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Philosophical Society

Tuesday, February 18 @ 3:30 pm - 5:30 pm

At its regularly scheduled reading and discussion group on the third Tuesday of the month, the Camden Philosophical Society meets to discuss a wide range of topics. Topics and readings will be announced in the weeks leading up to each event. Stay tuned for details, or email Sarah Miller at sarahmiller@usa.net. 


At its next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 18, the Camden Philosophical Society will discuss how scientific realism might approach the study of social life. The discussion will be based on the first chapter of member Howard Engelskirchen’s book, Capital as a Social Kind: Definitions and Transformations in the Critique of Political Economy (Routledge 2011). 


The society meets in the Picker Room of the Camden Public Library from 3:30-5:30 pm on the third Tuesday of each month.  All are welcome.  The upcoming discussion will be led by Howard. 

Howard offers the following to guide reading:

The reading for this month is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book Capital as a Social Kind (CAaSK).  This is relatively dense material and will take time to prepare. The attachments break the excerpt into two parts so that the pdf file sizes are email compatible. I will refer to these together as ‘the text’ or ‘the excerpt’ or ‘the introduction.’  Many of the issues raised have come up often in our discussions over the last year(s), however, we have not recently engaged scientific realism as such. My hope is that the reading will offer an important chance to clarify our views.

A. Three broad topics for orientation:

  1. Ontology.   We can ask first, what is the ontology of the form of scientific realism presented?  Ontology is the study of being. As developed in these pages, what gives a thing a claim to being?  How are we to understand the ontology of social things?  Helpful references will be footnote 5 and the text to which it is attached (p.8); p.19, “to be is just to be able to do.”  Also, what do we mean by “metaphysical innocence” (pp. 5,7,9,15). Why are the concepts and categories we use, without more, metaphysically innocent?  Notice that the quote from Hilary Kornblith at footnote 5 makes the “business of science” a matter of ontology.
  2. Relationality.  How are we to understand the ontology of relations? What does it mean to say, (p.20), “no one bumps into a relation”?  If you can’t bump into a relation, how are we to have knowledge of them?  As here presented, a social kind refers to a particular structure or form of social relations. We can repeat the question above: what is the ontological claim that can be made with respect to social kinds?  At p.14 there is a reference to the “materiality of social kinds.”  In what sense are social relations material? 
  3. Objectivity. Today it is widely accepted that “we cannot, even in principle, have direct access to the objects of inquiry” (p.6).  Otherwise stated, “all observation is theory laden” (p.6). If so, if our understanding of the world is always mediated by our interpretations, how is objectivity in science, natural or social, at all possible? Footnote 3 is helpful on this question. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native American botanist and poet. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes: “To me, an experiment is a kind of conversation with plants: I have a question for them, but since we don’t speak the same language, I can’t ask them directly and they won’t answer verbally. But plants can be eloquent in their physical responses and behaviors. Plants answer questions by the way they live, by their responses to change; you just need to learn how to ask. I smile when my colleagues say “I discovered X.” That’s kind of like Columbus claiming to have discovered America.  It was here all along, it’s just that he didn’t know it. Experiments are not about discovery but about listening and translating the knowledge of other beings.”

Reread the Railton quote at p.6, or the fuller quote from which that is taken at footnote 3.  Compare his approach to experiment with Kimmerer’s.  Are they both talking about a kind of conversation?

B. There are also three points for summary of latter sectionsof the excerpt found on p. 21:

  1. The use of language. The words that we use to refer to natural kinds must be thought of non-definitionally at first; they function ostensively, not semantically. That is, “the extension of a term gets to determine intension, rather than the converse” (p.17). The point is that we want the object of inquiry to control our investigation (p17).
  2. Ontology. The furniture of the world is not exhausted by the palpable and the conceptual, but includes the relational and the sensuously unobservable.
  3. Methodology. The power of abstraction is essential to science, and especially social science. The power of abstraction includes both what I call ‘selective attention’ and ‘dialectical attention.’  Notice that we usually think of abstraction as a move from something concrete to something abstract. That is not the meaning here. Instead, abstraction here corresponds to Pierce’s use of the term ‘prescind.’ Confronted with the constellation of sensory inputs presented to us, without abstraction we swim among them, at sea as it were; we lack the ability to differentiate the constitutively essential. By selective attention we focus on features that are decisive to a thing’s function and operation. This is not a move to something more and more vague, but instead a move to what is more and more causally essential. (We do not take up the section that begins on p. 21, but the first paragraph of that section is helpful because it recapitulates the points of the summary of the paragraph immediately preceding it.)

