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Journal Article

Mentality as a Social Emergent: Can the "Zeitgeist" Have Explanatory Power?

Tor Egil Førland
History and Theory
Vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb., 2008), pp. 44-56
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478723
Page Count: 13
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Mentality as a Social Emergent: Can the "Zeitgeist" Have Explanatory Power?
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Abstract

This paper probes the explanatory value of mentality as a social emergent in general and of the "Zeitgeist" in particular. Durkheim's contention that social facts have emergent properties is open to the charge that it implies logically inconsistent "downward causation." On the basis of an analogy with the brain-mind dilemma and mental emergentism, the first part of the essay discusses and dismisses the notion of social emergent properties that cannot be reduced to the properties of their component parts - individuals - and their internal relations. However, ontological individualism need not compel us to methodological individualism. The second part introduces two challenges to methodological individualism. The most radical is Rajeev Bhargava's assertion that the meaning of a belief is determined not by the individual holding the belief but by the entire linguistic community. Bhargava's "contextualism" is closely related to the (post)structural demand that we focus on discourse as a communal entity instead of continuing a delusive quest for the intentions of individual speakers. A more modest alternative is Margaret Gilbert's plea for using "plural subjects" - social groups in which "participant agents" act jointly or have a jointly accepted view - in the practical syllogisms that are central to rationalizing action explanation. The notion of plural subjects lends credence to, and is reinforced by, "situationist" social psychology, which shows how people conform to peer groups, authorities, and roles. Building on Wesley Salmon's and Peter Railton's ecumenical accounts of explanation, the essay argues that both individual rationalizing action explanations and explanations based on plural agents can give explanatory information: we need not choose one or the other. The third part discusses how the "Zeitgeist" can provide added explanatory value in an analysis of the New Left. This is possible if the "spirit of the sixties" is seen as representing the values and worldviews of the "sixties generation" as a social group in Gilbert's terms. Radical youth would suspend judgment and pool their wills to conform to what they perceived were the views of the imagined "sixties community" or - rendering more explanatory force - to smaller parts of it in the guise of peer groups and organizations.

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