Understanding Society

Daniel Little

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Popper and Parfit: the minds of philosophers

Derek Parfit hit the philosophy firmament in the early 1960s, while Karl Popper arrived on the Vienna scene three decades earlier. David Edmonds' biography of Parfit provides a careful and detailed account of Parfit's main philosophical preoccupations and some details about his life in Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality. Popper's autobiographical essay in Paul Arthur Schilpp, The Philosophy of Karl Popper Part I and Part II (published separately as An Unended Quest) offers a deeply reflective account by Popper of the evolution of his philosophical thinking. It is very interesting to read the two books side by side, in order to consider two styles of thinking and imagination in the doing of philosophy. Both were analytical philosophers, but their intellectual frameworks and their philosophical approaches were markedly different. Both thinkers are well known in analytic philosophy, and each has energetic admirers and a handful of critics. On balance, I find that I greatly prefer Popper to Parfit.

I read Parfit's Reasons and Persons within a year or so of its publication in 1984, and I never shared the astoundingly flattering assessment of Parfit's brilliance and impact that Edmonds offers. Edmonds closes his book by suggesting that Parfit ranks with Kant and Sidgwick as the greatest moral philosophers of the past three centuries. And he suggests that Parfit's work may have greater longterm impact than Rawls's Theory of Justice. This suggests something bordering on "Oxford hero worship" rather than sober philosophical assessment. And in fact the biography has some of the flavor of "inside baseball" in the world of the Oxford common room, the fellowships, the dons, and the rivalries that defined the context for much of Parfit's career. (Edmonds himself holds a PhD in philosophy, and is certainly well qualified to offer his own assessments of various philosophers. On the other hand, he makes it clear that he has had fairly close personal connections with Parfit over the past thirty years.)

For myself, I have generally found Parfit's philosophical ideas as being annoyingly dependent on clever thought experiments, rather than substantive and sustained analysis of serious issues and principles that matter. (Ironically, the title that Parfit chose for his final work -- and what he believed would be his most important book -- is On What Matters (in three volumes).) The title is ironic because so few of Parfit's chains of argument actually do seem to matter much in the world. To give one example, pertaining to the question of personal identity: what are we to make of a breakdown in the Star Trek teleportation system, where Derek winds up in both the destination cubicle and the source cubicle? Which is which? If Derek committed a crime before entering the booth, which "person" deserves to be punished? (Edmonds makes it clear in another place that the question is doubly difficult, because Parfit doesn't believe that anyone "deserves" punishment for any act; but that's a different point.) Reasons and Persons seems to consist mostly of logical puzzles, conceptual conundrums, and refutations of existing philosophical answers to traditional problems and questions. But in the end, it all seems sort of trivial, and almost a caricature of what good philosophy should be. It has a kind of obsessive character that prevents Parfit from moving forward. (How could a set of Tanner Lectures morph into a three-volume set of books?)

Edmonds refers to quite a few philosophers who became close colleagues and sometimes friends with Parfit. Among them include thinkers whom I would certainly rank as being more insightful and more important to the progress of philosophy on issues that matter than Parfit: for example, Tom Nagel, Tim Scanlon, John Rawls, Bernard Williams, and especially Amartya Sen.

Edmonds closes the biography with some commentary on Parfit's remarkably peculiar lack of interpersonal skills -- no small talk, no special loyalty to the romantic partners in his life, no understanding of the ways in which most people conduct their relationships with colleagues, lovers, friends, and random strangers. Edmonds explores the question of a possible diagnosis of autism in the case of Derek Parfit. This seems like a very reasonable question to ask about Parfit's social ineptitude, but perhaps it is relevant to the obsessiveness of his philosophical preoccupations as well.

So what about Popper's account of his intellectual development since his beginnings as a cabinet-maker's apprentice in Vienna? Popper's autobiography An Unended Quest is simply fascinating, and it sheds important light on the circumstances, questions, and influences through which Popper's philosophical ideas took shape. Anyone trained in analytic philosophy knows the outlines of Popper's most famous theories -- falsifiability, the demarcation criterion, his rejection of historicism, his rejection of Vienna Circle positivism, his critique of Marxism. What is deeply interesting to me in reading his autobiography is how much more there is to his intellectual and philosophical life beyond these familiar ideas. He seems to have been very deeply interested in music, the visual arts, the breakthroughs in physics of the 1920s and 1930s, recent thinking about cognitive psychology, and the political events of the 1930s, and he thought deeply about each of these topics. Chapters 11-14 of Unended Quest offer a highly interesting and informed discussion of classical western music, polyphony, and innovation in composition. (Here is Chapter 12 where Popper discusses the invention of polyphony.)

Two important features of Popper's autobiography include --

  • a very genuine impression of modesty and generous praise for other thinkers -- in contrast to Parfit's view of his own stature in philosophy as a deserving super-star
  • a serious, learned, and deeply reflective philosophical mind.

Unended Quest makes it clear that there is much more to Karl Popper than falsifiability and his critique of historicism. This was a philosopher who thought creatively, seriously, and deeply about a wide range of issues that matter in the world. Further, Popper was a philosopher who believed that he saw important analogies across apparently disparate sets of questions -- for example, the serious analogy that he finds between "learning through trial and error" by children and animals and "dogmatic hypothesis and critical evaluation" in science. If Edmonds proposes ranking Parfit with Kant and Sidgwick, I'll propose ranking Popper with Kant and Poincaré for his contributions to better understanding scientific ideas and cognitive frameworks. In spite of having criticized Popper strongly in The Scientific Marx, I now think it would have been wonderful to have had him as a teacher.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Limitations of Hobsbawm's historical writing

A defining component of Eric Hobsbawm’s historical writings is the quartet of “Age” books: Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire, and Age of Extremes. These are synthetic works, offering a narrative of the long nineteenth century and the short twentieth century. They give primary attention to developments pertaining to economic, political, and social change in Britain, Europe, and North America, with occasional commentary on the rest of the world (Asia, Africa, and South America). Perhaps the most interesting of these is the first of them, Age of Revolution. Hobsbawm’s central interest – the central story he tries to tell – is the unfolding of the “dual revolutions” – the industrial revolution and the French Revolution – and the consequences these revolutions had for the lives, political identities, and historical agency and activism of working people. These revolutions formed “modernity”, whether in technology, in political forms, or in conditions of material life. And they gave rise to the central social formations (“great classes”) and political ideologies (nationalism, socialism, fascism) that continue to orient our world today.

These books are highly detailed. But we should observe that they are almost entirely grounded in secondary scholarship – Hobsbawm seems to have read almost everything written on this two-century period, and has undertaken to crystallize the main currents of research and interpretation into a reasonably coherent and connected narrative. But very little of the Age of Revolution depends upon Hobsbawm’s own primary research as a social historian. And though the tone of the narrative is even-handed and calm, the impression emerges over the 350-plus pages of the book that it is very deeply informed by the narrative of the Communist ManifestoConditions of the Working Class in England. This is a coherent narrative; but there are other stories that might be told of the nineteenth century, and other organizing themes that might be the hinges of the story.

