Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A FINAL RESPONSE TO MY CRITICS

Herewith some thoughts in response to the comments by JP and Mike on the final Study of Society post:

First to JP: A merely nominal change in the money supply is unproblematic, although a general inflation in fact affects people differentially [some people have cost of living escalator clauses built into their wages, some do not, etc.] Some years ago, France went from what it then called Old Francs to New Francs. The New Francs were simply the Old Francs divided by one hundred, so a price of 500 Old Francs became a price of 5 New Francs. That, needless to say, is not interesting.

To Mike: Your two questions are, or so it seems to me, variations on one fundamental question, which is, to put it simply, In what way is the study of society different from the study of nature? That is really the underlying theme of my entire series of posts, so let me try to address the question directly. Along the way, I think, I will at least touch on the several specific questions you ask.

I am what I would call a realist with regard to the study of nature, by which I mean that the natural world is what it is independently of our conceptions of it or interactions with it [although in studying nature, our interactions may of course affect nature -- pace Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.] In a quite direct and unproblematic sense, there are facts about nature that it is our job as investigators to discover. The laws of nature are what they are, irrespective of the existence of sentient beings to learn them. The world was governed by those laws before life arose, and will be governed by them after life disappears.

But although we experience the social world in much the same way, as an independent reality governed by laws that it is our job to discover, in fact that is not a correct description of it. The social world is a collective human product, a product of human choices, habits, expectations, beliefs, repetitions, and misperceptions. It is a world that does not simply exhibit conflicts of interest, as for example the East African savannah exhibits a conflict of interest between predators and prey, but that is constructed out of the conceptions and representations and mystifications of those conflicts of interest. Rousseau and his brethren to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no such thing as Natural Man who can stand outside of society and contemplate it or study it objectively. Each one of us is constituted as we grow up by the internalization of certain historically formed social forms [mother, father, child, peasant, lord, priest, etc.] that carry with them evaluative and justificatory components. Nothing like this is true of nature.

Thus, when we undertake to study nature, we are necessarily engaged in an attempt to achieve some perspective on and understanding of our social reality from the inside, as it were. This involves not merely questioning and observing and calculating and inferring, all of which are modes of reasoning employed in the study of nature, but also critique, which is the self-reflective calling into question of who we are and how we unreflectively understand our social world. That, it seems to me, is what all the great social scientists do, most notably Karl Marx, who is, in my judgment, the greatest of all the social scientists.

My purpose in talking at length about the unemployment rate and the Consumer Price Index was to explicate this theme by way of two very specific examples. I may have failed to convince you of my general thesis, but that was the point of those two discussions.

Now, in studying society, there are of course better and worse ways to do it, and that certainly applies to the specific task of defining and calculating the CPI. One of my purposes in repeatedly praising the performance of the BLS was precisely to indicate my conviction that there are better and worse ways to do these things, the BLS being, in my judgment, a good example of the best way to do them. But it would in my judgment be a very bad mistake to suppose that because there are better and worse ways of studying society, therefore the study of society is not different from the study of nature. There are indeed facts of the matter about economic performance, to echo your words, but that is not at all good enough for an objective study of society. Marx does an ideological critique of capitalism much better than some other people [such as me, for example], but it does not follow from that that the study of capitalism is, epistemologically speaking, on a par with the study of evolutionary genetics.

Well, I will stop there, because two weeks devoted to one subject is way more than is customary in a blog, where, as I have been reminded, not everyone who visits this site has read everything I have posted on it in times past. [alas.]

Thank you all for interesting comments.

2 comments:

Michael said...

Professor Wolff,
Since you've touched on so many great authors, I was wondering if you could, perhaps, give us a list--long or short as you want, of course-- of the major works that have shaped your view of society. I think any reader of your blog will know about Marx, but what about the others?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Whoa. That is a tall order. Let me think about it for a bit, and mahybe I can come up with a list. It will be extremely eclectic, of that I am sure.