Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Giddens’

Another modest surprise (to me at least) offered by Anthony Giddens (from The Consequences of Modernity) follows a discussion of reflexivity (what I call recursion when discussing consciousness), which is the dynamic of information and/or knowledge feeding back to influence later behavior and information/knowledge. His handy example is the populace knowing divorce rates, which has an obvious influence on those about to get married (but may decide to defer or abjure entirely). The surprise is this:

The discourse of sociology and the concepts, theories, and findings of the other social sciences continually “circulate in and out” of what it is that they are about. In so doing they reflexively restructure their subject matter, which itself has learned to think sociologically … Much that is problematic in the position of the professional sociologist, as the purveyor of expert knowledge about social life, derives from the fact that she or he is at most one step ahead of enlightened lay practitioners of the discipline. [p. 43]

I suppose “enlightened lay practitioners” are not the same as the general public, which I hold in rather low esteem as knowing (much less understanding) anything of value. Just consider electoral politics. Still, the idea that an expert in an academic field admits he is barely ahead of wannabes (like me) seems awfully damning. Whereas curious types will wade in just about anywhere, and in some cases, amateurs will indulge themselves enthusiastically in endeavors also practiced by experts (sports and music are the two principal examples that spring to mind), the distance (in both knowledge and skill) between experts and laypersons is typically quite far. I suspect those with high intellect and/or genetic gifts often bridge that gap, but then they join the ranks of the experts, so the exception leads nowhere.

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Reading further into Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, I got a fuller (though still incomplete) sense of what is meant by his terms disembedding mechanisms, expert systems, and symbolic tokens, all of which disrupt time and space as formerly understood in traditional societies that enjoyed the benefit of centuries of continuity. I’ve been aware of analyses regarding, for instance, the sociology of money and the widespread effects of the introduction and adoption of mechanical clocks and timepieces. While most understand these developments superficially as unallayed progress, Giddens argues that they do in fact reorder our experience in the world away from an organic, immediate orientation toward an intellectualized adherence to distant, abstract, self-reinforcing (reflexive) mechanisms.

But those matters are not really what this blog post is about. Rather, this passage sparked my interest:

… when the claims of reason replaced those of tradition, they appeared to offer a sense of certitude greater than that provided by preexisting dogma. But this idea only appears persuasive so long as we do not see that the reflexivity of modernity actually subverts reason, at any rate where reason is understood as the gaining of certain knowledge … We are abroad in a world which is thoroughly constituted through reflexively applied knowledge, but where at the same time we can never be sure that any given element of that knowledge will not be revised. [p. 39]

Put another way, science and reason are axiomatically open to examination, challenge, and revision and often undergo disruptive change. That’s what is meant by Karl Popper’s phrase “all science rests upon shifting sand” and informs the central thesis of Thomas Kuhn’s well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s not the narrow details that shift so much (hard sciences lead pretty reliably to applied engineering) as the overarching narrative, e.g., the story of the Earth, the cosmos, and ourselves as revealed through scientific inquiry and close examination. Historically, the absolute certainty of the medieval church, while not especially accurate in either details or narrative, yielded considerable authority to post-Enlightenment science and reason, which themselves continue to shift periodically.

Some of those paradigm shifts are so boggling and beyond the ken of the average thinker (including many college-educated folks) that our epistemology is now in crisis. Even the hard facts — like the age and shape of the Earth or its orbital relationship to other solar bodies — are hotly contested by some and blithely misunderstood by others. One doesn’t have to get bogged down in the vagaries of relativity, nuclear power and weapons, or quantum theory to lose the thread of what it means to live in the 21st century. Softer sciences such as psychology, anthropology, economics, and even history now deliver new discoveries and (re-)interpretations of facts so rapidly, like the dizzying pace of technological change, that philosophical systems are unmoored and struggling for legitimacy. For instance, earlier this year, a human fossil was found in Morocco that upended our previous knowledge of human evolution (redating the first appearance of biologically modern humans about 100,000 years earlier). More popularly, dieticians still disagree on what sorts of foods are healthy for most of us (though we can probably all agree that excess sugar is bad). Other recent developments include the misguided insistence among some neurobiologists and theorists that consciousness, free will, and the self do not exist (I’ll have a new post regarding that topic as time allows) and outright attacks on religion not just for being in error but for being the source of evil.

