Poverty of sociology or why Marx is not a scientist

© May 2005 Graham Little

As with many notes and papers, this one is not intended to ‘stand alone’ and must be read in conjunction with other work at this site.

The influence of Marx on virtually all people living today, and on those who lived through the twentieth century is unchallenged. He was a powerful figure, his work shaping several generations, his views forcing the world into a long and often bitter ideological conflict sometimes hot, for a long time deadly and cold. Many died.

At issue here is not the impact of Marx, but the nature of the impact. Few debate the impact of Jesus, or Mohammed, yet none really claim their writings as science, leading the way to deeper and more accurate understanding of the world and what shapes it. The focus of Jesus and through Him the Bible, and of Mohammed, is on how to live in the world, how to balance oneself in relation to it and to travel a fulfilling path in it: The focus is not on how to describe it, to understand it or to analyse it, and where any offerings occur of that nature, they are inevitably long on rhetoric and short on substance, they preach, they do not assess and analyse, they look to convince, not to ensure thorough conceptual structure. The work of Jesus and Mohammed are that of moral philosophers not scientific thinkers.

What of the intellectual heritage of Marx? To assess, I will not explore what he did but what he did not.

Popper is said to be the greatest critic of Marx, and indeed Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies is a powerful condemnation of the view of Marx. Yet Popper did not criticise from the points of view as above, he tackled Marx on Marx’s own ground. Marx and Popper both urged us to think a certain way about certain issues, exactly as Jesus and Mohammed urge us to think a certain way about certain issues. Marx like Jesus and Mohammed, like Popper (in Open Society), is a moral philosopher, not a scientist, and certainly not a sociologist. His views point up the significance of ideology, they are an example of it, just as Popper and Hayek’s work are examples of an alternative ideological point of view.

Sociology does not deal with points of view; it deals in description where all and any points of view are equally valid. For those who wish to deal in points of view, then they best become politicians, or moral philosophers. Seeking to give one’s moral and political views on society credibility by claiming such views as ‘scientific sociology’ is – well, I think we all know a lack of integrity, deceit, lies, and cheating when we see it uncovered. Sociology deals with variables of society, not the values of those variables.  If ideology is a variable, then any particular ideology is not sociology; it is moral philosophy dealing as it does with a value of the variable. Theory in sociology deals with the variables and their relations, values of those systems of variables then describe actual societies in actual unique circumstances. No theory of sociology can chose its values, people do that, something again that the theory of society must describe, but in such a way that all choices are equally valid, since if only some choices be valid, and those options proscribed at the start, then what is offered is moral philosophy, not sociology.

This problem, that of confusion of variables with values of those variables, is common in sociology, but not so in physics or chemistry. The reason is easy to see and understand. Few people are that concerned at the exact states of an electron, certainly there is no feelings usually engendered by the fact of an electron being here and not there. The same cannot be said of ideology, there are definite views on who owns what in society, and who has what rights to do what with what they own. We call those view politics, and typically the direct political views have underlying them views that are largely or at least substantially moral philosophy, dealing with human rights, the enlightened nature of humanity or its evil nature.

Further problems occur, for example, in an overall post-modern view, the very notion of cause is eroded if not dismissed, and the idea that we can establish causal relations between variables able to account for the ‘causality’ in individual human affairs and on to social affairs is itself viewed cynically if not rejected. Most of this arising from a view that Truth is non-existent, or at least a relative concept, so what I believe to be true is as valid as what you believe true despite our complete divergence. Truth as an issue of belief itself culture bound.

To my own views, crucial issues include:

  1. The nature of variables and the complete separation of variables from their values.
  2. Understanding of human perception/human psychology leading to suitable insight in the nature of ideas and in particular of abstractions and what this means, especially in scientific discourse.
  3. Full understanding of the nature of knowledge, and specifically the relationship of knowledge of objects of the universe with that object.
  4. Use of W. Ross Ashby tools of immediate and ultimate effects combined with my own analysis of the nature and structure of Variables and variables applied to defined systems to create clear and understood descriptive and causal explanations of those systems.
  5. Ranking of emergent explanations into conceptual hierarchies offering understanding of causal and mechanistic structures whereby one variable becomes another, or whereby a perturbation in one variable causes known and understood perturbations in others.
  6. Appropriate ranking of issues in a strategic matrix, so that any topic of interest is properly related to the issues of ground that must be established and resolved before any serious discussion on the topic can in fact proceed.

This represents a highly disciplined and extremely limiting intellectual framework. For me, it is the framework of science: Cautious, building by placing one brick in the wall at a time. For example, consider all prior discussions of sociology, regardless of who made the comments or pronouncements. Were they based on clear causal insight and understanding of human psychology? If not, then how do they know that emergence of such would not influence insight into society? But to achieve causal insight into psychology there must be clear insight and understanding of the nature of cause, if you do not know what cause is, how can you create a causal explanation of human psychology? If any discussion fails in dealing with these issues of ground, then it can only proceed on the basis that ‘given complete ignorance on (such and such) we speculate (such and such). For example, applying it to Marx, he should have said “Given my complete ignorance of the nature of cause, and given complete lack of insight into individual psychology and whether or not this influences causation in society, and given that I know nothing of the actual causal forces in society, and do not even know if they exist, nonetheless I speculate the following about the structure of society and the forward development of it”. This accurately reflects what Marx did and what he said and the realistic intellectual standing of what he said. I would suggest that had he attempted this serious intellectual summary of his position he would not have bothered to publish it. He would know it for the rubbish it was. He was hell bent on venting his spleen, scientific ethics were the last consideration with him striving to change the world in the way he thought it ought be changed and accuracy be damned.

