This is the sketch of chapter 2 of my (very slowly emerging) book on Education and Information. The real issue it addresses concerns the role of 'critical' thinking about education and technology, and how this inevitably leads to ontology. It's not an easy read: re-examining it now makes me think that I have more changes to make to Chapter 3 on phenomenology (which I posted earlier).
Decision, Education and Critique: From Is to Ought
Introduction: Why Ontology?
Critique of educational thinking entails consideration of the concrete manifestations of theories and discourses within a context of policy, justice and emancipation. For any educational proposition, we ask, In whose interests? For what purpose? Who are the losers? What are the implications for society? What is the implicit understanding of the world? And so forth. Traditionally this thinking has had its home among the followers of Marx and has given rise to specific philosophical schools (for example, Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school of philosophers) and particular branches of intellectual inquiry in established domains (for example, the relatively recent rise of Critical Management Studies). The relation between these developments and Marx’s originating thought has presented a challenge to engage with ‘reality’ in some form, and the turn of recent developments has been a concern for ontology. This has emerged from a critical deepening of Marx’s dialectical materialism which has, in its turn, embraced an inquiry into the grounds for knowledge of reality, the philosophy of science, the question of social naturalism and the nature of causation.
This intellectual move has largely gone unnoticed within the world of education, where ontology is not a common word. There are numerous reasons for this, although principle among them is the fact that educational thinking has been dominated by constructivist world-views which have privileged the construction of reality in individual minds over any account of materiality. From Piaget’s ‘genetic epistemology’, Von Glasersfeld’s ‘radical constructivism’, Laurie Augstien’s “learning conversations” and Pask’s conversation theory, the principal focus of educational theory has been on knowledge. This has continued with recent developments in educational technology with the developments of the MOOC and the VLE grounding themselves in pre-existing constructivist educational theories.
There are good practical reasons why this should be so. Constructivist pedagogies privilege conversation, experiential learning and shared activities. They provide a platform for critiquing didactic practice which promotes the ‘sage on the stage’ teacher and ‘information transfer’ models of learning. By its very nature as an intellectual inquiry, constructivism engages minds and bodies in conversation, activity and exploration and the effects, when implemented by a skilled teacher, can be transformative. However, such experiences are not universal, and can convince those who practice them that not only is their practice excellent, but the theory correct. This can be a barrier to constructivists critiquing their own theory and the world within which it appears (sometimes) to work. If there has been an ‘anti-ontological’ move within constructivism, it has been driven by two forces: on the one hand, a sense of fear that engagement with ontology might undermine constructivism’s experientially-grounded opposition to instructionalism and didacticism. On the other hand, constructivism’s emphasis on conversation has tended to “flatten” the discourse such that distinctions between ethics, politics, knowledge and action which are fundamental to ontological thinking become intractable within constructivism’s discourse which tends to retreat towards varieties of relativism.
Of greater significance is constructivism’s approach to causality. Whilst its theory establishes the causes for learning as lying inherent in the dynamics of conversation, the central bone of contention within the discourse is the precise nature of the causal mechanisms on the one hand, and the relationship between causation and natural necessity on the other. Whilst the question of possible mechanisms of causation are much discussed (these form the foundations of cybernetic thinking), the nature and ontology of causation itself is rarely inspected. Taken as implicit is a model of causation which was established by Hume and which itself is essentially constructivist (a point often lost in constructivist opposition to Hume’s ‘positivism’). Thus, when varieties of constructivism emerge in educational technology (for example, the recent vogue for connectionism which underpinned the MOOC) their defence rests on the supposition of actually existing causal mechanisms which connect individual subjectivities, whilst failing to critique the supposition of their own existence.
The subjectivist-objectivist debate in education has a precursor in the economic discourse. Carl Menger’s critique of economic method and its relation to objectivity established a line of thinking about economics which placed individual agency and experience at the centre and laid the foundations for the subjectivism of the Austrian school of economics. Central to Menger’s argument was the idea that on an everyday basis, there were partial regularities of events which could be studied, but that global generalisations of these events tended to be abstract and unrealistic. Educational interventions appear similar in this regard: interventions in the classroom show partial regularities, or as Lawson has more recently termed them, ‘demi-regs’, whilst at the same time assumed global tendencies of policymakers creates demi-regular constraints within the classroom that teachers typically struggle to deal with. The fundamental question (and the issue between those who will speak of ontology versus epistemology) is, By what mechanism do such demi-regs arise? It is in the critical investigation and inspection of possible mechanisms for educational demi-regs that a social ontology of educational interventions presents itself. An educational ontology builds up from the particular to the general, and deals with localised problems rather than ideal solutions. It aspires to what Popper calls “piecemeal social engineering”.