I have a hard time imagining other developments in 21st-century intellectual thought that would shake the foundations of our cosmology any more furiously than what we’re now experiencing. Even the dawning realization that we’ve essentially killed ourselves (with delayed effect) by gradually though consistently laying waste to our own habitat is more of an “oops” than the mind-blowing moment of waking up from The Matrix to discover the unreality of everything once believed. Of course, for fervent believers especially, the true facts (best as we can know them, since knowledge is forever provisional) are largely irrelevant in light of desire (what one wants to believe), and that’s true for people on both sides of the schism between church and science/reason.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So it’s probably wrong to introduce a false dualism, though it has plenty of historical precedent. I’ll suggest instead that there are more facets and worldviews at play in the world that the two that have been warring in the West for the last 600 years.

I revisit my old blog posts when I see some reader activity in the WordPress backstage and was curious to recall a long quote of Iain McGilchrist summarizing arguments put forth by Anthony Giddens in his book Modernity and Self-identity (1991). Giddens had presaged recent cultural developments, namely, the radicalization of nativists, supremacists, Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), and others distorted by absorbed in identity politics. So I traipsed off to the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and sought out the book to read. Regrettably, CPL didn’t have a copy, so I settled on a slightly earlier book, The Consequences of Modernity (1990), which is based on a series of lectures delivered at Stanford University in 1988.

Straight away, the introduction provides a passage that goes to the heart of matters with which I’ve been preoccupied:

Today, in the late twentieth century, it is argued by many, we stand at the opening of a new era … which is taking us beyond modernity itself. A dazzling variety of terms has been suggested to refer to this transition, a few of which refer positively to the emergence of a new type of social system (such as the “information society” or the “consumer society”) but most of which suggest rather than a preceding state of affairs is drawing to a close … Some of the debates about these matters concentrate mainly upon institutional transformations, particularly those which propose that we are moving from a system based upon the manufacture of material goods to one concerned more centrally with information. More commonly, however, those controversies are focused largely upon issues of philosophy and epistemology. This is the characteristic outlook, for example, of the the author who has been primarily responsible for popularising the notion of post-modernity, Jean-François Lyotard. As he represents it, post-modernity refers to a shift away from attempts to ground epistemology and from from faith in humanly engineered progress. The condition of post-modernity is distinguished by an evaporating of the “grand narrative” — the overarching “story line” by means of which we are placed in history as being having a definite past and a predictable future. The post-modern outlook sees a plurality of heterogeneous claims to knowledge, in which science does not have a privileged place. [pp. 1–2, emphasis added]

That’s a lot to unpack all at once, but the fascinating thing is that notions now manifesting darkly in the marketplace of ideas were already in the air in the late 1980s. Significantly, this was several years still before the Internet brought the so-called Information Highway to computer users, before the cell phone and smart phone were developed, and before social media displaced traditional media (TV was only 30–40 years old but had previously transformed our information environment) as the principal way people gather news. I suspect that Giddens has more recent work that accounts for the catalyzing effect of the digital era (including mobile media) on culture, but for the moment, I’m interested in the book in hand.

Regular readers of this blog (I know of one or two) already know my armchair social criticism directed to our developing epistemological crisis (challenges to authority and expertise, psychotic knowledge, fake news, alternative facts, dissolving reality, and science denial) as well as the Transhumanist fantasy of becoming pure thought (once we evolve beyond our bodies). Until that’s accomplished with imagined technology, we increasingly live in our heads, in the abstract, disoriented and adrift on a bewildering sea of competing narratives. Moreover, I’ve stated repeatedly that highly mutable story (or narrative) underlie human cognition and consciousness, making most of us easy marks for charismatic thought leaders storytellers. Giddens was there nearly 30 years ago with these same ideas, though his terms differ.

Giddens dispels the idea of post-modernity and insists that, from a sociological perspective, the current period is better described as high modernism. This reminds me of Oswald Spengler and my abandoned book blogging of The Decline of the West. It’s unimportant to me who got it more correct but note that the term Postmodernism has been adopted widely despite its inaccuracy (at least according to Giddens). As I get further into the book, I’ll have plenty more to say.