things that I think should be kept separate (what I call high level principles from substantively important derivations from those principles). This post tries to follow Chris Smith’s (sound advice) that ” We’ll all do better by focusing on important matters of intellectual substance, and put the others to rest.”

The task of getting clear on the nature of CR is particularly relevant for people who haven’t already formed strong opinions on CR and who are just curious about what it is. My argument here is that neither proponents nor critics do a good job of just telling people what CR is in its most basic form. The reason for this has to do with precisely the complex nature of CR as an ontology, epistemology, theory of science, and (most importantly) a set of interrelated theses about the natural, social, cultural, mental, world that are derived from applying the high level philosophical commitments to concrete problems. My argument is that CR will continue to draw incoherent reactions and counter-reactions (by both proponents and opponents) unless these aspects are disaggregated, and we get clear on what exactly we are disagreeing about.  One of these incoherent reactions is that CR is both a “giant” package of meta-theoretical commitments and that CR is actually a fairly “minimalist” set of principles the reasonable nature of which would only be denied by the certifiably insane.

In particular it is important to separate the high level “core” commitments from all the substantive derivations, because it is possible to accept the core commitments and disagree with the derivations. In essence, a lot of stuff (actually most of the stuff) that gets called “CR” consists of a particular theorist’s application of the high level principles to a given problem. For instance, one can apply (as did Bhaskar in the “original” contributions) the high level ontology to derive a (general) theory of science. One can (as Bhaskar also did) use the general theory of science to derive a local theory (both descriptive and normative) of social science (via the undemonstrable assumption that social science is just like other sciences).  And the same can be done for pretty much any other topic: I can use CR to derive a general theory of social structures, or human action, or culture, or the person, or whatever. Once again, the cautionary point above stands: I can vehemently disagree with all the special theories, while still agreeing with the high level CR principles. In other words I can disagree with the conclusion while agreeing with the high-level premises because I believe that you can’t get where you want to go from where you start. This may happen because let’s say, I can see the CR theorist engaging in all sorts of reasoning fallacies (begging the question, arguing against straw men, helping him or herself to undemonstrable but substantively important sub-theses, and so on) to get from the high level principles to the particular theory of (fill in the blank: the person, social structure, social mechanisms, human action, culture, and so on).

This is also I believe the best way to separate the “controversial” from the “uncontroversial” aspects of CR, and to make sense of why CR appears to be both trivial and controversial at the same time. In my view the high level principles are absolutely uncontroversial. It is the deployment of these principles to derive substantively meaningful special theories with strong and substantively important implications that results in controversial (because not necessarily coherent or valid at the level of reasoning) theories.

The High Level Basics.-

One thing that is seldom noted by either proponents or critics of CR is that the fundamental high level theses are actually pretty simple and in fact fairly uncontroversial. These only become “controversial” when counterposed to nutty epistemologies or theories of science that nobody holds or really believes (e.g. so-called “positivism”, radical social constructionism, or whatever). I argued against this way of introducing CR precisely because it confounds the level at which CR actually becomes controversial.

So what are these theses? As repeatedly pointed to by both Phil and Chris in the ridiculously long comment thread, and as ritualistically introduced by most CR writers in social theory (e.g. Dave Elder-Vass), these are simply a non-reductionist “realism” coupled to a non-reductionist, neo-Aristotelian ontology.

The non-reductionist realism part is usually the one that is much ballyhooed by proponents of CR, but in my view, this is actually the least interesting (and least distinctive) part of CR in relation to other options. In fact, if this was all that CR offered, there would be no reason to consider it any further. So the famous empirical/actual/real (EAR) triad is not really a particularly meaningful signature of CR. The only interesting high-level point that CR makes at this level is the “thou shall not reduce the real to the actual, or worse, to the empirical.” Essentially: the world throws surprises at you because it is not reducible to what you know, and is not reducible to what happens (or has happened or will happen). I don’t think that this is particularly interesting because no reasonable person will disagree with these premises. Yes, there are people that seem to say something different, but once you sit them down for 10 minutes and explain things to them, they would agree that the real is not reducible to our conceptions or our experiences of reality. Even the seemingly more controversial point (that reality is not reducible to the actual) is actually (pun intended) not that controversial. In this sense CR is just a vanilla form of realism.

When we consider the CR conception of ontology then things get more interesting. Most CR people propose an essentially neo-Aristotelian conception of the structure of world as composed of entities endowed with inherent causal powers. This conception links to the EAR distinction in the following sense: The real causal powers of an entity endow it with a dispositional set of tendencies or propensities to generate actual events in the world; these actual events may or may not be empirically observable. The causal powers of an entity are real in the sense that these powers and propensities exist even if they are never actualized or observed by anyone. To use the standard trite example, the causal power to break a window is a dispositional property of a rock; this property is real in these that it is there whether it is ever actualized (an actual window breaking with a rock event happens in the world), and whether anybody ever observes this event.

