Peyman Vahabzadeh's Ultimate Referentiality: Radical Phenomenology and the New Interpretative Sociology

Peyman Vahabzadeh
Ultimate referentiality

Radical phenomenology and the new interpretative sociology
Abstract A brief and selective conceptual glance at the history of socio- logical foundation shows that a certain assumption about the ‘ultimate referentiality’ of society has been at the heart of sociology. The late modern responses to, and reactions against, foundationalism in various schools in the human and social sciences provide a springboard for a new beginning in sociological inquiry. Drawing on radical phenomenology and postmeta- physical hermeneutical philosophy, this article summons attention to the concept of ultimate referentiality as the point of moorage that supposedly secures our theoretical postulates in a presumed locus in the ‘real’ – namely, ‘society’. Given our late modern crisis of metaphysical claims about ultimate foundations, the article makes an invitation to an interpretative sociologi- cal renewal with an acute sensitivity toward praxis. The article provision- ally makes a number of suggestions with respect to the modes of sociological practice that would render the discipline attuned to our age.
Key words deconstruction · interpretation · metaphysics · phenomenology · society · sociology · ultimate referentiality
In this article, I shall draw on the thoughts that I initially and briefly outlined in earlier works,1 albeit with limited exploration of their rami- fications for sociology. Equipped with a radical phenomenological gaze, this article enables a critical inquiry about a certain interpretative impulse that propelled much of sociological theories and methods ever since the inception of sociology. Due to spatial limitations, the arguments below are presented with painful abstraction and generalizations, which render this article only an invitation. My guiding/critical concept will be ‘ulti- mate referentiality’. I will argue that for much of its history, exceptions aside, sociology has been guided by the operative assumption about the
PHILOSOPHY & SOCIAL CRITICISM vol 35 no 4 pp. 447–465
Copyright © The Author(s), 2009.
Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/0191453708102095
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‘real’ as True and thereby stable and foundational. This assumption has conceptually constructed ‘society’ as the ultimate referentiality of socio- logical inquiry, a privileged domain posited by theory as a reservoir of facts upon whose probing sociological inquiry is satisfied. This provis- ional definition of ultimate referentiality will allow us to detect its oper- ative presence in the works of select founders of sociological thought. The arguments are presented in four steps: (1) a brief summary of a selective conceptual history of sociological quest for foundations will prepare for discussions on (2) how several contemporary schools have already launched various criticisms of foundationalism. (3) Then, I will explore the radical phenomenological concept of ‘ultimate referentiality’, before (4) lastly, offering some preliminary observations about the prac- tice of epochal-interpretative sociology that rejects upholding society as a privileged, ultimate referentiality.
1 The origins: sociological quest for foundations
These days it is conveniently accepted that the form of knowledge we commonly call ‘science’ is a result of the Enlightenment through which God as the ultimate source of knowledge was (gradually) replaced with carefully drafted inquisitive methods of the rational subject. This reversal of the ultimate source and justification of the validity of knowledge is best presented in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. While explicit about his task of commencing ‘to build anew from the foun- dation’ of sciences,2 he rhetorically retains God as the source of certainty (or doubt).3 However, a subtle, but operative, distinction between the sensible and the intelligible enables a division between subject and object, which in turn reintroduces the age-old question of causality, not in terms of God’s will or predestination, but as factual causality: idea (theory) ‘must without doubt derive [objective reality] from some cause in which there is at least as much formal reality as this idea contains of objective reality’.4 Whence arises Truth as the fullness of objective reality in the idea or concept (called ‘adequation’ in philosophy). The objective/ factual is given the status of an ultimacy that holds the truth within itself, a truth to be extracted only by the knowing/thinking subject.
In the same vein, Leibniz’s famous dictum ‘nihil est sine ratione’ (‘nothing is without reason’) denies an entity’s existence if it cannot be submitted to rational inquiry into the causes. Many decades and vicis- situdes later, with the inception of sociology in the work of Auguste Comte, such a conception of the world, by then dominant in the natural sciences, re-emerged in inquiry into the nature of society. Comte’s fascin- ating breakthrough that led to sociology as a ‘positive philosophy’ would not have been possible without the intellectual and philosophical
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foundations in the works of Descartes, Leibniz, Galileo, Bacon, and others. Viewed as the realm of pure objectivity, society is given a priv- ileged position whence factual data can be derived with the precision of the exact sciences. Comte coined the term ‘social physics’ to capture just that. He founded sociology upon the operative division between ‘social statics’ and ‘social dynamics’, situating this analytical division in a tri- partite historical framework that would explain the evolution of the human mind in terms of its search for causality. While theological and metaphysical stages both erred in misplacing the true causes of social development upon, respectively, God and abstract forces, the positive stage allows the identification of absolute causes that abolish all forms of arbitrary projections of causation. This last stage also marks the advent of a new humanity of rational individuals.5 Reason enables the extraction of facts through observation, while a comparative approach to stability (social statics) and change (social dynamics) allows the extrac- tion of the elusive laws that govern social phenomena.6 Similar to the Cartesian inceptive reflection, in Comte, too, there can be no separation between the method and the subject matter, but the relation between the two is deductive: ‘In the formation of a new science, the general spirit of it must be seized before its particular parts can be investigated.’7
Although many varied, even opposing, interpretations of the works of Marx and Engels are possible, one can hardly exaggerate the privi- leged position they accorded to economy, calling it a ‘base’ or ‘structure’. In a well-known preface, Marx explicitly posited – echoing Descartes and Comte – that in ‘the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of develop- ment of their material productive forces’.8 The point here is to ascer- tain that there is a ‘definite’, foundational realm of relations: ‘The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political super- structure and to which correspond definite forms of social conscious- ness.’9 The quest for objectivity is maintained by privileging economy and by adhering to a self-acclaimed scientific status for theory. As Engels puts it, echoing Leibniz, ‘everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything.’10
The 19th-century approach to sociological analysis by and large reports a certain kind of critical gaze that analytically disregards the fundamental difference between the world of people and the world of things. The establishment of sociology as an academic discipline, achieved contemporaneously by Durkheim and Weber, set up later the ‘socio- logical imagination’ on a dual origination: the positivist (Durkheim) and the interpretative-historical (Weber) schools are different in many respects
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and for good reasons, but, at least initially, they were both informed by a search for mooring sociological observations to ascertainable and un- deniable social groundwork. Both of these foundational approaches share a careful delineation of the subject matter of social analysis in order to reclaim its scientific status.
