An earlier post mentioned the topic of folk psychology and its relation to cognitive science. Scholars like Paul Churchland question whether there is a realistic correspondence between the properties identified by our folk-psychological understanding of each other and the real underlying cognitive processes on the basis of which we operate.
My interest here is a parallel question for social knowledge: is there a similar situation at work in our ordinary representations of the social world? Are the concepts and causal hypotheses through which we describe and experience the social world reasonable approximations to the way the social world actually works, or do they lead to distortions and falsifications of the nature of the social world? (Here is an earlier post that raises this question; link.)
Here is one way we might approach the idea of folk sociology. We might raise the question of the realism of the social concepts that we use in understanding the larger social world. In particular, do our ordinary notions of power, class, race, political interest, exploitation, charisma, or capitalism serve a valuable scientific function; do they help us analyze the social world in a way which is conducive to scientific theorizing? Or are they simply convenient fictions, best dispensed with when we seek to understand social phenomena in a rigorous way? Or even worse — are they deliberate forms of deceit, imposed by powerful unseen actors who want citizens to see the social world in these terms rather than those terms, as the slave owner wants the slave to see the master as a benevolent provider?
It is clear that there are many constructs that some people use in order to represent and understand the social world that are the opposite of veridical (link, link). The idea of mystification that Marx offered in Capital in his account of the fetishism of commodities captures this view.
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connexion with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.
In a nutshell, the social nature of commodities disappears in the common understanding of toothpaste and running shoes. So Marx’s view seems to be that many of the concepts that we ordinary social participants have of the world around us — our “folk sociology” and “folk political economy” — are misleading and false. And in fact, his idea of “critique” was precisely aimed at uncovering these misconceptions — criticizing the superficial views that ordinary people and political economists alike have of how the modern social and economic system works, and replacing their key concepts with constructs that do a better job of identifying the “real” workings of the social system. In Marx’s view, this set of concepts has to do with the specifics of the forces and relations of production and the conflicts of interest that these social realities create — class conflict.
False and misleading conceptions of the social world are found everywhere — in the present and in the historical past. The old idea of the “American dream” falls in this category — the idea that anyone can achieve success and affluence through talent and effort. But we know that there are systemic obstacles that confront the majority of young people, so that their life prospects are dim. The conspiracy theories of the far right are riddled with ideas about how the social world works that no rational person would accept. Vladimir Putin’s myths of Ukraine’s “Russian” identity and the founding myths of Russian nationalism fall in the category of useful lies, deliberately conveyed to create a perception of history for the Russian public that is fundamentally false and misleading. Putin’s propaganda is designed to create an alternative worldview for Russian citizens, far removed from the historical realities. Stalin’s efforts during and after World War II to erase Jewish victims from Nazi extermination actions in Kiev and elsewhere fall in the same category. And Trump-world’s view of “election lies” and supposedly corrupt election processes is likewise a deliberate myth, designed to motivate followers. And yet each of these framing ideas about the workings of the social world have been profound and foundational for some people at some points in history.
Upon reflection, it seems clear enough that the social world is not fully transparent, and our ordinary beliefs and concepts about how the social world works are sometimes highly misleading. This is why the ideas of ideology and mystification are so relevant for social knowledge. So it seems as though we have no choice but to exercise our critical intelligence to seek to uncover the real mechanisms and processes that lead to change and stability in the world. We are forced to reflect on our own “folk” beliefs about our social world and critically adjust our concepts and hypotheses in such a way that we have better insight into underlying social processes and mechanisms. We are forced, in short, to “demystify” social knowledge (link). We need theories and hypotheses about the social world in order to understand the dynamics that surround us; and yet we must reaffirm the particular importance of critical and truthful investigation in assessing the theories and hypotheses that are presented to us.