STATISTICAL THOUGHT IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES: A PHENOMENOLOGICAL BASIS
by Joe E. Dees
A substantial number of contemporary existentialists, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre, asserted that humankind is free, and that to be free is to be 'condemned to be free'. Because of the absolute nature of human freedom, humans could not be determined. This view condemned as impossible any attempts to categorize either the behaviors or the views of humans in general, even (eschewing identities) similar trends. Thus, probability was forbidden; humanitiy's absolute freedom would not permit the existence of parallels. This view was shown to be faulty by Sartre's contemporary, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It's fault lies in its fundamental self-contradiction. After first recounting the aspects of activity, temporality, contingency, chouce and commitment inherent in the existential view of human subjectivity, Merleau-Ponty presents Sartre's position. It is at the conclusion of this presentation that the axe falls.
"The result, however, of this first reflection on Freedom would be to rule it out altogether. If indeed it is the case that our freedom is the same in all our actions, and even in our passions, if it is not to be measured in terms of our conduct, and if the slave displays Freedom as much by living in fear as by breaking his chains, then it cannot be said that there is such a thing as Free action, Freedom being anterior to all actions...We may say in this case that freedom is everywhere, but equally nowhere...the idea of action, therefore, disappears: nothing can pass from us to the world, since we are nothing that can be specified, and since the non-being which constitutes us could not possibly find its way into the world's plenum. (From nothing, nothing comes.) There are merely intentions followed immediately by effects...the very idea of choice vanishes. For to choose is to choose something in which freedom sees, at least for a moment, a symbol of itself. There is free choice only if freedom comes into play in its decision, and posits the situation chosen as a situation of freedom. A freedom which has no need to be exercised because it is already acquired could not commit itself in this way: it knows that the next instant will find it, come what may, just as free and indeterminate. The very notion of freedom demands that our decision should plunge into the future, that something should have been done by it, that the subsequent instant should benefit from its predecessor and, though not necessitated, should at least be required by it. If freedom is doing, it is necessary that what it does should not be immediately undone by a new freedom. Each instant, therefore, must not be a closed world; one instant must be able to commit its successors and, a decision once taken and action once begun, I must have something acquired at my disposal, I must benefit from my impetus, I must be inclined to carry on...Unless there are cycles of behavior, open situations requiring a certain complation and capable of constituting a background to either a confirmatory or transformatory decision, we never experience freedom. The choice of an intelligible character is excluded, not only becausethere is no time anterior to time, but because the idea of an initial choice involves a contradiction. If Freedom is to have room in which to move, if it is to be describable as freedom, it must have a field, which means that there must be special possibilities, or realities which tend to cling to being."
Sic transit Gloria, Jean-Paul; passim in pax. Merleau-Ponty's arguments are basically that 1) absolute freedom, by virtue of its very absoluteness, is empirically indistinguishable from the absolute absence of freedom, 2) if all acts are free, then freedom is a meaningless term, 3) if all one's choices are realized without a mediating time, both time and choice of one alternative over another cease to exist, 4) a commitment cannot be made to realize a goal realized at the moment of desire, that is, the entire idea of effort becomes an impossible delusion, and 5) there is no freedom without the existence of a circumscribing field of unfreedom in which it can be manifested, and with which it can be contrasted. Granting Merleau-Ponty's point that freedom must be contingent rather than absolute, what necessary fields must it be contingent upon? Being-in-the-World is an individual being, and "is in each case mine" (Heidegger). Well, its essence "lies in its existence" (Heidegger again). Are there any similarities there? Yes, three: the world, perception, and the body, the last two referring to humanity's manner of being-in-the-world. Merleau-Ponty discusses all three.
"If a friend and I are standing before a landscape, and if I attempt to show my friend something ehich I see and which he does not yet see, we cannot account for the situation by saying that I see something in my own world and that I attempt, by sending verbal messages, to give rise to an analogous perception in the world of my friend. There are not two numerically distinct worlds plus a mediating language which alone would bring us together. There is - and I know it very well if I become impatient with him - a kind of demand that what I see be seen by him also. And at the same time this communication is required by the very thing which I am looking at, by the reflection of sunlight upon it, by its color, by its sensible evidence. The thing imposes itself not as true for every intellect, but as real for every subject who is standing where I am."
Humans share a world, and share common perceptions of it. But what is the nature of these perceptions?
"What prohibits me from treating my perception as an intellectual act is that an intellectual act would grasp the object either as possible or as necessary. But in perception it is "real"; it is given as the infinite sum of an indefinite series of perspectival views in each of which the object is given but in none of which is it given exhaustively. It is not accidental for the object to be given to me in a "deformed" way, from the point of view (place) which I occupy. That is the price of its being "real"...Thus, there is a paradox of immanence and transcendence in perception. Immanence, because the perceived object cannot be foreign to hi who perceives; transcendence, because it always contains something more than what is actually given...the perceived thing itself is paradoxical; it exists only in so far as someone can perceive it. I cannot even for an instant imagine an object in itself...I wish only to point out that the accusation of contradiction is not decisive, if the acknowledged contradiction appears as the very condition of consciousness."
Therefore, perception is perspectival; this entails that it is incomplete, involving the paradox of the object as both seen and unseen. Also, as a subject need an object of which to be conscious, an object needs a subject to be conscious of it. Their very nature is defined correlatively. What, however, is essential to these bodies from which humans perceive and act and in which their consciousnesses reside?
"Whether or not I have decided to climb them, these mountains appear high to me, because they exceed my body's power to take them in its stride, and...I cannot so contrive that they be small for me. Underlying myself as a thinking subject...there is...a natural self which does not budge from its terrestrial situation and which constantly adumbrates absolute valuations. What is more, ny projects as a thinking being are clearly modeled on the latter...in so far as I have hands, feet, and body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent upon my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way which I do not choose...it is clear that, one and the same project being given, one rock will appear as an obstacle, and another, being more negotiable, as a means...The probable is...in the preceived world. The mountain is great or small to the extent that, as a perceived thing, it is to be found in the field of my possible actions, and in relation to a leve which is not only that of my individual life, but that of 'any man'. Generality and probability are not fictions, but phenomena; we must therefore find a phenomenological basis for statistical thought. It belongs necessarily to a being which is fixed, situated and surrounded by things in the world."
Humanity's bodily nature not only determines the possibility and difficulty of their physical actuations of their intentions accoding to size, howeever. Human perceptions are also limited by the manner in which they are structured in the body. Vision is limited to apprehension of wavelengths between 3900 and 6900 angstroms in length, audition is limited to the perception of pitches between 20 ans 20,000 Hertz, and tactile stimulations can only register when matter or energy directly contacts the human surface. Humans are determined, individually to two and for specise perpetuation to all three of T.S. Eliout's trilogy of birth (beginnig of a being), copulation (conjoining of two beings) and death (end of a being). Humans are spatiotemporally finite. Humans also communicate, mainly through language. This communication is efected through one's intentional modifications of another's perceptual field; this points to (1) the a priori agreement between humans of both common meanings and common modes of their expression, and (2) the a priori constancy and intersubjective similarity of perceptions so actionally modified. Even common conceptions are themselves grounded in the perception of a common world; Aristotle's three Laws of Thought (if A then A, A or not A, not both A and not A) are perceptually rounded as follows: if I perceive an object then I perceive that object, either I perceive an object or I don't; and I cannot simultaneously perceive and not perceive the selfsame aspect of a single object (there is a fourth Law that Aristotle missed: if not A then not A, that is, if I do not perceive an object, then I do not perceive it). Our concepts are extrapolated from our percepts, in which they are phenomenologically grounded. As one's own body is the third perspectival element in figure-ground perception, so is a thought (figure) in a context (ground) interpreted from one's own subjectivity. However unusual the perspective or abstruse the thought, its primordial ground is the world as perceived, and its cognition is within a context of common meaning. Back to Maurice. We have two more questions to ask of him before we proceed: (1) how is an Other recognized? and (2) is there an essential nature, accessible by probability, to being-among-Others? As to the first question...
