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Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences par Nick TURNBULL

| Association de la Revue internationale de philosophie | Revue internationale de philosophie 2007/4 - n 242
ISSN 00-48-8143 | ISBN 978-2-9600-6403-2 | pages 451 472

Pour citer cet article : Turnbull N., Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences, Revue internationale de philosophie 2007/4, n 242, p. 451-472.

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Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences

Nick Turnbull

Wherever we look in the social sciences today we nd references to contingency.1 It goes by many namespostmodernity, liquid modernity, indeterminacy, problematization, destabilization, ux, radical undecidability, and so on. But whichever term is used social scientists have identied how modernity has been called into question and causality and certainty have been replaced by a more problematic social reality, such that contingency is the dening attribute of contemporary society.2 Social relationships are characterized by contingency rather than necessity, as are the social sciences themselves which have reexively recast their own theories in light of the realization that social scientic knowledge can only be a partial perspective. This has produced a wealth of new approaches but also many difculties. How are we to make sense of the world in all its plurality and questioning of established traditions yet develop a theory of consistent, logical relationships to describe it? That is, how can we theoretically express the contingency of the world without annulling it in a system which represents it as a series of determinate states linked via causal necessity? Luhmann points to the extent of the contingency problem for the social sciences in noting that contingency is a weak generalization compared with necessity and impossibility: is there a theory that can make use of the concept of contingency?3 Given that contingency has been produced by the problematization of society and the social sciences, one answer to this question is to conceptualize contingency in terms of problematization itself. Many variants of poststructuralism have attempted this, yet arguably have not made signicant advances because they often see problematization as disruptive rather than as constitutive of knowledge. Instead, at least as far as social scientic inquiry is concerned, we could conceive of this generalized problematization in positive terms. Michel Meyers philosophy, problematology, can do this because it is

1. 2. 3.

Thanks to Barry Hindess, Toby Fattore and Harry Blatterer for their valuable advice. Niklas Luhmann, Observations on Modernity, trans. William Whobrey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 44. Luhmann, Observations, 46.


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built upon questioning as a fundamental property and so establishes the philosophical ground for a theory to describe contingency in social relations. The contingency of contemporary society has been identied in the destabilization of established social structures and identities, for example of class, ethnicity, and nation. However, while the tenor of social inquiry has changed, many questions which previously occupied social scientists reappear today, albeit in less structured form. Despite empirical problematization and the political and social change it has produced, the question now is not just to understand the dynamics of this change but why so much remains constant and why we often continue on a similar course despite the problems which confront us. To understand the lack of questioning in a problematized world we must conceive of questioning in more than a literal sense by explaining how it operates in practice to motivate change or to reinforce the past. Instead of determinate social systems which are either xed or overturned by revolution we nd Luhmanns continuously evolving, self-organizing social systems which are thoroughly contingent and yet still produce a signicant degree of order. In politics, problematization has not necessarily led to more questioning of power with Bauman describing how, in postmodernity, uncertainty and its anxieties can lead to political quiescence and surrender because we lack the condence to envision a better future. For him, we face a life in the presence of an unlimited quantity of competing forms of life, unable to prove their claims to be grounded in anything more solid and binding than their own historically shaped conventions.4 To conceptualize this period in which we face a dynamic contest between forms of life for which history is but an argument, we must conceive of society rhetorically, a rhetoric which includes a place for the passions since these express the human necessity to choose and therefore deal equally with constancy as with change. And if the political has become a concern of social theorists, it is because it deals explicitly with the contingency of the differences between us and the ambiguous choices confronting us about the future. Contingency and problematization are normal in politics, for which rhetoric is the only discourse appropriate for deliberating upon problems and legitimating decisions. To thematize this contingency in a consistent and integrated way requires a philosophical approach. Meyers problematology tackles the problem of articulating contingency at the foundational level of thought. Since philosophy has always sought unity Meyer rejects the twentieth century fragmentation of reason as non-philosophical, saying that we must attempt to explain fragmentation
4. Zygmunt Bauman, In Search of Politics (Cambridge: Polity, 1998), 120.

Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences


rather than reect it in our own discourse.5 Therefore he returns to metaphysics, to philosophy as the search for rst principles, the interrogation of reason itself. At the same time, the indeterminate foundation he proposes conrms the antifoundationalist attitude of much contemporary philosophy and social theory, even while securing it via the foundation of questioning. Problematology does not simply point to the aws or limitations of ontology but moves beyond it entirely. In the derivation of the principle of questioning and the deduction of the problematological logos, Meyer presents us with a grounded philosophy and a theoretical construct through which to integrate contingency into a social science adequate for the times. In this article I outline the basis of a problematological approach to the social sciences. I proceed inductively from Meyers argument for the foundation of questioning and how this necessitates a theory of answering which expresses contingency. The key concepts here are the two dimensions of answering: the problematological which expresses a question, and the apocritical which dissolves the question. By putting these on an equal footing and explaining how they are interrelated, problematology reects and articulates the problematic which lies at the heart of reason itself. Hence this dual conception of answering can be used at any derived level of reasoning to indicate the contingent alongside the necessary, what is in question and what is out of the question. Next, I explain that a problematological philosophy of social science would be based on the tripartite properties of the question-answer relationship which are already common in constructivist social science; dialectic (and dialogue), hermeneutics, and rhetoric. Finally, I develop this line of thought by extending rhetorical interpretation to a discussion of how problematology might frame key questions in the social sciences: the subject, social practice, social relations and social systems, and politics. Of course, each of these warrants extensive treatment, so this is only the most preliminary of outlines. Nonetheless, it shows how, using problematology, we can reect the contingency of contemporary social science and integrate these key questions through a singular philosophical perspective. Most importantly, this incorporates the rhetorical dimension as fundamentally important to human nature and to social scientic inquiry into it. It locates the passions at the centre of human existence and in so doing provides new and systematic possibilities for social inquiry which expresses the passionate dimension of social life, from the construction of identity in a problematized world to the mobilization of political passions in order to change it.
5. Michel Meyer, Of Problematology: Philosophy, Science and Language, trans. David Jamison with Alan Hart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 3.


