Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Defining a social subject: Weber

How does a sociologist define and conceptualize a subject for research and investigation? And how does a research tradition -- a group of scholars linked by training, scholarly interaction, and mentorship -- do the same thing?  What is the intellectual work that goes into framing an empirical and theoretical conception of a group of related social phenomena -- cities, racism, economic growth, feudalism, or power?

The most evident problem this question raises is the fact that any given social phenomenon itself has multiple aspects and sets of characteristics; so the way we define a research subject is in some important way an expression of what we find "interesting." Let's say that I'm interested in cities.  "How do cities work?"  This might be an economic question; a regional geography question; a cultural question; a question about poverty and segregation; a question about architecture and planning; a question about municipal governance; a question about population characteristics; a question about religion; a question about civil disturbances; and so one, for indefinitely many aspects or features of urban life.

These questions force consideration of several different intellectual acts: selection, conceptualization, and explanation.  Selection has to do with singling out one domain of phenomena for extended empirical and theoretical study.  Conceptualization has to do with providing some intellectual structure in terms of which we can analyze and characterize the phenomena in this domain.  And explanation has to do with discovering meanings, causes, structures, processes, and active social relationships, through which the features of this aspect of the social world takes on the empirical shape that it displays.

I have always thought that Weber had a particularly advanced understanding of this fundamental problem of the social sciences.  His essays on methodology, collected in Methodology of Social Sciences, provide some very interesting thoughts about this set of questions. His essays are primarily aimed at laying out the program of the group of "social economists" who were in the process of defining the research agenda of the Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik.  But his analysis has general relevance to the problem of defining a social-science research agenda.

One question that Weber raises in these essays is the role that the scholar's values play in his or her selection of a subject matter and a conceptual framework.  "The problems of the social sciences are selected by the value-relevance of the phenomena treated. … Together with historical experience, it shows that cultural (i.e., evaluative) interests give purely empirical scientific work its direction" (21, 22). And again: "In the social sciences the stimulus to the posing of scientific problems is in actuality always given by practical 'questions'. Hence the very recognition of the existence of a scientific problem coincides, personally, with the possession of specifically oriented motives and values" (61).

This point about selectivity and the role of values in the definition of a topic of study applies as well to a research tradition: an orienting set of values lead researchers in the tradition to adhere to a given definition of the topics and approaches that their tradition will pursue.  This adherence can be put clearly as a statement about "importance": "These problems are important for us; we need to better understand these problems." Here is how Weber characterizes the "orienting values" that define the approach taken by the new journal:
In general, they were men who, whatever may have been other divergences in their points of view, set as their goal the protection of the physical well-being of the laboring masses and the increase of the latter's share of the material and intellectual values of our culture. (62)
Selectivity applies to the singling out of an area of social phenomena for study.  But it also applies to a singling out of the specific aspects of this area that the researcher will examine.  And this, in turn, raises the possibility of there being indefinitely many different "scientific studies of X."  Here is a typical formulation of Weber's about this form of selectiveness:
The cultural problems which move men form themselves ever anew and in different colors, and the boundaries of that area in the infinite stream of concrete events which acquire meaning and significance for us, i.e., which becomes an 'historical individual,' are constantly subject to change. The intellectual contexts from which it is viewed and scientifically analyzed shift. The point of departure of the cultural sciences remain changeable throughout the limitless future as long as a Chinese ossification of intellectual life does not render mankind incapable of setting new questions to the eternally inexhaustible flow of life.  (84)
The quality of an event as a "social-economic" event is not something which it possesses "objectively." It is rather conditioned by the orientation of our cognitive interest, as it arises from the specific cultural significance which we attribute to the particular event in a given case. (64)
Here is another statement that implies the open-endedness of the social sciences in their definitions of the topics of research:
The fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so perfect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself. (57)
I take this to mean that assigning meaning to events, processes, or structures is a human activity rather than the discovery of an objective fact about the world. So it is open to social scientists of various generations to reevaluate prior interpretations of the world -- whether of capitalism or feudalism, or of rational behavior or religious identity.  In Weber's own context:
Undoubtedly the selection of the social-economic aspect of cultural life signifies a very definite delimitation of our theme. It will be said that the economic, or as it has been inaccurately called, the "materialistic" point of view, from which culture is here being considered, is "one-sided." This is true and the one-sidedness is intentional. The belief that it is the task of scientific work to cure the "one-sidedness" of the economic approach by broadening it into a general social science suffers primarily from the weakness that the "social" criterion (i.e., the relationships among persons) acquires the specificity necessary for the delimitation of scientific problems only when it is accompanied by some substantive predicate. (67)
Or in other words: there is no general or comprehensive or synoptic approach to defining the social; there is only the possibility of a series of selective and value-guided approaches to defining specific aspects of the social world.  And these one-sided and selective approaches have an enormous epistemological merit: they can allow us to discover specific, concrete forms of interconnection among social phenomena as we have defined them.
The justification of the one-sided analysis of cultural reality from specific "points of view" -- in our case with respect to its economic conditioning -- emerges purely as a technical expedient from the fact that training in the observation of the effects of qualitatively similar categories of causes and the repeated utilization of the same scheme of concepts and hypotheses offers all the advantages of the division of labor. (71)
There is no absolutely "objective" scientific analysis of culture -- or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes -- of "social phenomena" independent of special and "one-sided" viewpoints according to which...they are selected, analyzed, and organized for expository purposes.  The reasons for this lie in the character of the cognitive goal of all research in social science which seeks to transcend the purely formal treatment of the legal or conventional norms regulating social life. (72)
All the analysis of infinite reality which the finite human mind can conduct rests on the tacit assumption that only a finite portion of this reality constitutes the object of scientific investigation, and that only it is "important" in the sense of being "worthy of being known". (72)
For me, all of this comes down to a rather straightforward and compelling conclusion on Weber's part: there is no social topic or problem for which we might provide a complete, final, and comprehensive analysis.  Rather, we are forced, and we are entitled, to always bring forward new perspectives and new aspects of the problem, and arrive at new insights about how the phenomena hang together when characterized in these new ways.

Or in other words, whether he ever actually said it or not, Weber was forced to believe that the history of Rome is never complete; each generation is free to create its new frameworks and perspectives on Rome, and telling its story according to a different set of concepts and insights.

(In the course of thinking about this topic I came across this very interesting paper by Richard Swedberg on "Max Weber's Vision of Economics" (link). The paper presents a very compelling critique of the way that neoclassical economics defines the subject matter of "economics," and gives a strong statement of how Weber's broader and more historical understanding of the subject -- which he referred to as "social economics" -- is of contemporary importance.)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Intellectuals tell their stories

image: Holcombe Austin and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, Wheaton College

Since reading Neil Gross's book Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher I've been once again thinking about the ways that a given thinker takes shape throughout his or her life. (I touched on this question in a post several years ago on influences, and most recently in a post on Peter Berger.) There are a couple of dimensions to this problem. We can think of the thing undergoing change as the thinker's framework of thought or intellectual imagination. This would be to look at the intellectual as the creator or curator of a body of ideas and approaches to a subject matter.  Or we can think of the thing that is changing as the career -- the pathway the intellectual takes into and through the publicly defined standards, appointments, and indications of success of the chosen field of thought, and the series of career-field locations that he or she occupies over time. The first is more interior and the second more situational and public.

Gross and Camic refer to this question as the "sociology of ideas." It has also been treated by historians of ideas -- subject to the criticism that they've paid too much attention to the logic of development of the ideas themselves and not enough to the socially situated authors and promulgators of those ideas. But we could also refer the question to the social psychologist or even the existential biographer: in what ways does the individual create his or her own intellectual itinerary?

