The unexpected question that Ned Lebow raises in his book Forbidden Fruit, and to which I alluded in the previous entry on Inevitability versus Contingency in the Course of History, could be stated: “What is real?” More particularly, if I understand him, it is a question of whether, as one moves beyond hard, concrete “facts” further into the realm of “abstractions,” one departs from the really real into something a good deal less real.
In the course of exploring some of the philosophical issues raised by his “counter-factual” explorations, Lebow takes the position (if I understand him correctly) that when we talk about society and politics, we have departed from “reality itself” as soon as we get away from “first-order ‘facts.’” Our concepts are “ideational and subjective” and somewhat “arbitrary.” Our theories are reflections of “social construction,” and “can only be true by convention. They “tell us more about our view of the world than about the world itself.” “Social ‘facts’ are reflections of the concepts we use to describe social reality, not of reality itself.”
In a statement that seems clearly to reject the reality of our abstractions about the human world, Lebow declares: “There is no such thing as a balance of power, a social class, or a tolerant society.”
These assertions bear upon my “Swinging for the Fences” project because my thesis is that there are things discernible –but only barely, through glimpses and inferences—that are a good deal more abstracted from “first-order” concrete facts than “balance of power” or “social class,” but that I maintain are deeply and importantly real. Maybe even more importantly real than the concrete “first-order” facts.
(By the way, it is not only in the social realm that Lebow sees this issue: “Temperature,” he says, “is undeniably a social construction, but is a measure of something observable and real: changes in temperature measure changes in the energy levels of molecules.” I do wonder, incidentally, whether the notions of “energy levels” –or of “molecules,” for that matter—are any more factual than that of “temperature.”)
If I had a chance to ask Professor Lebow some questions, to see if he truly does believe that only the concrete is reality itself and that our abstractions concerning it are less real, here a few that I would ask to get at what’s important for my “Swinging for the Fences” project:
I’d ask, for example: What’s more real, a particular fireworks display in some small American town on the 4th of July, or something that could be called “the American tradition” of exploding fireworks on the 4th of July?
Walking along the street, one hears two people having a conversation. Is that what I imagine Professor Lebow would call a “first-order” concrete fact more real than “the English language”?
Getting still closer to the nature of my vision of an important dimension of how things work in the human world, I’d ask two other questions:
One of them is this: There are a great many human beings walking around on this planet. Are they more real than the human genome? (I’d say that in some ways, the genome is a more fundamental reality than any of us who are temporary embodiments of it.)
The other question: If we know an individual, and observe a wide assortment of his actions and statements, which show a degree of consistency in their nature and quality, can we speak of this person’s “character”? And is that character less real –or perhaps more real?—than the individual behaviors from which we inferred the underlying “character” of the man?
My “Swinging for the Fences” project is an attempt to infer something large, and for that reason “abstracted” from the concrete level of our perception, using concepts that are parallel in nature to the more abstract elements of those four questions, above.
As with the fireworks tradition, and the English language, I am focusing on the patterns that get transmitted through time in cultural systems.
As with the genome, in “Swinging for the Fences” I will be arguing that the pattern is more fundamentally real –meaning a more fundamental determinant of ongoing reality– than its temporary embodiments.
(I say that just as a hen has been described as an egg’s way of making another egg, so an individual human being can be regarded as the culture’s way of perpetuating the cultural pattern.)
As with the issue of an individual’s character –the “spirit” that’s expressed in the various particular behaviors of the person—I will be tracing an element of “spirit” that operates in cultural systems through the generations.
While Professor Lebow, if I understand him correctly, is asserting that as soon as we get away from “first-order ‘facts,’” we have departed from “reality itself,” I am declaring that a most fundamental dimension of human reality involves patterns whose mechanisms and character and effects can only be inferred from their imprint on many more specific events. They exist, therefore, at a level “abstracted” from that of our usual daily perception. (More abstracted, in some ways, tan any other explanatory concepts of systemic forces I’ve come across, or come up with myself, in a half century of investigation.)
That’s why I’m interested in confronting the challenge that Professor Lebow’s notions seem to pose to my “Swinging for the Fences” enterprise.
Always knew there was some Platonism hiding at NSB, somewhere.
Outstanding Andy and quite right as well.
Another example: social security, medicare and medicaid. Democratic firebrand Alan Grayson just anounced for office again. He is sending round a petition to the WH to not cut the above mentioned programs. If the chained cpi cuts take effect, they will hurt the elderly, the disabled, the wounded vets, etc. All to appease the greedy bastards of the libertarian and republican ilk.
Very much real: very much morally vicious.
You raise the question of Platonism, Richard, and it is a question most interesting to me. I’ve generally had little regard for Plato’s Forms. And I actually think my assertion of “these ‘Abstractions’ are real” is different in kind from Plato’s.
But I’ll say no more on that for now, to wait to see who else may join this conversation and where it might go.
Well, your usage is a little different from ‘strict platonism’ whatever that might be, yes.