Reality then, is just such a collection of entities endowed with causal powers that come from their inherent nature. The nature of entities is not an unanalyzable monad but is itself the (“emergent” in the sense outlined below) result of the powers and dispositions of the lower level constituents of that entity suitably organized in the right configuration. What in earlier conceptions of science are called “laws of nature” happen to be simply observed events generated by the actualization of a mechanism, whereby a “mechanism” is simply a regular, coherently organized, collection of entities endowed inherent causal powers acting upon one another in a predictable fashion. Scientists isolate the mechanism when they are able to manipulate the organization of the entities in question so that the event is actualized with predictable regularity; these events are then linked to an observational system to generate the so-called phenomenological or empirical regularities (“the laws”) that formed the core of traditional (Hempelian) conceptions of science.

The laws thus result from the regular operation of “nomological machines” (in Cartwright’s sense). The CR point is thus that the phenomenological “laws” are secondary, because they are just the effect produced by hooking together a real mechanism to produce (potentially) observable events in a regular way. So the CR people would say that Hacking’s aphorism “if you can spray them they are real” is made sense of by the unobservable stuff that you can spray is an entity endowed with the causal power capable of generating observable phenomena when isolated as part of an actualized mechanism. The observability thing is secondary, because the powers are there whether you can observe the entity or not. That’s the CR “theory of science.”

The key to the CR ontology is that the nature of entities is understood using a “layered” ontological picture in which entities are understood as essentially wholes made of parts organized according to a given configuration (a system of relations). These “parts” are themselves other entities which may be decomposable into further parts (lower level entities organized in a system of relations and so on). Causal powers emerge at different levels and are not reducible to the causal powers of some “fundamental” level. Thus, CR proposes a non-reductionist, “layered” ontology, with emergent causal powers at each level.

This emergence is “ontological” and not “epistemic” in the sense that the causal powers at each level are “real” in the standard CR sense: they are not reducible to their actual manifestations nor are these “emergent” properties simply an epistemic gloss that we throw into the world because of our cognitive limitations. Thus, CR is an ontological democracy which retains the part-whole mereology of standard realist accounts, but rejects the reductionist implication that the structure of the world bottoms out at some fundamental level of reality where the really real causal powers can be found (and with higher level causal powers simply being a derivative shadow of the fundamental ones).

Getting controversial.-

Now you can see things getting interesting, because we have a stronger set of position takings. Note that from our initial vanilla realism, and our seemingly innocuous EAR distinction, along with a meatier conceptualization of entities as organized wholes endowed with powers and propensitities, we are now living in a world composed of a panoply of real entities at different levels of analysis, endowed with (non-reducible) real causal powers at each level. The key proposition that is beginning to generate premises that we can actually have arguments about is of course the premise of ontological emergence. I argue that this premise not a CR requirement. For instance, why can’t I be a reductionist critical realist? (RCR) Essentially, RCR accepts the EAR distinction, but privileges a fundamental level; this fundamental level may ultimately figure in our theoretical conceptions of reality but it is the bedrock upon which all actual and empirical events stand. In other words, the only true “mechanisms” that I accept are the ones composed of entities at the most fundamental level of reality, which may or may not ever be uncovered. I don’t seriously intend to defend this position, but just bring it up as an attempt to show that CR hooks together a lot of things that are logically independent (emergentist ontology, Aristotelian conception of entities, part-whole mereology, with a “causal powers” view of causation, among others).

In any case, my argument is that most of the substantively interesting CR theses do not emerge (pun intended) from the Bhaskarian theory or science, or the account of causation, or the EAR distinction. They emerge from hooking together (ontological) emergentism and an Aristotelian conceptions of entities and dispositional causal powers. For emergentism is what generates the (controversial) explosion of real entities in CR writing. Not only that, emergentism is the only calling card that CR writers have to provide what Dave Elder-Vass has called a “regional ontology” for the social sciences, that does not resolve into just repeating the boring EAR distinction or the (increasingly uncontroversial) “theory of science” that Bhaskar developed in A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism. 

