Earthpages.ca

Think Free


Leave a comment

Marx’s Productive Relations and Theory of History

Marx for Sale by Gideon via Flickr

Karl Marx proposed a theory of history in which society apparently progresses through definite stages. The catalyst for change from one stage to the next is a tension between the productive forces (PF) and the productive relations (PR). At least, this is how some have interpreted Marx’s theory.

According to this model, the PR are the social aspects of production in a given society, usually the legal or brute force means of exploiting labor, extracting surplus and maintaining social dominance of the few over the many.

By way of contrast, the PF refers to how a society actually produces commodities.

There is some feedback from the PR to the PF. But the PF determine the PR because the PF are more fundamental to society. In short, the social (PR) depends on the material (PF). And the material (PF) is primary to capital.

I wrote a paper about this back in 1985. The wording is a bit laborious. I was a relatively new university student perfecting a formula for getting good marks, so maybe I was subconsciously mimicking my professor. Over the years I found that grades were usually higher when you wrote like your professors spoke, which was sorta sad but true.

Despite the old-world sentences, the content is good. So I refer you to that for more detailed coverage, especially pp. 2-4:


2 Comments

Reification – Are things always as they seem?

State Theater, Congress Avenue

State Theater, Congress Avenue by Dave Wilson via Flickr

Reification is a sociological, philosophical and literary concept concerning language and symbolization.¹

For Marxist, Weberian and postmodern sociologists, reification also involves social power. It occurs whenever ideas, concepts or theories are falsely assumed to accurately represent some entity or thing.

While many folks get heated up over political debates, and rightly so, few go a little deeper to question the political entities that we have constructed and continue to construct on a daily basis. Yes, we sometimes question what “democracy” means. But how often do we deconstruct the very notion of the “state”?

When you think about it, it is valid to ask: What is “Canada”? or What is “The United States of America”? For postmodern theorists, these are abstract ideas with potentially different meanings for each person. So the notion of the “state” is a human construction with many, interpreted meanings that do not point to an absolute existence of the thing in itself.

Another example of reification is often given in discussions about religious rules and regulations. These not only have legal but moral and emotional power over individuals. “Forgive me Father… it’s been 10 weeks since my last confession…” For non-Catholic reification theorists, the idea that a man can stand in place of God and that Catholics must regularly check in to a small booth and confess to a man/God is totally silly. It’s just a set of man-made rules that, although fictitious, have real power over the lives of men and women. Catholics are conditioned into believing the rules are part of a sacred tradition. A magisterial teaching authority. So the man-made thing becomes real to the extent that it is believed in.

From the perspective of believing Catholics, however, confession is far from silly. It’s a way to confirm that God has heard and forgives sins. Confession is a “sacrament.” It’s not a mere social construction legitimized in writ and replicated through conditioning because Catholics believe the teaching authority is holy. So, for them, the rules are functional truths from God.

Funnily enough, some folks talk about their country’s laws in a similar manner. Fundamentalist Americans, for instance, who speak of manifest destiny, often link the holy with their nation’s activity. And this is not only in the Bible Belt. Some “New Age” Americans speak the same way. The French social theorist Roland Barthes points out the close emotional and symbolic connection between the ideas of the “American Spirit” and “The Holy” in his 1957 book Mythologies

Critics of the idea of reification would argue that different countries are distinguished by laws, citizenship, culture, the landscape and geographic boundaries. However, reification theorists could reply that laws are often applied differently to the rich and powerful than to the poor and powerless. Statistics support this. The rich spend less time in jail for the same offences. So do the laws truly exist?

It may be difficult to appreciate the notion that landscape and geographic boundaries are not absolute, indisputable markers. But when we deconstruct the idea of physicality, as quantum physics does, even ideas like “the land” and geographic “boundaries” become less clear cut.

Democriet (laughing) & Herakliet (crying) by C...

Democriet (laughing) & Herakliet (crying) by Cornelis van Haarlem, which Lievens copied at 12. (The copy is lost) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In philosophy the ancient Greek Heraclitus alluded to the idea of reification when he wrote that we cannot step into the same river twice. What is a river if we can’t pin it down?

The 20th-21st century philosopher Willard Quine touches on the idea of reification by saying that empiricism contains “two dogmas.” The first dogma involves the distinction made between intellectual constructs and facts. This is related to the second dogma of “reductionism.” Reductionism is the belief that naming and meaning are the same.³ Likewise in rhetoric, it is commonly debated whether reification is applied appropriately.4

In the literary world, reification may occur whenever a metaphor is employed; although in literature a metaphor is accepted and encouraged; it is also evaluated for its effectiveness.5

To sum, reified ideas may be simple or complex. They may involve legal entities like “corporation” or “state.” But the question remains as to whether the thing written and talked about truly exists as described.

