Emotions as neurophysiological constructs

Are emotions real? Are they hardwired to our physiology? Are they pre-cognitive and purely affective? Was Darwin right in speculating that facial expressions are human universals that accurately represent a small repertoire of emotional experiences (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals)? Or instead are emotions a part of the cognitive output of the brain, influenced by context, experience, expectation, and mental framework? Lisa Feldman Barrett is an accomplished neuroscientist who addresses all of these questions in her recent book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, based on several decades of research on the emotions. The book is highly interesting, and has important implications for the social sciences more broadly.

Barrett’s core view is that the received theory of the emotions — that they are hardwired and correspond to specific if unknown neurological groups, connected to specific physiological and motor responses — is fundamentally wrong. She marshals a great deal of experimental evidence to the incorrectness of that theory. In its place she argues that emotional responses and experiences are the result of mental, conceptual, and cognitive construction by our central nervous system, entirely analogous to our ability to find meaning in a visual field of light and dark areas in order to resolve it as a bee (her example). The emotions are like perception more generally — they result from an active process in which the brain attempts to impose order and pattern on sensory stimulation, a process she refers to as “simulation”. She refers to this as the theory of constructed emotion (30). In brief:

Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. (31)

And further:

Particular concepts like “Anger” and “Distrust” are not genetically determined. Your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful, and your brain applies them outside your awareness to construct your experiences. (33)

This theory has much in common with theorizing about the nature of perception and thought within cognitive psychology, where the constructive nature of perception and representation has been a core tenet. Paul Kolers’ motion perception experiments in the 1960s and 1970s established that perception is an active and constructive process, not a simple rendering of information from the retina into visual diagrams in the mind (Aspects of Motion Perception). And Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained argues for a “multiple drafts” theory of conscious experience which once again emphasizes the active and constructive nature of consciousness.

One implication of Barrett’s theory is that emotions are concept-dependent. We need to learn the terms for emotions in our ambient language community before we can experience them. The emotions we experience are conceptually loaded and structured.

People who exhibit low emotional granularity will have only a few emotion concepts. In English, they might have words in their vocabulary like “sadness,” “fear,” “guilt,” “shame,” “embarrassment,” “irritation,” “anger,” and “contempt,” but those words all correspond to the same concept whose goal is something like “feeling unpleasant.” This person has a few tools — a hammer and Swiss Army knife. (106)

In a later chapter Barrett takes her theory in a Searle-like direction by emphasizing the inherent and irreducible constructedness of social facts and social relations (chapter 7). Without appropriate concepts we cannot understand or represent the behaviors and interactions of people around us; and their interactions depend inherently on the conceptual systems or frames within which we place their actions. Language, conceptual frames, and collective intentionality are crucial constituents of social facts, according to this perspective. I find Searle’s arguments on this subject less than convincing (link), and I’m tempted to think that Barrett is going out on a limb by embracing his views more extensively than needed for her own theory of the emotions.

I find Barrett’s work interesting for a number of reasons. One is the illustration it provides of human plasticity and heterogeneity. “Any category of emotion such as “Happiness” or “Guilt” is filled with variety” (35). Another is the methodological sophistication Barrett demonstrates in her refutation of two thousand years of received wisdom about the emotions, from Aristotle and Plato to Paul Ekman and colleagues. This sophistication extends to her effort to avoid language in describing emotions and research strategies that embeds the ontology of the old view — an ontology that reifies particular emotions in the head and body of the other human being (40). She correctly observes that language like “detecting emotion X in the subject” implies that the psychological condition exists as a fixed reality in the subject; whereas the whole point of her theory is that the experience of disgust or happiness is a transient and complex construction by the brain behind the scenes of our conscious experience. She is “anti-realist” in her treatment of emotion. “We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems” (40). And finally, her theory of emotion as a neurophysiological construct has a great deal of credibility — its internal logic, its fit with current understandings of the central nervous system, its convergence with cognitive psychology and perception theory, and the range of experimental evidence that Barrett brings to bear.

Folk psychology and Alexa

Paul Churchland made a large splash in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science several decades ago when he cast doubt on the categories of “folk psychology” — the ordinary and commonsensical concepts we use to describe and understand each other’s mental lives. In Paul Churchland and Patricia Churchland, On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997, Paul Churchland writes:

“Folk psychology” denotes the prescientific, commonsense conceptual framework that all normally socialized humans deploy in order to comprehend, predict, explain, and manipulate the behavior of . humans and the higher animals. This framework includes concepts such as belief, desire, pain pleasure, love, hate, joy, fear, suspicion, memory, recognition, anger, sympathy, intention, and so forth…. Considered as a whole, it constitutes our conception of what a person is. (3)

Churchland does not doubt that we ordinary human beings make use of these concepts in everyday life, and that we could not dispense with them. But he is not convinced that they have a scientifically useful role to play in scientific psychology or cognitive science.

In our ordinary dealings with other human beings it is both important and plausible that the framework of folk psychology is approximately true. Our fellow human beings really do have beliefs, desires, fears, and other mental capacities, and these capacities are in fact the correct explanation of their behavior. How these capacities are realized in the central nervous system is largely unknown, though as materialists we are committed to the belief that there are such underlying neurological functionings. But eliminative materialism doesn’t have a lot of credibility, and the treatment of mental states as epiphenoma to the neurological machinery isn’t convincing either.

