21 October 2016

Power: Social Reality (IV)

This is part IV of a V part essay. Click here for Part I

"The structure of institutional facts is the structure of power relations" (Searle 1995: 94)

I've been working through John Searle's philosophy of social reality. Searle is concerned with the question of how we get from physics to society, and his book The Construction of Social Reality focusses on the last step, from conscious organisms to society. I have been reviewing Searle and commenting on his ideas, comparing Searle with Lakoff and with ideas from primatology and anthropology. In the last essay got to the point where Searle points out that power pervades social realities. Power in this context is conventional, i.e. it arises from collective intentionality of social animals; and it is deontological, i.e. it is expressed as rights, duties, obligations etc, and in the way a social group monitors and enforces them. 
"Everything we value in civilisation requires the creation and maintenance of institutional power relations through collectively imposed status functions." (Searle 1995: 94)
Effectively, society is a set of deontological power relations expressed in status-functions, where a status-function is defined as an ontologically subjective function imposed on a person or object by collective intentionality, which grants them/it a status within the social hierarchy, and empowers or prohibits actions related to that function. Such functions require constant monitoring and adjustment to ensure that they do express our values. Equally, what we value will largely depend on the rights, duties, and obligations impressed on us from birth. Hence social groups are inherently socially conservative.

Whether there are universal human values or not is a vexed question that divides philosophers. See, for example, articles on Moral Relativism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and/or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Whether or not the values expressed in the deontic features of any social hierarchy are universal, we can say that there are common mechanisms for enacting values, by which I mean the imposition of status-functions and the fact that these are associated with rights, duties and obligations. I plan to return to the theme of universal values in a future essay on the evolution of morality (in development).

There are important differences in how societies handle conventional power related to the scale and technological sophistication. Amongst hunter gatherers, such as those studied by Jared Diamond in the highlands of New Guinea (2012), who live in societies with populations around Dunbar number of 150, there are no specialised roles with relation to moral governance. Everyone is in everyone else's business, hierarchy is fairly flat, and status is largely informal. By contrast in a large society like the UK, population 65 million, we have legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government, divided into many areas of responsibility, as well as a civil service providing policy advice and administrative support; we have multiple security agencies, police forces as well as tax collectors, customs and excise agents, and immigration officers; and we have highly trained specialists in law and advocacy. The UK is not just a federation of four different countries, but contains a number of sub-societies with their own values (e.g. there are regional divisions within each of the federal states).

In each case, the underlying structure of the constitutive rules is the same, i.e. X counts as Y in C. A person counts as royal, an official, an officer of the law, or a citizen because collectively we agree that they do. We may require the display of status-indicators, such as special hats, uniforms, titles, or forms of address, but just as often the status is simply widely acknowledged. My status of "foreigner" is evident every time I open my mouth in England, though the fact is that all of my ancestors going back several centuries were English. I often find my ancestry is more English than locals because they have admixtures from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or even France and I do not. But when I was born, the land on which I was born, formerly claimed by the British Crown, was a separate nation state. So I am arbitrarily a foreigner. And treated as such. 

In the New Guinea highlands everyone one knows what everyone else is doing. Despite the dense rain forest, activities are mostly group oriented and privacy is rare. Under these circumstances, selfishness is extremely obvious, so most people are constrained by group norms to be prosocial most of the time. As mentioned previously norms are reasons for acting that are independent of our immediate inclinations. In the UK privacy is valued and widely experienced, but we also have almost ubiquitous CCTV surveillance of our public places, as well as routine government surveillance of all electronic communications (thanks to Edward Snowden for making this illegal practice public). Selfishness or clique-orientation is evident most of the time and in many modern ways of thinking about human beings, selfishness dominates (e.g. game theory, economics, behaviourist psychology).

In a small scale society people do not have identity crises because they are told who they are, and it is enacted in everyday life by their whole village. By contrast, there is considerable confusion and public debate as to what, if any, values are at the core of being British, especially when and identity is often rooted in smaller, regional, class, or ethnic units. For a large number of Brits the football team they support plays an important part of their identity. Being a "supporter" comes with its own rights, duties, and obligations. 