To map the content of the intellectual's thought-work we need some way of recording the signposts of the evolution of the thinker's thought. These might be things like these:
  • Field of thought (mathematics, philosophy, sociology)
  • Style of thought (constructive, critical, analytical)
  • Key topic areas selected (justice, the Holocaust, the nature of being, other minds)
  • Key insight
  • Methods of reasoning (empiricism, hermeneutics, metaphysical reasoning)
  • Constellation of other thinkers treated as experts or dullards
So W.V.O. Quine becomes a philosopher rather than a chemist; he immerses himself in analytical philosophy; he focuses on the problem of scientific knowledge; he gets to a pathbreaking insight (critique of logical positivism from within); his reasoning is logical, analytical, and deductive; and his constellation of stars includes Pierce, Carnap, and Reichenbach. At each juncture we can ask "why?" -- why did the person make the choice or move in a particular direction?  Sometimes the answer will be an explicit choice; sometimes it will involve the shared presuppositions of a discipline at a point in time.

To map "career" we can highlight choices made and opportunities conveyed that signal advancement within the social realm of the profession:
  • Graduate school
  • Doctoral supervisor
  • Publications over time
  • Invited conferences
  • Network of other scholars with whom he/she interacts
  • Series of academic appointments
  • Recognitions and prizes
There is an intertwining connection between these two frameworks. The intellectual makes choices in each zone -- which topics to pursue and which career milestones to seek out. And as Gross and Bourdieu make plain, the choice of topic has consequences for the opportunities offered in career -- a circumstance that explicitly or implicitly influences the intellectual's choices of topics and approaches. But the direction one's research and thinking take also are positively influenced by the events of the career. Burton Dreben's opportunity to become a Junior Fellow at Harvard under the mentorship of Quine fundamentally shaped his thinking as a mathematical logician.

Neil Gross and Crystal Fleming illustrate several of these points in their study of Mike Johnson in the Camic-Gross-Lamont volume, Social Knowledge in the Making.  They offer a thumbnail of Johnson's first steps towards the career of academic philosophy, his considerations about career advancement, and his own particular insights into philosophical issues that have bearing on the experience of Native Americans.  With this as background, they offer an ethnographic account of the making of a conference paper that Johnson was to present in Paris.  Their account demonstrates a complexly intertwined reality of internal philosophical work and career management.

So calculation, ambition, and the incentives of the field play a role in the academic's intellectual development.  At the same time, we would like to think that the intellectual has his or her own internal compass for topics and why they matter (which Gross handles with his discussion of "self concept", and which Gross and Fleming identify in their study of Mark Johnson under the rubric of the particular insights that Johnson's cultural and class background led him to). We want to suppose that there is a degree of creativity, originality, and self-direction that plays some role in the intellectual's development.

Then there are the great events that set the context for the intellectual's choices throughout a forty-year period. There are the generations who took shape during the Great Depression, or during the Holocaust, or during the Civil Rights Movement, or during the Cultural Revolution. And we have the idea that these great events somehow left their marks on the writers and thinkers who came of age during their grip.  (Though I introduced the example of Quine above; and yet it's hard to see the impact of any of the great events that the United States underwent during his formative years in his philosophical system.)

And there is the stochastic ebb and flow of minor events that influence the course of an intellectual's development: this book was published, that funding opportunity came along, that invitation to contribute to a volume was received. Each of these minor events puts a small impetus into the stream -- a new idea, a new approach, a new set of stimulating colleagues who provide further impetus. It might be the case that for some intellectuals, these are the most important influences of all in the shaping of thought and career.  Curiosity plus intelligence plus random exposures to intriguing questions = a cumulative but meandering body of thought.

This is fairly abstract. But make it more concrete by considering a conversation with three sociologists and a philosopher about the ways a sociologist develops over time. The sociologists are highly accomplished and valued in their discipline. One is born in 1931, one in 1949, and one in about 1950. The youngest, a woman, was born in Cuba. For her the experience of witnessing revolution and social movements as a child was fundamental. Her career has focused on better understanding these events and processes in Latin America. The oldest, a man, talked about the mentors whose example had influenced him -- dissertation advisor, more senior colleagues in early teaching posts, and now more junior colleagues (by half a century!) who continue to stimulate his thinking. An important turn in his career took place about twenty years ago when he began thinking about sociology as a humanistic discipline. The third, also a man, offered a "maverick's" view of his career. Topics were chosen because they were interesting to him at the time, not because the discipline incentivized these topics. He gave the impression that his thinking had developed in a way that might be described as "oppositional". New topics emerged over time through fairly accidental circumstances. There is no rhyme or reason to his development, no characteristic signature. (Knowing this sociologist's work well, I disagreed: there is an arc to his work and a very distinctive style of thinking.) All three had known Chuck Tilly well and had thoughtful things to say about how Chuck's program of sociological thought had developed. (A new element emerged there: the very close and productive relationships Chuck had with hundreds of graduate students.)

I am not a sociologist, and empirical study of this issue probably isn't in my future. But it seems very worthwhile to have the kinds of conversations I'm describing here and try to piece together more detailed genealogy of American sociological thought through the development of its innovative traibreakers. And in fact, the interviews I've done with a number of leading sociologists (link) perhaps sheds a little bit of light on this very subject. My interest in doing the interviews was to capture some of the person's most innovative ideas. But along the way there has been quite a bit of talk about how their thought developed.

Another result of the conversation I describe here was something you might expect in a conversation among academics--a list of useful readings. Here are three collections of autobiographical writings by sociologists and theorists that try to relate their careers to their times.

Alan Sica and Stephen Turner, The Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the Sixties
Bennett Berger, Authors of Their Own Lives: Intellectual Autobiographies by Twenty American Sociologists
Barbara Laslett and Barry Thorne, Feminist Sociology: Life Histories of a Movement

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Making Peter Berger

Peter Berger declared himself a humanistic sociologist throughout much of his career, including in his important book with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. This isn't exactly a common identification for an American sociologist in the 1950s. So how did he get there?

This is an interesting question in its own right, since Berger has had significant influence at various points in the nearly fifty years since the publication of Social Construction. But it is also interesting in the context of the theorizing offered by Neil Gross about intellectual itineraries and the situation of the intellectual within a social and personal context.  Gross's case study of the development of Richard Rorty's career as a philosopher is a brilliant case study within this approach (link).  So it is interesting to consider how this perspective might play out in a treatment of Berger.

An important source for considering this question is Berger's intellectual autobiography, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore, published at the latter end of his career in 2011.

A major part of Berger's intellectual development was his training in the PhD program in sociology at the New School for Social Research in the early 1950s. He describes this experience in a fair amount of detail.  The New School in the 1950s was a central locus for European sociology in the United States, and Berger absorbed much of the frameworks of thought associated with Weber, Durkheim, and phenomenology.  One important influence on him there was Alfred Schutz:
I suppose that the central concept I learned from Schutz was that of "multiple realities," including the manner in which a sense of reality is kept going in the consciousness of individuals. (19)
One sociological constant throughout Berger's self concept as an academic is his adherence and dedication to the ideas of Weber: "The only orthodoxy to which I continued to adhere was a Weberian understanding of the vocation of social science" (76).  Here is his thumbnail description of what Weber meant to him:
Thus I early on identified with the core elements of a Weberian approach: society as constituted by actions inspired by human meanings; sociology as the attempt to understand these meanings (Verstehen); the use of "ideal types"--theoretical constructs that only approximate social reality; the relation among meanings, motives, and actions; the institutionalization of the state, the economy, and class; and sociology as "value-free." (23)
By this feature perhaps we can say that Berger's thinking proceeded within one of the dominant paradigms or intellectual frameworks of European sociology; so not "counter-hegemonic".  But it is also the case that his early influences at the New School were not "mainstream" sociology in America.  Berger describes his own allergy to quantitative sociological research ("Years later I took a summer course in statistical analysis at the University of Michigan. It was a disaster;" 26), and he didn't fit neatly into the emerging contours of cutting-edge sociology in America in any of its versions.

