My notes on Betta, M., & Swedberg, R. (2018). Heuristics and Theorizing as Work on the Self. Sociologica, 12(1), 21-25.

Heuristics are commonly seen as either rules of thumb, simple tricks used under conditions of uncertainty, or tools for discovery, practical steps facilitating knowledge about what was previously concealed. However in this short paper, Betta and Swedberg suggest a third meaning, connected to the increasingly apparent area of theorising. From pg 22:

During the last ten or so years a new field of knowledge has slowly begun to open up; and the knowledge of tricks, moves and advice is part of this field. This new field of knowledge is theorizing. Theorizing is about sociologists becoming aware of what they are actually doing when they work with theory, and also being aware of how they can use this knowledge to shape their work.

The concern of social scientists with their own practice has led to the development of the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of sociology and the sociology of ideas. However they argue that these have been prone to blunt and oversocialised generalisations about the objective determinants of ideas. Furthermore, they are unable to inform an account of how to improve that practice.  There are books which aim do this explicitly, providing guidance about the practical steps involved in common intellectual activities. But these, argue Betta and Swedberg mainly focus on justification and say little about discovery. The focus on theorising aims to correct this deficit, as they explain on pg 22-23:

Theorizing represents an attempt to portray how things are actually done, and how theory is actually used in research. The search light is directed straight at what the social scientist does for two reasons. First, by proceeding in this way, social scientists will become aware of what they are currently doing; and second, they will also learn what they should be doing.

This involves relating to the self as an object of knowledge, in a way analogous to moral action which seeks to ensure more than mere conformity to external rules.  Heuristics should be seen alongside metaphors, induction, deduction, explanation and generalizations as part of theory work. But if I understand them correctly, their point is that beginning to talk about theorising in these terms helps constitute oneself as a theorising subject, relating reflexively to activities which would once have been (largely) tacit in a way guided by these concepts. In doing so, it contributes to constituting theorising as an area of knowledge with a direct connection to practice.

Interestingly, they relate this to the progress of methods and the consequent impoverishment of theory in (American, though they don’t qualify it as such) sociology. They also suggest that the findings of the cognitive sciences could be brought in to help inform the theory and practice of theorising. They conclude by linking this to Kant’s “project of the thinking self, which can be described as persons who act on themselves by teaching themselves how to think” (pg 24): if I understand them correctly, ‘owning’ theorising in the way they suggest involves having the courage to use your own understanding in the Kantian sense.

My notes on Latz, A. B. (2015). Gillian Rose and Social Theory. Telos, 173, 37-54. and Fuller, B. W. (2018). Back to Hegel? On Gillian Rose’s critique of sociological reason. The British journal of sociology, 69(2), 265-285

The figure of Gillian Rose was a continual presence in the Sociology department at Warwick in the time I was there, from 2007 to 2014, with the main seminar room named after her and many staff members who had been close to her. However I’d never really engaged with her work until now so I’m pleased I’m finally got round to reading these two papers. The first by Andrew Brower Latz explores her relationship to social theory, situating her in terms of her the Frankfurt school which she identified herself as a student of. Her work emerged in a context where “a focused search to develop a better grasp and articulation of sociology and its logic” (38) was mitigating the failure of classical sociology to identify its own methodological specificity. Latz takes critical realism, structuration theory and Bourdieu’s sociology as constructive responses to this underlying problem.

It is this context that Rose’s Hegelian work was so significant, providing a means to address “perennial issues in social theory, namely:the relationship of logic to the sociology of knowledge; contradictions and antinomies; emergence; and the possibility of a totality” (38). She engaged with Hegel’s speculative philosophy as a radicalisation of the Kantian critique of reason (theory) by reason (meta-theory). In doing so, it provides a way to approach the social character of knowledge which takes us beyond the post-Kantians, for whom objectivity (“the applicability of our concepts to the external world, which creates the possibility of true or false judgments about the world”, 39) is grounded in sense data received through intuition. If I remember this correctly, our sensory apparatus is receptive to the world and we know that world through the representations that receptivity provokes in our mind. We do not encounter the object but only this (involuntary) representation of it. The transcendental form of inquiry was retained by neo-Kantians but the transcendental idealism was rejected, leaving the subject locked within thought without the (indirect) escape which the latter provided. As Latz puts it, “The touchstone for a system of thought was thought itself, in a way that tended to insulate thought from receptivity to thought’s other” (40).

