UNDERSTANDING HUMAN SUBJECTS, ACTIONS AND PROCESSES
To understand people and explain their diverse activities is the aim of the social sciences, from history to economics or from psychology and anthropology to political science. They try to understand the motives and reasons for human behaviour, or alternatively to explain its causes largely through physical, biological and other scientific theories.
EMBODIED VS. LIVING MEANING
A society consists in our relations to each other, largely carried on by the aid of man-made things of all kinds: i.e. its material aspects like food, tools, products, buildings, money, texts and so forth. Its 'subjective' aspect, however, is the understanding of all this as largely shared by its conscious individual members. Again, the human body and its psycho-physical behaviour is objectively observable, while consciousness is only directly subjectively 'observable' by each individual person. What has here been called understanding is a form of consciousness with many aspects and degrees and, as such, it is a subjective phenomenon. It can to some extent can be given objective expression. This expression has always to be interpreted by others to be understood, for it does not give direct and immediate access to the consciousness of others. This applies even when we understand quite simple talk, which is shown by the fact that even the simplest words can sometimes be misunderstood.
In everyday intercourse within any language and culture, understanding is mostly quite unproblematical. This is because many share the same ways of interpreting the language and social behaviour. Of course, the fact that many people share the same understanding - the same 'subjective' viewpoint - is obviously no guarantee of its being true. Misinformation, false theory, unfounded hearsay and rumour, misunderstanding, unsupported fantasy, ideas induced by self-hypnosis and many other kinds of belief or delusion contrary to empirical fact often occur in human affairs. Those whose view of the world agrees largely with that given in their national media will always hold many misconceptions due to the biasses of provinciality, sensationalism, the propaganda of interest groups and so on. Belief in abduction of persons to other planets etc. by UFO-borne extra-terrestrials and so on is believed in by thousands of people, but this does not necessarily make it objective. The counter evidence and testimony provided by various scientific and official governmental sources must of course also be given its full weight, whatever one's 'subjective' convictions may be. Quite another order of evidence to that so far available would be required to explain these phenomena.
There are obviously many different ways in which false beliefs and wrong opinions arise and are propagated in society, and perhaps as many motives or reasons for them too. The study of many kinds of unfounded superstitions, mass delusions, deceptions and frauds, false ideologies and wrong ideas and theories about every subject under the sun throughout history has doubtless employed millions of people. In this chapter I am mainly concerned with a kind of misunderstanding that comes as a result of what has been called 'social mystification' and which is closely connected to Western physicalistic thought and philosophy. It is prevalent in society and has been reflected to a very large extent in the social sciences.
Consciousness and its qualities remain 'interior' and personally private, for there exists no method in any science for direct independent confirmation of its contents, such as conscious motives, intended meanings and purposes. It can be extremely difficult to guard against deception, misrepresentation of facts or out-an-out lying. There can, however, be indirect confirmation by others, such as when it is possible to prove 'beyond reasonable doubt' that a person has had good intentions despite an accidental result, or has wilfully lied, or has had demonstrably some particular conscious motive (such as when convicted for premeditated murder). Evidence about inner states or viewpoints is not acceptable to strict science, which requires independent observational confirmation.
Other persons' can be understood through a wide range of approaches, but all depend at some crucial phase on intuition, empathy or sympathy as well as breadth of holistic understanding. Intuition is a faculty that can arise both from a sensitive awareness based on deep experience and from understanding at a subliminal level. Because we all have subjective personal consciousness, we are able to identify with others like us, though the process is often fraught with many sources of error and misunderstanding, and this even when persons show willing to open themselves frankly towards others.
An uncertainty factor applies in principle to all accounts by people of their own behaviour. One cannot simply take at face value every idea people have even about the nature of their own experiences. There are too many possible and very common pitfalls in the processes of perception, recall, thought, understanding and giving expression to these to allow naive acceptance of all one hears. Nor can one simply bring one's own perceptions to the scene of any kind of human interaction and apply them without having steeped oneself as fully as possible in the participants' own view of the purposes or meaning of that interaction. This means that understanding of others from the outset is the key to all psychological, social and historical science.
