Update on ‘the project’

November 25, 2018

Back at the dawn of time, just over eight years ago, I posted on ‘the project’ as I saw it then – meaning my own personal intellectual project, as carried out here on the blog and elsewhere.  It feels like it’s time for a review of where I’m at, where my sense of the project has changed, and where I want to go next.

The project as I sketched it then had six components:

  1. Social-theoretic foundations;
  2. History of capitalism;
  3. Value theory;
  4. A more detailed engagement with contemporary economic theory;
  5. Analysis of contemporary events;
  6. Discussion of proposals for economic institutional reform.

I said then that I regarded (6) as the most practically important – seeing the others in some sense laying the foundation for it – and I basically still see things that way.

So, where am I at?  Obviously this was all very ambitious, and it’s not a surprise that significant components of it have fallen entirely by the wayside.  Easiest, then, to start with the bits I’ve abandoned.

  • History of capitalism.  I’ve more or less entirely abandoned the idea of writing up a (very) brief history of capitalism.  I made a desultory start on this, doing some (very) preliminary reading in medieval history, and I basically concluded that (as might have been expected) nah, my life is too short, it’s just not realistic.  I would like to read more history than I have, but as things stand I’m basically happy to outsource my first pass sense of the history of capitalism to Wallerstein’s ‘The Modern World-System’ series and other overview works, and pick up more knowledge if and when I can.  Scratch this one entirely off the list.
  • Value theory.  I’ve also more or less entirely abandoned this element of the project, for a different reason: I’ve decided that it’s sort of a red herring.  Value (in the sense of economic value, which is how I meant the phrase) is just an emergent result of the social practices of capitalism, and those practices can simply be analysed directly.  Getting fixated on the category of ‘value’ does more to distract from useful analysis of political-economic institutions and dynamics than it does to illuminate them, I now think. My idea back then was to do a sort of ‘deconstructive’ survey of theories of value – and one can imagine that as a worthwhile project – but it seems to me now to be a project of second (or third, or fourth) order importance, and I don’t really want to spend the time on it.  So – the value theory dimension of the project has also been abandoned.

What about the rest?

  • Social-theoretic foundations.  Here I feel I’ve made very substantial progress, to the extent that I’m more or less happy to cross this off the list as ‘mostly done’ – with important caveats to follow.  My focus here has been the work of the philosopher Robert Brandom, whose work I’ve argued provides a lot of ‘fundamental’ resources than can be applied to problems in the social sciences.  In my own head, I now have a fairly well developed ‘Brandomian’ theory of practice, which ‘weakly’ grounds my other work at the meta-theoretical level. (‘Weakly’ in the sense that I find it an illuminating and productive meta-theoretical framework, but there’s no actual requirement to accept it for any of the other arguments I’m making to work.)

The catch here is that although, as I say, I’m pretty satisfied with this in my own head, it’s hard to make the case that I’ve actually articulated it in a manner that is likely to make sense to anyone else.  I published a lot of blog posts on Brandom, on this site, but – as with most of what I’ve written here – I mostly wrote those posts while I was working through the ideas myself, and therefore they often don’t really represent my settled conclusions, still less the clearly articulated implications of those conclusions.  I’ve published a paper which applies Brandom’s apparatus to a specific problem in the social sciences – the debate over the concepts of ‘symmetry’ and ‘reflexivity’ in the strong programme in science studies – but this is just one tiny example of applying a Brandomian apparatus to a social-scientific problem space – and the paper is, moreover, probably close to impossible to parse for anyone who doesn’t already have both considerable familiarity with the relevant material and a very similar theoretical sensibility to mine or my co-author’s.  (Journal papers are short, and it’s really hard to make a complex argument given the word constraints.)

In other words, although I’ve basically completed this bit of my project to my own satisfaction, I’m aware that I haven’t completed it to anyone else’s satisfaction.  As far as the public record is concerned, this isn’t done at all. There’s a good case, then, that I should write up my thoughts about how to apply Brandom to the social sciences at much greater length and in a much more accessible form.  The downside of doing this is that it will take time, and there’s a major opportunity cost, in that any time I spend on this is time I can’t spend on other, more pressing elements of the project. So I haven’t decided what to do here, but I’m not crossing it altogether off the list just yet.

Moving on…

  • A more detailed engagement with contemporary economic theory.  I’ve emphatically done quite a bit in this area, in that I hope to soon finish up a PhD in economics – it seems pretty clear that I’ve made progress here.  On the downside, much of my PhD isn’t actually focused on areas of economics that are hugely relevant to the long-term project sketched here – and regardless, I still need to do a huge (one might even say, a horrifying) amount of studying in contemporary (and canonical) economics.  Of course, this is always going to be the case – getting to grips with an academic discipline is a lifelong project. So – a lot done; a lot still to do.
  • Analysis of contemporary events.  Clearly this is ongoing – I’d like to get better informed about current affairs, particularly internationally.  At the same time, arguably I’ve spent too much time in the trenches of following some contemporary events – particularly the fights around ‘the Corbyn project’ in the UK – and I could stand to spend more time on ‘fundamentals’.  So, some uncertainty about how to grade myself here, as it were. Not great, probably.
  • Discussion of proposals for economic institutional reform.  I can’t claim I’ve made zero progress here, but given how central this is to my own motivations, I’ve really not done nearly enough.

So, that’s where I am in terms of the project as I understood it eight years ago.  How would I now reconceptualise the project?

Well, I would now rearticulate it in something like these terms, with the following distinct subcomponents.

First: broad metatheortical foundations, sitting at the intersection of philosophy and social science – i.e. (basically) the Brandomian stuff.

Second: more political-economic theoretical foundations – as I see it now, this largely amounts to theorisation of the foundations of institutional economics, or of the political-economic study of institutions.

Third: study of specific political-economic institutions and their dynamics – e.g. in international macroeconomics.  This stage will inevitably schism into countless sub-projects once I actually start paying it some attention.

Fourth: application of all of the above to contemporary debates and events, as informed by broad reading in history and current affairs.

As you can see, this new version of what I’m trying to do here basically operates in descending levels of abstraction, starting with philosophy-adjacent social science, and ending with applications.  As I see it, I have completed stage one to my own satisfaction, but not to anyone else’s. Stage two feels most ‘alive’ to me, at the moment – that’s where my head is at, as it were, and what I want to be working on when I have time.  Stages three and four are still in the “need a whole lot of background reading – keep working at them, and eventually maybe you’ll get there” box.

Now a cynic might argue that all I’ve done here is disaggregated my original stage one (“social-theoretic foundations”) into two subcomponent stages – (“philosophical foundations” and “political-economic foundations”), and that I am declaring partial victory on subcomponent 1(1) despite not having anything much to show for it, even after nearly ten years.  But I would reject such cynicism, comrades!  Rather, I would argue that things are progressing more or less creditably, albeit with some judicious trimming of the project’s scope here and there.  Regardless, it doesn’t really matter.  I am going to keep on trogging along at this, as life and other obligations permit, and what gets done gets done.  I don’t assume any of this is going to pan out – but there’s no harm in giving it a go, and this is where the project as I see it stands, right now.

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