Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

ron paul may not be racist, but racists sure like ron paul

Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch of libertarian theory: laissez-faire – hands-off, as long as it’s voluntary, it’s ok. Now, there’s two sides to this coin. You have the right to do good and bad. With regard to race, the libertarian position implies that we should be equally tolerant, for example, of people who want to live in mixed race neighborhoods and those who wish to live in segregated neighborhoods. As long as force isn’t used, we should tolerate it, even if we don’t approve of it.

That brings me to Ron Paul. He’s been dogged for years by inflammatory racial articles in his newsletters. If you read them, you’ll see that they are disgusting. The puzzling part is that there is not much to indicate that Paul himself hates Blacks. In fact, some of his arguments about policy might have been written by the most bleeding heart liberals. For example, he has publicly argued that the drug war disproportionately hurts minorities and has racist origins. Most observers have guessed that the inflammatory articles have been written by someone else who is very racist.

The problem with a philosophy of hyper-tolerance is that you attract repulsive people, like Paul’s racist associates. That’s doesn’t always happen. ACLU style free speech activists rarely share beds with the neo-Nazis whose rights they defend. But sometimes it is a problem. Since libertarian philosophy dictates a tolerance, but not an endorsement, of people who dislike other racial groups, hyper-tolerance may come off as a signal of approval for racism. Furthermore, followers of a hyper-tolerant philosophy, like libertarianism, may seek short term political gain by building coalitions with repulsive people. And of course, truly evil people, like hard core racists, may dress up their views with a sheen of tolerance. The result? The philosophy of tolerance  co-mingles with the repulsive.

That’s a problem for libertarianism as a social practice. For it to become more mainstream, it will have to move beyond policy and come up with a more serious theory of social practice. It has to be a philosophy that breaks out of utilitarian arguments over economic policy, and provide an ethic beyond minimalist tolerance. Otherwise, libertarians who care, like Paul does, about the drug war, foreign wars, and other issues of wide appeal will be left explaining why their room mate has a David Duke poster on the wall.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 12, 2012 at 12:11 am

political ideology in one sentence

I’ve come to the conclusion that political beliefs aren’t logically coherent things. Instead, the things you believe signal who you are rather than a judicious application of abstract principals. That’s why we get angry when we talk about politics. A person who disagrees with me isn’t saying that I have misapplied an abstract idea. They are directly attacking my identity.

If you believe that, then political ideologies reflect how we see ourselves, which leads me to one sentence summaries of political theories:

  • Conservatives: I’m tough.
  • Liberals: I’m a nice person.
  • Green: I like turtles.
  • Marxists: I want your stuff.
  • Libertarians: Get your hands off my stuff!

Add your own pithy summaries in the comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 1, 2011 at 12:03 am

Posted in fabio, philosophy

fragments of an anarchist anthropology

Why are there so few anarchists in the academy?  That’s the opening question in David Graeber’s book (free pdf) Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.  Check it out.

Here are the opening two paragraphs:

What follows are a series of thoughts, sketches of potential theories, and tiny manifestos—all meant to offer a glimpse at the outline of a body of radical theory that does not actually exist, though it might possibly exist at some point in the future.

Since there are very good reasons why an anarchist anthropology really ought to exist, we might start by asking why one doesn’t—or, for that matter, why an anarchist sociology doesn’t exist, or an anarchist economics, anarchist literary theory, or anarchist political science.

Written by teppo

October 28, 2011 at 9:34 pm

continental vs. analytic philosophy

What’s the *real* difference between continental and analytic philosophy? For example, the wiki claims that continentals are more into historical work and less into discrete problem solving. These issues still strike me as superficial differences. In principle, couldn’t the claims derived from a historical view be translated into the plain language style that characterizes analytic philosophy? So I have a few questions for the professional philosophers who might be reading this blog:

  1. Are analytic and continental philosophy incommensurable? Is it literally impossible to translate the claims from one into the other?
  2. Is it a label problem? Do analytics and continentals do different things and it’s really a fight over who gets to use the word philosophy?
  3. Is it a real dispute over truth claims? Do analytics and continentals agree that they are actually talking about the same things, but they really think they have different answers?
  4. Is it just style? Maybe they agree on a lot, but the analytics and continentals simply can’t stand the radically different presentations of argument.
  5. Is it sociological? Maybe analytics and continentals agree on problems, can understand each other, and would produce similar answers to problems, but they simply fighting over turf defined by their respective founding figures.

Yes, I know that each term denotes a wide range of view that share a family resemblance. Yada yada. I’m more interested in how much weight might be given to the five different explanations.

Written by fabiorojas

August 2, 2011 at 12:38 am

Posted in fabio, philosophy

do conservative economists exist?

After my talk at GMU on Friday, I was lucky enough to have dinner with a fun group of policy folks and economists. The discussion ranged over a lot of great topics, but here’s one question I’d like to share: Are there really any conservative economists?

This question may surprise you because economics is considered the most conservative branch of the social sciences. To get the discussion, let me explain the definitions. First, by “economist,” they clearly meant a professional PhD holding economist. Not the policy wonks you’ll find around DC. Second, by “conservative,” they mean someone who is socially conservative – anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-drug legalization, a Bill Bennett style culture warrior, pro-life, evangelical Christian, etc.

The observation was that economists range from liberal (e.g., Paul Krugman) to libertarian (e.g., Milton Friedman). And this is backed up by survey evidence. On social issues, economists tend to be fairly liberal, even in comparison with other social scientists. They are conservative when it comes to economic policy such as minimum wages and price controls. It was argued that economists are rarely socially conservative, while many are economically conservative.

Do you buy this observation? Can you think of prominent economists who are socially conservative?