How to be a (controversial) Critical Realist in two easy steps.-

So now that we have that covered, it is easy to show how to produce a “controversial” CR argument. First, pick a mereology. Meaning, pick some entities to serve as the parts, preferably entities that themselves do not have a controversial status (most people would agree that the entities exist, form coherent wholes, have natures, and so on), and pick a more controversially coherent whole that these parts could conceivably be the parts of. Then argue that the parts do indeed form such a whole via the ontological emergence postulate. Note that the postulate allows you to fudge on this point, because you do not actually have to specify the mechanism via which this ontological emergence relation is actualized (you can argue that that is the job of empirical science and so on). Then hooking the CR notion of causal powers and the EAR distinction and the postulate of ontological democracy of all entities argue that this whole is now a super-addition to the usual vanilla reality. That is, the  new emergent entity is real in the same sense that other things (apples, rocks, leptons, cells) are real. It has a inherent nature, a set of dispositions to generate actual events, and most importantly it has causal powers. The powers of this new emergent entity may be manifested at its own level (by affecting same-level entities), or they may be exhibited by the constraining power of that entity upon the lower level constituent entities (the postulate of “downward causation”). For instance, (to mention one thing that could actually be of interest to readers of this blog), Dave Elder-Vass has provided an account of the reality of “organizations” (and the non-reducibility of organizational action to individual action) using just this CR recipe.

Now we have the materials to make some people (justifiably) discomfited about a substantive CR claim (or at least motivated to write a critical paper). For if you look at most of the contributions of CR to various issues they resolve themselves to  just the steps that I outlined above. So the CR “theory” of social structure, is precisely what you think. Social structure is composed of individuals, organized by a set of relations that form a coherent (configured) whole. This whole (social structure) is now a real entity endowed with its own causal powers, which now (may) exert “downward causation” on the individual’s the constitute it. These causal powers are not reducible to those of the individuals that constitute it. This how CR cashes in what John Levi Martin has referred to as the “substantive hunch” that animates all sociological research. “The social” emerges from the powers and activities of individuals but it never ultimately resolves itself into an aggregation of those powers and activities. Note that CR is opposed to any form of ontological reduction whether it is “downwards” or “upwards.” Thus attempts to reduce social structure to the mental or interactional level are “downward conflationist” and attempts to reduce individuals to social structure (or language or what have you), are “upward conflationist.” Thus, the “first” Archer trilogy can be read in this way. First, on the non-reducibility (and ontological independence between) social structure in relation to the individual or individual activity, then “culture” in relation to the individual or individual interaction, and later (in reverse) personal agency in relation to either social structure or culture.

Essentially, the stratified ontology postulate must be respected. Any attempt to simplify the ontological picture is rejected as so much covert (or overt) reductionism or “conflation.” Note that “conflation” is not technically a formal error of reasoning (as is begging the question) but simply an attempt by a theorist to simplify the ontological picture by abandoning the ontological democracy or ontological emergence postulates. A lot of the times CR theorists (like Archer) reject conflation as if it was such an error in reasoning, when in fact it is a substantive argument that cannot be dismissed in such an easy way. Note that this is weird because both the ontological democracy and the ontological emergence argument are themselves non-demonstrable but substantively important propositions in CR. Thus, most CR attempts to dismiss either reductionist or simplifying ontologies themselves do commit such a formal error of reasoning, namely, begging the question in favor of ontological emergence and ontological democracy.

Another way to make a CR argument is to start with a predetermined high level entity of choice. This kind of CR argument is more “defensive” than constructive. Here the analyst picks an entity the real status of which has (for some reason) become controversial, either because some theorists purport to show that it does not “really” exist (meaning that it is just a shorthand way to talk about some aggregate of actually existing lower level entities), or is not required to generate scientific accounts of some slice of the world (ontological simplification or reduction a la caloric or phlogiston). Here CR arguments essentially use the ontological democracy postulate to simply say that the preferred whole has ontological independence from either the lower constituents or higher level entities to which others seek to reduce the focal entity. Moreover, the CR theorist may argue that this ontological independence is demonstrated by the fact that this entity has (actualized and/or empirically observable) causal powers, once again above and beyond those provided by the lower level (or higher level ) entities or processes usually trotted out to “reduce it away.” This applies in particular to the “humanist” strand of CR that attempts to defend specific causal powers that are seen as inherent properties of persons (e.g. reflexivity in Archer’s case) or even the very notion of person (in Chris Smith’s What is a Person?) as an emergent whole endowed with specific causal powers, properties and propensities.

To recap, CR is a complex object composed of many parts. But not all parts are of the same nature. I have distinguished between roughly three parts, organized according to the generality of the claim and the specificity of the substantive points made. In this respect, I would distinguish between:

1) The parts that CR shares with all “vanilla” realisms. This includes the postulate of ontological realism (mind-independence of the existence of reality), the transitive/intransitive distinction, the EAR distinction, and so on. In itself, none of these theses make CR particularly distinctive, unique or useful. If you disagree with CR at this level, based on irrealist premises, congratulations. You are insane.

