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.

6 thoughts on “Structure-Part 3.3, Practical Materialism

  1. upon review: “agency comes into “contact” (a mediation point that is constant and recurring) with structural and cultural conditions of agents’ temporal and spatial location.”

    “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”

    that agency is “logically prior” to intention, si;
    the intention is meaningless to the point (“actual agental power”).
    could we thus stop belaboring intention re: the ontology of contact?
    the mediation point is a play of relations, no? affected by time and space…which is manipulated in our sense far past (literally) its real. it is no surprise that we must always “get it wrong,” so to speak. about ourselves and the nature/situation of contact.
    but how might this tie to barbarism (your note 1)?
    altro review:
    – i is first, more fiendishly, beneath (this is my nightmare that weighs from tradition)
    – i exists without language
    – we interlock attraverso self-consciousness
    sounds like we are the murmurings of a mute. in what language does your interior conversation speak? might it sound like, bar bar bar…

    ps chesterton gets marx wrong, forgetting his herald, our paradoxical self-transformational capacity. but you note what contemporary marxists must do with such phantoms, claim ’tis irrelevant.

    i look forward to your trilogy within trilogy!

    • Book of Grievances, let me work backwards through some of your points. The Chesterton quote I hoped would operate as a catch all for the hydra heads of mechanistic materialisms that routinely pop up– Evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, old school behavioralism. Even in my field of sociocultural anthropology, every decade it seems somebody shouts eureka over a supposed reductionist paradigm that grounds human-centered reality in some sort of “real stuff”– caloric accumulation, genetic distribution, fitness and etc. And can we even say that the way agency, as postulated in neoclassical economic thought–homo economicus, rational actor theory– essentializes humankind in its transcendental subjectivity, a mode of being, not arbitrary nor learned, but ultimately grounded in biology?

      I like “murmurings of a mute” and the short take on the old monstrosity of the deaf and dumb. I take the point in a technical sort of way that probably will not appease, what I surmise as arguments from a Lacanian framework. Though this might make you wince🙂 my theoretical leanings in psychology stray towards “existential psychotherapy” because of a central (and with mostly hope, not too flimsy) point that in the therapeutic process, there must be an “I” of the analysand who can be addressed by the analyst. All neurosis, personality disorders, and so forth ultimately revolve around a somebody who can make a decision, be responsible, and exercise will. In the next section to be posted on this blog, I will begin working through “agency” and your concerns anticipate some of the arguments there.

      Nonetheless, a prime issue in relation to agency is the nature of the “I,” and to spoil the story, I will be using Archer’s concept of “first person authority,” which only means individuals have an intrinsic epistemic vantage point to know with a reasonable degree of certainty our particular mental state in the course of the flow and flux of experience, such as the feelings, desires, beliefs etc. that cross our consciousness. In addition, we have (accurate, adequate) knowledge of the content of these mental states. In other words, we know well what we are thinking about. The epistemology of first person authority does not entail in any way the viability, reasonableness or infallibility of the content of a mental state and (most importantly) beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Many of the beliefs we hold are likely to be self-serving, perspectival or totally false. As Archer puts it “an agent may be wrong in her beliefs (and often is) but she cannot be wrong about her beliefs.” [Does this still beg the question– who is the I?]

      Despite this problem, we can usually recognize the formative dimension of a mental state whether they are, for example, our dreams weaved in slumber, the hostile feelings evoked during interpersonal conflict, a metaphysical commitment to a God or practical knowledge of, e.g., driving a car. Accordingly, we can recognize the type of mental state—a desire, a belief—and token instances of mental states: a sexual desire for “another body’s sexuality” or a belief in “the superiority of my nationality.” We would also say that an individual experiencing a psychotic breakdown still maintains “first person authority” over his mental state despite recognizing neither that the content of a belief: “delusions of grandeur” for instance, is not a real quality of oneself, nor having insight that there is something horribly wrong going on in their mind (like when person suffering cognitive decline does not know they are losing their memory or their reasoning is becoming incoherent). This would mean having “insight” into the mechanisms from which delusions or cognitive decline arise (whether organic or functional in origin). The clinical fix for many psychopathologies: psychosis, phobia, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, depression and so on, often is helping a patient recognize the the token instances of a mental state, e.g. in depression, the feelings of despair and negative thoughts, are typical manifestations of the disease as experienced consciously. If an analysand can grasp and objectify (bracket) certain negative thoughts and feelings, their effect on (linkage to) behavior begins to diminish. The deeper fix is to address the underlying mechanism, which in functional cases, long term psychotherapy is applicable (or lobotomy, electric shocks, kick in the ass). Psychopathology is a useful exemplar of what we are trying to explain because no one is immune from certain psycho-pathological tendencies even though their effects are “sub clinical” in the sense of not significantly interfering with one’s life (though if we are motivated, we will still try to overturn their negative effects). This appears to be true for instances of psychopathology of the subject. Take for instance the spectrum of self-evaluation between the poles of low self esteem and narcissism. As a belief, there should be a healthy point where our self evaluation should reflect the outcome of the tension between aspects of ourselves we feel shame over and those that are adequate or constitute our pride. While there is no objective criteria for self evaluation, we recognize when it is out of whack, especially in others, and a mark of wisdom is accurately assessing it. In an analogous way, our beliefs about the world, what we consider good, true and beautiful, and what we value, are open to reflexive deliberation. Despite the multitude of pitfalls surrounding our feelings and beliefs, in principle we are not beholden to them in any sort of mechanistic or deterministic manner. We retain a degree of choice to believe via our intrinsic capability for reflexive awareness.

