Naturalizing causal powers

Several earlier posts have considered Tuukka Kaidesoja’s very interesting recent book, Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology (NCR). The book is an important contribution to the evolving literature on next steps for critical realism, and TK is an exceptionally clear and perceptive philosopher. Here I will focus on Tuuka’s contribution to the causal powers literature.

The topic of causal powers is important for current debates within the philosophy of social science. This is especially true when it comes to the question of the causal role that supra-individual social entities play. Like Dave Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, I want to support the idea that social structures (for example, organizations) have causal powers and properties, and a social structure is supra-individual entity. E-V presents this notion in terms of the idea of emergence, whereas I propose to understand it in terms of the notion of relative explanatory autonomy (linklink). But in each case, we hold that it is legitimate to attribute a causal power to a composed social entity, and that there is no compulsion to “reduce” that power to the individual powers of the persons who compose the entity. What is it about the social structure that gives rise to the causal power?

There are two important points to consider here. First, we need to ask what the terms of the causal relation are thought to be. Is it the abstract structure of the organization (shared with other organizations of the same type) that exerts causal power; or is it the concrete particular, this particular instantiated organization, that is the causal agent? I want to maintain that it is the particular social structure, not the abstract structure, that bears the causal role and exerts the causal power.

Second, the traditional account from critical realism and Bhaskar would hold that the powers of a social structure derive from its “essential” properties. But following Kaidesoja, it is both reasonable and justified to drop the essentialism associated with this line of thought. Instead, we can say that the powers of the structure derive from its contingent but current features of organization and functioning. In the case of a social organization, this comes down to the particular set of rules and practices that drive the organization at a point in time. As long as these rules and practices persist, the organization will continue to have the powers that we attribute to it. When those rules and practices undergo change and innovation, it is an open question what changes will result for the causal powers of the organization.

Kaidesoja approaches a view very similar to this in his treatment of Harré and Secord’s analysis of individual and collective powers:

I suggest that these views [advanced by Harré and Secord] presuppose that rules and institutions possess causal powers that are ontologically irreducible to those of individuals. (115)

So what about the assumption of essentialism that is often part of the definition of a causal power? TK takes up the issue of essentialism and natural kinds within causal-powers theory, and argues that we need to “naturalize” this issue as well. Whether there are natural kinds in a particular domain is a question for the sciences to answer, not the philosophers. TK notes that modern biology does not support the notion that biological things (including species) fall into natural kinds defined by distinctive essential natures.

Biological variation between and within species (or spopulations) is thus a normal state of affairs in nature and there is no a priori limit for such variation…. This means that it is no longer plausible to conceive biological species as natural kinds in Harré and Madden’s (1975) sense. (111-112)

So natural-kind essentialism does not fit the entities and processes of the biological realm.

Whether or not the essentialist notion of causal power can be applied to a certain collection of objects studied in a specific discipline should be decided by means of empirical analysis of the scientific research practices, theories and models that are developed in this discipline. (112)

But TK does not believe that this invalidates the idea that biological entities have causal powers; and this entails that there is a separation between essentialism and the attribution of causal powers.

I have argued at many points here that this feature of heterogeneity and change in some of the core characteristics of entities is fundamental to the social world as well (link). So TK’s central insight here is important for the philosophy of social science as well as for biology: causal powers should not be defined in terms of the essential properties of an entity; causal-power theory should not be constructed in such a way as to presuppose essentialism.

One thing I especially appreciate in TK’s treatment of causal powers is the light he sheds on the difference between logical or conceptual necessity, on the one hand, and natural necessity, on the other (106). This is relevant to the earlier discussion here about whether causes necessitate their effects (link). There I argued against the views of Mumford and Anjum, who reject necessity, on the grounds that their argument turns on features of logical necessity that do not attach to causal necessity. Kaidesoja’s discussion here reinforces my conviction that it is reasonable to assert causal “necessitating” even when we acknowledge that causes are sometimes not followed by their effects. Discussing Harré and Madden TK writes:

The concept of natural necessity is thus carefully distinguished from the concepts of logical, transcendental and conceptual necessity (ibid., 19–21). (107)

Kaidesoja emphasizes the similarity of views that exists between Harré and Bhaskar concerning the specification of a causal power. Here is one typical statement from Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science, among many that TK quotes:

To say that a thing has a power to do something is […] to say that it possesses a structure or is of such kind that it would do it, if appropriate conditions obtained. (RTS, p. 88) [118]

The parallel with Harré’s formulations is evident. TK finds that Bhaskar’s main innovation on this point is his attempt to make a transcendental argument for the necessity of attributing real causal powers to entities, and this is a move that he rejects. TK finds that Harré and Madden’s account is more convincing exactly because it locates causal powers in the realm of “concrete powerful particulars”, not in the transcendental realm (121, 122).

Due to the aforementioned problems in the transcendental realist account of the concept of causal power, I prefer Harré and Madden’s Aristotelian conceptualization of causal powers which interprets them as efficient causes and ties them inseparably to the concrete powerful particulars. (122).

And this in turn provides an additional reason to reject the essentialism associated with Bhaskar’s broader conception of causal powers (that the causal power of a thing derives from its essential nature). This becomes the heart of TK’s concept of a “naturalized version of the concept of causal power” (136), and it seems to be a very plausible position.

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