Stephen Turner and the Philosophy of the Social

Here are some highlights from this 2021 book:

* Tocqueville claimed that when he visited the US in the mid-nineteenth century most people did not genuinely believe in God or in Christian dogmas. However, as most people also believed that atheists and agnostics were
small minorities, and consequently did not want to pay the social price of non-conformity (namely probable ostracism), most professed publicly that they believed in God and behaved as if they were true believers (for example, by regularly attending church or temple). Tocqueville also suggested that some groups might be entirely hypocritical, in the sense that, in these specific social contexts everybody knew that everybody was no longer a true believer. However, due to the social stigma attached to atheism, conformity to the general norm persisted.

…. In the Russian case, people were chronically scared and intimidated by policy security agents, but they could trust their friends and relatives. In the German case, people suspected that even certain relatives and certain friends could be secret policy security agents. In the Russian case, people dared to express their intimate opinions in private; in the German case, they dared not and, as a result, everyone was quite possibly mistaken about the nature of the intimate beliefs of everyone else. Similarly, with regard to contemporary Islamic countries, observers have noticed more and more frequently that the people’s relationships to Islam are far more diverse than is often thought.

* Like Tocqueville half a century earlier, [Max] Weber was struck by how many Americans, especially businessmen, declared belief in God and behaved ethically as Christians, but nevertheless did not seem to be genuine in their
beliefs. Weber claimed that the reason American businessmen were often affiliated with very demanding “sects” (Weber’s wordings), such as the Baptists, Anabaptists, and Quakers, was that these affiliations were seen as guarantees of trustworthiness, a priceless quality in business. Thus many members of these sects were arguably not motivated by ethical rationality (what Weber would have called Wertrationalität) in their affiliation but by pragmatic or means-end rationality (Zweckrationalität).

* The sexual revolution followed the pill and appeared to be rapid; in contrast, the removal of the threat of hell in most people’s minds, which the Victorians thought would unleash moral chaos, had little effect. In these cases, the mistake was probably this: we mistook the justificatory (and condemnatory) language people used, and the theories that justified it, for the real determinants of behavior.

* operating within the niche of religious people who speak and respond non-verbally in a particular way, and do so consistently, reorganizes their brains in a particular way, just as living within the niche of a university and academic discipline does. How powerful these effects are, meaning how much they differentiate people from people in other niches, seems to me to be an empirical question, and thus the question of “how social” are these determinants of cognition is also empirical.

* In the study of race relations in the US, for example, there have been a few outstanding moments where the facts were able to settle important issues. I would rank Charles Johnson’s report on the 1919 Chicago race riots as perhaps the best (1922). The people studying the topic, agreed, and had an audience that agreed, on what was relevant, and on what mattered or was salient. A century later there is no such agreement. What is relevant now is contested, or disagreed about, and in ways that the data can’t settle. Is it capitalism, Whiteness, crime,
stigma, racism, structure, culture, policing, or something else?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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