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Limitations of Objectification and Quantification in the Social Sciences

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  • #16
    Originally posted by johneffay
    Anarchyel, would you mind giving some names of people who hold the position(s) that you are outlining as, with the exception of the bit about the misuse of Godel, I have trouble recognising these positions as being actually held. For example, who actually thinks that there is a literal equivalence between thought and language?
    I'd be happy to provide more references in a day or two when I can get to my notes. For now, the most obvious tendency in this direction has been from the deconstructionist camp, which has gradually expanded the concept of the "text" to encompass all symbols and practices, so that no one can ever get past the signifier to find the "signified" outside language.

    Generally speaking, postmodern discourse does not literally state that language is equivalent to thought. Rather, it expresses in various ways a scepticism toward the possibility of thinking oneself "out" of language--of reaching for any kind of unmediated truth. They stress that all knowledge is mediate, and language (broadly conceived as the world of symbols) is the medium.

    EDIT: Stated this way, it may seem that an accusation of "equivalence" is inappropriate, since there would seem to be an explicit difference between thought and the "medium" of thought. But the point is that this distiction becomes so watered-down in postmodernism that (at best) they cannot tell the difference (there is no way to identify "thought" as distinct from language, from a postmodern perspective); or (at worst) the apparent distinction is itself an artifact of language--namely, the fact that they say language is the "medium" of thought, when what their formulation really implies is that "thinking" and "symbolizing" are synonymous. Simply put, the postmodern perspective treats language and thought as either indistinguishable or identical.

    Offhand, I think that Lyotard probably comes closest to explicitly stating the equivalence--when I have an opportunity, I'll look for particular citations. For the most part, it tends to become an unstated assumption.
    Last edited by AnarchyeL; 07-31-2006, 09:25 AM.

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    • #17
      I think I'm getting a better sense of things. Here are some comments, a little off the top of my head.

      Originally posted by AnarchyeL
      You are certainly correct that certain tendencies in critical theory paved the way for postmodern thought. The fundamental difference, however, between critical theory proper and the later, watered-down forms of "naive" immanent critique is this: critical theory is still deeply concerned with the problem of alienation.

      The various "posts," however, deny alienation--it devolves into a meaningless term. When ALL experience is "mediated" experience, there is no "authentic" experience from which to be alienated. One age cannot speak to another; indeed, in its worst forms one person can hardly talk to another.
      I would argue that they are less likely to argue it as critical theory would. Many postmodernists see something akin to alienation in fragmented experience. Kenneth Gergen, A noted social psychologist, actually frames his analysis on fragmented selves on exactly that notion.

      Even more specifically, I would argue that most postmodernists would find fault with the Marxist explanation of alienation and means of production. Some scholars who have been influenced by both Max Weber's dialogue with Marxist thought and postmodernism (most notably George Ritzer) are writing about alienation in terms of consumption in late capitalism.

      Originally posted by AnarchyeL
      EDIT: The core dogma supporting the notion that human experience is purely and innately "mediated" is the insistance that "thought" is impossible without language--or worse, that there is a literal equivalence between the two: thought = language. This idea is so mindnumbingly stupid, so deeply wrong and so fully contradicted by the great mass of empirical evidence--from studies of humans with destroyed speech centers to observations of non-human (non-speaking) animals--that its widespread acceptance must be classed among the greatest achievements of contemporary ideology. This is not to say, of course, that a certain kind of thought may not be dependent on language as a representational system; rather, I mean only to attack the assertion that thought is intrinsically incapable of reaching "beyond" the word--a critical piece of the common argument, for instance, that Godel's Theorem serves as a generalized proof demonstrating the impossibility of valid epistemological foundations for human reason (a claim that Godel himself denied). [One notes that this abuse of Godel, a common footnote to the postmodern argument, relies on an essentially positivist (that is to say, axiomatic) understanding of "foundation."]
      I'm not all that familar with the details of Godel's argument. Much of what I understand of this comes from responses to sturcturalism or from poststructuralism--in particular the discussions framed by understanding the link between langue and parole.