Emile Durkheim’s greatest accomplishment rests in creating an entire domain of social inquiry that would conform to the rigorous pillars of scientific investigation. Social phenomena are generally elusive, often unyielding, thus giving rise to various kinds of explanatory myths from religion to various pseudo-sciences. Durkheim’s study of suicide, exem- plary and ground-laying, became archetypical in showing precisely how social phenomena can be turned into ‘social facts’ – that is, into work- able scientific data.11 Sociology is therefore the science of the realm of human reality. In Durkheim’s words, ‘A thing is any object of knowledge which is not naturally controlled by the intellect, which cannot be adequately grasped by a simple process of mental activity’.12 Facts are therefore ‘unknown things of which we are ignorant; for the represen- tations which we have been able to make of them in the course of our life, having been made uncritically and unmethodically, are devoid of scientific value’.13 Sociology should thus set itself a realm of inquiry that is not reducible to political science, philosophy, social psychology, or social history. But with the study of society, Durkheim boldly acknowl- edges, there comes the problem of values, because ‘everything, in society, is considered in relation to man’.14 To uphold the objectivity of sociol- ogy, Durkheim submits values to sociological inquiry, arguing that ‘social nature is sui generis, that it is irreducible, not only to physical nature, but even to the psychic nature of the individual’.15 Social facts ‘reside exclusively in the very society itself which produces them, and not in its parts – that is, its members’.16 This ‘society’ is ‘real’ in that it is external to us and antecedent to our consciousness. Hence arises the concept of social ‘institutions’ as modes of acting and belief systems, which gives rise to the sociological thirst for wresting true causes away from the entire edifice of myths that tends to (mis)represent society to the untrained eye. Durkheim succeeds in establishing the unmistakably exclusive subject matter of sociological inquiry, but by constructing a conception of society that bestows a privileged essence upon society as the exclusive reservoir of facts.
Sociology’s inceptive years also witnessed the emergence of a specifi- cally ‘German’ school in that it was historicist. Max Weber’s interpreta- tive sociology was informed by the concept of Verstehen, ‘understanding’. Significant about Weber’s work is not so much a vehement effort for delineating the field of sociology by exposing the inadequacies of other approaches to society (similar to Durkheim), but by starting from the existing understanding of social phenomena shared by members of a
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given society. As such, interpretation should include the individual’s worldview (weltanschauung) as well as cultural edifice. For Durkheim the already formed structures of acting and thinking attest to ‘social constraints’ and ‘social facts’; for Weber they indicate interpretative action. Whereas in Durkheim we witness a vigorous assertion that socio- logical practice is value-free, in Weber the question of value judgment is pushed back to its limits, thereby enabling a fantastic sociological inchoation that is anachronistic because of its self-reflexive character (a feature of postmodern or feminist approaches). The distinction between empirical facts and practical value judgments is ultimately problematic for Weber. In a Nietzschean vein, Weber argues that facts indeed embody values:17 scientific attitude is but a product of value judgment. Viewed historically, science arose from a value judgment that succeeded in shifting the discourses of knowledge away from their dependence on God to their reliance on carefully drafted, and thus ever-changing, methods. But this claim does not undermine the objectivity that our profession tends to uphold; on the contrary, scientific values increase objectivity: a quest for objectivity and acute adherence to rigorous method of inquiry (itself a value) can guarantee that our findings are not arbitrary or products of our whims. The task of this objectivity is to produce ‘meanings’ that accompany social life. A knowledge system whose source of legitimation is external to it (say, God) has little use for objec- tivity, accuracy and rigor. Weber’s brilliance precisely rests in establish- ing a scientific inquiry that is not heedless of its own social origins. Sociology is therefore instituted as a reflexive inquiry that does not wrap its findings with gestures of impermeable and value-free exactitude and certitude: sociology is the process of explaining the meanings that are byproducts of our actions. As avers Weber, ‘But plainly in that case the opposite of “nature”, in the sense of the “meaningless”, is not “social life” but just the meaningful – that is, the “meaning” which can be attached to, or “found in”, an event or object’.18 The sociologist walks on a precarious rope, trying to maintain the balance between values and meanings, on one side, and quest for objectivity, on the other.
