The Social Determinants of Consciousness

September 2, 2011

So – my goal here is to situate Brandom in relation to the social scientific tradition more broadly. Specifically, in relation to the explanatory principle of social science that is perhaps most prominently articulated in Marx’s phrase:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

This idea – not in the way elaborated by Marx, to be sure, but as a general principle – has been behind a lot of social science and social theory. It’s there in Durkheim; it’s there, to a greater extent than is typically recognised, in Weber; it’s there in more recent figures like Foucault and Bourdieu.

It’s also an idea that gets a lot of opposition. People often find the idea threatening. Oftentimes people are happy to see other people’s consciousness as determined by social being, but our own consciousness is surely special, and escapes, at least in certain core respects, determination by social context. [Or it is determined by social context, but our own social context is magical and special in a way that others’ cultures aren’t.] Oftentimes people will criticise the idea that social being determines consciousness in one of several ways: the idea is relativistic (if consciousness is determined by social being, who is to say what’s right and wrong?); the idea is nihilistic (if we don’t have a culture-transcendent source of normative or conceptual content, surely we have no connection to any real values at all); the idea leaves us vulnerable to power (because whoever has the power to change social conditions has power over values themselves); etc.

Brandom’s work, in my judgement, pretty definitively rebuts these various stances. Brandom’s work explains the emergence of normative and conceptual content – including our capacity for objective truth – from nothing more than social practice. It escapes the problems that Brandom refers to under the name ‘regularism’; it escapes the problems of relativism. I think Brandom’s work represents a genuine conceptual advance in the broader social-theoretic project of explaining normative and conceptual phenomena in terms of social practice.

I’ve explained at some length how Brandom’s argument broadly speaking works – I don’t plan to revisit that terrain (unless and until I write it up in a more formal way). I take Brandom’s contribution here for granted.

However, Brandom is only interested in a specific kind of practice: linguistic practice. But linguistic practice is not the only social practice going. We engage in hosts of other social practices: sexual, religious, cultural, political, economic. I’m interested, here, not in the determination of consciousness by linguistic practice, but in the determination of consciousness by social practice more broadly. Why do we think what we think? Why do we do what we do? The reasons for our thoughts and actions – the causes of them – are biological and social. Brandom’s apparatus helps us to understand how reasons can be understood in terms of causes – how we do not need to posit anything beyond natural- and social-scientifically analysable biological and social practice in order to account for truth, reason, reference, norms, and all the rest. In order to explain people’s beliefs and actions, though – and in order to justify them (or find them unjustifiable) – we need to look at what’s generating those beliefs and actions. We need to look at the social (and biological) determinants of thought and action.

This is one of the things I plan to focus on, when I return to blogging in a more consistent way. Now back on hiatus.

Advertisements

11 Responses to “The Social Determinants of Consciousness”

  1. Toby Simmons Says:

    Hmm. Very, very interesting!
    Let me know what you think of mine . . . http://apieceofcoffee.wordpress.com/
    Keep on writing!

  2. jedharris Says:

    In noting our desire to think we are the “unmoved mover” of our own minds you are of course pointing at a motivated cognitive illusion whose investigation (and banishment) has very venerable roots.

    One thing that makes overcoming this illusion more difficult is that we can’t describe (or perceive in much detail) how our practices work — for the reasons I discuss in my comment on your previous post. The “determinants of consciousness” are mostly inaccessible to our descriptive practices.

    As you’ve described it, Brandom’s analysis gives a very broad brush justification of how our conceptual and normative practices can be naturalized. This is probably necessary to deal with the issues raised by philosophers, but this naturalization also needs the support of complementary ideas from cognitive science and statistical learning that can help us understand how practices actually work.

  3. duncan Says:

    This is probably necessary to deal with the issues raised by philosophers, but this naturalization also needs the support of complementary ideas from cognitive science and statistical learning that can help us understand how practices actually work.