These issues had the effect of creating a great deal of discussion in the philosophy of psychology since the 1980s (link). But the topic seems all the more interesting now that tens of millions of people are interacting with Alexa, Siri, and the Google Assistant, and are often led to treat the voice as emanating from an intelligent (if not very intelligent) entity. I presume that it is clear that Alexa and her counterparts are currently “question bots” with fairly simple algorithms underlying their capabilities. But how will we think about the AI agent when the algorithms are not simple; when the agents can sustain lengthy conversations; and when the interactions give the appearance of novelty and creativity?

It turns out that this is a topic that AI researchers have thought about quite a bit. Here is the abstract of “Understanding Socially Intelligent Agents—A Multilayered Phenomenon”, a fascinating 2001 article in IEEE by Perrson, Laaksolahti, and Lonnqvist (link):

The ultimate purpose with socially intelligent agent (SIA) technology is not to simulate social intelligence per se, but to let an agent give an impression of social intelligence. Such user-centred SIA technology, must consider the everyday knowledge and expectations by which users make sense of real, fictive, or artificial social beings. This folk-theoretical understanding of other social beings involves several, rather independent levels such as expectations on behavior, expectations on primitive psychology, models of folk-psychology, understanding of traits, social roles, and empathy. The framework presented here allows one to analyze and reconstruct users’ understanding of existing and future SIAs, as well as specifying the levels SIA technology models in order to achieve an impression of social intelligence.

The emphasis here is clearly on the semblance of intelligence in interaction with the AI agent, not the construction of a genuinely intelligent system capable of intentionality and desire. Early in the article they write:

As agents get more complex, they will land in the twilight zone between mechanistic and living, between dead objects and live beings. In their understanding of the system, users will be tempted to employ an intentional stance, rather than a mechanistic one.. Computer scientists may choose system designs that encourage or discourage such anthropomorphism. Irrespective of which, we need to understand how and under what conditions it works.

But the key point here is that the authors favor an approach in which the user is strongly led to apply the concepts of folk psychology to the AI agent; and yet in which the underlying mechanisms generating the AI’s behavior completely invalidate the application of these concepts. (This approach brings to mind Searle’s Chinese room example concerning “intelligent” behavior; link.) This is clearly the approach taken by current designs of AI agents like Siri; the design of the program emphasizes ordinary language interaction in ways that lead the user to interact with the agent as an intentional “person”.

The authors directly confront the likelihood of “folk-psychology” interactions elicited in users by the behavior of AI agents:

When people are trying to understand the behaviors of others, they often use the framework of folk-psychology. Moreover, people expect others to act according to it. If a person’s behavior blatantly falls out of this framework, the person would probably be judged “other” in some, e.g., children, “crazies,” “psychopaths,” and “foreigners.” In order for SIAs to appear socially intelligent, it is important that their behavior is understandable in term of the folk-psychological framework. People will project these expectations on SIA technology and will try to attribute mental states and processes according to it. (354)

And the authors make reference to several AI constructs that are specifically designed to elicit a folk-psychological response from the users:

In all of these cases, the autonomous agents have some model of the world, mind, emotions, and of their present internal state. This does not mean that users automatically infer the “correct” mental state of the agent or attribute the same emotion that the system wants to convey. However, with these background models regulating the agent’s behavior the system will support and encourage the user to employ her faculty of folk-psychology reasoning onto the agent. Hopefully, the models generate consistently enough behavior to make folk-psychology a framework within which to understand and act upon the interactive characters. (355)

The authors emphasize the instrumentalism of their recommended approach to SIA capacities from beginning to end:

In order to develop believable SIAs we do not have to know how beliefs-desires and intentions actually relate to each other in the real minds of real people. If we want to create the impression of an artificial social agent driven by beliefs and desires, it is enough to draw on investigations on how people in different cultures develop and use theories of mind to understand the behaviors of others. SIAs need to model the folk-theory reasoning, not the real thing. To a shallow AI approach, a model of mind based on folk-psychology is as valid as one based on cognitive theory. (349)

This way of approaching the design of AI agents suggests that the “folk psychology” interpretation of Alexa’s more capable successors will be fundamentally wrong. The agent will not be conscious, intentional, or mental; but it will behave in ways that make it almost impossible not to fall into the trap of anthropomorphism. And this in turn brings us back to Churchland and the critique of folk psychology in the human-human cases. If computer-assisted AI agents can be completely persuasive as mentally structured actors, then why are we so confident that this is not the case for fellow humans as well?

Actors in historical epochs

I’ve argued often for the idea that social science and historical explanations need to be “actor-centered” — we need to ground our hypotheses about social and historical causation in theories of the pathways through which actors embody those causal processes. Actors in relation to each other constitute the “substrate” of social causation. Actors make up the microfoundations of social causes and processes. Actors constitute the causal necessity of social mechanisms.

In its abstract formulation this is little more than an expression of ontological individualism (link). But in application it represents a highly substantive research challenge. In order to provide concrete accounts of social processes in various cultural and historical settings, we need to have fairly specific theories of the actor in those settings (link): what motivates actors, what knowledge do they have of their environment, what cognitive and practical frameworks do they bring to their experiences of the world, what do they want, how do they reason, how do they relate to other actors, what norms and values are embedded in their action principles?

Rational choice theory and its cousins (desire-belief-opportunity theory, for example) provide what is intended to be a universal framework for understanding action. But as has been argued frequently here, these schemes are reductive and inadequate as a general basis for understanding action (link). It has also been argued here that the recent efforts to formulate a “new pragmatist” theory of the actor represent useful steps forward (link).