Let us, for now, be content with these founding figures. We clearly see that sociological inquiry was generally modeled, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, after the image of natural sciences. As such, it needed to legitimize itself, as a distinct mode of knowledge, by delineating its specific field of study (society), as the ‘real’, against which the truth of sociological explanations would be evaluated. In itself, this does not necessarily constitute a problem: all specialized sciences have their specific field, their referentiality. The problem arises when the ‘real’ is treated and assumed as a privileged point of moorage – that is, in our context, as the ultimate source that can satisfy sociological inquiry. Sensitivity toward the status of the ‘real’ in sociological inquiry allows
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us to see a certain trait, however stealthy, that sociology has inherited from Descartes: standing at the risky moment of inception without knowing the rate of success or failure of what he was about to institute philosophically, for Descartes the ‘theological underpinning’ still func- tioned as the utter guarantee of certitude that is reflected in the mind of ego cogito. What we witness in Comte’s founding sociological moment is a secularized Cartesian moment, when the ‘theological underpinnings of the new science have served their purpose; [and] the new science no longer needs any nonscientific backing. Its clarity and its power are its more than sufficient, self-grounding principles. It has no need of any other hypothesis.’19 ‘Self-grounding principle’ attests to the scientific worldview that the truth of our statement about facts rests in verifiable referentiality of the real. Among the classical social theorists discussed above, certain realms function as self-grounding, which due to their ‘real’ and objective character attain the status of not just referentiality, which is necessary for all human communication (let alone science), but ultimate referentiality. For Comte, ‘social physics’ functions as ultimate referentiality; for Marx and Engels, the economic base; for Durkheim, ‘social facts’; for Weber, given his astute awareness of the naivety of positivist approach to sociological inquiry, a generalized notion of society (however varied and unsettled) as the reservoir of meaning. They all posited their conception of ‘society’ as the true cause. The quest for ultimacy continued into the 20th century: we just need to recall the structuralist quest for the unchanging patterns of cultural life and uni- versal structure of human mind that would do away with historicity and societal development altogether, as Claude Lévi-Strauss announced that ‘the ultimate goal of human sciences [is] not to constitute, but to dissolve man. . . . Ethnographic analysis tries to arrive at invariants beyond the empirical diversity of human societies.’20
The search for a fundamental ground that would ensure the validity and objectivity of our inquiries in the social and human sciences is far from over. After all, it is such a ground that presumably can separate social sciences from art and literature, which brings us to the guiding concept of this study: ultimate referentiality. But before attending to it, let us explore a few critical responses to concerns similar to the one this article tries to raise: can we still keep our discipline without an opera- tive assumption of some fundamental ground?
2 Responses to foundationalism
The division between quantitative and qualitative methods – inscribed right in the inceptive moment of the foundation of sociology as an academic discipline and traceable to the worldviews of Durkheim and
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Weber respectively – reports a duality that governs sociology (indeed social sciences in general). On the one hand, the quantitative approach tends to systematically employ useful statistical methods of data- gathering and number-crunching in order to remove the potential barriers that hold the researcher away from the immediacy of societal signification. As a result, when abstracted, the findings thus gained are context-free (e.g. demography). In quantitative methods, we witness the closest possible interrelation between our theoretical requisites and the factual data our methods manage to extract from reality. The over- lapping of reality and truth is thus achieved through a language of exactitude. On the other hand, there are the qualitative approaches which hold, by and large, that the process of extraction of meaning from social reality is mediated through interpretation, which in turn exposes the inescapable contextuality of interpretative acts. As such, the findings that qualitative methods lead to, with simplification, remain context- bound, allowing only a certain degree of abstraction.
The immediacy of meaning, the belief that the social world is directly and accurately intelligible, and that such intelligibility can be extracted through predefined methods that guarantee relative exactitude, is a char- acteristic of ultimate referentiality. Positivist methods have undeniable place in the social sciences, particularly since sociology is entangled with policy-making in which any claim must be supported by hard evidence. But this means that the need for certain methods in our profession arises from vaster necessities outside our discipline, or, stated differently, posi- tivism accords with our technological era. This brings us full circle back to the Comtean foundation of sociology as the science of modernity and captured in his motto: ‘from the government of men, to the adminis- tration of things’. It was sociology that conceptually founded modern society rather than modern society necessitating sociology: sociology posited a fully rational domain in the ‘real’ – a certain conception of ‘society’ – whose truth can be revealed only if our theories and methods are equally rational.
As for the interpretative and qualitative approaches, it has been the case that the mediated distance between sociological discourses and their subject matters have widened. Clifford Geertz’s seminal view assigns ethnography the task of ‘thick description’, a rich and multi-layered account of the delicately codified and symbolic nature of social life as observed in the field.21 Similarly, George Marcus and Michael Fischer announce the problem of representation. Paradigm shifts and the rise and fall of various schools of social sciences show that after capturing the imagination of social scientists for a while, dominant frameworks and theories lose their attempted monopoly over the interpretation of reality, thus waning in the wake of new frameworks and approaches.22 Insofar as the search for causality is concerned, the subject matter of
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ethnography (and social sciences by implication) is elusive, multi-layered, and often misleading. As such, no methodological magic can decisively represent society and make it (and its rationality) immediately appear. That is why feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith refuses the simple causational explanation of human action: an observer always observes a ‘slice of action’ of someone else, therefore not knowing the entire universe condensed in this one slice of action.23 The solution, partly, is not to exclude the subjects’ experiences, a tendency in (social) scientific abstraction, but to factor in, à la phenomenology, human experiences as irreplaceable components of social life.