2) The Aristotelian ontology.- This specifies the kind of realism that CR proposes. Here things get more interesting, because there is actual philosophical debate about this (nobody seriously defends irrealist positions in Philosophy any more and most sociologists just like to pretend to be irrealists to show off at parties). Here CR could play a role in philosophical debates insofar as a neo-Aristotelian approach to realism and explanation is a coherent position in Philosophy of Science (although it is not without its challengers). Here belongs (among other things) the specific CR conceptualizations of objects and entities, the causal (dispositional) powers ontology (when hooked to the EAR distinction) and the specific “Theory of Science” and the “Theory of Explanation” that follows from these (essentially endorsing mechanismic and systems explanation over reductive, covering law stories). This is what I believe is the best ontological move and CR should be commended in this respect.

3) The stratified ontology.- This comes from yoking (1) and (2) to the ontological emergence and ontological democracy postulate. This is where you can find a lot of “controversial” (where by controversial I mean worth arguing about, worth specifying, worth clarifying, and in some cases worth rejecting) arguments in CR. These are of three types: ontological emergence arguments, augment the standard common-sense ontology of material entities to argue for the existence of higher level non-material entities; thus “social structures” are as real as the couch that you are lying on; the danger here is a world that comes to populated with a host of emergent “entities” with no principled way of deciding which ones are in fact real (beyond the theorist’s taste). This is the problem of ontological inflation, (2) “Downward causation” arguments add this postulate to suggest that the emergent (non-material or material) entities not only “exist” in a passive sense, but actually exert causal effect on lower level components or other higher-level entities, (3) “ontological independence” arguments attempt to show that a particular sort of entity that is usually done violence to in standard (reductionist) accounts has a level of ontological integrity that cannot be impugned and has a set of causal powers that cannot be dismissed. In humanist and personalist accounts, this entity is “the person” along with a host of powers and capacities that are usually blunted in “social-scientific” accounts (e.g. persons as centers of moral purpose) and the enemies are the positions that attempt to explain away these powers or capacities or that attempt to show that the don’t matter as much as other entities (e.g. “social structure”).

4) Continuing extensions of the stratified ontology argument.- This is the part of CR that has drawn (an unfair) amount of attention, because it extends the same set of arguments to defend both the reality but also the causal powers of a set of entities that (a) a lot of people are diffident about according the same level of reality to as the standard material entities, and (b) things that most people would have difficulty even calling entities. These may be “norms,” “the mental,” “the cultural,” “the discursive,” and “levels of reality” above and beyond the plain old material/empirical world that we all know and love (e.g. super-empirical domains of reality). You can see how CR can get controversial here.

5) Additional stuff.- A lot of other CR arguments do not directly follow from any of these, but are added as supplementary premises to round out CR as a holistic perspective. For instance, the rejection of the fact-value distinction in science is not really a logical derivation from the theory of science or the neo-Aristotelian ontology, and neither is the “judgmental rationality” postulate (that science progresses, gradually gets at the truth, etc.). I mean all realisms presuppose that we get better at science, but this is not really a logical derivation from realist premises (as argued by Arthur Fine). The fact/value thing is in the same boat, because it requires a detour through a lot of controversial group (3) and group (4) territory to be made to stick. For instance, given that persons are emergent entities, endowed with non-arbitrary properties and powers, then the “relativist” arguments that any social arrangement is as good as any other for the flourishing of personhood is clearly not valid. This means that social scientists have to take a strong stance on the value question (hence sociological inquiry cannot be value neutral). Because a mixture of Aristotelian ontology and ontological emergentism applied to human nature is incompatible with moral (and social-institutional) relativism, the the fact value distinction in social science is untenable. However, note that to get there  a lot of other premises, sub-premises, and substantive arguments for the reality of persons as emergent, neo-Aristotelian entities have to be accepted as valid. In this sense the fact/value thing is only a derivation from certain extensions of CR into controversial territory. As already intimated, What is a Person? is a (well-argued!) piece of controversial CR precisely in this sense.

Note that this clarifies the “giant package” versus “minimalist” CR debate. Let’s go back to the cable analogy. So you are considering signing  up for CR? Here’s the deal: The “basic” CR package would (in my view) be any acceptance of (1) and (2) (with some but not all elements of (3)). In this sense, I am a Critical Realist (and so should you). The “standard” CR package includes in addition to (1), (2) and all of (3), some elements of (4). Here we enter controversial territory, because a lot of CR arguments for the “reality” of this or that are not as tight or well-argued as their proponents suppose. In their worst forms, they resolve themselves into picking your favorite thing (e.g. self-reflexivity), and then calling it “real” and “causally powerful” because “emergent.” It is no surprise that Archer’s weakest work is of this (most recent) ilk. Here the obsession with ontological democracy prevents any consideration of ontological simplification or actual ontological stratification (meaning getting clear on which causal powers matter most rather than assigning each one their preferred, isolated level). Finally, the “turbo” package requires that you sign up for (1) through (5), this of course is undeniably controversial, because here CR goes from being a philosophy of scientific practice to being a philosophy of life, the universe and everything. Sometimes CR people seem to act surprised that people may be reluctant to adopt a philosophy of life, but I believe that this has to do with their penchant to suppose that once you accept the basic, then the chain or reasoning that will lead you to the standard and the turbo follows inexorably and unproblematically.