Another aspect of his formation as a sociologist was his experience in the US Army as a draftee immediately following the completion of his PhD in 1954.  He asserts that the experience of living and training with men from a broad cross-section of American society gave him a sensibility to the variations of experience, values, and aspirations that exist in our society.  And the accidental experience he had of serving as a clinical social worker in the Army gave him an understanding of the power of extensive interviews in furthering sociological understanding of ordinary life.
What I had not anticipated was that my new assignment would turn out to be a unique learning experience -- not about the actual business of the clinic (though that too was quite interesting), but about America. Thanks to the US Army, I received precisely the education that I had sought in studying sociology and that the New School was unable to provide. (47)
A key part of Berger's originality in the field is the idea of a "humanistic" sociology.  What does he mean by this?  He consistently offers two ideas: debunking illusions and lies, and linking sociological research to the modes of reasoning in the humanities. Here is how he characterizes the "humanistic" version of sociology:
The term humanistic in the subtitle of Invitation to Sociology had two meanings. It suggested that the methodology of sociology should place the discipline close to the humanities -- specifically literature, history, and philosophy.  Of course that is the sort of methodology I obtained at the New School. But the term also suggested that the discipline could serve a liberating purpose -- to free individuals from illusions and to help make society more humane. … 
Sociology derives its moral justification from its debunking of the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression.  Significantly, I singled out racial persecution, the persecution of homosexuals, and capital punishment, the ultimate cruelty.  Sociology liberates by facilitating a standing outside one's social roles … and thereby a realization of one's freedom. At the end of the book I use a metaphor that has become widely known: Sociology suggests that we are puppets of society, but unlike puppets we can look up and discover the strings to which we are attached, and this discovery is a first step toward freedom. (75) 
Sociology is akin to comedy because it debunks the social fictions. By the same token it is potentially liberating. It shows up the "bad faith" by which individuals hide behind their roles and forces them to confront the reality of their own freedom. (72)
Berger attributes at least a part of his conviction about these two aspects of sociology to his experience of teaching as a young instructor in the segregated South:
These experiences help to explain why, a few years later, I wrote about sociology as having a "humanistic" purpose in unmasking the murderous ideologies underlying the death penalty, racism, and the persecution of homosexuals. (64)
His sociological research originated in the sociology of religion, and he continued to write on this topic throughout his life. Why so?  And how does this interest intersect with his frequent self-ascription of "theologian"?

The sociology of religion is certainly a core Weberian topic for historical sociology, so the fact that Berger identifies strongly with Weber may partially explain his choice of the topic.  But this doesn't seem right, given Berger's narrative in Adventures.  Berger's interest in the topic seems more religiously inspired; he refers frequently to his own "theological" approach.  He writes repeatedly about his own movement across the landscape of Christian belief:
I was writing [my first novel] at a time when my emancipation from my youthful neo-orthodoxy had made me consider seriously whether I would now have to define myself as an agnostic if not an atheist. (86) 
It was the question of theodicy that had brought me close to abandoning my Christian faith. (86)
So it seems likely that his own religious needs were an important part of his desire to write about religious experience.

Here is how he describes the intellectual framework that he and Luckmann conceived of in preparation for writing a book on the sociology of knowledge -- which eventually became Social Construction:
Specifically, we came to undertake a synthesis of several strands of theory that have often been understood as contradictory: the so-called voluntaristic approach commonly attributed to Max Weber, which emphasized that society is created by the meaningful acts of individuals; the approach, strongly represented by the Durkheimian school of French sociology, that emphasized social institutions as facets that resist the acts of individuals; and, finally, the tradition of American social psychology, mostly deriving from George Herbert Mead, which studied the way in which individuals are socialized into their roles. (81)
This gives something of an idea of Berger's core ideas as a sociological theorist and researcher -- his intellectual agenda.  But how did Berger relate to the discipline, and the status structure, of American sociology itself?  Berger writes frequently in Adventures about his distance from the mainstream:
I had realized by now how marginal I was to the mainstream of American sociology, and after all, I was nursing dreams of building an empire with our new approach to sociological theory. (85)
His marginality took various forms: a PhD in a decidedly heterodox and non-elite graduate program, teaching appointments in a series of non-elite institutions, and none of the early indicators of "star" status that the discipline of sociology had to offer (elite grants and fellowships, book prizes, etc.).  He notes that a book that he is especially proud of, Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, was ignored by the professional world of sociology when it appeared in 1963; and with evident satisfaction, he notes as well that it went on to sell well over a million copies.  And he is also frank about his aspirations:
I wanted out of Hartford, not because I was unhappy there but because (perhaps misguidedly) I wanted to be in a proper Sociology Department, with graduate students in sociology.  Thus Invitation to Sociology had a subtext, a plea to fellow sociologists: Please invite me! (76)
He is equally frank in describing the striking success and influence of Social Construction: "Someone suggested that it was the most read sociology book written in the twentieth century. That is doubtful. But the book was widely noticed right after publication in America and elsewhere as foreign translations appeared" (89).  The book had wide appeal, and Berger was gratified that this was so.  But it did not result in his becoming one of the leading stars of the sociology world.

Here is how he characterizes his intellectual location, within the field of American sociology in the 1960s. in a reflection on the possible influence of Social Construction:
For just a few years after 1966 there was a narrow window of opportunity for our approach to sociology, since especially younger colleagues were disillusioned by the double dominance of so-called structural-functional theory and quantitative methodology; hence the initially favorable reception of the book. But then, almost immediately afterward, there occurred "an orgy of ideology and utopianism" with which neither Luckmann nor I could identify. (91)
(Essentially he is referring here to the sweeping appeal of the New Left and Post Modernism in the academic world and among students.  These were movements to which he was strongly opposed.)

In other words, the intellectual framework which Berger and Luckmann hoped to create in the 1960s did in fact come into coherent focus in Social Construction; but the opportunity to genuinely shift the focus of the field came and went.  He disparages two offshoots that might be thought to be intellectual descendants or cousins -- ethnomethodology (Garfinkel) and constructivism (Foucault and Derrida) (93 ff.).

And he concludes that he never did become a part of the elite leadership group of American sociology:
As the years went by, I was even assigned the role of a grand (even if definitely out-of-style) old man. But I became an exile, not only from my parochial alma mater [the New School] but from the wider elite culture. Given the nature of the latter, this has not been such a bad thing. (108)
So there seem to be several important strands to this intellectual autobiography. First, Berger gives a strong impression of the importance of what Gross refers to as "self-concept" in the development of his ideas and theories in sociology.  His religious beliefs and questions, his personal rejection of racism and homophobia, and his original and guiding thought about "multiple realities" seem to have guided many of the choices that he made in his academic life.

Second, there is the strand of "academic field" and the constraints and incentives which the field creates for the young scholar -- the insight that drives Bourdieu's understanding of the development of an academic field.  These ambitions and aspirations are plainly important to Berger at various points in the narrative, and they led to some significant choices in his academic life.  But the opportunism that is associated with the Bourdieuian concept seems largely absent in the development of Berger's academic career through middle age.  Even the "exile" that he describes, from the New School to Rutgers, stemmed from choices he made that arose from his self concept in attempting to redirect the Department of Sociology when he became chair.