      It is clear that sociocultural positioning and geo-historical contexts of individual subjectivity can provide radically different sets of beliefs about the world. The processes of socialization, education, indoctrination and other means of large scale social integration, regulation and homogenization, the objective social, cultural and ideological conditions (viz, “structure” in relation to the agent) of the subject. This being the case, what our beliefs are, and how they were formed, can be radically shaped by the social and cultural context. However, it does not follow that every individual is beholden to act in mechanical solidarity to the general socio-cultural milieu.

      Archer’s notion of first person authority is important because it begins to explain how critical realists envision agency as ontological in nature. The ability to know our mental states is the foundation of our beliefs (however misguided, misinformed, deluded) and, since we act on our beliefs, first person authority grants agency irreducible causal power.

      • Chris! thank you!!
        comments, and if not here than elsewhere…
        -yes, we can say. we can say anything. neither arbitrary nor learned, alone. but via accidental coimplication.
        i am fascinated with existential psychotherapy’s response, premeditation of freudian strains of psychoanalysis. particularly in its hermeneutic–rather than mono-paradigmatic, mechanistic–view of human expression. but i am an amateur in terms of framework. interesting you note almost a concrete, a real “i”–of the analysand–as indicative of the existential school…i wonder how this is a departure from the ego/cogito/desidero of herr doktors’ styles of psychoanalysis…especially treating this subject who makes decisions, exercises will, and is held responsible (what is the difference you are asserting?).
        – on “i believe this, but i may be wrong…”if this connection–that we cannot be wrong about our beliefs–is so obvious, why is the matter of sincerity so at issue, especially in relation to the above mentioned decisions and judgments of subject? (i see authority here as delineating sincere from insincere expressions. that is, sincerity is how “being right about our beliefs” is construed.) is this not indicative of a tricky, if not irreparable bridge between belief and expression, such that i am always to wonder, if not doubt, whether what you say re: your beliefs in fact reflects your beliefs? as i know you (ok epistemology here) only through your expression (i cannot sit inside your skull to read the writings on the wall), maybe your belief–that is, your authority–is always suspect. forgetting, reconstruction…all this accident as part of human expression mutilates the belief in the eyes of authoritarian discourse–that is, who is most right–in any medium that gives itself to analysis (we do not yet credit clairvoyance as adequate “reading” on the mind). instead, might we look for a mode of expression (and an analysis of said expression, via agent, structure, etc) that dispenses with the witch-hunt for this kind of truth–that is, authority? to highlight how all expressive mis-communication relative to our belief is an integral part of communication and belief themselves.
        – ” If an analysand can grasp and objectify (bracket) certain negative thoughts and feelings, their effect on (linkage to) behavior begins to diminish.” this is a load of hooey, promulgated by an institution meant to protect its relevance to the problems its created…
        AND it presumes that evidence some how dispels my belief. but, as artaud likes to note, we believe in spite of all the evidence. as many times as i “address the underlying mechanism” of the non-existence of the boogeymonster, i still believe her to exist.
        – i agree with your story about belief as shaped and shaping, and its stake in reflexive awareness. i do not know what you mean about it (“reflexive awareness”) being an intrinsic quality. i am also not “aware” of any causal power that are irreducible, aquinas.
        – so we know best our beliefs about our mental states (first person authority), even if this means not that we know our actual mental states… so what is this thing that we know about? unspeakable, untranslatable belief. in telling you that i act on my belief, all we know is that we have the authority to be wrong.
        – just sharing my cognitive decline, to incoherence…

  2. Pingback: A Question For Lacanians « The Wordsmithy

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