Jerome Bruner On Cultures That ‘Breakdown’

In Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990, pp. 96-97), Jerome Bruner writes

When there is a breakdown in a culture…it can usually be traced to one of several things. The first is a deep disagreement about what constitutes the ordinary and canonical in life and what the exceptional and divergent….this we know in our time from what one might call the “battle of the life-styles.” exacerbated by intergenerational conflict. A second threat inheres in the rhetorical overspecialization of narrative, when stories become so ideologically or self-servingly motivated that distrust displaces interpretation, and “what happened” is discounted as fabrication. On the large scale, this is what happens under a totalitarian regime, and contemporary novelists of Central Europe have documented it with painful exquisiteness–Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, and many others. The same phenomenon  expresses itself in modern bureaucracy, where all except the official story of what is happening is silenced or stonewalled…finally, there is breakdown that results from sheer impoverishment of narrative resources–in the permanent underclass of the ghetto, in the second and third generation of the Palestinian refugee compound, in the hunger-preoccupied villages of semipermanently drought-stricken villages in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not that there is a total loss in putting story form to experience, but that the worse scenario story comes to to dominate daily life that variation no longer seems to be possible. [links added]

My reasons for posting this passage, at this time should be clear enough.

The first state of affairs that Bruner lists above has been a feature of American life for as long as I can remember it, and indeed, has been from the birth of the nation; it constitutes a  dynamic and creative tension in American culture. It has led to many species of politics and political engagement, not all of them conducive to the continuance of the American polity. The third condition too, has been realized in ample measure in American life; it is what makes the ‘voices of the downtrodden’ especially worth listening to–as rappers like Public Enemy were fond of saying, by listening to them you learned something about a world most American citizens did not need or want to interact with; that music offered affirmation that despite the ‘impoverishment of narrative resources’ powerful, creative voices still spoke loudly and clearly. The second condition is the one that will seem especially familiar to us now in this era of ‘fake news–the relentless, seemingly unstoppable lying, the bald-faced denial of ‘what is in front of our nose.’

The crucial mistake, a self-congratulatory one, would be to imagine that this state of affairs is entirely new; bald-faced, persistent, and systematic liars have long worked their trade. What is new is the materiality of our information exchanges, their speed and ubiquity, their all-pervasiveness. They make possible the ‘breakdown’ in communication many experience today; the so-called ‘echo chambers,’ the sense that some divides cannot be bridged by discourse. The central irony in all of this, as media scholars have not tired of pointing out, that it is our civilization’s most pervasive, most efficient, most democratic communication system ever that has facilitated this state of affairs.

Breakdowns in cultures are not trivial affairs, and there is no sign that the current political and cultural tensions in American life will lead to anything like an irreparable rift; but complacency is no substitute for thinking about what changes in material conditions can induce a different social and personal consciousness that could help heal the present schisms.

Durkheim On The Pragmatist Conception Of Truth

Pragmatism’s much reviled ‘theory of truth’ received a sympathetic and yet critical and rigorous treatment in Émile Durkheim‘s little-known–to philosophers–Pragmatism and Sociology (John P. Allcock, ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1955.) As part of this treatment, Durkheim notes that:

If thought had as its object simply to ‘reproduce’ reality, it would be the slave of things, and chained to reality. It would simply have to slavishly ‘copy’ the reality before it. If thought is to be freed, it must become the creator of its own object, and the only way to attain this goal is to give it a reality to make or construct. Therefore, thought has as its aim not the reproduction of a datum, but the construction of a future reality. It follows that the value of ideas can no longer be assessed by reference to  objects but must be determined by their degree of utility, their more or less ‘advantageous’ character. [emphasis in original, p. 66]

Understanding the ‘aim’ or the objective of thought as the ‘construction of a future reality’ causes a reconceptualization of truth too; truth is not ‘mere correspondence’ with reality but rather some other recognition of the ‘value’ of an idea; the former is exclusively semantic, the latter is a richer notion, more complex than the simpler notions which preceded it:

[I]n rationalism truth is….necessarily placed above human life. It cannot conform to the demands of circumstances and differing temperaments. It is valid by itself and is good with an absolute goodness. It does not exist for our sake, but for its own. Its role is to let itself be contemplated. It is so to speak deified; it becomes the object of a real cult….’To soften’ the truth is to take from it this absolute and…sacrosanct character. It is to tear it away from this state of immobility that removes it from all becoming, from all change…from all explanation….instead of being thus confined in a separate world, it is itself…naturally part of reality and life….It poses problems: we are authorized to ask ourselves where it comes from, what good it is and so on. It becomes itself an object of knowledge. Herein lies the interest of the pragmatist enterprise: we can see it as an effort to understand truth and reason themselves, to restore to them their human interest, to make of them human things that derive from temporal causes and give rise to temporal consequences. To ‘soften’ truth is to make it into something that can be analysed and explained.

