Notes on Structure- Part 3, Philosophical Materialism

For the purpose of this essay, in consideration of social ontology, we will assume several general ontological and epistemological features in accordance with “philosophical materialism,” the position under-girding critical realism.1 The doctrine of philosophical materialism is composed of three interlocking principles:

Cogito ergo material girl

First, reality’s “being” occurs solely within an immanent plane of possibilities, bounded by its spatial and temporal dimensions. Such immanence entails ontological materialism, which asserts the stratification of reality and emergence2 of independent properties and causal powers at each level. Higher levels supervene on the lower in a relationship of unilateral dependence, but are not reducible to them in terms of the laws that govern the lower. Consequently, the social unilaterally depends on agental practice and psychology, which in turn is presupposed by more fundamental levels: biology, chemistry and physics. The theory of emergence is an axiom of such a stratified model of reality, and suggests, for instance, psychology is not merely applied biology, nor chemistry applied physics. The stratified nature of reality and theory of emergence counters reductionist models such as “eliminative materialism” in philosophy of the mind and scientific reductionist models that ultimately seek to explain all being in terms of particle physics, string theory or some other master explanans. As well, the reductionist project to link individual and group behavior to natural selection and genetics, undertaken most vigorously within evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, is problematized.

1The theory of materialism we employ is described in “Materialism.” Bashkar, Roy, from A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Tom Bottomore, ed. 1999. Blackwell Publishers Inc. (369-373).

2The term “emergence” has two distinct meanings. The common usage denotes historical emergence, with no implied ontological claim necessary, in the sense of some entity or process coming into existence at a particular time and place. For example– “fascist ideology emerged in the post-WWI era as a viable political program out of debates over the perceived weakness of liberal democracy and dangers of communism.” In contrast, the theory of emergence examines the conditions of possibility for an ontological emergence of independent existent layers of reality and causal mechanisms that operate there. This second meaning informs the following: “social structures emerge from agental practice, becoming the conditions for the future reproduction and transformation of practice.”

[The second and third aspects are due soon]