<< zurück / back
Temporality and Agency: A pragmatist perspective
Triggered by ideas of Bergson and Heidegger in particular, there has been abundant work on questions of time and temporality. Only rarely, however, have the methodological implications of different conceptualizations of time been reflected. The issue of temporality has, by and large, remained a purely philosophical one - interesting in itself, but without any ramifications for practical research. Based on the internal relation between contingency, agency, and temporality - as opposed to the internal relation between law-like generalization, determinism, and subjectivism in neo-positivist accounts -, we will argue that different conceptualizations of time are well-suited to illustrate the differences between two fundamentally different perspectives in social science methodology, namely a logic of subsumtion and a logic of reconstruction.
From the perspective of a logic of subsumtion scientific explanation consists of the subsumtion of particular events under general covering laws. Research thus essentially becomes a quest for empirical generalization. Correspondingly, causality comes in the form of general laws, agency, contingency and creativity end up in the "error term", and change is conceived of as the observation of different synchronic values of a particular variable over time. Apart from the fact that such a strategy of comparative statics deliberately fails to grasp what actually accounts for the difference between two synchronic observations (a problem we will discuss in more detail below), the subsumtionist understanding of change apparently hinges on a Newtonian understanding of time, "which conceived of all bodies as points of mass that could be unequivocally located in an absolute space, time was thought of as a mere standard, external to physical objects, for the measurement of movement" (Joas 1985: 171).
A logic of reconstruction, in contrast, replaces the focus on law-like generalization with an interest in complexity of structures of "meaning-in-use" (Milliken 1999, Wiener 2004). The task of research is then to reconstruct how in a particular context a horizon of possibilities (objective possibilities in the Weberian sense) is constituted and how and why one of the possibilities is then selected, or maybe rather "acted out". This involves a crucial shift in the concept of observation. While a logic of subsumtion relies on a statistical concept of observation and thus calls for maximizing observation points even in so-called qualitative research (cf. King/Keohane/Verba 1994), a logic of reconstruction starts from the contingent observation of particular actors in praxis, or to put it more in more general terms, from praxis that leaves traces in the form of protocols, which then allow for a second-order observation. While a logic of subsumtion assumes that theories need to reduce complexity, a logic of reconstruction seeks to trace how complexity is reduced in practice in the first place. In this context, Niklas Luhmann, although not necessarily considered a proponent of interpretive empirical research, has pointed out that consequently theory does not need to reduce complexity in a second turn, for the infinite complexity of the world as already been made intelligible through first-order observations in practice.
It follows from the rejection of the assumption of an independent point of observation that time, too, is relative on the contingent perspective of an observer. A correspondent understanding of time, inspired in fact by the theory of relativity and the irritations it had caused, has been presented most explicitly in George Herbert Mead's Philosophy of the Present. Mead rejects both a philosophy of the past, characterized by a mechanistic determinism represented in Newtonianism, and a philosophy of future, characterized by teleological philosophy of history. "In Mead's view, a philosophy of the past regards the present and the future as mere concatenations of effects, resulting from causes which are effective now and for all time ... In contrast, a philosophy of the future turns such mechanistic determinism on its head and sees the present as merely a stage in t a process, the final goal of which was fixed prior to all history" (Joas 1985: 168). Mead thus starts in a rather straightforward manner: "The subject of this lecture is found in the proposition that reality exists in a present. The present of course implies a past and a future, and to these both we deny existence" (Mead 1959: 1). The proposition that "reality exists in a present" does not, however, lead to a conceptualization of time as the "mere succession of now-points" (Merleau-Ponty cf. Joas 1985: 171). It is instructive, in this context, how Joas (1985: 172) traces the conceptual history of the corresponding notion of a "specious present".
First used by "Edmund Clay, a proponent of a punctual present in the sense of an unavoidable deviation of human perception from the exactitude of measurement", the term acquired the opposite meaning in William James, who conceives of the specious present as "the true present, form which the punctual present was only an abstraction, which might be justified for certain purposes of measurement and science, but which could not claim to represent the character of time. This step opened the way for the idea of a non-punctual time that instead flowed; in addition the insight that physical time was constituted directed attention to the question of the temporality of the constituting dimension itself."
While Mead shares an interest in these constitutive aspects with James (and Bergson), he forcefully rejects their focus on "introspective experience". Where Bergson and James propose a subjectivist understanding of temporality, Mead begins to search for a theory of the intersubjective constitution of temporality; and this is where his discussion becomes particularly interesting in relation to questions of methodology.
Temporality, according to Mead (1959: 33, emphasis added), is constituted through emergent events. "These events always have characters of uniqueness. Time can only arise through the ordering of passage by these unique events". Emergent events are capable of structuring time precisely because they thrust themselves forward, as Joas has put it. Mead (1959: 33) is interested in events because he sees them as representing novelty, which in turn allows him to conceive that from "causal nexuses effects can emerge which are not reducible to their causes."