    Yes – I of course agree with this, and hope that nothing I’ve written gives a different impression. The reason I related Brandom’s work to a number of different research programs in the previous post was to try to illustrate, gesturally, how very very much is presupposed and/or ‘black-boxed’ by a Brandomian apparatus. So when I write that –

    Brandom’s work explains the emergence of normative and conceptual content – including our capacity for objective truth – from nothing more than social practice.

    – I don’t of course mean that Brandom’s work exhaustively explains this process, or is even in the same ballpark as attempts to achieve this kind of explanation in any detail; nor do I mean that analysis of social practice is all that is required in a global sense in order to achieve such an explanation (if one were to explain human normative phenomena, for instance, one would be relying on the biological sciences to carry a heavy explanatory burden, because many of the relevant practices are biological ones, and rely upon other biological phenomena). Rather I mean, as you suggest, that Brandom’s project explains why common (if you like philosophical) objections to such a research program should carry no weight. He explains, better than any other theorist I’ve come across, why there is nothing intrinsically problematic about explaining normative phenomena in naturalistic terms: he deals with the various objections I enumerate in the post (relativism; nihilism; ‘regularism’) completely convincingly – at, however, a very high level of abstraction, such that how the kind of explanation Brandom is contributing to would work in greater natural- or social-scientific detail remains very open. Brandom himself distinguishes between the question of ‘what the trick is’ versus ‘how the trick is done’. His apparatus demonstrates that there is no intrinsic reason why an answer to the question of ‘how the trick is done’ should not be naturalistic. But that is all – it doesn’t encroach on the territory of the natural or social sciences in any very micrological way (although as I’ve said before some of his discussions of linguistic practice are imo too concrete to belong at the explanatory level Brandom’s meta-theory mostly occupies.)

    More soon…

  4. duncan Says:

    Ok, on AI – this is something I know almost nothing about. I’m never seriously going to fix that – it’s just too far from my own research interests to be a worthwhile investment of reading time – but it would certainly be good for me to know a little more than I do. I know that Brandom teaches John Haugeland’s Artificial Intelligence: The Very Idea, which I presume is on the philosophical end of the research-space. Would you say that’s a good way in to the general conceptual terrain? If not, do you have any recommendations, for the would-be educated layman reader? (I’m happy to skim through some technical stuff as long as the gist is clear.)

    On the broader point, though – I think we’re talking slightly at cross-purposes, w/r/t the issue of non-linguistic practices determining consciousness. I’m not, myself, principally interested in the questions of what consciousness is, what features of organic entities (or, potentially, of non-organic systems) permit consciousness to emerge, etc. (I of course approve of research programs that are interested in this questions – I just am not myself participating in those programs.) I take it for granted that many of the practices that make up a sapient entity will be non-linguistic – and I can see that AI research programs, neuroscientific research programs, etc., have the promise of giving us much greater knowledge and insight into what those practices might be. However, that’s not the level I’m aiming to pitch my own research at. My question here is closer to the Marxian thematic I used to frame the post – it’s more sociological and social-psychological. What social forces – that is, what social practices – make us think and act as we do? The crassest kind of account here is stuff like: one’s income is dependent on one expressing certain opinions, so one has a material incentive (an incentive that falls outside the direct linguistic social practice of asking for and giving reasons, though it is of course strongly associated with that practice) to believe a certain set of things. As Weber puts it:

    For a wealthy man, concern about the ‘security’ of his economic situation is, whether consciously or unconsciously, a cardinal point in his orientation of life.

    But there are much more subtle ways in which non-linguistic practice determines the content of consciousness. I’m interested in this determination – this is what I’m aiming to orient towards now – and it’s a different kind of question from the AI or neuroscientific questions of what practices make consciousness itself. I’m interested, rather, in what practices make specific norms and beliefs. I’m interested in sociological questions. The reason I’m doing all this metatheory is to try to find better resources than are, I believe, typically available for answering those questions.

    (I should say that ultimately in terms of my sociological interests I’m not so much interested in the determination of psychological content by social context, as I am in macrosocial behaviours and trends – the ultimate target here is macroeconomics. But I’m a very very long way from that space at present.)