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The necessity of contingency in the problematological difference

Contingency arrives most importantly in the social sciences with the rejection of a causal model of social relations and a subject which grounds objective interpretations of society. The major changes to Western economies and societies have problematized these ideals. Social identities are now in ux and subjectcentered interpretations have been equally problematized as we reect upon the social situatedness of the scientic observer. Ontology, which is concerned with being, cannot adequately express this problematic reality, and is a particularly unsuitable ground upon which to base a theory of politics which is concerned not with being but with problems, not with xed reality but with possibility. In both the problematization of forms of life and the new political problems arising from them, social scientists must deal with the generalized contingency of their object of study and their own epistemological perspective. Despite its difculties, this generalized contingency does give us something in common to work from in the form of problematization. However, this cannot be formulated from an ontological or propositional base. A hypothetical proposition makes an independent assertion which is opposed to another proposition, the goal being to eliminate one through recourse to some third element which can adjudicate between them. Meyer rejects this view of judgment as partial, noting instead that before we can formulate any proposition, we must already have a question.6 A proposition is already a response, an answer, whether or not the question to which it responds is explicitly put forward. In suppressing questioning, propositional reasoning sees contingency as a temporary state of affairs to be eliminated by some method which rules one answer out and justies the other as the truth. Questioning is different. It expresses contingency by making explicit the rst level of reasoning, showing that alternative propositions are alternative answers to a question and gain meaning through this relationship. When we are faced with a question we do often arrive at a solution which dissolves it, for example by mutual agreement or by adjudicating upon the alternatives through reference to a pre-established answer to a different question. But equally, we could extend the questioning process by elaborating upon it, transforming and yet maintaining the problematic, or even challenging the formulation of the problem itself. All these options achieve epistemological progress even though they do not all respond to the initial problem by dissolving it. By theorizing them all equally as answers, we see that contingent answers also contribute to knowledge even if they do so differently from apodictic responses.
6. Meyer, Problematology, 72107.

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In social relations, contingency is common because social interactions are problematic and highly variable. This is particularly the case in politics, where the object is to express problems and generate debate as much as it is to eliminate questions through practical solutions. And yet, theoretical approaches such as behaviorism and rational choice theory continue to hold appeal because they produce results, regardless of whether they capture the reality of contingent social processes which do not easily lend themselves to the problem solving model. But theories which suppress contingency or relegate it to an undifferentiated noise are of little use in the contemporary context. Meyer would describe such theories as propositional since they repress the problematic in dening social reality as a series of determinate, independent states. They cannot articulate contingency except as a residual, that which is left over from the hypothesized causal link between A and B. Conversely, questioning expresses contingency at its base, articulating the alternative and showing that there is a choice without negating that choice by excluding the problematic a priori. Questioning goes to a more fundamental level of thought and by bringing it forward we can see the contingent relationship between question and answer which lies at the heart of all reason. This does not mean that all answering is equally contingent. Rather, problematology simply puts contingent answers on an equal footing, as answers, with necessary answers. Social science appears weaker than the natural sciences only if we presuppose that an answer is and only is an apodictic solution which eliminates a question. But when we identify the answerhood of propositions we see that the apodictic is but one particular form of answering which occurs only in particular contexts and is of less relevance to contingent human affairs. Social science deals with subjects, who are questioners, and therefore the social sciences are more explicitly problematological. But if questioning expresses fundamental contingency, then isnt problematology as contingent as any other philosophy and therefore arbitrary? Here, we need to separate the principle of questioning from Meyers deduction of the problematological difference which forms his theory of the logos. Meyer asks the question of what is rst in philosophy, what is the principle of reason.7 What is rst in the question of what is rst is questioning itself, no matter how one poses the question, therefore questioning is the rst principle of thought. One can question this principle but not refute it because to question the principle simply conrms it. The principle of questioning is therefore necessary. However, as the historical record shows us, the answer which reects this principle is not neces7. Ibid., 56.


