Brian Epstein’s radical metaphysics

Brian Epstein is adamant that the social sciences need to think very differently about the nature of the social world. In The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences he sets out to blow up our conventional thinking about the relation between individuals and social facts. In particular, he is fundamentally skeptical about any conception of the social world that depends on the idea of ontological individualism, directly or indirectly. Here is the plainest statement of his view:

When we look more closely at the social world, however, this analogy [of composition of wholes out of independent parts] falls apart. We often think of social facts as depending on people, as being created by people, as the actions of people. We think of them as products of the mental processes, intentions, beliefs, habits, and practices of individual people. But none of this is quite right. Research programs in the social sciences are built on a shaky understanding of the most fundamental question of all: What are the social sciences aboutOr, more specifically: What are social facts, social objects, and social phenomena—these things that the social sciences aim to model and explain? 

My aim in this book is to take a first step in challenging what has come to be the settled view on these questions. That is, to demonstrate that philosophers and social scientists have an overly anthropocentric picture of the social world. How the social world is built is not a mystery, not magical or inscrutable or beyond us. But it turns out to be not nearly as people-centered as is widely assumed. (p. 7)

Here is one key example Epstein provides to give intuitive grasp of the anti-reductionist metaphysics he has in mind — the relationship between “the Supreme Court” and the nine individuals who make it up.

One of the examples I will be discussing in some detail is the United States Supreme Court. It is small— nine members— and very familiar, so there are lots of facts about it we can easily consider. Even a moment’s reflection is enough to see that a great many facts about the Supreme Court depend on much more than those nine people. The powers of the Supreme Court are not determined by the nine justices, nor do the nine justices even determine who the members of the Supreme Court are. Even more basic, the very existence of the Supreme Court is not determined by those nine people. In all, knowing all kinds of things about the people that constitute the Supreme Court gives us very little information about what that group is, or about even the most basic facts about that group. (p. 10)

Epstein makes an important observation when he notes that there are two “consensus” views of the individual-level substrate of the social world, not just one. The first is garden-variety individualism: it is individuals and their properties (psychological, bodily) involved in external relations with each other that constitute the individual-level substrate of the social. In this case is reasonable to apply the supervenience relation to the relation between individuals and higher-level social facts (link).

The second view is more of a social-constructivist orientation towards individuals: individuals are constituted by their representations of themselves and others; the individual-level is inherently semiotic and relational. Epstein associates this view with Searle (50 ff.); but it seems to characterize a range of other theorists, from Geertz to Goffman and Garfinkel. Epstein refers to this approach as the “Standard Model” of social ontology. Fundamental to the Standard View is the idea of institutional facts — the rules of a game, the boundaries of a village, the persistence of a paper currency. Institutional facts are held in place by the attitudes and performances of the individuals who inhabit them; but they are not reducible to an ensemble of individual-level psychological facts. And the constructionist part of the approach is the idea that actors jointly constitute various social realities — a demonstration against the government, a celebration, or a game of bridge. And Epstein believes that supervenience fails in the constructivist ontology of the Standard View (57).

Both views are anti-dualistic (no inherent social “stuff”); but on Epstein’s approach they are ultimately incompatible with each other.

But here is the critical point: Epstein doesn’t believe that either of these views is adequate as a basis for social metaphysics. We need a new beginning in the metaphysics of the social world. Where to start this radical work? Epstein offers several new concepts to help reshape our metaphysical language about social facts — what he refers to as “grounding” and “anchoring” of social facts. “Grounding” facts for a social fact M are lower-level facts that help to constitute the truth of M. “Bob and Jane ran down Howe Street” partially grounds the fact “the mob ran down Howe Street” (M). The fact about Bob and Jane is one of the features of the world that contributes to the truth and meaning of M. “Full grounding” is a specification of all the facts needed in order to account for M. “Anchoring” facts are facts that characterize the constructivist aspect of the social world — conformance to meanings, rules, or institutional structures. An anchoring fact is one that sets the “frame” for a social fact. (An earlier post offered reflections on anchor individualism; link.)

Epstein suggests that “grounding” corresponds to classic ontological individualism, while “anchoring” corresponds to the Standard View (the constructivist view).

What I will call “anchor individualism” is a claim about how frame principles can be anchored. Ontological individualism, in contrast, is best understood as a claim about how social facts can be grounded. (100)

And he believes that a more adequate social ontology is one that incorporates both grounding and anchoring relations. “Anchoring and grounding fit together into a single model of social ontology” (82).

Here is an illustrative diagram of how the two kinds of relations work in a particular social fact (Epstein 94):

So Epstein has done what he set out to do: he has taken the metaphysics of the social world as seriously as contemporary metaphysicians do other important topics, and he has teased out a large body of difficult questions about constitution, causation, formation, grounding, and anchoring. This is a valuable and innovative contribution to the philosophy of social science.

But does this exercise add significantly to our ability to conduct social science research and theory? Do James Coleman, Sam Popkin, Jim Scott, George Steinmetz, or Chuck Tilly need to fundamentally rethink their approach to the social problems they attempted to understand in their work? Do the metaphysics of “frame”, “ground”, and “anchor” make for better social research?

My inclination is to think that this is not an advantage we can attribute to The Ant Trap. Clarity, precision, surprising conceptual formulations, yes; these are all virtues of the book. But I am not convinced that these conceptual innovations will actually make the work of explaining industrial actions, rebellious behavior, organizational failures, educational systems that fail, or the rise of hate-based extremism more effective or insightful.

In order to do good social research we do of course need to have a background ontology. But after working through The Ant Trap several times, I’m still not persuaded that we need to move beyond a fairly commonsensical set of ideas about the social world:

  • individuals have mental representations of the world they inhabit
  • institutional arrangements exist through which individuals develop, form, and act
  • individuals form meaningful relationships with other individuals
  • individuals have complicated motivations, including self-interest, commitment, emotional attachment, political passion
  • institutions and norms are embodied in the thoughts, actions, artifacts, and traces of individuals (grounded and anchored, in Epstein’s terms)
  • social causation proceeds through the substrate of individuals thinking, acting, re-acting, and engaging with other individuals

These are the assumptions that I have in mind when I refer to “actor-centered sociology” (link). This is not a sophisticated philosophical theory of social metaphysics; but it is fully adequate to grounding a realist and empirically informed effort to understand the social world around us. And nothing in The Ant Trap leads me to believe that there are fundamental conceptual impossibilities embedded in these simple, mundane individualistic ideas about the social world.

And this leads me to one other conclusion: Epstein argues the social sciences need to think fundamentally differently. But actually, I think he has shown at best that philosophers can usefully think differently — but in ways that may in the end not have a lot of impact on the way that inventive social theorists need to conceive of their work.

(The photo at the top is chosen deliberately to embody the view of the social world that I advocate: contingent, institutionally constrained, multi-layered, ordinary, subject to historical influences, constituted by indefinite numbers of independent actors, demonstrating patterns of coordination and competition. All these features are illustrated in this snapshot of life in Copenhagen — the independent individuals depicted, the traffic laws that constrain their behavior, the polite norms leading to conformance to the crossing signal, the sustained effort by municipal actors and community based organizations to encourage bicycle travel, and perhaps the lack of diversity in the crowd.)

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