    Right – I think that covered most of what needed to be. Sorry as usual for the very long delays in responding: I’m quite busy, and it’s a bit of a stretch to re-focus on this conceptual space when I’m not directly working on it.

    Cheers…

  5. jedharris Says:

    I’ll respond to your two points separately as they are very different topics.

    on AI – this is something I know almost nothing about. I’m never seriously going to fix that – it’s just too far from my own research interests to be a worthwhile investment of reading time – but it would certainly be good for me to know a little more than I do. I know that Brandom teaches John Haugeland’s Artificial Intelligence: The Very Idea, which I presume is on the philosophical end of the research-space. Would you say that’s a good way in to the general conceptual terrain?

    Unfortunately, no. Haugeland focused on AI as symbol manipulation, almost entirely leaving out the sub-symbolic approaches — and the conceptual issues associated with them — which pretty much define both where the field is going and the ways in which it is philosophically interesting.

    This is partly because of when the book was written, but I guess mostly because of Haugeland’s analytic orientation. “Good old fashioned AI” is very consonant with analytic philosophy of mind, current successful AI is not.

    If not, do you have any recommendations, for the would-be educated layman reader?

    There are textbooks that cover current AI but they are too down in the weeds for me to recommend. I don’t think the technical issues would be helpful at all without a lot of philosophical motivation. Philosophical studies of statistical learning (which is the umbrella term for the key techniques in current AI) are useless for your purposes, being almost entirely focused on epistemological issues.

    I think you would enjoy, and find very useful, two books by Andy Clark. They are more philosophy of cognitive science than of AI per se, but I think it is fair to say they address the philosophy of intelligent agents generally, in a way that is informed by the best current research, including AI.

    They are well written but pack quite a substantial conceptual punch.

  6. jedharris Says:

    I should have included a pointer to information on Andy Clark.

  7. jedharris Says:

    A very brief response to your second point.

    To a degree we were talking past each other — but perhaps not as much as it seemed.

    I’m interested in [in what practices make specific norms and beliefs] – this is what I’m aiming to orient towards now – and it’s a different kind of question from the AI or neuroscientific questions of what practices make consciousness itself.

    It is a different question from those that interest philosophers looking at AI. But actual AI addresses questions like these, though at a much lower level. A robot car, for example, has to “make sense of” multiple sources of information about the road ahead, in the context of potentially conflicting “interests” such as not hitting pedestrians, giving passengers a smooth ride, obeying traffic rules, etc. So the designers effectively have to integrate norms, beliefs, practical reasoning, etc. about a concrete domain.

    Of course this doesn’t rise to anywhere near the level of a rich person interpreting their whole social field relative to their financial security. But I think this is more a matter of degree than kind.

    The reason I’m doing all this metatheory is to try to find better resources than are, I believe, typically available for answering those questions.

    (I should say that ultimately in terms of my sociological interests I’m not so much interested in the determination of psychological content by social context, as I am in macrosocial behaviours and trends – the ultimate target here is macroeconomics. But I’m a very very long way from that space at present.)

    Actually we’re at a point already where we could build quite interesting models of cognitive biases that underpin a lot of macrosocial and macroeconomic behavior. For example, sticky wages, herding, influence of narrative framing on choices, etc. fit quite well into current cognitive science / AI models. Getting these models to a level where they are really illuminating is a challenge, but by no means hopeless.

    I’d have to know more about the questions you want to answer to say much more.

  8. duncan Says:

    Haugeland focused on AI as symbol manipulation, almost entirely leaving out the sub-symbolic approaches — and the conceptual issues associated with them

    Ah, that’s interesting, thanks. I’ve read Clark’s famous co-authored ‘Extended Mind’ paper, but not his longer work. I’ll aim to take a look.

    On this –

    actual AI addresses questions like these, though at a much lower level. A robot car, for example

    – I understand that these kinds of broad questions will also be relevant to AI researchers. But – to put it crassly – I’m not interested in robot cars. Since, as you say, it’s relatively early days with AI yet, it seems perverse to turn to AI to explain the social phenomena that interest me, when I could just study the phenomena directly.