The social ontologist will ask “what must the world be like given that demi-reg x occurs?” They will critically consider many possible responses, and examine them from the perspective not just of conversation, but social organisation, technical and material structures, political implications, economic considerations and human emancipation. Social constructivism may be one of the possible answers to the question, although its reduction of political, material and emancipatory concerns to language coordinations means that it doesn’t constitute a critical ontological inquiry: instead it imposes its own totalising ontology.
Whilst there is much to be gained from engaging with social ontology, there remain problems concerned with the abstractions and terminology which inevitably result from an ontology (such problems of abstraction also were the concern of Menger as he critiqued economics). The question of causes is not easily settled through an abstract critique: if the causal question is to be thoroughly addressed, then the means by which such a critique is transmitted from one head to another remains a fundamental question. For this reason, the combination of ontology and education entails an examination of learning and educational organisation necessitates an engagement with phenomenology as well as critique.
The following chapter is structured in three parts: firstly I consider the nature of causality in education, taking into account the history of thinking about causation. Part 2 considers the nature of knowledge in society and how it relates to causes, but also considers the problems inherent in a abstract representation of knowledge. Part 3 considers the processes of teaching and learning which are necessary for any kind of knowledge to be transmitted. In drawing these themes together, I argue that abstraction is the underlying issue and that the relationship between theories of education and politics must play out in the domain of play with technology.
Demi-regs in education are those informally coded expectations that teachers often exchange in the staffroom. The world of knock-on effects of changes to university funding may be modelled by sociologists and economists and entirely different conclusions reached depending on the model that one has of human beings, yet most people consider that there are causal mechanisms relating to teaching, parents, family or friends. Engineers will see the ‘wiring’ of the system and the levers that effect change. Psychologists on the other hand might pay deeper attention to the processes of learning itself and the institutional context within which this arises. Deeper sociological arguments then raise themselves as to whether we are ‘methodological individualists’ like Weber believing that society is reducible to individuals, or whether we are Dukheimian institutionalists who see individuals conforming to established societal norms. Demi-regs are an articulation of expectations which in turn arise from values which have their roots in personal history, discourses of engagement and positions of power. If we identify a demi-reg, what should we do about it?
Demi-regs can be cited as 'evidence' for a particular policy. For example, ‘pupil behaviour’ is highlighted, and measured including ‘zero tolerance’ introduced on the back of demi-regs that support correlation between the intervention and the result. Typically, these will be formulated against some kind of methodological intervention that seeks to identify some kind of causal attribution which identifies the demi-reg (or in the case of many cases in education, a ‘demi-pathology’) and decisions (taken in good faith) are made to alleviate them. New policies introduce new kinds of instruments: typically targets are set, and the social system within which the demi-reg was identified is changed to include other work. So-called 'evidence-based policy' is the result.
Typically, with evidence-based policy, evidence is sought after the intervention is decided: the evidence is produced to support interventions, making it more like 'policy-based evidence'. What is the ontology of the situation within which the demi-regs emerge? All observers exist within a social context participate in the situation, and each - from students to teachers to ministers - constitute parts of mechanisms of reproduction and transformation of social rules, the reproduction of rights and responsibilities of different stakeholders and different role players. Ministers are little different from the rest of us in having their ideas about education deeply informed by their own experience of it. These ideas present different conceptions of the causal mechanisms involved in the education system. Government regulation operates on the basis that the system is wired in the way the minister thinks, with opponents seeing it wired differently - raising alarm at what they see as dangerous ‘tinkering’ – as if they were watching an amateur attempt at bomb disposal! Which levers to pull? What goals to aim for? Somewhere among the morass of causal assertions, are ideas about the causes of learning itself. Objections to government regulatory measures often end up by saying something “this will damage learning… by implication, it will damage civil society…” and so on.