Societies don't just impose status-functions on members, they police and enforce them. Members of the group are raised from infancy to be good members of society, i.e. to follow behavioural norms and respect hierarchies, though this observation is complicated in large, divided societies, especially if one is a member of a minority community that is discriminated against. The important point here is that the individual is trained to hold themselves to account for the rights, duties, and obligations that society places on them. But the society, the state, also has duties and obligations in addition to rights. The role of the state and the acceptable methods it may use in pursuit of that role is a complex and hotly disputed topic, but broadly speaking we expect the state to work for the benefit and prosperity of its constituent citizens. And this is what all states say they are doing, whether they are in fact doing it or not.

Discussion of power, surveillance, and the state leads us to Michel Foucault and his investigations into the subject, into what it means to be a subject, and the processes of subjection.

~ The Subject ~

Of the three main philosophers I've referenced in this series of essays, i.e. John Searle, George Lakoff, and Michel Foucault, I know Foucault least well. This is partly because he is the least accessible by a considerable margin. Though he apparently spoke clearly in conversation, he wrote in the French obscurantist style, which was not improved by being translated into obscurantist English. So I hope any Foucault experts who happen to read my rather impressionistic take on the philosopher will indulge me. Perhaps I'm vague or even inaccurate about the details of Foucault's thought, but I hope that the intuition of a relation between Searlean and Foucauldian philosophy is at least valid. Foucault seems to me to have said important things, and to be perhaps the only 20th Century French philosopher who did. Searle grounds Foucault in a more realistic, pragmatic, and above all clear exposition of how society functions. Foucault never made so much sense to me as when I was reading The Construction of Social Reality.

In the section of my essay Spiritual III: Demenses of Power (20 Jun 2014) in which I explored some of Foucault's ideas, I wrote:
"The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces... Virtually everything I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being."
This is consistent with the social philosophy outlined by Searle. In this view, "self" can be considered either as an aggregate of the status-functions imposed on the individual by society, or as emerging out of them. As Foucault observes, this happens with the willing participation of the individual. In Searle's terms "I" is the X term in the relation X counts as Y in C, and Y is the various roles we play in our lives; or in other words "I count as a son", "I count as a Buddhist", and so on, in all the innumerable relations I have to society, where society is the context in which I have these status-functions imposed by collective intentionality. In Foucault's (1983) words,
"This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects."
Again, from commentary in Demenses of Power
Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. 
We can see that even before reading Searle I was seeing social life through a deontological lens under the influence of Foucault (perhaps Searle was also influenced by Foucault?). Social norms take the form of authorisations and prohibitions, but they are ultimately a product of collective intentionality. What Searle does is show why this is so and how it works in more detail. I stand in a relation to society where my (hierarchical) status and function within society is defined by the collective intentionality of society. By collective agreement, I count as various categories of member of various groups. There are kin status-functions: sibling, parent, extended family, etc.; age related status-functions: infant, child, teenager, adult, elder; occupational status-functions: student, manufacturer, CEO, manager, etc; class status-functions: proletarian and bourgeoisie, or  worker, capitalist, and land-owner; marital status-functions: single, married, divorced. And so on. There are racial, national, ethnic, religious, governmental, and ecclesiastical status-functions. Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all governed by status functions.

As already pointed out, these ontologically subjective status-functions are structured in the same way in which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003) have showed that metaphors are structured. A suitable source domain is mapped onto a target domain so that the target can be discussed as if it is the source. This is to say that target counts as source for the purposes of abstraction (this is to the best of my knowledge an observation not made before). Such metaphors are what enable and structure abstract thought. Arguably social relations are abstractions from social interactions, and this means we only understand them using metaphors. Thus the imposed status-function seems to be metaphorical in structure. Again, status-functions are ontologically subjective and thus we cannot reference objective reality to ground them as truth. Social status is true, to the extent that truth is relevant here, only because it is agreed to be true. Society is an ontologically subjective phenomenon.

