Influences and arguments

Lately I’ve been writing about the influences that can be discerned in the theories of John Rawls.  Rawls was a “social contract theorist”; to what extent were his theories shaped and framed by his reading of the great contract theorists such as Locke, Rousseau, or Kant?  He was also influenced by the history of economic thought; so is it possible to find parallels or echoes of the thought systems of Adam Smith or Karl Marx in Rawls’s thinking?  And to what extent were there more local influences in the 1940s and 1950s that created fairly specific directions and characteristics in Rawls’s thinking?

This is an interesting question in application to one particular philosopher.  But it also raises a more general question: where do philosophical theories come from?  To what extent is it the case that a given philosopher is working within a “micro-tradition” — a particular and specific field of influence — and to what extent is the thinker “original”, bringing forward new ideas on a topic?  And once a fundamental topic has been established for a thinker — e.g., “What defines the principles of justice for a property-owning democracy?” — to what extent does the theory then develop autonomously according to the arguments and analysis of the philosopher?

This way of formulating the problem invokes several related ideas: influence and tradition; originality and creativity; and orderly, logical development of a position or theory.  
I suppose that there are many instances of philosophers who fall mostly in the “influence” part of the map: their philosophical work largely takes the form of carefully working out the ideas of their influencers.  (This might be part of the legacy of Rawls; I suppose there has been quite an ocean of philosophical work dedicated to specifying more exactly what “primary goods” are, or how “reflective equilibrium” works.)  This might be described as “normal science” — taking the foundations of a field of study as being unquestioned, and then attempting to work out the details more exactly.
There are also some good examples of philosophers who were largely driven by the “logical analysis” part of the map: formulate a good, difficult question, and then spend the rest of one’s career working out analytically sound answers to the problems this question spawns.  “Naturalized epistemology” might fall in this sector; we might say that the philosophers who have tried to give a biological interpretation of the conditions of knowledge are taking one fundamental question — how do biological organisms arrive at knowledge of their environment? — and attempt to apply the findings of cognitive science and evolutionary biology to the issues that arise.  Kant’s philosophy also seems to have this character: once having chosen the topics “What can we know metaphysically?” or “What creates moral duty?”, his mind seems to have proceeded analytically and logically, without correction or stimulus from a contemporary literature.
And what about originality?  Are there examples of philosophers who have largely invented a set of questions and approaches that defined a new philosophy for a given domain?  Wittgenstein is commonly recognized as a highly original philosopher; but certainly his theories were embedded in a tradition of philosophy.  Several things are apparently true about Wittgenstein when it comes to influence and argument.  (a) Many of his ideas and assumptions in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus derived from careful readings of Frege and Russell; (b) his insights and assertions in Philosophical Investigations were responsive to a surrounding set of ideas about language, behavior, and meaning, but his solutions and theories still strike one as being highly original; and (c) for certain themes and problems he continued to work carefully to move his position forward through analytical discovery and inference.  So Wittgenstein seems to illustrate all three dimensions of philosophical theory formation and knowledge construction.

Several things seem to be true about the formation of the theories and perspectives of individual philosophers:

  • They are introduced into a fairly specific “philosophical research community” through graduate education that provides paradigm examples of philosophical questions and issues and prescriptive advice about the nature of philosophical argument and analysis.
  • They are introduced to their field at a particular moment in social history: World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the civil rights period, 9-11; and historical events and shifts have an influence on the formation of their thought.
  • “Originality” can take the form of arriving at new questions (“How is group mentality possible?”); new methods of analysis (Frege-Russell’s formal deductivism as a solution to the question of the nature of mathematical truth); or new substantive approaches to philosophical theory (Kant’s Copernican Revolution in thought).

An interesting contribution to this set of topics is an innovative series of volumes posing “5 Questions” to philosophers in a variety of fields (link).  A recent volume is Philosophy of the Social Sciences: 5 Questions,  edited by Diego Rios and Christoph Schmidt-Petri.  Contemporary philosophers were asked to respond to five important questions about their approaches to the field of the philosophy of social science.  The format offers the beginning of a triangulation among “beginnings,” “fundamental assumptions,” and “future directions” for each of these philosophers.  The questions that were provided to the philosophers are these:

  1. How did you get interested in the philosophical aspects of the social sciences?
  2. Which social sciences do you consider particularly interesting or challenging from a philosophical point of view?
  3. How do you conceive the relation between the social sciences and the natural sciences?
  4. What is the most important contribution that philosophy has made to the social sciences?
  5. Which topics in the philosophy of social science will, and which should, receive more attention than in the past?