And finally, Berger never did reach the pinnacle of elite status that Rorty did in philosophy or Kenneth Arrow did in economics.  In his own assessment, the intellectual tides of the field passed him and his insights by.

In other words, Berger's intellectual trajectory seems to follow largely from his self concept, and the ideas and movements of thought that were personally important to him, and very little from his calculating assessment of how best to move upward in the status structure of the discipline.  He was fully aware of that structure; but he seems not to have deviated from the course his own values and convictions set him upon.

(Here's a very critical and worthwhile review of Adventures in The Global Sociology Blog. The review opens with these words: "Well, it is not often that I dislike a book as much as I did Peter Berger's Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist."  SocProf is highly critical of the conservative trend that Berger's thought and affinities took in the 1970s and later, and he argues that this turn leads Berger to eliminate the most crucial parts of the sociological challenge: race, class, gender, and power.  A lot of the Global Sociology review has to do with the later parts of Berger's intellectual course, which I haven't addressed here. I've been primarily interested in where Berger's foundational ideas came from in his own early development.  But I admit that the narrative I've provided here doesn't yet offer a basis for explaining Berger's turn to the right and away from moral and political engagement with the injustices that exist around us.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Knowledge naturalized and socialized

There has been a field of philosophy for quite a long time called "epistemology naturalized." (Here are good articles on naturalized epistemology and evolutionary epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Putting the point simply, the goal of this field is to reconcile two obvious points:
  • Human beings are natural organisms, with cognitive faculties that have resulted from a process of natural selection.  All our beliefs about the world have been created and evaluated using these natural and biologically contingent faculties, generally in social interaction with other knowers.
  • We want to assert that our beliefs about the world are rationally and empirically supportable, and they have a certain probability of being approximately true.
The first point is a truism about the knowledge-producing organism.  The second is an expectation of what we want our beliefs to accomplish in terms of their relationships to the external world.

One of the earliest exponents of naturalized epistemology was W.V.O. Quine in "Epistemology Naturalized", included in Ontological Relativity (1969). Here is a definitive statement of his approach:
Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input -- certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance -- and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one's theory of nature transcends any available evidence...But a conspicuous difference between old epistemology and the epistemological enterprise in this new psychological setting is that we can now make free use of empirical psychology. (82-3)
What are those cognitive faculties that the human organism possesses thanks to our evolutionary history?  Here are several that are important for belief formation.  We have perceptual abilities; we can observe objects and their sensible properties.  We can form concepts that serve to organize our thoughts about the world. We can identify patterns among cognized events.  We can reason deductively and inductively, allowing us to explore the logical relationships among various of our beliefs. We can formulate causal hypotheses about what factors influence what outcomes.  And we can create hypotheses about unobservable structures and properties that are thought to explain and generate the patterns we identify in the sensible world. These capacities presumably have natural histories and, presumably, cognitive gaps. So how can what we know about the human organism's cognitive capacities illuminate the rational warrant of the belief systems that we create?

Experimentation is a key part of belief formation, at least when our beliefs have to do with causation.  We may think that a certain mushroom causes insomnia.  We can design a simple experiment to attempt to test or validate this hypothesis: Identify two representative groups of persons; design a typical diet for everyone; administer the mushroom supplement to the diet of one group and withhold it from the second "control" group; record sleep patterns for both groups.  If there is an average difference in the incidence of insomnia between the two groups, we have prima facie reason to accept the hypothesis. If there is no difference, then we have reason to reject the hypothesis.

So what is the "social" part of knowledge creation?  In what sense does our understanding of knowledge need to be socialized? This is the key question giving rise to the various versions of the sociology of knowledge and science considered in recent posts. It is plain that social influences and social interactions come into virtually every aspect of the "naturalistic" inventory of belief formation offered above. Perception, concept formation, hypothesis formation, theory formation, reasoning, and belief assessment all have social components.The cognitive frameworks that we use, both in everyday perception and learning as well as in specialized scientific research, are socially and culturally informed. This seems to be particularly true in the case of social knowledge, both ordinary and scientific.

So we can add an additional bullet to the two provided at the start about the conditions of knowledge:
  • Belief systems have substantial social underpinnings in the form of division of labor in belief acquisition, socially shared institutions of inquiry, and socially shared (and contested) standards of belief assessment.
Here are a handful of ways in which knowledge is socially conditioned and created:

(1) We form beliefs or interpretations about the motives and reasons for other persons' behavior. These interpretations are formulated in terms of concepts and expectations that are themselves socially specific -- honor, shame, pride, revenge, spite, altruism, love.  And this is an important point: the actor him/herself has internalized some such set of ideas, which in turn influences the behavior.  This means that action is doubly constructed: by the actor and by the interpreter.

(2) We form beliefs about institutions -- the family, the mayor's office, the police department, the presidency. These beliefs are deeply invested in a set of presuppositions and implicatures, which are themselves socially specific.

(3) Knowledge gathering and assessing is inherently social in that it depends on the cooperative and competitive activities of groups of knowledge workers. These may be communities of scientists, theologians, or engineers. Disagreements are inherent in these social groups, and the embodied norms and power relationships that determine which belief systems emerge as "correct" are crucial parts of the knowledge formation process.

(4) We give weight to certain standards of reasoning and we discount other standards of reasoning.  Some of us give credence to magical claims, and we attach some evidentiary weight to statements about magical connections; others disregard magical claims and arguments. These disagreements are culture-specific. (Martin Hollis, ed., Rationality and Relativism, considers a lot of these sorts of questions.)

(5) Standards and definitions of "evidence" and "reason for belief" are socially variable and plastic. Moreover, there is likely to be more variance in these areas in some zones of belief than others. We may find more unanimity about procedures for assessing causal statements about common observable circumstances than about theoretical hypotheses, and even less for assessing beliefs about the likely effects of social policies.

"Naturalizing" and "socializing" knowledge is important because it allows us to investigate the concrete processes and practices through which human beings arrive at beliefs about the world.  The continuing challenge that the philosophy of science raises is the epistemic one: how can we evaluate the rational force of the beliefs and modes of reasoning that are documented through these empirical investigations of the knowledge enterprise?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sociology of knowledge: Camic, Gross and Lamont

The sociology of knowledge has received a new burst of energy in the past few years, with quite a bit of encouragement and innovation coming from Science, Technology and Society studies (STS).  (STS overlaps substantially with the SSK research tradition described briefly in an earlier post.)  Charles Camic and Neil Gross have made very substantial contributions in the past few years, with special focus on the knowledge activities associated with the humanities and social sciences.  (Gross's intellectual sociology of Richard Rorty is discussed here.)

So what is going on in this field today?  Camic, Gross, and Lamont, Social Knowledge in the Making, offers a genuinely pathbreaking collection of articles on different aspects of "social knowledge practices".  The editors' introduction to the volume does an excellent job of laying out the issues that current sociology of knowledge needs to confront.  They illustrate very clearly the differences in perspective associated with traditional intellectual history (which they describe as "traditional approach to social knowledge"; TASK), reductionist sociology of knowledge (attempting to link social conditions to specific set of ideas), and the science studies approach, which focuses a great deal of attention on the specific knowledge practices through which a community constructs and furthers a body of knowledge.

The editors make the point that the STS framework (and the SSK approach) is largely focused on the social practices connected with the natural and biological sciences -- laboratories, graduate schools, journals, conferences. And they argue that the fields of knowledge production involved in social knowledge are both important and distinctive.  (They are distinctive for at least three reasons: social knowledge is reflexive, the data must be gathered from subjective participants, and there are powerful interests in play that are pertinent to various formulations of social knowledge.)  So it is timely to pay equally close attention to the practices and institutions through which economics, philosophy, sociology, or Asian Studies frame and construct knowledge.  This volume attempts to give a number of rigorous examples in different areas of the social knowledge domains of that kind of empirical-sociological research.