This is absolutely not the case, and this where CR folk would benefit most from talking to people who are not fully committed to the turbo, but who (like other sane people) are already 80% into the basic (and maybe even the standard). My sense is that we should certainly be arguing about the right things, and in my view the right things are at the central node (3), because this is the where the key set of argumentative devices that allows CR people to derive substantively meaningful (“controversial”) conclusions (both at that level—arguments for the reality of “social structure”—and about type (4) and (5) matters), and where most attempts to provide a workable ontology for the social sciences are either going to be cashed in, or be rejected as aesthetically pleasing formulations of dubious practical utility.

Written by Omar

September 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Three thousand more words on critical realism

The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance.  The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance.  But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.

My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).

That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Word on Critical Realism

Seeing as Fabio has promoted some off-the-cuff remarks I made on Twitter about Critical Realism, I suppose I should say something a little more about it. All the moreso seeing as some anonymous commenters have been getting quite huffy at the very idea that anyone who called themselves an academic could make a dismissive comment without, presumably, devoting themselves full-time to “thoughtful debate and analysis” on the work in question. I have a general and a specific response to that. Speaking generally, online commentary should not be a kind of Markov process where every single contribution must start from scratch with no memory of anything that has gone before. The demand that any particular comment or post provide a full and complete accounting of everything on the topic (before it can count as “thoughtful debate and analysis”) is a hallmark of annoying Internet discussion. My specific response is that some time ago I did in fact devote myself full-time to thoughtful debate and analysis about Critical Realism, for a period of about eighteen months. I read pretty much everything on the topic that had come out until that time, which was a real barrel of monkeys let me tell you. I wrote and published an article on a current debate in the field, and then I moved on to other projects.

My conclusion, then as now, was that Critical Realism is a low-quality, confused, and misleading body of work. It is a justly peripheral branch of 1970s philosophy of science. The philosophical demands it satisfies amongst sociologists could be met elsewhere at much higher quality and far lower cost. In practice it does literally nothing substantive for the work of the sociologists who have taken it up, and I am dismayed to see it gain a foothold in the United States.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Kieran

September 4, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Posted in philosophy, sociology

united against critical realism

Written by fabiorojas

September 4, 2013 at 2:32 am

open borders in the atlantic magazine

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 30, 2013 at 12:01 am

what college sports should be like

Written by fabiorojas

January 11, 2013 at 12:13 am

race and the sociology of elite libertarian intellectuals

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 »

Written by fabiorojas

October 9, 2012 at 12:01 am

social theory is a social construction

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 26, 2012 at 12:01 am

why behaviorism isn’t satanism

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

Written by teppo

June 19, 2012 at 5:48 pm

philosophy of science bleg

Orgheads: What is the canonical citation for “Kuhn’s model doesn’t work so well in the social sciences?” Thanks.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 14, 2012 at 8:14 pm

sociological liberalism

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 13, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, philosophy

philosophers don’t get orgtheory

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 1, 2012 at 12:01 am

brutal book review

From Nina Strohminger’s review of philosopher Colin McGinn’s book on The Meaning of Disgust. From the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticsm:

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 10, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio, philosophy

Practical and Theoretical Knowledge

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.

Written by Kieran

May 7, 2012 at 12:58 am

kieran healy on the philosophy profession

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:

I’ve seen this project presented in workshops. There is much more and it is very good. Can’t wait to see more posts.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 22, 2012 at 12:03 am

arguments for open borders

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 18, 2012 at 5:42 am

what is philosophy? a status seeking answer

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 11, 2012 at 12:08 am

Posted in academia, fabio, philosophy

Why strong social constructionism does not work I: Arguments from Reference

In this and a series of forthcoming posts, I will attempt to outline an argument showing that most of the time claims to have derived a substantively important conclusion from constructionist premises are incoherent.   By a substantively important conclusion I refer to strong arguments for the “social construction of X” where X is some sort of category or natural kind that is usually thought to have general ontological validity in the larger culture (e.g gender, race, mental illness, etc.).

In a nutshell, I will argue that the reason for why these sort of arguments do not really work is that they require us to draw on a theory of meaning, language and reference that is itself inconsistent with constructionism.  To put it simply: substantively important conclusions derived from constructionist premises require a theory of reference that implies at least the potential for realism about natural kinds and a strong coupling between linguistic descriptions and the real properties of the entities to which those descriptions apply, but constructionism is premised on the a priori denial of realism about natural kinds and of such a strong coupling between language and the world.  Thus, most strong claims about something being “socially constructed” cannot be strong claims at all.  This argument applies to all forms of social constructionism, whether of the phenomenological, semiotic, or interactionist varieties.