¹ Wikipedia lists several meanings for this term. Of particular interest is the meaning within Gestalt psychology, which I haven’t really emphasized here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification

² Barthes focuses on America here, but I think individuals and groups in any country can get high and mighty about the alleged superiority of their nation.

³ Quine’s language may be difficult for laypersons. Understanding what he says depends on some knowledge of Kant’s particular language games (although Kant probably wouldn’t have seen it that way). Here’s the original Quine quote:

Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill founded. One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science. Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.

Source: http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification_(fallacy)

5 See examples.

Related » Sociology, Unconscious

 


Leave a comment

Comte Henri de Saint-Simon – His concern for the poor shines above everything else

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) or, more commonly, Saint-Simon is one of those figures who comes up regularly in sociology courses, especially so-called “classical” or “classical theory” courses.¹

Until writing this entry, I knew little about him. But I felt he was important because so many books and professors (the better ones, anyhow) mention him in passing.

Looking over Wikipedia this morning to update my 2009 entry, Saint-Simon turns out to be quite interesting.

Born in Paris as a French Aristocrat, he spent some time in America, fighting under George Washington in the siege of Yorktown. Back in Europe, he took up the cause of the poor, which lead his being called the founder of French socialism.

He supported the French Revolution but was put in jail during the Reign of Terror because of unwarranted suspicions that he was a counter-revolutionary. Luckily for him, he was released from prison in 1794 before literally losing his head. By this time French currency was devalued, which left him rich. But he was cheated out of his fortune by his business partner.

After an unhappy marriage that ended in a year, he wrote and tried to recover his lost fortune without success. He then spent time in a sanatorium. Ten years later, discouraged by his lack of influence on the world, he attempted suicide. According to the story, shooting himself six times in the head didn’t kill him, although he did become blind in one eye.

Nederlands: Portret van Claude Henri de Rouvro...

Portrait of Claude Henri de Rouvroy from the first quarter of the 19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relatives helped him out but Saint-Simon lived his final years in abject poverty. Perhaps this had something to do with his earlier concern for the poor.²

Saint-Simon reacted against the brutality of the French Revolution and envisioned a society where science and technology would guide the workings of religion and politics. He disliked government intervention in the economy, making his approach differ from how we usually understand “socialism.”

Concerning religion, he believed in a divine power but wanted to strip away the dogmas and routines of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity to get to the core of Jesus’ message as he saw it. For him, theory wasn’t done for mere pleasure or, as a twisted professor I had allegedly once said, for a “paycheck.” For Saint-Simon, theory and practice should go hand in hand to alleviate suffering and elevate all peoples to the highest possible good.

Saint-Simon’s writings remain influential in sociology. He had particular impact on the political views of Auguste Comte (17981857), especially with regard to the concept of progress. Comte in turn influenced Emile Durkheim, now hailed as one of the founding fathers of sociology.

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

¹ Sociologists tend to join the dots for us, telling us what is important according to how they see things today. The word “classical” should be taken critically too. It’s full of connotations about legitimacy and importance.

² If the soul is beyond space and time, as some mystics tell us, quite possibly Saint-Simon’s future state influenced his younger concerns. You won’t find this idea among the rank and file of psychologists and psychiatrists in the 21st century, but I think it’s quite possible and hopefully an idea that future theorists will pursue.


2 Comments

Erich Fromm and the “Mass Man”

Gedenktafel für Erich Fromm aus der Reihe Mit ...

Plaque for Erich Fromm from the series with Freud in Berlin. Bayerischer Platz 1, Berlin-Schöneberg. Enthüllt am 1. Juli 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a German-born American psychologist and social thinker who is often linked to the Frankfurt school of critical theory.

Fromm’s work combined different ideas from the works of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and J.-P. Sartre.

Like Carl Jung, he was acutely aware of the danger of bureaucracies controlled by the wrong people. He leveled a critique against the so-called mass man who, like a robot, compliantly follows orders to maintain financial security at the expense of human decency.

For Fromm, individuals “escape from freedom” through at least three often related routes:

  • Authoritarianism – losing the self by over-identifying with a powerful leader
  • Automaton Conformity – blindly following the will of a powerful leader
  • Destructiveness –  hurting self or others in an attempt to blot out a painful reality

In “The Sane Society” (1955), Fromm says modern individuals are alienated from their authentic self by seeking ephemeral thrills through mass culture and consumerism. According to Fromm, what makes us truly human is our ability to love. If we sacrifice this to the gods of commerce or political ambition, we’ve sacrificed our greatest gift of all.

Fromm’s works include The Fear of Freedom (1941), The Art of Loving (1956) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973).

