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Date: Mon, 8 Jan 2001 10:25:17 -0500
From: Haines Brown <brownh@HARTFORD-HWP.COM>
Subject: Re: class as process
In-Reply-To: <> (message from Chris Burford on Sun, 7 Jan 2001 22:42:13 +0000)
X-UIDL: B]`"!V4O"!Idd!!9A9!!

Class as process (Brown responds to Burford's second comment)

By Haines Brown, 8 Jan 2001


You bring up some interesting issues.

> One problem is that to take things further would need careful historical
> analysis of the appearance and development of certain ideas. I do not
> myself know how old the concept of "emergent properties" is, but I take it
> to be modern.

A lot here depends just what we mean by "emergent properties."

In Western Antiquity (I hesitate to generalize more broadly, but I suspect it would be valid to do so), there prevailed a rather static view of things. I say "rather" because while there was change, it was not considered to be profound or essential. For example, history tended to be thought of in terms of a cycle (ages of iron, silver, gold, which refer to the extent to which fortuna happened to prevail), the point being that there was certainly change, but not one that is subject to human control. Likewise, human personality was fixed: you had to live with those character traits with which you happen to be born. However, a person (citizen) could learn to take advantage of his these strengths and weakesses. If you are a bully, use that bad trait to become a good soldier. On the other hand, it was the barbarian who was considered to have a really dynamic personality because he lacked the balance acquired through citizenship to make effective use of his strengths and weaknesses (significantly, the manic depression often ascribed to the barbarian in later Roman times, actually became the prevailing cultural neurosis of the Middle Ages).

In ideological terms, Christianity came in time to emphasize the dynamic nature of human personality. That is, salvation implied a radical transformation of the whole being, generally the outcome of a linear development in some positive direction. The simultaneous "discovery" of linear "progress" in history (in only spiritual terms, of course) has been much discussed.

The first evidence that I know of for a materialistic and quasi-secular notion of progress (resulting from a human struggle to improve the natural world) derives from the Carolingian period. For example, Charlemage (or his "brain trust," anyway) spoke of a "renovatio." This refers to a concerted effort to improve the material dimensions of life, for it was believed that would hasten the second coming, just as a bridal bath was a necessary step for the consumation of a marriage (I don't know anything of Germanic/pagan marriage ceremony, but apparently it involved a ritual bath for the bride). So all society was to be reformed as quickly and as thoroughly as possible: monetary reform, public education, transportation, governing institutions, handwriting, weights and measures, architecture, liturgy, etc. were all to varying degrees transformed [open your newspaper and you see an example of Carolingian miniscule, for example]).

Important here was the notion of struggle as necesary for constructive change. That is, you must struggle against the most probable outcome. As Ab. Hincmar (9th c.) put it, the human condition is that of desperately rowing a leaky boat across a river toward salvation on the opposite shore. Should we stop rowing, we sink into the black mud (sic!) at the bottem. At the time, the prime vice was not greed, but acedie - a lack of courage or (literally) enthusiasm.

Well, I don't want to belabor this, but by ca. 10th century, there was clearly a notion of emergent properties in human history and in human personality (Islam follows a parallel course, it seems, as with the importance of difficult travel toward a spiritually significant goal and the jihad). An embrace of the material dimension of life was fundamental. It was said, for example, that every (Benedictine) monk is a workman, whose virtues are his tools and salvation his wages. In the ancient world, the upper crust would never have held up an ordinary workman as a model.

I don't know off hand of any other areas in which emergent properties were posited, especially in the natural world independent of human intervention. Significant in this regard is that there seems to have been in the ninth century a whole new sense of nature as the object of human expropriation, rather than seeing man being a part of nature (it has been argued that the roots of our modern environmental crisis lay in the Benedictine monastery). To me this hints that emergent properties were associated only with human life (and because of mankind's link with his god), not with nature per se.

As I mentioned before, the first that I know of where nature acquires emergent properties is in 18th century embryology. That's pretty well established, but I am too ignorant to suggest it may have been anticipated earlier. So, if my speculations carry any water, a difference between feudal and capitalist society is that in the former, humans could creatively develop their world, but in the latter, the world itself becomes dynamic. However, the embryologiets, and Hegel too for that matter, strike me as semi-feudal, for the germ or idea in both their cases was metaphysical.

If so, then we might conclude they anticipate emergent properties in nature, but fall short of representing them in naturalistic terms. This honor, I assume goes to thermodynamics at the end of the nineteeth century. That roughly coincides with Marxism, and surely Marx's self-expanding capital is a naturalistic explanation of an emergent process that is rather independent of human volition (e.g., the Sorcerer's Apprentice theme in Das Capital.

Well, this is all superficial speculation, but I find the issue an interesting one. As you insist, though, it should be under a different subject line such as, The Genealogy of the Labor Theory of Value (sound like a good term paper title for a student ;-)

> >the Medieval labor theory of value, which is
> >that humans are a chip off the old block - are quasi-divine, obtaining
> >from god a creative capacity. Labor in the Medieval view of things
> >means adding use value (beauty, utility, quality) to a product over
> >and above its input costs
> Do you have references for this connection?

I did not mean to imply that Marx's or Smith's labor theory of value simply derived from the Middle Ages, but only that there happened to be a Medieval version of a labor theory of value. This point is quite conventional, and all discussions of medieval economic theory touch upon it. I know this is a "cop out," but I lack convenient access to a decent library or to my old bibliography.

I tried in my last message to hint at a little difference between Smith's labor theory of value and that of the Middle Ages. Smith was looking for the lowest common denominator so that an economic science might be rationalized, and labor seemed to him to offer such an abstract measure. On the other hand, the Medieval labor theory of value was not employed in an economic science (which I'd argue did begin to emerge, then, however), but to explain and justify profits, which otherwise would be getting something for nothing and thus the result of theft and greed. Marx's labor theory of value was, I think, an entirely different kettle of fish. For one thing, in Marx's view, emergent value isn't simply the result of individual effort, creative or otherwise, but is a function of social development.


> Can I suggest a different thread title if you could pursue the laws of
> thermodynamics? A book I appreciated as sound, materialist, but also
> progressive, which deals with this, is
> "The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature" by Ilya
> Prigogine, Free Press, New York 1997.

Never cared for Prigogine, but am unfortunately no longer in a position to say why. You suggest a different thread to discuss thermodynamics. I'm not adverse to that, and would be interested in your take on Prigogene, chaos theory, etc.

Incidentally, I once published a paper on Marxism and chaos etc. by Ron Press from South Africa, which may be of interest to you: http://hartford-hwp.com/archives/10/013.html.

My own inclination would be to pursue a different tack that entails two additional steps. First, build up a model of "contradiction" that draws upon the definition of process I implied in connection with class (the discussion of which should also come under a new subject line). Second, I'd then articulate the notion of contradiction in a manner resembling the "K-2" model in theoretical biology, and specifically that "K-2" processes represent two coupled contradictions (which I'd then suggest in human history are a class contradiction standing upon a contradictory relation of man and nature), that gives rise to a behavioral pattern we usually speak of an the alternation of evolution and revolution. But if people are bored by this arid speculation, I'll bite my tongue.


Publisher's note: In fact, Burford did change the thread topic to "emergent properties," for he apparently felt this foundation point was in need of better defense. As time permits, I will publish that dialog in World History Archives under the topic historiographic theory.]