These attempts at revisiting social science practices attest, each in its own way, to the problems of referentiality, immediacy and the presum- ably rational foundation of society. Since quantitative approaches rely heavily on the positivist-scientific models, the application of Thomas Kuhn’s radical critique of the ‘normal science’24 would not be far- fetched. Kuhn’s theory brings awareness to the scientific community about the fact that science does not neatly and gradually advance through progress or evolutionary continuity, but through scientific revolutions – that is, ruptures and paradigm shifts. More importantly, the choice of paradigm cannot be derived from normal sciences,25 but ‘when para- digms change, the world itself changes with them’.26 One can therefore observe, with Calvin Schrag, that indeed the paradigm to which we adhere as social scientists creates a worldview and constitutes a life-world such that for the practitioners of a new paradigm the world appears altogether anew.27 Awareness about how we constitute our world based on the frameworks and methods we choose becomes the springboard for paradigm shifts of the kind to which this article invites readers.
In recent decades two schools have influenced the human and social sciences: deconstruction and radical phenomenology. The contributions of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction to the human sciences cannot be fairly presented here; suffice it to focus on two interrelated points that have led to major undertakings in the social sciences: (1) the critique of ‘metaphysical parallelism’ and (2) exposing the ‘logocentrism’ operative in much of the western philosophical tradition. As regards metaphysi- cal parallelism, Derrida argues that western thought has for long been governed by a fundamental assumption of the duality between the sensible and the intelligible. We have already seen this division at work in the inceptive Cartesian and Comtean moments. Distinctions between signifier (sound-image) and signified (concept) in Saussure, nature and culture in Lévi-Strauss, speech and writing in Rousseau attest to the operative assumption in the human and social sciences in which the first term in the binary is deemed as anterior, while the second as superior to the other.28 As a result, the intelligible, the principle that distinguishes ego cogito as modern humanity, functions as an operative assumption
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because it takes meaning as full presence (intelligible), a presence (bearing the stamp of metaphysics) transparently evident in the sensible as if the sensible effortlessly volunteers meaning to the rational mind.29 Derrida collapses these binaries by showing, first, the ‘traces’ that such differ- ences leave behind, and second, that every difference is permanently deferred (for which his neologism, differánce, stands). As pertains the role of logocentrism, Derrida argues that in the discourse of human sciences, the structure has been reduced to a center as fixed origins such that the fixity of the center would limit the play of elements within the structure. This is so because stability and unity are requirements for metaphysical thought. The play of elements within the structure, a discourse, disrupts the stability of metaphysical presence. It must there- fore be prohibited at all costs. Derrida argues that since there has never been an original or central (which is why the discourse of human sciences has needed metaphysical parallelisms), there has always been the play of substitutions for the center within a given structure. A discourse, strictly, designates such structure as ‘a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.’30
We know that anthropology, literature, various feminisms, and crit- ical law studies have broken new grounds by incorporating elements of deconstruction into their frameworks. Significant among recent schools is postcolonial studies, a school that has applied Derrida’s critique of metaphysical parallelism to the duality between the colonial and the colonized, or the West and the Orient.31 Among other things, post- colonial studies have shown the connection between colonialism and certain applications of rational positivism. But what are the implications of deconstruction for sociological theories and methods?
The potential contributions of deconstruction to sociology can best be summarized in two respects: first, since in the absence of a central signifier (society) the meaning of social action is permanently deferred, sociological findings are always already provisional. Therefore, socio- logical findings remain self-reflexive since sociology must acknowledge that social life is an ongoing affair. Thus, all theoretical fixities are only products of our discipline since fixities explain praxis once and for all according to some grand schema based on fictitious human faculties (e.g. rational animal) or societal characteristics (rational foundation). One recalls the application of rational choice theory in ‘resource mobil- ization theory’ in the works of Charles Tilly and his unfounded but operative assumption about human action, in social movements, as the calculation of costs and benefits,32 an approach totally heedless of the contextuality of human action and an assumption that has not escaped objections by several other prominent social movement theorists.33 Not
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only positivism but also interpretative approaches (including the Weberian school) in sociology need to step back from their ultimate faith in the stability of meaning – another metaphysical assumption. Secondly, it must be acknowledged that the subject matter of sociology, itself a conceptual construct called ‘society’, is not anterior to sociological practice and its postulates. Society is in fact a product of the sociological gaze – a gaze that is not innocent, impartial, or unaffecting, but rather paradigmati- cally contaminating in the sense that it reduces society to those aspects or realms for which the framework that conditions the observer’s gaze has been conceptually equipped.
The other school that, I believe, holds insights into a new interpre- tative sociology is what I call, following Reiner Schürmann, radical phenomenology. As a post-Heideggerian school of philosophy which advocates a critique of metaphysical assumptions that govern our thinking and acting – and advocated by Schürmann, Gianni Vattimo and Werner Marx – radical phenomenology takes the classic phenomenological turn in the social sciences to new, epochal levels. Phenomenology is not a stranger to sociology: it has been several decades since Alfred Schutz brought Husserl’s phenomenology to the study of society in his The Phenomenology of the Social World (originally published in 1932), a book praised by Husserl himself. Schutz acknowledges his oblique debt to Weber as well as the need to revisit Weberian interpretative sociology because of its imprecision.34 He stresses the intersubjective construction of reality in which perpetual attempts at (re)constructing the meaning of social action (partly based on past experiences) creates a stream of consciousness in the (uncritical) ‘natural attitude’ shared by a collective. As a result, ‘there are certain basic assumptions which induce us to consider this world as a real one’.35 Later, with the 1966 publication of The Social Construction of Reality, major ideas of Schutz were popu- larized in sociology.36 What is significant about this work is the key position bestowed, quite appropriately, upon epistemology and sociology of knowledge within social theory.
