Saturday, December 29, 2012

Epicurus's philosophy

The philosophy of Epicurus wielded great influence, both in the ancient world and in the early modern world (as Steven Greenblatt shows in The Swerve; link). That philosophy was atomist, materialist, atheist, and oriented towards happiness as the highest human good. (The atheist part is complicated; he didn't deny the existence of the gods, but he denied any possible connection between them and humanity.) It is a life philosophy that emphasizes moderation of desire, friendship, and inner tranquility. And perhaps unexpectedly, it is not hedonistic in the usual understanding of that term. So what is not to like about this philosophy?

The basic premises of materialism and humanism are just as solid as they were in the 3rd century BCE. To be sure, physics and the understanding of the fine structure of the world has moved beyond the atomism of Epicurus. But the conviction that all that exists is natural and that there is no supernatural -- this conviction holds true.

And the philosophy of living seems compelling as well. Live to create happiness for yourself and those around you, for the fullness of a human life; be grateful for the pleasures afforded you; be attentive to your friends; do not fear death. These are powerful maxims for constructing and living a good human life. We might even say that it provides a powerful alternative to the dominant consumerist model of happiness that is presented to us every day -- more things will make you happy. Epicurus urges us to find our way to taking pleasure in a piece of barley bread and a half pint of weak wine, and the occasional luxury of a pot of cheese. In a world of increasingly strained resources, we need more models of happiness that emphasize satisfaction rather than consumption.

But philosophy is more than just putting forward plausible-sounding ideas; it is about offering analysis and argument for conclusions. So how compelling is the reasoning that Epicurus offers for particular conclusions? How convincing a philosopher is he? In one sense it is difficult to answer the question because so little of the corpus of Epicurus still exists. But texts exist in which his central ideas about nature, the heavens, and life are described in reasonable detail. How compelling are the arguments that he puts forward on these subjects?

As a philosophy of matter, Epicurus's theory of the atom and the swerve is debatable. In fact, Cicero's critique of the central idea of the "swerve" seems compelling and logical:
Then this clever fellow, when it occurred to him that if they all moved directly down and, as I said, in a straight line, it would never come about that one atom could make contact with another and so ... he introduced a fictitious notion: he said that an atom swerves by a very little bit, indeed a minimal distance, and that in this way are produced the mutual entanglements, linkages, and cohesions of the atoms as a result of which the world and all the parts of the world and everything in it are produced. .. The swerve itself is made up to suit his pleasure ... (The Epicurus Reader, 47)
You [Epicureans] do this all the time. You say something implausible and want to avoid criticism, so you adduce something which is absolutely impossible to support it! It would be better to give up the point under attack than to defend it in such a brazen manner. For example, when Epicurus saw that, if the atoms moved by their own weight straight down, nothing would be in our power, since the atoms' movements would be certain and necessitated, he found a way to avoid necessity--a point which had escaped Democritus' notice. He says that an atom, although it moves downward in a straight line because of its weight and heaviness, swerves a little bit. This claim is more shameful than the inability to defend the point he is trying to support. (54)
It would appear that Cicero makes hash of the central contribution of Epicurus to metaphysics, the idea of the swerve! (One aspect of the argument now makes sense to me--the idea that falling atoms cannot collide. We have to add the premise that they fall at the same speed; then the conclusion follows.)

This letter by Cicero is an impressive piece of philosophical reasoning throughout. Cicero teases out the implications of various concepts and premises -- cause, truth, fate -- and shows that the atomist theory of Epicurus fails to make coherent sense of these concepts.

This is on the side of the philosophy of nature; what about society?

What the philosophy seems to lack is any adequate analysis of society and politics beyond the circle of one's friends and family. Unlike Socrates, there is no real discussion of justice; unlike Plato, there is no analysis of power and dominion. Here is a maxim on justice and conduct from The Principal Doctrines:
The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness, [i.e.] neither to harm one another nor be harmed. (The Epicurus Reader, 35)
This is a weaker principle than the golden rule and the categorical imperative, in that it involves refraining from harm rather than doing good; and it has no implications for the justice of institutions. And this is one of the very few places in the surviving texts where the issue of justice arises at all.

Several things seem fair to judge from this quick sample. First, Epicurus made sustained efforts to contribute to the theory of the atom and the void. His contributions were sometimes original, and they were philosophically assailable. Second, he had very little by way of a developed theory of the justice of society. Unlike other figures in Greek philosophy, he seems to have devoted little attention to the larger workings of society beyond the personal. And third, his philosophy of living -- what is really his most powerful and enduring contribution -- remains insightful and inspiring. This is so, not because of the specific arguments he offers, but largely because of the way he makes sense of permanent human circumstances like pleasure, suffering, sickness, friendship, and death. That philosophy presupposes materialism and atheism; but it isn't dependent on the specifics of Epicurus's reasoning about the technical issues surrounding atoms, motion, and the swerve.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Behavioral science

(1958-59 class of Fellows at Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences; link)

Sometimes the rubric "behavioral science" is used to capture some of the research areas of fields like sociology, anthropology, political science, and social psychology. In some ways this usage is no more than an administrative convenience, a way of grouping disciplines into schools. But the phrase has implications beyond this that are worth highlighting.

First, what does the label mean? We might paraphrase the idea as "the scientific study of human behavior in social settings". This definition emphasizes the social dimension of action, but it focuses on the behavior rather than the context.

Choosing this rubric rather than its companion, "social science," suggests a shift of emphasis from the social setting (structures) to the actual behavior of the individual actors. Are there patterns we can identify in the ways people behave in various specified settings? And since the 1950s the expression has been used to focus on the processes of cognition and decision-making that underlie the individual's activities in the world. So cognitive science and fields making use of rational choice theory have often been included within the umbrella as well. Herbert Simon's work plays a central role in this aspect of the field ("Theories of Decision-Making in Economics and Behavioral Science"; link).

This is the "behavioral" part of the label. What about "science"? This part of the label brings along a set of implications about the nature of the studies encompassed: measurement, prediction, precision, statistical generalizations and patterns. These are positive valences or connotations for a variety of purposes, including the goal of gaining significant funding for research. But they also appear to give lower priority to the ideas of theory and hypothetical entities and the messy complexity of large sociological theorizing; the implication is that behavioral sciences are solidly empirical and observational, whereas the social sciences are "soft science".

Is this a helpful move? Yes and no. In its favor, the label pushed forward a particular agenda of research into the underlying components of social action. But it also served to suggest that the methods of other areas of the "social" sciences were not quite up to snuff.

One of the most prominent locations for "behavioral science" research in the United States is the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (link). The Center was established as one of the first major investments of the Ford Foundation in 1954. Leading scholars helped to found the Center: Robert Merton, Paul Lazarsfeld, Donald Marquis, Ernest Hilgard, Herbert Simon, Bernard Berelson, and Ralph Tyler. Here is a revealing gloss on the nomenclature contained on the website: "It wasn't too great a leap then to assume that we needed a social science, or behavioral science (the term coined and preferred by Ford as a means of disassociating the enterprise from socialism and even communism that were so under attack at the time) to solve our major problems." This comment illustrates the "scientific politics" that surround the development of disciplines and fields of research in the social sciences.

So there is some reason to think that the nomenclature of "behavioral science" serves a scientific-political purpose: to direct American social science research in a particular set of directions, and to discourage research that extends in more theoretical, comparative, and "macro" directions.

