Social structures, epistemology and personal identity

Roberts, Francis Charles (1991). Social structures, epistemology and personal identity. PhD thesis The Open University.



In this thesis a set of interlocking arguments is fashioned. Each argument serves a dual purpose: it contributes to the acceptability of the main theme developed In the thesis and it increases the acceptability of the other arguments. At all stages the price paid for refusing to accept the conclusions drawn is cited.

There are two driving forces behind the construction of the set of arguments. The first involves a recognition that there is a need for some 'underiabouring' work to be done for the Social Sciences; the second, relatedly. that there is a need to relocate the current debate in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy on, the question of Personal Identity.

The colligation of the arguments accomplishes an 'underlabouring' task for the Social Sciences. This task consists of the identification of some of the Implications of the acceptance (whether tacit or explicitly stated) of two notions: the notions of what constitutes a person and what constitutes society. it Is argued that Possible uses of the concept of a person, inherent in any Interpretation of social phenomena, will constrain the explanatory power of any social scientific theory (or even ofa common system of beliefs) In which the interpretation is embedded. If one accepts a social scientific theory (or any common system of beliefs) which subsumes a concept of a person which does not see persons as essentially subjective, essentially social and essentially knowledge-seeking then one has to pay a series of penalties. Foremost among the penalties Is the sacrifice of the possibility of the expansion of the understanding of social phenomena.

There are two concepts of society, embedded in contrasting systems of beliefs, whose acceptance has the effect of reinforcing the constraint on the explanatory power of the systems. One concept Involves a view of society as an object with causal powers, the other sees only Individuals as social causal agents. Whether it is Implicit or explicitly stated, the acceptance of either concept of society will cement the constraint on the expansion of one's understanding of social phenomena. The arguments go on to show that only the acceptance of a concept of society seen as an ensemble (itself devoid of detectable causal power) of social structures with causal powers can induce a lifting of some of the restrictions on the expansion of one's understanding of social phenomena.

At the core of the arguments lies a fundamental distinction. This is the distinction which needs to be made between the functions of epistemological and ontological concepts which underpin one's understanding of social phenomena. It Is argued that, while such a distinction needs to be made, the relationship between the two functions is a symbiotic one - neither can operate without the other. The differentiation between the two functions is achieved by focusing on the distinction between knowledge and being - encapsulated in Chapter 2 by the distinction made between 'cultural environments' and 'social environments'. Linked to, and sustaining, the distinction between social and cultural environments is a distinction between two aspects of cognitive interactions between Individuals. These two aspects Involve a contrast between an Individual's sense of 'Interacting with' and a sense of 'being with' other Individuals. The former Involves Individuals in operating 'social kinds' while the latter involves them in sustaining the operating parameters of social kinds$ operations of social kinds are needed for changes in states of understanding to occur (in other words the operations have epistemological significance); by contrast the sustaining of the operational parameters of social kinds is significant with respect to the functions of ontological concepts. The failure of many theories of Personal Identity to address the problems generated by conflating epistemology and ontology In the social sciences renders such theories Inadequate to the task of providing a comprehensive analysis of Personal Identity. The arguments In the thesis pinpoint the nature of this Inadequacy, and show how it might be avoided. [math mode missing closing $]

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