"From the depths of my subjectivity I see another subjectivity invested with equal rights appear, because the behavior of the other takes place within my perceptual field. I understand this behavior, the words of another; I espouse his thoughts because this other, born in the midst of my phenomena, appropriates them and treats them in accord with typical behaviors which I myself have experienced. Just as my body, as the system of all my holds on the world, founds the unity of the objects, which I perceive, in the same way the body of the other - as the bearer of symbolic behaviors and of the behavior of true reality - tears itself away from being one of my phenomena, offers me the task of a true communication, and confers on my objects the new dimension of intersubjective being or, in other words, of objectivity."
All very well and good. I see another 'myself' manifested, through behavior and meaning congruent with my own, within my perceptual field. Now it is time to answer the second question.
"The For-Themselves - me for myself and the other for himself - must stand out against a background of For-Others - I for the other and the other for me. My life must have a significance which i do not constitute; there must strictly speaking be an intersubjectivity; each one of us must be both anonymous in the sense of absolutely individual, and anonymous in the sense of absolutely general. Our being-in-the-world is the concrete bearer of this double anonymity."
Thus we are all different in that we are different subjects, but this difference is adjectival, not essential. Likewise we are all the same in our very identity of mode of subjectivity (without which it would be impossible to distinguish between subject and object), but once again this sameness is adjectival rather than essential. For beings-in-the-world, difference and sameness are the thesis and antithesis which correlate to comprise a synthetic social essence, one in which statistical thought has a sound phenomenological basis. Merleau-Ponty stated the need for such a basis; if he had sufficiently perused his own writings he would have found it there.
Even human will strives for such a social synthesis, as erving goffman demonstrates.
"When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be."
Thus one consciously strives to be accepted and categorized by others. Furthermore...
"One cannot judge the importance of definitional disruptions by the frequesny with which they occur, for apparently they would occur more were not constant precautions taken. We find that preventive practices are constantly employed to compensate for discrediting ocurences that have not been successfully avoided. When the individual employs these strategies and tactics to protect his own projections, we may refer to them as 'defensive practices'; when a participant employs them to save the definition of the situation projected by another, we speak of 'protective practices' or 'tact'. Together, defensive and protective practices comprise the techniques employed to safeguard the impression fostered by an individual during his presence before others. It should be added that while we may be ready to see that no fostered impressions would survive if defensive practices were not employed, we are less ready prehaps to see that few impressions could survive if those who received the impressions did not exert tact in their reception of them."
...the individual is consciously aided and abetted conspiratorily by the others, who consciously strive to accept and categorize. With the explication of this conjunction between essence and accidence towards similarity, the phenomenological basis for statistical thought is complete. But what form may the representation of this thought take? Humans are not absolutely different, nor are they absolutely the same. However, neither are the similarities arising from their sameness-difference dialectic absolutely delineated, nor are all aspects of these similarities identically patterned. By what means may such a variable (the consequence of probable) multiplicity be uniformly represented? I suggest that the representation already commonly in use, the Bell curve projected on an XY axis intersection grid (abscissa and ordinate), faithfully represents the phenomenological realities of the referent situation. The degree of difference within an anonymous aspect of humanity's actions or intentions may vary narrowly or widely. Also, the locus of greatest agreement may not be fixed a priori. The Bell curve is compatible with these requirements. The possible differences may vary to infinity, and the slope may be adjusted to intersect the X axis where appropriate, or not at all. The apex of the curve is determined by the locus of greatest agreement, not vice-versa. The number of individuals within this locus also determines the Y axis intersection point. Thus, the Bell curve is a variable tool well suited to this particular purpose. Also to be kept in mind is the a posteriori nature of its implementation, as a display of previously garnered experimental and phenomenal data. Lastly, as mentioned before, it is already in use in the social sciences, and the weight of its empirical veracity is a strong argument in its favor. Would Maurice agree? Would the use fo the Bell curve as a statistical tool in the social sciences be compatible with Merleau-Ponty's conception of Freedom?
"We are always in a plenum, in being...I may defy all accepted form, and spurn everything, for there is no case in which I am utterly committed: but in this case I do not withdraw into my freedom, I engage it elsewhere...Far from its being the case that my freedom is always unattended, it is never without an accomplice, and its power of perpetually tearing itself away finds its fulcrum in my universal commitment in the world."