An interesting set of essays that try to make sense of the idea of "cold war social science" is provided in Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens, Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature (2012). The volume maintains a degree of distance from the idea of "cold war social science", but some of the contributors highlight the forces that were at work in the funding and institutions of the social sciences that created a degree of alignment between social science research and national security. Particularly interesting is Hamilton Cravens' contribution, "Column Right, March! Nationalism, Scientific Positivism, and the Conservative Turn of the American Social Sciences in the Cold War Era". Here is the publisher's description of the volume as well as the table of contents; link.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Greenblatt on civilization

Steven Greenblatt's recent book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, is an ambitious widening of Greenblatt's intellectual palette. The title of the book refers to one of the central ideas in the metaphysics of Epicurus: the idea that atoms sometimes deviate from their straight courses, permitting collisions. This fact, according to Epicurus, is the only possible source of freedom of the will. So swerving is what takes determinacy out of nature and human action.
That is why it is necessary to admit the same thing for the atoms, namely, that there is another cause of motion besides blows [from collisions] and weight, which is the source of our inborn capability [to act freely], since we see that nothing can come from nothing. For the weight of the atoms prevents it from being the case that everything happens as a result of the blows [of collisions], which are like an external force. But that the mind itself does not have an internal necessity in all its actions, and that it is not forced, as though in chains, to suffer and endure, that is what this tiny swerve of the atoms, occurring at no fixed time or place, accomplishes. (The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, kl 1610)
Greenblatt's book shows a great deal of regard for the philosophy of Epicurus and the voice of Lucretius. Lucretius's poem was a passionate follower's presentation of the philosophy of Epicurus. Lucretius aimed to present the materialism, empiricism, ethics, and atheism of Epicurus to Roman literati in the most convincing way possible, because he was himself a devoted follower of Epicurean philosophy. Greenblatt gives a good exposure to what some of those ideas and values were, and he believes that its rediscovery in the early fifteenth century had a major influence on the development of western culture from that point forward.

But this isn't primarily a treatment of Epicurus or Lucretius or philosophical ideas.  Instead, it is an account of the fragility and contingency of books and ideas in history.  Greenblatt relates the circumstances of the rediscovery of Lucretius's The Nature of Things by Poggio Bracciolini in the early fifteenth century. It was Poggio whose obsession with ancient words and books prevented the permanent loss of this work. Poggio isn't romanticized. But it was his passionate commitment to Latin rhetoric, grammar, and thought, and his conviction that the current times were a corrupt deviation from the ideals of the ancient world, that led him to his pursuit of forgotten manuscripts throughout Europe.

Greenblatt paints a vivid picture of the intellectual environment of educated secular men like Poggio in the circumstances of early-Renaissance Rome and Florence and the complicated windings of the Catholic Church within that world. This is fascinating and absorbing all by itself, similar to Greenblatt's work in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.

But even more fascinating is a persistent subtext, unspoken but visible: human civilization itself took a disastrous "swerve" when Christianity took hold and the values, knowledge, and secular lives of the ancient world were all but extinguished. The humanism of Greek and Roman philosophers was eclipsed and largely forgotten, and a harsh and punitive religious orthodoxy took its place. The vile and bloody murder in 415 of Hypatia by a Christian mob in Alexandria captures well this transition (kindle loc 1435). Books, independence of thought, the love of learning for its own sake -- these values so prominent in the ancient world were suppressed and forgotten.

Nothing more emblemizes this swerve than the clarity of Lucretius and the near extinction of his thought in the emerging world of Europe after the dark ages. The rediscovery of the Lucretius book permitted the reintroduction of a revolutionary set of philosophical ideas into the Renaissance world that had enormous and emancipating effect. And yet it was a near thing: without Poggio's determination to rescue ancient books, this manuscript might well have eventually have turned to dust.

What seems particularly interesting about this episode is the force it gives to the idea that every aspect of human history is contingent. There is no teleology; there is no tendency towards better and better systems and values; there is often not even a cumulativeness of human achievement; there is only the helter-skelter randomness of key events that push developments in this direction or that.

Here is a good article by David Konstan on Epicurus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; link. There are affordable Kindle editions available for the writings of Epicurus and Lucretius, as well as Greenblatt's own book.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

New metaphors for the social

The social world is not like the natural world. Nature is composed of things, forces, and geometries that have strong determining regularities whose interactions can be formulated with mathematical precision. There are problems of indeterminacy in physics, of course; but fundamentally we can rely on the material properties of steel, the magnetic properties of the sun, or the curvature of space-time to continue to work as expected. Nature constitutes a system of interactions. And this is because, fundamentally, nature consists of atoms and forces -- as some of the pre-Socratic philosophers thought 2,500 years ago.

The social world is different. It is not a system, but rather a patchwork, a mixture, an ensemble, a Rube Goldberg machine, a collage, or a jumble. Its properties arise from the activities, thoughts, motivations, emotions, and interactions of socially situated persons. Outcomes are influenced by a hodgepodge of obstacles and slopes that crop up more or less randomly -- leading to substantial deviations in the way we might have expected things to work out. Agents are not fully predictable or comprehensible; and their actions and interactions are indeterminate as well. We discover that people usually compare costs and benefits when they make choices, and we invent rational choice theory and microeconomics. But these are simply abstract models of one aspect of human behavior and choice, and it is rare indeed to find large social processes that are governed exclusively by this aspect of agency. We see large, somewhat stable social structures that persist over time -- patterns of habitation and social exchange (cities),  patterns of racial or ethnic discrimination, rising and falling rates of violent crime -- and we believe there are social causes and influences that help to explain these dynamic configurations. But we should never imagine that social outcomes and patterns are the manifestation of an underlying abstract social order, analogous to laws of nature. Social causes are heterogeneous, probabilistic, exception-laden, and inter-connected -- with the result that we can't hope to have a full model of the workings of a social system.

The heterogeneity and contingency associated with the social world suggested by this set of ideas do not imply that social scientific research and knowledge are unattainable. It implies, rather, that we need to understand the limits on representation, abstraction, and prediction that are implied by the fundamental nature of social things.  Our knowledge of any particular snapshot of social reality is inherently partial and incomplete.

A number of sociologists and philosophers have put their fingers on this important problem of social ontology. Here is Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory:
The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective 'social' to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. (1)
Here is Norbert Elias in The Society of Individuals:
 Society is understood either as a mere accumulation, an additive and unstructured collection of many individual people, or as an object existing beyond individuals and incapable of further explanation. In this latter case the words available to us, the concepts which decisively influence the thought and action of people growing up within their sphere, make it appear as if the single human being, labelled the individual, and the plurality of people conceived as society, were two ontologically different entities. (vii)
What kind of formation is it, this "society" that we form together, which has not been intended or planned by any of us, or even all of us together? It only exists because a large number of people exist, it only continues to function because many individual people want and do certain things, yet its structure, its great historical transformations, clearly do not depend on the intentions of particular people. (3)
What we lack -- let us freely admit it -- are conceptual models and an overall vision by which we can make comprehensible in thought what we experience daily in reality, by which we could understand how a large number of individuals form with each other something that is more and other than a collection of separate individuals -- how they form a "society", and how it comes about that this society can change in specific ways, that it has a history which takes a course which has not been intended or planned by any of the individuals making it up. (7)
And now Manuel Delanda in A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity:
Is there, for example, such a thing as society as a whole? Is the commitment to assert the existence of such an entity legitimate? And, is denying the reality of such an entity equivalent to a commitment to the existence of only individual persons and their families? The answer to all these questions is a definitive no, but several obstacles must be removed before justifying this negative response. Of all the obstacles standing in the way of an adequate social ontology none is as entrenched as the organismic metaphor. (8)
So we should not think of the social world in analogy with examples drawn from what we know about the natural world.  We should not think of society as a "thing" or a unified system. The ontological properties of the the natural and social realms are substantially different.  This is the primary reason I find some of the basic ideas of assemblage theory appealing: because these theories and theorists deliberately question the naturalistic approach to the social world, and they attempt to advance strikingly different and original concepts for characterizing the social world. They emphasize heterogeneity and composition over uniformity and subsumption.