A very specific concern arises when we think carefully about the variety of actors found in diverse historical and cultural settings. It is obvious that actors in specific cultures have different belief systems and different cognitive frameworks; it is equally apparent that there are important and culture-specific differences across actors when it comes to normative and value commitments. So what is needed in order to investigate social causation in significantly different cultural and historical settings? Suppose we want to conduct research on social contention along the lines of work by Charles Tilly, with respect to communities with widely different cultural assumptions and frameworks. How should we attempt to understand basic elements of contention such as resistance, mobilization, and passivity if we accept the premise that French artisans in Paris in 1760, Vietnamese villagers in 1950, and Iranian professionals in 2018 have very substantial differences in their action principles and cognitive-practical frameworks?

There seem to be several different approaches we might take. One is to minimize the impact of cultural differences when it comes to material deprivation and oppression. Whatever else human actors want, they want material wellbeing and security. And when political or social conditions place great pressure on those goods, human actors will experience “grievance” and will have motives leading them to mobilize together in support of collective efforts to ameliorate the causes of those grievances.

Another possibility is to conclude that collective action and group behavior are substantially underdetermined by material factors, and that we should expect as much diversity in collective behavior as we observe in individual motivation and mental frameworks. So the study of contention is still about conflicts among individuals and groups; but the conflicts that motivate individuals to collective action may be ideological, religious, culinary, symbolic, moral — or material. Moreover, differences in the ways that actors frame their understandings of their situation may lead to very different patterns of the dynamics of contention — the outbreak and pace of mobilization, the resolution of conflict, the possibility of compromise.

Putting the point in terms of models and simulations, we might think of the actors as a set of cognitive and practical processing algorithms and who decide what to do based on their beliefs and these decision algorithms. It seems unavoidable that tweaking the parameters of the algorithms and beliefs will lead to very different patterns of behavior within the simulation. Putting the point the other way around, the successful mobilization of Vietnamese peasants in resistance to the French and the US depended on a particular setting of the cognitive-practical variables in these individual actors. Change those settings and, perhaps, you change the dynamics of the process and you change history.

*         *         *

Clifford Geertz is one of the people who has taken a fairly radical view on the topic of the constituents of the actor. In “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali” in The Interpretation Of Cultures he argues that Balinese culture conceives of the individual person in radically unfamiliar ways:

One of these pervasive orientational necessities is surely the charac terization of individual human beings. Peoples everywhere have devel oped symbolic structures in terms of which persons are perceived not baldly as such, as mere unadorned members of the human race, but as representatives of certain distinct categories of persons, specific sorts of individuals. In any given case, there are inevitably a plurality of such structures. Some, for example kinship terminologies, are ego entered: that is, they denote the status of an individual in terms of his relation ship to a specific social actor. Others are centered on one or another subsystem or aspect of society and are invariant with respect to the perspectives of individual actors: noble ranks, age-group statuses, occu pational categories. Some-personal names and sobriquets-are infor mal and particularizing; others-bureaucratic titles and caste desig nations-are formal and standardizing. The everyday world in which the members of any community move, their taken-for-granted field of social action, is populated not by anonymous, faceless men with out qualities, but by somebodies, concrete classes of determinate per sons positively characterized and appropriately labeled. And the symbol systems which denote these classes are not given in the nature of things –they are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individu ally applied. (363-364)

In Bali, there are six sorts of labels which one person can apply to an other in order to identify him as a unique individual and which I want to consider against this general conceptual background: ( I ) personal names; (2) birth order names; (3) kinship terms; (4) teknonyms; (5) sta tus titles (usually called “caste names” in the literature on Bali); and (6) public titles, by which I mean quasi-occupational titles borne by chiefs, rulers, priests, and gods. These various labels are not, in most cases, employed simultaneously, but alternatively, depending upon the situa tion and sometimes the individual. They are not, also, all the sorts of such labels ever used; but they are the only ones which are generally recognized and regularly applied. And as each sort consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but of a distinct and bounded terminologi cal system, I shall refer to them as “symbolic orders of person-defini tion” and consider them first serially, only later as a more or less coher ent cluster. (368)

Also outstanding in this field is Robert Darnton’s effort to reconstruct the forms of agency underlying the “great cat massacre” in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History; link.

What is the role of character in action?

 

I’ve been seriously interested in the question of character since being invited to contribute to a volume on the subject a few years ago. That volume, Questions of Character, has now appeared in print, and it is an excellent and engaging contribution. Iskra Fileva was the director of the project and is the editor of the volume, and she did an excellent job in selecting topics and authors. She also wrote an introduction to the volume and introductions to all five parts of the collection. It would be possible to look at Fileva’s introductions collectively as a very short book on character by themselves.

So what is “character”? To start, it is a concept of the actor that draws our attention to enduring characteristics of moral and practical propensities, rather than focusing on the moment of choice and the criteria recommended by the ethicist on the basis of which to make choices. Second, it is an idea largely associated with the “virtue” ethics of Aristotle. The other large traditions in the history of ethics — utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, or consequentialist and deontological theories — have relatively little to say about character, focusing instead on action, rules, and moral reasoning. And third, it is distinguished from other moral ideas by its close affinity to psychology as well as philosophy. It has to do with the explanation of the behavior of ordinary people, not just philosophical ideas about how people ought to behave.

This is a fundamentally important question for anyone interested in formulating a theory of the actor. To hold that human beings sometimes have “character” is to say that they have enduring features of agency that sometimes drive their actions in ways that override the immediate calculation of costs and benefits, or the immediate satisfaction of preferences. For example, a person might have the virtues of honesty, courage, or fidelity — leading him or her to tell the truth, resist adversity, or keep commitments and promises, even when there is an advantage to be gained by doing the contrary. Or conceivably a person might have vices — dishonesty, cruelty, egotism — that lead him or her to act accordingly — sometimes against personal advantage.