Written by fabiorojas

July 25, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Posted in economics, fabio, philosophy

this week is foucault week

I am re-reading Foucault’s “The Order of Things” and I have a few posts summarizing my thoughts in the pipeline. So if you want a Foucault/Order post on a particular topic, just comment/email/tweet me about it. Two posts in mind: one on how sociologists absorb Foucault and another on evaluating the main claim of Order. Other ideas are welcome.

Written by fabiorojas

July 3, 2011 at 12:06 am

u r too bumd for this moovie

Roger Ebert tweets a post from Tale of Odienary Madness, a film blog. The Tree of Life challenges the ontology of its American viewers too much. A theater now issues a warning letter to viewers:

Read the whole post.

Written by fabiorojas

June 28, 2011 at 12:04 am

theories of entrepreneurship: an exercise in dichotomies

There’s a certain resistance to dichotomizing: the truth is somewhere in between, it’s more nuanced, processual, interactional etc — both “x” and “y” need to be considered — so we’ll call it “z” (say, “structuration”).  But, as I’m preparing for an entrepreneurship-related PhD class tomorrow, most of the papers we read indeed tend to set up a dichotomous relationship between two things.  Despite problems with these types of contrasts (it’s usually pretty easy to see where the argument is going), I still find the exercise of extremes very valuable.  Theories, after all, idealize and need to focus on something (usually in reaction to its opposite, sorta).

So, here are some of the entrepreneurship-related dichotomies that popped up:

  • structure versus agency
  • macro versus micro
  • exogenous versus endogenous
  • observation versus theory
  • experience versus thought
  • supply versus demand
  • backward- versus forward-looking
  • discovery versus creation
  • something versus nothing
  • actual versus possible

(The truth can be found on the right-hand side.)

Many of the above dichotomies — in one way or another — hearken to classic debates in philosophy: rationalism versus empiricism, realism versus constructionism, etc.   I don’t think that organizational scholars will solve any of these classic problems, though obviously there are comparative opportunities vis-a-vis the things that we study: collective action, social process and interaction, value creation and so forth.

Below the fold you’ll find some of the (somewhat eclectic) readings that somehow relate to the above dichotomies of entrepreneurship: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by teppo

May 10, 2011 at 9:52 pm

Harold Garfinkel

Harold Garfinkel, who brought phenomenology back to the core of social theory, died last week in Los Angeles. His best-known work, Studies in Ethnomethodology, has led a double life. It’s put to work in introductory courses so that people can read about breaching experiments, and maybe do some minor ones themselves while pining for the days before IRBs. Here its contents are often played for laughs, or the general lesson that social life is a funny old thing and simultaneously more rulebound and more fragile than one might expect. On the other hand, the essays are a thoroughgoing and deep critique of the Parsonian approach to theorizing action, and relentlessly problematize the ongoing accomplishment of everyday life.

In the 1980s, the main problematic of social theory was micro- vs macro- and how to reconcile them. A common line of argument was that macro-theory required microfoundations, and these foundations were to be sought in the stable preferences and actions of (perhaps rational) individuals. Garfinkel’s vision of micro and macro was very different. Unlike the perhaps difficult but ultimately comforting search for a well-founded base to build society on, the ethnomethodological approach was more like the discovery of subatomic states and quantum-mechanical phenomena: way up there in the world of big celestial bodies, things looked orderly and stable, and there was some plausible prospect of discovering laws of society. Even a little further down the scale you could see where the structure was, even if it was inevitably messier. Studies in Ethnomethodology, however, zoomed in even closer on the micro-level and found that it wasn’t a level at all, that everything was constantly on the verge of going completely to hell, and that chaos loomed at every turn. Even today, when I read the breaching experiments it’s still striking just how quickly things move from an ordinary, boring interaction to a bunch of confused, upset, and very, very angry people who don’t know what is happening.

It turned out to be difficult to build on the discovery of the foamy, swirling reality that society was supposed to rest its weight on. Beyond some passing remarks I’ve seen in print or heard in person by those who were connected with Garfinkel and his circle, I don’t really know (nor do I much care) why the research program stalled out or became marginalized in the way that it did. Maybe it was the problem faced by a lot of phenomenological work, which finds it hard to reconcile its key insight (based on first-person experience) with a generative research program. Maybe it was a failure to transcend a little cult of personality. Maybe it was opposition from better-positioned competitors. I don’t know. Either way, it seems like a waste. But the core contribution is still there, and Garfinkel represents a vital link between the Husserlian tradition of the early 20th century and contemporary developments in the theory of social fields.

Written by Kieran

April 26, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Szelényi teaches Social Theory

Iván Szelényi in fine form

Yale’s Open Courses projects has some very interesting offerings, including Shelley Kagan’s famous course on Death, and Chris Hayes’ Introduction to the Old Testament. Right now they’re featuring Foundations of Modern Social Theory taught by the terrific Iván Szelényi, seen here in full flow and looking rather like a dapper, more genial and engaging version of a statue to some cold-war communist party leader. The course really does take a “Foundations” approach, starting with Hobbes and spending quite a bit of time on Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Smith—not so common in sociology these days. Marx, Weber, and Durkheim get multiple lectures to themselves, while Mill, Nietzsche, and Freud get air time as well. Great stuff.

Written by Kieran

April 15, 2011 at 1:50 pm

georg simmel’s aphorisms

Richard Swedberg and Wendelin Reich have written an engaging Theory, Culture & Society piece capturing Georg Simmel’s many aphorisms.  For Simmel fans, definitely worth reading.