It is striking to consider the parallel that emerges between this way of thinking about the "social" and some post-Cartesian ways of thinking about the "self". Some philosophers and psychoanalysts have argued that we should question the idea of the unified self that has governed the philosophy of mind since Descartes.  Instead, we should consider the notion that the self is not a unified center of consciousness and will, but rather a loose and contingent collage of psychological, physiological, and neurophysiological processes; that the impression of a unified self is a post-facto illusion; and that acting, thinking individuals are coalitions of a heterogeneous and often conflicting group of cognitive, emotional, and practical processes. These are radical challenges to the rationalist theory of the unified self. And they bear a striking similarity  to the assemblage challenge to the idea of society as a law-governed  structural-functional system.

Here is a word cloud of descriptors that seem accurate in application to the social world.

Readers -- what sociologists or philosophers do you think do a good job of characterizing the nature of the social world? What metaphors and concepts do you find most helpful in thinking about the social world?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why does social science matter?

What is the good of social science knowledge? In the natural sciences the answer is often pretty simple and pragmatic: natural science knowledge allows us to predict and control aspects of the natural environment.  Physics underlays engineering. That's not always true, and it's not the only reason we value research and theory in physics, chemistry, or biology. Some areas of physics and biology offer neither prediction nor control. And surely we also value physics for the abstract understanding it offers for how the world works. But prediction and control are convincing and common reasons that many people would give for valuing natural science.

The situation is different in sociology, political science, and economics. Social science hypotheses and theories rarely give rise to important and usable predictions.  The reasons for this lack of predictive power are many. Social ensembles (e.g. cities) are causally heterogeneous and open-ended, so even if we have a strong basis for predicting the behavior of a component system, the aggregate behavior of the ensemble is indeterminate. Social processes are composed of contingent but causally important actions by many agents, leading to path dependency and contingency in the outcome.  And even isolated processes (e.g. demographic transition) are often under-determined and path-dependent.

So prediction is very limited in the social realm. What about control? Once we have done some theorizing about a social process or problem, we will often have arrived at some ideas about which factors have a positive or negative influence on an outcome of interest. If we are interested in high school graduation rates or delinquency rates, social science research may advise us that "improving attendance improves graduation" or "neighborhood violence enhances delinquency". These hypotheses suggest interventions and policy reforms.

That said, the same circumstances that reduce our ability to predict social outcomes also limit our confidence in the efficacy of given interventions. The impossibility of designing reliable strategies for regional economic development or job creation are cases in point. If graduation rates are influenced by a handful of inter-related causal circumstances, it is difficult to have a lot of confidence in a single-factor policy reform.

Where the social and behavioral sciences can offer the greatest confidence is in several important areas. Demography is one; the ability of demographers to forecast population size and composition is extensive. Discovery of behavioral patterns in a variety of circumstances is another. Education scholars can learn how children commonly respond to this or that feature of the classroom environment; sociologists can learn how drug offenders usually respond to various treatment programs; rural sociologists can discover how small farmers respond to the availability of new seed varieties. And political scientists and social network specialists can work out the system tendencies of various voting systems or communications network architectures. So there is no shortage of reliable, useful results in the social sciences. What is more problematic is the idea that these sorts of findings might add up to a body of knowledge that permits predictions at the aggregate level of complex social ensembles.

We might say that sociology or political science offer some guidance about population and behavioral tendencies, system characteristics, and rough estimates of the causal properties of various social structures. And we can use these hypotheses and theories to make some informed guesses about the likely direction of change that will result from a given intervention or environmental change. But we are forced always to concede that our expectations take the form of bounded ceteris paribus predictions rather than confident and reliable point estimates of outcomes. So policy formation and social science research have a looser fit than engineering and physics.

I think this assessment fits pretty well with the idea that the social sciences are at their best when they focus on identifying and documenting a range of social mechanisms and processes, or when they pursue Merton's ideal of "theories of the middle range." And this leads us to recognize the limits that surround the possibility of  aggregating these kinds of mechanisms into confident assertions about the behavior of the large social ensemble. Social policy is not an exact science.

Do these ideas lay a basis for answering the basic question, why does social science matter? They do. It is an unmistakable reality that we are embedded within social and political processes that have enormous consequences for human wellbeing and human suffering.  The complex interactions of human behavior contribute both to some of the greatest successes of our civilizations and to the worst failures -- persistent poverty, violence, civil wars, climate change, environmental exhaustion, and hunger. We need to solve these "wicked" problems (link), but the interventions we choose need to be as well designed as possible to lead to better outcomes. The tools and methods of the social and behavioral sciences are the best hope we have for guiding our efforts as we strive to solve humanity's most intractable problems. And it is crucial to keep before us the way that progress in social understanding takes place: through careful and persistent research on a great range of mid-level social processes and patterns of social behavior.

(Here are a few posts on the limits of prediction in the social sciences; link, link, link. And here are a few that tease out ways in which the social sciences can be used to probe alternative possibilities for social outcomes; link, link.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Historians of sociology and classical social theory

Several readers of the recent post on Raymond Aron asked about other surveys of the history of sociology that are sometimes considered helpful. So I've pulled a couple of books off the shelves to mention as sources. I'm sure that readers will have additional suggestions.

(Here is a post that attempts to map the field of sociology as it currently exists; link. And here is another post that considers some of the ways we might try to treat the history of sociology; link.)

Surveys including classical social theory (Marx, Durkheim, Weber)

History of Sociological Analysis

Specialized treatments of individual sociologists

Contemporary essays on the history of sociology


Julia Adams, Elisabeth Clemens, Ann Shola Orloff, Remaking Modernity
Tom Bottomore and Robert Nisbet, editors, A History of Sociological Analysis
Craig Calhoun, Sociology in America
Alex Callinicos, Social Theory
Lewis Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought
Anthony Giddens, Politics, Sociology, and Social Theory
Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory
Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knobl, Social Theory: Twenty Introductory Lectures
Steven Lukes, Durkheim
John McMurtry, The Structure of Marx's World-view
Robert Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition
Fritz Ringer, Max Weber: An Intellectual Biography
Fritz Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins
Lawrence Scaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage
George Steinmetz, The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences
Allen Wood, Karl Marx

Readers, what are your preferred books on this subject?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Simulating social mechanisms

A key premise of complexity theory is that a population of units has "emergent" properties that result from the interactions of units with dynamic characteristics. Call these units "agents".  The "agent" part of the description refers to the fact that the elements (persons) are self-directed units.  Social ensembles are referred to as "complex adaptive systems" -- systems in which outcomes are the result of complex interactions among the units AND in which the units themselves modify their behavior as a result of prior history.

