Dan Little: Applied metaphysics!

All — I wonder whether “applied metaphysics” is of interest to this group. For example, here is something I set out to do in my treatment of Albert Soboul’s ontology of the French Revolution in New Contributions to the Philosophy of History. I found that all the substantive nouns that Soboul used in his account of the French Revolution could be subsumed under these categories: individuals and groups, events, organizations and institutions, mentalities, processes, conditions, patterns, and technologies. There are no entities in Soboul’s narrative that do not fit into one of these categories, and the categories themselves are reasonably independent from one another. So we might say that Soboul’s metaphysics is implicitly defined by the concepts he uses, and it can be summarized as a fairly compact historical ontology. My question to Ruth’s circle is this: is this a way of approaching the problem of metaphysics in a less aprioristic way than philosophers generally do?
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2 Responses to Dan Little: Applied metaphysics!

  1. rgroff2013 says:

    I think this level of analysis is totally interesting. One might say “Well, it’s the metaphysicians who will tell us what an event *is*.” This may be true, but I think that it goes the other way too. Theoretically minded sociologists, for example, have as much if not more to say about what a relation is – as a matter of ontology, I mean – and also about emergent entities I think, as do metaphysicians. I often wish that the metaphysicians would pay more attention to such sociologists on these issues. I also think that the work at the level that you’re describing, viz., of laying bare the ontology of substantive accounts, is terribly important. Similarly, I think philosophically minded people in English probably have real insight into the nature of fictional entities. Fiction writers, too.

  2. Here I will extend my reasons for thinking the powers approach raises some distinctive problems when applied in the social realm and respond to several of Ruth’s comments. Thanks for engaging on this topic, Ruth!

    Here are a couple of starting points for me. First, I believe that social entities are plastic, heterogeneous, and contingent. (I am thinking here primarily of organizations, institutions, and structures, but I would also include value systems, knowledge systems, and technology practices as well.) They are the interwoven product of intentional efforts to accomplish something collectively (as a group or a subgroup) and stochastic changes over time. A certain regulation gets written into the system at a certain time without any particular outcome in mind, and the change persists through a series of iterations. A practice arises spontaneously and becomes a powerful tradition.

    The first source gives a weak kind of functionality to social entities, though it may be that it is only functional for a subgroup (e.g. the bosses, the civil servants, the admin assistants) but not for the group as a whole or for society at large. (Has anyone else noticed practices at his or her own university that seem to exist largely for the convenience of this or that group of staff or faculty?) The second source doesn’t support an expectation of functionality at all unless we can postulate something like selective reproduction of complexes of institutional arrangements. (This might work for firms in a competitive environment, for example, where stochastic innovations permit superior performance and get carried over. This would be a part of evolutionary economics.) So we can expect that social entities will be shape shifters over time, incorporating innovations, adaptations, self-interested changes, and random alterations over time. This means: no functionalism, no social kinds, no social essences.

    These points suggest that social ontology is different from the ontology of the natural world. It is substantially more fluid, contingent, intermittent, and less orderly than entities and processes in the natural world. This is one reason I am somewhat drawn to the ontology of assemblage in the social realm — entities are somewhat accidental and stochastic piles of unconnected sub-level stuff. (At one point I suggested that we think of the paradigm of a social entity as a rummage sale rather than a molecule.)

    If we think these ideas are roughly correct in relation to social entities, then several things seem to follow:

    — There are no social kinds in a sense seriously analogous to natural kinds. “Bureaucracies” are not analogous to “metals”.
    — Social entities do not have “essential natures”. Rather, any and all of their characteristics may change over time. They are a bit like Neurath’s raft, except that in the long run they may shift from a Phoenician fighting ship to a floating apartment complex!
    — Social entities cannot be treated as if they have inherent functions; their functionality at a certain time is no more than the partial success of one group or another to construct the entity so as to further some goal.
    — The causal properties of social entities derive from the contingent and transient structural properties that constitute them at a given time; so their causal properties are non-essential and shifting as well.

    What does this have to do with the metaphysics of causal powers? I think it lays the ground for a serious discussion of how and in what ways social entities can be said to possess causal powers. The anti-essentialist position is motivated at both ends of the story: the social entity does not possess essential characteristics, its causal powers are not generated by essential characteristics, and a specific set of causal powers is not essential to what a specific social entity is. So if we want to maintain that social entities sometimes possess causal powers — that social entities make things happen — then we need to allow that attribution of causal powers does not presuppose that the relevant entities have essential natures, or that the causal power is an essential expression of this essential nature.

    Instead, I think it is entirely plausible to hold that the powers that a thing has are the necessary expression of its current inner composition and substrate of stuff of which it is composed. Here I think I agree with Ruth. In the case of social entities this substrate is the nature of the human individuals who are involved in its activities, and the inner composition is the sometimes elaborate set of rules, incentives, opportunities, and norms that work to influence the actions and thoughts of the persons who constitute it. The differences in functioning between two chemical plants, populated by fundamentally similar human actors but embodying significantly different sets of rules and practices, will be substantial. This is the fundamental finding of the new institutionalism.

    I think this means I can agree with Ruth in saying that in each instance the organization’s powers are inherent in its current composition; but the coming and going of the powers in shifts in the rules and practices of an organization demonstrates that the composition of the entity has changed from one instance to another. I didn’t want to say that the powers identified here are external to the NRC, but rather that the NRC’s nature has changed as a result of each of the innovations mentioned. And this means to me that the NRC doesn’t have a “nature in general”, but only a nature as realized with specific institutional rules and arrangements.

    (These are topics I’ve considered extensively in Understanding Society. For anyone who is interested I’ve compiled a number of the relevant posts into an e-book (http://readlists.com/b2bbf733). If you look at it, let me know what you think of this format for sharing work!)

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