Durkheim On Social Facts As Things: Methodology As Metaphysics

In The Rules of Sociological Method (The Free Press, 1982, pp. 35-36) Émile Durkheim writes:

The proposition which states that social facts must be treated as things…stirred up the most opposition. It was deemed paradoxical and scandalous for us to assimilate to the realities of the external world those of the social world. This was singularly to misunderstand the meaning and effect of this assimilation, the object of which was not to reduce the higher forms of being to the level of lower ones but…to claim for the former a degree of reality at least equal to that which everyone accords to the latter….we do not say that social facts are material things, but that they are things just as are material things, although in a different way.

What indeed is a thing? The thing stands in opposition to the idea….A thing is any object of knowledge which is not naturally penetrable by the understanding….It is all that which the mind cannot understand without going outside itself, proceeding progressively by way of observation and experimentation from those features which are the most external and the most immediately accessible to those which ‘are the least visible and the most profound. To treat facts of a certain order as things is therefore not to place them in this or that category of reality; it is to observe towards them a certain attitude of mind. It is to embark upon the study of them by adopting the principle that one is entirely ignorant of what they are, that their characteristic properties, like the unknown causes upon which they depend, cannot be discovered by even the most careful form of introspection.

This passage of Durkheim’s is rich in metaphysical import–precisely because it offers a definition of ‘thing’ and suggests existence can be ascribed to orders of being that are not ‘material,’ and which are not for that reason, lacking in ‘reality.’ The fundamental opposition for Durkheim is between objects of the intellect–‘ideas’–and those that are not–things, which require externally directed study. These ‘things’ can be ‘material,’ made up of material substance, or they can have some unknown constitution. But a ‘thing’s’ reality is not a matter of its composition, or its location in space and time; rather, it is a matter of what relation our thought bears to it. The opposition between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial’ is not one between ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’; the immaterial can have just as much reality as the material. Rather, if the ‘thing’ in question is an object of a particular kind of study, if it is a component of our theoretical schemes, it has reality.  The notion of ‘reality’ coming in ‘degrees’ might remain obscure, but whatever it is, Durkheim suggests that the lack of materiality of social facts does not prevent them from being ‘things’ if our methods of study for them–non-introspective, directed outward–treat them as such. In this blend of metaphysics and epistemology Durkheim’s claims reveal a certain pragmatist sensibility at the heart of the social science whose foundations he was establishing; here, yet again, Durkheim shows that methodology is metaphysics.

Brave Analytic Philosophers Use Trump Regime To Settle Old Academic Scores

Recently, Daniel Dennett took the opportunity to, as John Protevi put it, “settle some old academic scores.” He did this by making the following observation in an interview with The Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.””

Roughly, postmodernism brought you Donald Trump. If only Trump voters hadn’t read so much Deleuze or Derrida or Spivak, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Dennett has now been joined in this valiant enterprise of Defending Truth and Knowledge by Timothy Williamson who makes the following remarks in an interview with The Irish Times:

No philosophical manoeuvre can stop politicians telling lies. But some philosophical manoeuvres do help politicians obscure the distinction between truth and falsity.

When I visited Lima, a woman interviewed me for YouTube. She had recently interviewed a ‘postmodernist’ philosopher. When she pointed at a black chair and asked ‘Is that chair black or white?’ he replied ‘Things are not so simple’.

The more philosophers take up such obscurantist lines, the more spurious intellectual respectability they give to those who try to confuse the issues in public debate when they are caught out in lies. Of course, many things in public affairs are genuinely very complicated, but that’s all the more reason not to bring in bogus complexity….

Obviously it wasn’t mainly postmodernism or relativism that won it for Trump, indeed those philosophical views are presumably more widespread amongst his liberal opponents than amongst his supporters, perhaps most of whom have never heard of them. Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.

In the course of an informal Facebook discussion, I made the following responses to Dennett’s remarks (which I described as ‘very silly’):

[We] could just as well lay the blame on the very idea of truth. Perhaps if truth wasn’t so exalted so much, we wouldn’t have so many people claiming that they should be followed just because what they said was the truth. Especially because many lies really are better for us than some truths. Perhaps we would have been better off seeing what worked for us, rather than obsessing about naming things as true or false.