This article contains an analysis of Georg Simmel’s aphorisms and an appendix with a number of these in translation. An account is given of the production, publication and reception of the around 300 aphorisms that Simmel produced. His close relationship to Gertrud Kantorowicz is discussed, since she was given the legal right to many of Simmel’s aphorisms when he died and also assigned the task of publishing them by Simmel. The main themes in Simmel’s aphorisms are presented: love, Man, philosophy, Lebensphilosophie and art. Two of Simmel’s aphorisms are also given an extended analysis. It is suggested that the skill of writing a good aphorism, both when it comes to style and content, has much to do with what we call the art of compression. It is also suggested that what ultimately attracted Simmel to the form of aphorism was its capacity to hint at something that is richer than the reality we are currently experiencing.

aphorisms ■ Gertrud Kantorowicz ■ Lebensphilosophie ■ Georg Simmel ■ sociology

Written by teppo

April 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm

erkenntnistheorie und soziologie

If you read/speak German, then you can find a wealth of free, classic (and more obscure) sociology-related books online.  Here’s a sample of books that you can download for free from google ebooks:

Heinrich Rickert, 1904.  Der Gegenstand der Erkenntnis. (Rickert was an influence on Max Weber.)

Gustav Ratzenhofer, 1907.  Soziologie. (OK, I hadn’t heard of him either.  Omar has.  It appears Ratzenhofer was an Austrian General and Sociologist.  Hey, it’s a free book, people.)

Georg Simmel, 1892. Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie, (Genau.)

Georg Simmel, 1906.  Kant.  (Simmel’s lectures from the University of Berlin.)

Georg Simmel, 1908. Soziologie: Untersuchungen ueber die Formen der Vergellschaftung. (Classic.)

Ferdinand Tönnies, 1887.  Gemeinshaft und Gesellschaft.

Max Weber. 1921.  Gesammelte Politische Schriften.

Written by teppo

April 9, 2011 at 4:41 am

the vertiginous regressivity of choice

G.A. Cohen on the German Ideal of Freedom:

If logic is more your thing, there is also a lecture by Alfred Tarski, a tutorial with Gilbert Ryle, or a boxing match between John Roemer and Jurgen Habermas.

Written by Kieran

March 21, 2011 at 3:34 pm

i think everyone is a scientist: the poverty of stimulus argument

There is a disconnect between how some social scientists see themselves versus how they see their subjects.  Scientists theorize about the world — they develop hypotheses, models, they reason, imagine, simulate, then test and revise, etc — and regular folks, well, learn more myopically via observation and experience. Behaviorism of course represented an extreme case of the latter – a stimulus-driven, passive view of human behavior.

But I’ll go on a limb and say that I think that the “scientist model” is a far better conception of all human activity.  Everyday living and interaction is scientific activity of a sort: we have models of the world that we constantly update and revise.  Importantly, these models have an a priori nature, decoupled from experience.  Does experience matter?  Sure.  But, I think the a priori factors matter just as much, even more.  How one conceptualizes the a priori depends on one’s field and purposes, but it includes the following types of things – human nature, choice, reason, imagination, intention, conjectures, hypotheses and theories and so forth.

Readers will of course recognize the above dichotomy as the rationalism versus empiricism debate: reason versus experience.  Empiricism, very often, looks deceptively scientific.  After all, it’s easy to count things that we can observe.  Experience and history are master mechanisms behind gobs of theories — tracing, counting what happened in the past appears scientific.  In some cases it is.   But, the stuff that we observe and perceive is heavily theory-laden (no, not in that sense), and observations and perceptions might simply be epiphenomena of a priori “stuff.”  And, experience might simply “trigger” rather than cause outcomes.  Furthermore, experience and history are only one of many, possible worlds.

The “poverty of stimulus” argument relates to this.  Varieties of the poverty of stimulus argument show up in developmental psychology, linguistics, philosophy, ethology and other areas.  In short, the upshot of the poverty of stimulus argument is that outputs and capabilities manifest by organisms far outstrip inputs such as experiences and stimuli. The work on infants, by folks like Elizabeth Spelke and Alison Gopnik, highlights this point: children have clear, a priori conceptions of their surroundings.  Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s notion of language capabilities as the “infinite use of finite means” relates to the poverty of stimulus argument.  Some varieties of decision-making models (depending on what types of “priors” they allow) also fit.  Ned Block’s “productivity argument” fits into this.  As does, perhaps, Charles Peirce’s notion of “abduction.” Etc.

The above discussion of course is a very Chomskyan view of human nature and science.  But, this tradition goes back much further (well, to Plato).  In my mind, one of the best, historical primers on some of these issues is Chomsky’s Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (be sure to get the 2003 edition, with McGilvray’s excellent introduction).  A very, very under-rated book.

Overall — I’ll go out on a limb, again (no one reads the last paragraph of loose, jargon-laden rants/posts like this anyways) — I don’t think the social sciences have come to terms with the scientific problems associated with experience-heavy arguments and the crucial importance of the a priori (however conceived).  I think there are lots of research opportunities in this space.

Written by teppo

March 18, 2011 at 7:06 am

is there an atlantic divide in organizational research?

The received wisdom is that there is an “Atlantic divide” between Europe and North America vis-a-vis organizational research.  Joel Baum, using citation data from three compendia, finds that the “Atlantic divide” is essentially a myth.