Questions of Character is organized into five major sets of topics: ethical considerations, moral psychology, empirical psychology, social and historical considerations, and art and taste. Fileva has done an excellent job of soliciting provocative essays and situating them within a broader context. Part I includes innovative discussions of how the concept of character plays out in Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. Part II considers different aspects of the problem of self-control and autonomy. Part III examines the experimental literature on behavior in challenging situations (for example, the Milgram experiment), and whether these results demonstrate that human actors are not guided by enduring virtues. Part IV examines the intersection between character and large social settings, including history, the market, and the justice system. And Part V considers the role of character in literature and the arts, including the interesting notion that characters in novels become emblems of the character traits they display.

The most fundamental question raised in this volume is this: what is the role of character in human action? How, if at all, do embodied traits, virtues and vices, or personal commitments influence the actions that we take in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances? And the most intriguing challenge raised here is one that casts doubt on the very notion of character: “there are no enduring behavioral dispositions inside a person that warrant the label ‘character’.” Instead, all action is opportunistic and in the moment. Action is “situational” (John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior; Ross and Nisbett, The Person and the Situation). On this approach, what we call “character” and “virtue” is epiphenomenal; action is guided by factors more fundamental than these.

My own contribution focuses on the ways in which character may be shaped by historical circumstances. Fundamentally I argue that growing up during the Great Depression, the Jim Crow South, or the Chinese Revolution potentially cultivates fairly specific features of mentality in the people who had these formative experiences. The cohort itself has a common (though not universal) character that differs from that of people in other historical periods. As a consequence people in those cohorts commonly behave differently from people in other cohorts when confronted with roughly similar action situations. So character is both historically shaped and historically important. Much of my argument was worked out in a series of posts here in Understanding Society.

This project is successful in its own terms; the contributors have created a body of very interesting discussion and commentary on an important element of human conduct. The volume is distinctly different from other collections in moral psychology or the field of morality and action. But the project is successful in another way as well. Fileva and her colleagues succeeded in drawing together a novel intellectual configuration of scholars from numerous disciplines to engage in a genuinely trans-disciplinary research collaboration. Through several academic conferences (one of which I participated in), through excellent curatorial and editorial work by Fileva herself, and through the openness of all the collaborators to listen with understanding to the perspectives of researchers in other disciplines, the project succeeded in demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration in shedding light on an important topic. I believe we understand better the intriguing complexities of actors and action as a result of the work presented in Questions of Character.

(Here is a series of posts on the topic of character; link.)

Coleman on the classification of social action

Early in his theoretical treatise of rational-choice sociology Foundations of Social Theory, James Coleman introduces a diagram of different kinds of social action (34). This diagram is valuable because it provides a finely granulated classification of kinds of social action, differentiated by the relationships that each kind stipulates among individuals within the interaction.

Here is how Coleman describes the classification system provided here:

Differing kinds of structures of action are found in society, depending on the kinds of resources involved in actions, the kinds of actions taken, and the contexts within which the actions are taken. (34)

Here is the legend for the diagram:

1. Private actions
2. Exchange relations
3. Market
4. Disjoint authority relations
5. Conjoint authority relations
6. Relations of trust
7. Disjoint authority systems
8. Conjoint authority systems
9. Systems of trust, collective behavior
10. Norm-generating structures
11. Collective-decision structures

The regions of the diagram are organized into a number of higher-order groups:

A. Purposive action
B. Transfer of rights or resources
C. Unilateral transfer
D. Rights to control action
E. System of relations
F. Events with consequences for many

For example, social events falling in zone 8 have these distinguishing characteristics: they involve a transfer of rights to control action, shifting through unilateral transfer within an existing system of relations. An example might include a party to divorce who surrenders his or her right to control whether the child is moved to another state. This would be a unilateral transfer of control from one party to the other party. Events in zone 7 differ from those in zone 8 only in that they do not reflect unilateral transfer. The same example can be adjusted to a zone 7 case by stipulating that both parties must agree to the transfer of control of the child’s residence.

It is interesting to observe that the whole diagram takes place within the domain of purposive action (A). This illustrates Coleman’s fundamental presupposition about the social world: that social outcomes result from purposive, intentional actions by individuals. If we imagined that religious rituals were purely performative, serving as expressions of inner spiritual experience — we would find that these “social events” have no place in this diagram. Likewise, if we thought that there is an important role for emotion, solidarity, hatred, or love in the social world — we would find that actions and phenomena involving these factors would have no place in the diagram.

It would be interesting to attempt to populate a more complex diagram with an initial structure something like this:

Would this modified scheme give a different orientation to the “sociological imaginary”? Might we imagine that the theories of important intersectional figures like Bourdieu, Tilly, or Foucault might fall in the intersection of all three circles? Would episodes of contentious politics involve actions that are purposive, emotive, and performative? Is there any reason (parsimony, perhaps) to attempt to reduce emotion and performance to a different kind of purpose? Or it is better to honestly recognize the diversity of kinds of action and motivation? My inclination is to think that Coleman’s choice here reflects “rational choice fundamentalism” — the idea that ultimately all human actions are driven by a calculation of consequences. And this assumption seems unjustified.