Scott Page's Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life provides an excellent introduction. Here is how Page describes an adaptive social system:
Adaptive social systems are composed of interacting, thoughtful (but perhaps not brilliant) agents. It would be difficult to date the exact moment that such systems first arose on our planet -- perhaps it was when early single-celled organisms began to compete with one another for resources.... What it takes to move from an adaptive system to a complex adaptive system is an open question and one that can engender endless debate. At the most basic level, the field of complex systems challenges the notion that by perfectly understanding the behavior of each component part of a system we will then understand the system as a whole. (kl 151)
Herbert Simon added a new chapter on complexity to the third edition of The Sciences of the Artificial - 3rd Edition in 1996.
By adopting this weak interpretation of emergence, we can adhere (and I will adhere) to reductionism in principle even though it is not easy (often not even computationally feasible) to infer rigorously the properties of the whole from knowledge of the properties of the parts. In this pragmatic way, we can build nearly independent theories for each successive level of complexity, but at the same time, build bridging theories that show how each higher level can be accounted for in terms of the elements and relations of the next level down. (172).
This formulation amounts to the claim of what I referred earlier to as "relative explanatory autonomy"; link. It is a further articulation of Simon's view of "pragmatic holism" first expressed in 1962 (link).

So how would agent-based models (ABM) be applied to mechanical systems? Mechanisms are not intentional units. They are not "thoughtful", in Page's terms. In the most abstract version, a mechanism is an input-output relation, perhaps with governing conditions and with probabilistic outcomes -- perhaps something like this:

In this diagram A, B, and D are jointly sufficient for the working of the mechanism, and C is a "blocking condition" for the mechanism. When A,B,C,D are configured as represented the mechanism then does its work, leading with probability PROB to R and the rest of the time to S.

So how do we get complexity, emergence, or unpredictability out of a mechanical system consisting of a group of separate mechanisms? If mechanisms are determinate and exact, then it would seem that a mechanical system should not display "complexity" in Simon's sense; we should be able to compute the state of the system in the future given the starting conditions.

There seem to be several key factors that create indeterminacy or emergence within complex systems. One is the fact of causal interdependency, where the state of one mechanism influences the state of another mechanism which is itself a precursor to the first mechanism.  This is the issue of feedback loops or "coupled" causal processes. Second is non-linearity: small differences in input conditions sometimes bring about large differences in outputs. Whenever an outcome is subject to a threshold effect, we will observe this feature; small changes short of the threshold make no change in the output, whereas small changes at the threshold bring about large changes. And third is the adaptability of the agent itself.  If the agent changes behavioral characteristics in response to earlier experience (through intention, evolution, or some other mechanism) then we can expect outcomes that surprise us, relative to similar earlier sequences. And in fact, mechanisms display features of each of these characteristics. They are generally probabilistic, they are often non-linear, they are sensitive to initial conditions, and at least sometimes they "evolve" over time.

So here is an interesting question: how do these considerations play into the topic of understanding social outcomes on the basis of an analysis of underlying social mechanisms? Assume we have a theory of organizations that involves a number of lesser institutional mechanisms that affect the behavior of the organization. Is it possible to develop an agent-based model of the organization in which the institutional mechanisms are the units? Are meso-level theories of organizations and institutions amenable to implementation within ABM simulation techniques?

Here is a Google Talk by Adrien Treuille on "Modeling and Control of Complex Dynamics".

The talk provides an interesting analysis of "crowd behavior" based on a new way of representing a crowd.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Neighborhood effects

In Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect Robert Sampson provides a very different perspective on the "micro-macro" debate. He rejects the methodologies associated both poles of the debate: methodological individualism ("derive important social outcomes from the choices of rational individuals") and methodological structuralism ("derive important social outcomes from the features of large-scale structures like globalization"). Instead, he argues for the causal importance of a particular kind of "meso" -- the neighborhood. He takes the view that neither "bottom-up" or "top-down" sociology will suffice. Instead, we need to look at processes at the level of socially situated individuals.
In this book I proposed an alternative to these two perspectives by offering a unified framework on neighborhood effects, the larger social organization of urban life, and social causality in general…. Contrary to much received wisdom, the evidence presented in this book demands attention to life in the neighborhoods that shape it. (357)
I argue that we need to treat social context as an important unit of analysis in its own right.  This calls for new measurement strategies as well as a theoretical framework that do not treat the neighborhood simply as a "trait" of the individual. (60)
Sampson offers his own instantiation of Coleman's Boat to illustrate his thinking:

But unlike Coleman (and like the argument I offered in an earlier post about meso-level explanation; link), Sampson allows for the validity of type-4 causal mechanisms, from "neighborhood structure and culture" to "rates of social behavior". So neighborhoods are not simply outcomes of individual choices and behavior; they are social ensembles that exert their own causal powers.

Sampson offers an articulated methodology for the study of the social life of a city, in the form of ten principles. These include:
  1. Focus on social context
  2. Study contextual variations in their own right
  3. focus on social-interactional, social psychological, organizational, and cultural mechanisms of social life
  4. integrate a life-course focus on neighborhood change
  5. look for processes and mechanisms that explain stability
  6. embed in the study of neighborhood dynamics the role of individual selection decisions
  7. go beyond the local
  8. incorporate macro processes 
  9. pay attention to human concerns with public affairs 
  10. emphasize the integrative theme of theoretically interpretive empirical research while maintaining methodological pluralism (67-68)
The heart of "neighborhood sociology" can be summarized, Sampson asserts, in a few simple themes:
First, there is considerable social inequality between neighborhoods, especially in terms of socioeconomic position and racial/ethnic segregation.  
Second, these factors are connected in that concentrated disadvantage often coincides with the geographic isolation of racial minority and immigrant groups.  
Third, a number of crime- and health-related problems tend to come bundled together at the neighborhood level and are predicted by neighborhood characteristics such as the concentration of poverty, racial isolation, single-parent families, and to a lesser extent rates of residential and housing instability.  
Fourth, a number of social indicators at the upper end of what many would consider progress, such as affluence, computer literacy, and elite occupational attainment, are also clustered geographically. (46)
This set of themes asserts a series of important correlations between neighborhood features and social outcomes. The hard question is to identify the social mechanisms that underlie these correlations. "It is from this idea that in recent decades we have witnessed another turning point in the form of a renewed commitment to uncovering the social processes and mechanisms that account for neighborhood (or concentration) effects. Social mechanisms provide theoretically plausible accounts of how neighborhoods bring about change in a given phenomenon" (46).

This is a fascinating and methodologically innovative piece of urban sociology. Sampson's use of large data sets to establish some of the intriguing neighborhood patterns he identifies is highly proficient, and his efforts to place his reasoning within a more theoretically sophisticated framework of multi-level social mechanisms is admirable. In an interesting twist, Sampson shows how it is possible to expand on the very costly video-based methodology of the original PHDCN study by making use of Google Street View to do systematic observations of neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities (361).