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sary. This is because, in response to a question, many answers are possible other than the problematological one which conrms questioning. Indeed, even though they have all practiced questioning, until now philosophies have repressed their questioning origins in their various responses to historical problematization.8 But problematology is different from other philosophies because it reects this multiplicity in its answer by conrming questioning, in contrast to other systems which, in the search for necessity, attempt to justify a universal answer which eliminates the problematic in general. Reecting questioning generates the concept of the problematological answer, that which responds to the foundational problematic by explicating it and thereby creating a difference without abolishing the question in the response. Problematology poses language itself as a partial answer, a problematological reply to and reection of the foundation as question. In making this response, language expresses both questions (problematological answers) and answers (apocritical answers) and it is in the difference between these properties of answering that we nd the synthesis of necessity and contingency: it is necessary that we question and that we answer, but because knowledge is grounded in questioning there is always an alternative. The problematological difference is a more fundamental difference than the propositional link, which actually takes place at a secondary level at which only the apocritical element appears. Underneath this, we see the contingency of answering which we can make explicit by asking the question of the foundation and showing that to answer is to conrm the problematic itself. Questioning is necessary and by explicating it Meyer gives voice to the problematic and also to the contingency of answering, a contingency expressed in the fundamental alternative to explicitly reect questioning or to repress it. Problematology is the only philosophical answer which thematizes this contingency instead of repressing it in an answer which is denied as such in the concept of the proposition. Problematology does this consistently with its own principle so it is reexively secured in method and theory. The question-answer pair, problematologically conceived, shows that the necessity of questioning produces the contingency of answering. This appears paradoxical only if we presuppose the propositional view, in which reason is the giving of answers which necessarily eliminate questions. But such a conception of reason itself presumes an answer to the question of questioning without having asked it, a contradiction which we can uncover and correct by pointing out that this in turn implies that


See, Michel Meyer, Questionnement et historicit (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000).

Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences


it is in questioning in which we nd the nature of philosophy and that which is fundamental to thought.

The problematological difference in social exchange

The mechanism of the problematological difference is the key to the dynamic nature of problematology and its utility for theorizing social relations. As I noted above, Meyer presents language itself as a rst level of answering which expresses both questions and answers. The move from implicit worries to the explicit expression of questions through language establishes a primary logical difference Meyer terms the problematological difference.9 Because it responds to the question of questioning, language is an answer and therefore apocritical (an answer which solves and suppresses a question)10 and also problematological because in answering it expresses a question.11 A problematological answer demarcates the solution-to-be-reached, without which the solution would not make sense.12 This conception of the logos articulates the problematological difference at two levels of thought: 1) the difference between implicit worries and explicit problems, and 2) the difference between questions and answers within the second level of explicit discourse. The problematological difference creates a dynamic logic by which knowledge is generated and intersubjectivity made possible. How? It species that answers must be both apocritical and problematological, but not for the same question because this would be contradictory. Instead, an answer is apocritical for the question it resolves and problematological for a different question. The apocritical effect represses the question, making it autonomous from that question.13 Apocritical answers thus do not appear to be answers but autonomous statements, or propositions, suppressing their answerhood in directing attention toward their objects. The outcomes of questioning thus appear to be objective even though they are in fact subjective results.14 The autonomy of the answer gives the world constancy and identity by making what was in question no longer so: answering phenomenalizes the world.15 This also applies to the question of
9. Meyer, Problematology, 206. 10. In the primary case, the question solved is the question of making explicit the foundation as question. The initial questionthe question as foundationremains implicit and explicit language responds to it, expressing it without reducing it to a presupposed, hypostatized linguistic form. 11. Ibid., 211. 12. Ibid., 210. 13. Ibid., 213. 14. Ibid. 15. Ibid., 215.


Nick Turnbull

individual identity which is constructed from the many judgments made through experience and stored in our unconscious, judgments we usually do not question.16 The autonomization of answering gives usand gives the world for usidentity and constancy, permitting us to operate in a routine manner. At the same time, the autonomization of the answer evokes the problematological effect, generating a new question or relating to a new questioner.17 The problematological difference comprises a dual mechanism which makes an answer autonomous and also enables it to become part of a synthesis linking a series of questions. Inquiry is an active process which produces problematics that enable us to relate to each other and to the world. Questions are linked together dialectically, each new line of questioning can enrich an earlier one, which can thus be brought to completion, weakened, or used for other purposes.18 Social action conceived as a series of static, linked propositional stages is inadequate for describing interrelated, complex social processes whereas the problematological conception of intersubjectivity shows that there is a question in every social exchange. The apocritico-problematological link supports intersubjectivity by relating one question to another through the mechanism of answering.19 The problematological difference shows that we need not separate contingency from necessity because this difference captures both. We cannot help but offer answers which relate to questions and thereby give form to the world and shape to our social relations. In the problematological difference, this synthesis has a dynamic property.20 We cannot reach the end of reason nor the end of history since every answer is necessarily problematological; beyond the question it answers, it raises the possibility of a further question for us and for others interested in the matter at hand. Even to refuse to answer is another way of answering, so silence and inaction can have meaning for us by relating them to a question. At the second level of reasoning we can insist that certain answers are necessary, however this is only so in a limited context. For example, scientic laws can take on new meaning by being interpreted through questions of culture. Hence questioning never ends, each resolution adding to the context via the apocritical accumulation of answers while simultaneously offering up a new problematic

16. Alfred Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. George Walsh and Frederick Lehnert (London: Heinemann Educational, 1972). 17. Meyer, Problematology, 220. 18. Ibid. 19. For a full discussion of meaning and intersubjectivity in problematology, see Michel Meyer, Meaning and Reading: A Philosophical Essay on Language and Literature (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1983); and Problematology, 23557. 20. Meyer, Problematology, 216.