It is this ‘irreverence’ for, and ‘softening’ of, truth that allows pragmatism to make its most ambitious and ‘outlandish’ claims; it is what allows it to participate as a theoretical contributor to the sociology of knowledge; it makes comprehensible the ‘value’ of truth and its importance for us in our thought and action; unlike rationalism, which takes truth’s value as a given, pragmatism inquires into the role it plays in our theorizing and investigates whether the goods it promises are actually delivered or not.

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.

Max Weber On The Ubiquity Of ‘Meaning’ In ‘Social Life’ And ‘Nature’

In “The Concept of ‘Following a Rule'” (Weber: Selections in Translation, ed. W. G. Runciman, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 107) Max Weber writes:

If we separate in our minds the ‘meaning’ which we find ‘expressed’ in an object or event from those elements in the object or event which are left over when we abstract precisely that ‘meaning,’ and if we call an enquiry which considers only these latter elements a ‘naturalistic’ one, then we get a broader concept of ‘nature,’ which is quite distinct from the previous one. Nature is what is ‘meaningless’ – or, more correctly, an event becomes part of ‘nature’ if we do not ask for its ‘meaning.’ But plainly in that case the opposite of ‘nature,’ in the sense of the ‘meaningless,’ is not ‘social life’ but just the ‘meaningful’ – that is, the ‘meaning’ which can be attached to, or ‘found in,’ an event or object, from the metaphysical ‘meaning’ given to the cosmos in a system of religious doctrine down to the ‘meaning’ which the baying of one of Robinson Crusoe’s hounds ‘has’ when a wolf is approaching.

In ‘The Concept of ‘Following A Rule’ Weber was concerned to provide an extended critique of the notion put forward by Rudolf Stammler that–roughly–‘social’ life could be demarcated from ‘nature’ on the basis of the criteria that social life was characterized by rule-following; it is this ‘following a rule’ which generates the meaning attached to social events; Robinson Crusoe, bound ‘only’ by nature and his own desires and constraints follows no such rules; his is not a social life; it is life lived in ‘nature.’ As Weber went on to argue, such a distinction was not enough; Crusoe’s existence on his isolated island could be interpreted to be bound by ‘rules’ too; the curious social scientist just had to look farther afield, perhaps at the laws of nature that Crusoe was bound by, perhaps the rhythms of a daily routine that best served his continued existence and survival. The boundaries between the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ cannot be so easily drawn; the social cannot so easily be described by a logic different from that used to describe nature.

In the passage above, Weber notes that ‘meaning’ is far too loose a notion to do the work that such a distinction would seek to make it do; ‘meaning’ is ubiquitous depending on the perspectives and interpretations at play; we can read meaning into and out of natural events just as easily as we do with social ones. If we are determined to describe ‘nature’ as ‘meaningless’ we will not obtain ‘social life’ as its converse, but rather, just the ‘meaningful,’ which will not map on precisely to what we understand in normal practice by ‘nature.’ This is a point that should be familiar to those who struggle to provide theories of meaning in the philosophy of language; far too much is found ‘meaningful’–using explicitly linguistic units or otherwise–for one all-encompassing theory to do do justice to the concept.

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”).

The Contingency Of Academic, ‘Disciplinary’ Classification

The textbook I use for my Social Philosophy class, Social Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Present (ed. Alan Sica, Pearson, 2005) is a standard anthology featuring selections from a wide range of historical periods and schools of thought (and the theorists identified with them). This collection may not only serve as ‘a textbook of social philosophy’ in a philosophy department. The following alternative uses for it–in various domains of pedagogy and academic learning–are also possible.

  1. As a textbook in a sociology department for an introductory class in social theory. This might have been Social Thought’s original intended use. The table of contents makes explicit reference to ‘social theory’ and refers to periods and movements using descriptors of interest to social theorists: ‘modern social theory,’ ‘revolution and romanticism,’ the classical period of modern social thought,’ ‘social theory between the great wars,’ and ‘post-modernism, globalization, and the new century.’
  2. As a textbook in a history department for a class in the history of ideas. The schools of thought represented in this collection are impressively diverse: pragmatism, feminism, anarchism, psychoanalysis, linguistics, conservatism, neo-pragmatism, liberalism, positivism etc. Such a class could showcase their historical location and their relationship to other theoretical formations of the same time period.
  3. As a sourcebook for a composition or writing class showing examples of writing styles as deployed in social theory, critique, and analysis (or as samples of styles deployed in particular historical periods.) These samples could be analyzed for their idiosyncratic or standard deployment of particular literary tropes, their use of classical and non-standard figures of speech, their use of rhetoric etc.
  4. As a sourcebook for studying the quality of translations (many of the original sources were originally written in French, German, Spanish, Latin, Italian etc.) By comparing these with different translations of the same material students could evaluate the resultant differences in tone, meaning, and literary style.
  5. As a portion of a syllabus in history of a particular period–for instance, ‘European History Between The Great Wars’–which addresses the evolution in social thought during the period in question.
  6. As a sourcebook for studying social thought as indexed by region of origin – ‘English social thought’, ‘American social thought’, ‘French social thought’ etc.