(Here is an earlier post on Sampson's ideas about neighborhood effects.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Raymond Aron as historian of sociology

How can we best tell the story of the development of sociology as an empirical social science? Raymond Aron undertook to do so in Main Currents in Sociological Thought (2 volumes) by reviewing the main sociological ideas of the greats: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Pareto, and Weber. The book was first published in France in 1965 as Les étapes de la pensée sociologique, and in its English translation in the United States in the same year. Much has changed in sociology in the intervening half century; so how does Aron's work hold up? Is this still a valuable approach? And can we learn something important about the thinking of these particular sociologists, or about sociology more generally, by re-reading Aron?

Here is one aspect of his approach that is distinctly dated: Aron attempts to place post-war sociology within a space defined by Soviet sociology and academic American sociology.
Marxist sociology is essentially an inclusive interpretation of modern societies and of the evolution of social types. The primary object of sociological investigation, according to our colleagues in Moscow, is the discovery of the fundamental laws of historical evolution….  A sociology of the Marxist kind is synthetic, in the sense that Auguste Comte assigned to this term: it comprehends the whole of each society; unlike the specific social sciences, it is distinguished by its all-encompassing design. It seems to grasp society in its totality, rather than any particular aspect of society. (2-3) 
American sociology reveals, in general, exactly the opposite characteristics. American sociologists, in my own experience, never talk about laws of history, first of all because they are not acquainted with them, and next because they do not believe in their existence…. American sociology is fundamentally analytical and empirical; it proposes to examine the way of life of individuals in the societies with which we are familiar. Its energetic research is aimed at determining the thoughts and reactions of students in a classroom, professors in or outside their universities, workers in a factory, voters on election day, and so forth. American sociology prefers to explain institutions and structures in terms of the behavior of individuals and of the goals, mental states, and motives which determine the behavior of members of the various social groups. (5) 
These two schools … do not include the whole of what is practiced all over the world under the name of sociology. But these two schools, which are the most typical ones, form the opposite poles between which fluctuates what is called sociology today. (6)
This is obviously simplistic; it is a Cold War interpretation of sociology that doesn't hold up well for the subsequent several decades of research and theory development in the disciplines of sociology. But what about the substantive accounts he offers of these seven theorists? Here are a few snippets:

Montesquieu was much more of a sociologist than Auguste Comte. The philosophical interpretation of sociology present in The Spirit of the Laws is much more "modern" than the same interpretation in the writings of Auguste Comte…. I do not consider Montesquieu a precursor of sociology, but rather one of its great theorists. (13) 
What is [Montesquieu's] aim? Montesquieu made no secret of it. His purpose was to make history intelligible. He sought to understand historical truth. But historical truth appeared to him in the form of an almost limitless diversity of morals, customs, ideas, laws, and institutions. His inquiry's point of departure was precisely this seemingly incoherent diversity. The goal of the inquiry should have been the replacement of this incoherent diversity by a conceptual order. (14)
Marx's thought is an analysis and an interpretation of capitalistic society in terms of its current functioning, its present structure, and its necessary evolution. (149) 
What is the basis of this antagonism characteristic of capitalist society? It is the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. The bourgeoisie is constantly creating more powerful means of production. But the relations of production -- that is, apparently, both the relations of ownership and the distribution of income -- are not transformed at the same rate. The capitalist system is able to produce more and more, but in spite of this increase in wealth, poverty remains the lot of the majority. (151) 
The aim of his science is to provide a strict demonstration of the antagonistic character of capitalist society, the inevitable self-destruction of an antagonistic society, and the revolutionary explosion that will put an end to the antagonistic character of modern society. (153) 
In my opinion, the center and the originality of Marxist thought lies precisely in this avowal of a necessity which is, in a sense, human but at the same time transcends all individuals. Each man, acting rationally in his own interest, contributes to the destruction of the interest common to all. (173)
Tocqueville is a comparative sociologist par excellence; he tries to determine significance by comparing types of societies belonging to the same species. Now, since I personally consider the essential task of sociology to be precisely this comparison of types within the same species, I feel it is worthwhile to set forth briefly the leading ideas of a man who in Anglo-Saxon countries is regarded as one of the greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century, ... and yet who, in France, has always been neglected by sociologists. (238)
Each volume closes with a sort of "conclusion" -- the first volume in the form of a discussion of how Marx and Tocqueville understood the Revolutions of 1848, and the second in the form of a substantive comparison of Durkheim, Pareto, and Weber.

So how does Aron's history of sociological thought measure up? His chapter on Marx is a very good exposition of Marx's key ideas -- historical materialism, exploitation, alienation, and the relationships that exist between Marx's thought and his predecessors.  There is also a serious effort to see how these ideas relate to the current (post-war) realities of capitalism in Europe and North America. For example, he explores how the workings of the modern corporation relate to the theories of private property that Marx presupposes (200 ff.). This ninety-page chapter serves as a very good introduction to Marx's thinking as a social scientist.

Likewise, Aron's discussions of the other figures he treats are stimulating and insightful and give an accurate presentation of the sociologist's thought. His discussions of Durkheim and Weber are particularly good. This kind of discursive summary and discussion of the theories is valuable for the reader who is just beginning his or her study of the great figures of sociological theory.

What the work does not provide is a view of the sociology of knowledge that might be pertinent to these theories -- what problematics the thinkers were driven by, what assumptions they made about the empirical investigation of a contingent social reality, and how they fit into their contemporary research communities. The theories are treated as finished systems rather than bodies of thought that developed out of consideration of particular problems of social understanding. Partly this may reflect the fact that these "founders" were not actually "professional" social scientists and were often driven by issues deriving from large philosophical theories as much as they were guided by specific empirical problems.

The question of how to define "a science of society" is a deeply important one, and it would be very interesting to try to interpolate answers to this question into Aron's narrative. In this respect Steven Lukes's intellectual biography of Durkheim, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study, provides a much more probing examination of this issue in Durkheim's thought and context.

(Here is an earlier post on the discipline of the history of sociology, here is a post on Durkheim's status as a "professional" sociologist, and here is a post on the development of sociology in France after World War II. Here is a short biographical sketch of Aron's professional life provided by the European Graduate School; link.)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Latour's Invisible Paris

Almost the first words of Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory include this intriguing statement:
This somewhat austere book can be read in parallel with the much lighter Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant (1998), Paris ville invisible, which tries to cover much of the same ground through a succession of photographic essays. It's available online in English (Paris the Invisible City) link.
This multimedia essay is fascinating, and equally so for the suggestion that it somehow illustrates the main ideas of Reassembling the Social. Since those ideas are fundamental to "actor-network theory" and to the theory of assemblage, it is worthwhile spending some time on the multimedia essay.

The presentation is described as a "sociological web opera." Here is how Latour describes its purpose:
The aim of this sociological opera is to wander through the city, in texts and images, exploring some of the reasons why it cannot be captured at a glance. Our photographic exploration takes us first to places usually hidden from passers-by, in which the countless techniques making Parisians' lives possible are elaborated (water services, police force, ring road: various "oligopticons" from which the city is seen in its entirety). This helps us to grasp the importance of ordinary objects, starting with the street furniture constituting part of inhabitants' daily environment and enabling them to move about in the city without losing their way. It also makes us attentive to practical problems posed by the coexistence of such large numbers of people on such a small surface area. All these unusual visits may eventually enable us to take a new look at a more theoretical question on the nature of the social link and on the very particular ways in which society remains elusive. 
We often tend to contrast real and virtual, hard urban reality and electronic utopias. This work tries to show that real cities have a lot in common with Italo Calvino's "invisible cities". As congested, saturated and asphyxiated as it may be, in the invisible city of Paris we may learn to breathe more easily, provided we alter our social theory. 
If one wants to work through the presentation it is necessary to download the PDF that contains the text of the essay, to be read in conjunction with the photography and images at each stop (link). Now we are ready to run the multimedia version (link).