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via the problematological effect. The logic of questioning is fundamentally dynamic, contrary to the static logic of propositional reason which focuses only on the results of social interactions and interprets that little is happening if the whole remains largely consistent, when in fact each interaction is a dynamic process and stability is a possible response to contingency as much as change. This should be apparent today when so much is in ux yet so much of modernity remainshistorical contingency does not necessarily equal radical change, even if it is the condition which promotes the search for new answers. In the problematological dialectic the constancy of the social world is a result, an answer to a multitude of questions which form a dynamic questioning process. The dimensions of the question-answer relationship are shaped by three fundamental properties familiar to social scientists: dialectics, hermeneutics, and rhetoric. Reason is inherently dialectical because answering makes it possible to link questions together. Similarly, since people relate intersubjectively through questioning, the dialectical exchange between individual questioners is equally dialogical, whereby the problematological difference is materialized as each person in turn becomes questioner and answerer.21 In dialogue, the autonomization of answering generates a question for the listener as to the meaning of the answer, that is, how it relates to a question via the context. Comprehending meaning is thus a hermeneutical questioning process in which one substitutes one problematological answer for another, producing an apocritical result.22 This substitution establishes a problematological equivalence between the two questioning processes.23 The hermeneutic dimension is linked to the least used concept in the social sciences, the rhetorical: when we cannot prove answers demonstratively by eliminating all the alternatives, questions remain open and there is a chance for debate.24 Rhetoric does not deal with the truth value of a particular thesis but concerns the problematicity affecting the human condition, in its passions as much as in its reason and its discourse.25 The context of social

21. Ibid., 220. 22. Ibid., 224; see also Meyer, Meaning, 14168. 23. Meyer, Meaning, 153; Meyer, Problematology, 224. Meyer argues that all meaning is generated hermeneutically, even in the simplest exchanges which are understood easily and without conscious effort. The context provides the presuppositions for the discourse, including socio-cultural variables and the answers built up in dialogue (also known as tacit knowledge; Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967). The questioning process allows us to hermeneutically interpret the implicit from the explicit. 24. Michel Meyer, Rhetoric, Language and Reason (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 96. 25. Michel Meyer, Rhetoric and the Theory of Argument, Revue Internationale de Philosophie 50(2) (1996): 337.


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interaction informs the questioners about their relative distance from each other,26 a distance which is negotiated rhetorically, whether through discourse or other recognizable symbols. Meyer provides a general denition of rhetoric as the negotiation of distance between men with regards to a question or a problem [original emphasis].27 This encompasses the many diverse aspects of rhetoric, from deliberative argumentation through to the gurative meaning of literature and art. Together, these three properties describe the structure and potential variability of the relationship between questions and questioners.

Rhetorical social relations

Problematology provides an ideal philosophical basis upon which to build contemporary social science because it expresses contingency at a fundamental level. The questioning concept highlights the alternative inherent in the dialectic of every social exchange, reecting the temporalization Luhmann described in the elements of social systems.28 In questioning social questioning, problematology also afrms the centrality of questioning for hermeneutic social science, as described by Gadamer. Here, I emphasize only the rhetorical dimension because this offers the most potential for a new understanding of how individuals and societies deal with contingency. Importantly, we need not restrict rhetoric to the study of discourse. To speak is to act so all action, whether discursive or otherwise, can be conceived as a response to an implicit problematic. Military strategy, for example, is non-discursive but it is rhetorical, when one general positions his army in such a way so as to deceive his opponent by implying that he will pursue a different strategy from that which he intends. So, we can use rhetorical concepts to describe the negotiation of distance between people in general, whether in terms of their distance from each other in the market, across social classes, genders, races, national identities, and so on, and even to describe the subjects relationship with her unconscious. Rhetoric is relational and agential, expressing the possibilities of the relationship between self, other, and world as a question mediated through the passions: it is the logic of contingency.

26. Meyer, Problematology, 222. 27. Meyer, Theory of Argument, 334. 28. Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, trans. John Bednarz, Jr. with Dirk Baecker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 11.

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The subject History has put the subject in question so the problematological response is not to dissolve the subject but instead to characterize it as a question. The problematization of the subject thus produces a rhetorical anthropology.29 Today identity is rhetorically constructed so that we can be A and B at the same time, different within ourselves as well as for others. The question view shows us that rhetoric is a fundamental property of the logos and this lends rhetorical agency to the subject.30 We can question ourselves and the world and change in response, or equally we can avoid dealing with questions by making them rhetorical, suppressing the problematic in order to ensure the consistency of the world which so uncomfortably puts us into question. The subjects relations with others have also been problematized, or rhetoricized, reconguring the primary question for human beings which is how to live together. The social and the political arise from the contingency which denes the relationship between questioners, so to conceptualize social relations in a problematized world we need rhetoric. In Meyers rhetorical anthropology, each individual is a questioner operating from his own subjective perspective. This forms a three-part orientation: the subjects relationship with himself, with others, and with objects.31 The world has meaning for us because we ask questions of it. The answers we reach contribute to our identity (ethos) which is formed most importantly through our relations with others. We engage with others whom we question and respond to and whom also question and respond to us (logos). How others appear to me and how I appear to them affects how I see myself. And because I have agency, I can attempt to project a particular ethos in an attempt to appear to others how I wish them to see me.32 There is also the unconscious which operates beneath the surface of my thoughts, providing me with preconceived answers about how to be in the world (pathos). The individual has agency in that she can question herself and question the world, each problematic varying with the particularity of the questions but also limited through the implicit context provided by the answers of the unconscious and the social conventions which construct identity at the collective level. Identity is formed by our questioning, it is the quest itself,
29. Meyer, Rhetoric. 30. Nick Turnbull, Rhetorical Agency as a Property of Questioning, Philosophy and Rhetoric 37(3) (2004): 20722. 31. Michel Meyer, Philosophy and the Passions: Toward a History of Human Nature, trans. Robert F. Barsky (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 214. 32. See Emmanuelle Danblon, Problematology, Language, Rhetoric, Revue Internationale de Philosophie (this issue).