Of the range of intellectual issues I see as crucial, I think progress can be made on all of them. In fact, at this site there is significant progress in unravelling many of them. Given that, I see postmodernism has the retreat of the beaten into an irrational world where whatever it is they think is valid, and judgment able to be suspended. Let’s be mates together, talking rhubarb, but then it is true rhubarb, as we all agree because it is relative rhubarb. Alan Sokal made the point. Unfortunately, very recently I engaged an academic (admittedly of low calibre) in discussion of the Sokal affair and was completely bemused by the view that perhaps the editors saw in the work value the author did not, and it was not really a hoax, just the author thought it was. How do you refute that? Sign of how serious the academic world has retreated from judgment and replaced it with creative speculation of any ‘anything goes’ nature. Then they muse on the public retreat from science and the disrespect for scientific ethics and views.

The only theory of human psychology that fully describes and deals conclusively with the issues of ground essential for development of theory of sociology is my own (limited as it may be, it is a start). Now I know no sociologist has used my views or models in their discussions, it then follows that all prior theories of sociology are no more than intellectual speculations of passing interest. None can claim any thoroughness, since none was thoroughly constructed. All are seriously intellectually deficit; pretty well in the manner I have shown Marx to be intellectually deficit.

Sociology cannot deliver on its promise of bettering our social condition until it rids itself of these confusions, especially the ethical issues where well intentioned people pursue what are in fact covert political ends for this will merely prolong development of a greater human state based on apt, accurate and true insight into the nature and structure of our intrinsic social and cultural organisation. And yes, I do believe that careful, rational and scientific (as I here describe) analysis can and will lead to sharper insight into social regularities and as a consequence will support and guide better political policy and development of a greater human state.

As religion, the moral philosophy of Marx has not nor ever will achieve the lasting impact of Jesus or Mohammed, and while the name Marx is used in the same sentence, representing the parallels, the work of Marx fails to succour the human spirit in anything like the same manner so as the founder of a religion Marx failed by comparison. As a scientist the work of Marx lacked both depth and clarity, the structure of his work so limited and flawed as to make it conceptually inadequate to a degree that the intellectual legacy is worthless. The popularity of Marx lay in his passion, his desire to convince people on the rightness of his views and the fact his writing touched raw nerves in the people of the day, it was not his analysis, but he never quite understood this (and if he did it makes him totally cynical parallel with the worst of modern mind-bite players), and as a consequence never unravelled his passion from his effort at science and as a consequence he failed at both (with science as passion contained and focused, lead on conceptually by the next question, and by the sort of constrained intellectual construction as I have outlined). Marx is still taken seriously, but in fact as a scientist his intellectual legacy is less than worthless, since his deceit, his effort to convince all of the rightness of his views in the name of ‘scientific analysis of the causes shaping society and social development’, when in fact he had not got close to an understanding of cause, nor analysed any of the items of ground relating to his chosen topic; his ruthless dismissal of any and all ethics of science, driven by anger at what he saw and passion to correct it which while understandable is inexcusable, remains with us today and continues to erode worthwhile and serious intellectual efforts to lay out the platform leading to truly better understanding of our intrinsic social structures.

I will attend to the issue of sociological causation and development (including the relationship between individual causal forces and social) in forthcoming discussions using the platform of ground as established in the papers at this site. I will look to apply the tools as outlined above and follow the analysis as it unfolds, presuming no naive separation into macro and micro, merely accepting the social structure as a ‘system’ consisting of variables pertaining to individuals and others pertaining to the collective, to which we need apply tools of abstraction and creation of variables and then structuring those variables into models, the models themselves structured into hierarchies offering causal insight. Frankly, having read Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Husserl, Mead and Parsons, as well as Popper and Levi Strauss and various modern papers and authors, I find none have a platform able to be used, none have been thorough, none have structured a strategic framework of their concern in relation to the issues that could seriously impact their projections (issues of topic versus ground). I do not naively believe in some ‘modern’ notion of ‘progress’, nor will I retreat into the frightened, beaten position of ‘post’-modernism. It will be old fashioned, cautious development of a grounded intellectual position, applying criteria of judgment I have elsewhere discussed and elaborated. I do believe in Truth in that we can create intellectual structures offering greater insight into what happens and why (so not all views or cultural positions are equal); I do not believe in scientific ‘laws’, but I do believe in regularities and think we can build models that reflect and provide insight into those regularities such as to better understand them and what causes them. Science is the tool but a tool necessarily rooted in ethics and disciplines that do not readily lead to popular acclaim or outstanding position in a modern world dominated by the twenty seconds of fame in sound/visual mind bites. So be it. I will start from scratch grounded on my prior work, and see where it leads, and be most wary of any personal preferences; it will be science not a covert political agenda.