Hobsbawm’s own primary scholarship focused on “indigenous” class movements and uprising, largely in England. He was a labor historian, and he was interested in uncovering documents and narratives that shed light on the ways that ordinary working people in the 18th and 19th centuries lived, how they conceived of the social relations around them, and how they rebelled. Key works here include Labour’s Turning Point 1880-1900 (1948), Primitive Rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries (1959), Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1964), and Captain Swing (1969; co-authored with George Rudé). The recurring theme of these earlier works was the topic of resistance and popular identities among “working people”. In “Captain Swing: A Retrospect” (link) Adrian Randall describes Hobsbawm’s orientation in these terms:

Hobsbawm’s earlier work, mainly concentrated on the labour history of later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was steeped in the well- established Marxist interpretation of economic and social history which saw the years from the later eighteenth century as marking an industrial revolution which had transformed economic, and thence social and political, relations into a more clearly class-divided form. The displacement of a peasantry and the degradation of agricultural labourers formed part of that narrative. (Randall 2009: 421)

But even here Hobsbawm’s role seems to be synthetic rather than primary. The division of labor in Captain Swing seems to divide sharply between Rudé’s primary scholarship on eighteenth-century uprisings (Randall 2009:421) and Hobsbawm’s synthetic historical imagination, guided by Marx’s conceptualization of history. Here too, then, Hobsbawm works as a theoretically-minded historical narrativist rather than as a primary historical researcher.

Might we say, then, that we need less from a historian than what Hobsbawm gives us? Hobsbawm paints a consistent, detailed picture of the evolution of social unrest. But it is fundamentally just an extensive interpretation based on a reading of secondary sources, and it may even be a caricature – certain features may be over-drawn and others minimized, in order to make the coherent and consistent Marxist story plain. But we don’t want our knowledge of history to be “pre-digested” according to a prior plan; we want a reasonable, evidence-based account that is open to contingency, unexpected developments, and details that do not fit the model.

In my mind I contrast Hobsbawm’s Ages books with Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which provides an account of the history of the United States that is not wedded to any particular trope. Instead, Lepore seeks to document and discuss the many themes that enter into US history, without bending the edges to make the facts fit the frame. And I think of more regional and local historians, such as William Sewell (Work and Revolution in France), whose analysis of the “working-class consciousness” of working people of Marseille breaks many stereotypes of the Marxist hymnal. And Sewell’s work, unlike Hobsbawm’s, is deeply grounded in his own research on primary documents and sources. Here is how Lynn Hunt describes Sewell’s primary research in Work and Revolution (link):

Sewell’s sources are eclectic: they range from a philosophical tract by Diderot to the statutes of mutual-aid societies, from artisanal and working-class newspapers to quasi-official reports on the conditions of the working poor, from intellectual tracts on socialism to workers’ poetry. All these comprise “a set of interrelated texts that demand close reading and careful exegesis” (11-12). Sewell rereads and reinterprets these texts with an eye for their linguistic and historical logic. The “socialist vision of labor” was a logical development of certain fundamental Enlightenment concepts, but that logic was pushed forward not so much by intellectual as by social and political developments, in particular, by the revolutionary “bursts” of 1830-34, 1839-40, and 1848-51 (278). In attempting to explicate this “dialectical logic,” Sewell synthesizes an extensive published literature on French labor, and he effectively underlines the importance of paying very close attention to what people in the past said, sometimes indirectly, about what they were doing.

Perhaps this suggests that we need another category of historical misrepresentation beyond the two offered by Andrus Pork (link). In addition to “direct lies” and “blank-page lies”, we need “interpretations of history cut to order by an antecedent interpretation of history”.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

EP Thompson's break with Stalinism

E. P. Thompson was one of the great social historians of the twentieth century (link, link). He was also a committed socialist from youth to the end of his life. His 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, transformed the way that historians on the left conceptualized “social class”, and it was one of the formative works of "history from below". Thompson was a member of the British Communist Party (CPGB) until 1956, following the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev"s "secret speech" revealing some of Stalin's crimes. Thompson remained a staunch advocate of English socialism throughout his life. But as a Communist, he showed an unwelcome degree of intellectual and political independence, and he broke with the CPGB very publicly in 1956 with a manifesto criticizing the party leadership, “Winter wheat in Omsk” (Thompson 1956) and “Socialist humanism” (Thompson 1957). Christos Efstathiou describes Thompson (along with John Saville and Lawrence Daly) in these terms:

What united these three men, and, at the same time distinguished them from other Communist dissidents, was that they did not hesitate to fight the Party’s policies. (Efstathiou 2016: 29)

Consider Thompson’s break with Stalinism in “Socialist humanism” (1957; link). The essay is decisive in rejecting Stalin’s “ideology” and his bureaucratic dogmatism and domination of the whole of society. Thompson writes eloquently about the need within socialism for open debate and discussion. But the essay does not give primary emphasis to the crimes of the Stalinist state: the Holodomor, the purges, the Show Trials, the Gulag, or the pervasive totalitarianism created by the Soviet state. Thompson does refer to “monsters of iniquity like Beria and Rakosi” and mentions their crimes – “destroying their own comrades, incarcerating hundreds of thousands, deporting whole nations”. And he gives a short summary of the show trial of the Bulgarian Communist leader Traicho Kostov. (The narrative is worthy of Koestler in Darkness at Noon.) Here is how Thompson writes about travesties like the trial of Kostov (and, presumably, the better known trials of Bukharin, Zinoviev, and other Bolshevik leaders):

We feel these actions to be wrong, because our moral judgements do not depend upon abstractions or remote historical contingencies, but arise from concrete responses to the particular actions, relations, and attitudes of human beings. No amount of speculation upon intention or outcome can mitigate the horror of the scene. Those moral values which the people have created in their history, which the writers have encompassed in their poems and plays, come into judgement on the proceedings. As we watch the counsel for the defence spin out his hypocrisies, the gorge rises, and those archetypes of treachery, in literature and popular myth, from Judas to Iago, pass before our eyes. The fourteenth century ballad singer would have known this thing was wrong. The student of Shakespeare knows it is wrong. The Bulgarian peasant, who recalls that Kostov and Chervenkov had eaten together the bread and salt of comradeship, knows it is wrong. Only the “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist” thinks it was – a mistake. (119)

Elsewhere in the text Thompson refers to "British socialists who see men who claim ‘Marxism’ as their guide, banner, and ‘science’ perpetrating vile crimes against their own comrades and gigantic injustices against many thousands of their fellow men". By "British socialists" he means primarily the group of former communist intellectuals who left the British communist party in 1956 and contributed to efforts to create a new Left labor movement in Britain through the New Reasoner and various new organizations. And here he is explicit in mentioning the "crimes and gigantic injustices" committed by the Stalinist state. 

But these points about Stalin's crimes are incidental, not focal to Thompson’s critique of Stalinism. Thompson’s actions and words in 1956 reflect a revolt against “dogmatism” and the effort of the Party to control thought and debate. But his critique does not extend to a thorough-going indictment of the crimes committed by the Stalinist state. The murders and injustices to which Thompson refers here seem to encompass the terror and show trials of the 1930s, though Thompson is not explicit. But I do not find anywhere in his writings an explicit recognition of the atrocities of collectivization and the Holodomor in 1932-33. Reference to the Gulag appears in later writings (for example, in a passage quoted below from "The Poverty of Theory"). But, once again, Thompson does not provide a sustained and thorough critique of these crimes against individuals and groups by the Soviet state. Rather, the central focus of his critique of Stalinism in "Socialist Humanism" is the dogmatism and ideological purity demanded by the Stalinist state.   

This is – quite simply – a revolt against the ideology, the false consciousness of the elite-into-bureaucracy, and a struggle to attain towards a true (“honest”) self-consciousness; as such it is expressed in the revolt against dogmatism and the anti-intellectualism which feeds it. Second, it is a revolt against inhumanity – the equivalent of dogmatism in human relationships and moral conduct – against administrative, bureaucratic and twisted attitudes towards human beings. In both sense it represents a return to man: from abstractions and scholastic formulations to real men: from deceptions and myths to honest history: and so the positive content of this revolt may be described as “socialist humanism.” It is humanist because it places once again real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration, instead of the resounding abstractions – the Party, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, the Two Camps, the Vanguard of the Working-Class – so dear to Stalinism. It is socialist because it re-affirms the revolutionary perspectives of Communism, faith in the revolutionary potentialities not only of the Human Race or of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat but of real men and women. (Thompson 1957: 108)

Thompson framed his critique of Stalinism somewhat more pointedly two decades later in his polemical essay against Althusser, “The Poverty of Theory” (1978) .

We are not only (please remember) just talking about some millions of people (and most of these the ‘wrong’ people) being killed or gulaged. We are talking about the deliberate manipulation of the law, the means of communication, the police and propaganda organs of a state, to blockade knowledge, to disseminate lies, to slander individuals; about institutional procedures which confiscated from the Soviet people all self-activating means (whether in democratic modes or in forms of workers’ control), which substituted the party for the working class, the party’s leaders (or leader) for the party, and the security organs for all; about the confiscation and centralisation of all intellectual and moral expression, into an ideological state orthodoxy — that is, not only the suppression of the democratic and cultural freedoms of ‘individuals’: ... it is not only this, but within the confiscation of individual ‘rights’ to knowledge and expression, we have the ulterior confiscation of the processes of communication and knowledge-formation of a whole people, without which neither Soviet workers nor collective farmers can know what is true nor what each other thinks. ("The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors", Thompson 1978: 328-29) 

Here Thompson is more explicit in naming the crimes of the Stalinist state -- mass murder, the Gulag. But here too Thompson seems most concerned about the dogmatism and thought control of the Stalinist state, "the suppression of the democratic and cultural freedoms of 'individuals'".

Stalinism, in its second sense, and considered as theory, was not one ‘error’, nor even two ‘errors’, which may be identified, ‘corrected’, and Theory thus reformed. Stalinism was not absent-minded about crimes: it bred crimes. In the same moment that Stalinism emitted ‘humanist’ rhetoric, it occluded the human faculties as part of its necessary mode of respiration. Its very breath stank (and still stinks) of inhumanity, because it has found a way of regarding people as the bearers of structures (kulaks) and history as a process without a subject. It is not an admirable theory, flawed by errors; it is a heresy against reason, which proposed that all knowledge can be summated in a single Theory, of which it is the sole arbitor and guardian. It is not an imperfect ‘science', but an ideology suborning the good name of science in order to deny all independent rights and authenticity to the moral and imaginative faculties. It is not only a compendium of errors, it is a cornucopia out of which new errors ceaselessly flow (‘mistakes’, ‘incorrect lines’). Stalinism is a distinct, ideological mode of thought, a systematic theoretical organisation of ‘error’ for the reproduction of more ‘error.’ (331)

These passages seem to capture the heart of Thompson's conception of socialist humanism: that socialism must ensure that its institutions are designed for real, free human beings -- not for the abstract theoretical assumptions of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist doctrine. And a genuine commitment to freedom of expression and thought is both a means and an end in this effort: freedom of expression and thought is necessary (as John Stuart Mill too argued) in order to allow the socialist order to progress; and free and equal human beings are the ultimate good of a socialist society.

Certainly Thompson was aware of Stalin's vast crimes by 1956. There was a great deal of information publicly available in the 1930s about the most important crimes of Stalin’s dictatorship, including the Holodomor, the Terror, the show trials, and the Gulag. Malcolm Muggeridge's reporting about the Ukraine devastation was widely available during 1933. And Welsh journalist Gareth Jones traveled through Ukraine and reported the facts of starvation as he observed them firsthand in articles in the Cardiff Western Mail and the London Evening Standard in 1933 as well as a published letter to the Manchester Guardian on May 8, 1933, corroborating Malcolm Muggeridge’s reporting on the famine in that newspaper. 

Thompson's independence of mind as a historian is unquestionable, and his willingness to follow his conscience in his relationship to communism was manifest in his actions and writings of 1956 and following years. He rejected the moral authority of the CPGB and the ultimate authority of the party line. But unlike other observers like Orwell, Koestler, or Muggeridge, Thompson seems not to have fully addressed the atrocious crimes of the Stalinist period. He did not squarely confront the atrocities represented by the Holodomor, the Gulag, or the pervasive and repressive use of the security apparatus (NKVD, KGB) to maintain totalitarian control over the citizens of the USSR. 

So we are left with a question: why did E.P. Thompson fail to clearly and unequivocally address the Holodomor, the Gulag, and the regime of terror established by Stalin's state?

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Defining disciplinary research in the social sciences

The "historical turn" in the philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s gave most of its attention to the development of the physical sciences -- especially physics itself. (See Tom Nickles' essay "Historicist Theories of Scientific Rationality" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a detailed account of this development in the philosophy of science; link.) Historian-philosophers like Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos studied the development of astronomy, physics, and chemistry as research communities involving complex social arrangements -- networks of practitioners, training institutions, laboratories, journals, and universities and research institutes -- and shifting but shared cognitive frameworks. They argued that scientific research and knowledge always proceeds through organized research communities that regulate the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Kuhn emphasized the specificity and contingency of the cognitive frameworks (disciplinary matrix or paradigm) that guided a research community, insights that in part reflected his own reading of Ludwik Fleck's earlier work on the history of biology and medicine and the idea of a "denkkollektiv" (link, link).  Here is Alexander Bird's description of Kuhn's view in his essay on Kuhn in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

He claims that normal science can succeed in making progress only if there is a strong commitment by the relevant scientific community to their shared theoretical beliefs, values, instruments and techniques, and even metaphysics. This constellation of shared commitments Kuhn at one point calls a ‘disciplinary matrix’ (1970a, 182) although elsewhere he often uses the term ‘paradigm’. Because commitment to the disciplinary matrix is a pre-requisite for successful normal science, an inculcation of that commitment is a key element in scientific training and in the formation of the mind-set of a successful scientist. (link)

Well and good for astronomy and fundamental physics. But what about the social sciences? How should we think about the sub-disciplines of fields in the social sciences like sociology? The idea is sometimes expressed, including by Kuhn himself, that the social sciences are not yet "mature sciences" precisely because they lack strong and definitive paradigms. Here is Bird again in the SEP:

The claim that the consensus of a disciplinary matrix is primarily agreement on paradigms-as-exemplars is intended to explain the nature of normal science and the process of crisis, revolution, and renewal of normal science. It also explains the birth of a mature science. Kuhn describes an immature science, in what he sometimes calls its ‘pre-paradigm’ period, as lacking consensus. Competing schools of thought possess differing procedures, theories, even metaphysical presuppositions. Consequently there is little opportunity for collective progress. (link)

This view perhaps once had a seductive appeal, but it is no longer convincing. The social sciences are different from the natural sciences because social phenomena are different from the phenomena of the world of chemistry and physics, and the unity of science was a dogma from logical positivism that we are well rid of (link, link). Here is how I've tried to formulate the differences that exist between the social sciences and the physical sciences:

Rather than unity, we should expect eclectic theories, piecemeal explanations, and a patchwork of inquiries at a range of levels of description. Some explanatory theories will turn out to be more portable than others. But none will be comprehensive, and the social sciences will always remain open-ended and extensible. Instead of theoretical unification we might rather look for a more and more satisfactory coverage, through a range of disciplines and methods, of the aspects of the social world we judge most interesting and important. And these judgments can be trusted to shift over time. And this means that we should be skeptical about the appropriateness of the goal of creating a unified social science. (Understanding Society; link)

This view of the social world suggests that sociological research does not require strict paradigms or dogmatic commitment to a "disciplinary matrix" of theory and methodological commitments in order to make progress. Instead, sociology should embrace a pluralistic range of research approaches and cognitive frameworks that can address different aspects of the social world. We gain insight and understanding of the social world through overlapping and pluralistic methods and theoretical frameworks.

That said, it is plain enough that there are distinct (sometimes overlapping) research families within sociology. Any large sociology department at a research university will have members who identify with different approaches and methodologies. Social movement researchers disagree with large-N quantitative researchers in many important ways, and an ethnomethodologist might find the work of both these sets of colleagues to be somewhat foreign. How should we characterize these differences across extended research groups within sociology? 

Several ideas are available. Weakly, a group of researchers might be said to belong to a research tradition if they share a number of common assumptions about the nature of the social world, the methodology that is most suitable to sociological research, and some core examples of sociological explanation. Most commonly this situation would arise from the fact of a common genealogy for a group of researchers -- a founder (Durkheim or Tarde, let's say), and a few generations of researchers who followed in their footsteps. But notice how weak this account is. It does not refer to shared research institutions, social networks of researchers, or definitive processes of research evaluation.

A stronger conception of a research community may begin with the weak conception, but then provide a specification of how research proceeds in this field or that. This stronger analysis aims to describe the institutional framework within which "X sociology" is carried out, evaluated, disseminated, and incorporated into the training of the next generation of sociologists in the X approach. What is added here is an account of the institutional infrastructure of the sub-discipline, the institutions and actor networks through which sociological research is carried out and shared. This more elaborate description is one of the guiding assumptions of the field of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) (link).

But this specification remains incomplete in a crucial way: it says little about the intellectual content of the target sociological sub-field, the cognitive frameworks and theoretical ideas to which practitioners within the field adhere and that guide their research. This is the aspect that is the most novel and interesting feature of Kuhn's theory of the paradigm and Fleck's conception of the thought-collective. Kuhn, Fleck, and others in this line of thought emphasize that scientific research is not "blue-sky" theory, but rather proceeds on the basis of a contestable set of beliefs about the nature of the phenomena under investigation. According to this line of thought, the scientist's imagination is framed and directed by a set of assumptions about the world from which the discipline itself discourages deviation. The sub-discipline is indeed "disciplined" to conform to the existing paradigm. 

In the case of the social sciences, the role of "paradigm beliefs" is complicated and ambiguous. On the one hand, various areas of the social sciences are notorious for their rigid adherence to certain methodological principles -- the primacy of large-N quantitative studies, the value of formal models, lack of respect for case studies and comparative studies. (This was the point of the Perestroika debate in political science some years ago, and subsequent methodological debates in sociology more recently; link, link.) On the other hand, there is a very wide range of different assumptions (ontological beliefs) about social entities and processes in the social world across the social sciences and within each discipline. And it is rare to find a high level of consensus about these issues within a social science discipline. (Economics departments in research universities in the United States are an exception, but an unrewarding one: a high level of commitment to a specific set of methods, but a low level of empirical or policy success.) It seems, then, that the full-blooded idea of a "paradigm" as a unified cognitive framework spanning a broad network of researchers is not to be found in the social sciences. So perhaps our assessment of this topic in the social sciences might be: yes to research communities and networks, no to paradigm-driven research communities.

My interest in this question is fairly specific. I've been thinking about the emerging sub-discipline of analytical sociology over the past twenty years, and it would be useful to provide an analysis of the field in terms of the ideas sketched above. Do the manifestos of important advocates like Hedström and Demeulenaere constitute a "disciplinary matrix" in something like the sense that Kuhn had in mind? Do new areas of computational sociology (agent-based modeling, for example) represent something analogous to the body of laboratory techniques and procedures that Kuhn or Hanson included in the disciplinary matrix of physics? Do the strict assumptions of structural individualism advocated by the primary voices constitute a component of a "paradigm" for sociological research that helps to guide productive investigation and theory formation? In short, is analytical sociology a reasonably well-defined research community unified by a specific disciplinary matrix that is enforced by the regulative institutions of allied journals and institutes?

It is useful to compare the field of analytical sociology with other families of research in sociology today. For example, we might consider 

  • "processual sociology" described by Andrew Abbott (link
  • "field sociology" inspired by Pierre Bourdieu (link)
  • "ethnomethodology and microsociology" inspired by Goffman (link) and Garfinkel (link)

Abbott offers a vision of the nature of the social world -- an alternative social ontology -- and his writings provide quite a bit of methodological advice for sociologists interested in exploring these kinds of social phenomena. But it is hard to find the "processual sociology network" of researchers that is carrying out detailed empirical research under this banner. So it is hard to say that processual sociology constitutes a research community at present. The Bourdieu case is different. Many young sociologists make use of Bourdieu's ideas and theories about cultural fields. Bourdieu has a great deal of influence. But it is not obvious that there is a cumulative body of work that "Bourdieu-theory" can claim credit for as a research framework, and it is difficult to articulate the premises of a disciplinary matrix for conducting sociological research for this approach. So here too, perhaps we are forced to conclude that Bourdieu-theory too is less than a research community, in spite of its influence and the frequency of citations of Bourdieu in sociology journals. (According to a table titled "Most referenced authors in 42 sociology journals" reproduced by Gerardo Munck on X (link), Bourdieu is #1 with 9853 citations, and Weber is #2 with 6135 citations!) And though Goffman and Garfinkel are still part of the corpus of "theory" in sociology, it is hard to find instances of research networks proceeding along the lines described by ethnomethodologists fifty years ago. So analytical sociology seems to be a live candidate for an example of a research community organized by an active research matrix, whereas the other examples do not.

(This topic is an appropriate subject for study within the "new sociology of knowledge"; link.) 

Monday, December 18, 2023

Mistakes by organizations

In 1964 Jim Marshall, a defensive player for the Minnesota Vikings, committed a mistake by recovering a fumble by the San Francisco 49ers and running it into the end zone – at the wrong end of the field. In the early 1990s the US Congress made a mistake by ordering continued development of the Osprey VTOL aircraft. Did these two “actors” do the same sort of thing? Is an organization’s mistake similar to an individual’s mistake? At a superficial level it is easy enough to agree that these are the same kinds of things. The wrong outcome resulted from a series of apparently intentional and calculated actions. But a closer look makes it clear that they are not so similar after all.

Making a mistake by an individual arises in situations of quasi-rational actors deciding on an action based on the consequences the actor hopes to bring about. The actor is “intentional” — he or she has a plan for bringing about a desired consequence or benefit, has calculated a sequence of actions designed to achieve the goal, and has estimated the circumstances within which he/she acts over time. A mistake happens when the actor miscalculates something that he/she should have correctly calculated — the way one action can be expected to lead to an intermediate outcome, the features of the environment in which the action is to be carried out, the predictable events that might interfere with the sequence of actions and their intended outcome. Miscalculation is the essence of individual mistakes. The actor is a unified perceiver and observer who chooses a sequence of actions designed to achieve the goal, but miscalculates some part of the underlying assumptions guiding the action.

Is miscalculation the primary source of mistakes when a complex organization’s strategy goes awry? Sometimes. Lyndon Johnson miscalculated the goals and reasoning of Ho Chi Minh and escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War. But the most interesting causes of organizational mistakes have little to do with miscalculation. The reason for this is that organizations, unlike individuals, are not unified perceivers, planners, and actors. Instead, organizations are loose configurations of lower-level actors who are only weakly coordinated by a single managing intelligence – a top level executive. Loose linkages across sub-units of an organization raise the possibility that each sub-unit is approximately rational, and yet the aggregate result of the complex interaction is quite different from what was intended by the key executive. In the case of the design of the Ford Pinto, the top corporate executive did not intend to release a vehicle design that endangered vehicle safety, and yet a series of loose linkages across units led to exactly that outcome.

Several key organizational dysfunctions have been identified that contribute to organizational mistakes … even though each sub-unit is acting rationally. Dysfunctions that have been discussed in earlier posts can all lead to organizational failures: principal-agent problems, conflicting cognitive frameworks, conflicting local priorities, external pressures on decision makers, poor communication and information-sharing. (A New Social Ontology of Government discusses these dysfunctions in greater detail.)

It is clear, then, that an organization’s mistakes are often quite different from the mistakes made by a reasonably rational individual. They often derive from dysfunctions that appear to be systemic in organizations, and from the important fact that organizations are unavoidably dis-unified. Intentions, information, belief formation, cognitive framing, coordination of underlying assumptions all depend on separate teams of decision makers and actors, and large organizations often miss the mark with their decision processes precisely because of this fact. Sources of bad collective or corporate decisions include problems of conflicting priorities and interpretations of the action environment, principal-agent problems, imperfect communication and information sharing, slow “updating” of knowledge of the action environment, and unintended consequences of one line of action that interfere with other actions. In the end the organization fails to accomplish its action goal, and from the outside it looks like a series of incomprehensible blunders.

The public diagnosis of governmental and corporate "mistakes" is often a simple one: “Mistakes were made”, with the implication that more intelligent or experienced managers would have been more successful. But this impression is often mistaken. Intelligent people in different parts of the organization made resourceful and resilient efforts to carry out their part of the plan. And yet the compound of these sub-actions is something that turns out to be stunningly ineffective. Dien Bien Phu was a military disaster for the French army in Indochina. And yet there were reasons for each intermediate decision that led to the eventual debacle.

This suggests that citizens and policy makers need to think about organizational errors differently from mistakes made by individuals. Organizations need to be more “disaster-resistant”, so that the dysfunctions mentioned here have less likelihood of resulting in a catastrophic failure. “Be more careful” is not useful advice. Instead, organizational designers and leaders need to take specific measures to soften the potential impact of information failure, conflicting cognitive frames, and conflicting priorities in different parts of the organization. Redundancy is one potential source of resilience. Better training in procedures and cognitive frameworks is another. (For example, accidents have occurred in nuclear fuel processing plants because workers were not taught about the importance of the geometry of holding vessels on the critical mass of liquids with dissolved radioactive materials; Atomic Accidents.) And we need to bear in mind always that the loose linkages and weak forms of intentionality that are unavoidable features of large organizations pose permanent risks for effective organizational action.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Brecht on Galileo on science

Bertolt Brecht composed his play Life of Galileo (1939) (link) while on the run in Denmark from Nazi Germany in 1938. Brecht was a determined anti-Nazi, and he was an advocate of revolutionary Marxism. It is fascinating to read one of the longest speeches he composed for Galileo at the end of the play, in which Galileo reflects on his recantation of the heliocentric theory of planetary motion. Rather than celebrating "pure science" over the oppression of the Church, Brecht has Galileo reflect bitterly on the corruption of science and its subservience to the powerful. This speech occurs in scene 14, near the end of the play. Galileo's disciple Andrea Sarti is interested in showing that Galileo's recantation was a wily move, allowing him to pursue the higher truths of science. And he is delighted to learn that Galileo has been secretly writing his Discorsi (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences), which demonstrates to him that Galileo continues to pursue the highest values of science. Galileo disagrees, and offers a harsh criticism of the role of science in society altogether. The whole scene is worth reading carefully, but here is an important excerpt.

A large room with table, leather chair and globe. Galileo, old now and half blind, is carefully experimenting with a bent wooden rail and a small ball of wood. In the antechamber sits a monk on guard. There is a knock on the door. The monk opens it and a peasant comes in carrying two plucked geese. Virginia emerges from the kitchen. She is now about forty years old.


Andrea: You gained the leisure to write a scientific work which could be written by nobody else. If you had ended up at the stake in a halo of flames the other side would have won.

Galileo: They did win. And there is no scientific work that can only be written by one particular man.

Andrea: Why did you recant, then?

Galileo: I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain.

Andrea: No!

Galileo: They showed me the instruments.

Andrea: So it wasn't planned?

Galileo: It was not.


Andrea loudly: Science makes only one demand: contribution to science.

Galileo: And I met it. Welcome to the gutter, brother in science and cousin in betrayal! Do you eat fish? I have fish. [a] What stinks is not my fish but me. I sell out, you are a buyer. O irresistible glimpse of the book, the sacred commodity! The mouth waters and the curses drown. The great whore of Bablylon, the murderous beast, the scarlet woman, opens her thighs and everything is altered. Blessed be our horse-trading, whitewashing, death-fearing community!

Andrea: Fearing death is human. Human weaknesses don't matter to science.

Galileo: Don't they? -- My dear Sarti, even as I now am I think I can still give you a tip or two as to what matters to that science you have dedicated yourself to.