Here is a screenshot from Plan 9:

And here is the accompanying text:
Step two: Aligning


With her eyes Mrs. Lagoutte looks at the name "rue la Vieuville" in white letters on a blue background. With her forefinger she points at the same name "rue la Vieuville" in bold type on the map she's holding with her other hand. With a quick movement of the chin she accommodates her gaze to these two very different texts: one, written diagonally on the page, is 1mm big and requires short-sightedness; the other, horizontal, is 6cm high and requires long-sightedness. A miracle! The two match, letter for letter, despite the glaring differences. She's arrived! This is the street she was looking for... and here's number five! In a single glance at her map she embraces the entire eighteenth arrondissement. By lifting her head she sees only a white wall, very much like all the others, that she couldn’t have identified without having been born in the neighbourhood or living there for a long time. Fortunately she also sees the street nameplate and the name written on it. What does she see? What is she touching with her forefinger?
The reader navigates the presentation by choosing "Traversing," "Proportioning," "Distributing," and "Allowing" on the top bar, and then navigating from Plan to Plan in the sidebar.  It is possible, of course, to go through the presentation in a fully linear mode; but it is also possible to jump easily from "Traversing" to "Distributing" or from Plan to Plan.

The images in the frame switch with each movement of the mouse. They do not have an apparent order; instead, the viewer gets a rush of images at each stop. It takes attention to register even how many images are presented.  [It is possible this is an artefact of the web engine -- the "Distributing" sequence provides a scroll bar of images within the frame, but this is lacking in "Traversing." This would be ironic, analogous to the representational errors Latour identifies in maps and signposts!]

So go ahead -- take the journey and come back for some discussion!


So what does the production show us? What has Latour illustrated in this work that "covers much the same ground" as Reassembling the Social? Here are a few fairly superficial observations.
  1. First, the presentation highlights "invisibility" -- the fact that this complex social scrum is partially visible, but partially hidden, no matter what perspective we take.
  2. Second, the issue of scale is constantly under scrutiny. We zoom from micro to macro to meso and back constantly through the presentation.
  3. Third, the notion of "representation" is key: maps, street signs, department store panoramas, satellite images. This is a "knowledge-reality" problematic: what is the status of the knowledge (veridical representativeness) of the map or the satellite image?
  4. Fourth, there is a persistent attention to technical knowledge and technical specialists throughout the essay: infrastructure specialists, computer experts, GIS technicians, schedulers, drainage specialists, traffic engineers, ... And much of what they do falls on the "invisible" end of the spectrum for most observers.
  5. Fifth, there is a recurring theme of "composition" -- the idea that the social scrum of the city is an amalgam. "In this sociological opera we're going to move over from the cold and real Society to warm and virtual plasma: from the entire Paris set in one view to the multiple Parises within Paris, which together comprise all Paris and which nothing ever resembles" (Plan 4).
  6. There is a recurring and seemingly important use of temperature -- hot, cold -- as a scale for considering social situations and "data". "At low temperature we have the impression of an isolated and fragile passer-by circulating in a frame that's older, harder and bigger than himself" (Plan 26).
  7. There is the idea that the "players" in social interactions are not uniquely human persons. The objects and gadgets of the city play their roles: "Should we count all those gadgets among the inhabitants of Paris? Partly, because they anticipate all the behaviours of generic and anonymous inhabitants whom they get to do a number of actions, in anticipation. Each of these humble objects, from public toilet to rubbish bin, tree protector to street name, phone booth to illuminated signpost, has a certain idea of the Parisians to whom, through colour or form, habit or force, it brings a particular order, a distinct attribution, an authorization or prohibition, a promise or permission." (Plan 32)
And here is a fascinating bit that places the circulation of French Sociological Theory within the city:
For instance, here in the group formerly headed by Mr. Raymond Boudon, social phenomena consist of individual aggregations that produce perverse effects through a series of involuntary transformations, without for all that forming social structures. Further on, with Mr. Pierre Bourdieu at the Collège de France, individual action must always be situated within a field that may not determine it but that is the only thing to give it meaning. If we go up the Rue Laplace to the CREA, to Mr. Jean- Pierre Dupuy, we notice that structures do exist but through a phenomenon of self- organization resembling neither aggregation alone nor the field. There's nothing shocking about this dispersion: a sociogram of Parisian cosmologists would show no more agreement on the evolution of white drawf stars or the origins of the Big Bang. Moreover, the matter – identified, isolated, transformed – on which each of these laboratories works differs entirely: here, statistics and stylized examples; there, extensive inquiries by questionnaire; elsewhere, models borrowed from economics. The word ‘sociology’ has all the characteristics of a faux ami, and its definition will change again if we go down the Montagne Ste. Geneviève to the GSPM, to Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, on the other side of Luxembourg, or at the bottom end of the Boulevard St. Germain, to visit Mr. Michel Crozier's group, or else if, in a rare act of open-mindedness, we went up the Boul'Mich to have a coffee with the researchers at the CSI, at the Ecole des Mines. Despite the megalomania to which the social sciences are so partial, there would be little sense in saying that just one of these laboratories had summed up all of Society. (Plan 30)
This is a fascinating and open-ended piece of work -- not philosophy, not sociological theory, not pure artistic creativity; and yet some of all of this. Do other readers have their own interpretations of the work and its significance within ANT theory and the theory of assemblage?

Here is a lecture by Latour on ANT theory at USC. (The audio is better when Latour begins speaking.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Veblen on universities

In 1918 Thorstein Veblen wrote a surprising short book about the administration and governance of American universities, The Higher Learning In America.  What is most surprising about the book is its date of publication. The critique he offers might have seemed familiar in 1968, whereas it seems precocious in 1918.