Demi-regs are by their nature part of a mechanism which entwines agents and structures. It is with this situation that we have to ask whether a naturalistic understanding of the causes of demi-regulatarities is possible. To what extent is such a question about the value pluralism in the educational system? How is it we come to have different ideas about what education ought to be? How is it ministers of education see it unnecessary to inspect their own experiences of education when they come to form policies? These are also questions about causal mechanisms, but they are questions about causal mechanisms at a deeper level than the mechanisms which connect the actions of teachers to the abilities of learners. Yet things can be made better through careful observation and critique of demi-regs: witness the ways in which we deal with disability and differences between people in ways that society can better organise itself to meet individual needs. Whilst the obsession with labelling children with disorders like autism, attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia and so on can go too far, it has created conditions for new ways of looking after each other within education systems which attempts to deal equitably with disability. The explanatory labelling of these conditions acts as a code for people to understand the context within which certain behaviour is displayed. Nothing in the labelling changes individual behaviour itself, but an understanding of the ontogeny of the behaviour can make a difference.
Demi-regs reveal what we might consider to be causal patterns, but what is a 'cause’? The idea of “cause” as Aristotle used it is very different from the idea of “cause” as it is used in by ministers (and practically everyone else) to describe the education system. Sometimes, the word ‘cause’ is used in place of the word ‘blame’: we might attribute blame for something on somebody, when the causes are far more complex. For Aristotle, a cause was inherently tied-up with the substance of a thing. Causes were part of the real stuff of the world. But when we talk about knock-on effects, we adhere to a different tradition of thinking about “cause”. This is the tradition of thinking that was ushered in with the Enlightenment and the work of David Hume. Understanding how these different perspectives on cause and education are important is crucial in understanding what is happening now in education.
The world as it appeared to David Hume was a world where the ‘old order’ of scholastic academic inquiry seemed to be challenged by something that was much more dynamic and exciting. The reverberations of the work of Isaac Newton, who had died in 1727 led Hume to be exposed to the latest developments in “optics, medicine, meterorology, biology, astronomy and electricity” (see Sapadin, 1997) Scientists like Robert Boyle were exploring the world in a way that appeared far removed from the dogmatic presentation of a God-given world by the scholastics. The space was prepared for the declaration of a schism in the pursuit of knowledge, and Hume set himself the task of trying to articulate it.
He saw the battle lines drawn around the concept of ‘causality’. The scholastic view was that causes were being discovered by scientists. The causes of things were inherent in the nature of their substance. But if this was the case, what was going on in the process of methodical experimentation which Hume saw all around him? What was happening in the scientific literature which Hume, more than most at the time, was exposed to? To him, there clearly seemed to be a connection between the practices of scientists and their discourse about what they had discovered. And this set the scene for a new kind of theory about causation.
Newton, for Hume, was the shining example of where “new philosophy calls all in doubt” (see Mossner, life of David Hume, p75)
“In Newton this island may boast of having produced the greatest and rarest genius that ever rose for the ornament and instruction of the species. Cautious in admitting no principles but such as were founded on experiment; but resolute to adopt every such principle, however new or unusual form modesty, ignorant of his superiority above the rest of mankind, and thence, less careful to accommodate his reasonings to common apprehensions; more anxious to merit than acquire fame; he was, from these causes, long unknown to the world; but his reputation at last broke out with a lustre which scarcely any writer, during his own liofetime, had ever before attained. Whilst Newton seemed to draw off the veil from some of the mysteries of nature, he showed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy, and thereby restored her ultimate secrets to that obscurity, in which they ever did and ever will remain. “
Hume argued that:
“the knowledge of this [causal] relation is not, in any instance, attained by reasonings a priori; but arises entirely from experience, when we find that any particular objects are constantly conjoined with each other.” (Hume, 1737)
Concluding that the only way that knowledge about causes could possibly be gained was through experimental observation through the senses, the only way that this knowledge could be established as science was through the reproduction of those sense-conditions where observation could take place. Basically, his critique was that the Christianised form of Aristotelian causation had produced a lack of inquiry. Tying religion to science in this way was producing more problems because as technologies allowed for the development of more and more sophisticated instruments of observation, so questions were asked about the nature of the world which presented answers which were challenging to Christian doctrine at the time. Galileo was only the most famous victim of this process. Hume’s intervention was revolutionary. It laid the philosophical foundations that underpinned the practices that were already established by the 18th century scientists. But his philosophy had far-reaching consequences. The establishment of the conditions for scientific experiment became the most important factor in the pursuit of knowledge, not the ascription of types and genera which could be related to the substance of God.