Here’s the abstract:

It is customary among contemporary organization theorists to equate North American and European scholarship with objectivist and subjectivist metatheoretical positions (respectively), treat these positions as mutually exclusive alternatives, and debate which is best suited to understanding organizational phenomena. Fueled by this dispute, questions of bias and fears of colonization are readily apparent in academic reviews of three recent “handbooks” of organizations. Caught in the current of these tensions, I was prompted to assess the status of this “Atlantic divide.” To do so, I examined the three recent compendia in terms of the rhetoric academic reviewers employed to characterize them and the geographic locations, preferred journals, and university affiliations of scholars who refer to them. The results are striking. Despite the unanimous typecasting of the volumes as epitomizing either objectivist North American or subjectivist European traditions, the geographic distributions of researchers citing them are indistinguishable. Citations to each compendium are, however, clustered within particular journals and among authors with particular university affiliations—but neither the journals nor universities are neatly North American or European. Current associations of these traditions with North American and European scholarship thus seem driven more by academic rhetoric than authentic continental distinctions. I examine the roots of this rhetorical mapping and explore its implications for the field. I advocate abandonment of the myth of the Atlantic divide and exploitation of perspectives that do not privilege the subjectivist–objectivist dichotomy.

Key Words: organization and management theory; subjectivst versus objectivist perspectives

And paper, forthcoming in Organization Science.

Here’s a previous post highlighting Joel’s work on journal versus article-effects.

Written by teppo

February 15, 2011 at 12:25 am

Posted in philosophy, research, teppo

alcove no. 1

Intellectual breakthroughs are almost always the product of group deliberation, discussion, and debate. And the greatest breakthroughs may be more likely to come from people on the margins of mainstream intellectual thought – from people who have a clear vantage point to observe the dominant perspectives but who are sufficiently external that they are free to argue against that perspective and think creatively about possible alternatives. It’s a good hypothesis anyway.

The documentary, Arguing the World, beautifully illustrates this point as it tells the story of four intellectual pioneers of the latter half of the Twentieth Century – Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol. The four men belonged to a group of radicals who would debate political philosophy while students at the City College of New York in the late 30s and early 40s.  At the time, students at the college would gather during the lunch hour, and often during class as well, in different alcoves, where they could get to know other people who shared a similar identity and who had similar interests. Conveniently positioned next to Alcove No. 2, where the Communist Party members and sympathizers met, were the Trotskyists in Alcove No. 1. The communists were closer to the radical mainstream at the time (at least among CCNY students), while the Trotskyists consisted of students who believed in some aspects of socialism but who were also disillusioned with Stalinism. If the purpose of Alcove No. 2 was to convince and persuade other students of an ideological point of view, the point of Alcove No. 1 was to question every point of orthodoxy and to debate, debate, debate.

This little corner of the room produced a number of intellectual luminaries, including four of the most important sociologists of the last 50 years: Bell, Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset and Philip Selznick. (Selznick actually recruited Glazer to join the Columbia sociology department after they graduated from CCNY. Bell would spend one year in the graduate program as well.)  It’s hard to imagine any other undergraduate clique that produced a more important group of intellectual thinkers than Alcove No. 1. Howe went on to become the leading theorist of the Old Left socialists. Kristol became “the godfather of the neoconservative movement.” Bell stands out as a writer of big idea books, perhaps one of the last great sociologists of this type. Glazer was equally bold, sometimes spearheading controversial research, always questioning the orthodoxy of liberal ideas. Lipset pioneered modernization theory in political sociology. Selznick, of course, was very influential in shaping the fields of organizational sociology and law and society and did much more public theorizing in the later stages of his career. None of the thinkers were ever conventional in their outlook, which is part of what made them so influential. Especially during their early years, they pushed and shaped the boundaries of social theory rather than working within them. (I think it’s fair to say that Kristol and Howe became more dogmatic as they moved into politics. The sociologists in the group, perhaps because of their commitment to intellectual progress over partisan loyalty, were continually moving on to new projects and ideas and were thus more able to maintain their peripheral positions throughout their careers.)

The movie is a must-see for any social theorist. In addition to telling the story of these four men, it also concisely depicts the intellectual struggles of the Old Left vs. the New Left and the repercussions of the activist Sixties on American universities. The one big fault of the movie, in my mind, was that it didn’t do enough to show how the activist Sixties were, in fact, an intellectual revolution of a very similar kind. While the movie mainly focuses on the stubborn resistance of Howe and Bell to the Tom Haydens of the New Left (who reminded them of the radical utopian thinkers they clamored against in the Thirties), real transformation in thought came, once again, from  activists  and intellectual leaders who were positioned on the margins, feminist theory being the outstanding example.

Written by brayden king

February 9, 2011 at 8:23 pm

infinitely decomposable world?

Can the world be divided ad infinitum?  Here’s a paper that wrestles with the matter: Physicalism in an infinitely decomposable world, Erkenntnis (2006) by Barbara Montero.


Might the world be structured, as Leibniz thought, so that every part of matter is divided ad infinitum? The Physicist David Bohm accepted infinitely decomposable matter, and even Steven Weinberg, a staunch supporter of the idea that science is converging on a final theory, admits the possibility of an endless chain of ever more fundamental theories. However, if there is no fundamental level, physicalism, thought of as the view that everything is determined by fundamental phenomena and that all fundamental phenomena are physical, turns out false, for in such a world, there are no fundamental phenomena, and so fundamental phenomena determine nothing. While some take physicalism necessarily to posit a fundamental level, here I present a thesis of physicalism that allows for its truth even in an infinitely decomposable world.

Written by teppo

February 7, 2011 at 4:23 am

being in the world

Via a friend on facebook —- a documentary/film inspired by Heidegger and Continental Philosophy, with commentary by Hubert Dreyfus and his students.  More here: Being In The World movie.

Bonus material:

Written by teppo

February 6, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Posted in culture, philosophy, teppo

people love big government

A few weeks ago, I began a series of posts on the subject of small government rhetoric. My main point is that most people who push for small government don’t really mean it. In this post, I’d like to elaborate on an another point. Small government policy faces some big obstacles. The first and foremost is that people love government. And they love big government.