Complementarity of thick and thin theories of the actor

There is a range of approaches to the social sciences that fall under the umbrella of “actor-centered” theories (link). The chief fissure among these theories is that between “thin” and “thick” theories of the actor — theories which provide less or more detail about the mental frameworks and beliefs of the actors being described. The extremes of the two types of theories range from pure rational choice theory to social psychology and ethnography. The two types of theories have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Thin theories, including especially rational choice theory and game theory, make use of a particularly sparse theory of the actor’s decision framework. This approach provides a basis for representing the motives and decisions of actors that can be readily incorporated into powerful techniques of simulation and calculation. Thick theories, including pragmatist and ethnomethodological theories, offer a basis for investigating particular social settings of action in detail, and they provide an in-depth basis for explaining and understanding the choices, judgments, and behavior of the individuals they study. But thick theories are not so readily incorporated into simulation models, precisely because they do not provide abstract, general characterizations of the individual’s action framework.

These comments make the contrast sound like a familiar set of oppositions: nomothetic explanation versus idiographic interpretation; causal explanation versus hermeneutic interpretation. And this in turn suggests that rational choice theory will be good at arriving at generalizations, whereas pragmatist and ethnographic theories will be good at providing satisfying interpretations of the actions of individuals in concrete social and historical circumstances, but not particularly good at providing a basis for general explanations.

The situation is not quite so binary as this suggests, however. A central tool for actor-centered research is set of simulation techniques falling under the rubric of agent-based models. To date ABMs have tended to use thin theories of the actor to represent the players in the simulation. However, it is entirely possible for agent-based models to incorporate substantially greater levels of specificity and granularity about the action frameworks of the individuals in specific circumstances. An ABM can introduce different kinds of agents into a simulation, each of which embodies a specific set of beliefs and modes of reasoning. And it can be argued that this increase in granularity provides a basis for a better simulation of complex social processes involving heterogeneous kinds of actors.

For example, a simulation of the political appeal of a nationalistic politician like Donald Trump may benefit by segmenting the electorate into different categories of voters: white nationalists, aging blue-collar workers, anti-globalization young people, …. And the model should represent the fact that actors in these various segments have substantially different ways of making political judgments and actions. So ABM simulations can indeed benefit from greater “thickness” of assumptions about agents. (This was illustrated in the discussion of the Epstein rebellion model earlier; link.)

On the other hand, it is possible to use RCT and DBO theories to illuminate historically particular instances of action — for example, the analysis of historically situated collective action along the lines of Margaret Levi’s review in “Reconsiderations of Rational Choice in Comparative and Political Analysis” (link). These theories can be applied to specific social circumstances and can provide convincing and satisfying interpretations of the reasoning and actions of the agents who are involved. So narrative explanations of social outcomes can be constructed using both thick and thin assumptions about the actors.

Moreover, the explanatory strength of thick theories is not limited to the degree to which they can be incorporated into formal simulations — what can be referred to as “aggregation dynamics”. It is clear that real explanations of important phenomena emerge from research by sociologists like Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (link), Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (link), and Erving Goffman in Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). We understand better the dynamics of the French professional classes, inner city neighborhoods, and asylums when we read the detailed and rigorous treatments that micro-sociologists provide of these social settings.

What this suggests is that analytical sociology would be well advised to embrace pluralism when it comes to theories of the actor and methods of application of actor-based research. Thick and thin are not logical contraries, but rather complementary ways of analyzing and explaining the social worlds we inhabit.

Bourdieu on post-modern biography

Here is a very interesting short piece by Pierre Bourdieu on the topic of biography, “L’Illusion biographique,” that is very relevant to the prior post. (Thanks, Denis!) Here Bourdieu takes issue with common sense on the subjects of the self and the nature of biography. Here is the commonsense understanding that he rejects: the idea of a life as a coherent and sequential story, with a beginning and end and a logical set of steps intervening. This idea underlies the group of metaphors commonly used by biographers representing life as a journey. Bourdieu argues that this reflects an uncritical and traditional understanding of history. This treatment rests upon important presuppositions — most fundamentally, that a life constitutes a coherent whole that can be understood as the expression of a unified intentional agent. This assumption accounts for the words connoting logical process that are so common in biographies: “thus”, “hence”, “so”, “therefore”, and “always” (consistency). The assumption is that a life is intelligible. Here is a nice passage summarizing this thought:

On est sans doute en droit de supposer que le récit autobiographique s’inspire toujours, au moins pour une part, du souci de donner sens, de rendre raison, de dégager une logique à la fois rétrospective et prospective, une consistance et une constance, en établissant des relations intelligibles, comme celle de l’effet à la cause efficiente ou finale, entre les états successifs, ainsi constitués en étapes d’un développement nécessaire.

[One is undoubtedly justified in thinking that the recital of an autobiography is inspired, at least in part, out of a concern to give meaning, to uncover a logic at the moment, both retrospective and prospective, a consistency and constancy, establishing intelligible relations such as cause and effect, between successive states, this establishing an account of a necessary sequence of development.]

Bourdieu thinks this understanding is untenable. He proposes a deconstruction of the self that draws upon a parallel with the form of the modern novel — Faulkner or Robbe-Grillet — in which logical sequence is deliberately challenged. Rather than coherence and logical development, we have discontinuity, irrationality, and chaotic sets of experiences. 

Produire une histoire de vie, traiter la vie comme une histoire, c’est-à-dire comme le récit cohérent d’une séquence signifiante et orientée d’événements, c’est peut-être sacrifier à une illusion rhétorique, à une représentation commune de l’existence, que toute une tradition littéraire n’a cessé et ne cesse de renforcer. 

[To produce a history of a life, to treat a life like a history, that is to say, like a coherent recital of a meaningful sequence of events, is perhaps to submit to a rhetorical illusion, a common representation of existence, that our literary tradition has not ceased to reinforce.]

Bourdieu wants to understand these issues in analogy with twentieth-century doubts about the unity of the self. According to this post-modern critique, the self itself is a fiction of coherence, a rhetorical overlay on top of chaotic experience and actions. Kant’s unity of apperception is an illusion imposed by the narrator of the self. 
 