Positivism today tends to be seen as a dirty word. Hume’s establishment of event regularities underpinned nascent thinking about social science in the 19th century. The pursuit of naturalism in the mind of Comte was driven by the realisation of the possibility that event regularities within society. At a time when emerging knowledge about human biology and the identification of flora and fauna, and the growth of taxonomic representations presented the possibility that through statistical examination, an equivalent of event regularities could be possible. The beginnings of social science also grew from a world in change. Auguste Comte witnessed at first hand the aftermath of the French Revolution. Born 23 years after Hume died, Hume’s impact on French intellectual life had been enormous, amplified through his effect on Kant and it was from this intellectual environment that Comte began to formulate his science of society. It was therefore only natural that he should look at the example of science as established by Hume as his model for thinking what a science of society might involve. Comte drew inspiration from Rousseau (who Hume knew), Saint-Simon and others in his attempt to establish naturalistic inquiry of society.
Comte published “A course in positive philosophy” between 1830 and 1840. In it, he argued that the co-dependence of theory and observation were the founding principles of all scientific inquiry, and that this co-dependence could apply to the study of society as well. This general principle was founded on Hume’s philosophy as Comte argued that ‘repeatability’ was key in establishing scientific principles. Comte believed that the order of society was knowable and classifiable. With the emerging mathematical tools of statistics, he could follow the principles of other Victorian scientists in identifying genera and classifications. This theoretical assertion about the study of society also laid the foundations for inquiry into economics. Adam Smith, who Hume also knew, had already begun to draw up his own picture of socio-economic causation: his major work is entitled “An inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nation”.
Having seen the extent of the influence of this philosophy, the scientific advances that were supposedly underpinned by it in the 20th century, have called some of the foundations of the philosophy into question. The simple fact is that Hume predicated his reasoning about the construction of causes on the idea of the ‘closed-system experiment’. Yet, the laws of science that emerged through those experiments have been far more successful in domains that lie well outside the closed system of the experiment. How could it be that a formula or a law could show to be reliable within the confines of an experiment, to be codified by scientists, and to be shown to still be reliable within the world at large well away from the original experiment? Mustn’t that have meant that the discovered law was in some way not in the heads of scientists, but instead really active in the world after all? Doesn’t that mean that what happened was not, as Hume argued, a process of social construction in the light of experiment, but a process of discovery?
The causality of a demi-reg in economics and education
If the regularities of scientific experiments were actually discoveries and not constructs, what might possibly be discovered with the identification of a demi-reg? Is there some kind of objective truth about such discoveries? Is a better world possible?
Reproducible experiment was exciting in the 18th century, and it became clear that scientific discourse was important as a means of agreeing laws. However, with the emergence of social science, there were deeper problems about the nature of the substance of man which were largely ignored by Comte. These were problems related to the nature of observation and abstraction. Early economists were aware of this. Carl Menger noted the difference between the “abstractly conceived economic world” and the “real phenomena of human economy” (Menger 1963, p. 73). He argued that from the “full empirical reality” of the world, “numerous elements [are] not emergent from an abstract economic world”. At the same time he acknowledged that the “most realistic orientation of theoretical research imaginable must accordingly operate with abstractions” (ibid, p. 80).
As the Christian project became tied up with Aristotelian philosophy so a philosophy of causation became not a support to scientific inquiry, but a matter of dogma. Augustine developed Aristotelian philosophy in a way that lent its support for the emerging power of the church. The prime causal agent became God. But this switch to divine power was made possible because the claim for the substance of God could be made: that essentially, god had divine substance and therefore all things were made through God, therefore all acts were attributable to God at some level.
