Social Theory and Intellectual Translation

One of the problems I had when I studied analytic philosophy was my inability to map much of what I was studying onto how I saw the world. There were a few exceptions (Hume, Marxism, Causation, Political Philosophy) but I otherwise struggled to understand what was at stake in the work we were studying. This work was presented to us in terms which stressed its interrelations but in a way which was entirely artificial: framing Locke, Berkeley, Hume against Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz doesn’t help matters if the categories of ‘empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’ have little substantive content. I just found it dull… in retrospect I find this strange given how much I can enjoy philosophy now. For instance I recently read this book which brought Leibniz and Spinoza to life for me. I found it stunning that something which had once so bored me (though at least I tried, as opposed to basically giving up when we got to Kant) could now be so intellectually gripping.

What’s obvious to me in retrospect is how little studying analytic philosophy changed how I saw the world. Weirdly, I can only think of formal logic (which I hated at the time) as has having had any lasting perceptual impact on me, as being forced to learn this stuff at 18 leaves you much more attuned to non sequiturs than you might otherwise be. In contrast, sociology has radically changed how I see the world, both in a Millsian sense of ‘making the familiar strange’ but also in the sense of furnishing me with a social ontology that actually maps onto my day-to-day experience, opening out those aspects of the social world which common sense tends to close down. After this experience, going back to philosophy, I find I can get much more out of it. In the past few months I’ve been slowly reading Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking? and a lot of Nietzsche (Ecce Homo, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, Daybreak). Suddenly, these books which I’d struggled with as an MA student (believing that my problem with philosophy was with analytic philosophy rather than with philosophy itself) make sense to me in a way that they didn’t previously.

What’s changed? These ideas map onto my own experience. They also map onto other people’s ideas. I think this is what was missing when I studied philosophy. Almost none of it mapped onto my own experience and, in retrospect, I seized upon what even vaguely did (e.g. political philosophy) out of sheer intellectual boredom. It also only mapped onto other work is a somewhat empty and formalistic way, as a function of abstracted taxonomies rather than as a multiplicity of concrete disputes. I think this is crucial to our capacity to engage with theoretical work because, without it, it remains difficult to genuinely elaborate a view upon what we are engaging with. Again, as with many things, I’d see this propositionally while resisting the impulse to reduce it to its propositional content.

My point is that theoretical argument builds upon points of agreement and disagreement. One chapter of my PhD thesis looked very closely at the account of the subject offered by Giddens and its implications for his analysis of social change. Both he and I use the same term ‘reflexivity’ but we use it to refer to a slightly different thing. Understanding the significance of this necessitates an appreciation of what ‘reflexivity’ means to Giddens, how it relates to his broader conception of what the individual is and his conception of the social processes in which such individuals are embedded. In this sense, there’s a hermeneutic moment entailed in engaging with someone’s work but, if we leave it here, social theory remains a fragmented enterprise. My chapter rested on a further analysis of the points of disagreement between this Giddensian account of agency and my own. So while it’s not as simple as cashing out atomistic disagreements in propositional terms (e.g. reflexivity as monitoring vs reflexivity as deliberation) a proper engagement necessitates an understanding of the network of disagreements.

I completely get why critical realism turns a lot of people off. In fact I sometimes find myself reticent to use the term ‘critical realism’ and instead slip into saying ‘relational realism’, ‘social realism’ or just ‘realism’. But the sort of critical realism I like (Archer, Donati, Sayer, Elder-Vass, Porpora, Smith, the early Bhaskar and Derek Layder, though he wouldn’t identify himself as such) is appealing to me precisely because it helps with translation of this sort. Archer’s work in particular offers an extremely sophisticated meta-theory which is sometimes obscured by the sheer volume of her work and her tendency to be intellectually combative. I guess what I’m saying is that these meta-theoretical resources have proved very helpful in understanding what it is that theorists are arguing about.

This isn’t just a point about realism. I think realists can often write in a way which obscures the logic of their disagreement with others (at its worst tending towards scholasticism: “that’s the epistemic fallacy?”, “er what’s an epistemic fallacy?”) but the best realist critique tends to draw out ontological disagreements in very specific terms e.g. Dave Elder-Vass on ANT. One of my favourite non-realist theorists is Nicos Mouzelis. He’s adept at precisely the sort of ‘translation’ I’m talking about. One of the things I find so helpful about his work is that much of his engagement rests on incorporating disparate theorists into the same intellectual topology and evaluating them in terms of this. It produces some insightful, though contentious arguments, such as his observation of the “methodological similarities” between Foucault and Parsons (Sociological Theory: What Went Wrong? Pg 47) that become “quite striking” once you strip away their profoundly divergent vocabularies. Ian Craib makes a similar point in his discussion of Stuart Hall (Experiencing Identity, Pg 8) observing that if we “substitute ‘role’ and ‘role expectations’ for ‘discourse’ and ‘practice’ we are close to the determinist version of the traditional sociological approach”.

My experience has been that proponents of the views that are incorporated (or relativised?) in this way can often react with irritation. I think there’s an important line to walk between preserving the textual adequacy of readings and tolerating what, in practice, constitutes a form of relativisation that is necessary for progress in sociological theory. My fear is that the career structure of the modern academy mitigates against this ‘translation’ though. It requires rather a lot of careful reading. It produces commentary rather than the novel contributions upon which such commentary depends. But unless we can be clear about precisely what we agree and disagree upon, it’s hard to see how progress in sociological theory could be possible.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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