Here I will first do two things:  1) give a more “technical” definition of what I mean by a “substantively important conclusion” within a constructionist mode of argumentation (noting that my argument does not apply to “softer” versions of constructionism) and 2) nail down the point that constructionism (and any other set of premises designed to draw substantively important conclusions about the natural and social worlds) depends on an “argument from reference” in order to work.  Finally, I will lay out the argument that 3) because of this dependence, strong constructionist conclusions are usually not warranted (they follow from an incoherent argument).

The shock value in constructionism.-  In a constructionist argument, a substantively important conclusion is one that has “shock value.”  By shock value, I mean that the argument results in the conclusion that something that we thought was “real” in an unproblematic sense is shown to be either a) a fictitious entity that has never been or could never be real or b) a historically contingent entity endowed with a weaker form of existence (e.g. a collectively sustained fiction or even delusion).  This is “shocking” in the sense that the constructionism thesis upsets the “folk ontology” heretofore taken for granted by lay and professional audiences alike.

A useful analogue (because it makes the technical argumentative steps clear) comes from the Philosophy of Mind. There, the most “shocking” argument ever put forth is know as “eliminativism” in relation to the so-called “propositional attitudes” (Stich 1983; Churchland 1981).  Note that this argument is actually espoused by people who consider themselves to be radical materialists almost blindly committed to a traditional scientific epistemology and an anti-dualist ontology.  Thus, I am not claiming a substantive commonality between constructionists and eliminativists.  All that I want to do here is to point to some formal commonalities in their mode of argumentation in order to set up the subsequent point of common reliance on an argument from reference.

According to the eliminativist thesis, the denizens of the mental zoo that play a role in our ability to account for ours and other’s people’s behavior (such as beliefs, desires, wants, etc.) do not actually exist. The reason for that is that the theoretical system in which they play a role (so called “folk” or “belief-desire psychology”) is actually an empirically false theory, one that relies on the postulation of theoretical entities (mental entities) that have no scientifically defensible ontological status.

According to belief desire psychology, persons engage in action in order to satisfy desires.  Beliefs play a causal role in behavior by providing the person with subjective descriptions of how means connect to desirable ends.  Using belief-desire psychology, we can explain why person A engages in behavior B, by postulating that “Person A believes that by doing B, she will get C, and she desires/wants C.” A belief is a proposition about the world endowed with a truth value and a desire is a proposition that describes the sorts of states of affair that the person would like to bring about.   Both are conceived to be mental entities endowed with “intentional” content (they are about something). Their intentional content dictates how they can relate to other entities in a systematic way (e.g. because some propositions logically imply others). We can then “predict” (or retrodict) the behavior of persons by linking desires to beliefs in a way that preserves the rationality of persons.

Accordingly, if I see somebody rummaging through the contents of a refrigerator, I can surmise that this person is engaging in this sort of behavior because she believes that she will find something to eat in there, and she wants something to eat.  Relatedly, when persons are questioned as to why they did something, they usually give a “reason” for why the did what they did.  This reason takes the form of a “motive report.”  If I question somebody about why they are rummaging through a refrigerator, they are likely to say “because I’m hungry.”

According to eliminativists, the main causal factors in belief desire psychology have no ontological status.  Thus, neither propositional beliefs of the sort of “I think that p” where p is a proposition of the sort “there is food in the refrigerator” nor desires of the sort “I want q” have any ontological status.  As such, belief-desire psychology stands to be replaced by a mature neuropsychology, one in which “folk solids” such as desires and beliefs (to use Andy Clark‘s terms) will play no role in explanations and accounts of human behavior.  These notions, previously thought to be natural kind endowed with unquestionable reality, are eliminated from our ontological storehouse and into the dustbin of fictional entities discarded by modern science (such as Phlogiston, Caloric, The Ether, The Four Humors, etc.).

Constructionism and eliminativism.- I argue that most substantively important conclusions within the constructionist paradigm are actually modeled after “eliminativist” arguments in the Philosophy of Mind.

All of the pieces are there.  First, a constructionist argument usually takes some (folk or professional) system of “theory” as their target. This is regardless this is a system of theory currently in existence or from a previous historical era.  This is usually a folk (or sometime professional) “theory of X” (e.g the “folk theory of race” or the “folk theory of gender”).  Second, within this system the constructionist picks one or more central theoretical categories or concepts (X), which, within the system are endowed with an non-problematic ontological status as real (e.g. gender  or racial “essence”).  Third, the constructionist shows the folk theory of X to be false from the point of view of a more sophisticated theory (modern population genetics in the case of the old anthropological concept of “race”).  Thus X (e.g. race), as conceptualized in the folk theory, does not really exist, even though it forms a key part of certain contemporary folk theories of race. The title of the famous PBS documentary: “Race: The Power of an Illusion” conveys that point well.

