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some notes on Wallerstein, Marx, social science, and Gadamer

November 20, 2010

Immanuel Wallerstein’s essay, Marxisms as Utopias: Evolving Ideologies (1986), parallel my interpretation of Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960) and reinforces the need to develop a normative basis for socialist structuration.

In the first two parts of the essay, Wallerstein substantiates his argument for viewing three distinct periods of historical Marxism. Here’s an overview:

  • the living Marx: 1840s – 1883; “chiliastic“; state would “wither away” under proletariat control
  • Orthodox Marxism: German Social Democratic Party (~1880 – 1920); Bolsheviks (~1900 – 1950); Kautsky + Lenin + Stalin; “Marxism of the Parties”
  • multiple Marxisms: 1950s – present; “era of a thousand Marxisms”; content often “diluted” (178)

In section III, Wallerstein goes on to note that:

As Marx taught us, sets of ideas linked to social movements are products of larger historical processes. It will therefore come as no surprise that the three eras of Marxism occur alongside three eras of social science whose periodization is roughly parallel…

An overview of three eras of social sciences:

  • era of philosophy: establishment of “a category of knowledge separated from theology” (180);  operated from moralistic perspective
  • scientific era: can be dated to French Revolution (1789 – 1815), which “impressed on everyone’s consciousness that institutions were transmutable”; application of (Baconian/Newtonian) scientific rationality and neutral stance; division of labor into specialized disciplines; both Liberal and Marxist perspectives operated within this framework
  • inchoate third era: post-WWII, “perhaps only in the 1960s”; “no obvious name”; “social science as interpretation of process”; neither “moral instruction nor value free” (182); “looks with some doubt on our received view of progress”; “progress as possible but not inevitable” (183)

Wallerstein struggled to articulate the goal of this new form of social science that would liberate itself from the ideologies of the 19th century without renouncing ideology altogether:

If we are to make progress, it seems to me we have not only to accept contradiction as the key to explain social reality but also to accept its enduring inescapability, a presumption alien to orthodox Marxism…. Our utopia has to be sought not in eliminating all contradiction but in eradicating the vulgar, brutal, unnecessary consequences of material inequality…. It is in this sense that utopia is a process…. neither a socially unattached intelligentsia nor a party, any party, can bring about this transformation – which is not to say, on the other hand, that they cannot play any role at all.

The task before us is precisely to place the activities of the intelligentsia (that is, social science) and the activities of political organizations in a framework in which, in tension and in tandem with each other, they illuminate the historical choices rather than presume to make them…. The intellectual task is to create a methodology that will seize the unseizable – process – in which A is never A, in which contradiction is intrinsic, in which the totality is smaller than the part, and in which interpretation is the objective. (184)

Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method, was published in 1960 – just as Wallerstein’s “third era” of social science was taking hold. Indeed, Gadamer was critiquing the social sciences, generally, and hermeneutics, specifically, for precisely the over-reliance on (Baconian/Newtonian) scientific rationality that Wallerstein cites as a decisive component in his temporal breakdown.

Gadamer founds his critique on a linguistic ontology. In other words, Gadamer sees language as fundamental to human awareness. His argument rests on the role of “understanding”, which results from the formulation of a question. Gadamer’s point is that we can only formulate the question required for understanding  based on some prior understanding or “tradition”. One’s state of being at the moment of forming a new question is a “horizon”. The question emerges from the horizon, organizes information, and then merges again with the horizon, sometimes leaving the horizon in a new form. As I interpret Gadamer, this process of questioning / understanding / questioning is continous and multiple, so that one’s horizon is constantly morphing. Not necessarily evolving in a teleologic sense – but certainly adjusting to the environment.

The environment, by the way, contains other humans who have their own horizons. Two or more humans can interface their horizons via dialogue. Dialogic interaction echos the process of understanding described above. It requires pre-formed horizons that formulate questions, seek information, and reform or reinforce their structure. This allows Gadamer to establish some normative ground.

Individual understanding of one’s environment requires some measure of “truth” – after all, we need to be able to trust ourselves if we’re going to use our own information and knowledge to survive. This truth is not absolute. Rather, it’s the state of our horizon at the current moment. This truth is based on tradition and always open to revision. But at the moment of action, we must act on some truth, and our current horizon is the truth at hand.

This conception of truth is then carried into dialogic interaction. We act on our own sense of truth, but that sense of truth – our own horizon – is always challenged by another’s sense of truth. In order to arrive at a sense of shared truth, we must make ourselves open to a reformation of our horizon based on our interactions. This is the normative basis of shared truth for human beings and the basis for Gadamer’s hermeneutic method. Of course, interlocutors can choose to act other than in an open manner. They can be closed and resistant to change, or downright manipulative. But the normative framework of shared understanding via dialogue requires us to categorize such behavior in ethical terms.

Gadamer intends this ethical framework, derived from the dialogic process of human understanding, to enable the methodology that Wallerstein seeks. Gadamer’s hermeneutic method is derived from his understanding of truth. Hence, Truth and Method. Social scientists must approach problems with a flexible set of methodological tools. Norm Denzin has referred to this as a bricoleur methodology. The use of these tools, however, is governed by adherence to a fairly rigid set of principles that lay out a dialogic process toward developing shared knowledge.

I think this is what Cliff Christians is getting at when he talks about proto-norms (cf. Communication Ethics and Universal Values). A methodology can’t address all possible contexts, but it should always respect certain principles. We can say the same for the vision of socialist utopia that, hopefully, will come to characterize this third period of Marxism and social science.

The vision should not seek to specify the organizational structure of a society, but rather the principles or proto-norms that should guide the structuration of society in a multiplicity of distinct contexts. This is what Wallerstein is getting at when he talks about a methodology “in which contradiction is intrinsic”. The structures developed in one sector of society may look very distinct to the structures developed in another. So long as they result in dialogic processes of meaning- and decision-making, the contradictions can be tolerated. We need a social science praxis that can make this clear.

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