File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9802, message 12


Date: Sun, 8 Feb 1998 13:03:12 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Re: BHA: causal criteria of meaning


 
Tobin and Bwanika --
 
Tobin wrote:
 
>"When Bhaskar writes, "It is methodologically incorrect to search
>for an efficient cause of society" (RTS 197), he is correct.  But
>note that he said "society," not "social entities," "social
>phenomena," or any similar formulation . . . I don't think it
>warrants eliminating the notion of efficient causes from social
>analysis altogether."
 
When Bhaskar writes "that nothing happens in society save in or in
virtue of something human beings do or have done" I think it is
merely a variation on the theme that social relations are not
efficiently causal.  When he writes "This does not, contra Benton,
entail commitment to methodological individualism; it is merely a
condition for avoiding reification," this is merely another
variation on the same theme.  Ditto for "Social structures exist
materially and are carried or transported from one space-time
location to another only in or in virtue of human praxis."  All
these quotes are at PON, Postscript, p174.  The complete
"methodologically incorrect quote" at RTS 197, incidentally, is: 
 
     BEGIN RTS 197 "if society is represented by the model of a
language it may be regarded as a structure which is always there;
which men must reproduce or partially transform; but which would
not exist without its 'functionaries'.  It is methodologically
incorrect to search for an efficient cause of society, though
society depends necessarily upon the efficient activity of men. 
But a reading depends upon antecedent social activity; the
acquisition of language by the reader.  It is in this sense that
the facts always depend upon social activity."  END
 
Social entities or phenomena or structures provide the contexts for
agents to act, the social forms within which they act, but social
forms are not the makers, in the efficient cause sense, of
individual action.  To argue that they are is a form of mechanistic
materialism that long bedeviled Marxism in its positivist dress.  
 
Thus I don't find any contradiction in saying that the material
exercise of coercion is an efficient cause.  Certainly the exercise
of coercion always takes place within the frame of social forms. 
This is true of any action we take as agents.  We are social
beings.  But it is always the act of an individual agent that
constitutes the material exercise of coercion.  I recently saw the
film version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.  The last scene shows
Daniel Day Lewis kicked off a scaffold with a noose around his
neck.  The efficient cause counting as a material exercise of
coercion is the kick in the rear pushing him off.  
 
Notice with respect to the exercise of coercion meaning is
efficient, although it is not an efficient cause.  It doesn't
matter whether it is a cop at the street corner or a signal light,
in neither case is it the signal which is the efficient cause of
the vehicle stopping.  The cop waving her hand does no more than
the signal light.  She communicates the meaning of a social norm. 
The driver, the efficient cause, interprets the meaning and, along
with brakes, friction, etc., brings the vehicle to a stop.  You can
substitute red lights for cops because both communicate meaning. 
In neither case is there a material exercise of coercion; in both
cases there is the threat of coercion.  Meaning is efficient in
that it saves on the material exercise of coercion.  But I don't
think threats of coercion are efficiently causal.  They address
individuals in an audience each of which interprets the text and
acts as an individual agent to transform the world.  The agent in
the audience is the efficient cause.  The *material* exercise of
coercion counts as efficiently causal when it involves agents
transforming the world by doing things like whipping, shoving,
shooting, injecting poison, restraining, bombing, etc.
 
What would you give, Tobin, as a good example of a social entity or
phenomena which is efficiently causal?
 
>"Also the possibility of punishments only explains why people obey
>signal lights.  It explains little or nothing about how or why
>people interpret them, give them meaning."
 
I'm not clear what significance you intend here.  People obey
signal lights because they are a symbol giving expression to a
social norm.  One aspect of the norm is the possibility of
punishment.  Notice that it may be crucial to the efficacy of a
social rule that people misinterpret it, e.g. the way commodity
fetishism requires for its reproduction that agents systematically
misinterpret the social relations of exchange.  To give a crude
example from The Crucible, a person told to confess under oath on
penalty of perjury or die may systematically lie.  The agent
distinguishes between the norm's real and pretended meaning.  Here
the agent is aware that the norm's pretended meaning is false.  But
the agent may believe the pretended meaning to be true, e.g. by
convincing themselves they danced with the devil, and this
confusion may be essential to the efficacy of the norm.
 
>"if I say something that you interpret as insulting, we can argue
>that my utterance is a material cause which you operate upon to
>produce the interpretation "insult," whereupon you storm out of
>the room, slamming the door behind you.  But -- and this is key --
>the interpretation "insult" *is a meaning*, and it is that meaning
>which makes you slam the door."
 
