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Jon Elster reply to G A Cohen

Jon Elster reply to G A Cohen

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12/02/2012

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FUNCTIONAL EXPLANATION: REPLYTO ELSTER*
G.
A,
COHEN
University College, London
I THANK
Jon
Elster
for his
generous review,
and for
his criticisms,
not all of
which
I
accept,
I
shall
not
respond here
to
every criticism with which 1 disagree,
but I do
wantto comment
on
what
I
think
are
misconceived objections
to
my chapters
on
functionalexplanation. Having done
so, I
shall offer reservations
on the
extent
to
which
my
'sometimes uncertain grasp
of
economic theory'
(p,
122E')
led me
into error,I grant that
my
defence
of a
functionally construed historical materialism
is
onlypartly successful,
but I
reject
the
methodological criticisms Elster directs against
it, I
believe, moreover, that there
is no
viable alternative construal
of
the central claims
of
historical materialism,
so
that
if
my defence fails, historical materiahsm fails. Hence
the
cost incurred by Marxism,
ifi am
wrong, is considerable. That
is
no reason
for
thinkingthat historical materialism,
in the
version
I
favour,
is
true,
but I
should like the cost
of
its falsehood—;/
it is
false—to
be
acknowledged, something which,
as I
shall explain,Elster
is
reluctant
to do,
1,
In
Marx's theory,
as I
present
it,
history
is the
growth
of
human productivepower, and economic structures (sets
of
production relations) rise
and
fall according
as
they enable
or
impede that growth. Alongside
a
society's economic structure there existsa superstructure,
of
non-production relations, notably legal
and
pohtical ones.
The
superstructure typically consolidates and maintains the existing economic structure, andhas
the
character
it
does because
of
the functions
it
fulfils.Historical materialism's central claims
are
that(1)
the
level
of
development
of
the productive forces
in a
society explains
the
natureof its economic structure,
and
(2)
its
economic structure explains
the
nature
of
its superstructure,I take
(1) and (2) to
be functional
explanations, because
I
cannot otherwise reconcilethem with two further Marxian theses, namely that(3)
the
economic structure
of a
society
is
responsible
for the
development
of its
productive forces,
and
(4)
the
superstructure
of a
society
is
responsible
for the
stability
of its
economicstructure,(3)
and (4)
entail that
the
economic structure
has the
function
of
developing
the
productive forces,
and the
superstructure
the
function
of
stabilizing
the
economicstructure. These claims
do not
(as Elster rightly insists,
and as he
sometimes recognizesI realize)
by
themselves
entail that economic structures and superstructures are
explained
by
the
stated functions:
.v
may
be
functional
for
y
even though
it is
false that
x
exists
because
it is
functional for
y.
But (3) and (4),
in conjunction with (1) and
(2),
do
force
us
to treat historical materialist explanation
as
functional.
No
other treatment preserves
*
1
am
indebted
to
Annette Barnes, Grahame Lock
and
Arnold
Zuboff,
for
pointing
out
infelicities
in an
earlier version
of
this paper,'
"E'
indicates
a
reference
to
Elster's review,
and 'C
indicates
a
reference
to my
book.
Political Studies, Voi, XXVIII,
No, i
(129-135)
 
130 REVIEW ARTICLES
consistency between the explanatory primacy of the productive forces over theeconomic structure and the massive control of the latter over the former, or between theexplanatory primacy of the economic structure over the superstructure and the latter'sregulation of the former,
2,
In a number of works^ Elster has criticized undisciplined uses of functionalexplanation by Marxist and other social theorists, on grounds almost all of which arealso (independently) developed in my book. He is impressed by how thoughtlessly thedevice of functional explanation is invoked, without adequate evidence, in the apparentbelief that if an item has a function, then,
ipso facto,
it also has a functionalexplanation, I am impressed by how essential it is to vindicate the functional-explanatory device,
as opposed to its misuses,
if historical materialism is to be defended.These contrasting motivations should not generate a confrontation, and I complain thatElster is wrong to mount one, I accept that I have failed to substantiate the truth ofsome of my functional-explanatory claims, but since, as I shall show, I am not guilty ofmethodological or conceptual error, the principal part of Elster's critique is a failure,
3,
Sometimes Elster more or less correctly reports my intentions, as in the 'morecharitable' interpretation of them on pp, 127-8E, But his reports—not, as he claims, myintentions—are inconsistent, and some of them are quite unfounded.He begins by assigning to me a 'general methodological position, an attempt tovindicate functional explanation in the social sciences as
sui generis,
i,e, reducibleneither to causal nor to intentional explanation' (p, 121E), This description is misleadingin one respect and false in another.The description is misleading because one would never gather from it that I hold, asdoes Elster, that there is successful functional explanation in biological science: much ofour dispute is over the extent to which social science can emulate biological science inthis regard. My strategy is to vindicate functional explanation
as a device
by arguing,controversially, that universally accepted biological explanations
are
functional expla-nations, I then argue that explanations of similar pattern apply in social and historicalstudies. So it is an important constituent of my position that functional explanation is
not
peculiar to social science.There is also, more seriously, an outright falsehood in Elster's description. For
1
donot hold, to put it as he does later on (p, 125E), that 'functional explanation [is] aseparate explanatory category on a par with causal explanation'. This attribution fiatlyignores, and contradicts, my explicit statement (p, 250C, etc) that functional expla-nation is a variety of causal explanation. It is, in my view, causal explanation of aspecial type, which is why it deserves a special name, but it is not explanation of somenon-causal type, Elster should at least acknowledge that this is my declared position,even if he wrongly thinks that I am untrue to my own declaration.Still, it might seem that there is an irreducibiiity claim, needing more careful statementthan Elster himself has provided, to which I am indeed committed. The reader candecide that for himself when, after 1 have given a brief statement of the sort of causalexplanation I think functional explanation is, the character of the irreducibiiity claimwill be more clear.Every causal explanation mentions one or more causally relevant features, whichcontribute to the explanation of what is explained. In my account a functionalexplanation is a causal explanation in which a certain sort of dispositional fact is acausally relevant feature. Where what is to be explained is an event of type
E,
thedispositional fact is that if
E
occurs, it brings about some consequence
F.
When
E
occurs (partly) because if
E
occurs it brings about
F,
we have a functional explanation
^ For example, J, Elster,
Logic and Society
(New York, Wiley, 1978);
Ulysses and the Sirens
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979) and 'Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory',in
Marxist Perspectives,
forthcoming.
 
