Quality 4, Inlets, Lakes, and Streams

Quality, a tdaxp series.

Photo Courtesy Despair.com

I haven’t been that pleased with my scopes & methods reaction papers — however, I thought this was was great. It builds on some posts from both tdaxp and ZenPundit, namely

I use my extra energy for blog writing, as I learn more here, I enjoy more here, and I interact with more people here. So it’s notable that there this turned-in paper is blog-worthy.

Enjoy! It’s good! (I promise)

The readings this week say that truth only exists when two people can talk about the same thing. It is therefore unfortunate that the authors have chosen such technical language to present themselves. Our class is full of smart, well-read students, but our professor had to warn us over the difficulty of the assignments.
Fortunately, a friend and I covered this same ground last year, in more understandable language. So in this week’s paper I will summarize the readings using the easier vocabulary I previously encountered.

The world is not just made of things — there are more to life than just entities. Just as a computer’s database is based on entities and relations — things and how they relate to each other — the world is composed both of “brute data” (Taylor) and relationships that give meaning to the data. Without relations, the world would be meaningless. All that would exist would be an infinite stream of facts with no semantics (“language,” in Taylor’s analogy) to guide the observer. We would exist in a sort of “conceptual anatopianism,” to misquote Farr. Happily, we do not live in that world.

Instead of the cold isolated entities, we are warmed by the friction caused the dynamic intersubjective relationship between ourselves and everything else. The heat from his friction warms our hearts, but acts just like physical friction. It can be so hot we melt, changing our nature (A good school is like this, because students leave different than when they entered. The friction of relations changed their relationship to things, ideas, places, etc.)

However, just as in a complex database there is not “one true semantic,” there is not just one true meaning in the real world. Fay gives the example of a killer, and observes how the meaning of the actions changes depending on the scope. Again the analogy of friction is a good one, because friction is caused by resistance.

Think of a swimmer in a small inlet. His hands and feat resist the watery body, changing his position (his relation with the entities of the water). The ripples from his strokes propagate through the inlet, leading to a certain meaning in that inlet (even if to the swimmer the heady surface is full of “contradiction and confusion” of overlapping ripples). But if we expand our view from beyond the inlet to the estuary the inlet is part of, the nature of the estuary is changed in a different way. And expand beyond that to the bay, to the gulf, to the sea, and to the ocean where that water flows, and the ripples (the alterations of the semantic meanings) work in different ways. The border between the inlet and the estuary represents “boundary conditions” (Farr), just as validly as the boundary between Medievalism and Modernism, or the Qing and the Republic [pun]. And just as a swimmer’s intent is only part of the story of his ripples, a killer’s intent is just part of the story of a murder/prevented assassination/protection of a regime.

Again, keeping in the analogy, imagine a scientist attempting to understand the nature of the inlet. He observes the moss, fishes, and swimmers, and the ecosystem they form. He devises causal laws (“If more moss, then less swimmers”) and correlative observations (“inlet-bed surface light and swimmers rise and fall together”). Proud of himself, he submits his work on ecological turns in inlets to the American Inlet Science Review…

… only to be told his work is not scientific, because it does not hold for all forms of dihydrogen-monoxide! Reviewers castigate him: “These ecological turns are not true for glaciers! Or steam! Or even culverts in Sikkim!” Unaware their demands would turn Inlet Science into something completely different, the editors of AISR reject the paper, robbing the world of insight, all because the concepts in the paper existed within the “framework” (Fay) of inlets. Such a rejection would prohibit the inlet scientist from “elucidat[ing] the meanings which inform specific [inlet] practices, and thereby reveal the structures of intelligibility which accounts for the behavior of [inlet flora and fauna].”

This is similar to the Farr’s discussion on the nature of revolution. By trying to avoid specific, meaningful scopes, and looking only at an ahistorical view of “revolution, some threaten to turn political science into something none of us would recognize. Even though he later confuses himself during a discussion of “temporally related entities,” Farr warns us not to put aside the practices of real science; for example, when even there laws are not ahistorical (the laws of physics were apparently quite different immediately after the Big Bang than now). Further, the attempt to de-contextualize and de-semanticize “revolution” is like trying to take the inlets out of Inlet Science. As Fay says, “an action is an action .. only in the context of a certain set of social rules” (my emphasis).

Just as inlet science studies the nature of specific types of bodies of water, political science studies the power relationships of certain frictional seas of men. Political science is not the study of “power” generally (if it was we would measure things in watts), nor is it the study of men generally (that’s psychology) nor of society generally (that’s sociology) — it is the study of power and men in a “semantic field” (to use Taylor’s words). It is the study of power in meaningful, semantic, rational, frictional contexts.


Brian Fay. 1975. Social Theory and Political Practice. London: Allen and Unwin. Ch. 4 (pp. 70-91).

Charles Taylor. 1979. “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man.” In Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan, eds., Interpretive Social Science. Berkeley: University of California Press (pp. 25-71).

James Farr. 1982. “Historical Concepts in Political Science: The Case of ‘Revolution,’” American Journal of Political Science 26: 688-708, http://www.jstor.org/view/00925853/di975157/97p0200p/0?currentResult=00925853%2bdi975157%2b97p0200p%2b0%2cFFFF3F&searchUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.jstor.org%2Fsearch%2FBasicResults%3Fhp%3D25%26si%3D1%26Query%3DHistorical%2BConcepts%2Bin%2BPolitical%2BScience%253A%2BThe%2BCase%2Bof.

Quality, a tdaxp series, has five parts:
The First Part, Beauty
The Second Part, Friction
The Third Part, Seas
The Fourth Part, Inlets, Lakes, and Streams
The Fifth Part, The Magic Cloud

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