I wonder if we mean the same thing by "utterance" as a material
cause in your first sentence here.  The "utterance" is just noise,
vibrations in air.  Random noise gets assigned a particular
significance.  The significance is a social phenomenon.  That is,
every utterance assigned significance expresses social relations;
its meaning is a product of how it is used by speakers of the
language, and that, of course, is constantly being reproduced and
transformed.  The "material" cause worked on is the social relation
or relations captured by the utterance.  Now I interpret your
meaning as an insult.  This counts as a complicated social
performance involving also psychological mechanisms personal to me,
e.g. I am thin skinned, dependent on your approval, anxious to get
out of your physical presence, etc.  Whatever.  It is not the
meaning of "insult" which *makes* the door slam.  Meaning is not
the force or mover which does it.  Here is the same problem again. 
Insult is a belief which can be a final cause essential to my
action.  Without the beliefs which I form in interpreting your
utterance the world would be different than it otherwise will be. 
But it is not my understanding or idea or belief which does the
slamming, and, to suggest that it is, I think, is to abandon
materialism.  Ideas do not transform the world unless they are
gripped by the masses.  And it is the gripping which is efficiently
causal.  They must become a material force.
 
>"there's a long road between my ingestion of pizza and the
>delivery of nutrients to my cells, but food remains an efficient
>cause of my survival."
 
I agree.  Food is an efficient cause of your survival.  But that is
because of the causal powers of your digestive system and of the
compounds making up the food.  Cells in your body have the power
because of their structure to combine with other substances to make
flesh and blood.  Meaning does not in itself have the power to
transform material things.  Actually the food example is classic. 
Here is what Hume wrote about promising:
 
"since every new promise imposes a new obligation of morality on
the person who promises, and since this new obligation arises from
his will; tis one of the most mysterious and incomprehensible
operations that can possibly be imagined, and may even be compared
to transubstantiation, or holy orders, where a certain form of
words, along with a certain intention, changes entirely the nature
of an external object, and even of a human creature."  "Of the
obligation of promises," Bk iii, section v of the Treatise.
 
Only in transubstantiation do the meaning of words and the
intention with which they are uttered transform the material world;
for the ordinary understanding it is a biological process, not a
hermeneutic one that transforms flour into flesh.  Chemical
reactions in the digestive process are efficiently causal, not
meanings.  What we can understand to be the point behind Hume's
example is that the meaning of a promise lacks the power to bind
anybody to do anything.  But meaning can be the foundation
("material" cause?) to which social obligations (social rules for
the material exercise of coercion) do attach.
 
Bwanika, I agree with you that social things are intrinsically
meaningful and that this must be accounted for in social science. 
But red is just a symbol giving expression to a norm.  The symbol
for stop did not have to be red and the association between red and
stop may be altogether arbitrary.  The color may hjave gotten
associated with stop by accident.  Or there may be an explanation,
e.g. in the U.S. freeway signs are in green as a result of a
determination that they were in some sense easier to read.  
 
But the fact that meaning is a part of social explanation I don't
think bears at all on the usefulness of the Aristotelian
differentiation of causes or on whether closure is implied.  If we
are investigating an actual historical occurrence, like a stock
market crash, there is always an intersection of a potentially
infinite number of causal mechanisms and no closure.  But nothing
in the differentiation of causes into material, formal, efficient
and final sets any limit to these that I can see.
 
I don't understand your reference to xP = xQ.
 
If you cross against a red light, understanding its meaning, this
means the norm was not effective in that case.  If the norm is
never effective it is not a real social rule.  But to be counted as
real it needs only to be effective enough to reproduce the social
behavior aimed at -- an orderly and safe traffic flow.  This is
consistent with violations of the norm.  Social rules do not
determine in any specific instance what agents do.  They provide
the framework within which agents act.
 
* * * * 
 
Here's a question to join these issues with the study of DPF. 
Aristotle writes:
 
"Further the same thing is the cause of contrary results.  For that
which by its presence brings about one result is sometimes blamed
for bringing about the contrary by its absence.  Thus we ascribe
the wreck of a ship to the absence of the pilot whose presence was
the cause of its safety."  Physics, BkII, ch 3, 195(a).
 
Absence, I take it we agree, can be a cause, but can it be an
efficient cause?  Jean is not in the cafe and I go to search for
him or I celebrate the fact by buying everyone a round of drinks. 
We assign meaning to absences and interpret them.  But absences,
like social things, are not the makers or movers of our actions. 
Can we say that absence is never an efficient cause?
 
But then there is the problem of negligence.  We say a lack of care
caused me to knock over a vase.  Or suppose I watch someone drown
and refuse to provide readily available aid.  What kind of cause is
it when I am considered responsible for the death?
 
Also what of the aesthetic impact of absences?  Are these
efficiently causal?  If sound had been there the musical effect
would have been lost; if there had been another spot of color, the
painting would have been ruined.  Absence was essential to its
effect.  What kind of cause is it when I view a painting or
sculpture or hear a sonata and am moved by it?  
 
It seems I have already ruled out efficient cause.  Or would I say
the artist, not the text, is the efficient cause of my emotion? 
But not just the artist, for the text, like meaning, is a social
thing.?
 
Howard
 
     "What is there just now you lack"  Hakuin
 
Howard Engelskirchen


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