The constructionist may also argue for the indirect falsity of the current theory of X, by simply using the historical or anthropological record to show that there are cultures/historical periods  in which X either was not presumed to exist in the way that it exists today or was part of a different theoretical system which radically changed its status (the properties that define membership in the concept were radically different).  Here the constructionist will agree that X “exists” in the current setting, but it does not have the sort of existence attributed to it in the folk discourse (transhistorical and transcultural) instead it has a weaker form of existence: social; as in “sustained by a historically and culturally contingent social arrangement which could theoretically be subject to radical change.”  Foucault’s famous argument for the radically different status of the category of “man” within the so-called “classical episteme” is an example of that sort of claim.  The category of man in the modern era has a meaning that is radically incommensurate to the one that it had in the classical episteme.  The implication is that therefore the category of “man” does not refer and we can thus conceive of a possible future in which it plays no actual role, follows.

The common element here is that a category that we take for granted (within the descriptions afforded by some lay or professional theoretical system) to be ontologically “real” (race, gender, the category of “man”, etc.) is shown instead to  “actually” have a fictitious status because there is nothing in the world that meets that description. More implicitly, insofar as a concept has undergone radical changes in overall meaning (with meaning determined by its place within a network of other concepts in the form of a folk or professional theory), then there cannot be a preservation of reference across the incommensurate meanings.Hence the concept cannot really be picking out an ontologically coherent entity in the world. I refer to this as the “strong constructionist effect.”  The basic idea, as I have already implied is that in order for the effect to be successful, we must already be working from within some theory of reference, otherwise the claim that “there is nothing in the world that meets that description” is either vacuous or incoherent.

Constructivism and arguments from reference.- What are “arguments from reference”? Arguments from reference are those that implicitly or explicitly require a theory of reference for their conclusions to follow (or even make sense), as has been recently pointed out by Ron Mallon (2007).  When this is the case, it can be said that the substantively important conclusion is  dependent on the (logically autonomous) theory of reference. It is striking how little most social scientists spend thinking about reference. They should, because even though it is seldom explicit, we all require some theory about how conceptualizations link up (or fail to!) to events in the world in order to make substantive statements about the nature of that world. I argue that in order to produce the strong constructionist  effect, and thus derive substantively important conclusions, the argument from social construction requires a particular theory of reference.

One would think that when it comes to theorizing about how conceptual, theoretical or folk terms “refer” to the world there would be various competing theories.  Instead, twentieth century analytic philosophy was long dominated by single dominant account of how concepts refer.  This was Frege’s suggestion that “intension” (the meaning of a term) determines “extension” (the object in the world that the term picks out).  Lewis (1971, 1972) formalized this formulation for the case of so-called theoretical entities in scientific theories.  According to Lewis, terms in scientific theories purport to describe objects in the world bearing certain properties or standing in certain relations with other objects. This is the description of that term.  According to Lewis, the terms of Folk Psychology are theoretical entities that gain their meaning from their relations to other entities and observational statements within a system of theory.  Eliminativists built their argument on this suggestion, by suggesting that there is nothing in the (scientifically acceptable) world that meets the description for a propositional attitude (a mental entity endowed with “intentional” content); ergo, belief-desire psychology is false, its terms do not refer, and we need a better theory of the mental.

In short, from the viewpoint of a descriptivist theory of reference, a given term or concept defined within a given theoretical system refers if and only if there is an object in the world that bears the properties or stands in the relations specified in the description.  According to this theory, terms refer to real world entities when there exists an object satisfies the necessary and sufficient conditions of membership in the category defined by the term (which in the limiting case may be an individual).  Descriptions that have no counterpart in the real world are descriptions of fictional entities and thus fail to refer (and the validity of the theoretical systems of which they are a part is therefore impugned).  When competent speakers use the terms of any theory (scientific or folk) they have a description in mind, which specifies the set of properties that an object would have to have for that term to be said to successfully refer to it.

The basic argument that I want to propose here is that “shock value” constructionism depends on a descriptivist theory of reference. This should already be obvious.  The standard constructionist argument begins by a painstaking reconstruction of a given set of folk or professional descriptions.  The analyst then moves on to ask the rhetorical question: is there anything in the world that actually satisfies this description?  If the answer is no, then the conclusion that the term fails to refer (and is a fictional and not a real entity) readily follows.  The standard criteria for satisfaction of these conditions usually boil down to some sort of semantic analysis. For instance, in Orientalism, Edward Said painstakingly reconstructed a Western “image” (read description) of the Middle East as a kind of place and of the Arab “Other” as a (natural?) kind of person. Said pointed out that this description of Arab peoples (menacing, untrustworthy, exotic, emotional, eroticized, etc.) was not only logically incoherent; it was simply false, there had never been a group of people who met this description; it had been a fabrication espoused by a misleading theoretical system: Orientalism. Thus, Orientalism as a culturally influential theory of the nature of the Arab “Orient” needed to be transcended. The main theoretical entity implied by such theory, the Oriental “other” endowed with a bizarre set of attributes and properties was thereby eliminated from our ontological storehouse.

