Freedom’s Synchronic Shadow Cuts Across Contemporary Social Theory

mountain goat

Postscript To My Paper On Structuralism

In 1922, Werner Heisenberg, as a student, asked his professor and friend-to-be, Niels Bohr, “If the inner structure of the atom is as closed to descriptive accounts as you say, if we really lack a language for dealing with it, how can we ever hope to understand atoms?”

Bohr hesitated for a moment and then said, “I think we may yet be able to do so. But in the process we may have to learn what the word ‘understanding’ really means.”

If the synchronic axis of freedom is, as I suggest it is, as close as the taste of a cold beer and as far away as the reach of the universe, then it should come as no surprise to find its shadow cutting across the contemporary theories of sociology that we have studied this semester in class. Since the axis of synchronic freedom may be interpreted as the ground for the empirical sciences, we would expect that this idea has something specific to say concerning the positivistic or naturalistic point of view. And, indeed, it does.

The synchronic axis is a dualism. The reciprocal nature of this dualism has one pole firmly planted in the “empirical world.” Within this duality corresponding physical events will co-dependently occur along with the differentiating movement (the time of discontinuity) that characterizes the other pole of this duality. What becomes differentiated at one pole effects what becomes differentiated at the other, but the fact remains, something exists out there to become differentiated. Piaget tells us that we come to know this something because functional activity is all about differentiating. Be that as it may, the “real world” is definitely an object for the investigation of the physical sciences. To the extent that the subject matter studied by the physical sciences is non living, this subject matter has very little freedom while living organisms and humans have more freedom respectively. But, the fact remains; freedom is limited and therefore remains open to quantitative evaluation.

When understood in this way, William Calton in his book From Anamistic to Naturalistic Sociology, accurately describes the “empirical pole” of synchronic freedom when he says, “mental events and motivation can only be inferred from observable behavior.” [William Calton, From Anamistic to Naturalistic Sociology, p. 52] But, since we are dealing with both the “empirical pole,” and, the “differentiating pole” on freedom’s synchronic axis, the physical sciences will never be able to completely describe behavior. When “humanistic sociologists” say that people, as goal seekers, create values and impute meanings, they, also, are accurately describing the synchronic nature of freedom.

As Piaget has pointed out, the assimilation-accommodation dyad works to produce new levels of the assimilation-accommodation dyad. Structure’s double movement means that freedom is not totally free, and determinism is not totally determined. Freedom and causality do not exist independently from one another. Just as Saussure described the meaning of the sign to be context dependent within the system of language, so too is the center of functional activity context dependent within the empirical world. From the synchronic point of view, getting a fix on causality, as it relates to human behavior, will always remain just beyond the grasp of physical science. Scientists will continue to perfect their methods and make valuable discoveries as their approximations draw ever closer to the “ideal,” but, in so far as the creative expression of negation (discontinuity occurring in continuity) occurs in individual consciousness, the individual will always remain just outside the grasp of naturalistic sociology.

Before moving on to G. H. Mead, I would like to take exception to Calton when he says, “if there are mental, cultural, moral phenomena, naturalism says these must be included as part of nature, and sociology must be included as part of natural science. All areas of human experience are asserted to be amenable to scientific study.” (Ibid. p. 51] You can approximate the causes that manifest physical events, but the decision to act morally, responsibly, is a “willed choice” of free expression. In this freely determined act, as Sartre has pointed out, the individual must take responsibility for his/her behavior. Freedom, in principle, remains both in and out of the natural world and in so doing becomes the condition of the possibility for any “knowing” whatsoever.


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