Fascist insurgencies like the ones here in our country are not relying on post-modern critiques of truth and fact to prop up their claims; they need only rely on something far simpler: the fact that talking of truth and facts grants them an aura of respectability. The elevation (or demotion) of this political debate to a matter of metaphysics and epistemology is to play their game because we will find these pillars of ours to actually rest on sand. Far better to point out to proponents of ‘alternative facts’ that these facts will not help them send their kids to school or cure their illnesses. Let us not forget that these ‘facts’ help them in many ways now: it finds them a community, makes them secure, gives vent to their anger and so on. I’ve never liked the way everyone is jumping up and down about how some great methodological crisis is upon us in this new era, which is entirely ab initio. People have been using ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ all through history and using them to achieve political ends.

On a related note, Ali Minai responds to another set of claims against ‘relativism’ made in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Jay Levinovitz:

In fact, it is non-relativism that has generally been the weapon of choice for authoritarians. The weaponization of “alternative facts” may be aided by relativism but its efficacy still relies on the opposite attitude. It works only when its targets accept “alternative facts” as actually true.

What these responses to the Defenders of Truth Against Relativism make quite clear are the following propositions:

  1. So-called ‘postmodern’ critiques are more often than not, the political weapons of choice for those critiquing authoritarian regimes: they serve as a theoretical grounding for claims against ‘dominant’ or ‘totalizing’ narratives that issue from such regimes.
  2. Non-relativism or absolutism about truth is the preferred theoretical, argumentative, and rhetorical platform for authoritarians. Let us not forget that science was a challenge to the absolutism about truth that revealed religions claimed to profess; the Enlightenment brought many ‘alternative facts’ in its wake. Those worked; their ‘truth’ was established by their working. All the mathematical proofs and telescope gazings would have been useless had the science and technology built on them not ‘worked.’
  3. When fascists and authoritarians present ‘alternative facts’ and reject established knowledge claims, they do not present their alternative claims as ‘false’ because ‘truth’ is to be disdained; rather, they take an explicitly orthodox line in claiming ‘truth’ for their claims. ‘Truth’ is still valuable; it is still ‘correspondence’ to facts that matters.

The target of the critiques above then, is misplaced several times over. (Moreover, Willamson’s invocation of the philosopher who could not give a ‘straightforward’ answer to his interlocutor is disingenous at best. What if the ‘postmodernist’ philosopher wanted to make a point about colorblindness, or primary or secondary qualities? I presume Williamson would have no trouble with an analytic philosopher ‘complicating’ matters in such fashion. What would Williamson say to Wilfrid Sellars who might, as part of his answer, say, “To call that chair ‘black’ would be to show mastery of the linguistic concept ‘black’ in the space of reasons.” Another perfectly respectable philosophical answer, which Williamson would not find objectionable. Willamson’s glib answer to the question of whether the definition of truth offered by Aristotle correct is just that; surely, he would not begrudge the reams of scholarship produced in exploring the adequacy of the ‘correspondence theory of truth,’ what it leaves out, and indeed, the many devastating critiques leveled at it? The bogus invocation of ‘bogus complexity’ serves no one here.)

Critiques like Williamson and Dennett’s are exercises in systematic, dishonest misunderstandings of the claims made by their supposed targets. They refuse to note that it is the valorization of truth that does all the work for the political regimes they critique, that it is the disagreement about political ends that leads to the retrospective hunt for the ‘right, true, facts’ that will enable the desired political end. There is not a whiff of relativism in the air.

But such a confusion is only to be expected when the epistemology that Williamson and Dennett take themselves to be defending rests on a fundamental confusion itself: an incoherent notion of ‘correspondence to the facts’ and a refusal to acknowledge that beliefs are just rules for actions–directed to some end.

Epistemology and ‘The Leftovers’

Imagine that an extremely improbable event occurs, one for which there was no warning; your best theories of the world assigned it a near-zero probability (indeed, so low was this probability then calculating it would have been a waste of time). This event is inexplicable–no explanations for it are forthcoming, and it cannot be fitted into the explanatory frameworks employed by your current conceptual schemes. What effect would this have on your theory of knowledge, your epistemology, the beliefs you form, and the justifications you consider acceptable for them?