Some of statuses are accompanied by formal status indicators like special hats, wedding rings, passports, or uniforms; some more informally by clothing or hair cut (compare how we identify a hippy, a football supporter, a punk-rocker, or a Buddhist monk). Some statuses are indicated by our accent, pronunciation, or word choices. In the absence of status indicators, we take our social cues from behaviour, mannerisms, etc. If people think of me as a writer, then for the purposes of society I am a writer and can be discussed with respect to that category. But if I am a writer then society expects me to behave in the manner which they consider a writer should behave. Even new acquaintances subtly coerce me into adopting a stance appropriate to the status they are granting me. I am a writer, then where is my writing published (in academic journals and in self-published books). Why is my spelling so bad (which is easy I have mild dyslexia). Searle has a lot more to say about status-indicators, but I'm going to gloss over them for the sake of brevity.

Each of us is deeply embedded in a network of status-functions, all of which require collective-intentionality, that collective includes the individual qua subject. We expect people to be subjects to the collective will and we take either evasive or hostile action against non-formists - freeze, flight, or fight are our basic stances with respect to any threat, and non-conformity is often a threat. Collective intentionality, then, imposes status functions on us; it shapes us as a subject. By the time we reach an age at which we might think of defining ourselves, we are already completely defined. The idea that we can define ourselves is also something inculcated into us by our society. A typical result is the group of rebellious teenagers who signal their rebellion by wearing identical, branded, clothing. Rebellion is really only conforming to some other norm. Often the only way to really redefine ourselves is to severe links with our community of origin and move away. Even so we take our self-beliefs with us and when we arrive we meet a wall of expectations from any new community we might join. And without community we die slowly or go mad, or both.

As a member of a group, I cannot simply take on any role. I must get people to agree to accept me in that role, often by undergoing a defined process of education, preparation, and testing. On the other hand one can become the class clown or the village idiot, merely through persistent repeated behaviour that is consistent with that role. A wily South African project manager once told me that if a team he was managing was under performing he would call a meeting and deliberately start an argument with one of them and then escalate it until things got quite heated. In the aftermath the team would typically start working together much better: nowadays I would say that this is because conflict engages our emotions. In the aftermath of the conflict, hierarchies and social roles like leader, peace-maker, etc are established. In other words the after the shake up the groups becomes a normal human social group with defined roles. We know were we stand and can work well together. The slogan at the time for the phases of group formation was "forming, storming, norming, and performing". I'll have a lot more to say on this subject in coming essays. But most of this social jockeying takes place below the waterline of consciousness. We cannot help ourselves because at heart we are social primates.

Most roles that we serve in are ones that are chosen for us, before we ever think about what role we might want to play. The choices we do make are made within a context that is internalised very early on and reinforced every waking minute of our lives. And the point is not to say this is good or bad. This is simply the way primate groups work. There is some influence on temperament from genetic inheritance, the quality of parenting we receive, and our early education. Experience does contribute. But who we are is as much to do with how other people see us, as with how we see ourselves. This is why it can be hard to get society to changes its views about people. Type casting is not only a problem for actors. But it also means that most psychotherapeutic models are completely wrong. 

~ Conclusion ~

What follows is a conclusion and summary, but is not the last word on the subject. There's an obvious flaw in the theory as presented that Searle tackles towards the end of his book and which I will outline in the next essay. Still, now is the time to pull everything together and see what conclusions we can draw so far. Searle concludes his 2012 lecture on social reality with a hierarchical list. What follows is my adaptation of that list. What we have here is a powerful explanation of how social groups exist based on just three concepts: observer relative functions, collective intentionality, and deontic powers:
  • Consciousness is a high level, neurobiological state, wholly caused by neurons, but none-the-less irreducibly subjective. 
  • Conscious states enable human beings to imagine functions for objects or people that are not intrinsic to them, and to impose those functions on them.
  • All such functions are observer relative, ontologically subjective, epistemically objective and can become institutional facts.
  • All institutional facts are, via collective intentionality, status-functions.
  • All status-functions are created and maintained by applications of status-function declarations (i.e. by language or something which approximates it).
  • Some status function declarations require status-indicators.
  • All status-function declarations create deontic powers.
  • All deontic powers give people reasons for acting that are independent of their immediate inclinations.
  • Deontic powers hold societies together.
Human societies only exist because of status-functions. We reach the level of complexity we do because our status-functions are represented linguistically. Non-human animals also have societies, but they are very much simpler in structure and functions. They are more like proto-societies because the roles and hierarchies have to be communicated through physical interactions, though arguably these still have a propositional, language-like, structure.