I don’t think this is particularly shocking. A few facts:

  • Most people have government programs that they love a lot. Conservatives love the police and the military. Liberals love social services. The difference between liberals and conservatives is not that one is for more government and the other wants less government. They just want government to do different things.
  • There are some big programs that most people support, like Medicare.
  • A consistent finding of polls is that people who favor cutting government rarely favor cutting specific programs like Social Security.
  • It is remarkably hard to cut government, even in America. Only recessions can dent state budgets, and then only temporarily.
  • People may slam government in the abstract, but they love specific people a lot. You know the old joke, “Congress is a bunch of thieves, but my representative is great!”
  • Surveys show that few people are hard core libertarians, who favor cutting both defense and social programs. In other words, lots use libertarian rhetoric but not many people actually support libertarian policies (privatizing old age benefits, drastically reducing defense).

One puzzle that remains is the persistence of small government rhetoric. What gives? My analysis is cynical. I think a lot of politics is group status politics in disguise. Small government rhetoric is convenient. It’s an easy justification to attack resource transfers to unpopular groups. For example, Tea Party conservatives oppose the bailout, a hand out to corporations. But few have called for systematically cutting back the Federal Reserve or the Treasury. Another case: immigration. They believe that immigrants are unjustly sucking up jobs and tax dollars. So cut the services that they use. The small government position is more palatable than saying “I hate banks” or “I hate Mexicans.”

So what’s a serious small government proponent to do? First, proponents of limited government should make it clear that they aren’t conservatives, Tea Party people, liberals or whatever. Second, focus on issues of high relative impact. For example, liberals and conservatives have pretty much failed on some important issues like the drug war, stopping needless war, and developing a humane immigration policy. These are all policy domains that lead to bigger, and unneeded, government. They are policy areas where you won’t be swamped by other interest groups. Third, counter-signal. If you really believe that small government is good for everyone, why not work for some low status people? Fighting for estate tax repeal or lower capital gains may have some abstract policy merit (or not), but I’m sure it won’t persuade people to really adopt your position. Instead, why not pick a fight that shows you favor freedom for everyone and not just people in your tax bracket?

Written by fabiorojas

January 17, 2011 at 6:44 am

universal reality (almost): the case of categories and colors

I’m interested in the nature of reality and particularly the boundaries and scope of the social construction of reality.  I think social construction clearly plays an important role, but the question is, how “strong” is that role?   For example, I think the performativity argument (and associated “strong programme”) pushes the social construction argument way too far.

But let’s get more specific: what role do categories, language and naming play in the construction of reality?

One empirical setting for actually studying this question is the case of color categories and color naming, an active area of research in linguistics, computer science and psychology.  Scholars in this space have looked at whether the extant categories and names of colors of particular languages impact what individuals actually see and remember.  The famous Sapir-Whorf thesis of course argued, broadly, that language, categories and culture strongly determine perception and reality.  But, the color research shows otherwise.  Languages with highly fine-grained distinctions for individual colors, as well as languages with relatively few (or even no!) distinctions and names for color, lead to the same perceptions and experiences of color.  (Check out the citations below to see the clever way in which this is empirically tested.)

Well, almost. Recent work is making some important qualifications to the argument (articulating a middle ground, of sorts, between universality and strong construction), and there clearly is a very active debate in this space.

Here are some links to this literature:

Now, I don’t, by any means, think that the color research necessarily is a knock-down argument against social construction.  But I do think this research definitely questions the “strong” form of construction — I have opportunistically cited and referred to these and other findings to make that point.  And another, perhaps unfair, knockdown argument is that no matter what linguistic categories a color-blind person has, it simply won’t matter in the perception of color.

There is of course much debate in the color literature as well and some of the work points toward a particular, softer form of construction.   And, the color research of course is just one setting, and the findings may not generalize to other settings.  But I do like the fact that the color research actually allows us to more rigorously say some things — with the usual qualifications and questions — about the specific role that language (as well as categories, culture etc) plays in the way we perceive the world.

Written by teppo

January 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm

two syllabuses

In Spring a young man’s fancy turns to love. Rapidly aging academics such as myself, however, have to decide which readings to assign. This semester I’m teaching Organizations and Management to students in Duke’s MMS certificate program and Markets and Moral Order to a small group of seniors at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Both classes were a lot of fun last year (perhaps not for the students). I’ve rearranged the running order in the Orgs course a bit, as the flow was wrong last time.

If you think there’s something that absolutely has to be included in either course, I’m open to suggestions. But (I’m looking at you, Teppo) you’re not allowed to suggest something without also saying what I should drop in order to include it. Unlike the economy, a syllabus is not the sort of thing that you want to grow aggressively in order that everyone gets more and bigger slices of the whole.

Written by Kieran

January 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Posted in philosophy, sociology

comparative organizations

The most recent issue of ASQ has a review by Peter Foreman of the RSO volume on “comparative organizations” that quite a few of us were involved with.   Comparative issues also remain popular on this blog.

Written by teppo

December 28, 2010 at 7:54 pm

amartya sen on the idea of justice

Amartya Sen’s book The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009) is easily one of the best books I have read over the last couple years. Genius. The topics discussed in the book include social welfare, choice and comparative institutions, governance, philosophy, justice and equity, ethics.  Here Sen gives the cliff notes at the Common Wealth Club of California (Feb 2010):

Written by teppo

December 22, 2010 at 6:11 pm

mysteries of nature

Here’s an engaging 2009 piece by Noam Chomsky that covers wide swaths of the philosophy of science — empiricism versus rationalism, the nature of will, philosophy of mind, the evolution of scientific thought, etc:

Chomsky, N. 2009. The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden? Journal of Philosophy 106: 167-200.