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nourished by the alternatives which follow along in train.33 Problematized social relations pose more questions for individuals who live in greater contingency and they respond through the passions, through fear and anxiety at being called into question or through excitement at the opportunities for transformation or through the many different motives toward engaging collectively with others. Social practice Since human beings live in contingency, we act through the passions, for passion is the alternative itself.34 Rather than seeing the passions as something which must be overcome in order to attain reason, Meyer explains the utility of a passionate way of acting, articulating a theory of the passions as an essential aspect of human nature which has both positive and negative qualities.35 In everyday life we face new questions all the time, however we desire continuity and security so we deal with these questions by making them rhetorical, abolishing problems as we nd them.36 This process of rhetoricization is what the consciousness gives itself to assure its identity and external coherence.37 Meyer deduces that rhetoricization requires passion to function. We do not need or want to reconstitute the world each time we encounter it, so by making new questions rhetorical we avoid thinking about everyday actions; we would be in a state of permanent confusion if we had to do so.38 But we do not consciously make questions rhetorical because we must act as though questions are not, in fact, questions. So, the unconscious covers up the process, annulling problematicity and giving us the impression of permanence by performing an unconscious resolution which disguises the rhetoricization of the questions. The unconscious resolution is the rendering rhetorical of the process of making rhetorical, which annuls the problem at hand.39 On one hand this has a positive effect in allowing us to develop routines for complex actions and to obtain a sense of security in the familiar, but on the other hand it is also the source of all our prejudices and the blindness of the unconscious, where we see only what we want or expect to see.40 In this process of repression we also nd a problematological link between the problems of the world and the emotional problems of the psyche, such that
33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. Meyer, Passions, 255. Ibid., 7. Ibid., 225. Ibid., 216. Ibid., 218. Ibid., 217. Ibid. Ibid., 216, 218.

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we can (rhetorically) theorize the relationship between the character of the individual and collective social forces. Social practice is a rhetorical phenomenon whereby social actors encounter new situations and approach them on the basis of past solutions which have become internalized. This forms their habitus,41 their dispositions made up of embodied problematological answers through which they interpret the world. It is most difcult to reect upon and alter our habitus because we not only want to remain within comfortable boundaries, we are passionately committed to doing so because they securely afrm our identity. So, while we do often question ourselves, securing our identity also involves the rhetorical repression of questions: The problematological analysis attempts to show that we prefer to not have to ask too many questions.42 Common sense is the comfort of presupposed answers which permit us to act practically without excessive demands for verication. Passion permits us to be pragmatic, to operate efciently and quickly within contexts which are known to us and, in other situations, is what renders the unfamiliar in familiar terms, providing us with ready-made responses which reduce the anxiety that accompanies the unknown. Through the rhetoric of the passions the problematological difference explains both consistency and continuity as dynamic. Passion provides security in repetition but it is also the site at which accepted solutions become the object of reection. For example, where we experience pleasure we seek repetition, but pain operates as a difference which threatens the equilibrium of these orientations, put[s] them into question and brings on instability.43 In the latter case, passion makes us conscious that the status quo is unacceptable, it puts the question of whether to make reality rhetorical or to pursue an alternative.44 Reection is not just a sterile process of uncovering the truth underneath the passionate illusion; passion modies our identity itself when it prompts us to reect.45 Reective questioning is different from unreective questioning but they are related through passion. The logic of questioning leaves open the possibility of reexive questioning or closing off questioning through rhetoricization. Repressing the question creates constancy and social practices develop over time through repeated rhetoriciza-

41. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of A Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). 42. Meyer, Passions, 224. 43. Ibid., 249. 44. Ibid., 253. 45. Ibid., 254.