Instead Bourdieu wants to understand the unity of the self sociologically in terms of the functioning of a proper name within specific fields of social interaction. (He refers here to Kripke and Ziff’s ideas of rigid designators.) The proper name serves as tag linking the biological individual across social spaces. 

En tant qu’institution, le nom propre est arraché au temps et à l’espace, et aux variations selon les lieux et les moments : par là, il assure aux individus désignés, par delà tous les changements et toutes les fluctuations biologiques et sociales, la constance nominale, l’identité au sens d’identité à soi-même, de constantia sibi, que demande l’ordre social.

[As an institution, a proper name is situated in time and space, and changes according to place and time: accordingly it assures the designated individuals, beyond all biological and social changes and fluctuations, the nominal constancy, identity in the sense of identity to oneself, faithful to itself, that demand social ordering.]

What is the upshot for Bourdieu here? It seems to be that we should discard biography as a fundamentally flawed intellectual undertaking, and we should instead look at “non-biography” as a non-chronological map of social positions occupied by the biological individual designated by the proper name. On this account there is the biological individual and there is the social individual, but there is no personal intentional actor mediating between these. The proper name, a cypher with no content, replaces the self. 

Ainsi s’explique que le nom propre ne puisse pas décrire des propriétés et qu’il ne véhicule aucune information sur ce qu’il nomme :  du fait que ce qu’il désigne n’est jamais qu’une rhapsodie composite et disparate de propriétés biologiques et sociales en changement constant, toutes les descriptions seraient valables seulement dans les limites d’un stade ou d’un espace. Autrement dit, il ne peut attester l’identité de la personnalité, comme individualité socialement constituée, qu’au prix d’une formidable abstraction. 

[Thus it is that a proper names cannot describe properties and conveys no information about the individual named: in fact, the designated item is nothing more than a composite and disparate rhapsody of biological and social properties in constant change, all descriptions are valid only in the limits of a field of space. In other words, it is not possible to attest to the identity of the personality, as a socially constituted individual, except at the process of formidable abstraction.]

The individual is simply the sum of a network graph of positions in social spaces, with nothing interior.  And therefore biography needs replacing by a linked set of spatial locations within the social fields within which her or she competes. 
 
Is this sufficient? Not at all. It conveys an anti-mentalistic stance about people that is as flawed as was radical behaviorism. No matter how valid the critique of native unitarianism concerning the self, it remains true that people are actors, they make choices, they operate on the basis of mental frames, and they construct itineraries. They act intentionally and self consciously. We cannot dispense with a conception of the self. And therefore biography remained a valid exercise.

What is needed instead is a conception of the self and of a biography that avoids both the primordialism of the traditional view and the actor-less collage associated with the post-modern literary view. We need a conception of the self that emphasizes contingency and continuous development and change, that denies essentialism in either the self or a complete life, and that highlights as well the role that extraneous events play in the development of a person and a life; while still allowing for the reality of the human person who undergoes and guides his or her own path. 

 
It is interesting to recall the structure of Neil Gross’s “sociological” biography of Richard Rorty in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (link). Gross’s account conforms to a part of Bourdieu’s picture here, in that he takes great care to trace Rorty’s movements through his various fields — philosophy, Yale, Princeton, marriage. But he also gives attention to the interior man — the person named Richard who makes these various choices. Biography and personhood do not disappear after all. 
 

Values, directions, and action

 
 

Several earlier posts have raised the question of rational life planning. What is involved in orchestrating one’s goals and activities in such a way as to rationally create a good life in the fullness of time?

We have seen that there is something wildly unlikely about the idea of a developed, calculated life plan. Here is a different way of thinking about this question, framed about directionality and values rather than goals and outcomes. We might think of life planning in these terms:

  • The actor frames a high-level life conception — how he/she wants to live, what to achieve, what activities are most valued, what kind of person he/she wants to be. It is a work in progress.
  • The actor confronts the normal developmental issues of life through limited moments in time: choice of education, choice of spouse, choice of career, strategies within the career space, involvement with family, level of involvement in civic and religious institutions, time and activities spent with friends, … These are week-to-week and year-to-year choices, some more deliberate than others.
  • The actor reviews, assesses, and updates the life conception. Some goals are reformulated; some are adjusted in terms of priority; others are abandoned.

This picture looks quite a bit different from more architectural schemes for creating and implementing a life plan considered in earlier posts, including the view that Rawls offers for conceiving of a rational plan of life. Instead of modeling life planning after a vacation trip assisted by an AAA TripTik (turn-by-turn instructions for how to reach your goal), this scheme looks more like the preparation and planning that might have guided a great voyage of exploration in the sixteenth century. There were no maps, the destination was unknown, the hazards along the way could only be imagined. But there were a few guiding principles of navigation — “Keep making your way west,” “Sail around the biggest storms,” “Strive to keep reserves for unanticipated disasters,” “Maintain humane relations with the crew.” And, with a modicum of good fortune, these maxims might be enough to lead to discovery.

This scheme is organized around directionality and regular course correction, rather than a blueprint for arriving at a specific destination. And it appears to be all around a more genuine understanding of what is involved in making reflective life choices. Fundamentally this conception involves having in the present a vision of the dimensions of an extended life that is specifically one’s own — a philosophy, a scheme of values, a direction-setting self understanding, and the basics needed for making near-term decisions chosen for their compatibility with the guiding life philosophy. And it incorporates the idea of continual correction and emendation of the plan, as life experience brings new values and directions into prominence.

