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What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up Paperback – September 15, 2010
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"Smith combines a meticulous command of sociological theory, philosophical analysis, and moral passion to argue against reductionist theories of human personhood and agency.... This book will become required reading." (Choice)"
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Chapter 2 is an explanation of his “Key Theoretical Resources” -- critical realism, philosophical personalism and anti-scientistic phenomenology. He relies heavily on the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar and his disciples. He agrees with them that “the real” includes things that are neither “empirical” or “actual” (p. 93). A habit, for example, is real even though it is not empirically observable and is not always generating actual behavior. My habit of brushing my teeth remains real even when I am not actually brushing my teeth. Smith also uses Bhaskar’s distinction between the “intransitive” knowledge of realities that are not socially constructed and the “transitive” knowledge of socially constructed realities (p. 94). Those who are not disciples of Bhaskar might stumble over the analogy between the contrast between transitive and intransitive verbs and the contrast between two kinds of knowledge. I have read quite a bit by and about Bhaskar, and even though I agree that there is an important distinction lurking here, I do not agree that “intransitive” and “transitive” are good pointers to that distinction. It helps considerably that Smith also uses John Searle’s contrast between “brute facts” and “institutional facts” to point to that distinction.
The critical realist distinction between what is and is not socially constructed is the basis for Smith’s criticism, in chapter 3, of “hard” social constructionism. The hard social constructionist denies that there are any brute facts, the knowledge of which Bhaskar would call “intransitive.” Smith himself is a “soft” social constructionist, acknowledging that some realities are socially constructed. He points to the dangerous tendency of soft social constructionists to become trapped by the language of hard social constructionism, saying things that imply that there are no brute facts.
In his conclusion to the section on critical realism, Smith (p. 98) says: “Whereas critical realism is principled on questions of ontology, it is pragmatic on questions of method” (p. 98). This might be true of the school of thought based on the writings of Roy Bhaskar, but it is not true of the versions of critical realism that are based on the writings of Bernard Lonergan or Michael Polanyi. Smith (p. 92) mentions Lonergan’s critical realism just once, but refers to or quotes Polanyi frequently. Both Lonergan and Polanyi argue against opponents using “retortion,” pointing out that they are guilty of performative inconsistency (Martin Moleski, "The Role of Retortion in the Cognitional Analyses of Lonergan and Polanyi”). Performative inconsistency is a lack of consistency between what one says and what one does, in contrast to logical inconsistency, which is inconsistency between sentences in an argument. To argue that a person’s assertion is false because it is inconsistent with what that person does, especially if the inconsistency is between the content of an assertion and what the person does by making the assertion, is not only to use the form of argument called “retortion,” but it implies that performative consistency is an ideal. It is a moral ideal, as well an an intellectual ideal.
The ideal of performative consistency generates a rule of method that is principled, rather than merely pragmatic: strive for consistency between what you say and what you do. I contend that Smith embraces this ideal, follows this rule in his constructive and affirmative statements, and criticizes hard social constructionism (in chapter 3), network analysis (in chapter 4) and variables sociology (in chapter 5) by arguing that they lack performative consistency. Years ago, Irwin Deutscher presented overwhelming evidence in support of his argument that what people say is often inconsistent with what they do. Smith argues, with a great deal of documentary evidence, that what social scientists say about the nature of persons is often inconsistent with what they do as persons. Thus, Smith points out that hard social constructionists typically claim that they embrace this position because it is true. He says that to be consistent, they would have to admit that hard social constructionism is itself no more than a social construction, and consequently no more valid than (no better than) any other position or school of thought. Smith doesn’t use the word, but the form of his argument is retortion.
Not everyone accepts retortion as a valid form of argumentation. Moleski reports that a friend of his said to him: "I'll never accept retortion as valid; it makes me feel as though I've picked my own pocket.” I suspect that Peter Fuchs has written a very negative review of Smith’s book because, like Moleski’s friend, he does not accept retortion as valid. I suspect that sociologists who are strongly committed to the positions Smith criticizes also will not be persuaded by Smith’s retortions. They will remain more deeply committed to other ideals than they are to the ideal of performative consistency. There is a good sociological explanation for this. Robert Merton’s reference group theory is an assertion of a strong link between being committed to a set of ideas, and even a particular idiom for expressing those ideas, and being committed to a set of people. Like most other academics, sociologists run in packs, and changing what one says about social things often results in being exiled from the group.
So my strong recommendation of Smith’s book must be read in the light of my confession that I embrace the ideal of performative consistency, that I consider myself to be a critical realist, a personalist, and a soft social constructionist. Smith has provided me with additional support for the way I approach my teaching and research.
The book is written extremely clearly, though the topic is unavoidably a complex and demanding one. Its argument is heavily philosophical in nature, while addressing major current debates in social theory and the humanities. Smith's erudition is amazing, but he wears it lightly, writing with verve and conviction. This book will reward the careful reader with a richness and breadth of vision that are downright exhilarating.
It is one of the very best books I have read in the past twenty years.
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