Phenomenological sociology, however, still remained within the ambits of Husserlian concern for the theorization of objective reality in a manner of methodical bracketing (epoché) of presumed reality, which was Cartesian at heart.37 As such, the retrieval of the immediacy of meaning was the task of Husserlian phenomenology which phenomeno- logical sociology inevitably inherited. With major Heideggerian imports into the human and social sciences in the past couple of decades, the classical phenomenology itself underwent major revisions. One that concerns us here is the shift away for the knowing subject (ego cogito). The phenomenology of our time is ‘radical’ because it refuses to grant the subject the seat of ultimate judgment. Instead, due to the centrality of time in Heidegger’s analysis of the history of metaphysics, the issue
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of knowing is pushed back to the limits of time because time reveals itself to us as epochs.38
From a radical phenomenological standpoint, the fact that the social sciences in general and sociology in particular appear at a specific historical period holds an essential truth about the epoch in which we live. Following Heidegger’s Destruktion of western metaphysics, radical phenomenology situates modes of thinking and acting in the context of each epoch of western civilization, since thought and action bear the stamps of the epochal principles within which they emerge. Here the notion of epoch deserves a closer attention, because Heidegger never used the term simply as ‘era’ or ‘age’, but in the sense of the Greek term, ‘epoché’, which means ‘withholding’. Thus an epoch can be understood as a historical period which, inevitably, witnesses the self-withholding of Being in a specific fashion. In each of the epochs of western meta- physics, from the classical age of Greek, to the medieval period, to the modern era, and today’s technological age, the epochal mode of uncon- cealedness of beings (entities) has withheld Being from our views (hence his definition of metaphysics as the ‘oblivion of Being’), making us attend beings (entities) instead of asking how beings come around differently in different times. To ancient Greeks, a star represents wisdom, to a medieval Christian an angel, to modern humanity a constellational com- ponent: with the shift of epochs and their specific constellation of truth, entities mutate into new forms of presence. What is significant about the study of epochs is that each epoch has its ‘economy of presence’ and its constellation of truth equipped with, and supported by, the proper mode of thinking. This is how layman and scholar alike can easily distin- guish between, say, medieval and modern humanity.
Given our awareness about the epochal character of Truth, post- Heideggerian philosophy is intent upon rethinking metaphysics in this technological age. Radical phenomenology intends to show the epochal character of thinking and acting: metaphysical quest for foundations (i.e. Being as stable presence) has historically tried to reduce thinking to the affirmation of (assumed) pregiven foundations, and action to submission to the normative requirements of such foundations. Our awareness about metaphysics as well as our attunement to the point that thinking and acting are historical-epochal will lead us to the point of refusing foundations and norms that dictate what is to be thought and what is to be done. As such, the thinking and acting that aims at chal- lenging metaphysics will become an-archic (that is, without a founding First or arché).39
Another post-Heideggerian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo, argues that in our postmodern time when metaphysics is deeply in crisis and when philosophy can no longer function as securing principles and founda- tions (Heidegger’s ‘end of philosophy’), postmetaphysical philosophy
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takes the form of ‘sociological impressionism’. He calls for the ‘‘identi- fication’ of philosophy with sociology’.40 In other words, actuality, the subject matter of sociology, reports our present historical situation. Post- modernity, Vattimo argues, has placed western, colonial monolithic understanding of the world in deep crisis. As a ‘fact’ of our time, the emergence of the new voices – women, ethnicities, aboriginals, Third Worlders, gays and Lesbians, in general, ‘identity politics’ – marks multi- dimensional and varied refusals against the governing metaphysical principles in the West. This crisis is especially acute as the technologi- cal West is conquering the last corners of the planet through military occupation and capitalist globalization. Instead of homogenization and universalization, however, we witness irreducible heterogeneity and increased pull toward particularity.
Refusing the assumption of ‘ultimate referentiality’ in sociology could not have been possible without this brief history to which I find myself, if only obliquely, indebted.
3 Ultimate referentiality
Earlier, I provisionally defined ultimate referentiality as a presumed ulti- mate ground that we hold as manifesting itself in the ‘real’, which serves to verify and secure our theoretical postulates. It always shows itself as an endpoint where our inquiry uncovers the causal/rational relations that explain a social phenomenon. We test our hypotheses against findings in empirical research, which hold the truth about our postulates. Partially coining the term ‘ultimate referentiality’, I was inspired by Reiner Schürmann (1987) who uses the term ‘ultimate referent’ to point out the metaphysical foundations that have given rise to the epochs of western history. Ultimate referents are key theoretical postulates that render phenomena within a given epoch intelligible in certain ways. The natural substance, God, and the rational subject have respectively functioned as the ultimate referents of the classical Greek, the medieval period, and modernity. Ultimate referents hegemonize an entire epoch so that phenomena ‘make sense’ in certain ways and certain modes of acting become possible, even necessary. As hegemonic grounds, ultimate refer- ents render themselves invisible and as such are embedded in everyday life: ‘Epochal principles are ontic givens.’41 Before their exhaustion, when they are critically revisited, proximity renders actors almost blind to the inescapable power of ultimate referents that govern their thinking and acting.