[Sorry, the journal web site does not allow one to link directly to papers, but you can easily find the volume — though it’s probably gated if you are not at a university.]

The whole paper is, sort of, addressed at (or at least linked to) the arguments of the “greats” in the history of science — Newton, Galileo, Locke, Hume, etc.  One of the more interesting, big picture-type papers I’ve read in a while.  (Perhaps some semi-intelligent commentary later, once I digest a few things.)

And while we’re in Chomsky mode — you might check out this recent book (the first chapter features the above article):

Bricmont, J.& Franck, J. (eds.) 2009. The Chomsky Notebook.  Columbia University Press. [ link here.]

Written by teppo

November 11, 2010 at 12:42 am

Posted in philosophy

not serious about small government

I wonder how many folks are serious about limited government rhetoric. Here is an easy litmus test to see if someone is actually serious about small government. Ask them what they would do to considerably scale back the size of the American federal government. These are the only correct answers:

  • Massive cut backs on defense (20%): close bases, reduce standing forces, reduce deployments in Iraq and/or Afghanistan
  • Massive cut backs on social security (20%): raise the retirement age; means test benefits; cut back benefits
  • Massive cut backs on Medicare (21%): means test; limit benefits; age grade.
  • Another 14% of the federal budget has to do with some type of fairly popular social safety net outlays, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or additional elderly support.

Here are some wrong answers. Saving money is wise, but cutting these items isn’t a plausible way to substantially reduce government:

  • “waste”
  • “discretionary spending”
  • “administrative costs”
  • preventing fraud
  • NPR
  • foreign aid
  • benefits to illegal immigrants
  • the Department of Education
  • the Bridge to Nowhere

In other words, about 85% of the Federal budget is about stuff that most people like. The stuff that people tend to offer for cuts, such as foreign aid or “waste,” doesn’t address the main issue. The typical proponent of small government would likely not dare cut the things that actually contribute to the overall size of government.

Written by fabiorojas

November 4, 2010 at 12:30 am

orgtheory quiz #4: name the stalinist

Which prominent sociologist was responsible for these lovely words about Stalin?

Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also – and this was the highest proof of his greatness – he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.


Three great decisions faced Stalin in power and he met them magnificently: first, the problem of the peasants, then the West European attack, and last the Second World War. The poor Russian peasant was the lowest victim of tsarism, capitalism and the Orthodox Church. He surrendered the Little White Father easily; he turned less readily but perceptibly from his ikons; but his kulaks clung tenaciously to capitalism and were near wrecking the revolution when Stalin risked a second revolution and drove out the rural bloodsuckers.

Answer below the fold…

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

October 24, 2010 at 12:35 am

a conversation about causation and counterfactuals

Philosophy TV hosts a conversation between Ned Hall and L.A. Paul on the counterfactual analysis of causation. It is, of course, must-see TV on any plausible account of necessity.

In the interests of full disclosure, something, something, something. I’ll think of it in a minute.

Written by Kieran

October 21, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Posted in philosophy

republican political theory and the american democracy

It’s become apparent that many Republicans adhere to the theory of the expansive executive branch. Whether it be law enforcement, legislative initiative, or foreign policy, the executive branch is to be followed and given the benefit of the doubt. Of course, I think Democrats follow this in practice as well. Partisanship often requires that dissent be muted to further some agenda. However, it’s only in the Republican party that there’s been such an open endorsement of strong executive power all the way from the intellectuals down to the rank and file of the party.

This raises an interesting question. Is the expansive executive theory consistent with the principles of American government? Even though the Constitution was intended to increase executive power over the Articles of Confederation, it seems highly unlikely that the Constitution was meant to grant nearly unlimited power to the executive. In fact, the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights have so many anti-executive features in it, including things that are dear to conservatives such as the Second Amendment,* that it’s hard to believe that the Founders ever intended any other interpretation.

That raises an even deeper question about the expansive executive argument and the general intellectual tenor of the modern Republican party. It’s one thing to say that the government should switch policies. But it’s entirely another thing to move ultimate authority away from the courts and the legislature to the executive, which is what a lot conservative writings and jurisprudence suggest. What you get is a philosophy that’s less about specific policy proposals and more about proposing a fundamental shift in the way the Federal government is run.

Of course, the case is overstated a bit. No one has proposed abolishing Congress or appropriating local government, Hugo Chavez-style. But in an number of major policy domains, the shift is obvious. Congress should not decide when to go to war. They should verify what the President has done and not interfere. The Courts should not second guess police and prosecutors. Individual rights in criminal cases are subordinate to the needs of the state. These are the most egregious cases, there are more subtle cases.

Overall, I think there are many positive things about conservative thought. Tradition is important to consider, government ought not be a burden. But the trends I’ve identified above make me think that there’s been slip from these insights into an embrace of power for its own sake.

* If private citizens are supposed to own guns as a bulwark against tyranny, then doesn’t that imply some strong limits to executive power?  Tyranny essentially means “executive out of control,” which means things like jailing people without due process and torturing them. I really don’t see any other way of reading the Second amendment if you start with the “anti-tyranny” interpretation.

Written by fabiorojas

October 15, 2010 at 12:52 am

reduction in the special sciences

An upcoming special issue of Erkenntnis (a journal in analytic philosophy) focuses on the topic of “reduction in the special sciences” (associated with this 2008 conference, here are some earlier versions of the papers in the special issue).