 
The advantage of this conception of rational life planning is that it is not heroic in its assumptions about the scope of planning and anticipation. It is a scheme that makes sense of the situation of the person in the limited circumstances of a particular point in time. It doesn’t require that the individual have a comprehensive grasp of the whole — the many contingencies that will arise, the balancing of goods that need to be adjusted in thought over the whole of the journey, the tradeoffs that are demanded across multiple activities and outcomes, and the specifics of the destination. And yet it permits the person to travel through life by making choices that conform in important ways to the high-level conception that guides him or her. And somehow, it brings to mind the philosophy of life offered by those great philosophers of life, Montaigne and Lucretius.

Meanings and mechanisms

image: photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the University of Michigan, 1962

There are two large categories of factors that are fundamental to understanding social processes — meanings and mechanisms. I’ve given a preponderance of attention to the importance of social causal mechanisms within historical and social explanation (link). We explain a social outcome when we identify the social mechanisms that brought it about.

 
It is crucial to bear in mind always, however, that there is a complementary dimension to social life and social process — the pervasive fact that people act within frames of meanings and interpretations that they bring to their social relationships and their social worlds. Human action is meaningful action, and we can’t make sense of action without attributing meanings, intentions, and frameworks of understanding and desire to the individuals who constitute a social encounter. 
 
This is not a new insight, of course; it was fundamental to the hermeneutic approach to social life, including the influential thinking of Wilhelm Dilthey (Introduction to the Human Sciences). But the classical hermeneutic approach tended to under-value the importance of causation and mechanisms in the social world; whereas it is clear today that both mechanisms and meanings are inseparably embedded within the social world.
 
It is in fact misleading to portray mechanisms and meanings as complementary “dimensions” of social change. Rather, we might say that mechanisms depend upon meanings, for the simple reason that mechanisms depend upon actions, and actions presuppose meanings. This is the thrust of my emphasis on “actor-centered” approaches to sociology (link). The actor-centered perspective takes seriously the meanings, values, cognitive and practical frameworks that individuals bring to their interactions in the social world, and it urges social scientists and historians to improve upon their current theories of the actor.

 
Institutions and organizations are often invoked as causal factors or mechanisms in the production of important social outcomes. But institutions always work by influencing the behavior of the individual actors whom they touch; so either explicitly or implicitly we need to have a theory of the actor’s mental frameworks if we are to understand the causal power of institutions to influence outcomes. 

If we want to know why there is grade inflation in universities, we need to refer to some of the institutional mechanisms that influence grading practices (causal influences!), but we also need to refer to the goals and meanings that participants bring to the interaction between students, professors, and appeals committees. Sometimes those mental frameworks are trivial and manifest — students want higher grades for reasons of career success as well as personal validation, faculty want to function in accordance with their responsibilities as neutral assessors of academic performance while at the same time demonstrating empathy for the needs of their students. These interlocking intentions and desires lead to a dynamic movement of average grades over time — sometimes higher, once in a while lower. But sometimes the underlying mental frameworks that drive important social outcomes are more obscure — for example, the disaffection and doubt that leads inner city minority students to despise high school. 

Think for a moment about how meanings and intentional actions give rise to a common social mechanism, hate-based nationalist mobilization. A few strident leaders formulate a message of hate against a group — currently, MENA immigrants in various European countries; they find means of gaining access to national media (through provocative demonstrations); and they extend their influence from the tiny percentage of racist extremists ex ante to a sizable percentage of the more moderate population. How does this work? Why do ordinary non-racist citizens fall prey to the hateful messages of the extreme right? Presumably a convincing answer will depend on the specifics of the communications strategies and messages conveyed by the nationalist party, interlocking with an astute reading of the fears and suppressed prejudices of the majority population. In other words, the mechanism of racist mobilization depends on a substratum of political emotion and belief that can be adroitly manipulated by the racist group and its leaders.

Philosophers sometimes distinguish meanings and causes as subjective and objective.(This is implied in Georg Henrik von Wright’s classic book Explanation and Understanding.) But this is not a useful way of thinking about the two categories. Meanings are often fully objective — in the sense that we can investigate them empirically and they can be demonstrated to have stable and enduring effects in the world. And social causes have an element of subjectivity built into them, for the simple reason that social causes always invoke the subjective states of mind of the actors who make them up. It isn’t even accurate to say that meanings exist solely within the actor, whereas causes exist outside the actor. The meanings that Weber identified in the notion of the Protestant Ethic are indeed embodied in a population of individuals (inward); but they are pervasive and influential on those same individuals (outward). So the Protestant Ethic is both an inner state of mind and an external and coercive set of values and beliefs.

(The photos of Dr. King above are relevant in this context because the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s offers ample examples of meanings and mechanisms in the evolving mobilizations, legislation, cycles of Jim Crow violence, and emerging ideas about Black Power within the African-American community.)

Deliberation, rationality, and reasoning

 

Recent posts have raised questions about formulating a rational plan of life. This way of putting the question highlights “rationality,” which has the connotation of short-term, one-off decision making. And this implication plainly does not fit the problem of life planning very well — as noted in the two prior posts on this topic. Living a life is more like the making of a great sculpture than it is planning a Napoleonic military campaign. But what if we shifted the terms of the question and asked instead, what is involved in being deliberative and reflective about the direction of one’s life? Does this give more room for bringing the idea of rationality into the idea of a life plan?