      Originally posted by AnarchyeL
      I acknowledge the ostensible differences between postmodernism and positivism. You are also correct in pointing to the "pragmatism" of postmodern thought as an aspect of its relation to positivism.
      I actually mean pragmatism of the American philosophical variety. Part of the reason that Dewey, Mead and company appealed to the early postmodernists was that their explanations of human behavior were necessarily episodic and tied to specific situtions. By definition, this kind of pragmatism cannot create the generalizations upon which positivism depends. Positivism and pragmatism may share, however, an emphasis on a momentary (or cross-sectional) empirical explanations.

      Originally posted by AnarchyeL
      The more fundamental similarity is the "anti-theoretizing" component of each. Postmodernism resists questions about the totality. Similarly, positivism in its pure form insists that while the goal is generalizable statements, these must be amassed strictly from narrower falsifiable claims. This makes theory, at a certain level (precisely that which attempts to understand the totality), impossible.
      I see a difference in postmodernism's rejection of totalizing discourse and rejecting explanations that address totalities such as social structure or culture. I would also caution you in making the claim about building grand theory from empirical theory being impossible. While I may see your point, many positivists (particularly quantitative social scientists) will fight you on that. Know what you will be up against.

      [QUOTE=AnarchyeL] Moreover, strictly speaking positivist epistemology denies that it has anything to say about "really real" reality. The better theory is the one that makes the best prediction, not necessarily the one that explains what's really going on.

      Again, this is a question about scope and scale. Empirical theories make predictions, but explanations from grand theory are not rejected. Moreover, many people find that mid-range theory, which borrows from both yet is neither, explains more than either.

      Originally posted by AnarchyeL
      I think that postmodern thought is extremely useful for analyzing the human condition in its most fragmented, most mediated state. The postmodern dogma, however, is to believe that this is how things have always been (a la Foucault)--and that this is how it always will be.
      Well, it depends on how much effort they want to put in their own deconstruction. Postmodernism is actually anti-dogma. Most people I know who call themselves postmodernists, when confronted with this, recognize their own hypocricy.

      Personally, I think it is an informative position, but take it at its word that rejecting grand narratives or totalizing discourses--including postmodernism--is an appropriate way to understand humanity.

      Which I think you also see, as you point out below.

      Originally posted by AnarchyeL
      And I certainly don't fit any convenient boxes, either.
      Just remember that people who give you exams often do.

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      • #18
        By the way, the above is not an attack by any means, just talk

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        • #19
          Originally posted by Doc
          Many postmodernists see something akin to alienation in fragmented experience.
          Yes, but fragmentation was already a concern to Marx and the critical theorists, being one aspect in their theory of alienation. Hence their discussion of divided labor, the fragmentation of life into "work" and "home," and the alienation of the individual from a sense of wholeness in his humanity.

          The difference is that for Marxians and anarchists this is necessarily a problem: their attitude toward wholeness as a normative ideal stems directly from their conception of the nature of society and the nature of the indvidual.

          Postmodern thinkers have by no means rejected the fragmentation of the self--indeed, many have embraced it, as they embrace the fragmentation of society. The self has been identified as a decidedly Western, masculine, individualist ideal--as oppressively hierarchical and dominating in the individual as fascism is in the state. (As a matter of fact, I find many of these criticisms quite compelling insofar as they are aimed at the specific historical construction of selfhood shaping Western thought over the last three hundred to four hundred years.)

          Many Marxian theorists quickly adopted Freud's psychoanalysis as appropriate to their critique: he deals with fragmentation as a problem to be overcome, bringing the conflicting forces of the subconscious gradually under conscious control. Postmoderns, on the contrary, reject Freud in favor of Lacan: the self is merely a defense against the realities of fragmentation--and not a very good one.

          If strict Freudian analysis can be identified with the more objectionable elements in the construction of self already outlined, and we are unwilling to accept the Lacanian renunciation of wholeness, could some transcendance be possible in an analytic tradition similar to that of Winnicott or Kohut? Can we expand our conception of selfhood, softening the criteria for wholeness--strengthening the self precisely by weakening it, as it were?