A key element of Veblen's diagnosis is his view that universities in the United States have been (in 1918!) overwhelmed by the values and accounting mentality of "business".
These others [other national university systems] have also not escaped the touch of the angel of decay, but the visible corruption of spiritual and intellectual values does not go the same length among them. Nor have these others suffered so heavy a toll on their prospective scholarly man power. (KL 1375)
Members of the governing boards are selected for their stature as successful businessmen; chief executives (presidents) are selected for their business-like qualities; and faculty are managed according to the principles of the consumer-driven market place. (He has a particularly low opinion of presidents of universities.) This is all catastrophic, according to Veblen, because business values and "accountability" are inimical to academic values.
As bearing on the case of the American universities, it should be called to mind that the businessmen of this country, as a class, are of a notably conservative habit of mind. In a degree scarcely equalled in any community that can lay claim to a modicum of intelligence and enterprise, the spirit of American business is a spirit of quietism, caution, compromise, collusion, and chicane. (KL 1831)
The idea of managing faculty effort and time in a bureaucratic way is particularly offensive and counterproductive to Veblen:
For this reason, and also because of the difficulty of controlling a large volume of perfunctory labour, such as is involved in undergraduate instruction, the instruction offered must be reduced to standard units of time, grade and volume. (KL 2738) 
The need of a well-devised bureaucratic system is greater the more centralized and coercive the control to which the academic work is to be subject; and the degree of control to be exercised will be greater the more urgent the felt need of a strict and large accountancy may be. (KL 2616)
Veblen has his own view of what the fundamental purpose of the university is: to provide a context for unconstrained and impractical pursuit of knowledge.  For both faculty and students alike, the university should be a place of untrammeled exploration, curiosity, creativity, and discovery. 
Typically, normally, in point of popular theory, the university is moved by no consideration other than "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." This is so because this profiles quest of knowledge has come to be the highest and ulterior aim of modern culture. (KL 1623)
And business values have no place in this system:
There is no similar bond of consanguinity between the business occupations and the scientific spirit; except so far as regards those clerical and subaltern employments that lie wholly within the mechanical routine of business traffic.  (KL 1989)
So the idea of "disciplining" the university by market principles -- ensuring faculty productivity, competing for students, marketing one's academic programs -- is antithetical to the central values of the university.
Such a system of accountancy acts to break the continuity and consistency of the work of instruction and to divert the interest of the students from the work at hand to the making of a passable record in terms of the academic "miner's inch." Typically, this miner's inch is measured in terms of standard text per time unit, and the immediate objective of teacher and student so becomes the compassing of a given volume of prescribed text, in print or lecture form, -- leading up to the broad principle: "Nichts als was im Buche steht" ["nothing but what is in the book"].  Which puts a premium on mediocrity and perfunctory work, and brings academic life to revolve about the office of the Keeper of the Tape and Sealing Wax. (KL 2785)
And Veblen is highly indignant at the idea of "student life" -- or the extra-curricular activities the university is obliged to provide for the entertainment of undergraduate students:
This contingent [of students], and the general body of students in so far as this contingent from the leisure class has leavened the lump, are not so seriously interested in their studies that they can in any degree be counted on to seek knowledge on their own initiative. At the same time they have other interests that must be taken care of by the school, on pain of losing their custom and their good will, to the detriment of the university's standing in genteel circles and to the serious decline in enrollment which their withdrawal would occasion. Hence college sports come in for an ever increasing attention and taken an increasingly prominent and voluminous place in the university's life; as do also other politely blameless ways and means of dissipation, such as fraternities, clubs, exhibitions, and the extensive range of extra-scholastic traffic known as "student activities". (KL 2713)
So Veblen's view is a sweeping one: the institutions of the American university have been corrupted by the values of the business community and the deference that the general public has to this elite group. And those values are antithetical and stifling to the true calling of the university's intellectuals, its faculty and students.

Here is an interesting article by Thomas Sowell in 1969, "Veblen's Higher Learning After Fifty Years" (link). Sowell closes with this interesting personal assessment of Veblen's animus on this subject.
The Higher Learning in America takes on a special significance when viewed against the background of Veblen's own checkered academic career, his own "domestic infelicities" which were so often "the subject of remark," his early difficulties because he "did not sufficiently advertise the university," his forced migrations from school to school, and his unpopular courses with low enrollments -- from which came a remarkable number of well-known economists. Yet it would be too facile to view this work simply as an apology for his own lack of academic success. Even if such motivation could be established, it would be irrelevant to the larger question of the validity of his arguments. If anything, the fact that the academic system selected out Veblen as unfit to survive should raise further grave suspicions about that system." (76)
One might say that Veblen offered cultural-institutional critique at its most incisive, and opened up lines of criticism of universities that have recurred ever since. What is most surprising is that these seams of failings in the university would have been visible to Veblen almost one hundred years ago.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Marketing Wittgenstein

Who made Wittgenstein a great philosopher?  Why is the eccentric Austrian now regarded as one of the twentieth century's greatest philosophers? What conjunction of events in his life history and the world of philosophy in the early twentieth century led to this accumulating recognition and respect?

We might engage in a bit of Panglossian intellectual history ("everything works out for the best!") and say something like this: The young man Wittgenstein was in fact exceptionally talented and original, and eventually talent rises to the attention of the elite in a discipline or field of knowledge. But this is implausible in even more ordinary circumstances. And the circumstances in which Wittgenstein achieved eminence were anything but ordinary. His formal training was in engineering, not philosophy; his national origin was Austria, not Britain; his early years were marked by the chaos of the Great War; his personality was prickly and difficult; and his writings were as easily characterized as "peculiar" as "brilliant".

The idea of a "field" introduced by Bourdieu in The Field of Cultural Production is particularly helpful in addressing this topic. (Here is a post that discusses the idea of a field; link.) The field of philosophy at a given time is an assemblage of institutions, personages, universities, journals, and funding agencies.  The question of whether an aspiring young philosopher rises or languishes is a social and institutional one, depending on the nature of his/her graduate program, the eminence of the mentors, the reception of early publications and conference presentations, and the like.  Indicators and causes of rising status depend on answers to questions like these: Are the publications included in the elite journals? Are the right people praising the work?  Is the candidate pursuing the right kinds of topics given the tastes of the current generation of "cool finders" in the profession? This approach postulates that status in a given profession depends crucially on situational and institutional facts -- not simply "talent" and "brilliance". And in many instances, the reality of these parameters reflexively influence the thinker himself: the young philosopher adapts, consciously or unconsciously, to the signposts of status.

Neil Gross's biography of Richard Rorty (Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher) provides a great example of careful analysis of a philosopher's career in these terms (link). Gross provides a convincing account of how the influence of the field's definition of the "important" problems affected Rorty's development, and how the particular circumstances of the Princeton department affected his later development in an anti-analytic direction.  Camic, Gross, and Lamont provide similar examples in Social Knowledge in the Making, including especially Neil Gross and Crystal Fleming's study of the evolution of a conference paper.

So what was the "field" into which Wittgenstein injected himself in his visits to Frege and Russell?  Here is a point that seems likely to me from the perspective of 2012: the "field" of analytic philosophy in 1905 was substantially less determinate than it was from 1950 to 1980.  This fact has two contradictory implications: first, that this indeterminacy made it more possible for an "oddball" philosopher to make it to the top; and second, that it made it more unlikely that talent would be consistently identified and rewarded.  The relative looseness of the constraints on the field permitted "sports" to emerge, and also made it possible that highly meritorious thinkers would be overlooked.  (So the brilliant young metaphysician studying philosophy at the University of Nebraska in 1908 might never have gotten a chance to move into the top reaches of the discipline.)

What were some of the situational facts that contributed to Wittgenstein's meteoric rise? One element seems clear: Wittgenstein's early association with Bertrand Russell beginning in 1911, and the high level entrée this provided Wittgenstein into the elite circles of philosophy at Cambridge, was a crucial step in his rise to stardom. And Wittgenstein's status with Russell was itself a curious conjunction: Wittgenstein's fascination with Frege, aspects of Tractatus that appealed to Russell, and Wittgenstein's personal intellectual style.  But because of this association, Wittgenstein wasn't starting his rise to celebrity in the provinces, but rather at the center of British analytic philosophy.

