Thursday, January 26, 2017

Social Ontology

My critiques of the science, journalism and politics of social life (including the practice of science itself) are, I must admit, grounded in a somewhat radical philosophical critique of our understanding of culture and society in general. I've been thinking more about it, and talking with colleagues, and I thought it would be useful to post some ideas here. It's a way of exposing my underlying assumptions to criticism that they could perhaps benefit from. So do let me know what you think.

In Sensemaking in Organizations (1995), Karl Weick makes an argument that has at times puzzled and at times annoyed me. "People who study sensemaking oscillate ontologically," he tells us (p. 35), "because that is what helps them understand the actions of people in everyday life who could care less about ontology." It’s as if he believes, not just in a correspondence theory of belief and reality, but a correspondence theory of social ontologies. He doesn't just think that, in order to be true, a researcher’s belief about a social fact has to correspond to a social fact of the matter; he also seems to think that the researcher’s ontology has to correspond with the ontology of the research subject.

Obviously, we don’t hold this view in natural science. The moon presumably doesn’t have any ontological convictions, nor does a microbe, a quark, or a galaxy. A hard line on Weick’s proposal would be to say that researchers should simply “care less about ontology,” since that’s how their research subjects feel about it. But that’s of course as ridiculous as saying that biologists should concur with the ontological convictions of microbes.

My view on social ontology is somewhat complicated. I agree with Brian Epstein that social science is in a bad way because its ontological foundations are not coherent. The social sciences, as I’m sure he’s said somewhere, simply don’t know what they are talking about at the moment. But I have also long suspected that this problem cannot be solved. Thatcher was right, we might say; there is no such thing as society. There is no “what” there. There is, however, very definitely a who: people, persons, whole peoples.

The problem with social scientists is not "What do they think they’re doing?" but "Who do they think they are?" They’ve proceeded (and been encouraged) without reflecting very seriously about this. They have assumed that a "science" of the social is possible. I'm not at all sure that it is, to tell you the truth. Hence my call for a Hayekian “counter-revolution”.

I really do believe (though with much fear and trembling) that the foundations of social "science" aren't philosophical but poetical. If we want to recover our senses, our ability to "make sense" of the social, we need to turn to poetry, not philosophy. We should ground our social experience in a lyrical subjectivity, not an enlightened objectivity. All the philosopher of social science can do is to point out that sociology has no "facts" to refer to. One of the reasons everyone is going crazy about the "post-factual society" these days is that we had convinced ourselves (especially on the "liberal" end of the spectrum) that our views about society and politics were "reality-based". We quite literally abandoned our ideals.

None of this implies "methodological individualism", by the way. I'm as inclined to reject psychological "facts" as social ones. Facts, whenever they do (in fact) obtain, are always real and material in the ordinary way. (I hesitate to say "the ordinary physical way" but it's basically what I mean.) Wittgenstein put it neatly in his Tractatus: "Solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it" (5.64). That is, there remain the facts of natural science to be described in naturalistic ways. This generated a little joke for me: Socialism, when its implications are followed out strictly, approaches pure idealism. The "Socialist People’s Republic of…" recedes beyond the horizon, and there remains the ideality associated with it.

We have to understand that an analysis of material conditions offers all the "facts", all the truth, we need. (Paul Feyerabend has a messy, posthumous book called The Conquest of Abundance. I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but as I see it abundance is a 10,000 year-old fact that "scarcity economics" has gotten everyone to ignore. I think the Austrians understood this in a fundamental way.) The rest is about distributing purchasing power justly. We aren’t in need of any more "truth" about economic matters; we just need to share the damn wealth and let workers and entrepreneurs do business. And that's where my critique of social science is also a vision of utopian politics.


Jonathan said...

I think my aphorism "all sciences are physical" might be relevant.

Thomas said...

Yes, definitely.