Contributors include David Bloor, Raymond Boudon, Mario Bunge, Nancy Cartwright, Margaret Gilbert, Daniel Hausman, Harold Kincaid, Daniel Little, Steven Lukes, David Papineau, Philip Pettit, Alexander Rosenberg, David-Hillel Ruben, John Searle, and Raimo Tuomela.  This list includes quite a few of the people who have helped to shape current thinking in this sub-discipline of philosophy; so it is very interesting to have a chance to see what they have to say about some of the original influences on their thinking about the social sciences, as well as their own definitions of the frameworks they have arrived at.  I found it very interesting to think seriously about these questions in my own case, because it forces one to reflect on the ideas, events, and ideologies that led one to choose one set of topics and approaches rather than another.  I would have added a sixth question for each of the contributors: “What are the most basic ideas that you have come to in the course of your studies of the social sciences?”

What I would like to see is a next step conducted by a gifted sociologist of the professions, who would attempt to map out the streams of influence and contribution that are documented within the essays in this volume.  Andrew Abbott’s careful analysis of the currents of thought constituting the discipline of sociology in the 1960s and 1970s is a good case in point (Chaos of Disciplines).  Another good example is William Sewell’s attempt to provide a geography of the discipline of social history in the 1960s (Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation).

Scott’s social imagination


Image: Le Corbusier, Paris plan

What is most remarkable about Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed is the texture and grain of the argument that Scott makes. This is a high-resolution argument that leaves little to doubt.

The guiding thesis is original and striking enough — that a mental framework of “high modernism” guided the thinking of a wide range of twentieth-century reformers, from agricultural specialists to city planners to revolutionaries; and that this framework led to predictable disasters. Ecology, social behavior, and cityscapes are complex, involuted systems that demand locally tailored knowledge, and the abstract simplifications of scientific forestry or le Corbusier’s geometric abstractions lead to unidimensional disasters. This is powerful and insightful stuff. (See an earlier post for more discussion of the main argument of the book.)

What I’d like to highlight here is something beyond this. It is the remarkable density and variety of the evidence upon which Scott draws to illustrate and confirm his thesis. This is a kind of research and discovery that seems to have virtually no counterpart in either the social sciences or the humanities.

His discussion of tropical agriculture is detailed and exact. He finds Edgar Anderson writing on Guatemalan gardens — complete with diagrams; and it precisely confirms the point that traditional cultivator cultures have finetuned their crops and patterns of cultivation to the specific features of the micro-environment. He describes in great detail the goals, values, and drawings of le Corbusier and the plans he developed for Brasilia — and these precisely capture the high modernist values that he has described. So Scott’s thesis doesn’t look like a hypothetical theory that needs to be confirmed through its consequences so much as an extended empirical interpretation that can be directly established or refuted.

It seems that Scott’s thinking in this book — the origins of the empirical, historical, and textual research that Scott eventually carried out — began with the idea of legibility and state power, his insight that states seek to increase their ability to see and record the situations of their subjects. This is how he begins the book —

Originally, I set out to understand why the state has always seemed to be the enemy of “people who move around,” to put it crudely.  In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill peoples on one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other.  ….  Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  (Introduction)

(This topic becomes the central focus in his next book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.)

But two other main insights accumulated as well.  A second and somewhat independent source of inspiration is Scott’s longstanding respect for the knowledge systems and agency of ordinary people. Several strands of his research experience in Malaysia show up here –the mango tree and the ants, the local ecological wisdom of peasant farmers, and even the capacity of peasant communities to organize themselves. Scott has been face-to-face with local peasant knowledge, and he respects it. This knowledge he seeks to theorize as “Metis”.

A third component of the inspiration and guiding thrust of the book is the puzzle of well-intentioned development disaster. Colonial agriculture and monocropping, Soviet collectivization, and city modernization all had some component of good intentions for human welfare; so why did they go so badly wrong?

Scott has taken these interests and has built a highly original, factual, and insightful argument.  He offers an interpretation of states, modernism, change, knowledge, and material culture that is exquisitely well matched to the historical details he provides.