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tion. However, the generation of practices should not be mistaken for simple recurrence nor an effect of conscious, rational choice. Rather, it is rhetorical and impassioned. The repetition of practices pleases us; we enjoy the consistency of performing in a similar way so that these responses become embodied in our unconscious dispositions via the rhetorical effect. In classical rhetoric the use of repetition in speech is known as anaphora.46 It has a pleasing and persuasive effect by organising several clauses under one semantic form (e.g., Churchills we shall ght on the beaches, we shall ght on the landing groundswe shall never surrender). Applying this to social practice, anaphora is the rhetorical scheme by which practices are taken on by individuals and rhetorically transmitted to others across a social group. This form of repetition is not tautological because the repetition itself raises a question for us, a question which is resolved through pleasure. That is, passion responds to and resolves the problematological effect generated by the repetition of an act or utterance. Using this rhetorical term distinguishes it from repetition as an inconsequential recurrence of an event or as representing the result of a new rational calculation each time. Its rhetorical property explains the longevity of practices in the attachment we feel to routines, cultural practices, and rituals, which have a similar role in repressing the problematic.47 What counts is the repetition of these shared acts, thereby reafrming the answers to the question of our individual and collective identities over and above the individual acts themselves. The impassioned construction of normative practices can be appreciated if we think of their converse; violating conventions and rituals can produce responses from discomfort to aggression in those who feel these norms should not be questioned. Alternatively, excess repetition can sometimes provoke in us a malaise which prompts us to question the established answers. Social relations and social systems Luhmann notes that a complete social theory must deal with both change and preservation which can only be theorized at the level of elemental events because a social system is confronted at every moment with the alternative of ceasing or continuing [my emphasis].48 Consistent with this temporalization, problematology describes individual events at the elemental level of social systems in

46. The rhetorical conception of anaphora is different from its linguistic denition which explains repetition in terms of referring back to preceding utterancesfor example, through pronounsbut does not consider its pleasing effect. 47. See Luhmann, Social Systems, 452. 48. Ibid., 347.

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terms of an alternative, i.e., as a question. The treatment of these alternatives generates dynamism through the problematological difference because each event is an apocritical answer which in turn invokes the problematological effect, generating meaning for another question or questioner. Through this dialectic of questioning, contingent social interactions build systems autopoietically. Social systems are self-organizing in that they build up answers which in turn become the context for new questions, providing the reference points which are placed out of the question and through which systems reduce complexity.49 The problematological effect enables systems to refer to these previous answers and to deal with new questions through them, such that the dual process of answering is not tautological but is open and closed at the same time.50 Anaphora is the mechanism by which social systems generate self-reference at the level of practice, creating bonds between their members who recognize and re-enact shared solutions. Through a succession of questioning exchanges at the elemental level, societies evolve vast complexity over time at the meta-level. Social systems are nonlinear because each solution feeds back into the system to become part of the new context, while also making possible an alternative insofar as each answer can lead to new directions by being related to one or more other questions. This differs from the propositional view, which would conceptualize systems in terms of propositions, as xed states linked by causal necessity. Here, social change is therefore either structurally determined or must originate in a source external to the system. In contrast, autopoietic social systems produce semi-structured forms which work to x the action through answering but which never completely prescribe it because they are built upon questioning, so they always give rise to contingency in an alternative. In order to cope with this problematicity, social systems create reference points through answers in the form of, for example, norms, practices, the conventions of everyday social interaction, rituals, discursive narratives, political institutions and law. The social sciences have always sought to understand how disorganized social interactions in which individuals have agency can produce a reasonably stable and patterned social order. In social systems we nd exibility and change alongside order and continuity. If contingency has become more explicit in the late modern or postmodern period, then we should see it in terms of a greater degree of problematicity, not as eliminating the apocritical but as the problematological becoming stronger in relation to it. Epistemologically speaking, the two fall under the same questioning dynamic.
49. Ibid., 46066. 50. Ibid., 460.


Nick Turnbull

We live in societies so our identity is formed through our relationships with others through whom we experience different forms of recognition. Recognition is effected through a symbolic rhetoric which varies with the audience, i.e., the social groups and the locations which form the context of social action. Social norms and political institutions also come into play in attributing values and character (ethos) to individuals and groups. In the public sphere there is an ongoing debate (epideictic) about our social identity, as to what is positive and what negative about the character of different groups, about who deserves approbation and who condemnation. Individuals stand in a rhetorical relationship with society in which identity and difference are constructed through rhetorical negotiations around the distance between us in regard to social questions. Modernity pluralizes sources of identity, and today even the structures of class, ethnicity, culture, and nation have been rhetoricized and consequently highly politicized. Individuals contribute to the social system but the system also acts upon and through us. We are not separate from the system but continuously create it through our intersubjective relations with each other: problematology is consistent with a constructivist view of social action. Social relations are not causal, necessary forces but contingent relations between problematological constructs. The social system reduces complexity by building up a body of common answers which delimit the scope of problems while also permitting openness via the problematological effect. Systems which balance questioning and the repression of questioning support reasonably stable identications within the system without stagnating and failing to deal with new problems: they are reexive but not so reexive as to undermine their own coherence through excessive problematization. Instead, the movement is toward the internal differentiation of questioning into complex subsystems.51 At the elemental level, the passions provide the continuity which contingent social encounters are otherwise lacking. At the meta-level, the system reduces complexity by differentiating itself internally through a range of institutionalized (problematological) mechanisms for treating questions. Dialectical questioning processes produce complex and dynamically stable systems which continuously interpret, resolve, and reproblematize through hermeneutic and rhetorical means. At the system level, we no longer suppose that social structures comprehensively direct events but are perhaps better understood as rhetorical forces which inuencewithout causally determiningthe relationship between questioners, analogous to the relation

