Powers, Essences & Sociological Phenomena

Here’s a link to a recent post by Dan Little on his own blog, Understanding Society, with the start of an exchange between us.  http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2014/02/social-powers.html

Dan wondered if a commitment to powers brings along with it a commitment to essentialism, at the level of kinds and/or at the level of particulars.  Dan is wary of this since he rejects kind essentialism in the case of sociological phenomena (and perhaps more generally; I’m not sure).

As you can see, I replied that I don’t think that anti-passivism requires one to think that all of the types of doing that a powerful thing (“thing”) can potentially do are essential to it being either a given particular or of a given kind.  But, I said, I think you’d have to say that a thing’s powers are its own, be they essential to its kind or particular identity or not.  Also, I thought, probably at least some of the properties of a powerful thing that are essential to it will be powers.

Dan – as you can see – then replied as follows:

“It seems to me that a social thing — an organization, say — could have a contingent power, not at all intrinsic, that derives from a highly contingent characteristic it has for a period of time. The NRC might briefly introduce a way of insulating inspectors from legislators, say, that makes their inspections more truthful; under this arrangement, the NRC has the causal power of revealing faults in nuclear power plants. But as soon as this insulation of inspectors decays, the power goes away. So the feature isn’t intrinsic to the NRC, and the power derives from a transient feature of the organization. What do you think?”

I thought I’d reply here, since this kind of conversation seems so fruitful to me for powers-minded thinkers at different levels of abstraction.  (Also I don’t have Google +, so Dan keeps having to post my replies for me.  Talk about a scholar and a gentleman.)

First, as a meta-theoretical point, I think that Dan’s example illustrates wonderfully why talking to sociologists, as he does all the time, is so important to getting the philosophy right.  Sociologists concern themselves with really interesting, metaphysically complex entities.

But second: to the point Dan raises.  I think I’m inclined to say not that the power of the NRC to identify faults is external to it, but that it is a power that it has in virtue of what it is supposed to be (viz., the damn NRC!), and do (viz., regulate the damn industry), but it is a power that can only be actualized sometimes, i.e., when its inspectors are insulated.  Most things don’t actualize all of their powers all the time.  I can only actualize my power to swim when I’m in water.  Having powers is all well and good, but other things have powers too.  And it is not just a matter of interference — or finks & antidotes as the analytic metaphysicians like to say.  I had to be taught how to read, before I could.  This is so apart from how I won’t be reading if I don’t have any books.

So the contextual nature of things doesn’t seem to me to be a problem for the idea that things are themselves powerful.

But let’s go further and stipulate that the NRC is granted *new* powers, ones that don’t follow from its being the NRC, and that it didn’t have before.  What now?  Here I think I’d still resist the idea that the newly acquired powers are somehow external to the NRC.  Powers that can come and go while the powerful thing stays the same are arguably not essential to the powerful thing’s being a this and not a that, but I think that I’d want to parse the coming and going in temporal terms rather than in terms of the powers not being inherent in the thing while it has them.

Dan?  Others?

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One Response to Powers, Essences & Sociological Phenomena

  1. Pingback: Social plasticity and ontology « Understanding Society

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