Houston we have a problem.- It would be easy to show that essentially all arguments that produce the “strong constructionist effect” follow a similar intellectual procedure.  There are at least two problems with this (largely unacknowledged) dependence of social constructionism on a descriptivist theory of reference. First, constructionism denies the conditions that make a descriptivist strategy an adequate theory of reference, which is at a minimum the validity of a truth-conditional semantics and the capacity of words to unambiguously (e.g. literally) refer to objects and events in the world.  This is not a problem for Gottlob Frege and David Lewis, or most descriptivist theorists in analytic philosophy, most of whom subscribe to some version of propositional realism (propositions have truth values that can be unproblematically redeemed by just checking to see if the “correspond” to the world).  However, this is a problem for constructionists because they cannot accept such a strong version of realism.

Thus, if the very theory of the relationship between language and the world that is espoused by social constructionism (skepticism as to the applicability of a truth conditional semantics and unambiguous reference) is true then descriptivism has to be false. This means that social constructionism is an inherently contradictory strategy; to produce substantively meaningful conclusions (the strong constructionist effect) it has to rely on a theory of the relationship between meanings and the world that is denied by that very approach. Second, even if this logical argument could be sidestepped, constructionism would still be in trouble.  The reason for this is that there is a competing (and equally appealing on purely argumentative grounds) theory of reference in modern philosophy: this is the causal-historical theory of reference most influentially outlined by Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam.  The basic issue is not that this is a competing account of reference; the problem is that this account of reference actually denies a key link in the constructionist argument: that in order to refer, there has to be match between the description of the term and the properties of the object that the term putatively refers to.

Instead, causal-historical theories of reference allow for two possibilities that are seldom taken into account by constructionists:  1) that persons can refer to things in the world even though their mental description of the term that they are using to refer to those things those not at all match the properties of those things, and 2) that the description of a term can undergo radical historical change while the term continues to refer to the same entities or cluster of entities.  The first possibility undercuts the capacity of the constructionist to “correct the folk,” because reference is decoupled from the descriptive validity of the terms that are used to refer.  The second possibility undercuts the argument for social construction based on historical and cultural variability of descriptions. It opens up the possibility that there is “rigid designation” to the same set of social or natural realities across cultures in spite or radical differences in the cultural frameworks from within which these referential relations are established.

A reasonable objection is simply to point out that we simply do not have sufficiently strong grounds of picking descriptivism over causal-historical theories of reference, as equally respectable arguments have been put forth in defense of both. This is in fact the position taken by most philosophers who instead go on to worry about whether people are cherry-picking one of the two theories of reference to support their preferred argumentative strategy.  However, I believe that most constructionists in social science cannot be content with this non-committal solution. Instead, like other areas of Philosophy (e.g. epistemology, ethics, mind), there is a way to “break the tie” between various philosophical theories and that is to look to naturalize these types of inquiry by looking at what theories seem to be consistent with the relevant sciences.  Here we have good news and bad neews for constructionists.

Research in cognitive science, cognitive semantics and cognitive linguistics points to the inadequacy of descriptivist theories of reference from a purely naturalistic standpoint. This should be good news for constructionists because the upshot is that truth-conditional semantics roundly fails as an account of how persons generate meaning (Lakoff 1987).  The irony is that these theories redeem the original skepticism of constructionism vis a vis any form of truth-conditional semantics and propositional realism, but in so doing also undercut the ability of constructionists to engage in the sort of  argument that results in “shocking” or substantively strong claims for the social construction of X, because the rhetorical force of these arguments depends on descriptivism and descriptivism implies propositional realism and “objectivism” (that truth is the literal correspondence of statements and reality).  The resulting counter-intuitive conclusion is that it is precisely because linguistic meaning and natural categories meet the constructionist specifications that strong constructionist arguments are actually impossible.  In fact, it is precisely because language and semantics work the way that constructionist (implicitly) presuppose that they do that the norm in historical change may not be the radical transformation of reference relations in historical and cultural change (as implied by Foucauldian analysts), but rigid designation of the same (social, or natural) “essences” and relations even in the wake of superficial shifts in the accepted cultural description of those entities.

Written by Omar

March 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm

politics is often irrational

Philosopher Michael Huemer’s TEDx talk on figuring out if you are biased in your political thinking.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 22, 2012 at 12:06 am

hey, foucault…

Check out the complete series at Hey, Michel Foucault.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 21, 2012 at 12:05 am