51. Ibid.

Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences


between speaker and audience.52 Social forces are rhetorical guresincluding practices, values, and more ambiguous symbolic narratives or tropeswhich structure social action through their rhetorical effect upon us. Anaphora is one such mechanism. Another example is Bourdieus53 characterization of the structure of accumulating administrative and scientic capital in science as chiastic, the acquisition of each type producing an inverse movement in the other. To these examples we could add, from the political thought of Quentin Skinner and Ernesto Laclau, the idea of social relations being rhetorically constructed through the tropes of paradiastole and catachresis.54 All these examples suggest that we could draw on many other rhetorical schemes to theorize social relations. Politics The means of dealing with overt problematization in social systems is politics. The contingent nature of the human condition means we lead a political life in which passions are necessary but must also be regulated.55 Not all contingency is political but contingency makes politics necessary because it raises questions for which we do not have self-evident solutions. Politics is how we share and deliberate upon our problems and treat the differences between us without, we hope, resorting to violence. Since politics is the explicit treatment of social problems, its discourse is explicitly rhetorical. This is where we nd rhetoric in its conventional sense as persuasive discourse. Political discourse reects the contingency of the social world and therefore it takes on a rhetorical form, the object of which is to give voice to the problems of society and to deliberate over them in the search for solutions. In this deliberation, interpretation and argumentation are linked. The operation of the problematological difference separates meaning from intention, permitting us to rhetorically disguise our intentions and to appeal to the audience through the means of persuasion (ethos, pathos, and logos).56 Similarly, we cannot prevent our answers from being interpreted differently by others, so the ethos of the speaker is always in question in political debate; when we are called upon we must justify ourselves (logos) by explaining our own problematic. Also important is the counterpart of persua52. Clearly there is no intention to persuade in this case, however this analogy preserves the idea of social forces as persuasive and seductive. 53. Pierre Bourdieu, Science of Science and Reexivity, trans. Richard Nice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 57. 54. Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics: Volume 1, Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996). 55. Meyer, Passions, 4346. 56. The medium of the delivery is also important, so contemporary politics employs all sorts of rhetorical devices adapted to the demands of the media, especially television.


Nick Turnbull

sion in the pathos of the audience, the willingness to be seduced by political leaders and the ability of people to rhetorically gloss over difcult questions upon which they disagree, so as to avoid conict. At moments of crisis, when facing the problematic cannot be avoided, rhetoric becomes all-important, the only means by which we can treat urgent and vexing questions, dening them and giving them shape through metaphor, and articulating collective sentiments to provide the rationale for a way forward. The greatest orators are made at such moments, their rhetoric establishing unity and purpose for a divided people. Whether politics uses rhetoric to draw people together or push them apart, to openly debate questions or to disguise them in the will to manipulate and be manipulated, power in society is constituted rhetorically. The key question of political systems is their legitimacy. But problematization has rendered contemporary politics more contingent, so that political theory which seeks normative principles of legitimation asks the wrong questions.57 Thornhill explains that Luhmanns post-Enlightenment conception of legitimacy arises from his insight that, in self-organizing systems, legitimacy is generated from contingency through the mechanism of internal differentiation and self-reference.58 The legitimacy of a system does not arise from some external, normative principle but is generated by the systems own internal operations: a government is legitimate wherever it can motivate citizens to recognize and follow laws, and wherever it can introduce autonomously validated laws (or policies), which are then accepted as legitimate.59 In other words, legitimation is rhetorical. Since politics is contingent, there is always a question to face about the legitimacy of political authority, which takes its best known form in the differentiation of state and society. The political system limits itself through deliberate choices which dene the scope of the state, the problems for which it takes responsibility and those it leaves to civil society. Conjoint with the states treatment of each public problem is this meta-political, ideological contest about what the state should and should not be responsible for, so that for each political problem the proposed solutions imply an answer to this related question through which the practical question is also dened. In democracies, the solutions to policy problems might always be in dispute, however each of these problematological solutions also substitutes for a solution to the larger legitimation question, establishing a problematological equivalence such that the
57. Chris Thornhill, Luhmanns Political Theory: Politics After Metaphysics? in Luhmann on Law and Politics: Critical Appraisals and Applications, edited by Michael King and Chris Thornhill (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2006), 84. 58. Ibid., 83. 59. Ibid.

Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences


state-society difference is reafrmed and the legitimacy of the state is implicitly renewed each time (except at elections in which the question of legitimacy is formally put and apocritically resolved). The problematological difference between state and society is incrementally adjusted through this mechanism of substitution. And yet despite their contingent nature, democracies are stable precisely because they incorporate and promote continual questioning more effectively than any authoritarian polity: when in doubt, democratic questioning itself becomes the legitimating normative answer. In order to function, societies require that a diverse range of social actors cooperate. Coordination problems are more complex in democracies which permit more players a legitimate interest in political decision making. This makes legitimation in democracies more problematic, so they are characterized by deliberative rhetoric around substantive problems. Authoritarian regimes institutionally restrict the ability of people to question the state, so in these we nd an epideictic rhetoric where the only question is to praise the leader, for example in the mass public displays of the former Ceausescu regime in Romania. Legitimation in such states attempts to reduce the distance between state and society by motivating in the people a singular identication with the metonymic gure of the leader. So, following Meyers denition60 of the rhetorical genres in terms of the interrogative variability which characterizes them, in political regimes we nd a relationship between the form of political rhetoric and the institutional structure of legitimation questions. A key problem of politics is how to create a stable polity with efcient and consistent governance but which also supports critical questioning and change at the same time. When is change desirable and when is it more important to afrm stability and coherence? This is a classic problem of political leadership. In answering it, leaders must read the passions of the people and respond accordingly. An excess of questioning might lead to social instability but repressing it can frustrate those demanding attention to new problems and access to the legitimate institutions. Politics is the domain of arguments between people on such questions and the source of violent reactions against authority which resists putting things into question.61 Policymakers have a responsibility to be alert to the problems of the people and to seek solutions to them but also to do so in a way which carries everyone along with the questioning. This is the ongoing dilemma of legitimation, the question which accompanies all political problems. Whatever the case for moderate or adventurous rule, reective questioning is
60. Meyer, Theory of Argument, 342. 61. Meyer, Passions, 216.