It is as if we are watching a great art historian working through the corpus of a Picasso, shedding new light and insight on every page. But Scott isn’t working with a previously defined corpus of paintings; he is pulling together wildly different areas of human behavior and building in the twentieth century. His canvas is the historical experience of twentieth century “modernization”.  And he demonstrates a depth knowledge of each of these areas sufficient to nail the interpretation cold. In Scott’s hands the high modernism thesis isn’t just a sketchy hypothesis or theory; it becomes close to an established fact.

Perhaps the best analogy to the kind of work Scott has done here is a great synthetic historian of medieval France who maintains that this period was driven by a very specific set of guiding ideas — and then demonstrates in micro-level detail the impact and manifestation of these ideas in the early kings, the Burgundian city, the Loire estate, and the Norman village. But I’m not aware of any historian who has offered this level of depth interpretation of France — not Bloch, not Pirenne, not Braudel. Perhaps Le Roy Ladurie comes close in Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324; but Ladurie’s canvas is small. A different parallel is with Schama’s interpretation of France during its revolution in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution — illustrating an interpretive point with small but deeply telling historical events like the Goncourts’ balloon flight or the revolutionary monuments of Paris.

So what kind of work is this? Certainly not straight “political science”. There is a good reason why Scott is named in the perestroika manifesto (post). It is not philosophy — though it is admirably reflective, and in fact offers some original and valuable ideas about epistemology and ordinary knowledge.  It has some similarity to historical interpretation of an epoch — though it is thoroughly empirical and detail-oriented. And in some ways it resembles a careful, innovative piece of interpretive work in the humanities — literature, art history, music criticism — in that it works back and forth between an interpretive hypothesis and careful, detailed work at the micro-level (text, painting, farming culture).  This is a powerful and original effort towards “understanding society” — or at least important bits of the twentieth century.

Creativity, convention, and tradition

images: Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906); Courbet, Burial at Ornans (1849)

Conventions define how to do things correctly — trim the hedges, choose an outfit for an evening at the opera or the racetrack, how much to tip the server. They also define or constrain productions in the arts — writing a short story or a sonnet, performing a Brahms quintet, participating in an Andean flute group. We might define a convention as a stylized but unwritten rule of performance. A tradition is an extended set of conventions for a given area of performance. We can refer to traditions of classical German chamber composition, Japanese landscape painting, or hiphop street performance. A conventional act or performance, then, is one that directly and consistently expresses the relevant conventions.

So — at any given time, a particular set of conventions drive the creation of works of culture and guide the interpretation of the product. These conventions are somehow embedded in the community of creators, viewers, and critics. And innovation, breaking or stretching the rules, creates the possibility of novelty and creativity within the process. It is important to notice, though, that conventions generally don’t govern every aspect of a performance. The convention of the sonnet mandates a form and meter and gives some constraint on subject. But it would certainly be possible to write a sonnet in deviant meter in praise of a farm tractor; the audience would be able to make sense of the production. So the artist always has a degree of freedom within the tradition.

I find several specific ideas to be useful in analyzing cultural conventions and their products — in particular, “idiom”, “voice”, and “novelty”. Within a given medium, there is an existing stock of shorthand ways of expressing an artistic or symbolic idea. We may refer to these modes of expression as “idioms” of the genre. When the stranger in the 1950s western is wearing a black hat, the audience understands he is the villain. When the soundtrack swells in an ominous minor key the audience knows there is trouble coming. These idioms aren’t natural signifiers; rather, they are conventions of the B movie. So the idioms of a genre are a particularly direct form of convention within the semiotics of the genre.

“Voice” is a counterpart of originality. It is the intangible “signature” that the individual artist brings to his or her work — what Eisenstein brings to many of his films, distinctive from Bergman and Kurosawa. Voice represents a kind of consistency over time, but it is not defined by homage to tradition; instead, it is an expression of the specific sensibility of the individual artist, the specific way in which this artist forges together his/her material and vision within the resources of the genre and its conventions. Eisenstein’s films aren’t formulaic, even though one can recognize a common sensibility running through them.

What about novelty and creativity? Novelty is the break outside of convention that the artist brings to the production in order to express a particular idea or perspective in a new and forceful way — for example, the transition from sepia to color in The Wizard of Oz. The original and genuinely creative artist or writer finds ways of bringing novelty and his/her own originality into the production, giving the audience new and unexpected insights and ideas. The element of innovation needs to point the audience towards its signification without relying wholly on the existing traditions of reading. (Picasso’s portrait above of Gertrude Stein displeased some friends of the writer because “it doesn’t resemble Gertrude Stein.” Picasso is said to have replied, “It will.”)