The tensions in his thinking derive from the subjectivist force within his philosophy which was to form the basis of the Austrian school. Whilst Menger’s focus was on accounting for real phenomena rather than abstract models, he conceived of a methodological process of creating theory through observation of regularities which he termed “empirical laws”. Inevitably these too were also abstract and so Menger’s concern for a realistic orientation in economics exposes fault lines which underpin subsequent work within the Austrian school of economics. Menger read Comte and argued that “It was M. Comte’s opinion that Political economy, as cultivated by the school of Adam Smith’s successors in this country [Great Britain] and in France, failed to fulfil the conditions required of a sound theory by Positive Philosophy, and was not properly a science. He pronounces it to be defective in its conceptions, “profoundly irrational” in its method, and “radically sterile” as regards results”
Such strong words highlight the division of thinking about what was scienfically possible in society. Menger wished for a science of economics that was separable from the science of sociology. Comte disagreed that this was at all possible. The fundamental question when faced with a demi-reg is “given that this is the case, what must the world be like?” This is a different way of thinking from the causal attributionalism that is more typical of educational thinking. Ironically, it emerges from Kant’s transcendental logic of inquiry into the nature of knowledge, and whilst this philosophy rejects Kantian idealism, it accepts that the way he went about it is valid. Yet Hume had his biggest effect on Kant who was “awoken from his dogmatic slumbers”. Kant’s philosophy was underpinned by a particular method that he adopted in thinking about the world. His ‘transcendental arguments’ required him to look at the world and to ask himself “if this is what is going on, what must the world be like”. Fundamentally, Kant had taken Hume’s ideas to heart, and the transcendental method was in fact a form of Humean reasoning. It was a process of looking at all the phenomena of the world and considering what caused it to come to be.
Kant’s conclusions about “what the world must be like”, concluded that there must exist basic ‘categories’ of understanding for making sense of and coming to know the world. In the 1980s, a number of philosophers also pursued a kind of Kantian transcendental reasoning about the world. This reasoning would first of all show that Hume’s description of the way that causes are constructed couldn’t be right. Scientific knowledge has too many successes outside the domain of the closed system experiment for construction of causes to be the only thing going on in determining causal laws. There had to be something ‘real’ that was discovered. This argument has been principally developed by Rom Harré, Roy Bhaskar.
The nature of knowledge and the nature of the world
If a demi-reg is identified and a transcendental logic is articulated, the next challenge is to understand the nature of what might bring an event to pass. There are aspects of material change which appear deterministic. There are aspects of social change which appear down to people. Bhaskar’s critique of Hume leads him to identify two types of mechanism in the world. On the one hand, he must account for the mechanisms uncovered by physicists which operate in the same way across closed and open systems (for example, gravity). These are termed ‘intransitive mechanisms’ which, Bhaskar argues, must exist independently of human agency. On the other hand, social tendencies or partial regularities do not behave like this, usually being context-dependent. These mechanisms depend on human agency for their existence and Bhaskar calls them ‘transitive mechanisms’.
In developing the distinction between transitive and intransitive mechanisms, Bhaskar draws a distinction between the ‘real’, the ‘actual’ and the ‘empirical’ as domains of reality within which mechanisms operate. The empirical constitutes that aspect of reality that can be identified through experience (for example, through experiment), whilst the actual includes states of affairs which have the possibility of being experienced without necessarily being the subject of experiment (for example, potential but as-yet-unrealised technologies). The real includes both of these aspects, but adds the domain of ‘absence’: things which are not actual – which do not have the possibility of being experienced directly – but which can be experienced indirectly through their effects.
In asserting that mechanisms are discovered (not constructed) by scientists and then codified as laws of science, Bhaskar invokes the operation of both transitive and intransitive mechanisms. He argues that Hume’s scepticism about causes led to erroneous thinking about scientific methodology which was carried over into the social sciences producing the kind of practices which establish artificial regularities, idealised formal abstractions, poor explanatory power, and predictive failure. The principal argument is that because of mistaken ontological thinking at a methodological level (i.e. Hume) implicit, uninspected and erroneous ontological assumptions have been embedded within the social sciences. The ‘critical’ aspect of Critical Realism therefore seeks to make explicit the implicit ontological assumptions of methods, theories and models as a way of moving towards a deep stratified conception of generative mechanisms in the world. However, there must be some kind of process not just for teasing out the different layers of reality, but also a process for teaching awareness of different levels of reality. For Bhaskar, this process is one of critique: a fundamentally negatively-driven process where the underlying world-views (ontologies) are unpicked in order that they can be properly examined for their explanatory power in the light of the demi-regs presented.
Decision, Education and Critique: From Is to Ought
Whatever is seen of a demi-reg, education involves decisions. Every causal process that is identified in some way depends on processes that emerge between individual heads and the social and material world: in the heads of teachers, curriculum designers, students, administrators, authors and academics. Decisions emerge from a context which constrains them. For every decision, there are questions which relate to the analytical context (it’s internal logic), the extent to which any decision is dependent on past experience, or what is felt to be ‘common sense’, and the extent to which any decision might be taken against a context of doubt or uncertainty as to whether a particular decision is the right one, or in whose interests a particular decision is made.