A short pause

Galileo professorially, folding his hands over his stomach:

In my spare time, of which I have plenty, I have gone over my case and considered how it is going to be judged by that world of science of which I no longer count myself a member. Even a wool merchant has not only to buy cheap and sell dear but also to ensure that the wool trade continues unimpeded. The pursuit of science seems to me to demand particular courage in this respect. It deals in knowledge procured through doubt. Creating knowledge for all about all, it aims to turn all of us into doubters. [b] Now the bulk of the population is kept by its princes, landlords, and priests in a pearly haze of superstition and old saws which cloak what these people are up to. The poverty of the many is as old as the hills, and from pulpit and lecture platform we hear that it is as hard as the hills to get rid of. Our new art of doubting delighted the mass audience. They tore the telescope out of our hands and trained it on their tormentors, the princes, landlords and priests. [c] These selfish and domineering men, having greedily exploited the fruits of science, found that the cold eye of science had been turned on a primaeval but contrived poverty that could clearly be swept away if they were swept away themselves. They showered us with threats and bribes, irresistible to feeble souls. But can we deny ourselves to the crowd and still remain scientists? [d] The movements of the heavenly bodies have become more comprehensible, but the peoples are as far as ever from calculating the moves of their rulers. The battle for a measurable heaven has been won thanks to doubt; but thanks to credulity the Rome housewife's battle for milk will be lost time and time again. Science, Sarti, is involved in both these battles. [e] A human race which shambles around in a pearly haze of superstition and old saws, too ignorant to develop its own powers, will never be able to develop those powers of nature which you people are revealing to it. To what end are you working? Presumably for the principle that science's sole aim must be to lighten the burden of human existence. [f] If the scientists, brought to heel by self-interested rulers, limit themselves to piling up knowledge for knowledge's sake, then science can be crippled and your new machines will lead to nothing but new impositions. You may in due course discover all that there is to discover, and your progress will nonetheless be nothing but a progress away from mankind. The gap between you and it may one day become so wide that your cry of triumph at some new achievement will be echoed by a universal cry of horror. -- As a scientist I had a unique opportunity. [g] In my day astronomy emerged into the market place. Given this unique situation, if one man had put up a fight it might have had tremendous repercussions. Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctor's Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind's benefit. [h] As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose. What's more, Sarti, I have come to the conclusion that I was never in any real danger. For a few years I was as strong as the authorities. And I handed my knowledge to those in power for them to use, fail to use, misuse -- whatever best suited their objectives.

Virginia has entered with a dish and come to a standstill.

Galileo: I betrayed my profession. A man who does what I did cannot be tolerated in the ranks of science.


What are the messages here about the relationship between science and society, between science and class? The view is unequivocal: science has been corrupted. Against the idealism offered by Sardi, Galileo asserts that science has come to serve the interests of the powerful, and it might have been different. Galileo's long speech here (plainly expressing Brecht's own social criticisms) offers a harsh and negative assessment of the role of science in society. And much of this speech derives, not from an unexpectedly radical sixteenth-century mathematician, but from the Marxist theories that Brecht had studied in the early 1930s.

[a] Galileo begins this diatribe with self-contempt. He looks at his work as a scientist as "selling out" -- offering the products of his intelligence and creativity for sale to the highest bidder. Science has been commodified, like the woolen-good trade. Galileo stinks like a rotten fish.

[b] Society is divided into rich and poor, powerful and powerless; and the rich and powerful dominate and exploit the poor and powerless. This fundamental reality is obscured by the "fog" of myth and misconception, or what Marx refers to as ideology. "Good" science can tear through the mystifications of popular beliefs and myths; but all too often the scientists refrain from providing the tools needed (the microscopes and telescopes) to penetrate the mists of common misconception about the social world.

[c] Science could have been a revolutionary force; it could have helped to "sweep away" the mystifications of the rich and powerful. Instead, the rich and powerful have bought and intimidated the scientists. The poor Roman housewife's quest for milk will be permanently difficult because the Roman proletariat has failed to see the necessity of sweeping away the class oppression of patrician and plebian social life.

[d] The point here is that Galileo has allowed human beings to see the real motions of the planets, but they still have not discovered the "laws of motion" of the social world. They continue to live in a world of illusions about how the social world works (like the Aristotelian or Ptolemaic conceptions of the planetary system). From Marx's Capital, Preface to the German Edition: "Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future."

[e] When ideology and mystification are allowed to persist, exploitation, domination, and poverty will persist as well.

[f] Science is distorted when it is put to service in the interests of the powerful. It no longer serves to benefit humanity, but rather only the landlords and the priests. And without science, ideology and mystification will continue to mislead the poor.

[g] Galileo seems to believe that the struggles with the Church over the Copernican Revolution during the Inquisition represented turning points for human emancipation, and there was a choice. Science could have become a permanent force for progress, or it could become a tool of enrichment for the powerful. Because scientists (including Galileo) lacked the courage to stand up, science became a tool of exploitation. The chance to orient science towards its own "Hippocratic oath" of allegiance to progress to humanity was lost.

[h] Here Galileo (Brecht) is contemptuous of scientists and inventors who do their work for commercial and monetary gain -- the smart people who put their imagination and intelligence to work for the highest bidder. And almost always the highest bidder is the exploiter -- the capitalist and the landlord who uses the products of science to enhance his wealth.

In this section of the play, then, Brecht breaks with a common narrative about the Galileo story: the pure and rational scientist who is forced to change his beliefs by an unthinking and authoritarian Church. In that story the scientist is the isolated individual courageously pursuing the truth for its own sake, and the Church is an authoritarian structure which is the antithesis of intellectual freedom. Instead, Brecht tells a more complicated story. It is not just the question of recanting "unacceptable" beliefs; it is the question of devoting one's scientific talents in service to the rich and powerful. Galileo's [Brecht's] fundamental critique is that "science" is allied with "the ruling class".

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Thinking about social class

Marx's theory of social class is founded on the idea of conflict of interest defined by the property system.  Marx puts the point this way in the Communist Manifesto: “History is a history of class conflict.” And his inference from this fact: “Workers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains” (Marx and Engels 1848). Individuals belong to classes depending on their position within the social property system.  The social property system defines the access and use enjoyed by different groups of the resources available to a society at a given period of history.  The primary resources are capital, land, and labor.  (We might now want to add "knowledge" and "data" to this list of categorical resources.) Individuals belong to classes defined by the type of access and use they have to what kinds of resources.  

This is a structural definition of the concept of class. A person’s class is defined by his or her position within a system of property relations, defining one’s location with a structure of domination, control, and exploitation. The group of people who share a similar position within the property relations of a society constitute a class. Their circumstances, resources, and opportunities are similar to those of others in the class, and they have common interests that are in opposition to members of some other classes. So class works as a social sorting process: individuals are tracked into one class or another through specific sociological mechanisms (schooling, parental attitudes, neighborhood). And it works to assign very different ranges of material outcomes to members of the various groups; working-class families wind up more poorly educated, less healthy, and more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than their counterparts in the landlord class, the financial elite class, or the capitalist class. Part of the challenge of developing a sociology of class involved identifying some of the concrete pathways of difference created by class with respect to specific opportunities – education, health, adequate nutrition, access to creative work, and other important social resources.  

Status and consciousness are also part of the sociology of class. And, of course, there is the concrete sociological task of better understanding the lived experience of people who wind up in the various segments of the class system. Individuals develop specific features of mentality out of the experience they have in the class environments of their parents, their schools, and their workplaces. And these differences in turn give rise to differences in behavior -- consumer behavior, political behavior, and inter-group behavior. And members of a class may acquire a common perspective on their situation -- they may come to diagnose the social relations around them in a similar way, they may come to a common “class consciousness” that leads them to engage in collective action together.