But here is an apparent conundrum of creativity and convention. Any performance or artistic work that is wholly determined by the relevant conventions is, for that reason, wholly uncreative. It is like a conversation in a Dashiell Hammett novel: no surprises, each gambit programmed by the conventions of the crime novel. Or it is like a string quartet composed by an earnest follower of Beethoven, with no phrase breaking the flow, no note out of place. And for the careful listener, each is ultimately boring; there is no novelty in the work. And there is no opening for the original and creative voice of the creator. Originality and new perspective have no place.

But now the other half of the conundrum: novelty without regard to the frame of tradition is incomprehensible and meaningless. The classical composer of 1800 who somehow heard the world atonally, arhythmically, and to the accompaniment of falling trash cans and who then wrote a symphony in thirty movements on this basis — this composer is innovating, all right. But he/she is not creating works that any existing audience could hear as “music”. There is no bridge of meaning or hermeneutic practice to facilitate interpretation.

It is relevant here that we are led to refer to the audience. Because cultural products require the conveying of meaning; and communication of meaning requires some reference to conventions shared with the audience — whether in music, painting, literature, or hiphop. Meaning of any cultural performance is inherently public, and this means there have to be publicly shared standards of interpretation. The audience can only interpret the performance by relating it to some set of conventions or other. These may be conventions of representation, structure, or mythology; but the audience needs some clues in order to be able to “read” the work.

There are, of course, periods in art history where it appears that innovation is all and continuous convention is nothing. For example, Courbet and the realist painters were evidently shocking to the viewing public for their dismissal of the classical values of the Salon — in the Burial at Ornans above, for example. But really, there was a great deal of continuity within the context of which the realist manifesto was shocking to the public. (T. J. Clark does a great job of “reading” the painting for its continuities with previous traditions of painting and the sources of its originality; Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, pp. 80-83.)

So what does all of this imply about “creative breakthroughs” in the genres of the arts? It seems to imply that major and culturally significant breakthroughs occur when talented people fully absorb the semantic (and historically specific) conventions that define the genre at the current time; he/she finds ways of squeezing every bit of new meaning out of these conventions in the production of the cultural product; he/she plays with the limits of the convention, testing them for the possibility of forging new meanings; and sometimes, he/she breaks a convention altogether and substitutes a new meaning maker in its place (presenting Julius Caesar in the garb of fascist Italy of the 1930s, for example).

These topics are relevant to understanding society, because this dialectic of convention, innovation, and meaning-making is virtually pervasive in everyday life. Jokes, business meetings, and street demonstrations all have some elements of this dance of meaning, convention, and originality. So it is important to gain greater understanding of the intersection of convention and innovation.

(There are numerous unanswered questions raised by this topic. How is a tradition of painting or composition related to a scientific or technological tradition? How is a literary or artistic tradition related to a “style” of technology or a scientific research programme? How can we take measure of “radical innovators” in the arts such as Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, or John Cage and American experimentalism in composition? And how do beauty or aesthetic value come into this equation? What are the qualities of a work of art that lead us to say, “That is beautiful!” or “that is hideous!”? What are the threads of convention, form, meaning, and originality that contribute to great aesthetic value?)

Social change in rural China

Contemporary China is a vivid demonstration of the fact that sociology is not a “finished” science. The processes of change that are underway in both rural and urban settings are novel and contingent. Existing sociological theory does not provide a basis for conceptualizing these processes according to a few simple templates — modernization, urbanization, structural transformation, demographic transition. Instead, a sociology for China needs to engage in sustained descriptive inquiry, to untangle the many processes that are occurring simultaneously; and innovative theory formation, in order to find some explanatory order in the many empirical realities that China represents. The social reality of China is complex — many separate processes are simultaneously unfolding and interacting; and it is diverse — very different conditions and processes are occurring in different regions and sectors of Chinese society.