This question is raised with varying degrees of explicitness in HBO’s The Leftovers–which deals with the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of approximately two percent of the earth’s population. ‘The Departure’ selected its ‘victims’ at random; no pattern appeared to connect the victims to each other. The ‘departures’ all happened at the same time, and they left no trace. There is no sign of them anymore; two percent of the world’s population has been vaporized. Literally.

The Leftovers is not a very good show, and I’m not sure I will watch it any more (two seasons has been enough). It did however, afford me an opportunity to engage in the philosophical reflection I note above.

One phenomena that should manifest itself in the aftermath of an event like ‘The Departure’ would be the formation of all kinds of ‘cults,’ groups united by beliefs formerly considered improbable but which now find a new lease on life because the metaphysical reasonableness of the world has taken such a beating. Critics of these cults would find that the solid foundations of their previous critiques had disappeared; if ‘The Departure’ could happen, then so could a great deal else. The Leftovers features some cults and their ‘gullible’ followers but does little of any great interest with them–lost opportunities abound in this show, perhaps an entirely unsurprising denouement given that its creators were responsible for the atrocity called Lost.

As one of the characters notes in the second season, ‘The Departure’ made the holding of ‘false beliefs’ more respectable than it had ever been. And as yet another character notes in the first season, that old knockdown maneuver, the one used to dismiss an implausible claim made by someone else, that ‘the laws of nature won’t allow that,’ is simply not available anymore.  Science used to tell us that its knowledge was defeasible, but now that that dreaded moment, when evidence of the universe’s non-uniformity, irregularity, and non-conformance with scientific laws is upon us, what are we to do? In The Leftovers a scientific effort gets underway to determine if geographical location was determinative of the victims’ susceptibility to being ‘departured,’ but it seems like this is grasping at straws, a pathetic and hopeless attempt to shoehorn ‘The Departure’ into extant scientific frameworks.

So, in the aftermath of ‘The Departure,’ we reside in a zone of epistemic confusion: we do not know how to assign probabilities to our beliefs anymore, for the definition of ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’ seems to have been radically altered. That old ‘you never know’ has taken on a far more menacing tone. Only the resumption of the ‘normal’ stream of events for a sufficiently long period of time can heal this epistemic and metaphysical rupture; it will be a while before our sense of this world’s apparent predictability will return. But even then, every argument about the plausibility or the implausibility of some epistemic claim will take place in the shadow of that catastrophic disruption of ‘reality;’ the reasonableness of this world will always appear just a tad suspect.

Robert Merton On The Importance Of Knowledge For Analyzing Social Actions

In ‘The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” (American Sociological Review, Vol. 1, No. 6 (Dec., 1936), pp. 894-904) Robert Merton writes:

The most obvious limitation to a correct anticipation of consequences of action is provided by the existing state of knowledge. The extent of this limitation may be best appreciated by assuming the simplest case where this lack of adequate knowledge is the sole barrier to a correct anticipation. Obviously, a very large number of concrete reasons for inadequate knowledge may be found, but it is also possible to summarize several classes of factors which are most important.

It is not a trivial matter that Merton begins his analysis of how a hopefully-scientific study of social actions can go wrong with an invocation of epistemic limitations; he is doing nothing less than acknowledging the centrality of our epistemic positioning for our various projects of inquiry–and the claims that they sanction. The most exalted and the most humble of them is–or should be–always indexed by an assessment of how confidently they may be asserted and under what conditions they would be retracted. The esoteric metaphysical claim that the universe is indeterministic may, on closer inspection, may turn out to only be the claim that the universe’s workings–as revealed to us–are indicative of such indeterminism; its alleged metaphysical attribute turns out to have been an indication of the limitations of our knowledge. Or consider the claim, central to Buddhism, Jainism, and even Stoicism, that while we have no control over the impressions the world directs at us, we can, and do, exercise control over our judgments. Those judgments–the inferences we draw–are crucially reliant on what we know and believe.

In Merton’s analysis, the social scientist is reminded that both the internal and external domains of his inquiry are shrouded by epistemic uncertainty, an ever-present feature of our human situation: the social subject does not have all relevant information available at hand that may be used for evaluating a course of action, while the social analyst is similarly handicapped in his external assessment of the action. Merton’s analysis thus speaks to the importance of information flows, and introduces a political wrinkle here in so doing. For we might well ask: Where and how may we acquire the knowledge needed to evaluate and plan social action and strategies and tactics? Who controls these sources of information?