In science the vocabulary is created by observing reality. Social reality, by contrast, is created by the vocabulary. As Searle says, language is constitutive of human society. And here we see why a constructivist approach to development and ethics, a la Kegan and Chapman. All social norms, including moral rules, are constructed, collectively by the society in which they function. Rules find their value in being declared by someone higher up the hierarchy and agreed to by everyone. being a member of any group means subjecting oneself to the norms of the group. If those norms are not established, then the group will fail. All social institutions like moral rules are constructed within the context of social reality, which means that they are observer relative, ontologically subjective,  and epistemically objective. There is no recourse to reality to justify moral rules, which is why some people say that science cannot tell us how to live. Social reality is itself a construct, it also  observer relative, ontologically subjective, and epistemically objective. On the other hand I will argue in a forthcoming essay that evolution highlights the basic capacities that animals have evolved to enable social living and that these form the basis for the ethical principles that inform moral rules. Science can tell us how we do live, help us to make that conscious, and help us to see what is consistent or inconsistent with our being a social primate; where consistency approximates well-being and inconsistency approximates ill-being. 

Searle's outline of how social reality comes about relates to Foucault's study of the subject. Our sense of self and all our social relations are status-functions imposed by collective intentionality. The sequence here is important. We tend to think the sequence, beginning with the brain, goes like this

brain - conscious states - subjectivity - social reality

But in fact it goes more like this:

brain - conscious states - social reality - subjectivity

In other words social reality precedes and shapes subjectivity. Under the influence of Romanticism, Victorian philosophy, and psycho-analysis we've had this the wrong way around for almost 200 years. The emphasis on individuals over society is counter-productive at best and catastrophic at worst. Individuals only exist in a social reality. Outsiders tend not to prosper. On the other hand a degree of eccentricity can be beneficial in societies. Nowadays I would balance this with the need for a science of Amistics - the study of the impact of technology on society. 

So presuming that we can get from physics to consciousness states, we can get from consciousness states to social reality and out of social reality comes subjectivity. As a philosophical framework this seems clear enough. However, in terms of the science, we still don't have a clear route from physics to conscious states. We can get from fundamental physics to brains, but while it's beyond reasonable doubt that the brain is responsible for conscious states, we don't know exactly how this works. And many of the best researchers are chasing down dead-end leads. I've become very wary of the abstraction "consciousness". Abstractions are governed by metaphor, so in discussing consciousness we can only ever do so as if it were something more fundamental. Conscious states, though subjective, are less problematic.

In the last essay in this series I will look at the proposition, implied so far, that human behaviour is a matter of rule following. The short answer is that it is not, though rules are clearly discernible and we are quite capable of following rules when we need to. This requires the introduction of the fourth major concept in Searle's philosophy of social reality after functions, collective intentionality, and deontic power, which is the background.


~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

Diamond, Jared. (2012) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Penguin.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Foucault, Michel. (1983) The Subject and Power, in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd ed.) edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 208-226.  Original Publication: Le sujet et le pouvoir (Gallimard, D&E Vol.4 1982). Online: http://foucault.info/doc/documents/foucault-power-en-html

Fox, Kate. (2005) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Hodder & Stoughton.

Goodall, Jane. (1971). In the Shadow of Man. London: Collins.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Kolb, B., Gibb, R. & Robinson, T. (2003) Brain Plasticity and Behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 12(1) 1-5.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]. University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press. Originally published as La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir, 1979

MedicalXpress. (2016) Children overeagerly seek social rules. September 27, 2016 http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-09-children-overeagerly-social.html/ [Commenting on Schmidt M. F. H (2016)]

Medical Xpress. (2012) Toddlers object when people break the rules. http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-07-toddlers-people.html July 26, 2012 [commenting on Schmidt 2012)

Schmidt, M. F. H. & Tomasello, M. (2012) Young Children Enforce Social Norms. Psychological Science. 21(4), 232-236. doi: 10.1177/0963721412448659

Schmidt, M. F. H. et al. (2016) Young Children See a Single Action and Infer a Social Norm: Promiscuous Normativity in 3-Year-Olds, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616661182

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur". https://youtu.be/edn8R7ojXFg

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.
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