Another element is one that was highly valued in Cambridge culture -- the individual's conversational skills. Simply being introduced into a circle of eminent thinkers doesn't assure eminence. Instead, it is necessary to perform conversationally in ways that induce interest and respect. LW was apparently charismatic in an intense, harsh way. He was passionate about ideas and he expressed himself in ways that gave an impression of brilliant originality.  He made a powerful impression on the cool-finders.

And then there are his writings -- or rather, his peculiar manuscript, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

One could easily have dismissed the manuscript as a mad expression of logicism run wild, with its numbered paragraphs, its dense prose, and its gnomic expressions. Or one could react, as Russell did, with understanding and fascination. But without the reputation created by the reception of TLP, Wittgenstein would never have gotten the chance to expose the equally perplexing and challenging thinking that was expressed in Philosophical Investigations (3rd Edition).  In fact, almost all of LW's written work is epigrammatic and suggestive rather than argumentative and constructive. When there is insight, it comes as a bolt from the blue rather than as a developed line of thought.

So what if we test out this idea: a verbally brilliant man, a charismatic interlocutor, a person with original perspectives on philosophical topics and methods -- but also a figure who benefited greatly from some excellent marketing, some influential patrons, and some situationally unusual lucky breaks. Had Russell been less patient, had publishers found TLC too weird for their liking, had Moore been less open-minded about Wittgenstein's PhD defense -- then analytical philosophy might no longer remember the name "Wittgenstein". This interpretation of Wittgenstein's stature suggests something more general as well: there is an enormous dollop of arbitrariness and contingency in the history of ideas and in the processes through which some thinkers emerge as "canonical".

Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar provide an excellent introduction to Wittgenstein's philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pragmatist arguments for democracy

Jack Knight and Jim Johnson engage in a particular kind of political theory in their recent The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism.  They want to consider "democracies" as existing social systems embodying particular instances of various kinds of institutions. They want to know how those institutions are likely to emerge, and they want to know how they function in real social settings. Their work falls within the general methodology of "comparative analysis of political-economic institutions."

Here is how they describe the tasks of political theory:
The first analytical task requires that we identify the set of feasible social institutions, examine their respective features, and delineate the conditions necessary for the effective operation of different members of the set. (13)
The second task is explanatory: to account for how specific alternatives emerged over others to become the preponderant institutions in a given society.  And the third task is normative: to show how we can compare alternative institutions in terms of their contribution to the social good.

They offer a particularly succinct description of the situation of politics: diversity across a population and conflicts of interest within the population.
Politics, in large part, is a response to diversity. It reflects a seemingly incontrovertible condition -- any imaginable human population is heterogeneous across multiple, overlapping dimensions, including material interests, moral and ethical commitments, and cultural attachments. The most important implication of this diversity is that disagreement and conflict are unavoidable. This is, in part, not only because the individuals and groups who constitute any population are diverse in the ways just suggested but because that diversity is irreducible. There simply is no neutral institutional arrangement that will accommodate their competing demands and projects without leaving some remainder over which they still disagree. (1)
The challenge of politics is to create institutions that permit decision making for a whole society in light of this irreducible diversity, and avoiding dictatorship and violence in the process.

So what is pragmatist about the theory of democracy they offer? One feature is fairly straightforward; it owes a lot to John Dewey's ideas about democracy.  And Dewey thought that democracy should be justified on the pragmatic grounds that it created ways of resolving conflicts that were less costly than violence and coercion.  More fundamentally, a pragmatist justification for democracy is one that attempts to show that the effects of democratic institutions are overall better for society than those of any of the alternatives. "Pragmatists assess the value of their choices and actions in terms of the consequences of those choices and actions" (194). So the justification of an institution derives from its overall effectiveness (in conjunction with other institutions) in securing desirable outcomes.
We defend here a pragmatist justification of democracy. It is grounded in a set of claims about the fundamental importance of effective institutions for our ongoing social interactions. It rests on the vital role that democratic decision making plays in achieving and maintaining the effectiveness of those institutions. It attends to the different tasks of political theory -- the analytical, the explanatory, and the normative. (93)
Another aspect of the authors' view of pragmatism has to do with the anti-foundationalism that is associated with pragmatism.  Political theory cannot work on the assumption that there is a final truth about political institutions; rather, arguments and conclusions are fallible and contestable. But a steady point of reference is an assessment of how the institutions that a political philosophy advocates will actually work for the population governed by those institutions. We test the recipe by tasting the pudding.

A central part of their justification of the priority of democracy revolves around the idea of reflexivity.
What do we mean when we say that democratic institutions operate in a reflexive manner? The reflexivity of democratic arrangements derives from the fact that political argument -- again, increasingly so to the extent that it transpires under the appropriate conditions -- requires relevant parties to assert, defend, and revise their own views and to entertain, challenge, or accept those of others. It derives, in other words, from ongoing disagreement and conflict. (161)
This condition reflects the idea that debate functions at two levels: at a meta-level when political theorists consider the pro's and con's of various institutional arrangements; and at an object level, when parties within a democracy express their views and reasons about particular policies.

Knight and Johnson refer to a handful of types of institutions that seem to hang together in terms of the idea of governing and managing conflicts over resources and power in a modern society (7ff.). They refer to --
  • Economic exchange (markets)
  • Distribution of the franchise
  • Constitutional politics
  • Democratic decision making
  • Property rights and common pool resources
As they point out, each of these families of institutions encompasses a wide range of institutional alternatives; in fact, the constant fact of institutional diversity is one of their persistent themes.  A realized democratic society is one that has developed specific institutional arrangements in each of these areas. And it is their central argument that democratic institutions need to have priority in the process of choosing other institutional arrangements.

In particular, when Knight and Johnson argue for the priority of democracy, they are centrally concerned to show that democratic institutions have priority over market institutions.  They concede that there are many tasks where decentralized markets are more efficient ways of handling social and economic conflicts; but they argue that we are nonetheless better off overall to give priority to the institutions of democratic decision-making. Democracy protects the equal voice of all citizens in collective decisions, and markets do not.

So what are the most important beneficial consequences that make democracy a good idea? Here is their summary:
We contend that relative to the other existing institutional alternatives, democracy is better at (1) facilitating experimentalism on institutional choice, (2) monitoring and maintaining institutional effectiveness (particularly in regard to appropriate conditions), and (3) reflexively monitoring its own effectiveness. The capacity of democracy to better satisfy these fundamental requirements of modern, socially diverse societies provides an important reason for endorsing democracy as the best means of collective governance. It grounds our pragmatist case for the priority of democracy. (261)
In reviewing the arguments advanced by Knight and Johnson, it is striking to notice the virtual absence of the normative arguments offered by democratic theorists from Rousseau to Amartya Sen: Democracy is good because it respects the moral equality of all, it embodies the broadest realization of human freedom, and it conduces to greater human fulfillment and sociality.  By putting their eggs in the pragmatist and consequentialist basket, Knight and Johnson seem to have forsaken the reasons some theorists have found democratic principles most convincing -- their connection to a fully realized and socialized human life. How would we respond to their argument if the calculation had led to a different outcome: a benevolent all-powerful bureaucracy does a slightly better job than democracy at securing the social goods they are interested in counting? Would we then be forced to conclude that benevolent bureaucratic dictatorship is the better system after all?  Probably not, for most of us. And perhaps this casts some doubt on the pragmatist method in this instance.