I use the term ‘ultimate referentiality’ to designate a point of ultimacy, a foundation or a ground, that justifies an entire theoretical approach to social phenomena. As an operative assumption, ultimate referentiality
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simultaneously runs on two levels. (1) It bestows upon a certain locus in the ‘real’ a privileged status and unique power to define phenomena by virtue of an existing theoretical approach that corresponds to this locus. The privileged, ‘real’ locus reorganizes (within theory) social phenomena and social life according to its perceived logic. (2) Ultimate referentiality constructs a specific concept (or a body of concepts) whose mission is to elevate the status of the presumed and privileged locus in the ‘real’ to the center of theory. This center, as Derrida has argued, limits the play of differences within the theoretical discourse, thereby solidifying the correspondence between an actual phenomenon and the concept that ‘captures’ it in theory. Thus, theory produces an exact conceptual ‘match’ of the ‘real’ that it posits. Ultimate referentiality is thus a theoretical assumption and not a characteristic of the facts. By rendering itself invisible through this double movement, ultimate refer- entiality directs theory towards reinforcing certain conceptual grounds that are simply assumptions. Although ultimate referentiality has un- deniable affinities with the poststructuralist term ‘essentialism’, it does not seek to merely identify a presumed essence or ground that elevates a certain theoretical construct of a phenomenon to the center (e.g. human nature). Rather, ultimate referentiality reflects on how theory constructs and conceptualizes such centers, while internally legitimizing itself through assumptions about ultimacy.
‘Society’ has generally served as the ultimate referentiality of socio- logical practice. Through abstraction we have elevated society to the reservoir of factual things that have been functioning according to certain logics which our investigations tend to unravel. The act of unravelling the pre-existing societal logic we call ‘sociological explanation’. ‘Society’, in other words, lends itself to sociological inquiry as if the former is entirely external to the latter, and not as the latter’s construct. We also explain human praxis according to the mysterious logics of society. As such, ‘society’ functions as an ultimate point of moorage for theory: it becomes possible for sociologists to evaluate the actual according to the a priori principles of the ‘real’. Such legislative hegemonization is foremost among the clandestine projects of modernity.
Thus, there is a double edge to referentiality: there can be ultimate conceptions of referentiality, in which case ‘society’ is deemed as the mysterious bearer of Reason, always preceding us, and therefore the final judge for the exactitude of our findings. But deconstruction shows us that such a conception of society can only be possible when we perceive of society as an enclosed totality that limits the play of elements that do not conform to its master logic or grand narrative (Lyotard). That is why ultimate referentiality originates with an inceptive interpret- ative act when the society is reduced (i.e. brought to a discursive closure) to those aspects for which positivist worldview can account. Positivism
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is no less an interpretative act than any other self-declared interpretative school, except positivism has sent into oblivion its own original founda- tion as an interpretative act: Descartes’ foundation of scientific rationality and the division between subject and object are simply interpretations – except they have grown hegemonic.
Given our postmodern, postmetaphysical critique of foundations, however, there can also be referentiality without ultimacy when society is deemed as an inexhaustible source of knowledge, always richer than our findings, perpetually in the process of reshaping its own laws, and, above all, indifferent to our theoretical expectations. This conception of society leads to a sociology that is deeply interpretative, because: (1) with the rejection of foundationalism there remains no ultimate judgment to which the principles of our theories should conform; and (2) the condition of possibility of the actual is nothing but the permanently deferred discursive closure, or, in other words, the actual takes place in the play of openness and closure, in redrawing the boundaries of the social, which is always a reinstitution of society. This second point is on par with Zygmunt Bauman’s proposal, in his advocacy of sociology of post- modernity, to replace the concept of ‘society’ as an enclosed totality with that of ‘sociality’ which captures social processes.42
With a radical phenomenological critique of ultimate referentiality that abandons the notion of ‘society’ as an ultimate, rational fundament a new interpretative sociology is born. Let us, in conclusion, attempt to conceptualize this new ‘interpretative sociology’.
4 Toward a postmetaphysical interpretative sociology?
Perhaps the most basic step toward a postmetaphysical view of sociol- ogy is to push the very notion of ‘science of society’ back to its specific historical conditions of possibility, when, in the nineteenth century, the search for the fundamental principles that govern societies was aided by scientific rationality and modeled after the natural sciences. This observation shows that ‘society’ itself is not in fact antecedent to our sociological inquiry; it is rather the latter’s product and therefore a historically bound concept and only thus changing. Having established this, the new interpretative sociology makes fresh departures in theory and method, of which I will briefly discuss five aspects due to page limits.
First, the new sociology insists on a distinction between the real and the actual. A certain conception of the ‘real’ has always exploited reality as an undeniable source of (dis)proof. Since interpretative sociology treats every sociological concept only as yet another interpretation, it submits such monolithic and unchanging conceptions of the ‘real’ to scrutiny. But it does not jettison reality either. Instead, interpretative
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sociology subjects the ‘real’ to the test of the actual. Here actuality is taken in a Heideggerian fashion: actualization hides possibilities. A phen- omenon’s actual presence covers over its many possible and unrealized forms of presence. Actuality is therefore only one mode among a phenom- enon’s many possible modes of presence and cannot be simply reduced to the ‘real’ as a closed, rational entity. Thus, strictly speaking, actuality takes conceptual precedence over reality. This conception of actuality allows us to treat reality as utterly open, an ever-changing process, which presents not only actualities but also the unactualized possibilities.
