Partial Response to Rogers July 31

Howie Chodos howie at
Mon Jul 31 23:36:51 MDT 1995

Carrol Cox wrote:

>    For the historian I assume the worlds of physics, chemistry, and biology
>are fixed, unchanging. (That is, they change so slowly that their change has no
>historical relevance.) That is, conceptions of biological change (with which
>Lisa is concerned) have no real relevance for the social theorist. Human
>biology is simply a fixity, and historical change occurs within that fixity.
>(Eventually, of course, the human species will end: but that is too long a view
>to be of political relevance.)

While I agree that we need to exercise caution so as not to overzealously
adopt the conclusions of one science with regards to the subject matter of
another, I think there is a sense in which "conceptions of biological
change" are relevant to social theory. Not in the direct sense that Carrol
seems to be objecting to, but more in the sense of argument by analogy. I
find it useful to think of social activity over time as undergoing a form of
evolution, even if the mechanism of selection is not unproblematically that
of Darwinian natural selection. I would argue that an important problem for
social theory is to better understand the mechanism(s) through which certain
practices are preserved (and serve to reproduce prevailing social relations)
while others are rejected. I would also argue that to be able to do that
will help us figure out how to go about transforming existing social
relations rather than (unintentionally) reproducing them.

And further:

>And while a stone, a bee, an elm tree, a
>molecule, can be seen as an "individual" and hence the focus of change, the
>human person simply has no individual existence separate from or prior to the
>social relations in which she always already finds herself. So the units of
>social (historical) change are groups--clans, families, guilds, classes--not
>the individual. We simply never experience ourselves as individuals (the
>illusion that we do is *the* bourgeois illusion; this is the part of Caldwell's
>work that retains some interest, despite the pretty complete vacuity of his
>literary criticism.)

I think that this goes too far in diminishing the role of the individual as
intentional actor with real choices. It seems to make us exclusively the
product of our environment without recognising that under most circumstances
there is a range of options available, and the one we choose is not
predetermined. Of course, there are situations where the options are more
limited than in others (eg. war). As well, the social units Carrol
enumerates are important in processes of social change. But my sense is that
they seldom dictate by themselves a single course of action, which generally
leaves room for individual deliberation and choice.

One can retain, I think, the notion that collectivities are the units of
change without vaporising the individual. It all depends on what one intends
by "unit of change." I would see the collectivity being shaped by common
circumstances. That is, there are groups of people with a shared experience
of a particular pattern of social stratification generating a specific set
of effects. This shared social location results in people being enabled or
constrained in a similar fashion, and creates both the grounding for the
motivation for engaging in a common activity and the shared capacity to do
so. But it does not, in a narrow sense, determine all of an individual's action.

While I agree that the individual does not exist outside a social context,
this does not prevent the reverse also being true. There can be no social
context without the activity of individual living beings. This is not to
deny that this context exists independently of any given person, but simply
that it cannot exist without at least some persons. We live in and through a
social context but we remain individuals in terms of biological existence,
lived experience and capacity for independent thought.

Howie Chodos

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