File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1996/96-05-20.182, message 58

Subject: Re: the ontological status of structures
Date: 	Tue, 30 Jan 1996 09:39:20 +0200

I do enjoy these considerate and well argued discussions a lot. I wish
I had more time for them; under present conditions, two remarks
have to suffice:

1. Hans' points would certainly be worth of a detailed scrutiny. But let me
here only ask this question: It may well be that Bhaskar says that=A8
"a structure may survive *without* any human agency, and even despite
any human agency". But what does this sentence mean? In many
senses of the term "agency", it is not -- and cannot be -- true. Only if the
term 'agency' is specified in a particular way, can it be true. 'Saying
hello' or a 'marriage' are often used as examples of institutionalised
practices that go unnoticed most of the time for almost all actors.
But do these practices exist without agency and actions?
        They can, of course, survive despite *some particular* agents
because others are reproducing them anyway or are even actively and
consciously defending those practices. This is all the more true for
many religious rituals.
                Hans's own example is an economic crisis.

>As Bhaskar puts it "despite any human agency" an economic crisis
>can persist for many many years.  It is in this sense that capital
>accumulation, the falling rate of profits, inflation or deflation,
>unemployment, etc. and crises in general can be described as social
>mechanisms, and actually are rather mechanical.

Does this "despite any human agency" mean simply and only "despite
any imaginable economic policies by a nation-state or an IMF or a world
state, that is, despite the (good) intentions of any particular time-space
located real or potential actor".
        But I am not sure I would like to see the sentence "despite any
human agency" as tantamount to saying "in a given context, there are
no actors that are able to produce the effect X". Only a tyrant in a command
economy/society could *imagine* that he (more likely than she) is always
able to produce any effect X. On the other hand, it is too easy to reify
these incapabilities into a powerful, mechanical structure  -- even when it is
only a matter of interdependence of plurality of historically constructed
and socially positioned intentional, practical actors, acting in relational
but always processual and changing social contexts and systems.

2. Colin in turn makes a very illuminating point. I found this very helpful:

>But even a magnetic field could not
>attract iron particles if those particles weren't present. However, it is
>absolutely true that a magnetic field can exist without the particles it
>attracts, but can it exist without the material that constitutes it?
>Moreover, the idea of a structure 'causing' malnutrition seems strange on a
>crit realist account. Given complex causality in an open world no one
>'cause' could possibly 'explain' malnutrition in Guatemala. but it may be
>that certain structural conditions, property relations as Doug puts it,
>allow for it, whereas others might at least lessen its possibility.
        > It seems to me that people are getting hung up on the idea
>of a mechanism being somehow equated with
>'regularity' determinism. In any complex social situation there might,
>indeed probably would be, multiple 'mechanisms' at play and many such
>mechanisms might counteract other mechanisms. If some people are unhappy
>with the term 'mechanism' I can understand this, but I tend to see
>'mechanisms' as existents which may or may not be causally implicated in
>certain outcomes, and given that explanation is not symmetrical with
>prediction I see no problem in using the mechanism metaphor.

I admit that when I am criticising the metaphor of 'mechanism' I tend
to see the source of this metaphor in terms of Euclidean-Newtonian
mechanics (which in the Western culture is the most familiar possible
interpretation...). When it is understood in accordance with (a certain kind of)
scientific realism it might be somewhat less problematical. But only
somewhat. In my view, it does not capture well enough the qualitative
peculiarities of the emergent realities of social and personal.
After all, according to the innovative non-Humean conception of causality
Harré, Secord and Bhaskar have been developing, the socially/
intersubjectively meaningful (real) reasons are causes for actions, and
there would be no society without these -- in a certain sense *always free*,
independently of  whether any emancipatory process has taken place
(and in the latemodern world, many emancipatory processes have taken
place) -- actions. Further, sometimes the metaphor of 'mechanism',
even when understood in a critical realist manner, may well give rise
to reificatory tendencies of thought. And, on the other hand, what
would be the *good reasons* for using this metaphor?
                *                       *                       *

I suppose we all understand what epistemological relativism means and
can admit that there is no, nor can be, any definite, final argument pro or
con of this metaphor of 'mechanism'. But it is precisely this relativism that
also makes this kind of dialogical, peaceful and mostly non-fallacious
discussion possible....

Best wishes,

                                   Heikki P.


Heikki Patomaki                                   tel. 358-(9)0- 490 100
Finnish Institute of International Affairs         358-(9)21-356 726 (home)
Mannerheimintie 15 A                           fax. 358-(9)21-490 989
00260 Helsinki                                     e-mail:




Driftline Main Page


Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005