C. Natural kinds and real definition.What does it mean for water to be a natural kind?  Why is H2O a ‘real definition’ of water?  What are the ‘kind constitutive properties’ of water?  Notice Stathis Psillos’s point at p.8: he “calls the core properties that explain how a thing behaves its kind constitutive properties, and he adds that ultimately these are the source of information we have about the kind. Thus H2O refers to a molecular configuration that ultimately regulates our understanding of what water is and how it behaves.” What is Richard Boyd’s ‘accommodation thesis’ (pp.15-16)?  How is naming a consequence of the accommodation thesis?  What does it mean for this approach to be a form of essentialism (p.8)?

I emphasize that to say the real definition of water is H2O does not mean that H2O says all we need to say about the human experience of water. Science is one way we appropriate the world, an important way; it is far from the only way! (I have a poem that starts, “sun feeds color brings/ sea glint to life.”)

Real definition is further explained in a paragraph from the book not in the excerpt: Compare this paragraph with the quote from Hilary Kornblith in footnote 5:

“The paleontologist Olivier Rieppel argues that the goal of scientific investigation can be expressed by ‘definitions that have explanatory power in that they establish a causal link to the underlying causal powers of the objects being defined’ (2005: 19). The business of science, in other words, is real definition. H2O is the real definition of water. That is, if meaning is approached by reference, then definition will not be a matter of how we use words – what we call a nominal definition – but instead an approximate, fallible and revisable product of reference, investigation and understanding.  We can compare the nominal definition that Locke offered for gold – a word we use to mean a yellow, malleable, fusible metal – with what would be offered as a real definition today:  ‘gold’ refers to the element with atomic number 79.  Specifying an atomic number can provide a real definition because it picks out a unique atomic structure.”  Elsewhere I add that with Locke’s definition no one turns base metal into gold, but if we know gold is atomic number 79, then we can do it, and it has been done.

D. Social Kinds.If we mean to extend the idea of natural kinds to the study of society, then it must be that we intend to find structures of social life that are causally potent. Why then must we reject the idea that social kinds depend on stipulation or conventional agreement (p.9)?  What is a ‘labor form composite’ (p.9)?  What makes it possible to say that a labor form composite is an example of Aristotle’s hylomorphism?  Why must existing things be both ‘enmattered’ and ‘enformed’ (p.9)? What does that mean for relations (which you don’t bump into) – must they be enmattered and enformed? 

Social kinds are the product of the ‘enformed activity of persons’ (p.10).  What do we mean by enformed activity? Social kinds exist only in virtue of their effects (p.10). The idea here is that it takes manifested activity of persons to constitute a social kind. In their behaviors, people constitute the structures of social life. But notice that living in terms of those structures never obliterates the free agency of persons. There is mention here of the important concept, developed later in the book (not in the excerpt), of what is “reproductively necessary” for a particular social kind. The idea is that it is contingent whether or not a particular social kind will exist in history, but if it is to exist, then certain features will be necessary for its production and reproduction – exchange, for example, is reproductively necessary to reproduce the social relation of producers who produce in separation useful goods but not goods useful to them.

The section ‘Arguing for Social Kinds’ (p.11) begins by distinguishing social kinds from the stereotypical idea that natural kinds must be characterized by necessary and sufficient membership conditions that are universal and ahistorical. Elsewhere in the book, I quote Richard Boyd’s skepticism that this hoary stereotype applies to any natural kinds at all: “natural kinds that have unchanging definitions in terms of intrinsic necessary and sufficient conditions that are the subjects of eternal, ahistorical, and exceptionless laws are an unrepresentative minority of natural kinds (perhaps even a minority of zero)” (199a: 169).”  The following section (p.12) emphasizes that we may not understand the social relations that govern our behaviors or how they govern our behaviors and yet be governed by them – like natural kinds, social kinds can act independently of our will.  Thus, I suggest race must be understood as a social kind and ‘witch’ might be understood as a social kind. You can multiply examples. 