          Kenneth Gergen, A noted social psychologist, actually frames his analysis on fragmented selves on exactly that notion.
          As a matter of fact, I actually quite like Gergen! His approach to social science is rather similar to my own in that he understands the "knowledge" generated by social sciences necessarily influences the phenomena that we are meant to describe--my dissertation is largely meant as a translation of this point into mathematical terms, in the (admittedly slim) hope that by doing so I may actually get the attention of quantitative scientists who have, despite occasional nods towards the likes of Gergen, nevertheless persist in their work as if by retreating further into the "objectivity" of statistics they can avoid the question.

          Anyway, I have remarked before that I find postmodern insights to be most valuable in describing mediated existence, and to that extent useful in criticizing it. The "trick" is to stop short of the trap that postmodernism sets for itself: discovering mediated experience, it forgets that there might be anything else. Attacking all foundations, it ultimately fails to provide any compelling normative reason to believe that there is anything wrong with fragmented existence. Indeed, just as postmodern thinkers recognize certain genuinely liberatory elements in the political and social fragmentation of multiculturalism, they come to see the fragmentation of the self as at least as liberatory as it is unnerving. Following Lacan, we shouldn't try to fight it; we should learn to live with it.

          At any rate, I don't think Gergen falls into this trap. His social constructionism does not follow post-structuralism's collapse into determinism. He retains a robust concept of individual human agency (that is to say, "free will"), which provides a base upon which to build a normative critique of fragmentary society. (Without a developed concept of will, liberatory struggles become necessarily negative: only by maintaining that true freedom requires a kind of willful autonomy that fragmentation destroys can one understand what Rousseau meant when he said that people can be "forced to be free.")

          Even more specifically, I would argue that most postmodernists would find fault with the Marxist explanation of alienation and means of production.
          Certainly they would, and as far as the means of production go I would tend to agree with them. As my screenname suggests, I am somewhat more influenced by an anarchist tradition--one in particular which is less convinced that labor has any dignified or "ennobling" qualities from which to be alienated. I am more concerned with division of labor as such, especially when it results in a class of people (for instance) whose purpose in life is cleaning up other people's shit.

          Meanwhile, and more in line with the direction you suggest below, I worry about the narcissistic displacement of the self into "things"--today more through consumption than through production (at least in the Western world... I'm rather confident we can find some sweatshops where alienated production remains the dominant concern!)

          Some scholars who have been influenced by both Max Weber's dialogue with Marxist thought and postmodernism (most notably George Ritzer) are writing about alienation in terms of consumption in late capitalism.
          Hmm... I don't know enough about Ritzer to comment very intelligently, although I did recently skim The McDonaldization of Society--and in that book at least it seemed that his concerns about consumption are very different than mine. His "update" on Weber apparently has more to do with the joint processes involved in production and consumption rather than with the inherent alienation of the consumer in the consumed. This actually seems rather Marxist to me insofar as it sees alienation as the workers' and the consumers' turning themselves over to the "machine" of production.

          If I'm getting it completely wrong, I'd greatly appreciate some constructive criticism on that one. It's going to be a while before I have the time to take a close look at Ritzer.

          I'm not all that familar with the details of Godel's argument. Much of what I understand of this comes from responses to sturcturalism or from poststructuralism--in particular the discussions framed by understanding the link between langue and parole.
          Ah, then you will probably be familiar with the use of the "computer" metaphor for the human mind, common in both linguistics and the philosophy of mind. In short, the application of Godel's argument to human thought requires this assumption: that thought either consists in (or is produced by) some "system" (speaking very loosely, la langue) that behaves in relevant ways like a finite computing machine.

          I actually mean pragmatism of the American philosophical variety. Part of the reason that Dewey, Mead and company appealed to the early postmodernists was that their explanations of human behavior were necessarily episodic and tied to specific situtions. By definition, this kind of pragmatism cannot create the generalizations upon which positivism depends. Positivism and pragmatism may share, however, an emphasis on a momentary (or cross-sectional) empirical explanations.
          Ah, that makes sense.