For Rose the recurrence of positivism within sociology has one of its source in the lack of appreciation by sociologists of the transcendental form of their reasoning. If I understand correctly, this manifests itself as an evasion of the relationships between theory and meta-theory, mind and world, theory and evidence (to use Latz’s terms): the world is either collapsed into our experience of it or our experience is imputed to a world deemed to be devoid of intrinsic meaning. As Latz says later, drawing on a reading of Rose by Simon Jarvis, “Sociology’s danger is twofold: on the one hand, imposing a grid or pre-theorized schema on society instead of allowing experience to speak; on the other, imagining that simply pointing to experience will do” (53). For Rose speculative philosophy provides a way out of this impasse as “transcendental philosophy performed with maximum awareness of its own workings, which is gained through a historical perspective” (42). It entails a grappling with the absolute – “the unity of finite and infinite, of law and ethics, the full achievement of ethical life” (42) – but as a regulative ideal which established the unattainable horizon of our thought. This goes hand-in-hand with her “emphasizing the moments of incompleteness, provisionality, tension, and even fragmentation within thought and society” (43).

Latz considers the significance of her work in relation to logic & the sociology of knowledge, contradictions & antinomies, emergence and totality. He does this through considering sociological studies which either repudiate or embody key features of her approach, namely thinking “in terms of contradictions and determinate negation, must use increasingly comprehensive levels of explanation and historically informed analyses, and be aware of its own role within its object of study” (47). Perhaps the key point in this discussion is the relationship between theory and meta-theory: how theorising in pursuit of social explanation is itself theorised and the practical implications of this. How do we tie  substantive and meta-theoretical considerations together in the same undertaking? If I understand correctly, the point is we are always doing this regardless of whether we are aware of it. If we’re not aware of it, we’re going to do it in a way that impedes our mode of explanation. So Rose’s approach is about how to do this in a way which is adequate to the character of social reality. It is a form of theoretical reflexivity, for lack of a better term. That at least is how I understand the gist of Latz’s discussion.

I was particularly interested in her conception of totality: “Since for Rose no single view of the totality is adequate to it, various perspectives on it are required” (52). It always evades us while remaining the horizon of what we are doing and why. A further point this left me reflecting on is how invoking experience can itself render that experience abstract by cutting it from the world in relation to which that experience emerges and which accounts for the meaning and content of it. It emerges from the failure to link theory and meta-theory, facing the challenge of for instance linking mind and world rather than simply allowing that to fade into the background in a way that dichotomises lived experience and brute facts. As Latz puts it, “Rather than an abstruse methodological pedantry, issues of meta-theory can often have theoretical effects, including philosophical conclusions drawn from sociological studies, the nature of the explanations given, or the status afforded to those explanations and the theories whence they derive” (54).

The second paper by Brian W. Fuller is more explicitly concerned with the subdued reception of Rose’s work and its relationship to the wider neglect of Hegel within the social sciences. He highlights how “Rose argues that we sociologists have been systematically misunderstanding ourselves, and allowing this to happen – taking refuge, either implicitly or explicitly, in the notion of Kantian limits to our understanding” (266). If we remain locked within the Kantian problematic then we are confined to the “social investigation of unknowable objects” (266). This entails recognising the brokenness of modern thought, which a thematic I’m fascinated by without really understanding and want to return to. I assume it relates to the post-Kantian estrangement of thought from world, cutting it off from what it is, but I’m far from certain based on what I’ve read so far. What Fuller later calls ‘the strict dichotomy between cognition and its objects” which begins in Kant and is preserved in post-Kantian philosophy (268). Rose’s concern is to acknowledge this and to begin with it in the sociological enterprise. Its failure can be seen in a dichotomisation which pervades sociological thought. From 269: 

Her Hegelian move is to grasp the two paradigms as aspects of one whole. Sociology has repeated the mistakes of neo-Kantian philosophy by bifurcating into two contradictory theoretical paths, each of which represents one-half of a linked pair, and which consequently cannot be comprehended in isolation. Durkheim’s structural approach and Weber’s interpretivism each postulates a precondition and a conditioned; though their perspectives are opposite, neither can grasp the transition between spheres. Employing Hegel directly, Rose declares the former approach ‘empty’, while the latter is ‘blind’ (1981: 214). In sum, Rose’s complaint is that sociology is trapped within dichotomies which it can never overcome, because they are products of its own mode of thinking.