Second, and as a result, the new interpretative sociology is future- oriented, because it identifies with emergent modes of thinking and acting beyond our modern, technological and metaphysical boundaries. Inter- pretative sociology acutely heeds its own historical conditions and acts based on sensitivity toward the fall of grand narratives. My earlier provocative and action-oriented designation for this sociological view, the ‘sociology of possibilities’,43 captures just that: ‘Higher than actuality stands possibility.’44 By liquidating ultimacies that govern sociological theory and methods, the new sociology prepares for the possibilities that our postmodern historical junction may reveal. One must understand the Heideggerian concept of ‘history’ properly to appreciate my advocacy of possibilities. He plays with the words Geschichte (history) and Geschick (destiny): history alludes to past actualizations (closures) while holding future possibilities (openings).
Third, futurity is the reason why the interpretative sociology is ‘action-oriented’. Sociology has a tendency to study patterns, systems, structures, trends, paradigms – all of them expressing closure. By contrast, the sociology of possibilities seeks openings and thus heeds the develop- ing ways out of the existing systemic closures. Our present situation – in which actual cultural plurality and the emergence of new social move- ments (women’s, gay, aboriginal, ethnic minorities, etc.) challenge uni- versal models and unilinear notion of progress – necessitates sociology to have Janus’ face: retrospectively, the new sociology subjects the existing social structures and institutions as well as universal models (these sedimentations of past particular actualizations) to historical interpretation. Prospectively, new interpretative sociology identifies the possibilities that the actual, existing institutions and structures have concealed. One can only observe a social phenomenon before its actu- alization through acute sensitivity toward action, or, strictly, praxis. So much so that the main component of the sociology of possibility is praxiology. The new interpretative sociology seeks those paradigm shifts in human praxis that can capture the changing nature of our acting and thinking.
The concept of praxiology (obviously different from what Luïc Wacquant advocates45) deserves a closer attention because praxiology
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is caught between metaphysics and postmetaphysics. It relies on the actual to uncover the possible through human action. Since the notion of unilinear and monological progress is no longer held valid, modes of societal development are to be understood as plural, diverse and context- specific. The sociology of possibilities is therefore still ‘grounded’ in empirical research, but now empirical findings are regarded as bound by our epoch. Thus a ground can no longer reveal the logic of action. Only by taking action qua action into sociological analysis can sociol- ogy attune itself to the new without submitting to the lures of ultimacy.46 Action is the site where the epochal code reveals itself. As unfolding modes of practice that reveal new modes of intelligibility about social life, action allows us to see how society transforms through creative thoughts. Action is always situated in the existing social conditions but has the capacity to break away, if only partially, with the dominant norms and logics of the existing social structures and institutions. This would be the beginning of a sociological gaze that does not regard social movements as expressive types of action proper to presumed social conditions; rather, this new sociology deems social movements and actors as genuinely institutive of social life, which, to repeat a point, is always epochal and historical.
Ironically, praxiology situates sociology in a place historically com- parable to sociology’s origins, when Comte created sociology to found modern society. Now, the sociology of possibilities seeks to advocate a postmetaphysical social organization. That irony itself is part of our historical juncture as we both confirm and refuse the past (just like my oblique loyalty to the sociological tradition!).
Fourth, the new interpretative sociology brings epistemology to the fore. Since, as discussed, it is no longer possible to validate our findings according to the dictates of universal principles, the epistemological question becomes part and parcel of every sociological claim. The new interpretative sociology has certain affinities with Sandra Harding’s re- formulating the question of validity through ‘standpoint’ epistemology,47 while pushing the standpoints of the subject back against this historical context of late modernity and responses to the crises of foundational- ism. In our time when diversity reveals itself as an actuality, cultural plurality and consensus replace universal validity and gestures of normal science. Our findings remain provisional because the very methods of validity are without exception interpretative. What the new interpreta- tive sociology adds to standpoint theory is a historical analysis of the origins of the processes that lead to experience as the basis of standpoint. Moreover, since standpoints are inevitably historical, they are future- oriented. The new interpretative sociology sets itself the mandate of exploring the possible futurities of experiences and the standpoints they ensue.
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Lastly, a work of new interpretative sociology moves away from the cut-and-dry prose that dominates much of sociological works (just like the one used here!). Instead of finding an expression that would match ‘objective reality’, a certain tendency toward creative writing will surface in interpretative sociology: while the new sociology retains the referen- tiality of the actual, it is self-conscious about its own narrative con- struction. In fact, interpretative sociological writing adopts the genre of autobiography because: (1) an autobiography acknowledges the position of its author/narrator; (2) in autobiography, referentiality is specific but not ultimate; (3) autobiography builds its narrative according to a heightened sensitivity toward contexts in which events have taken place; (4) an autobiographical account shows how certain decisions have been made under determinate circumstances, while it reflexively alludes to the possible decisions (even potentially better ones) that have been missed. Reflexive sociology, of course, is hardly new, but in this invitation this reflexivity is specifically tied to a conception of time as history and thus to the futurity of acting and thinking. The autobiographical genre, there- fore, presents a closely knit account of actuality, while offering possi- bilities through reflection – the paths that, although never taken, could have been life-altering. The new interpretative sociology, then, finds a writing style that is appropriate for our historical junction.