Evidently, the groups that own capital and land have access to material resources that owners of labor power do not; so capitalists and landlords have social advantages lacked by proletarians.  Proletarians gain access to material goods by selling their labor power to owners of capital and land; they become wage laborers.  Class relations create substantial differences of material wellbeing and substantial inequalities of wealth and income.  By controlling the wealth constituted by capital and land, these privileged classes are able to take a disproportionate share of society's wealth.  The great modern social classes, in Marx's historical analysis, are the bourgeoisie (capital and land) and the proletariat (wage labor).  In feudalism the great classes were the feudal aristocrats (owners of land and rights in the labor of serfs) and serfs (usufruct of small parcels of land, labor obligations to the lord).

Class and property are thus conceptually intertwined.  An economic structure can be defined as a system for producing social wealth in which productive resources and the results of production are unevenly divided across different groups. Classes are the major social positions within an existing economic structure. Producers create wealth through their labor and creativity; property owners extract a part of this wealth through a system of social relations that privilege them.  Another way of putting the point is to ask: where does the individual gain his/her income -- from the sale of labor time, from the sale or rent of physical assets, or from the sale or rent of expertise? Workers derive their income from the sale of their labor time; capitalists, financiers, and landlords derive their income from their ownership of physical and financial resources, and professionals, experts, and intellectuals derive their income from their possession of scarce expert knowledge and skills. 

In nineteenth-century France we might have classified the population into land owners, capital owners, wage laborers, artisans, professionals (accountants, architects), intellectuals, government officials, civil service workers, small merchants, smallholding farmers, tenant farmers, landless workers, and lumpenproletariat. And these groups can be roughly triangulated according to their ownership of three major elements: labor power, valuable skills and knowledge, and economic assets (land, property, wealth). Within any society there are groups that fall outside the primary classes -- small traders, artisans, small farmers, intellectuals. But it is central to Marx's theory of class, that there is a primary cleavage between owners of the means of production and the direct producers, and that this cleavage embodies a fundamental conflict of interest between the two groups. 

Classes, according to Marx, also constitute a system of exploitation: a system in which a substantial share of the fruits of social production are transferred from one group to another, through the normal workings of the social-property system. The producing class is exploited by the ascendant class: wealth is transferred from producers to owners. Serfs and lords, slaves and masters, workers and owners represent the primary classes of feudalism, ancient slavery, and nineteenth century capitalism. The proletariat produces surplus value, and the bourgeoisie gains ownership of this surplus through the workings of the property system, in the form of profits, interest, and rents. As Marx puts it in Capital:

He, who before was the money owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but—a hiding.

Finally, the theory of class suggests the need for a theory of class consciousness: the ways in which members of distinct classes understand their roles in society, and the social relationships that largely determine their fates.  Marx’s concept of ideology is intended to express the notion that large system of ideas serve a social function of concealing the conflictual nature of the property and class system in which people find themselves.  The concept of false consciousness falls within this notion; members of a class possess false consciousness when they seriously misconstrue the nature of the social relations within which they live.

The explanatory thrust of the theory of class goes along the lines of a sociological hypothesis: people who have a similar location within a system of property relations will also develop other important similarities: similarities of thought, values, style, behavior, and politics, for example. And so Marx believed that structurally-defined classes of people were likely to further develop a similar class consciousness -- a similar framework of thought in terms of which they understand the social forces around them; and he expected that classes of people would come to share a signature framework of political motivation -- a set of ideas, interpretations, and values that would motivate them to engage in collective action together. 

(Several earlier posts have focused on social class as well; link, link, link, link, link.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Orwell on historical truth

George Orwell is celebrated for his recognition of the role of political lies in the conflicts of his time. For example: "Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Part of his awareness of self-serving lies about history by states and political partisans developed through his experience in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Events that he himself had observed and participated in -- for example, the street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- were grossly misrepresented by the Communists. Ultimately his own faction, the POUM, was accused by the Communists of having engaged in conspiracy and having fomented the street violence that occurred during these weeks. Orwell was a participant, and he knew first-hand that this was untrue. It is instructive to read Homage to Catalonia from the lens of "historical truth".

So what were the facts about Barcelona in spring 1937?

IT will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. I myself have little data beyond what I saw with my own eyes and what I have learned from other eyewitnesses whom I believe to be reliable. I can, however, contradict some of the more flagrant lies and help to get the affair into some kind of perspective. (70)

In what follows Orwell offers a judicious account of the events and pronouncements that preceded and followed the beginning of street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- first between the anarchists (CNT) and the Guardia Civil, then with several parties of the left joining with the CNT on the barricades. He makes an effort to recover documents and contemporary news articles to piece together the sequence of events that culminated in the suppression of the POUM. And he finds that reportage in the press was almost invariably incorrect, whether purposefully or not. The Communist line was consistently antagonistic to the anarchists and the Trotskyists (POUM). 

A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign anti-Fascist press, but, as usual, only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were ‘stabbing the Spanish Government in the back’, and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves; but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received something that they regard as a provocation. (73)

In particular, the Communists were active in constructing a propaganda platform against both POUM and the anarchists.

Since the beginning of the war the Spanish Communist Party had grown enormously in numbers and captured most of the political power, and there had come into Spain thousands of foreign Communists, many of whom were openly expressing their intention of ‘liquidating’ Anarchism as soon as the war against Franco was won. In the circumstances one could hardly expect the Anarchists to hand over the weapons which they had got possession of in the summer of 1936. (73-74)

Orwell explicitly considers his own position and potential bias in constructing the narrative that he offers. He credibly offers a commitment of his own intention to report honestly what he has observed.

I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting, though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. Again, I must inevitably have made mistakes of fact, not only here but in other parts of this narrative. It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest. But it will be seen that the account I have given is completely different from that which appeared in the foreign and especially the Communist press. It is necessary to examine the Communist version, because it was published all over the world, has been supplemented at short intervals ever since, and is probably the most widely accepted one. ... In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided ‘uncontrollables’. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was ‘Franco’s Fifth Column’ —a ‘Trotskyist’ organization working in league with the Fascists. (74)

Throughout he establishes the ideological and propagandist "line" taken by the Communists, and he demonstrates its deliberate mendacity.

In a moment I will give some more extracts from the accounts that appeared in the Communist press; it will be seen that they are so self-contradictory as to be completely worthless. But before doing so it is worth pointing to several a priori reasons why this version of the May fighting as a Fascist rising engineered by the P.O.U.M. is next door to incredible. (75)


The alleged Fascist plot rests on bare assertion and all the evidence points in the other direction. We are told that the plan was for the German and Italian Governments to land troops in Catalonia; but no German or Italian troopships approached the coast. As to the ‘Congress of the Fourth International’ and the ‘German and Italian agents’, they are pure myth. So far as I know there had not even been any talk of a Congress of the Fourth International. There were vague plans for a Congress of the P.O.U.M. and its brother-parties (English I.L.P., German S.A.P., etc., etc.); this had been tentatively fixed for some time in July—two months later—and not a single delegate had yet arrived. The ‘German and Italian agents’ have no existence outside the pages of the Daily Worker. Anyone who crossed the frontier at that time knows that it was not so easy to ‘pour’ into Spain, or out of it, for that matter. (65-776_

And Orwell proceeds with a point-by-point refutation of the anti-Anarchist propaganda narrative offered by the Communists.