The confrontation with the relationship between theory and meta-theory opens up  the possibility of transcending dichotomies in their application. I’m trying to understand how this relates to the approach of Margaret Archer, whose precondition of analytical dualism entails thinking with dichotomies as ways in which we can unpick the relationship between heterogenous elements in the explanation of social outcomes. But what Archer calls explanatory methodology as a site for leaving these dichotomies behind would presumably be to effectively reproduce them from Rose’s point of view. As Fuller puts it, “the ‘speculative’ direction she suggests is designed to help uncover the meaning and significance of such recurring problems and limitations, opening up potential for transformative practice” (270). This I would argue is what Archer actually does, I’d be interested to encounter any sustained engagement between these two sets of ideas. It certainly falls short of Rose’s lofty, somewhat existential, approach to theoretical inquiry. From 270:

A second difficulty of explication is that – according to Rose’s interpretation – there is no way to adequately present the Hegelian speculative position in an abstract and concise fashion, without misunderstanding it. Hegel’s approach to philosophy intends to teach a new (speculative) way of thinking and experiencing, which requires continual ‘re-cognizing’ of one’s current position. Rose takes Hegel’s philosophy seriously as a ‘way of despair’, and the process of educating consciousness necessarily appears difficult, aporetic, or else impossible. This is not an illusion to be overcome, nor a dead end, but a process that will require failure. Accordingly, for Rose, abstract explication is out of the question, and the reader must learn through failure.

Incidentally, could this not be a meta-theory of what Daniel Little calls being an open-source philosopher? This could provide a profound intellectual-existential rationale for the virtues of thinking out loud, rather than thinking being an internal process contained until moments of careful and purified expression. More generally, Rose’s project involved a move beyond reflective thought, in the process recognising the dichotomies it creates as both its own creation and “part of a larger whole, a conceptual and social-historical whole” (271). This move has its origins in the Hegelian turn beyond Kant’s restriction to the boundaries of the finite, “insisting that the whole point of philosophical thought is to be speculative, to attempt to think the infinite, to embrace the contradictions produced by reflection” (271). Philosophical reflection merely analyses, categorises and schematises its contents, ordering the finite rather than understanding its coming to existence and totality within which it happens.

The possibility for overcoming it rests on a self awareness of the reflective position, understanding its own activity as the origin reflective understanding. In this sense, it involves taking Kant further than recognising the dependence of objectivity upon the subject. We typically see appearances as grounded in essences but the Hegelian project was about recognising this as a posited dichotomy, in order to grasp the unity of the appearance and the essence. My crude understanding of this, which I’m not very confident about, sees it as a vast multilayered mess of becoming which is parcelled out into discrete terms by the activity of cognition. Speculative philosophy involves tracing out how these discrete terms and their static relations have been created through reflective activity, moving upwards towards a totality we can never reach because our striving is part of the whole we are trying to apprehend from inside the mess. This has implications for ethical life. From 274:

In his practical philosophy, Kant derived a set of universal principles to gov- ern the moral subject, arguing that moral action must be guided by the univer- salizability of a potential action. Hegel’s critique of Kantian moral philosophy is similar to his account of speculation above. He claims that Kant’s practical philosophy cannot adequately comprehend humanity nor society in its historical concreteness, since it deals only in abstractions and universals. The critique emphasizes two points. First, he objects to the abstract separation of theoretical and practical reason, and consequently, of the realms of necessity and freedom. For Kant, for example, the human will exists in the sphere of noumena, inde- pendent of the natural, empirical world in which human subjects reason and act. Second, Hegel criticizes Kantian practical philosophy for being too ‘formal’. The formality of the moral law means that it cannot be derived from the con- crete, historical world, but only transcendentally from reason. From a Kantian view, we can only understand ethical life abstractly.

I think this is akin to the understanding Alisdair Macintyre expresses in his focus on moral particularism. We are always already inside ethical community and abstracting the individual from that community in the Kantian manner will capture nothing of the concrete reality of moral existence. It ties to Rose’s reading of Hegel’s phenomenological method, which unites thinkers I’ve been drawn to who in different sorts of ways seek to concretise subjectivity without reducing it to the dominion of first person experience. From 277:   

The phenomenological method is then a way of presenting speculative expe- rience. It treats experience concretely, in its social-historical particularity, and hence allows ‘us’ to recognize our own ‘determination’. In other words, it affords a conception of consciousness not simply in its mode of being or exis- tence, but in ‘actuality’ – consciousness at work in the social world.

Fuller’s discussion of the relationship between philosophy and sociology is extremely interesting. From 278:

Sociology has long had a difficult relationship with philosophy, beginning with the attempts of the most promi- nent classical theorists (Marx, Weber, Durkheim) to articulate a vision of soci- ology which goes beyond philosophy in some important aspects. Although perhaps the more common claim remains that sociology has in some sense tran- scended philosophy or made it obsolete, there are periodic calls to reintroduce philosophical perspectives into social science.

