Social Theory as Optometry

The notion of philosophical under labouring has been integral to the development of critical realism. It is, as Roy Bhaskar puts it, what critical realist philosophy most characteristically does. The metaphor comes from John Locke but it is deployed in a way that criticises Locke’s philosophical legacy, reframing it in terms of a much more substantive understanding of what under labouring entails as an activity. This concerns the relationship between theory and practice, something which philosophy has tended to violently misconstrue. Instead critical realist philosophy seeks to provide us with a deeper understanding of practices that are adequate and to contribute towards the transformation of practices which are inadequate. Doing this involves the development of a philosophical ontology but it is one which, at least in principle, should be orientated towards the practical activity of scientific investigation, with the caveat that being useful in this way necessitates a degree of congruence with the nature of things that means that truth cannot be collapsed into utility.

Given that ontological claims are continually secreted by statements about the social world, it seems obvious to me that there’s a value to be found in philosophical ontology. At the very least, this is a matter of rejecting quietism with regards to ontological matters – only by opening up the space of ontological questions can we serve to identify our assumptions and locate them within the range of logical possibilities in a way that facilitates critical distance. The problem is that ontological reasoning, with its complex relation to practice and reality, can sometimes spiral in a way that can ultimately lead to a scholastic abstraction that can prove deeply off putting to those with a less theoretical inclination. I think Jamie Morgan gives a really useful account of some of the dynamics that can take hold here:

Though realism in particular is sensitive to epistemic fallibility and to the potential for an epistemic fallacy – and ultimately ontology is theory so one is careful to never assert a definite identity between ontology and reality – the originating point of the exercise is to under-labour for more adequate accounts of reality. As such, one can ask in what sense the development has actually enhanced one’s understanding of or capacity to undertake further explanatory investigations of reality … ‘Adequacy’ can be directed towards internal projects of social theory addressing aspects of social theory for purposes other than demonstrated adequacy for accounts of reality. They can be about finding difference or reformulating what is actually similar, where both may perhaps be in some sense a non-problem. Furthermore, they can involve the pursuit of categorizations or taxonomies that are then justified as no more than ‘consistent with the existing realist ontology’. The development may then focus on placing an existing alternative framework over the same conceptual terrain – the matter of dispute can then become difference among the positions and where one set of potential weaknesses is traded for another in terms of conceptual critique. (116-117)

Morgan, J. (2014). What is Progress in Realism? An Issue Illustrated Using Norm Circles. journal of critical realism, 13(2), 115-138.

It occurs to me that part of the problem may be with the metaphor itself. Perhaps rather than under labouring we should think of optometry. This is how Wikipedia describes optometry:

Optometry is a healthcare profession concerned with the eyes and related structures, as well as vision, visual systems, and vision information processing in humans. Optometrists[1] (also known as ophthalmic opticians[2] outside the United States and Canada or optometric physicians in some states [3][4][5][6][7]) are trained to prescribe and fit lenses to improve vision, and in some countries are trained to diagnose and treat various eye diseases.

The term “optometry” comes from the Greek words ὄψις (opsis; “view”) and μέτρον (metron; “something used to measure”, “measure”, “rule”). The root word opto is a shortened form derived from the Greek word ophthalmos meaning, “eye.” Like most healthcare professions, the education and certification of optometrists is regulated in most countries. Optometrists and optometry-related organizations interact with governmental agencies, other healthcare professionals, and the community to deliver eye- and vision-care.

The history of optometry can be traced back to the early studies on optics and image formation by the eye. The origins of optometric science (optics, as taught in a basic physics class) date back a few thousand years BC as evidence of the existence of lenses for decoration has been found. It is unknown when the first spectacles were made. The British scientist and historian Sir Joseph Needham stated in his “Science and Civilization in China” vol 4.1, that although it sometimes has been claimed that spectacles were invented in China, that believe may have been based on uses of a source that had addition to them from the Ming dynasty (14th – 17th century) and that the original document had no references to eye glasses, and that the references that were there stated the eyeglasses were imported.

The optometrist assesses a person’s needs, drawing on elaborated diagnostic techniques to prescribe lenses which enhance vision. What counts as an enhancement is relative to a particular kind of need (e.g. close reading) and the success of the enhancement is dependent upon finding the right apparatus for that person, given the present state of their vision and the character of the aforementioned need. Needs are dynamic and the interventions facilitated by optometry need to be similarly dynamic if they are going to help rather than hinder the person in question. After all the intervention is intended to enhance or ameliorate, as opposed to creating a capacity where there was not one previously.

I’m being slightly factitious in suggesting that we see social theory as optometry. Though I do think there’s a usefully epistemological aspect to it (measuring perception) as well as an ontological one (an understanding of the nature of the perceptual system, the world being perceived and the process of perception). But I like the idea as a way of drawing out a few beliefs which I hold strongly.

  1. Social research is not dependent upon social theory and can proceed without it.
  2. Social research can be enhanced by social theory because at least tacit theoretical assumptions are unavoidable in the practice of social research.
  3. Social research often isn’t enhanced by social theory because the practical relationship between the two is generally quite poorly attended to.
  4. Social research could be enhanced by social theory if more attention were paid to the specific ways in which different aspects of social theory play a practical role in the practice of social research.

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