Structure-Part 3.3, Practical Materialism

[This portion continues the discussion of “philosophical materialism,” parts 3 and 3.2]

The third principle of philosophical materialism is that of practical materialism. This principle provides the staging ground for the main thrust of this essay, namely that of elucidating the independent causal power, and hence ontological status, of agents, structures and culture. The first two principles—ontological and epistemological materialism—have required discussions of the natural world. As people and the social world they create ultimately supervenes on the biological and physical strati of reality, such a foundational approach is warranted as a means to understand the intransitive target-domain of transitive knowledge. This distinction informs critical realism’s insistence on untangling epistemological frameworks of knowledge production from ontological features of reality, a reality constituted by entities and emergent powers (generative mechanisms and structures). Within the social world, philosophical materialism thus paves the way for social analysis that recognizes the ontological reality (causal power) of agents and structures. Nonetheless, we will for the most part leave the strati of the intransitive “natural” world behind and focus on the social life-world.

Practical materialism postulates a constitutive role of human beings in the production and transformation of social and cultural formations. The key element is practice, which is, in its most basic sense, human thinking, saying and doing, and whether of extraordinary practices such as ritualized events or everyday practices of “getting through the day.”Practice theory suggests it is at the site of practice that both agency

Everyday Practice Has Its Dark Side

and structure interlock in the reproduction and transformation of social and cultural formations. As such, agents are neither reducible as interpellated effects of structure—the error of reification, nor are structures epiphenomenal of agental behavior—the error of volunteerism. It is true that agency is logically prior to structure; it is unthinkable to have existent social structures or cultural systems without people. However, a theory of agency without culture and social structure is unintelligible because many of the powers and liabilities we associate with agency stem from “real world” positioning within social structures. As we will show, agents move through various sociocultural and occupational positions in the span of life. The powers and liabilities associated with such positions derive from the configuration of social relations that positions are enmeshed within.2 Consequently, the formation of our subjectivity as an embodied agent is developed through our positioning within a social milieu, and this process largely accounts for the meanings, beliefs, roles, values and interests we hold. Practical materialism, however, is not a determinative or mechanistic materialism.3Agents have intrinsic causal powers that grant them

Nobody tells me what the fuck to do.

transformative powers—which may or may not be actualized—to effect changes in existing social structures and cultural formations through their intra- and intersubjective negotiations and actions.

In general, the constitutive role of human being in the production of social life contains two assumptions or “double freedoms” that separate human beings from other animals. Namely, human beings are largely if not entirely free from instinctual determination, and in principle, free to premeditate goals and strategies. The process of articulating goals and following desires takes place in a specific socio-cultural milieu, requiring a mechanism that explains the fundamental process whereby agency comes into “contact” (a mediation point that is constant and recurring) with structural and cultural conditions of agents’ temporal and spatial location. It should be reiterated at this point, nonetheless, that in profound and fundamental ways, such conditions are thoroughly preconditional for many specific forms of agency, but not all and hence, society and culture (discourse, language, text, etc.) are not determinative in the last instance. In the analytical model we are developing, agency is pulled apart into a tripartite conception, which is composed of human agency, socio-cultural agency and occupational agency.4 Foundational to practical materialism, is the first aspect of the tripartite conception of agency, that of human agency. The philosophical anthropology we are attempting to build finds the ontological foundation of human agency to rest in our emergent self-consciousness of a self (the “I”) who exists over time (the temporal dimension of the self). This level of consciousness has three essential qualities: 1) It exists prior to our sociality, characterized as the ontological stratum residing “beneath” the emergent level of personhood.5 2) It is a capability and practice intrinsic to human kind,6that while requiring a language learned from birth, is not epiphenomenal as an effect of language (as Judith Butler would argue). 3) Most significant, self-consciousness is the primary site where agents and structures interlock. The relationship between agents and structures requires a point of mediation that accounts for their interplay, where each in every instance

Margaret Archer, Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick, "Down with Elisionism"

effects the other. The point of mediation, as a concept and practice, will be drawn from Margaret Archer and her work on interiority, especially the reflexive process she terms the “interior conversation”7 to which we will turn in the next section.

1The “practice of everyday life” requires many skills and knowledge that vary from context to context: how to fix a meal, drive a car, climb a social ladder, maneuver through a complex and possibly corrupt government bureaucracy, “get the best deal” and so forth. Nonetheless, these mundane activities have historical and philosophical implications. Human actions have constitutive value in the reproduction and transformation of social and cultural systems. However, at the same time, as Roy Bhaskar puts it, nobody gets married with the intention to reproduce patriarchy nor finds a job to reproduce capitalism. Human behavior is always preconditioned by the historical epoch of its instantiation. People enter into systems at birth, “make do” with the set of constraints given and frequently universalize their particularity, casting the remainder, the “other” as barbaric or primitive.

2We will not be discussing the philosophical implications of feral children or “Robinson Crusoe” self-artificers. But it is worth noting, and we will be discussing this further, that a notion of agency, without accounting for the constitutive effects of the socio-cultural, is the mode of homo economicus, and the basis for rational actor theory and game theory, the most institutionalized and influential models of agency circulating in “western” thought. The point is to discover actual agental power, rescuing agency from two the dominant poles of thought, from the anti-humanists who have dissolved agency into structure and individualists who grant agents too much rationality, too much control, too much agency effectively denying the constitutive role of structure and culture.

3Compare the description of materialism presented in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (1908): “…when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may call their law the “chain” of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being.” G.K. Chesterton argues that the materialist frameworks laid out in scientific and Marxist world-views do not accord human beings free will (agency), and hence promote fatalism, or worse, nihilism. Only Christianity offers human kind an affirmative view of free will, that our choices have meaning and we are responsible for sin. However, the aspersions cast on “materialism” by Chesterton are not relevant to philosophical materialism as advocated here. A fundamental theoretical design of critical realism is to account for the causal power of agents. Agency can be discovered in secular terms. On the other hand, critical realism is not wholly incompatible with theology. Notable proponents, especially founder Roy Bhaskar, have segued into a spiritualist turn towards a divine power under-girding reality.

4We will expand on the three forms of agency in a later section, with more focus on socio-cultural and occupational forms of agency.

5It is useful to employ the dialectical terms internal- and external relations when discussing the nature of an emergent self-consciousness [And we will be discussing in greater detail the difference between internal and external relations below]. In a broad sense, self consciousness has the following intrinsic qualities: it is emergent; it is the generative mechanism for agental causal power; it is not constituted by internal relations to society and other theoretical modes of subjectivization noted within structuralist/ post-structuralist analysis: discourse, text, the signifier and language. The subject position we are arguing for exists prior to the social, and consequently, is shaped, but not determined, by its external relationships with the social and etc. On the flip side, while volunteeristic models of the individual agent in methodological individualism, rational actor theory, etc., explicitly grant agents causal power, volunteerism does not accord the socio-cultural milieu emergent properties, and hence causal powers, providing the conditions of agental reproduction and transformation of existing social and cultural formations. As Marx said famously in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

6It is a capability and practice that is universal, trans-cultural and so forth.

7 We also find John Searle’s work in the philosophy of mind on “intentionality” as part of his theory of the structure of action to be compatible with Archer’s notion of reflexivity in particular and critical realism’s theory of agency in general. Reflexivity and intentionality are the two obvious candidates for a theory of agency as an intrinsic human capacity, which, taken together, form the basis of freedom, under-girding our non-determinative subsumption within the plane of socio-cultural reality.

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