There is a view called ‘nominalism’ which discounts terms as totally arbitrary constructs having no ‘actual reality,’ in themselves, because they are essentially words. Its a good illustration of reductionism in my opinion as “nothing but ness.” For example, the term ‘social security’ is nothing but a term which was made up to denote a federal program, invented by the Roosevelt Administration to do ……X…..” We could just as easily say the nominalists, have called it the ‘XYZ_PDQ program just as easily.”
Such analyses are often bereft of any contextual or historical understanding so most of us don’t take these critiques seriously.
Maybe I can venture this, re Platonism.
I don’t think that there exists some eternal Ideal Form of a “table,” of which all tables are merely manifestations. For one thing, in terms of its being eternal (as I believe Plato would say), would there have been such a Form during the 13.79 billion years, or so, before anyone (on this planet at least) ever built a table. Yes, some people have an idea of “tableness,” and it doubtless influences how furniture makers come up with designs, but I don’t imagine that “idea” existing outside of the minds of those who think about tables.
When I speak of a destructive pattern or force that moves through a cultural system over the generations, I think of it as existing as something that transcends what the human actors may think about it, unlike with the table. People may be –and generally are– unaware of it. And I think of it as something that exists in time, that had a beginning and could have an end.
Consider “the Spirit of ’76.” Was it real? I would say, yes, and that it swept up a group of colonials and influenced their actions. Was there a “Spirit of ’76” before 1776? Probably in some sense, like something of the sort in 1775 when the shot was fired heard round the world. But I don’t think there was any “Spirit of ’76” during the time of the Crusades.
It would be interesting to think about the evolution of the universe at our level and those above ours and below it here.
I see an example of such a destructive cultural force in the way the dominant fundamentalist arms of western reilgion see women. Misogyny.
As to the “Spirit of 76”; I had served in the army in 67-68 but had failed to serve a full enlistment. With the patriotic mood sweeping the nation in 1976, the 200th birthday of the nation, I joined the national guard (I respected Jimmy CArter) and ended up serving 7.5 years on active and 13 as a traditional guardsman. It was sufficient for me that we have a nation
worth defending, and that given my abilities, inclinations and beliefs, that I should do my part as I could. I understand that that our country is far from
getting everything right: I also know there have been recent events to show that glaringly. Nonetheless, the spirit of 76 is still real for me and at least one of my sons and daughters. It is an ideal worth holding and a call to make right what has been made, and is wrong. I see the evil of the right now as attempting to stop such efforts and to maintain a progressively
morally vicious and destructive agenda, psychologically, economically and at all political levels. This evil is real and palpable and must be fought.
I think Andy is very good to continue his work, though I confess I don’t always understnd it too clearly. (sorry if this got off track too much.)
Thanks, Richard. And please do not hesitate to ask when you want something I write here made clearer.
Well, comrade Schmookler, congratulations, you have once again managed to turn an argument on it’s head and spun it like a top.
It seems your use of Lebow as launching point is at variance with Lebow’s general position:
Perhaps you would commend me to read Forbidden Fruit in order to discover the true misapprehension you have discovered there, but, from my observations, that would likely not be fruitful.
I have no idea what you’re talking about regarding turning an argument on its head. I agree with your assessment of the excellence of Lebow’s exploration of the counter-factuals. I am not “at variance with Lebow’s general position,” which is about the “use of counter-factuals to aid in [the] understanding of past events.”
Where I seem to be “at variance” with Lebow is on a position of a philosophical nature concerning the question of what is real, and concerning the idea of abstractions being “social constructions.”
Lebow’s book can be deeply appreciated without dealing with that issue, but it is an issue he raises. Nonetheless, as my “Swinging” project seeks to assert the profoundly real and important nature of some patterns and forces that are quite abstracted from “first-order facts,” that issue is one I thought worth focusing on here.
In your usual rush to pick a fight, Duane, you seem to have skipped over what I actually had to say.
To avoid pointless, mis-directed argument, let me indicate here, in lieu of posting the most recent comment to come in, that the following are the ideas from Professor Lebow that I was questioning. So far as I can tell, the questions I raise do not constitute a challenge in any way to his counter-factual historical ideas.
‘Lebow takes the position (if I understand him correctly) that when we talk about society and politics, we have departed from “reality itself” as soon as we get away from “first-order ‘facts.’” Our concepts are “ideational and subjective” and somewhat “arbitrary.” Our theories are reflections of “social construction,” and “can only be true by convention. They “tell us more about our view of the world than about the world itself.” “Social ‘facts’ are reflections of the concepts we use to describe social reality, not of reality itself.”
In a statement that seems clearly to reject the reality of our abstractions about the human world, Lebow declares: “There is no such thing as a balance of power, a social class, or a tolerant society.”’
I then raise four questions regarding what should be considered “real.”
Of course, that is the most provocative of comrade Lebow’s assertions to your dedication to the real and rational. But you avoid the knife’s edge. The question is, at the end of many lives of empire and possibly the end of the empiratical species, is your “rational” really in their subjective interest?
I am extremely dubious.
I think we’ll leave it there, Duane. If you’ve said something substantive there with which one might engage, I couldn’t discern it.