Moses_Pleading_with_Israel_(crop)I wanted to draw attention to a fallacy that Anodyne Lite mentions in relation to one of my recent posts on epistemology and realism. The “special pleading fallacy” roughly consists in submitting something else to a particular form of critique without applying what I call the “principle of parity” or the “principle of reversibility” to one’s own theoretical concepts. As defined by Merriam-Webster’s:

Main Entry: 1par·i·ty
Pronunciation: \ˈper-ə-tē, ˈpa-rə-\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural par·i·ties
Etymology: Latin paritas, from par equal
Date: 1608

1 : the quality or state of being equal or equivalent
2 a : equivalence of a commodity price expressed in one currency to its price expressed in another b : equality of purchasing power established by law between different kinds of money at a given ratio
3 : an equivalence between farmers’ current purchasing power and their purchasing power at a selected base period maintained by government support of agricultural commodity prices
4 a : the property of an integer with respect to being odd or even b (1) : the state of being odd or even used as the basis of a method of detecting errors in binary-coded data (2) : parity bit
5 : the property of oddness or evenness of a quantum mechanical function
6 : the symmetry of behavior in an interaction of a physical entity (as a subatomic particle) with that of its mirror image

Here, of course, the principle of parity refers to the first sense of the term, referring to the equality of critical procedures or the manner in which a critical procedure or strategy of critique should be applied to the position itself.

read on!

I take it that Anodyne is getting at something like the principle of parity with respect to the special pleading fallacy. As Anodyne so nicely describes it:

…the “special pleading” fallacy… is a lesser known fallacy wherein one category/thing/object is allowed to operate without having the same rules applied to it that are being applied to every other category/thing/object in question. For example, strict social constructionists and anti-realist humanists accuse realists of valorizing science and cry “No Master Narratives!” when findings from science are invoked to support a viewpoint, while they themselves then go on to posit some other, alternative narrative that gets valorized and does all the heavy lifting in their epistemology (be it politics, the social, the “human”, language, etc.)

I would say that one of the great masters of diagnosing the special pleading fallacy at work is Latour. A good deal of his critique of sociology consists in showing how standard social-constructivist sociology fails to practice critical parity with respect to its own concepts. Thus, for example, in We Have Never Been Modern Latour applauds the sociologists Schaffir and Shapin for applying social critique to the experimental science of Boyle, revealing the manner in which Boyle’s experiments are bound up with extra-experimental issues such as politics and how he invents a new form of “rhetoric” (nonhuman objects that speak before an audience of “respected gentlemen”). What Schaffir and Shapin so nicely show is the manner in which the vacuum pump had to proliferate itself throughout Europe through a sort of epidemiology, being repeated again and again, built again and again, as a sort of cocktail party trick that gradually overturned the ether theory of space in favor of the vacuum theory of space. Facts aren’t just there when the experimental setting discloses them once, but have to replicate themselves throughout a community of “respected gentlemen” that attest to them and gradually endorse them. However, Latour then goes on to criticize Schaffer and Shapin for siding with Hobbes’ model of social force as defining the essence of human-world relations.

The problem here is that concepts like force, power, language, signs, the social, and minds are not themselves subjected to constructivist critique. Here it’s important to be careful with the term “constructivism” as philosophers like Latour and Stengers deploy it. Their constructivism is not a social constructivism, but rather has more to do with the work and materials involved in building something. As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, Latour’s constructivism and “trials of strength” are closer to what goes into building a good bridge than what social theory and a good deal of structuralist and post-structuralist continental thought refers to as “social constructivism”.

The problem with thinkers like Schaffin and Shapin is that they bring all of their critical notions to bear on naive concepts of objects, naive epistemological realism, the impartiality or neutrality of the experimental setting, but concepts like force, language, signs, minds, power, and the social are not subjected to a similar critique. As a result, concepts like force, power, language, signs, minds, power, and the social become something akin to Molière’s famous virtus dormativa, giving the appearance of explaining something without explaining anything at all. You ask me “why does wine make me sleepy?” With great assurance and authority I respond “because of its virtus dormativa!” What have I really said? I’ve said wine makes you sleepy because of its sleepy making power.

The case is similar with gravity. Someone asks “why do things fall?” or “why do the planets revolve around the sun?” and Herr Professor responds with great assurance and authority “because of gravity!” It looks like we’ve been given an explanation because we’ve been given a new word, but really all we’ve been given is a synonym for “the power that makes things fall and the power that makes planets revolve around the sun.” We have not been given an explanation. And this, by the way, is why physicists are today looking for the elusive Higgs Particle. This form of explanation is what Hegel called “tautological ground”. Tautological ground has the appearance of explaining something when, in reality, merely rephrasing the thing to be explained in other terms. If, nonetheless, tautological ground is crucial to the dialectic of inquiry, then this is because it at least marks the place or site where an explanation is needed.

We are told that force, power, language, minds, and the social are able to do these marvelous things, without being told how they are able to do these things. As such, force, power, language, minds, and the social are instances of a virtus dormativa. Our critical resources are not turned towards these entities, explaining how they are able to overdetermine everything else. But here’s the kicker, when our critical resources are turned towards these concepts we very quickly discover that these entities, as employed in social thought, are very much occult. Just as we discover that the sovereign has no intrinsic special power (virtus dormativa) that gives him his power over his subjects, but constantly has to negotiate, monitor, and maintain alliances with all sorts of other actors to maintain his power, just as we discover that the sovereign is tremendously weak and vulnerable in being beholden to his subjects for his power, so too do we discover that these occult entities have to negotiate all sorts of other actors in the world, human and nonhuman, to effectuate themselves in these ways. What these social constructivist theories fail to explain is how power is built, how signs proliferate, how language spreads, and how force acts. In recognizing this a number of theoretical problems disappear like the fog of an upsetting nightmare or an early morning mist that hadn’t caused the world to disappear after all. The measure of any critique is whether or not it reflexively applies its own critique to itself and despite all the talk of reflexivity in high theory I don’t see that this has been a very common practice.