REVIEW ARTICLES 131of
E^.
'Birds developed hollow bones because hollow bones facilitate flight' is anexplanation of the functional type, with
E
being possession of hollow bones by birdsand
F
being the facilitation of flight, which is a consequence of
E.
An example of functional explanation in social science is that scale of production islarge in a certain industry because large scale reduces costs in that kind of industry. Ifone now asks,
how
does the putatively explanatory functional fact, that large scalereduces costs, explain large scale, then the answer will be different in different cases.Sometimes it will be that the functional fact selects in favour of firms which foraccidental reasons expand their scale, sometimes that wise planners recognize thefunctional fact and act accordingly, and sometimes both elements will figure in what Icall the
elaboration.
But the differently elaborated explanations all depart from the samefunctional fact, and that is why I consider them all functional explanations.Whether one should now say that functional explanation is in one case
reducible
tosomething like natural selection and in another to a story about human intentions is ofno official interest to me, and depends entirely on what is intended by the highlyambiguous term 'reducible', which should not be used without explication. If Fido'sbeing a dog is reducible to his being a collie (or whatever kind of dog he is), thenfunctional explanation is reducible in the stated fashion; and if not, then it is not.Whether something's being a member of a genus reduces to its being whatever speciesof that genus it is is an issue on which I have no obhgation or desire to pronounce,*
4,
I say, then, that a functional explanation is one in which a functional fact figures.It may be offered with or without an elaboration, that is, an account of
how
thefunctional fact contributes to explaining what it does,I also say that whenever a functional explanation is true, there is some trueelaboration of it (p, 27IC), or, in the language preferred by Elster and others,^ there issome relevant mechanism at work, 1 then claim (p, 272C) that it is sometimes rationalto have confidence in a functional explanation in advance of having a good idea of whatthe mechanism may be, Elster rejects this epistemic claim (p, 127E), and he charges thatit contradicts my insistence elsewhere (pp, 255 ff,, 283C) that one may not infer fromthe fact that
x
is functional that the existence or nature of
x
is explained by itsfunction(s). He thinks that in developing this point I 'make out a good case againstfunctional explanation', whereas I was simply indicating widely ignored constraintswhich functional explanations must meet. With analogous logic one could say of a criticof the fallacy
'post hoc ergo propter hoc'
that he had 'made out a good case against'causal explanation.The asserted inconsistency is between my critique of slipshod functional-explanatorypractice and my willingness to hypothesize functional explanations in the absence ofknowledge of mechanisms. To show why the inconsistency charge fails, and to displaythe oversight which led Elster to make it, let us take the social mobility example heintroduces on p, 126E, Four claims need to be distinguished here:(5) The mobility occurring in society
s
at time
t
has favourable consequences forclass domination,
*
Or, more strictly, a
consequence explanation
of
E,
but the distinction between functionalexplanation and consequence explanation, on whieh see pp, 263-4C, is of no polemical relevance,and I shall speak of functional explanation throughout this paper," I mischievously report that in
Ulysses and the Sirens
Elster says that 'there are basically threemodes of explanation in science: the causal, the functional and the intentional' (p, viii). Thissuggests that he holds an irreducibiiity thesis mueh stronger than any which attracts me. But thisfootnote is mischievous, since the quoted statement, though prominently placed, misdescribesElster's considered position, which emerges on p, 128E, and on which I shall comment in section 4below,* For reasons too complex to display here, I think the familiar 'mechanism' terminology isunfortunate, but it is well entrenched, and I shall sometimes myself use it here.

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