THE TEST OF INTELLIGIBILITY
Making an event practically intelligible means showing how and to what extent it is related to the acts of individuals or agency of groups which makes it understandable. By this one avoids the risk of misinterpreting behvaiour and various events in social interaction as parts of a natural process of cause and effect, when they are really due to voluntary human actions, whether wholly or in part.
Where relevant, one investigates the complex effects through time of interactions operating within the field of social inertia caused by the material environment which makes up the entire sphere of 'social objects'.
'Intelligibility' is here used primarily in the sense developed in the later philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre in his work, Critique de la Raison Dialectique(Paris, Gallimard, 1960). The focus of the idea is that genuine understanding of many a social or psychological problem arises when it can meaningfully be related to actions. The method of relating is by tracing whatever series of events and actions lie behind the problem. Tracing these - frequently highly complex - relationships often involves studies of a social historical, biographical, depth psychological or anthropological sort.
THE PRINCIPLE OF PRACTICAL INTELLIGIBILITY
"For the understanding of the human sphere of action and interaction, any psychic or social 'process' which comes to have the appearance of a sheer causal event is made practically 'intelligible' when relating it to actual previous human actions or series of interactions within the given social-material environment".
One speaks of 'natural processes' and regards them as occurring independently of human agency. Sociologists often refer to 'social processes', implying that they are the result of natural causes or, at least, of events which are beyond the control of the human beings involved. Many events that seem to be of the unalterable order of things, however, result from the actions of human beings. In very repressive societies, where the pressures of poverty are so great that people haven't the time to investigate and reflect over the causes of their lot, the many pressures of society appear as a 'natural process', rather than the result of inhumane policies voluntarily enforced by corrupt power figures and selfish elites.
To understand why something is presently happening, say the long-running conflict in the Middle East and the inter-religious strife in Jerusalem, it would be futile to disregard what has occurred in the past. A political problem, for which one wishes to avoid placing responsibility, is often made to appear as a 'process'. This gives events the look of a complex series of causes and effects beyond anyone's control, but not of a series of intentional acts carried out by identifiable persons. This misinterpretation obviously tends to 'mystify' events.
The foregoing may seem all too obvious, yet this is not accepted as 'scientific' in most social sciences, which instead require causal explanations. The belief in natural and other supra-personal processes are much evident in many branches of psychology, sociology and social economics etc. Or else on looks for 'structures' in human interactions, not recognised by those involved, but which are supposed to express social laws operating upon people. The same is applied in much psychology, where subconscious or 'unconscious' influences imagined as having their origin in nature condition individual behaviour. There are sometimes good reasons for this, not least due to the collective nature of much human action and the fact that it takes place in a material environment and an inherited historical context.
To misinterpret what are actually series of actions or their outcome as natural or determined processes, is to make events unintelligible. 'Process' in this context refers to events that occur - or continue to happen - independently of human action. Where they have no apparent or identifiable originator and seem to be naturally determined, they may still be the result of a series of actions. Discovering how a mental, emotional or social process came about requires a reconstruction of past series of events and acts. The accent here is always on voluntary actions more than involuntary natural events.
Actions can, of course, be individual or collective. Collective actions may or may not be highly organised... they can arise in many ways, such as by representation, on executive orders, by group consensus or even by spontaneous mass behaviour. In almost every case, there will be individuals with both more and less clear intentions involved.
Actions done in the present (i.e. current praxis) have a fairly clear conscious purpose, or else they are not so much actions as behaviour. Acts may indirectly support habits, traditions through simply allowing them to continue. Such actions sustain some given situation through partially unwitting behaviour, subconscious influences or through more or less purposive neglect. They are not therefore natural processes, because their agency is identifiable.
The present or contemporary actions of persons or groups are usually more easily investigated than past ones. An action, seen in relation to its past background, will often be a more or less aware reaction ('re-action') to whole series of previous acts and events, so that it cannot be understood without reference to these forerunners. Likewise, an action may be directed towards anticipated future acts and predicted events, so that action will only become intelligible when the nature of the anticipations and goals of the agent are made known. Intelligibility is thus understanding how inexplicable events are sustained to some extent or other by actions (praxis).
The principle of intelligibility can guard against various sorts of misunderstanding due to psychic and social confusion and 'mystification', whereby events that have somehow arisen from or through human actions are misrepresented as 'blind' natural processes or as inexplicable acts of fate etc.
THE PRACTICO-INERT FIELD
Certain complex aspects of how persons interact in and with society were isolated by Jean-Paul Sartre by introducing the illumining concept of 'the practico-inert field'. This refers to those features of any society which cause a person's conscious actions to be diverted from reaching their goal due to a peculiar form of social inertia.
Neither an individual nor society are simply 'physical objects', for both derive their intrinsic characters chiefly from human consciousness. Human plans and goals are, as it were, 'stamped upon' the physical world in the specific purpose-serving forms of buildings, tools and all manner of human product. The inert 'objective world' around us is relatively formed and conditioned by the 'subjective world' of the mind and consciousness, which have built society and all its parts through human actions (praxis). Hence the 'practico-inert field'. Objects, such as the many useful artefacts of civilisation, exist as such and derive their meaning only from the minds of the present members of society.
As a simple first example, changing a bank-note into another currency is part of a social 'process', of 'the system of banking', which social institution has been developed over the centuries and survives generations of people almost as if it were a natural event. The bank-note has a meaning which is most intelligible to one who understands the full, highly complex web of events or 'social processes' behind it. The bank-note hardly suggests the bars of gold buried in the cellars, or of the immense complication of weaving wealth in commerce and industry upon which its value depends. Its value also relies on acts (i.e. praxis) of cashiers, brokers, bank authorities and governments etc. that are not observable in the object itself, yet which are nevertheless inseparable from it (if it is to be accepted at face value). The value of a bank-note might be said, in our terminology, 'intelligible' to anyone who knows the complex mechanisms of value-setting and accounting that apply at any time in the relevant monetary system. A cashier who sees he is being offering a counterfeit bank-note does not exchange it simply because it arises from criminal praxis. It lacks the value that arises from correct praxis.
We see here how intelligibility depends both upon physical, observable facts and upon 'subjective' judgements... that is, internal intentions of consciousness. Only when we are aware of the 'subjective', only when we can unravel what the personal subject(s) involved understands or intends, will the 'process' be made intelligible in the light of individual or collective actions (praxis).
Likewise, an economic depression appears as an unintelligible process independent of any individual's behaviour unless one can trace its many roots into the voluntary actions of the investors, the financial markets, the governmental activities etc. so that its apparent natural inevitability is shown instead to be the result of practical choices and intentional behaviour (i.e. praxis). This process breaks down into the praxis (intended actions) of the individuals and groups involved. When so understood, the principle of intelligibility is more or less satisfied. Of course, the complexity and size of a country and its population invariably makes it practically necessary for planners to work in general terms and to regard activity as if it were a quantitative process. This is not an unintelligible process unless it mistakes the measurable trends etc. to be the driving forces. It is always the conscious and more or less intelligent human activity that is the chief momentum.
SOCIAL INERTIA AND THE INTELLIGIBLE
It is often far from easy to discover and trace all the steps that have brought about a situation. The whole appears as a process over which no one really had any proper control and the resultant recommendation is virtually a mystery to everyone concerned. Only by retracing the steps and confirming why each person acted as they did, will the reasons for the end result be clear. Only then can one act forcefully with effect to right the situation... when one knows who to hold responsible and for what errors.
A simplified image of social inertia in modern society is found in the so-called 'processes' of certain types of bureaucracy. Suppose someone who has a brilliant energy-saving plan is legally required firstly to gain the approval of a large bureaucracy. All the vested interests and lobby groups represented in and through the bureaucracy subject the plan to the delays of red tape to their heart's content, making use of every law, regulatory paragraph and other august consideration to back up their modifications and restrictions to the plan. Meanwhile, it happens that the wastages that the plan was to solve have themselves altered so radically as to make the bureaucratically modified plan practically useless. The original act has met with the practical inertia inherent in the social field in a combination of paperwork, obstructive officials behaving as willing or unwilling cogs in the 'machine', rapidly changing conditions and so on.
The above example is a simple illustration of one easily-grasped common way in which praxis lose its true momentum - or proper direction - because of the inertia of the practico-inert field of society. Large organisations, such as corporations, military alliances or international bodies provide any number of examples. Also, the political systems of nations or international movements and world cultures are arenas where intentions and aims are gradually diverted and come, through the inertia of the system, to serve quite other ends. Also, yet more concealed types of social process involving more complex factors and as successive levels of misunderstanding can develop through time, as some further examples briefly indicate.
Many personal problems arise through complex forms of 'mystificatory process', having no identifiable agency or cause and which therefore are mistakenly thought to have undiscovered physical causes. Unmanageable trends which appear at the time to be unintelligible even to most experts include the sudden huge falls on a stock market, economic recession and unemployment, the suicide rate, the huge increase in violent behaviour of individuals or quite small groups, the murder rate, rising crime and violence rates, rapid increases in mental illness, national paranoias (such as McCarthyism), scapegoatism etc. Similar unexplained 'processes' occur in personal lives and are often diagnosed as mental illness once they have led to otherwise insoluble crises, especially in the cases of diagnoses where there is no real professional consensus as to their causes. These include many well-known obsessions like claustrophobia, kleptomania, pyromania, periodically unstable behaviour with alternating 'manic' and 'depressive' phases, sudden total loss of self-confidence etc.
Practicing the principle of intelligibility can help to discover and thus guard against various sorts of confusion, alienation and misunderstanding that are due to psychic and social mystification, whereby events that have somehow arisen through human actions are misrepresented as blind, determined processes or as inexplicable acts of fate etc. This fallacy arises largely as a result of misplaced generalisation and abstraction. Thus events can become practically unintelligible. The fallacies of false and misplaced generalisation and abstraction commonly accompany social mystifications. Such alienated explanations take many, very varied, forms and can apply in almost any area of human life, from physical and practical matters to the mental, social and spiritual affairs.
SOME UNINTELLIGIBLE 'IMPERSONAL PROCESSES'
Many important discoveries in science won at the cost of debunking myths serve to illustrate the struggle towards the intelligible. The work of Semmelweis, persecuted for his theories that led to the discovery of bacteria and now universally-accepted bacteriological theory and its many social consequences, is but one classic example of the removal of unintelligible social processes in the treatment of the infected by explaining natural events. There are many degrees of unintelligibility and many aspects of life in which they do occur. Some varied examples may help illustrate this:-
Unintelligible social processes may also arise from originally attributing wrong causes to events. For example, a medical condition that is attributed by doctors to the malfunctioning of an organ or to the micro-biological condition in the fluids it affects may actually be 'caused' simply by wrong diet or too much eating! Doctors may prescribe medicinal drugs or carry out surgery etc. Yet the original actions that brought about the illness get 'mystified' through regarding illness primarily as a natural micro-biological process. In this way, medical research very often fails to get to the root cause in terms of intelligible action.
A false doctrine about illness or health, whether medical or otherwise, also engenders an entire social process. In medicine it can alter the education of future doctors and the dissemination of public information. This also leads to the extension of the drug industry (supported by the call for much-needed jobs etc.) and a whole school of thought whose proponents' personal prestige unfortunately gets invested in convoluted theories that should be superfluous and entrenched in defending therapies that treat patients as passive victims of some 'illness'. This process fails to hinder - and even itself generates - more of the same 'illness' (i.e. wrong diet) and few involved in the process either are able to trace its origins or will revoke the wrong judgements of their profession and risk conflict with the established medical community. The inertia of the practical-inert field in medicine thus can prevent the real causes of illness becoming widely known.
A striking example of text misinterpretation with consequences stretching over many centuries is how the misunderstanding of the meaning of a word led to a doctrine that has degraded the female sex to a status lower than men. The 'spare rib' myth was perhaps even invented by male theologians not wishing Eve to be an equal partner. The question is solved by the second oldest extant Bible, the Greek Bible, where the word corto meaning 'side' is used (not meaning 'rib').
The correct interpretation of the creation legend appears therefore to be that, because Adam was lonely, God took pity and split him into two equal parts - Male and Female. Adam was Manu, which contained both principles, male and female. Though Eve was born second, she was not second to Adam but equal. This reinterpretation of a word makes intelligible how religious behaviour towards women has been underpinned by what otherwise appeared to be a false or unacceptable doctrine. The mystification of the nature of women arose partly through that powerfully disseminated teaching of the 'spare rib'. How this took place is uncertain but events that arose from the collective agency of Churches in perpetuating the 'mystique' of the lowness of women and supporting witch hunts and massive supression is thus traced, not to Divine agency, but to a crucial mistranslation... a human action, whether intended or not. What was an incomprehensible process, an irrational and unfounded persecution is demystified, at least in part, by the tracing of its origin to human action.
The well-known subconscious 'psychic projection' of blame onto a scapegoat, or persons who are not actually responsible for some deplored ill, can arise through processes of social confusion, ignorance, false doctrine and sheer self-delusion. This can contribute to an almost unstoppable or self-perpetuating social process, such as in the Salem witch-hunt cases in Massachussets last century or the Senator McCarthy communist-scare period in the U.S.A. in the late 1950's. The same appears to apply in the persecution of immigrants, refugees or other ethnic groups in many parts of the world where myths about their nature and qualities prevail or are purposely sustained by power elites for political reasons.
At the social level, mystification often takes the form of ideology in the form of popular brainwashing backed up by very involved but partly cryptic theories of social struggle and class interests. This faáade of false explanations lays the foundation of many an unintelligible process that persist within a society, effectively concealing the responsibility of key actors in the process (eventually frequently also from themselves). In the history of U.S.S.R., communism demonstrated only too well in many shapes and forms. The belief in blind, automated social processes arises in popular belief and underpins much demagogy and populism - such as in the inexhorable demands of 'The System' or other Kafka-like viewpoints. Major facts about society or historical conditions are thus also seen as if they were akin to natural disasters; entirely unavoidable and at best allowing people only to pick up the pieces and plaster the wounds.
Ingenious examples of how mystification through social processes can apply in the generation of the so-called 'mental illness' schizophrenia. It has been made much more intelligible by detailed studies and analyses of interaction in (or the praxis of) family members of persons labelled 'schizophrenics' have been demonstrated by extensive research done by the Tavistock group (Sanity, Madness and the Family. R.D. Laing and A. Esterson, London 1966). In each family, studied by long-term interviews and observations, intricate processes that combined actions, reactions and intervening events or natural processes were elucidated. To make schizophrenia intelligible in each case, the authors set out to discover the steps that connected what had happened ('process') to what people actually did ('praxis'). This showed in each case how one of the members of the family, - invariably the weakest in social, economic or other terms - had virtually been 'driven mad', partly through a social process involving everyday inter-personal struggles (often for power vs. individual autonomy) and partly through unreflected or unintended behaviour including collusion, subconscious reactions, ignorant speculations and fears etc. The process was diagnosed, supported and furthered by the intervention of doctors, psychiatrists and other supporting social institutions.
Another major work makes more intelligible the concept of mental illness through a historical study of social process in the practico-inert field is Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilisation (1961). Foucault traces certain European social processes, indicates how the social outcast of the Middle Ages, the leper, was gradually supplanted when leprosy declined, by the new outcast, the 'lunatic'. The buildings that housed lepers were not suitable for any other civil purposes than workhouses and 'asylums' for a diverse grouping of social outcasts: the poor, the deprived, the weak, the defenseless and the crazed. In brief, through the existence of a certain type of building, the physical environment itself helped form a class of 'lunatics' as inmates of these asylums. In short, the social process involved the removal and 'invalid-isation' of unwanted elements from public places and normal civil life. Laws of confinement were passed and their victims became legally invalidated, without hope of real recourse to the courts. Such laws are still in use today. The lunatic asylum became the 'mental hospital' then the 'psychiatric hospital'. It is impossible not to observe that the same groupings once herded into workhouses are vastly overrepresented in present-day 'heavy psychiatry', which also reflects back on the basic nature of the profession as a blind instrument of social control and throws considerable doubt on the very conception of 'mental illnes' altogether, especially since no physical cause - genetic or otherwise - of any such illness has yet been isolated (1999).
SOCIAL RESEARCH AS PROCESS OR INTELLIGIBLE PRAXIS
Social research always tends to reflect the circumstances and values of the society in which it takes place. For example, social research in vast and totalitarian China and a small West European democracy like Norway are a world apart. Where social research institutions are more closely involved with those of the state and large companies, the direction of interest, research organisation, methods and the type of output information tend to reflect and forward other interests than those of the populace. This is seen above all in te predominance of the type of social research that reflects centralised interests, being alike in regarding people en masse rather than as individuals, as bodies rather than as persons, and would explain their behaviour by statistical methods and causal explanations, rather than through communicating with them mutually and trying to understand their intentions and aims.
The intelligibility of, say, a research project will itself depend partly upon the intentions and acts of the investigator. The principle of self-reflection therefore supports and helps fulfil that of intelligibility. By requiring that researchers make properly clear their values and assumptions - including why a project was carried out and to whom it should be applicable etc., they are stimulated towards both ethical explicit priorities and higher potential practicability than otherwise.
If, for example, observations and other results of a research support the contention that certain destructive social acts have been learned the imitation of idolised media figures combined with the opinions of peer groups, it becomes an intelligible result in so far as it suggests ways of rechanneling energy used in presumed 'social deviance' into harmless or useful activity. Some connections between theory and praxis are then made. The practical applicability of knowledge in the interest of positive values and the common good makes for its intelligibility.
On the other hand, the motive of the 'scientific urge to know the truth', taken on its own, has all too often led to research work of an abstruse, impracticable or wasteful nature. Such 'science for sciences' sake' without a clearly defined impetus towards the common good, is often a result of a process that can govern much of the activity of scientific environments, the academic world and various research bodies. The process is variously sustained by organisational and bureaucratic traditions, as well as those of established schools of thought and the professional interests of practitioners within a science, which themselves offer varied forms of resistance to new thinking or projects that represents a break with those traditions.
The praxis that sustains such redundant processes and resists change until long after it is overdue may in general be spread out across thousands of individuals in science and business, from politicians to the media, from educationalists to the layman. One need only consider how long in-built inertias and glacial speed of change of the academic world (with its male traditions and privileges etc.) held up against attempts to introduce gender studies and permit women to become researchers and, further still, to specialise in studies on women in society, history, culture etc. It was only the repeated demystifying praxis of women all over the world that gradually began to open the doors of research institutions. One cannot but surmise how many kinds of minority group must still be knocking unheard or unanswered when such a majority group as women had such huge difficulties in overcoming such mystifying social processes.
The direct or indirect individual profit, career and personal satisfaction motives in carrying out a research (whether for the institutionalised researcher or even the established research-users) are not a sufficient justification... though much research comes about primarily for just such reasons. This biasses the weight of available information towards a non-scientific disbalance favouring, for example, the requirements of various large institutions of State or the business world at the expense of the community needs and the actual interest iof individuals. The research world is peopled by ordinary persons and is subject to most of the same kinds of influence - good, bad and indifferent, whether heroic, mediocre or criminal - as many another activity in a nation.
The call for intelligible work and the public transparency of all research aims could eliminate many a futile approach, counteracting various peculiar forms of research mystique favouring investigations in misguided human science on ahistorical and objectivistic models having mistaken pretentions to generality or universality on a line with natural science. The principle of intelligibility can help to safeguard against the mystification of human behaviour, by regarding it one-sidedly in terms of natural process. This occurs, for example, in misplaced physicalism, with its demands for measurement and quantification which are now also supported strongly by the powerful social tendency towards the attempted 'computerisation of understanding', with its consequent increasing alienation from the human subject in face-to-face relations.
Any scientific, empirical study must be guided by certain considerations
concerning how to approach the many 'unknowns' in human life, like problems
that are not sufficiently understood or widely-reported phenomena, the existence
of which is in question. If inherited mistakes in science are not to be built
on, good research planning is surely forward-looking rather than being a ritual
perpetuation of self-absorbed traditions, too much piecemeal analytical work
with inward-looking aims, or ingrained doctrines and methods. Above all, perhaps,
major efforts ought to be made to counteract the estranging effect of misplaced
objectivistic and causal approaches in human science.. These include range from
social Darwinism, which would see such 'mechanisms' as unemployment, mental
suffering and even invalidism as a result of biological laws of competitive
survival; the alienating number-crunching perspectives that forward centralised
social control and play into the hands of massive concerns driven overwhelmingly
by the profit motive, and ever new expressions of monopolism and near-totalitarianism
in the capitalist world economy. These trends should be redirected by improved
standards of holistic understanding of humans as persons.
Continue to Ch. 7: Understanding and Truth
The above material is the copyright of Robert Priddy, Oslo 1999 see bibliography.