Consider one complex example, the wide and heterogeneous range of processes involved in the transformations of rural society: the explosive growth of a periurban sector that is neither city nor village; the rapid expansion of businesses and factories; the creation of an entrepreneurial social segment; the migration of tens of millions of people from rural areas to cities and from poor areas to more affluent areas; the emergence of new social groups in local society; the push-pull relationships between central government and regional and local government; the shifting policy positions of the central government towards rural conditions; the occurrence of social disturbances — rural and urban — over issues of property, labor, environment, and corruption; the rise of ethnicity as a political factor; various permutations of clientelism as a mechanism of political control; and the social consequences of family planning policies (e.g. skewed sex ratios). These are all social processes involving policy makers, local officials, entrepreneurs, farmers, workers, business owners, activists, and other agents; they are processes that have their own dynamics and tempos; they are processes that interact with each other; and they aggregate to outcomes that are difficult or impossible to calculate on the basis of analysis of the processes themselves.

In other words: we can’t understand the current and future development of rural society in China based on existing theories of social change. Instead, we must analyze the current social realities, recognize their novelties, and perhaps discover some of the common causal processes that recur in other times and places. And we should expect novelty; we should expect that China’s future rural transformations will be significantly different from other great global examples (United States in the 1880s, Russia in the 1930s, France in the 1830s, etc.).

I began by saying that China demonstrates that sociology is not a finished science. But we can say something stronger than that: it demonstrates that the very notion of a comprehensive social science that lays the basis for systematizing and predicting social change is radically ill-conceived. This hope for a comprehensive theory of social change is chimerical; it doesn’t correspond to the nature of the social world. It doesn’t reflect several crucial features of social phenomena: heterogeneity, causal complexity, contingency, path-dependency, and plasticity. Instead of looking for a few general and comprehensive theories of social change, we should be looking for a much larger set of quasi-empirical theories of concrete social mechanisms. And the generalizations that we will be able to reach will be modest ones having to do with the discovery of some similar processes that recur in a variety of circumstances and historical settings.

There are some excellent current examples of research on contemporary China that conform to this approach. Kevin O’Brien attempts to discover a mechanism of social protest in his theory of “rightful resistance”(Rightful Resistance in Rural China); C. K. Lee identifies a set of mechanisms of mobilization in her treatment of “rustbelt” and “sunbelt” industries (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt); and Anita Chan identifies some common mechanisms of the exploitation of immigrant labor in China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Each of these books is a positive example of the kind of sociological research that will shed the most light on China’s present and future: empirically rich, theoretically eclectic, and mindful of contingency and multiple pathways as state, society, environment, and other social processes interact.

Innovative social science research

What are some ways in which the community of social science researchers can arrive at useful innovations in theory and method in order to do a better job of understanding society? This is a central topic in the conversation I had with David Featherman this week at the University of Michigan. David is professor of sociology at Michigan and the founding director of the Center for Research and Solutions for Society (CARSS). David has been a national leader in the development of the social sciences as a previous president of the Social Science Research Council and as a former director of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. CARSS is a genuinely original collaborative effort at stimulating new thinking in the social sciences, and the interview gives a good exposure to some of the thinking that gave rise to the center. (The interview is posted on YouTube and iTunes.) The goal of CARSS is to serve as an incubation place for collaborative research aimed at contributing to solutions to some large social problems — for example, more effective K-12 education, sustainable transportation systems, and responses to pandemic diseases. In each case there is a prominent role that is played by complex human behavior in the unfolding of the issue, and the solutions that policy makers attempt to design need to be well informed by the best thinking about how behavior is motivated and influenced.

Two threads in the conversation were particularly significant for me. First was David’s emphasis that CARSS projects are interdisciplinary and usually involve practitioners as well as academic scientists. We discussed the forms of knowledge that experienced practitioners bring to a discussion of a complex social problem — in the genre of expert local knowledge — and some of the intellectual challenges involved in trying to integrate theoretical and local knowledge into a solution. And we talked about the challenges associated with bringing widely separated forms of academic research into a single conversation — engineers, lawyers, and sociologists attempting to understand the transportation systems of the future, for example.

A second important thread was the idea of engagement of the social sciences with social issues and problems. This was very much the case with the Chicago school of sociology in the 1920s through 1940s. But David makes the point early in the conversation that the social sciences made a turn in the 1960s towards greater disciplinary narrowness and a sharper separation between theory and practice. The social sciences became more narrowly confined to the academy and its disciplinary institutions.

But David and I agreed that two things were true: that the sciences ought to be shaping their disciplines and research programs with an eye to helping to solve some of society’s problems — for the good of society; but more deeply, that perhaps the quality of the science itself would increase as a result of this engagement. These are important ideas that we need to talk about as we consider the directions the social sciences should take in the coming decades.

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