Nick Turnbull

essential in politics for without it we could neither shape nor respond to social problems.

What form of social theory can make use of contingency? Propositionalism asks only about results without considering their relationship to questions, thereby abolishing the answerhood of answers in presupposing that the whole of knowledge is made of solutions which necessarily eliminate the problematic. This philosophical construct fails to see the question-answer dynamic, and in so doing separates contingency from necessity so it cannot but thematize contingency in a negative, or at best, residual way. Meyer has identied this pattern in the Aristotelian division of logic and rhetoric62 and the historical separation of the passions from reason.63 And yet the passions and rhetoric are essential to human nature because they are the means by which we live in contingency. We can effectively theorize this contingency only if we think of reason as grounded in questioning, a ground conrmed in the reexively secured principle of questioning which necessarily generates contingency. While questioning is necessary for philosophy, the problematological response is historically contingent. Certainly, we do not have to develop a problematological approach to the social sciences because problematology is also a contingent, historicized response to philosophical questioning, so it is rhetorical. But this is precisely what makes it the most appropriate response to historical problematization: the argument presented for its effectiveness is the effectiveness of its presentation of argument. In the philosophy of questioning and the tripartite properties of the problematological difference we have tools for developing an integrated conception of social relations in terms of the problematic, of the contingent, especially in the property of rhetoric which stands across both constancy and change, from the elemental level of embodied social practice and dialogical exchange to the meta-level of social systems and political responses to social problems. It is through rhetoric that we negotiate our differences in regard to questions, whether by obscuring them through rhetoricization or by explicitly treating them in mediating our relations with others. Most importantly for the social sciences, the problematological difference provides a single logical construct through which to make use of contingency and to integrate key questions at different levels of analysis.
62. Meyer, Rhetoric. 63. Meyer, Passions.

Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences


The problematization of established institutions and cultural identities has not revolutionized modernity, it has problematized it so that many of its characteristics remain even if they have lost their apparent necessity. The subject is not dead but it is in question, hence it has been rhetoricized, so that in the human sciences we look for the sources of destabilization but also try to understand how and why much remains the same despite the prevailing climate of contingency. In uncertain conditions we construct stability by rhetoricizing many of the questions which face us. This provides comfort but, in turn, produces its own anxieties. At the same time, the appearance of generalized contingency has reduced the ability of traditional means to achieve this, putting us into question as a society. Do we ee from contingency toward certainty or should we embrace it? How do we cope with the new individualized risks? How can we reconstruct our collective identity in relation to history when established practices, rituals, and norms have been problematized to such an extent that collective memory itself has been called into question and forgetting is a passion of the times? In politics, how do we acknowledge contingency yet still proceed with conviction in the face of opponents who claim to have all the answers, an argument which itself holds such strong appeal for those experiencing the anxieties of a problematized identity? Whatever our responses to these questions, they will be conditioned by contingency in terms of questioning and therefore subject to the rules of the problematological difference. The University of Manchester

Bauman, Zygmunt. In Search of Politics. Cambridge: Polity, 1998. Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of A Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. . Science of Science and Reexivity. Translated by Richard Nice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Danblon, Emmanuelle. Problematology, Language, Rhetoric. Revue Internationale de Philosophie 61(4) (2007): 36576. Laclau, Ernesto. Emancipation(s). London: Verso, 1996. Luhmann, Niklas. Observations on Modernity. Translated by William Whobrey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. . Social Systems. Translated by John Bednarz, Jr. with Dirk Baecker. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.


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Meyer, Michel. Meaning and Reading: A Philosophical Essay on Language and Literature. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1983. . Of Problematology: Philosophy, Science and Language. Translated by David Jamison with Alan Hart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. . Philosophy and the Passions: Toward a History of Human Nature. Translated by Robert F. Barsky. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. . Questionnement et historicit. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000. . Rhetoric and the Theory of Argument. Revue Internationale de Philosophie 50(2) (1996): 32557. . Rhetoric, Language and Reason. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967. Schutz, Alfred. The Phenomenology of the Social World. Translated by George Walsh and Frederick Lehnert. London: Heinemann Educational, 1972. Skinner, Quentin. Visions of Politics: Volume 1, Regarding Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Thornhill, Chris. Luhmanns Political Theory: Politics After Metaphysics? In Luhmann on Law and Politics: Critical Appraisals and Applications, edited by Michael King and Chris Thornhill, 7599. Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2006. Turnbull, Nick. Rhetorical Agency as a Property of Questioning. Philosophy and Rhetoric 37(3) (2004): 20722.