CAaSK is devoted to an analysis of the significance of understanding value and capital as social kinds: “In Chapter 2 I will characterize the social form that accounts for value as ‘interdependent autonomy’: separate producers produce products useless to them as part of the social division of labor” (p.12). 

Stop there a minute. Notice that a material structure of social relations is described. Production takes place among producers that are separate from one another. That social phenomenon has its beginnings something like 4000 years ago and remains our condition today. It extends to forms of the distribution of goods (the corner store, the mall) and, importantly, to the capacity to labor, which is also sold as a commodity such that the worker enters the labor market to exchange labor power for a wage. Whether shoes or labor power, the seller possesses something that is useless to them except as something that can be exchanged. 

Continuing the quote from p.2:  “A shoemaker who produces thousands of shoes a year does not produce them to wear. The shoemaker is compelled by the circumstances of production to resort to market.” Notice she could produce shoes locally in no great quantity or produce millions as a corporation: the point holds – goods are not produced for use; they’re produced for exchange. Notice, also, since the separate producer has produced a specific product for exchange rather than having produced the spectrum of products she needs to survive, the shoemaker is driven to market; that is, the social relation in which she finds herself is causally potent. Which one of us has not been driven to the labor market or fashioned some product to sell in order to survive?

Continuing at p.12-13: “As these circumstances work themselves out in the market they also account for the value of commodities. Further, they form the shoemaker’s plans and purposes.  It does not follow, however, that she understands the circumstances that drive her to market anymore than we might suppose that a shoemaker of the ancient world, who knew very well the uses of water, knew that water was H2O.”

The Alexander Wendt quote at p.13 encapsulates challenges to the possibility of social kinds as a category of social analysis. Notice the phrase, “prediscursive essence.” Of course, there is no prediscursive essence possible for social kinds. Does that mean there is “no objective reality exerting a regulatory influence on our theorizing” about social things? Reread my gloss on the shoemaker example just above and Marx’s explanation that “The ‘circumstances’ which determine the value of a commodity are by no means further elucidated by being described as circumstances which influence the “MIND” of those engaging in exchange.”  Footnote 6 is helpful to understanding the argument he is responding to – Samuel Bailey claims that whatever influences the mind of someone engaged in exchange “may be considered as causes of value.”

Important also is the reminder at p.14 that the methodologies of social science are not exhausted by the possibilities of methodological individualism – the idea that the individual and her subjective motivations, all without regard to the relations in which she stands, provide the only basis for social analysis. Certainly, we start from individuals, but if we are to make sense of social life, this is individuals in relation. Thus, instead of imagining a teacher made so because of an external relation to someone who is a student, we think instead of a social kind formed by the composite social relation, teacher-student. 

Marx and Engels offer a helpful insight on this at the beginning of The German Ideology: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.” The physical organization of individuals is relational both each with respect to the other and also to nature.  As such we study it as a social kind.

E. A final thought – phenomenology.An emphasis on phenomenology has come up in our discussions over the last period and is important in contemporary philosophy. At p.7 of the text there is reference to the philosopher Roy Bhaskar’s use of the term ‘epistemic fallacy’: “His phrase challenges the philosophical tendency to turn all questions of the nature of being, ontology, into questions of what we can know about being, epistemology.” I wonder whether we might want to borrow the idea to think in terms of a ‘phenomenological fallacy.’  The point here is not to reject phenomenology any more than Bhaskar had in mind to reject epistemology; the idea instead is to call attention to distinctions that could use clarifying.

Please plan to bring the text of Chapter 1 to the February session. My hope is to actually discuss the text.  If any of you would like bibliographical references to items identified only by name and date or have specific questions, you can email me at he31@verizon.net.  Please use the phrase ‘Camden Philosophy’ in the subject line.



Tuesday, February 18
3:30 pm - 5:30 pm
Event Category:


Camden Public Library
55 Main Street
Camden, ME 04843 United States