Related » HAL 9000, Borg, Projection


Leave a comment

Functionalism – Are we simply what we do?

In art and architecture functionalism refers to combining aesthetics and efficiency. With intellectual roots in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the 1920s and 30s the Bauhaus movement designed furniture for utility.

In architecture, the idea that function should determine form was exemplified by Le Corbusier’s definition of a house as “a machine for living in.”

Portret van Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)

Portret van Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In social anthropology and sociology, functionalism (and structural functionalism) envisions society as a self-regulating organism. Social institutions, customs, beliefs and even social deviance all contribute to societal functioning. This approach was especially prominent in the sociological work of Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.

In the Philosophy of Mind functionalism presents a challenge to behaviorism. While strict behaviorism explains the mind by observing external causes and effects, functionalism tries to account for consciousness in terms of all inner and outer causes and effects. Philosophical functionalism considers the possibility, overlooked by behaviorism, of a multiplicity of inner causes and effects existing within the mind. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy simplifies it thus:

Functionalism is a theory about the nature of mental states. According to functionalism, mental states are identified by what they do rather than by what they are made of.¹

¹ http://www.iep.utm.edu/functism/

Related » William James


Leave a comment

Party (this ain’t no party… this ain’t no disco…)

Image derived from Mike Mozart - Party City via Flickr

Image derived from Mike Mozart – Party City via Flickr

Some first-year sociology students might think that class, status and party refer to some kind of elite celebration. But in the world of the German sociologist Max Weber, party is a term that sometimes has been described as power. However, the idea is more nuanced than the mere idea of power.

Party in Weberian thought refers to the social ranking and related power gained by holding a political office or by associating with those holding such an office.


Leave a comment

The changing face of scholarship

Pierre Bourdieu at an unemployed demonstration in front of ‘Sciences Politiques’ and ‘Normale Superieure’ schools in Paris, France on January 16, 1998.

Like most things in life, the idea of scholarship has many meanings. Many people are delighted and proud to receive advanced degrees. In some way it tells them and others that they are “smart,” worthy” and not just part of the crowd.

But when looked at another way, isn’t this an elitist view? And is it realistic or mostly a social construction, relative to our point in history?

If these questions sound unusual, consider the thinkers Pierre Bourdieu, Karl Marx and Max Weber. These and other sociologists maintain that two central functions of social institutions are to  legitimize and reproduce themselves.

Perhaps a slightly jaded view, some see universities as places of knowledge dissemination that, by virtue of what they are, tend to justify high tuition fees and not a few uninspiring, second and third-rate instructors. As part of the legitimization and reproduction process, universities must produce a quota of scholarly publications, many of which wouldn’t survive in the free market. And because university textbooks are often required for assignments and exams, students feel pressured into paying wildly inflated prices for these books if they want to get good grades.

The other side of the argument is that universities are specialized training centers, making tailor made textbooks necessary (and costly) by virtue of their relatively low circulation. Just as a detailed jet engine repair manual may never be a bestseller but is necessary for the airline mechanic, university textbooks in the Humanities are needed for the trade of “critical thinking.”

Glasgow University via Flickr

In fields like history and religious studies, students – some of whom might not realize they are, in part, consumers of education – are implicitly or explicitly lead to believe that a knowledge of original languages is linked to scholarly legitimacy and coherent thinking. This fallacy is often overlooked by those dazzled by a phalanx of references in non-English languages. And it is easy to find utterly shoddy articles which, perhaps, in part try to impress students and colleagues with a slew of references in different languages.

A postmodernist might argue that scholars should be just as concerned with recent language theory instead of conforming to the age-old tradition of upholding proficiency in languages as an emblem of scholarly legitimacy.

Further to Bourdieu’s claim that most scholarship doesn’t exist in isolation but takes place in institutions laden with cultural connotations (by virtue of their being accredited as universities and colleges), one might ask: What are these places really like? How do they really function? How effective are they? And how meaningfully do they connect with other social institutions and practices?

Historically, centers of so-called higher education and their resident scholars take various forms. From the Confucian courts, the Old Academies of Plato and Aristotle, the ashrams of Sankara and Gorakhnath, the early Oxford and Cambridge, the University at Salamanca, the Renaissance University of Padua, the New Florentine Academy, to today’s Visva-Bharati and other unique centers around the world, the definition of “quality education” is not fixed to one ideal.

Connections among pedagogy, language, societal legitimacy and, last but not least, morality are well summed up by Confucius, who in The Analects says:

A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words.

A woman photographs a giant silicone sculpture of the ancient and famous chinese philosopher Confucius made by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan at the Rockbund Art museum on December 13, 2011 in Shanghai, China.

Related » Digital Scanning, Equal Rights, History, Individual Rights, Sociology