Being deliberative invokes the idea of considering one’s goals reflectively and in comparison, considering strategies and actions that might serve to bring about the realization of these goals, and an ongoing consideration of the continuing validity of one’s goals and strategies. Instrumental rationality takes a set of goals as being fixed; deliberative rationality works on the assumption that it is possible to reason reflectively about one’s goals themselves. This is the thrust of Socrates’ “unexamined life” — the good life requires reflection and deliberation about the things one seeks to achieve in life. Here is how Aristotle describes deliberation in the Nicomachean Ethics, book 3:

We deliberate about things that are in our power and can be done; and these are in fact what is left. For nature, necessity, and chance are thought to be causes, and also reason and everything that depends on man. Now every class of men deliberates about the things that can be done by their own efforts. And in the case of exact and self-contained sciences there is no deliberation, e.g. about the letters of the alphabet (for we have no doubt how they should be written); but the things that are brought about by our own efforts, but not always in the same way, are the things about which we deliberate, e.g. questions of medical treatment or of money-making. And we do so more in the case of the art of navigation than in that of gymnastics, inasmuch as it has been less exactly worked out, and again about other things in the same ratio, and more also in the case of the arts than in that of the sciences; for we have more doubt about the former. Deliberation is concerned with things that happen in a certain way for the most part, but in which the event is obscure, and with things in which it is indeterminate. We call in others to aid us in deliberation on important questions, distrusting ourselves as not being equal to deciding. (Nicomachean Ethics, book 3)

What Aristotle focuses on here is choice under conditions of uncertainty and complexity. Deliberation is relevant when algorithms fail — when there is no mechanical way of calculating the absolutely best way of doing something. And this seems to fit the circumstance of planning for a life or career.

How does “deliberation” come into the question of life plans? It is essential.

(1) The goals a person pursues in life cannot be specified exogenously; rather, the individual needs to consider and reflect on his or her goals in an ongoing way. Aristotle was one of the first to reveal that often the goals and goods we pursue are, upon reflection, derivative from some more fundamental good. But Kant too had a position here, favoring autonomy over heteronomy. Reflection allows us to gain clarity about those more fundamental goods that we value.

(2) The strategies and means that we choose may have only a superficial correspondence to our goods and values which is undercut by more rigorous examination. We may find that a given mode of action, a strategy, may indeed lead to good X, but may also defeat the achievement of Y, which we also value. So deliberative reflection about the strategies and actions we choose can allow us to more fully reconcile our short-term strategies with our long-term goals and goods.

Economists and philosophers have sometimes maintained that values and goals do not admit of rational consideration. But this is plainly untrue. At the very least it is possible to discover positive and negative interactions among our goals and desires — the desire to remain healthy and the desire to eat ice cream at every meal are plainly in conflict. Less trivially, the goal of living life in a way that is respectful of the dignity of others is inconsistent with the goal of rising to power within a patriarchal or racist organization. It is possible that there are values that are both fundamental and incommensurable — so that rational deliberation and reflection cannot choose between them. But it is hard to think of examples in which this kind of incommensurability arises as a practical problem.

Consider Bruce, Jorge, and Filippo. Bruce believes that being wealthy by the age of 60 is the most important thing in his life. Jorge believes that attaining a state of spiritual fulfillment by the age of 60 is most important. And Filippo believes that having circumstances of life by age 60 in which he is involved in satisfying work, has successful family relationships and friendships, and has enough income and wealth to support a decent middle-class life is most important. Are there reasonable considerations that any one of these individuals could bring to bear against another to suggest that the other’s goals are incomplete or defective?

Aristotle addresses Bruce directly by asking how wealth could possible be a fundamental good. What does Bruce want to gain by achieving great wealth? Aren’t these activities and goods more fundamental than the wealth itself? This line of argument perhaps succeeds in persuading Bruce to give more thought to what he wants out of life — not wealth, but the things that wealth permits him to do.

Jorge may seem to be just like Bruce except he values spiritual fulfillment rather than money. Indeed, they are similar in that there is only one dimension to their life goals. But Jorge can at least maintain against Bruce that his goal is good in itself, not because of its ability to bring about some other desirable thing.

Finally, Filippo. Filippo has a more complex set of life goals, none of which reduces to a combination of the others. It is true that these goals require tradeoffs in behavior and effort; strategies that enhance friendships may depress the attainment of wealth, for example. But I think it is Filippo that we think of when we imagine a person with a reflective and deliberative life plan: a person who has identified a small but plural set of longterm goals, and who recognizes that it is necessary in the moment to find ways of balancing the attainment of one with what it takes to attain more of the other.

We might think of life planning as being less like a blueprint for action and more like a navigational guide. We might think of the problem of making intermediate life choices as being guided by a compass rather than a detailed plan — the idea that we do good work on living if we guide our actions by a set of directional signals rather than a detailed map. Life outcomes result from following a compass, not moving towards a specific GPS point on a map.

There is an analogy with business planning here. Consider the actions and plans of a CEO of a company. His or her choices in concrete decision moments are guided by several important considerations: remain profitable; prepare the ground today for viable business activity tomorrow; create an environment of trust and respect among the employees of the company; make sure that company choices also take the wellbeing of the community into account; treat employees fairly; anticipate changes in the marketplace that might dictate change in process or product within the company. But there is no certainty, no fixed prescription for success, and no algorithm for balancing the goods that the firm’s leadership pursues. The successful firm will have built its success over a long series of decisions oriented towards the fundamental values of the business.

(The reference to Napoleon in Jena in the graphics above is pertinent because of the implications that Hegel drew from his experience of Napoleon as a “world historical figure”. Hegel was clear that, even with a brilliant commander and a great general staff, Napoleon’s ambitions in Europe were based on an unavoidably incomplete knowledge of the terrain of history. “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk.)

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