September 05, 2003

The free development of each is the condition of the war of all against all

Scott Martens has delivered, in a truly brilliant post, his long-promised sketch of what he regards as a collectivist alternative to normative liberal political theory, based on Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology, actor-network theory in sociology, and the ideal of self-development. To over-simplify drastically, Scott argues that individuals can only develop themselves through the cognitive tools provided by a larger collective entity, entities which themselves should be regarded as morally-responsible agents (as, e.g., "America owes a debt to the descendants of its slaves" or "America can be proud of liberating Europe"). The value of these collectives depends on their ability to further individual self-development, and Scott argues quite non-liberal measures can be justified on these grounds, specifically in the case of threatened minority languages.

As I said, it's a brilliant post, and I agree with a lot of what Scott is saying; I also disagree with a lot of it. I don't see what actor-network theory adds at all. I don't see why he wants to attribute decisions and moral responsibility to collectives (and, having organized a conference on collective cognition, I should be an easy sell), especially when he regards individuals as morally more valuable than collectives. (As Louis Menand has recently reminded us, the American pragmatists started with a very similar notion --- ideas are socially-mediated tools --- and used them to underwrite modern individualism.) I don't see why he thinks any of the actual phenomena he adduces call for us to abandon methodological individualism (cf. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, ch. 24). I don't see why he thinks this is an alternative to liberalism in any meaningful sense (Popper again, and Dewey, Individualism Old and New). But these are clearly matters that call for a serious, substantial argument, and I don't have the time to make one here, so I'm going to hope Europundit will do it for me. (I may get to it --- in October.) For all my admiration for Scott's post, I am a little disappointed that he didn't at least mention a certain recently-influential tradition, which still has adherents, that anticipated him in certain aspects, a tradition that one learned commentator has aphoristically summarized in the phrase which gives me my title.

Update, 6 September: trackback doesn't seem to be working, so I should note that Scott has a preliminary response, and promises more once he sobers up; also that he owes me 1000 Laotian kip.

Update no. 2, 18 September: Scott responds, pro actor-network theory and con methodological individualism. Naturally enough, I don't agree with him. Unfortunately in the next two weeks I need to articulate a research agenda and fabricate a teaching philosophy (since my old one, "cast the professor as the bad cop", isn't going to get me far in applying for a professorship). So, in lieu of an even minimally adequate response, I'll link to this by Elster and this (PDF, 214k) by Boudon. And, since Scott particularly thinks Sperber and historical linguistics make trouble for me, I'll link to this essay by Sperber. I'd point to this book as well, but I've only read the introduction.

Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Philosophy; The Progressive Forces

Posted at September 05, 2003 17:12 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth