foundationalism

Marshall Feldman MARSH at uriacc.uri.edu
Sat Jan 14 13:55:22 MST 1995


>Posted on 14 Jan 1995 at 11:34:56 by TELEC List Distributor (011802)
>
>Re: Market/planned (fwd
>
>Date: Sat, 14 Jan 1995 11:01:57 -0500 (EST)
>From: Richard Wolff <rwolff at minerva.cis.yale.edu>
>To: Marshall Feldman <MARSH at uriacc.uri.edu>
>Reply-To: marxism at jefferson.village.virginia.edu
>
>
>        To: Marshall Feldman
>
>                No, my critique of foundationalism in regard to
>                efficiency claims is not vitiated by anything I
>                wrote. Perhaps the problem here is my use of the
>                term "overdetermination" which I should have
>                explained. The claim of something being either
>                efficient or inefficient is, I argue, simply a
>                ploy (conscious or unconscious) whereby someone
>                who wants something (e.g., a particular economic
>                institution such as markets or a particular economic
>                act/event such as building a garbage-burning factory)
>                makes claims about its virtues or vices as being
>                absolute  in the sense of valid alike for everyone.

No, I would say the problem is with the word "foundationalism."  I understand
this to mean a basic set of propostions that govern discourse within a field.
Of course, Rorty's anti-foundationalism is directed against Philosophy
that claims to be foundational to all culture, but I'm perfectly content
to think of restricted foundationalisms in specific fields of discourse.

Overdetermination, its seems to me, is foundationalist.  It does not specify
the conditions for knowing itself, but instead takes itself as axiomatic.
The neoclassical, for example, argues around an arbitrary essence -- the
rational economic individual -- and ignores all other determinations.
Overdetermination goes to the other extreme and denies the possibility of
prioritizing any set of factors or epistemic principles.  Indeed the
very act of individuation is only one of many overdetermined individuations,
so even the catories we might prioritize are themselves overdetermined and
we have an infinite set of systems of categorization and, within any one
system, an infinite set of permutations of priorities.  Yet since
overdetermination is assumed, rather than demonstrated (indeed it cannot
be demonstrated because then any given demonstration would have to be
dismissed as being the author's view/political project and therefore one
of many positions on the overdetermination question, including those for
which overdetermination is not even a category).  In short, the only way
I can see of avoiding an infinite regress is to take the
overdetermination hypothesis as a foundation.

I don't deny the political use of concepts like efficiency.  I simply
challenge the possibility of criticizing them as foundationalist from
the standpoint of the overdetermination hypothesis without opening oneself
to the same criticism.

>
>                Thus, markets are efficient for everyone ("optimal");
>                or building a garbage-burning factory is inefficient
>                for everyone "polluting") etc.
>
>                Instead, my point is to show how, since no one can
>                know or measure all the costs and benefits associated
>                with markets, factories, or anything else being debated
>                or struggled over, the contestants' claims that they
>                know or have measured all such effects to reach their
>                conclusions about efficieny or inefficiency are not
>                to be taken seriously.

This doesn't follow.  One CAN make a reasonable argument that one has
considered all the relevant costs and benefits -- i.e. those that are likely
to sway an argument from one course of action to another.  The question
how reasonable the argument is depends, of course, on the participants in
the discussion, but that is not the same as saying the discussants cannot
agree on some stopping rule.  Yes, the claim that they've measured all such
effects is not to be taken seriously, but the claim that they've measured
all the effects that matter is (and can be challenged).  N.B. This is not
to say that money will necessary measure anything people agree is worthwhile
(the transformation problem implies money is not proportionate to labor
savings, for example).  But if your spouse/sig. other/etc. tells you when
you go home tonight, "I've looked at all the choices for replacing our car
and think buying a Ford is the best deal", the two of you can certainly
take the question and decision seriously; perhaps the analysis is wrong,
but the concept of one choice being better than another is not.

Of course, one might argue that what makes a Ford the best choice is
socially constructed, so that there's no bedrock outside an historical/spatial
social context.  If so, I agree, but that's not what people are looking for
when they make economic judgements (albeit, neoclassical ideology does seem
to be looking for something like this in order to judge economic systems).

>
>                Rather, we need to accept the irreducibly partial
>                bases for everyone's preferences/desires/efficiency
>                calculi. Each person's standards are uniquely overdetermined
>                by all the influences that shaped their biographies.
>                BUT NO FOUNDATION OR FOUNDATIONALISM lurks in such a
>                statement. This is because we cannot account for all
>                those influences that together overdetermine our respective
>                definitions/standards/values/ etc. We cannot do that
>                because they - like the ramifications of economic
>                institutions or acts - are infinite, hence unknowable in
>                toto, hence unmeasureable, hence NO FOUNDATION in the
>                sense of some account valid for everyone across their
>                differences.

Except tha account that everyone's definitions/standards/values etc. are
overdetermined, that overdetermination means that in a common social
context people won't share a common judgement that certain values, etc.
are most important and share a common perception that certain courses of
action satisfy those high-priority values?  Note this is an ontological
claim: you're claiming that overdetermination precludes such agreement.

>
>                As Foucault and Derrida sing so incessantly, the issue
>                is difference and whether - as Marx first put it - we
>                have gotten far enough in the critique of religion
>                (read monotheism, absolutism, mono-causalism, determinism,
>                essentialism....and the other synonyms) to commence,
>                freed from the search for absolutes, the needed critique
>                of social life.
>
>        Rick Wolff

Marsh Feldman
Community Planning                      Phone: 401/792-2248
204 Rodman Hall                           FAX: 401/792-4395
University of Rhode Island           Internet: marsh at uriacc.uri.edu
Kingston, RI 02881-0815

"Marginality confers legitimacy on one's contrariness."

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