Note: In the section preceding the one excerpted above, Merton had made note of how our understanding of ‘rationality’ demands an indexing by epistemic state as well:

[R]ationality and irrationality are not to be identified with the success and failure of action, respectively. For in a situation where the number of possible actions for attaining a given end is severely limited, one acts rationally by selecting the means which, on the basis of the available evidence, has the greatest probability of attaining this goal and yet the goal may actually not be attained. Contrariwise, an end may be attained by action which, on the basis of the knowledge available to the actor, is irrational (as in the case of “hunches”).

Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

Richard Feynman on Philosophy of Science and Ornithology

Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, in his usual inimitable style, that “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” Cue chuckles from scientists and grumbles from philosophers. Science is useful! Philosophy is useless! Go back to counting angels. Or something like that. 

The persistent disdain that distinguished scientists–like Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Feynman–level at philosophy in general, and philosophy of science in particular, should be embarrassing for the scientific community at large. At best, it shows an ignorance of the history–and thus, the foundations–of the discipline, and at worst a deliberate, anti-intellectual obtuseness. (Some previously expressed thoughts of mine on this matter can be found here and here.)

Let us grant Feynman his point. (I’m not inclined to, but let’s press ahead.) What follows? Consider his analogy. Perhaps the branch of zoology that studies birds is indeed useless to avians. What then? Should ornithologists put away their binoculars, cancel all conferences,  burn their journals, and enter a prolonged period of mourning? I think not. Ornithology is not just for the birds.

Ornithology informs us, its students of a great deal: avian behavioral patterns, speciation, migration, ecological niches, learning etc. Those who study philosophy of science–and its study is inseparable, almost conceptually, from that of the history of science–learn a great deal too. They learn about science’s metaphysical, epistemological, and methodological presuppositions; they come to understand the dynamics of theory change in the sciences; they learn how inductive and abductive inference generate conclusions, which though not deductive, can still count as knowledge. And so on. If such students are interested in the workings of a historical, social, and cultural phenomenon called ‘science’ which has been supremely successful in helping us interact with, and control–to a limited extent–our physical environment, and that is capable of generating testable hypotheses about the world that surrounds us, they will find a great deal of value in the philosophy of science. Which, to repeat, cannot be studied without studying the history of science (something which reveals a great deal about the sociology and political economy of science too.) Perhaps Feynman would have us believe that the history of science is also useless to scientists.

Perhaps Feynman meant to say that philosophy of science does not result in the discovery of new scientific laws, or perhaps that no philosopher of science ever devised a new scientific principle. But why is this a disqualification of the philosophy of science? Science does not just need to be practiced; it needs to be studied too–from the inside and the outside. The society it is embedded in needs to understand how such a vastly productive and tremendously successful system of knowledge functions; those who study its history and methods aid in this enterprise. They help distinguish science from other practices and prevent both encroachment on, and overly aggressive expansion of, its epistemic boundaries; they may provide means by which its metaphysical and implicit and explicit moral claims may be evaluated.

Many years ago, in talking to a senior mathematical logician about one of his students, I said the student was ‘absolutely brilliant.’ My interlocutor said, “Well, I don’t know; he’s certainly very talented.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant. When I see folks like that illustrious trio above disparage the philosophy of science, I know exactly what he was getting at.

Philosophical Silencing: A Follow-Up

In response to my post on an act of philosophical silencing, Wesley Buckwalter wrote the following comment (over at the NewAPPS blog, where I cross-posted):

As you know, I was the gentleman that made that remark in a private facebook thread with a close friend. If I recall correctly, people in that thread were asking about whether certain kinds of thought experiments were typically referred to as “Gettier Cases”. I said that they were, despite how inaccurate or uninformative it might be to do so, in part because of the alternative traditions you cite. I’m sorry you interpreted my remark as silencing my friends on facebook. Personally I believe that philosophers should abandon the notion of “Gettier cases” and that the practice of labeling thought experiments in this way should be discouraged. If you are interested, I have recently argued for this in two articles here (http://philpapers.org/rec/BLOGCA) and here (http://philpapers.org/rec/TURKAL).