It is impossible to read through the reports in the Communist Press without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice. Hence, for instance, such statements as Mr Pitcairn’s in the Daily Worker of 11 May that the ‘rising’ was suppressed by the Popular Army. The idea here is to give outsiders the impression that all Catalonia was solid against the ‘Trotskyists’. But the Popular Army remained neutral throughout the fighting; everyone in Barcelona knew this, and it is difficult to believe that Mr Pitcairn did not know it too. (78)

By contrast with the organized and coordinated Communist narrative, Orwell's account of the street fighting in Barcelona in 1937 has the authenticity of an honest participant who offers his own account of events in which he participated. It is plain that he had sympathies -- for example, he refused the invitation to leave POUM and join the Communist International Brigade because he was not willing to risk being ordered to fire his rifle against Spanish workers (anarchists). But his sympathies do not appear to have interfered with his critical eye and his willingness to tell his story unflinchingly and honestly.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

An absolutist Socrates

We often think of Socrates as the ultimate "critical free thinker". He antagonized many in Athens through his relentless questioning of shared assumptions about ethics, the gods, and the nature of knowledge and belief. And, as a result, he was also thought to have "corrupted the youth", leading many young men of the Athenian elite into a skeptical rejection of the knowledge, wisdom, and authority of their seniors. 

So what are we to make of Socrates' principled rejection of the efforts of Crito and other friends to persuade him to flee Athens and avoid the sentence of death to which his trial led? Crito offers a series of pragmatic reasons why Socrates should flee: the welfare of his children, the avoidance of harm for his friends, who will be thought to have been too afraid or too penurious to help Socrates escape, his own ability to lead a happy and fulfilling life in another city.

Socrates' reply is that he is not willing to consider reasons of self-interest (or the interests of others) until he has satisfied himself on what virtue or justice requires of him. Socrates insists that he wants to make the virtuous choice, not the most advantageous choice. He focuses on what justice requires of a citizen when the laws of the city have led to a command that requires great sacrifice of the citizen. In his own case, the laws of the city have been observed: charges have been lawfully brought forward; he has been given the opportunity to rebut the charges; and a majority of the jury has found him guilty of the charges and a separate majority has voted in favor of the penalty of death. The laws of the city have spoken; so what now is the unconditional obligation of the citizen?

Socrates' reasoned answer is unequivocal. He concludes that the lawfully enacted commands of the city create unconditional obligations of compliance for the citizen.

So: Do we say that we should never willingly act unjustly, or that we should in some instances and not in others? Or is acting unjustly never good or noble, as we often agreed on previous occasions? (Crito 49a)


So: And so one must never act unjustly.
Cr: By no means.
So: And so one should not repay an injustice with an injustice, as the many think, since one should never act unjustly. (49b)

Here Socrates believes he has established the unconditional, unqualified obligation to act justly. So all that remains is to determine whether "acting justly" requires complying with the lawfully executed commands of the state. But first, are there exceptions to this principle -- for example, in cases where the state's commands are themselves unjust? And second, are there qualifications about the "legitimate" state that must be respected in order to create obligations at all?

Or will we say to them "The city treated us unjustly and did not decide the case properly"? Will we say this or something like it?
Cr: By Zeus, that's what we'll say, Socrates. (50c)

Socrates emphatically rejects this idea: there is no exception for "unjust commands" by the state.

So: What if the laws then said, "Socrates, did we agree on this, we and you, to honor the decisions that the city makes?" And if we were surprised to hear them say this, perhaps they would say, "Socrates, don't be surprised at what we're saying but answer, since you are used to participating in questioning and answering. Come then, what reason can you give us and the city for trying to destroy us? Did we not, to begin with, give birth to you? And wasn't it through us that your father married your mother and conceived you? So show those of us, the laws concerning marriages, what fault you find that keeps them from being good?" "I find no fault with them," I would say. (50c)

And the crucial lines:

"Well, then. Since you have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? (50e)

The authority of the city, then, depends on two things: the citizen's agreement (explicit or implicit) to comply with decisions the city makes; and the idea that the city created the citizen and rightly "owns" the citizen as offspring and slave. The first reason is fundamentally a social-contract argument for the origins of political obligation, while the second is an even older argument based on the idea of "moral parentage" of the citizen by the city and its laws. And, conjoined with arguments described above, the obligations described here are unconditional: the city has the inherent right to command (enact its laws) without limitation, and the citizen has the absolute duty of compliance. The city and its laws have a moral status higher than that of the citizen.

This is an absolutist theory of the state and its authority. It is, among other things, a complete refutation of the legitimacy of principled civil disobedience; disobedience and non-compliance are never "just". It is also a procedural conception of justice: if the laws stipulate that capital cases must be decided in a day, then there is no place for argument or resistance to the effect that this requirement is unjust to the accused. 

It is worth noticing that Socrates (or Plato) stacks the deck a bit here, by considering only the city's command and the consequence for the individual citizen. The citizen must comply, no matter what the cost to his own interests. But surely this is a special case. If the individual wishes to sacrifice his own interests or life in obedience to the commands of the state, perhaps we should simply regard this as an individual choice. However, the arguments seem to have the same force if the city's commands require the citizen to inflict harm on others -- innocent civilians, members of family, other citizens. If the laws had allowed as punishment for the crimes for which Socrates was convicted the execution of the accused and his children, would Socrates be equally obliged by the requirement of justice to comply? More historically, if the city had commanded that Cleon had unlimited authority to choose the means of war against Sparta (delegating its unconditional right to command) and Cleon had ordered the massacre at Melos, would any Athenian soldier have the moral right to refuse the order? It appears that Socrates' arguments to Crito would persist in holding that the authority to command is absolute; therefore soldiers must comply.

This argument for the duty of compliance appears to present a theory of the state that is wholly unlimited in its justification of the unconstrained authority of the state. There are no limits on the actions the state can undertake; there are no rights of citizens that the state must respect; there is no recourse for the citizen against "illegitimate or mistaken" commands by the state. There is no constitution or bill of rights defining the legitimate scope and limits of state power, and nothing that secures an inviolable zone of protection for the rights of the individual citizen.

Socrates was executed by a judicial process conducted under the terms of Athenian democracy. But what about the commands of the city and its laws during the rule of the Tyrants? Were Athenian citizens equally obligated to comply with the commands of the Tyrants during the period in which they ruled? If so, what distinguishes a legitimate state from an illegitimate one? For that matter, how are we to understand Socrates' own refusal to do the bidding of the Tyrants? Why did he not regard their commands as being as absolute and binding as those of the democracy?

Athens' condemnation of Socrates for his speech and teaching is one thing; legitimation of the massacres committed by Cleon in the name of Athens is another. And yet the arguments offered by Socrates in the Crito seem to equally support both. (See these earlier posts for more discussion of crimes of war committed during the Peloponnesian War; link, link.) This suggests that the political theory defended in Crito is fundamentally wrong, and wrong in a very deep way. It provides an absolutist, even totalitarian, basis for thinking about the relationship between state and citizen that is antithetical to the idea of the moral autonomy of the citizen.