    On the following, I still feel there’s a miscommunication of some kind –

    Actually we’re at a point already where we could build quite interesting models of cognitive biases that underpin a lot of macrosocial and macroeconomic behavior. For example, sticky wages, herding, influence of narrative framing on choices, etc. fit quite well into current cognitive science / AI models. Getting these models to a level where they are really illuminating is a challenge, but by no means hopeless.

    I’m unsure if you think I’m unaware of these modelling projects, or if you think I’m tacitly denigrating them unduly in the way I outline my own research interests? As I say in the post, my goal for now is to situate Brandom’s work in relation to classical, foundational social theory – because I think Brandom’s work makes a significant contribution to foundational social theory, resolving theoretical problems that I have not seen resolved nearly as fluently or convincingly in other, similar work. The principal reference points here are the figures I mentioned in the post – Weber, Durkheim, Bourdieu, etc. I mention my ultimate interest in macroeconomics in order to explain why I am not myself taking that foundational Brandomian meta-theoretical work in a number of interesting possible directions that the work itself would seem to invite – some of those alternative directions would, I’d imagine, be closer to your own immediate research interests. But although that’s my final goal, I’m not aiming to apply any of this stuff directly to macroeconomics. That’s another project for another time.

    I realise, by the way, that I never responded properly to your comments on the earlier thread about the social construction of self – apologies. I did read the paper you linked to there, and don’t really have time now to adequately marshal or summarise thoughts. In a word, I think this paper is doing a rather different thing from Brandom or myself – it’s modelling the emergence of specific aggregate regularities, and the shift between different regularities, given basic assumptions about individual agents’ behaviours. These regularities aren’t ‘norms’ in Brandom’s sense (c.f. Brandom’s strenuous rejection of ‘regularism’), so that’s one difference. But it’s also worth noting that, as you say, the agents’ baseline dispositions remain constant throughout, even if specific behaviours generated by those dispositions alter. It’s of course a condition of the type of system Brandom’s discussing that dispositions be capable of reflexive transformation by their interaction with an environment. And – this ties to the point you made in that thread about Will Wilkinson etc. – in this circumstance we can’t know a priori that any given disposition is constant – it’s possible to imagine a self as a bundle of dispositions where each single disposition is capable of transformation, as is the ‘bundling principle’ itself. Not that this matters hugely – but it tells against the supposedly intuitive appeal of homo economicus as the core (self-interested?) self of which norms are derivative.

    More that could be said, but heaps of real world stuff to do.

  9. duncan Says:

    (This not in response to Jed – sorry Jed – but just a notes-to-self thing.)

    In terms of my Brandom project, there are a number of distinct components.

    – An articulation of the argument I want to extract from Brandom. I’ve already done this, in draft form, on the blog.
    – Locating Brandom in relation to foundational social theory. This is what I want to do when I come back from hiatus. (For the document itself, I principally want to compare Brandom with Durkheim and Bourdieu. But I want to work through some other prominent social theorists on the blog here, if I can.)
    – Contextualising Brandom in terms of the philosophical pragmatist tradition. This will require quite a lot of reading, unfortunately.
    – Contextualising Brandom in terms of contemporary philosophical debates. (Especially but not limited to debates over how to interpret Brandom.)

    That basically covers the stuff I want to do in my Brandom document.

    At the moment I’m pining to move on to the next stage of my larger project – the brief history of capitalism. But I think it’s important to be systematic, and get the Brandom stuff done before I move on. Obviously I’m not making any progress on any of this at the moment – too much else to do. I very much hope that this isn’t one of those projects where only the first 10% of it ever gets completed. Ultimately, I don’t much care about Brandom – what I care about is economic structures. But there is no royal road to science!

  10. SAMYRA Says:

    hey! I could see you are overwhelmed by this huge and interesting work…I just wanted to leave a comment to encourage you and wish you a good academic journey 🙂
    Samyra


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: