Social Structuralism and Society
Social Structuralism defined:
- The thesis that individual people are defined by the interrelationships they have with other people, social institutions, and social norms (language, laws, customs) rather than viewing society as collections of atoms (people, the so-called pathetic dots).
- Partly expressed in Lawrence Lessig’s .
The Pathetic Dot
On this view, people are atomized into pathetic dots. They stand or fall alone. They are strung out, divided, and separated.
Lessig’s thesis is an admixture of social structuralism and traditional aggregation/composition views of society (Hobbes, Aristotle, Plato, especially - as “built up” from individual people, family units) leaning heavily toward the latter.
It is as least partly structuralist because people are regulated by external factors. Nevertheless, it results in atomized individuals - divided and regulated by social forces (laws, architecture, norms, and technology). Its aim is regulative and normative - to define how people can be regulated within society (to get along with each other).
Ontological structuralism defined:
- Individuals (objects) depend for their existence on the structure of which they are a part.
- Individuals (objects) are nevertheless unique and distinct.
- Consider, the number 1. Independent of the Natural Number Line it has no meaning or definition. Its existence is premised on being in additive, multiplicative, commutative, transitive, etc. relationships with other numbers.
- This view is the one that’s been argued in the philosophy of science and mathematics.
I've written about a few areas I think would benefit from ontological structuralist thinking:
- structuralism and the divine.
- structuralism and epistemology.
- thinking about objects and relationships between them.
The Internet and Other Examples
Are there other ordinary examples of structuralism?
- An obvious go-to to demonstrate that these concepts are real (or at least are reified ideas - ideas that became real) and not just ideas is the Internet and the World Wide Web.
- Others include the Internet of Things, telecommunications, and blockchain.
- In science, particles are now understood as perturbations of fields. Objectivity is understood as invariance across transformation.
- In ethics, Strawson's theory attempts to naturalize our discussion about ethics (centering our focus functionally, relationally, emotionally) without appealing to reductive entities.
- Ethical disagreements emerge because psychological reactions vary in response to phenomena (and not just because of some ethical property that our words necessarily refer to).
- It's not quite emotivism but also not reductionism (nor is it eliminativism).
- As a consequence, much of ethics can reasonably be cast as games (game theory), naturally, functionally, and hence, I think, structurally.
Flaws with Political Atomism
- Arrow’s Theorem and preference aggregation for voters - public policies almost always produce unhappy outcomes leading to an apparent contradiction between democratic mandates and policy.
- Aggregate price setting of billions of atomic transactions is inefficient and results in the Economic Calculation problem. Here, this problem doesn't arise solely because of technical limitations or skill but because of the intrinsic difference between singular objects and collective actions.
- NGO’s and collectives/groups are treated as afterthoughts - not as first-class denizens of society in their own right. As a result, the undue impact that these kinds of entities have in a society are often ignored (e.g. - failure to reign in "special interests").
- The concept of a human being, human nature, and individual is ontologically undermined (but ethically robust). In other words, we should grant moral status to all sentient beings capable of experience suffering/pain though human nature is a dubious notion. Unfortunately, this concept is central to most political philosophy systems.
Future Governance and Society
I've written about a few ideas:
These ideas encompass a few tweaks or suggestions to improve current governmental technologies, process, or procedures:
- Incentivize pro-social behavior (karma) rather than .
- Economic transactions are inherently structural and non-atomic. I don't think this phenomenon is well-understood.
- “One for all, all for one” - a perspective taken not because of political ideology but because of the intrinsic way these new transactions are calculated. This is an ontological feature and not an ideological one. (In this way, it is hoped that it will move the current political debates to a higher level of understanding - e.g. in a post-ideological and Hegelian sublimation sort of way).
- A better legal system is one whose documents and rules would be primarily digital, axiomatic, and transparent. (But not the elimination of paper documents - government documentation systems today are decidedly premised on a paper-first, software-second or software as an afterthought approach and so are often cumbersome, inaccurate, or inefficient.)
- Today the best governments are ultimately sacred documents enforced by loyal armies (contracts enforced by might). Historically, governments have struggled to enforce their sacred documents and laws and have often been lucky when armies chose to support them. In the future, mere documents will be augmented by software systems (or some equivalent) that have in-built enforcement along with military backing (laws enshrined in software systems, enforced by both might and programming constraints). Documents alone are pieces of paper that people chose to obey, support, or uphold for a variety of reasons (it's rational to do so, etc.). Software is language implemented and executed on machines - software is, by its very nature, imperative (rule-commanding): machines must execute instructed code, people are allowed to use some feature, or disallowed to by design. Even if no army backs such systems, they are still effective and normative.
Structuralism justifies and explains the following kinds of thinking common in business management:
- When some person joined the org they were super-powered beyond what they could or can accomplish on their own.
- The value of an organization is greater than the summed value of its parts.
How could these be true if atomism were strictly true?
And, consider how awesome it’d be if all of the following were true:
- The extended mind hypothesis is true - that the mind extends outside the human body into space - we offload our thinking onto notepads, computers, etc.
- Higher-dimensional computation.
- Higher-dimensional logic.
The soul isn’t immaterial on this view - it ceases when the body dies - but it may be in some sense external to the body (but also internal to it) aligning with old and new intuitions alike.
That’s not structuralist but cool nevertheless. Like in Alpha Centauri cool.
- Individualism originates in Renaissance thought and expresses the view that people have individual worth or value.
- Individualism was opposed to the idea that unless one were a noble they were just a nameless peasant. Either you were a noble or you were a member of a nameless mass class or group (peasants often lacked complete names, had generic names, or had less complex name patterns - nobles might have five to twenty names based on their status often in a variety of languages).
- Structuralism is not a repudiation of Individualism.
- Social structuralism is not a repudiation of Individualism.
- Structuralism is a repudiation of object-based or object-centric ontologies (e.g. - ways of thinking that take entities to be free-standing, substances, that satisfy Leibniz's Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles).
- It isn’t clear what a person is (soul - object, brain/nervous system - structuralist or aggregate object depending, animal - object, psychological - continuous memories, structuralist).