Here are some of the issues that the special issue will wrestle with:

Science presents us with a variety of accounts of the world. While some of these accounts posit deep theoretical structure and fundamental entities, others do not. But which of these approaches is the right one? How should science conceptualize the world? And what is the relation between the various accounts? Opinions on these issues diverge wildly in philosophy of science. At one extreme are reductionists who argue that higher-level theories should, in principle, be incorporated in, or eliminated by, the basic-level theory. According to this view, higher-level theories do not ultimately exhibit conceptual integrity or provide genuine explanations. At the other extreme are pluralists who take higher levels of description and explanation seriously and argue for their independence and indispensability.

As is readily evident from the abstract, one of the contributions is of particular interest to me, the piece by Jack Vromen: “Micro-foundations in Strategic Management: Squaring Coleman’s Diagram.”


Abell, Felin and Foss argue that “macro-explanations” in strategic management, explanations in which organizational routines figure prominently and in which both the explanandum and explanans are at the macro-level, are necessarily incomplete. They take a diagram (which has the form of a trapezoid) from Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.)/London, (1990) to task to show that causal chains connecting two macro-phenomena always involve “macro-to-micro” and “micro-to-macro” links, links that macro-explanations allegedly fail to recognize. Their plea for micro-foundations in strategic management is meant to shed light on these “missing links”. The paper argues that while there are good reasons for providing micro-foundations, Abell, Felin and Foss’s causal incompleteness argument is not one of them. Their argument does not sufficiently distinguish between causal and constitutive relations. Once these relations are carefully distinguished, it follows that Coleman’s diagram has to be squared. This in turn allows us to see that macro-explanations need not be incomplete.

I’ll post a final/copy-edited version of the response into the comments (once we get it back).

Written by teppo

September 30, 2010 at 6:14 am

black studies vs. bill cosby

A while ago, I was asked a question that went something like this: “Black Studies programs were created at a time when there were few voices from the Black perspective in the public sphere. But now, we have people like Bill Cosby – public figures addressing Black topics. What is the role of Black Studies now?”

First, I think the questioner has a legitimate point. We now have many qualified people addressing issues relevant to people of color. Some, like Skip Gates, are lauded academics, while others, like Tavis Smiley, are more like journalistic commentators. Regardless, the point is well taken – just turn on the television and you’re bound to find African American social commentary.

Second, what makes Black Studies distinct in the present is its political perspective. I don’t mean that all Black Studies professors are fist pumping radicals. I mean something a bit more restrained and common sense. Black Studies professors are in the business of studying the distinct experience of the African American community. That’s not something you find much in academia and it’s a perspective the deserves to be heard.

Third, if for no other reason, we need Black Studies because it yielded the Boondocks. That’s right. The guy who writes the Boondocks, Aaron McGruder, majored in African American Studies at Maryland. In my view, the entire field has justified its existence in that way.

Written by fabiorojas

August 25, 2010 at 12:34 am

war state vs. welfare state

Movements face a tough choice in American politics – which major party  is better for your interests? Third parties, as I’ve argued, are a waste of time. That brings me to Obama and conservatives and libertarians. Since the GOP was in meltdown mode in 2008,  some conservatives and libertarians supported Obama. Now, people are asking whether Obama was the right choice because he pushed health care reform and other measures.

Here’s my response. In modern American politics, you don’t face a choice between limited government and growing government. American politics is about the choice between the welfare state and the war state. Roughly speaking, Democratic presidents tend to promote ambitious welfare state expansions (Truman – Fair Deal; LBJ – Medicare; Clinton – health care reform; Obama – health care reform). Republicans have tended to promote national security and war (Regan – the 80s build up, Lebanon, Star Wars; Bush I – Panama, Gulf War I; Bush II – Iraq & Afghanistan). There’s recent research suggesting that military spending serves the same purpose for GOP politicians as the welfare state does for Democrats. Of course, some presidents, like Nixon, manage to promote welfare state expansion and war making at the same time.

So we have almost 70 years of post-war American history. Limited government just isn’t on the menu. Instead you have to choose between leaders who expand the state for military purposes and those who expand the state for social purposes. I’d be interested in any argument suggesting that McCain would have sharply curtailed state growth in any significant way.

Written by fabiorojas

May 10, 2010 at 12:49 am

tony judt on the european welfare state

The Nation has an interview with historian Tony Judt. His new book, Ill Fares the Land, is an argument for the European style welfare state. A few clips:

There are two different considerations here. The first is the social reality of the social democratic state—the activist state, if you like—with collective responsibility across space and time for other people’s interests. That is almost inevitably going to survive in one form or another. In my world it was pretty clear which aspects of my parents’ world would survive into ours; in my kids’ world, it’s not at all clear which aspects of my world will survive into theirs. With globalization, with the fear of economic change, with the insecurities that the twenty-first century is going to bring, which are going to be far greater than those of the twentieth, the level of insecurity is going to have the paradoxical effect of throwing people back on the state much more, looking to it for everything from medical protection to physical protection to job guarantees to protection against outside competition and such. So the question is not going to be, Will there be an activist state? The question is going to be, What kind of an activist state?

And that brings us to the second consideration, which is how we think about it. We’ve emerged from a twentieth century which we’ve learned to think of as a kind of seventy-year running battle between the over-mighty state and the wonders of individual freedom. Extreme forms of individualism versus extreme forms of collective enforced authority. Roughly speaking, Stalin versus the tea party. That’s a caricature of the twentieth century. But it’s one that we have to a large degree internalized, so when people think of the political choices facing them, they think of them in terms of maximized individual freedom versus maximized collective repression, or power or authority or whatever. And then they think of any changes with one or the other, regrettable compromises with freedom or so on. We need to change that conversation so we can think of the state not as some external creature that history has imposed upon us but simply as a way of collective organization that we chose to place onto ourselves. In that sense the liberal state either has a future or it doesn’t, but it really is up to us.

Here’s our previous discussion of Judt and postwar European history.