          I see a difference in postmodernism's rejection of totalizing discourse and rejecting explanations that address totalities such as social structure or culture.
          Yes, but I think that even if positivism would like to make such explanations, positivist tools begin to break down as they approach totalizing theory--at least in practice (if not perhaps in theory) falsifiability becomes problematic. I also think that Quine's rather convincing case for epistemological holism tends to suggest serious problems for totalizing positivism, since at a certain level we should expect to see one of two things: either 1) explanations will come to seem increasingly arbitrary with respect to prediction (and this is the point at which positivism loses interest)*; or 2) totalizing theory will tend to shake assumptions central to existing behavioral models.**

          *This first can be seen in the physical sciences when various interpretive models turn out to produce identical predictions, as in some areas of particle physics. Given the normative problems bound up with social science that physicists need not usually face (which is not to say they may not have some of their own!), it does not seem at all clear to me that social science can merely shrug its shoulders at similar problems.

          **In the physical sciences, this process may play out as a Kuhnian paradigm shift--but considering the inertia and politicking that can play out even in these and adding to it the politicized nature of social science AND the fact that (following Gergen) such shifts may actually affect the object of study (humans), thus setting positivist science "back" by annihilating its existing predictive models... well, I think it should go without saying that positivists would tend to resist this sort of theory.

          I would also caution you in making the claim about building grand theory from empirical theory being impossible. While I may see your point, many positivists (particularly quantitative social scientists) will fight you on that. Know what you will be up against.
          First of all, I think it is possible... if only you can manage to keep it secret from the people you study.

          And thanks for the warning ... but I've been in this department long enough to know that I've set myself in for a very punishing career. For better or worse, I'm dedicated to it. (Fortunately, in this department at least some of my most influential allies have been "hard" political theorists who find my criticisms compelling. Hopefully I'll be able to find just enough of them elsewhere to actually get a job some day!!

          Originally posted by AnarchyeL
          Moreover, many people find that mid-range theory, which borrows from both yet is neither, explains more than either.
          Yes, this is true, and in a variety of ways what I'm striving for is a theoretical approach that captures the critical edge of totalizing theory while maintaining the flexibility to avoid stagnation. I think that recognizing the role of human agency in transforming the world is essential to this endeavor--which requires, for that very reason, a reconsideration of the role of social science itself. Social science should not look for a social "theory of everything," because the only way to create one is to complete in fact the objectification of human beings that we have already begun in scientific practice.

          Well, it depends on how much effort they want to put in their own deconstruction. Postmodernism is actually anti-dogma. Most people I know who call themselves postmodernists, when confronted with this, recognize their own hypocricy.
          That's true, but in my experience they never seem to take that hypocrisy very seriously. More importantly, it is not simply a hypocrisy of character, but a theoretical hypocrisy--a contradiction. The problem is not so much that postmodernists say one thing and do another: the problem is that they want to say two (or more) very incompatible things!

          Just remember that people who give you exams often do.
          Well, I'll do my best to give them a run for their money.

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          • #20
            Originally posted by Doc
            By the way, the above is not an attack by any means, just talk
            Hey, I take it all in good fun.

            Besides, I wouldn't have made it this far if I couldn't take a solid intellectual bruising from time to time!

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            • #21
              It occurs to me that a philosophy mounting an all-out assault on all foundations is the ideal ideology for a capitalism that no longer feels the need to justify itself.

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              • #22
                Ouch ! Lacking references, i have difficulties to follow the exchange .......

                For me :

                Even if i am more near of anarchism than marxism, i think that marxist analysis of capitalism is more solid.

                At university, i worked on Baudrillard. Very roughly, he looks to go beyond marxism. For him, the capitalist system does not produce and exchange only goods but primarily social signals " signes " and these signals are true source of alienation.

                Situationnists have worked in similar directions ......

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