Here are a few premises of the editors' approach to the problem:
By "social knowledge" we mean, in the first instance, descriptive informaton and analytical statements about the actions, behaviors, subjective states, and capacities of human beings and/or about the properties and processes of the aggregate or collective units -- the groups, networks, markets, organizations, and so on -- where these human agents are situated. (kl 78)
They also include in their definition of social knowledge the ways of knowledge making:
... the technologies and tools of knowledge making -- that is, the epistemic principles, cognitive schemata, theoretical models, conceptual artifacts, technical instruments, methodological procedures, tacit understandings, and material devices by which descriptive and normative statements about the social world are produced, assessed, represented, communicated, and preserved. (kl 78)
Key to their approach is to engage in detailed studies of the social practices associated with knowledge production.  Here is how they define a social practice:
We define "practices" as the ensembles of patterned activities -- the "modes of working and doing," in Amsterdamska's words -- by which human beings confront and structure the situated tasks with which they are engaged.  These activities may be intentional or unintentional, interpersonally cooperative or antagonistic, but they are inherently multifaceted, woven of cognitive, emotional, semiotic, appreciative, normative, and material components, which carry different valences in different contexts. (kl 122)
The goal of this research effort is to do for the social sciences and humanities what the STS/SSK researchers have done for the natural sciences.  This tradition has ...
shifted scholarly attention away from science as a finished product in the temple of human knowledge and toward the study of the multiple multilayered and multisited practices involved during the long hours when future kernels of scientific knowledge are still in the making. (kl 152)
Here is one of the core observations that the editors draw from the research contributions to the volume:
One of these themes is that social knowledge practices are multiplex, composed of many different aspects, elements, and features, which may or may not work in concert. Surveying the broad terrain mapped across the different chapters, we see, for example, the transitory practices of a short-lived research consortium as well as knowledge practices that endure for generations across many disciplines and institutions... (kl 338)
At site after site, heterogeneous social knowledge practices occur in tandem, layered upon one another, looping around and through each another, interweaving and branching, sometimes pulling in the same directions, sometimes in contrary directions. (kl 353)
So how can this research goal be carried out in practice?  Here is how Andrew Abbott pursues some of these questions in his contribution to the volume in an essay that investigates in detail how historians have used libraries in their research:
I have two major aims in this chapter. The first is empirical. I want to recover the practices, communities, and institutions of library researchers and their libraries in the twentieth century. There is at present almost no synthetic writing about this topic, and I aim to fill that gap. This empirical investigation points to a second more theoretical one.  There turns out to be a longstanding debate between librarians and disciplinary scholars over the proper means to create, store, and access the many forms of knowledge found in libraries. By tracing the evolution of this debate, I create a theoretical context for current debates about library research. (kl 581)
One thing I find interesting in reading this work is the absence of the philosophy of science as one of the reflective areas of research through which the knowledge process is examined.  Thomas Kuhn is mentioned as an intellectual founder of the historical-sociological approach to the problem of scientific knowledge; but the vibrant discipline of the philosophy of science is not mentioned by any of the contributors.  This seems to be a lost opportunity, since philosophers too are trying to make sense of the processes, procedures, and norms of the sciences along the way towards an interpretation of philosophical ideas such as truth and objectivity in knowledge.  It would be highly interesting to see a careful study of the development of post-positivist philosophy of science (from Peter Achinstein, Hilary Putnam, and Bas van Fraassen to the present day, let's say), by a sociologist who is willing to take the trouble to carefully examine the doctrines, schools, graduate programs, journals, associations, and dominant ideas that have evolved in the past half century within philosophy.

Tandem with this absence of the philosophy of science is an avoidance of epistemic concepts like "validity," "approximate truth," or "widening understanding of how the social world works."  The impression given by this volume, anyway, is that the task of the sociology of knowledge is solely restricted to examination of the practices and material conditions through which systems of belief about the social world are formed, without a concomitant interest in evaluating the success of the enterprise at establishing some of the facts of how the world works.  This impression is born out in the closing paragraphs of Camic's entry on "Knowledge, Sociology of" in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Referring essentially to the approach taken by contributors to Social Knowledge in the Making, Camic writes:
This second approach focuses the sociology of knowledge mainly on men and women who specialize in the production of ideas and on the particular social processes by which their ideas emerge and develop—a move that, in effect, transforms the field into a sociology of ideas. This perspective has tended to reject the core assumptions of the older sociology of knowledge, building instead on schol- arship that argues that sociocultural processes are as much internal to the content of ideas as they are external (Bloor 1976, Shapin 1992), that the meanings of ideas are only understandable to an investigator after careful contextual reconstruction (Skinner 1969), and that local, micro-level settings are often the main sites for the development of ideas (Geertz 1983, Whitley 1984). Like the broad-constructionist ap- proach, this narrow-constructionist perspective pre- sently provides a foundation for several lines of empirical research (see Camic and Gross 2000). No forecast can yet be made, however, as to which approach, if either, will rescue the sociology of knowledge from its traditionally marginal position in the discipline of sociology. (8146)
This excerpt too emphasizes the internal practices of the various knowledge communities, rather than the likelihood that the product of knowledge production is valid, veridical, or rationally supportable.

As I found in the earlier post on research communities, it seems that there needs to be more communication and mutual learning between the sociology of science and the philosophy of science. Admittedly the two disciplines have different goals; but in the end, we would like to understand both aspects of the process of knowledge formation in a way that makes coherent sense: the concrete social practices and the cognitive merits of the results.  Otherwise we have no basis for diagnosing what went wrong with Soviet biology and Lysenkoism (depicted in the photo at top).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Paradigms, research communities, and the rationality of science

An earlier post on scientific explanation provoked some interesting comments from readers who wanted to know why Thomas Kuhn was not mentioned.  My brief answer is that Kuhn's contribution doesn't really offer a theory of scientific explanation at all, but instead an account of the cognitive and practical processes involved in formulating scientific knowledge.  Here I'll dig into this question a bit deeper.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) Kuhn asks us to recenter our thinking about scientific knowledge in several important ways.  He de-emphasizes questions about the logic of theory and explanation.  He argues that we should not think of science as an accumulation of formal, logical and mathematical expressions that permit codification of observable phenomena.  He doubts the availability of a general, abstract "scientific method" that serves to guide the formation of scientific knowledge.

Against the abstract ideas about the logic of science associated with positivism, Kuhn advocated for a more practical and historical study of science as a concrete human activity.  He arrives at several ideas that have turned out to have a great deal of influence -- the idea of a scientific paradigm, the idea of incommensurability across paradigms, and the idea that science doesn't just consist in the formal theories that a research tradition advances.  But the most fundamental insight that he developed throughout his career, in my judgment, is the idea that we can learn a great deal about method and scientific rationality by considering the history of science in close detail.

This approach has important implications for the philosophy of science at numerous levels.  First, it casts doubt on the hope that we might reconstruct an ideal "scientific method" that should govern all scientific research.  This was a goal of the logical positivists, and it doesn't survive close scrutiny of the ways in which the sciences have developed.  Second, it leaves room for the idea of scientific rationality, but here again, it suggests that the standards of scientific reasoning need to be specified in each research tradition and epoch, and there is no single "logic" of scientific reasoning that could be specified once and for all.  The injunction, "Subject your theories to empirical tests!", sounds like a universal prescription for scientific rationality; but in fact, the methods and processes through which theories are related to observations are widely different throughout the history of science.  (And, of course, the post-positivist philosophers of science demonstrated that we can't draw a sharp distinction between observation and theory.) Methods of experimentation and instrumentation have varied widely across time and across disciplines.  So empirical evaluation takes many different forms in different areas of the sciences.