Written by fabiorojas

May 7, 2010 at 12:46 am

The AGIL Turkey

Robert Paul Wolff — the well-known philosopher of politics and political economy, late convert to Afro-American studies, and author of some very good books including the best explanation of how to approach Marx’s ironic, sarcasm-laced prose style — has lately been keeping a blog, and writing his memoirs. There are some very good stories, mostly about philosophers.

Most sociologists are unaware that Talcott Parsons’ son Charles Parsons is a well-respected philosopher of logic, mathematics and language. Wolff knew him as a student, and Chapter 4 has a good story about Parsons, Snr:

Charlie was a very serious, very brilliant, very compulsive young man of middle height, with sandy hair. He was an academic brat, having grown up in the family home in Belmont during the time that his father was a famous senior professor in the Harvard Social Relations Department. Talcott Parsons had been responsible for introducing American readers to the works and theories of Max Weber, the great German sociologist. But unlike Weber, whose books were deep, powerful investigations of the roots, structure, and functioning of modern bureaucratic capitalist society, Parsons produced vast, empty, classificatory schemes that were devoid of any real power or insight. Poor Charlie, who lived very much in the shadow of the great man, was in fact much smarter than his father, and I have always suspected that he knew quite well how meretricious his father’s theories were. But during all the time I knew him, he never said a word about the matter. …

One story will give some sense of the burdens laid upon him by his parents. Our second year together, Charlie very kindly invited me to join his family for Thanksgiving dinner at their colonial Belmont home. … A topic was proposed for discussion during the taking of the wine, and we entered into a lively debate, while papa sat in a corner with a pad and pen and wrote another book, nodding into the conversation from time to time without actually joining it. At issue was whether it would be immoral for the aunt to buy a new car before her present vehicle had entirely worn out. Strong views were offered pro and con, but in the end, a consensus was reached that this would indeed be immoral. At no time, I am happy to say, did the discussion descend to the level of considerations of prudence. It was all on a high moral plane.

Finally dinner was served. After we had seated ourselves around the table, Mrs. Parsons, who was herself a social scientist, turned to Ann and said, “Ann, would you bring in the potatoes, please?” She then explained to me, as the guest, “It is traditional in our family for the older daughter to bring in the potatoes.” Next, she turned to Susan, and said, “Susan, would you bring in the vegetables?” Once again, she explained, “In our family, it is traditional for the younger daughter to bring in the vegetables.” Finally, she turned to her husband, and said, “Talcott, would you carve the turkey?” Yet again, “It is traditional in our family for the father to carve the turkey.”

At first, I was utterly mystified by these elaborate explanations, until, with a flash of methodological insight, I realized what was going on. This was a collection of intellectuals who had read in books that one of the latent functions of social rituals was to preserve the unity of kin structures. So they were deliberately, by the numbers as it were, reenacting a social ritual that they had self-consciously created in an effort to reinforce the ties that bound them. It was a textbook exercise, complete in every way save for any vestige of spontaneous feeling or manifest pleasure.

Professor Parsons proceeded to address the bird, a big, beautifully cooked production to which he applied a carefully sharpened carving knife. He made a series of passes that barely damaged the turkey, producing a neat stack of extremely thin slices. Each plate received one of them, together with a spoonful of the potatoes and the vegetables, a bit of stuffing, and a dollop of gravy. Then we dug in.

Coming as I do from a culture in which eating occupies pride of place among all the bodily functions, including sex, I inhaled my plate of food almost before the others had taken up their knives and forks, and looked around expectantly for seconds. But they were not to be. The turkey, still almost whole, was returned to the kitchen, and plates were ceremonially cleared, ready to be washed, though in my eyes they barely needed it.

Written by Kieran

April 10, 2010 at 8:15 pm

martha nussbaum to the third power

Nice video of philosopher Martha Nussbaum discussing her seminal book on morals, The Fragility of Goodness. Is it just me, or was television better in the past?

Written by fabiorojas

March 15, 2010 at 12:49 am

Posted in fabio, philosophy

the social world according to searle

John Searle has written a new book that should be of interest to many of you. Following the line of thought of his earlier The Construction of Social Reality, Searle’s Making the Social World tries to explain how we create a world of institutions, like organizations and culture, from a physical world that seems to play by a different set of principles. He starts by identifying a simple principle that he thinks can explain much of what counts for social reality. Here’s an excerpt from the introductory chapter:

It is typical of domains where we have a secure understanding of the ontology, that there is a single unifying principle of that ontology. In physics it is the atom, in chemistry it is the chemical bond, in biology it is the cell, in genetics it is the DNA molecule, and in geology it is the tectonic plate. I will argue that there is similarly an underlying principle of social ontology, and one of the primary aims of the book is to explain it. In making these analogies to the natural sciences I do not imply that the social sciences are just like the natural sciences. That is not the point. The point rather is that it seems to me implausible to suppose that we would use a series of logically independent mechanisms for creating institutional facts, and I am in search of a single mechanism. I claim we use one formal linguistic mechanism, and we apply it over and over with different contents (7).

The claim that I will be expounding and defending in this book is that all of human institutional reality is created and maintained in existence by (representations that have the same logical form as) [Status Function] Declarations, including the cases that are not speech acts in the explicit form of Declarations (13).

Searle isn’t saying that every speech act makes the world change and therefore has a declarative effect.  But some sorts of speech are intended to “change the world by declaring that the state of affairs exists and thus bringing that state of affairs into existence” (12). These declarative speech acts, then, are the fundamental units of any institution because without them humans would be completely constrained by reality as it stands now. They would be unable to create anything new.

Needless to say, the performativity folks will eat this up.

Written by brayden king

February 25, 2010 at 3:35 pm