‘Being’ is the context of decision-making; and ontology as the study of being is about determining those constraints. If it cannot provide a fundamental approach it is because it is oriented towards the nature of doubt about any position (a common criticism of Bhaskar’s Critical Realism and its acolytes is that it is too often insufficiently critical). A critical ontological approach differs from a constructivist approach because it argues that it is sensible to see those constraints as ‘real’. But what does ‘real’ mean?
To understand the real, we have to understand the deep structures which relate individual psychologies with social structures, political policies and agendas and individual freedom. The constraints on agency are deeply embedded in our experience of life with one another: among the constraints that bear upon our actions are issues relating to our capabilities and ethics. Within Hume’s causal model, such concerns for the decision-maker were not within the scope of naturalistic approach: the socially-constructed causes relating to the regularities of events that were witnessed had no relation to the ethical background of observers. Hume must have wondered that to admit that there might be a connection would result in an undermining of his theory. He identified that within ethical reasoning, different kinds of arguments ensued in describing what there is, and what there ought to be. Hume’s position was that this difference in the kinds of arguments deployed was a problem. In coming to examine causal processes of education and society in general, negotiating the territory of is's and ought's is fundamental. Can the “oughts” of education can be determined by identifying the ‘is’s? To what extent is it possible to be objective? To what extent is naturalism of education possible?
Abstraction, Learning and Action
Social ontologies are inevitably abstract. Actions in education have real effects in terms of the resulting freedoms of individuals. But how can something abstract account for lived experience? Of the application of Critical realism, economics has been an important area. Lawson has argued that abstraction in critical realism means:
“that which is abstracted from is the concrete. The point of abstraction is to individuate one or more aspects, components, or attributes and their relationships in order to understand them better” (ibid)
However, even with (or because of) an emphasis on causal mechanisms, Critical Realism is caught positing abstracted social relations as a means of representing reality. In particular, the descriptions of mechanisms cannot in themselves account for the necessity for learning about the mechanisms, shared understanding and collective action – all of which are necessary if a mechanistic description is to have a transformative effect in the world.
In Bhaskar’s later work, he situated the identification of ontological mechanisms as the first stage in a dialectical processes of becoming more critically aware of the world (Bhakar, 1993). Bhaskar labels ‘moments’ of a dialectical process which he abbreviates to the acronym ‘MELD’, with ontological mechanisms operating as the key focus of the first level (M), absence at the second level (E), totality and love at the third (L), and transformative praxis at the forth (D). Given Bhaskar’s emphasis on a dialectic, and what appears to be a move away from the description of causal mechanism which now appears as the beginning of the “Dialectical Critical Realism” process, there appears to be a gap between the description of causal mechanisms and identification of absences on the one hand, and the transformative social praxis that Lawson and other Critical Realist economists hope to achieve through critique and the abstracting of mechanisms.
Decisions, not abstractions, have real effects. The decision of a teacher to teach in a particular way, the decision of a headmaster to focus on a particular area of education; the decision of ministers to reform education. They have abstract origins, but they have real effects on the emotions of learners, teachers, on social processes, economic systems, and so on. There is a real moment of ‘truth’ – a leap of faith as Kierkegaard might have it. The problem with the cybernetic viewpoint is that thinking about thinking (which is where second-order cybernetics can take us) serves not purpose. Kierkegaard says: “Thinking can turn toward itself in order to think about itself and skepticism can emerge. But this thinking about itself never accomplishes anything.” Thinking should serve by thinking something (Wikipedia). Kierkegaard wants to stop "thinking's self-reflection" and that is the movement that constitutes a leap. This involves taking a ‘leap to faith’, which forms the basis of his existential philosophy.
A decision to change economic policy, make a purchase, or even to make an utterance requires some kind of rationale upon which abstractions will have some bearing. Abstract ideas ground decisions as to what arguments to utter, what distinctions to make, what groups to join, or what policies to support. Decisions result from some reflexive mechanism made in anticipation of what is thought might occur in the light of the decision “If I make this statement, these people are likely to agree/disagree with me”, and so on. In making the decision, the likely decisions of others need to be speculated upon. Shared understanding of problems, situations, history and background can assist in the selecting of effective decisions. In academic discourse, it is the discourse itself which provides the ground for the making of decisions.