There is an implicit tension between a sociological and historical understanding of the sciences, on the one hand, and a realist understanding of the sciences, on the other.  When we look at the formation of scientific beliefs and theories as the output of a specific research tradition and set of research institutions, we will be struck by the scope of contingency that seems to exist in the development of science.   When we look at science as a set of theories about the world, we would like to imagine that they are sometimes true and that they represent reality in approximately the way that it really works.  And we would like to suppose that the cognitive and social values that surround scientific research -- attentiveness to data, openness to criticism, willingness to revise one's beliefs -- will gradually lead to systems of scientific belief that are more and more faithful to the ways the world is.  From this perspective, the contingency and social dependency of the research process seems at odds with the hope that the results will be univocal.

Following Kuhn's historical turn, efforts to place scientific knowledge within a social context gained support within sociology rather than philosophy.  A field of thought emerged, called the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), which took very seriously the idea that social conditions and institutions very deeply influenced or created systems of scientific belief.  Here we can think of David Bloor (Knowledge and Social Imagery), Barry Barnes et al (Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis), and Bruno Latour (Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts), who took the discipline in the direction of a more relativist understanding of the nature of systems of scientific belief.  According to the relativist position on scientific knowledge, belief systems are internally consistent but incomparable from one to another, and there is no absolute standard that allows us to conclude that X is more rationally justified than Y as an explanation of the world.

Here is David Bloor towards the beginning of Knowledge and Social Imagery:
The sociologist is concerned with knowledge, including scientific knowledge, purely as a natural phenomenon. The appropriate definition of knowledge will therefore be rather different from that of either the layman or the philosopher.  Instead of defining it as true belief -- or perhaps, justified true belief -- knowledge for the sociologist is whatever people take to be knowledge.  It consists of those beliefs which people confidently hold to and live by. In particular the sociologist will be concerned with beliefs which are taken for granted or institutionalised, or invested with authority by groups of people. (5)
He goes on to assert that the sociology of science needs to be -- causal, impartial with respect to truth and falsity, symmetrical in explanation, and reflexive (its principles should apply to sociology itself) (7).

From a philosopher's point of view, it would be desirable to find a position that reconciles the social groundedness of scientific belief formation -- and the self-evident ways in which the research process is sometimes pushed by non-cognitive, non-rational forces -- with the ideas of scientific truth and reference.  Essentially, I think that most philosophers would like to acknowledge that human rationality is socially constituted, but is still a form of rationality, and is capable of discovering approximate truths about the world.  It would be desirable to arrive at a philosophy of science that is both sociologically informed and realist.  Imre Lakatos took something like this perspective in the 1970s in his writings about scientific research programmes (The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge). But in general, it is my impression that the discipline of the philosophy of science hasn't taken much heed of the challenges presented by SSK and the more sociological-historical approach. That is unfortunate, because the premises of the sociological-historical approach, and of the SSK approach in particular, are pretty compelling.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sociology of knowledge: Mannheim

The sociology of knowledge is an interesting but somewhat specialized field of research in sociology. Basically the idea is that knowledge -- by which I mean roughly "evidence-based representations of the natural, social, and behavioral world" -- is socially conditioned, and it is feasible and important to uncover some of the major social and institutional processes through which these representations are created. There is a cognitive side of the field as well -- the idea that our cognitive frameworks and conceptual schemes are influenced by social conditions and our own social locations. So presuppositions, concepts, and explanatory scripts have social antecedents that become psychologically real. And, often enough, these presuppositions work to obscure the world even as they provide frameworks for representing the world. So one of the by-products of the sociology is to uncover some of these misleading aspects of our thoughts about the world. Marx's concept of the fetishism of commodities expresses this function of theory very clearly.

Karl Mannheim (Ideology And Utopia: An Introduction To The Sociology Of Knowledge), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge), and Neil Gross and Charles Camic (Social Knowledge in the Making; link) have made important and quite different contributions. Mannheim focuses largely on the role that ideology plays in our representations of the workings of the social world within which we live. Berger and Luckmann focus on "ordinary knowledge" and the specific ways in which people acquire and incorporate commonsensical understandings of the world. Gross and Camic, the most recent contributors to this field, look at the institutional settings and processes through which organized academic "knowledge" is created. Here I will discuss Mannheim, and later posts will turn to these other contributions.

It is worth observing that this field asks some of the same questions that the sociology of science poses as well. Robert Merton, for example, wanted to understand more fully how the institutional settings of scientific research conditioned the creation of scientific knowledge (link). And historians and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Peter Galison give substantial attention to the particular features of the social and practical conditions within which scientific concepts and theories emerge.

A complication arises when we turn these analytical questions towards the content of social beliefs and presuppositions. Because here there is a connection between knowledge and interests: beliefs like "fixed rent land tenure is an efficient system for producing agricultural innovation" have definite and different consequences for various actors in society -- landlords, sovereigns, peasant proprietors, and tenant farmers. So what appears to be a factual statement about incentives and farming turns out to have different effects on various actors' interests. This is where Marx's ideas of ideology and false consciousness come in: various classes have an interest in favoring or disfavoring certain ways of looking at the world. Marx might put the point along these lines: one's position within the system of property and technology introduces a bias into one's beliefs about how the world works.

So let's look at Mannheim's theory. Mannheim opens his book with these words in the expanded English edition of 1936:
This book is concerned with the problem of how men actually think. The aim of these studies is to investigate not how thinking appears in textbooks on logic, but how it actually functions in public life and in politics as an instrument of collective action. (1)
The principal thesis of the sociology of knowledge is that there are modes of thought which cannot be adequately understood as long as their social origins are obscure. (2)
The sociology of knowledge seeks to comprehend thought in the concrete setting of an historical-social situation out of which individually differentiated thought only very gradually emerges. (3)
Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. He finds himself in an inherited situation of thought which are appropriate to this situation and attempts to elaborate further the inherited modes of response or to substitute others for them in order to deal more adequately with the new challenges which have arisen out of the shifts and changes in his situation. (3)
Many of these statements can be understood in terms of the general problem of beliefs about reality that human beings face in the world: we have perceptions and needs, and we are forced to arrive at concepts and explanatory ideas through which we can organize our perceptions and pursue our needs. Knowledge frameworks do not come to human beings full-blown; instead it is a major historical and cultural task to create such frameworks. And this is just as true for the problem of knowing how social relationships work as it is for understanding the workings of the natural world. The conceptual frameworks and explanatory hypotheses that we form are contingent and historical products, and they have a social history.

Mannheim argues in this 1936 introduction that it takes a certain level of complexity of society to permit us to even begin to notice the specific and controvertible presuppositions of our knowledge frameworks. Essentially, this is the period in which people with different interests and life situations come into communicative interaction with each other. Disagreement raises the possibility of cognitive criticism. Two ideas are particularly core for his sociology of knowledge, ideology and utopia.
The concept "ideology" reflects the one discovery which emerged from political conflict, namely, that ruling groups can in their thinking become so intensively interest-bound to a situation that they are simply no longer able to see certain facts which would undermine their sense of domination. (40)
The concept of utopian thinking reflects the opposite discovery of the political struggle, namely that certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition of society that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it. (40)
The intellectual activity of "unmasking" is an antidote for both of these frames of thought: a revealing of the distortions associated with a certain framework and a revealing of the interests that make these distortions understandable (41). And one needs to subject his/her own position to this same critical method: "As long as one does not call his own position into question but regards it as absolute, while interpreting his opponent's ideas as a mere function of the social positions they occupy, the decisive step forward has not yet been taken" (77).