This ends with a really interesting critique of Daniel Chernilo’s project of philosophical sociology, arguing it merely reiterates the dichotomies it takes as its starting point while remaining with the horizons of existent sociological reason. Counter-poising the philosophical and sociological doesn’t help us better understand the relationship between them, as much as inviting this dialogue might in itself help enrich the practice of each. His final discussion of the horizons of Rose’s thought are fascinating. From 280:

Likewise we cannot use Rose to overcome the contra- dictions of structure and agency that so many have struggled with for so long. Rose did not succeed where contemporary theorists failed, any more than Hegel ‘solved’ the problems of Kantian philosophy. We need to tell the story of the conceptual oppositions and antinomies as they came to be, to structure our current social theoretical world. These antinomies are not just distractions, but have their own particular social history, which needs to be comprehended and presented phenomenologically, in order to not result in reification.

In this he departs from Latz who he frames, unfairly I think, as claiming that Rose’s speculative approach be used to avoid social theory’s missteps and contradictions. I read this instead as Latz be concerned about the practical application of Rose’s approach by working sociologists and Turner being concerned by the integrity of Rose’s approach as speculative philosophy.

In her keynote at the Accelerated Academy, Barbara Adam explains how she came to her concept of timescapes. It began with the study of social theory of time, leading her to recognise how “everyone used the same word but they didn’t talk about the same thing” because this was “a multiple compound concept, not a single one”. This was further complicated by interviews with diverse groups about their lived experience of time. The notion of timescales was developed in response to the the necessity of extracting something from the ensuing complexity, providing a sense of how these different facets existed in relationship to one another, as well as what this meant. This led her to develop an account of timescapes, as those features of  time which can be found across contexts: time as frame (imposed periods within which activities takes place), temporality (the processual, changing and cyclical character of lived life), tempo (speed, intensity and velocity), timing (synchronisation and coordination) and modality (past, present, future and our orientation towards them). It was a synthetic concept, drawing together existing conceptual and empirical strands while creating something new and distinct in the process, capable of acting back upon the space of ideas it had responded to in order to organise that space and shape the direction of its development.

It was a fascinating account of how a theoretical framework was developed over years of study. But Adam also explained how you don’t lose theoretical insights, they become part of you and you think with them. She explains how she would invoke these facets in an explicit way when talking and writing theoretically but when doing research they are not things which need to be remembered because through their development they have become part of her. But she continually stressed the role of reflexivity in this process, making explicit what you take for granted and examining any contradictions which might become obvious in the process. She explained that “Tools are ways of looking. They shape what you see. Each tool shapes differently” and advocated a reflexivity about these tools through the process of their development. It was an incredibly stimulating account of what it is to do theory, theorising as a skilled activity, rather than to simply write about theories and theorists. This is what I am exploring in this series of interviews at Social Theory Applied and what myself and Jana Bacevic have tried to address through the Practice of Social Theory Summer School. Our sense is these concerns are curiously absent from graduate education, neglecting the fundamental practical quality of theorising in favour of a narrower conception of working with texts. We need more experienced social theorists to offer accounts of how they have approached theory as an activity, as well as what is stake in how it is undertaken for social theory as a body of work and its relationship to social science as a whole. What gets in the way? Ironically, I think it’s often time pressure, bringing us neatly back to the theme of the conference itself.

I really like this idea – see the full post here. I was always quite taken with the method for social ontology which Dave Elder-Vass elaborated for what I think were quite similar reasons. There’s far too much attention paid to theory and far too little attention paid to theorising.

Following this, Swedberg suggested that learning to theorise can only be done effectively through concrete exercises, and so he spoke about how he helps students to do so in the course he runs at Cornell. Beginning with the instruction to go and observe any social phenomenon, ideally one that they are not familiar with, Swedberg listed the steps he encourages his students to work through (with the stipulation that they must ‘construct theories to suit facts not facts to suit theories’):

  • Step 1: Observe; learn something about the topic before theorising
  • Step 2: Name the phenomenon
  • Step 3: Use and develop one/several concepts; develop a hybrid concept
  • Step 4: Push further – perhaps use a metaphor, an analogy, a typology, a classification; try to build in process
  • Step 5: Come up with an explanation, rather than a description only

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/researchingsociology/2015/10/21/theorising-theory-reflections-on-the-bjs-annual-lecture/