If abstraction grounds decision, what grounds the abstraction? The Critical Realist answer to this is ‘reality’; the cybernetic answer is ‘mechanism’. But “reality” and “mechanism” in these contexts both remain essentially abstract – the nature of reality codified in the neologisms of Bhaskar (or Lawson) are no less abstract than the complex mechanics of the cyberneticians. The abstract ‘objects of knowledge’ are part of Bhaskar’s ‘transitive domain’. So it appears that things are stuck in a loop: on the one hand, realism pins its colours to the mast of reality, arguing against idealism, whilst at the same time, the only “reality” it can effectively point to is an abstract description of lived experience.
This problem of abstraction can be usefully inspected through the lens of Bhaskar’s dialectical levels described above. At the transpersonal level (3L) of ‘love’, lived experience with other people appears to take precedence over abstraction alone. Contexts, activities, social groupings, conviviality all become essential parts not only of realist inquiry but of cognitive processes. In a totalising context, abstractions become lived through experience, where it is not the logical consistency of the abstraction which matters, but the emergent social and psychological effects of exploring an abstraction together.
A musical analogy may help to illustrate this point. A written musical score encodes the abstractions of a composer: these represent a series of decisions by the composer. A performer, skilled in the realisation of abstractions into lived experience, enters the world of the abstraction with a view to making explicit their experience through performance: the performer makes decisions based on their own capabilities, the score and their judgement of the effect. Audiences then make decisions (whether to listen or not) depending on their judgement about their own experience (but also the judgement and reaction of others). So the abstraction, once locked-in to the score for few to appreciate, becomes manifest as a shared experience for many. The composer and the performer may well have had a view as to the likely shared determination of the audience in the context of this revealed shared experience, and aimed for their abstraction to be sufficiently accurate such that the shared experience bears some resemblance to their expectations. They can be shown to be right or wrong depending on the reaction of the audience to their efforts.
The purpose of this chapter has been to show that social ontology is a good way of answering the critical questions we might pose about any policy position that might be taken in education. To answer questions like “in whose interests? Who loses? What are the consequences?” we need to understand the nature of the world that is supposed behind a particular policy idea. We need, in particular, to understand the kind of demi-regs which give rise to a particular policy. And we need to critically inspect the possible mechanisms whereby those demi-regs might emerge.
One of the weaknesses of the ontology project is the tendency to produce explanations for the world with all their conceptual paraphernalia, rather than present invitations to think about it. Yet, methods of social ontology can be powerful in providing a way of collecting the evidence of regularities or demi-regularities which demand some kind of analysis of their causation. The first question is, How far down do you go in producing causal explanations? The second question is Given the fact that any causal explanation takes the form of an abstraction of one sort or another, how does it get from one brain to another? How does any abstraction of a social mechanism account for its own ontogeny and transmission?
The problem lies in the fact that whilst the ethical question is directly addressed by a social ontology approach, the process of establishing the connection between an Is and an Ought relies on effective processes of teaching and learning which lie outside the system. So, for example, we can examine the demi-regs of education, we can attribute those demi-regs to causal mechanisms, and yet we cannot account for the most effective ways in which those demi-regs may themselves be transmitted and processes of social change set underway. Is’s and Ought’s are divided by educational processes.
Causes between what a person learns and what causes them to learn underpin our ideas about what education ought to do. We seek to discover the causes of learning in order to make decisions about policy. But education is very strange and doesn’t appear to exhibit the causal connections between things that are evident from physical experiments. The philosophical and economic hinterland to this question has led us on an intellectual journey which has taken in philosophy, economics and cybernetics. There are problems at each step of the way in terms of how we think about society. From the naivity of physical realism which Hume appears to espouse, to the solipsism of second-order cybernetics, to the difficulty in making any kind of distinction between general forces with a radical approach to personalism in education. Is there a way through this?
Decisions are important because they have real effects on ordinary people. Policies have real effects on children, decisions about curriculum have effects on all learners and so on. But what is in a decision? How do we consider decisions in the context of causes? Decisions appear causal, but what causes a decision? The answer to this question entails an analysis of experience: ontology on its own is not enough.