Here is an interesting passage on the historical relativity of conceptual systems:
Our definition of concepts depends upon our position and point of view which, in turn, is influenced by a good many unconscious steps in our thinking. The first reaction of a thinker on being confronted with the limited nature and ambiguity of his notions is to block the way for as long as possible to a systematic and total formulation of the problem. [e.g. Positivism.] (103)
Mannheim's formulation of the issue, and his use of the concept of ideology, makes his theory appear to be an extension of Marx's theory of historical materialism and his theory of ideology . He was in fact extensively influenced by Georg Lukacs (link). But I don't think that Ideology and Utopia is intended to be a faithful development of Marxian concepts. His reasoning seems to have many similarities to that of Weber, and the question he is ultimately interested in is the ways in which human knowledge and belief are themselves contingent, conditioned creative activities. His theory ultimately has much less to do with the burden of class interests on knowledge than would a more orthodox Marxist theory have had.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Recent thinking about scientific explanation

What do we want from a scientific explanation?  Is there a single answer to this question, or is the field of explanation fundamentally heterogeneous, perhaps by discipline or by research community? Do biologists explain outcomes differently from physicists or sociologists? Is a good explanation within the Anglo-American traditions of science also a good explanation in the German or Chinese research communities? Is the idea of a scientific explanation paradigm-dependent?

For several decades in the twentieth century there was a dominant answer to this question, that was an outgrowth of the tradition of logical positivism and examples from the natural sciences. This theory of explanation focused on the idea of subsumption of an event or regularity under a higher-level set of laws. The deductive-nomological theory of explanation specified that an outcome is explained when we have produced a deductively valid argument with premises that include at least one general law and that lead to a description of the event as conclusion. Carl Hempel was the most prominent advocate for this theory (Aspects of Scientific Explanation), but it was widely accepted throughout the philosophy of science in the 1950s and 1960s.  The "covering law" model was a core dogma for the philosophy of science for several decades.

The D-N theory was subject to many kinds of criticisms, including the obvious point that much explanation involves phenomena that are probabilistic rather than deterministic.  Hempel introduced the inductive version of the D-N model to cover probabilistic-statistical explanation, along these lines. An argument provides a scientific explanation of E if it provides at least one probabilistic law and a set of background conditions such that, given the law and conditions, E is highly probable.  This model was described as the "Inductive-Statistical" model (I-S model).  Wesley Salmon's Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World falls within this tradition but offers important refinements, including his formal definition of causal relevance.

In each case the motivation for the theory of explanation is a plausible one: we explain an event when we show how it was necessary [or highly probable] in the circumstances, given existing conditions and relevant laws of nature. On the logical positivist approach, an explanation is an answer to a "why necessary" question: why did this event occur? In this conception of explanation the idea of necessity or probability is replaced with the idea of deductive or inductive derivability -- a syntactic relationship among sets of sentences.

A different approach to explanation turns to the idea of causation.  We provide an explanation of an event or pattern when we succeed in identifying the causal conditions and events that brought it about.  This approach can be tied to the D-N approach, if we believe that all causal relations are the manifestation of strict or probabilistic causal regularities.  But not all D-N explanations are causal, and not all causal explanations invoke regularities.  Derivability is no longer the criterion of explanatory success, and explanation is no longer primarily a syntactic relation between sets of sentences.  Instead, substantive theories of causal powers and properties are the foundation of scientific explanation.  A leading exponent of this view is Rom HarrĂ© in HarrĂ© and Madden, Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. Nancy Cartwright's Nature's Capacities and Their Measurements is also an important contribution to this view.  And J. L. Mackie's The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation is an important contribution as well.  The causal approach retains the idea that explanation involves showing why an event is necessary or probable, but it turns from derivability from statements of laws of nature, to theories of causal powers and properties.

The causal mechanisms approach to explanation continues the insight that explanations involve demonstrating why an event occurred; but this approach moves even farther away from the idea of a causal law, replacing it with the idea of a discrete causal mechanism.  On this approach, we explain an event when we identify a series of causal interactions that lead from some antecedent condition to the outcome of interest.  Hedstrom and Swedborg's Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory presents aspects of this theory of explanation in application to the social sciences.  One benefit of the social mechanisms approach is that it also provides a basis for answering "how possible" questions: if our puzzlement is that an outcome has occurred that seems inherently unlikely, we can provide an account of a set of causal mechanisms that transpired to bring it about.

The chief line of dispute in the traditions mentioned so far is between the "general laws" camp and the "causal powers" camp.  Both are committed to the idea that explanation involves showing how an outcome fits into the ways the world works; but the general laws approach presumes that law-like regularities are fundamental, whereas the causal approach presumes that causal powers and mechanisms are fundamental.

So what has developed in the theory of explanation in the past twenty years? Quite a bit. A recent collection of essays coming largely from the Scandinavian tradition of the philosophy of science is quite helpful in orienting readers to recent developments. This is Johannes Persson and Petri Ylikoski's 2007  Rethinking Explanation. Quite a number of the contributions are worth reading carefully.  But Jan Faye's "Pragmatic-Rhetorical Theory of Explanation" is a good place to start.  Faye distinguishes among three basic approaches to the theory of explanation: formal-logical, ontological, and pragmatic.  The formal-logical approach is essentially the H-D and I-S approaches described above.  The ontological approach is the causal-powers approach described above.  The pragmatic approach is in a sense the most important recent contribution to the theory of explanation, and represents a significant re-focusing of the debates in post-empiricist philosophy of science. Here is how Faye describes the pragmatic approach to explanation-theory:
The pragmatic view sees scientific explanations to be basically similar to explanations in everyday life. It regards every explanation as an appropriate answer to an explanation-seeking question, emphasising that the context of the discourse, including the explainer’s interest and background knowledge, determines the appropriate answer. (44)
And why should we consider a pragmatic approach?  Faye offers eight reasons:
First, we have to recognise that even within the natural sciences there exist many different types of accounts, which scientists regard as explanatory. (46)

Second, if one is looking for a prescriptive treatment of explanation, I see no reason why the social sciences and the humanities should be excluded from such a prescription. If they are included, the prescriptive account must include intentional and interpretive explanations, i.e., accounts providing information about either motives or meanings. (47)

Third, the meaning of a why-question alone does not determine whether the answer is relevant or not. (47)

Fourth, John Searle has correctly argued that the meaning of every indicative sentence is context-dependent. He does not deny that many sentences have literal meaning, which is traditionally seen as the semantic content a sentence has independently of any context. (49)

Fifth, many explanations take the form of stories. Arthur Danto has argued that what we want to explain is always a change of some sort. When a change occurs, we have one situation before and another situation after, and the explanation is what connects these two situations. This is the story. (50)
Sixth, a change always takes place in a complex causal field of circumstances each of which is necessary for its occurrence. Writers like P.W. Bridgman, Norwood Russell Hanson, John Mackie, and Bas van Fraassen have all correctly argued that events are enmeshed in a causal network and that it is the salient factors mentioned in an explanation that constitute the causes of that events. (50)

Seventh, the level of explanation depends also on our interest of communication. In science an appropriate nomic or causal account can be given on the basis of different explanatory levels, and which of these levels one selects as informative depends very much on the rhetorical purposes. (51)

Eight, scientific theories are empirically underdetermined by data. It is always possible to develop competing theories that explain things differently and, therefore, it is impossible to set up a crucial experiment that shows which of these theories that yields the correct account of the data available. (52)
Faye then goes on to analyze scientific explanation as a speech act. We need to understand the presuppositions and purposes that the explainer and the listener have, before we can say much about how the explanation works.

