- Dec 2021
Hobbes and Rousseau told their contemporaries things that werestartling, profound and opened new doors of the imagination. Nowtheir ideas are just tired common sense. There’s nothing in them thatjustifies the continued simplification of human affairs. If socialscientists today continue to reduce past generations to simplistic,two-dimensional caricatures, it is not so much to show us anythingoriginal, but just because they feel that’s what social scientists areexpected to do so as to appear ‘scientific’. The actual result is toimpoverish history – and as a consequence, to impoverish our senseof possibility.
The simplification required to make models and study systems can be a useful tool, but one constantly needs to go back to the actual system to make sure that future predictions and work actually fit the real world system.
Too often social theorists make assumptions which aren't supported in real life and this can be a painfully dangerous practice, especially when those assumptions are built upon in ways that put those theories out on a proverbial creaking limb.
This idea is related to the bias that Charles Mathewes points out about how we treat writers as still living or as if they never lived. see: https://hypothes.is/a/VTU2lFvZEeyiJ2tN76i4sA
Now, we should be clear here: social theory always, necessarily,involves a bit of simplification. For instance, almost any humanaction might be said to have a political aspect, an economic aspect,a psychosexual aspect and so forth. Social theory is largely a gameof make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument,that there’s just one thing going on: essentially, we reduce everythingto a cartoon so as to be able to detect patterns that would beotherwise invisible. As a result, all real progress in social science hasbeen rooted in the courage to say things that are, in the finalanalysis, slightly ridiculous: the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud orClaude Lévi-Strauss being only particularly salient cases in point.One must simplify the world to discover something new about it. Theproblem comes when, long after the discovery has been made,people continue to simplify.
revisit this... it's an important point, particularly when looking at complex ideas with potentially emergent properties
- Charles Mathewes
- social theory
- modeling behavior
- scientific method
- historical context
- complexity theory
- systems theory
- adjacent possible