University of Victoria, Canada
  1. 1  See: Peyman Vahabzadeh, ‘A Critique of Ultimate Referentiality in the Social Movement Theory of Alberto Melucci’, Canadian Journal of Sociology 26(4) (December 2001): 611–33; Peyman Vahabzadeh, Articulated Experi- ences: Toward A Radical Phenomenology of Contemporary Social Move- ments (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), ch. 7; Peyman Vahabzadeh, ‘Technological Liberalism and the Anarchic Actor’, in Ian Angus (ed.), Anarcho-Modernism: Toward A New Critical Theory (Vancouver: Talon Books, 2001), pp. 341–50.
  2. 2  René Descartes, Key Philosophical Writings, ed. E. Chávez-Arvizo (Hert- fordshire: Wordsworth, 1997), p. 134.
  3. 3  ibid., p. 149.
  4. 4  ibid., p. 153.
  5. 5  See Auguste Comte, Social Statics and Social Dynamics: The Theory of
    Order and the Theory of Progress (Albuquerque, NM: American Classical
    College Press, 1984).
  6. 6  Auguste Comte, The Positive Study of Social Phenomena (Albuquerque,
    NM: American Classical College Press, 1984), p. 88.
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  1. 7  ibid., p. 69.
  2. 8  Karl Marx, ‘Marx on the History of His Opinions’, in Robert C. Tucker
    (ed.) The Marx–Engels Reader (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), p. 4.
  3. 9  ibid.
  4. 10  Friedrich Engels, ‘Socialism: Utopian or Scientific’, in Tucker (ed.) The Marx–Engels Reader, p. 683.
  5. 11  Emile Durkheim, Selected Writings, ed. A. Giddens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 51.
  6. 12  ibid., p. 58.
  7. 13  See ibid., p. 59.
  8. 14  ibid., p. 61.
  9. 15  ibid., p. 62.
  10. 16  ibid., p. 69.
  11. 17  Max Weber, ‘Value Judgment in Social Science’, in W. G. Runciman (ed.)
    Weber: Selections in Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
    1977), p. 77.
  12. 18  Max Weber, ‘The Concept of “Following a Rule”’, in Runciman (ed.)
    Weber: Selections in Translation, p. 107.
  13. 19  James Barry Jr, Measure of Science: Theological and Technological Impulses
    in Early Modern Thought (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press,
    1996), p. 179.
  14. 20  Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
    Press, 1966), p. 247.
  15. 21  Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick Description’, in The Interpretation of Cultures (New
    York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 3–30.
  16. 22  George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology As Cultural
    Critique: An Experiment in the Human Sciences (Chicago, IL: University
    of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 7–16.
  17. 23  Dorothy Smith, The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology
    (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), pp. 119–20.
  18. 24  Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL:
    University of Chicago Press, 1962).
  19. 25  ibid., p. 109.
  20. 26  ibid., p. 111.
  21. 27  Calvin O. Schrag, Radical Reflection and the Origin of the Human Sciences
    (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1980), pp. 66–7.
  22. 28  Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore, MD and London: Johns
    Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 63, 105, 144–5.
  23. 29  ibid., p. 73.
  24. 30  Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 280.
  25. 31  See: Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1994); Donna Landry and Gerald M. MacLean (eds) The Spivak Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 1996); Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York and London: Methuen); Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpreta- tion of Culture (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988),
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pp. 271–313; Gayatri Chakarvorti Spivak, ‘Subaltern Studies: Decon- structing Historiography’, in Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak (eds) Selected Subaltern Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 3–32; Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. S. Harasym (New York and London: Routledge, 1990).
  1. 32  Charles Tilly, ‘Models and Realities of Popular Collective Action’, Social Research 52(4) (1985): 718–47.
  2. 33  Alberto Melucci, Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society, ed. John Keane and Paul Mier (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989); Alberto Melucci, Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Uni- versity Press, 1996); Alain Touraine, Return of the Actor: Social Theory in Postindustrial Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
  3. 34  Alfred Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1967), p. xxxi.
  4. 35  Alfred Schutz, Collected Papers, vol. IV, ed. H. Wagner, G. Psathas and F. Kersten (Dordrecht and Boston. MA: Kluwar Academic Publishers, 1996), p. 36.
  5. 36  Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor Books, 1966).
  6. 37  See Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomen- ology (Dordrecht and Boston, MA: Kluwar Academic Publishers, 1950); see also Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcen- dental Phenomenology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970).
  7. 38  See Reiner Schürmann, Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to
    Anarchy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 46–7.
  8. 39  See: ibid., p. 1; also: Vahabzadeh, ‘Technological Liberalism’, pp. 342–3.
  9. 40  Gianni Vattimo, Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics and Law, ed.
    Santiago Zabala (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 5; see also Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).
  10. 41  Schürmann, Heidegger on Being and Acting, p. 81.
  11. 42  Zygmunt Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity (New York and London:
    Routledge, 1992), p. 190.
  12. 43  Vahabzadeh, Articulated Experience, ch. 7.
  13. 44  Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1962),
    p. 63.
  14. 45  Loïc J. D. Wacquant, ‘Toward a Social Praxeology: the Structure and Logic
    of Bourdieu’s Sociology’, in Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc J. D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 1–59.
  15. 46  Vahabzadeh, Articulated Experiences, ch. 7.
  16. 47  Sandra Harding, Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, Feminisms,
    and Epistemologies (Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1998).
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