Petri Ylikoski's contribution to the volume, "The Idea of Contrastive Explanandum," picks up on one particular but pervasively important feature of the rhetorical situation of explanation, the idea of contrast.  When we ask for an explanation of an outcome, often we are not asking simply why it occurred, but rather why it occurred instead of something else.  And the contrastive condition is crucial.  If we ask "why did the Prussian army win the Franco-Prussian War?", the answer we give will be very different depending on whether we understand the question as:
"Why did the Prussian army [rather than the French army] win the Franco-Prussian War?"
"Why did the Prussian army win [rather than fighting to stalemate] the Franco-Prussian War?"
So scientific explanation is context-dependent in at least this important respect: we need to understand what the question-asker has in mind before we can provide an adequate explanation from his/her point of view. As Henrik Hallsten puts it in his contribution, "What to Ask of an Explanation-Theory",
To summarize: Any explanation-theory must [do] justice to the distinction between objective explanatory relevance and context dependent explanatory relevance or provide good arguments as to why this distinction should not be upheld. (16)
So perhaps the most important recent developments in the theory of scientific explanation fall in a few categories.  First, there has been substantial work on refining the idea of causal explanation (link).  Second, philosophers have reinforced the idea that explanation has pragmatic and rhetorical aspects that cannot be put aside in favor of syntactic and substantive features of explanation. And third, there is more recognition and acceptance of the idea that explanatory models and standards may reasonably differ across disciplines and research areas.  In particular, the social and historical sciences are entitled to offer explanatory frameworks that are well adapted to the particular kinds of why and how questions that are posed in these fields.   In each case the philosophy of science has made a very great deal of progress since the state of the debates about explanation that transpired in the 1960s.

Friday, January 6, 2012


photos: Niklas Luhman (top), Mario Bunge (bottom)

One view that has been taken about the causal properties of social structures is that they are emergent: they are properties that appear only at a certain level of complexity, and do not pertain to the items of which the social structure is composed. This view has a couple of important problems, not least of which is one of definition. What specifically is the idea of emergence supposed to mean? And do we have any good reasons to believe that it applies to the social world?

An important recent exponent of the view in question is David Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Elder-Vass is in fact specific about what he means by the concept. He defines a property of a compound entity or structure as emergent when the property applies only to the structure itself and not to any of its components.
A thing ... can have properties or capabilities that are not possessed by its parts. Such properties are called emergent properties. (4)
An emergent property is one that is not possessed by any of the parts individually and that would not be possessed by the full set of parts in the absence of a structuring set of relations between them. (17)
But, as I argued in an earlier post, this is such a tame version of emergence that it doesn't seem to add much. By E-V's criterion, most properties are emergent -- the sweetness of sugar, the flammability of woven cotton, the hardness of bronze.

What gives the idea of emergence real bite -- but also makes it fundamentally mysterious -- is the additional idea that the property cannot be derived from facts about the components and their arrangements within the structure in question. By this criterion, none of the properties just mentioned are emergent, because their characteristics can in principle be derived from what we know about their components in interaction with each other.

This is the concept of emergence that is associated with holism and anti-reductionism. Essentially it requires us to do our scientific work entirely at the level of the structure itself -- discover system-level properties and powers, and turn our backs on the impulse to explain through analysis.

A kind of compromise view is offered by Herbert Simon in his conception of a complex system in a 1962 article, "The Architecture of Complexity" (link). Here is how he defines the relevant notion of complexity:
Roughly, by a complex system I mean one made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, not in an ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole. In the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist. (468)
Here Simon favors a view that does not assert ontological independence of system characteristics from individual characteristics, but does assert pragmatic and explanatory independence. In fact, his position seems equivalent to the supervenience thesis: social facts supervene upon facts about individuals. But the implication for research is plain: it is useless to pursue a reductionist strategy for understanding system-level properties of complex systems.

A recent issue of Philosophy of the Social Sciences contains three interesting contributions to different aspects of this topic. Mariam Thalos ("Two Conceptions of Fundamentality") and Shiping Tang ("Foundational Paradigms of Social Sciences") are both worth reading. But Poe Yu-ze Wan's "Emergence a la Systems Theory: Epistemological Totalausschluss or Ontological Novelty?") is directly relevant to the question of emergence, so here I'll focus on his analysis.

Wan distinguishes between two schools of thought about emergence, associated with Niklas Luhmann and Mario Bunge.  Luhmann's conception is extravagantly holistic, whereas Bunge's conception is entirely consistent with the idea that emergent characteristics are nonetheless fixed by properties of the constituents. Wan argues that Luhmann has an "epistemological" understanding of emergence -- the status of a property as emergent is a feature of its derivability or explicability on the basis of lower-level facts.  Bunge's approach, on the other hand, is ontological: even if we can fully explain the higher-level phenomenon in terms of the properties of the lower level, the property itself is still emergent.  So for Bunge, "emergence" is a fact about being, not about knowledge.  Wan also notes that Luhmann wants to replace the "part-whole" distinction with the "environment-system" distinction -- which Wan believes is insupportable (180).  Here is a statement from Luhmann quoted by Wan:
Whenever there is an emergent order, we find the the elements of a presupposed materiality- or energy-continuum … are excluded.  Total exclusion (Totalausschluss) is the condition of emergence. (Luhmann, Niklas. 1992. Wer kennt Wil Martens? Eine Anmerkung zum Problem der Emergenz sozialer System.  Kolner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 44(1): 139-42, 141)
And here is Bunge's definition of emergence, quoted by Wan:
To say that P is an emergent property of systems of kind K is short for "P is a global (or collective or non-distributive) property of a system of kind K, none of whose components or precursors possesses P. (Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge, 15)
Bunge's position here is exactly the same as the conception offered by Elder-Vass above.  It defines emergence as novelty at the higher level -- whether or not that novelty can be explained by facts about the constituents.  Bunge's conception is consistent with the supervenient principle, in my reading, whereas Lumann's is not.

Wan provides an excellent review of the history of thinking about this concept, and his assessment of the issues is one that I for one agree with.  In particular, his endorsement of Bunge's position of "rational emergentism" seems to me to get the balance exactly right: social properties are in some sense fixed by the properties of the constituents; they are nonetheless distinct from those underlying properties; and good scientific theories are justified in referring to these emergent properties without the need of reducing them or replacing them with properties at the lower level.  This is what Simon seems to be getting at in his definition of complex systems, quoted above; and it seems to be equivalent to the idea of explanatory autonomy argued in an earlier post.

My own strategy on this issue is to avoid use of the concept of emergence and to favor instead the idea of explanatory autonomy. This is the idea that mid-level system properties are often sufficiently stable that we can pursue causal explanations at that level, without providing derivations of those explanations from some more fundamental level (link).

The explanatory challenge is very clear: if we want to explain meso-level outcomes on the basis of reference to emergent system characteristics, we can do so.  But we need to have good replicable knowledge of the causal properties of the emergent features in order to develop explanations of other kinds of outcomes based on the workings of the system characteristics.  I would also add that we need to have confidence that the hypothesized system-level characteristics do in fact possess microfoundations at the level of the individual and social actions that underly them; or, in other words, we need to have reason for confidence that the emergent properties our explanations hypothesize do in fact conform to the supervenient relation.

A couple of Wan's sources are particularly valuable for investigators who are interested in pursuing the idea of emergence further:

David Blitz, Emergent Evolution: Qualitative Novelty and the Levels of Reality (Episteme)
Richard Jones, Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality
Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence: Societies As Complex Systems