And so on.

My use of this anthology in a class titled ‘Social Philosophy’ is, at least on one reckoning, a slightly non-standard one. The syllabus for this particular offering of the department has been, historically, what would have been called ‘Classical Social and Political Philosophy.’ That is, I would have covered figures and themes considered to lie in the so-called ‘classical canon’: Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Machiavelli, and so on. (The ‘contemporary’ version of this class would have concentrated on ‘twentieth-century social and political philosophy.) Instead, by taking the ‘social’ in the title seriously–and not just as a shortening of ‘social and political’–I chose to cover material that would have been within the purvey of a traditional ‘social theory’ class in a sociology department. This decision–if the discussions with my students has provided any indication–was a good one; the resultant focus on the relationship between society and individual was one distinct from the kind usually achieved in a more standard treatment (in large part due to the fact that members of the ‘social theory’ canon often do not find inclusion in philosophy reading lists.)

The point, of course, is that the disciplinary or departmental classification of a textbook–the material it contains–is not a definitive matter. That material can be pressed into the service of many different kinds of intellectual or pedagogical objectives. As such, the question of whether the reading is ‘philosophy’ or ‘sociology’ or ‘history’ becomes a question of its location in a particular interpretive framework of study.


Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’: Who Will Bend Its Bars?

Yesterday morning, as the students in my Social Philosophy class and I discussed an excerpt from Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism, we ran out of time. As my students got up and started to head out for their next commitment (work or the next class), I began reading out loud the following passage:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

I’m glad to say that at least two or three students halted in their tracks and were visibly moved (by Weber’s writing, not by my sonorous reading.) This remarkable conclusion to Weber’s classic work has not lost any of its power to amaze over the years: it is–as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, “prescient”–it is poetic, it is wistful, it is also, I think, angry.

The “last ton of fossilized coal” is not yet burnt, the last barrel of oil is not yet extracted, so much damage remains to be done. Many rivers remain to be choked with waste and refuse, many mountainsides are still to be devastated by strip mining, many seas–and their denizens–are not fully clogged with plastic; the temperatures of the worlds oceans and atmosphere are still inching upwards; many communities remain to be immiserated. Meanwhile, our lives become ever more machinic, controlled and administered by Big Data and Big Banks, while fascists and corporate lackeys compete for the highest echelons of power.

Vacations and leisure time shrink, we spend less time with our families; to ask for more, for another bowl, is to ask for a resounding blow about our ears with the boss’ ladle. Nose to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel: that is where our salvation awaits. We will find deliverance in an office cubicle, the modern zone of spiritual connection with the higher powers that control our lives. When evening rolls around, the iron cage is unlocked and we are let out on furlough, with the reminder that ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Do not tarry too long with the family; hurry back soon; they cannot give you what work can.

Who will bend the bars of this cage? Not the jailers.

Note: Erez Maggor, a doctoral student in sociology at New York University, has pointed me to an essay by Peter Baehr titled “The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the abstract for which reads:

In the climax to The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber writes of the stahlhartes Gehäuse that modern capitalism has created, a concept that Talcott Parsons famously rendered as the “iron cage.” This article examines the status of Parsons’s canonical translation; the putative sources of its imagery (in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress); and the more complex idea that Weber himself sought to evoke with the “shell as hard as steel”: a reconstitution of the human subject under bureaucratic capitalism in which “steel” becomes emblematic of modernity. Steel, unlike the “element” iron, is a product of human fabrication. It is both hard and potentially flexible. Further, whereas a cage confines human agents, but leaves their powers otherwise intact, a “shell” suggests that modern capitalism has created a new kind of being. After examining objections to this interpretation, I argue that whatever the problems with Parsons’s “iron cage” as a rendition of Weber’s own metaphor, it has become a “traveling idea,” a fertile coinagein its own right, an intriguing example of how the translator’s imagination can impose itself influentially on the text and its readers.