Many thanks to Wesley for his clarification. His initial comment, which I cited, did not acknowledge the content of the other comment I had quoted, and neither did it mention the presence of “alternative traditions” as a reason for the stance that he takes in the first of the two papers he refers me to. Those papers, if I remember correctly, were not cited in the thread. So, in the comment he had initially made, it had seemed to me that the amendment offered by the first commenter had not been taken on board.(In the Gettier case paper, Wesley refers to the following article–Turri, John. 2012. In Gettier’s Wake. In S. Hetherington (Ed.) Epistemology: The Key Thinkers. Continuum Press–as citing the Indian philosopher Sriharsa as someone who has offered similar examples. I am obviously very glad to see such an acknowledgment made in a published work.)

Let me go on to say that the attitude I was interested in highlighting, even if not instantiated in this particular token, is an existent type. (As you can tell, I was trained as an Anglo-American analytical philosopher.) Which is why I was not interested in naming individuals but in pointing to the existence of an intellectual stance. To the commenter Chris, who thinks he was ‘misled’, let me direct the following question:  What were you misled about? That an unnamed individual indulged in silencing or that the silencing of academic conversations about alternative philosophical traditions exists in academic philosophy? Perhaps my excessive familiarity with such acts of silencing, thanks to twenty-three years of utter failure in provoking a conversation about Indian philosophy, led me to the kind of conclusions I drew. I don’t think the conclusion to be drawn in response to my original post is that all is good, there is nothing to see here, and that we should just move on.

I started studying philosophy twenty-three years ago. In that time, I’ve only managed to provoke conversations about alternative philosophical traditions with the following demographics: one graduate school friend of mine who asked me a few questions about Indian philosophy while we were drinking beers, one senior professor who teaches Buddhism (among other things), my dissertation adviser (an Indian) who is a practicing Buddhist, and the attendees at a conference on Eastern philosophy a few years ago. In that same period, I’ve initiated several conversations about Indian philosophy, and have had them all shot down with varying degrees of skepticism and disdain. My worst mistake was to try to talk about Buddhist theories of relational consciousness with the members of a class on consciousness who were going down the usual Nagel-Block-Rosenthal-Ramachandran-Churchland et al route.

I realized over the years that most people I talked to in philosophical academia conflated ‘Eastern philosophy’ with ‘mysticism’. In response, I would sometimes point to the ‘harder’ schools: Samkhya and Lokyata (or Carvaka). The latter, in particular, was materialist in its orientation; perhaps that would appeal to the hard-edged analytical types I hung out with, the ones so enamored of science? Sometimes I would try to talk about Nyaya;  you know, logic and inference, and all that good stuff that analytical types like and love? No dice. It never worked. I was perceived as either indulging in a kind of facile ‘We’ve done it all before!’–perhaps like someone invoking the glories of the Nubian empire in a modern conversation about technological and cultural achievements–or dragging in wishy-washy pale imitations of the real thing.  (Logic only started with Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, dontcha know?)

But, of course, those traditions were not the only ones so dismissed. Within ‘Western philosophy’ I have heard graduate students who had never read Foucault dismiss him as ‘useless’, describe feminist theory as fundamentally misguided, and the less said about critical race theory, the better.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of an old family friend, a former professor of philosophy, with the following caption:

A photo of my brother and myself with Dr. Dhirendra Sharma, a man I deeply admire and respect. He is the author of _The Negative Dialectics: A Study of the Negative Dialecticism in Indian Philosophy_, _The Differentiation Theory of Meaning in Indian Logic_, a critic of India’s nuclear program back in the 1970s, (when he was writing about “appropriate technology”), an environmental activist working to preserve the Garhwal Himalayas, and going back further, an anti-Vietnam war activist when he had tenure at Michigan State. He is now in his 80s, fit as a fiddle, bright as ever. I aspire to his health and wisdom.

Posting that photograph reminded me of an incident that occurred during my thirtieth birthday. On that day, many of my graduate school friends showed up to help me celebrate. Some of us moved to my room to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I then owned one of Professor Sharma’s books and I took it down from the shelves and thrust it toward one of my friends. Because it featured ‘meaning’ in its title, and because all of us, as analytical types, seemed suitably obeisant toward philosophy of language, I thought it might get someone interested in opening it and taking a look. Instead, it was contemptuously waved off, even when I desperately said that it invoked distinctions that were reminiscent of the Fregean distinction between sense and reference. No one accepted the book held out, and it remained unopened.

Silencing exists.