Dialectics and complexity

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Tue Aug 12 06:30:24 MDT 2003

"in fact, much of complexity theory actually does supply some useful tools
for prediction and so forth in the physical sciences and in social sciences
with an easy quantitative model, for example, connectedness of networks. if
the links at the ISS i forwarded earlier today indicate differently, well
then we'll have to correct them."

Well as I think I mentioned before, you are the physicist, I am not, I don't
talk about the natural sciences, because that is not my field (except that,
as an amateur, I occasionally delve into it, for pragmatic reasons, e.g.
medical diagnosis). I just protest if people start to portray social
science, as if it was just a sub-branch of biology or genetics or physics,
or if they seek to apply the methods of physics and biology to social
phenomena, on the basis of superficial and dodgy analogies. Or if they
ignore the social dimension of natural sciences, and its impact on
scientific theorising about the physical world.

"however, i know very little about how complexity theory is being "applied"
in the social sciences and the picture may be closer to the one you draw in
those fields."

A question faced by social science since the 19th century, is how we can
understand social totalities (societies, communities, or even world society
as a whole) as totalities governed by scientific laws (statements of causal
necessity and regular recurrence), in a way that we can predict their future
in some ways, by ruling out certain possibilities and specifying the most
likely variants of social developments in the future. It is evident, that
multiple levels of causation or necessary connection(Bestimmung) are
involved, and that some social outcomes can only be understood in
probabilistic terms. It is here that complexity theory has some

I don't normally like to cite Lenin, but he does specify the unique
contribution of Marx in this context rather well:

"People make their own history, but what determines the motives of people,
of the mass of people - i.e., what is the sum total of all these clashes in
the mass of human societies? What are the objective conditions of production
of material life that form the basis of all man's historical activity? What
is the law of development of these conditions? To all these Marx drew
attention and indicated the way to a scientific study of history as a single
process which, with all its immense variety and contradictoriness, is
governed by definite laws." V. I. Lenin, Karl Marx
Source:  http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/granat/ch02.htm#s3


"Hitherto, sociologists had found it difficult to distinguish the important
and the unimportant in the complex network of social phenomena (that is the
root of subjectivism in sociology) and had been unable to discover any
objective criterion for such a demarcation. Materialism provided an
absolutely objective criterion by singling out "production relations" as the
structure of society, and by making it possible to apply to these relations
that general scientific criterion of recurrence whose applicability to
sociology the subjectivists denied. So long as they confined themselves to
ideological social relations (i.e., such as, before taking shape, pass
through mans consciousness  - We are, of course, referring all the time to
the consciousness of social relations and no others - they could not observe
recurrence and regularity in the social phenomena of the various countries,
and their science was at best only a description of these phenomena, a
collection of raw material. The analysis of material social relations (i.e.,
of those that take shape without passing through mans consciousness: when
exchanging products men enter into production relations without even
realising that there is a social relation of production here)-the analysis
of material social relations at once made it possible to observe recurrence
and regularity and to generalise the systems of the various countries in the
single fundamental concept: social formation. It was this generalisation
alone that made it possible to proceed from the description of social
phenomena (and their evaluation from the standpoint of an ideal) to their
strictly scientific analysis, which isolates, let us say by way of example,
that which distinguishes one capitalist country from another and
investigates that which is common to all of them... Then, however, Marx, who
had expressed this hypothesis in the forties, set out to study the factual
(nota bene) material. He took one of the social-economic formations- the
system of commodity production-and on the basis of a vast mass of data
(which he studied for not less than twenty five years) gave a most detailed
analysis of the laws governing the functioning of this formation and its
development. (...) Just as Darwin put an end to the view of animal and plant
species being unconnected, fortuitous, "created by God" and immutable, and
was the first to put biology on an absolutely scientific basis by
establishing the mutability and the succession of species, so Marx put an
end to the view of society being a mechanical aggregation of individuals
which allows of all sorts of modification, at the will of the authorities
(or, if you like, at the will of society and the government) and which
emerges and changes casually, and he was the first to put sociology on a
scientific basis, by establishing the concept of the economic formation of
society as the sum-total of given production relations, by establishing the
fact, that the development of such formations is a process of natural
history. Now-since the appearance of Capital-the materialist conception of
history is no longer an hypothesis, but a scientifically proven proposition.
And until we get some other attempt to give a scientific explanation of the
functioning and development of some formation of society-formation of
society, mind you, and not the way of life of some country or people, or
even class, etc.-another attempt just as capable of introducing order into
the "pertinent facts" as materialism is, that is just as capable of
presenting a living picture of a definite formation, while giving it a
strictly scientific explanation-until then the materialist conception of
history will be a synonym for social science. "

Lenin, What the Friends of the People Are, source

Notice especially how Lenin says that Marx "expressed this hypothesis in the
1840s" and then subsequently "set out to study the factual (nota bene)
material". He "took one of the social-economic formations" and on the basis
of "a vast mass of data" which he studied "for not less than twenty five
years", gave "a most detailed analysis".  With the appearance of Marx's
Capital, the materialist conception of history was "no longer an hypothesis,
but a scientifically proven proposition".

This is a very different thing from propounding a "philosophy of history" or
a metaphysical theory of dialectics, based on reading a few textbooks, and
then assimilating all experience to this a priori schema. It is rather that,
in grappling with the data, the dialectics of the subjectmatter are
discovered, and can, at a certain point in the investigation, be presented
in a dialectical way.



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