global politics, relationally

(Self) Reflections on Alexander Wendt’s book Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology


This is a guest post by Matt EvansProfessor of Political Science at Northwest Arkansas Community College (in Bentonville). Dr. Evans he holds an MA in political science from the University of Louisville (where he was first introduced to Wendt by Dr. Rodger Payne) and a PhD in the same field from Northern Arizona University.

Ecce homo!

The Latin phrase means “behold the body” – it was what Pontius Pilate said to the jeering Jerusalemites in presenting Jesus Christ’s tortured body, and what Friedrich Nietzsche’s used to title his intellectual autobiography. It denotes a defense of oneself and others to an unsympathetic public, and parallels what Judith Butler said about “giving an account of oneself” (that presenting oneself creates an impossible singular task where we must invoke others and the broader web of sociality to know ourselves in public and private).

In the paragraphs below, I want to explain my own use of the phrase – in a review of Alexander Wendt’s recent book Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. Of course, this book review will not only explain some of Wendt’s basic ideas in this quantum project, but also reveal something inter-textually that exists beyond and between the texts/text (thus the infinite number of spaces that we need to look to explain what something means). Examining Wendt’s most recent book tells us something about the writer, the book reviewer, and some of the social contexts in which both emerge.

More than any other writer, Wendt made me the political scientist I am today. His work on structuration, scientific realism, and constructivism unraveled my thinking on how to approach American diplomatic history. Before reading his work, I wanted to be Noam Chomsky with a political science PhD. After reading his works, I wanted to be a political theorist. Every political problem appeared, at its roots, to be a philosophical problem (that addressed both the way we did science, the way we construct causality, ontology, metaphysics, ethics). I thought all political scientists were just bad theorists, bad historians, or a combination of the two. Certainly reading King Keohane and Verba made me very amenable to some of Wendt’s denaturalization of the orthodoxies of the study of international relations and global politics. It also opened the door to an idea that political scientists could not adequately study political problems – the major paradigm shifts occurred metaphorically by connecting contents and contexts that clearly were not part of political science into the field (in a way that draws upon the insights of conceptual blending and conceptual metaphor research). Thus, Wendt had to remind everyone of the importance of philosophy of science, specifically scientific realism (from British philosopher Roy Bhaskar) and structuration (from British sociologist Anthony Giddens). He was breaking apart what counted as international relations – along with others opening the door to a wider conception of political science – and creating space for me to do whatever I would be doing to complete my MA and a PhD in political science (and thus spend much of my time taking philosophy, linguistics, sociology, gender studies, ethnic studies, communications courses). Of course, I probably stretched scientific realism and constitutive theory to their breaking points in justifying my own projects (like my dissertation). His cleaver-ness, though, was always creating a false nostalgia in making the new concept or issue appear like it had just been lost in the shuffle of the field’s creation and was always there in plain sight (kind of like Winston’s role in utilizing the memory hole in the book 1984).

The metaphoricity of Wendt’s recent project on quantum social science seems potentially ripe for contributing to the growth of the field of not just political science (but all of social sciences). He examines the mind-body problem – one of the central and intractable problems of Western philosophy – and finds it lacking for being entirely based on Newtonian physics (for example, see his Q&A here and his lecture here). The Newtonian should be replaced by the quantum. The latter challenges many of the basic assumptions of the former. All social explanations are constrained by the laws of physics, according to Wendt, and thus physics lays at the base of everything social, large and small (Wendt 7). In laying out this challenge, Wendt brings into question the broader project of social sciences (in all of its disciplines). If the social sciences are largely based on a Newtonian metaphysics (at least implicitly at their root), then the larger project of social sciences loses its purchase in explaining the world. Wendt, thus, is correcting philosophers and social scientists for not thinking through the implications of the quantum that ultimately undermine explanations about the world. We must look to the quantum, a world of potentiality and contingencies.

What is the new quantum IR Wendt world? From this perspective, humans are “walking wave functions” and thus all that can be known about a quantum system before it collapses and decoheres because of measurement (Wendt 3). Individual minds “are entangled through language and context and thus not fully separable”; “there is no need to infer the speaker’s meaning, since it is contained right there in her words and context, which are picked up non-locally, i.e., directly, rather than transposed through the speaker’s mind” (Wendt 237). Speech perception happens through gestalts “which sub-consciously relates what is being said backwards to what they have already said in the past and also anticipating what they are going to say in the future,” following the work of Francesco Ferretti (Wendt 240). Individuals exist ontologically prior to the state and society (Wendt 244), a point he made in his first book but not his initial formulation of constructivism (in saying it might be ideas all the way down). The state is a hologram where the hole is encoded in the parts; thus, “the policeman’s practices enfold the history of the whole state” that are decoded through our psychological perceptions of waves cohering in our brain around this phenomenon (Wendt 272-273) – a much less Marxist explanation of interpellation, perhaps. We do not literally see the state, but the act itself that implicates the state and thus we perceive the underlying phenomenon because of its holographic encoding on the smaller, more localized phenomenon (Wendt 274). Methodologically he suggests moving past his previous suggestion of via media (a middle ground between positivism and interpretivism) to “both/and” – “only question then is which incomplete stance to take for a given problem” (Wendt 286). Causes are non-efficient, and non-local within this perspective. They happen downward through what he terms “weak downward causation” where the whole describes the arrangement or constitution of the parts (Wendt 262). Temporal holism suggests that history is “a series of events that are logically or internally related to one another” and “what comes after those events plays a role in not just in how we describe them today but in making them what they actually were” (Wendt 196). In total, Wendt tells us that he is out of the constructivism business (though there are elements of his previous projects on display in this book).

The problem with moving across and expanding contexts is translation. Something gets lost when shifting and connecting registers, accents, languages, modes of thinking, ontologies, epistemologies, metaphysics, and ethics. Contexts are structured and created through the specificity (or backgrounding) of these things. The implications of grand claims, at the root of Wendt’s new project, cannot be adequately addressed. Wendt suggests a second volume that works more specifically through these issues might come years later. To be fair, one can only address so much in a book and certain things will always lie outside the narrative. On the other hand, as WEB DuBois knew well, connecting two contexts can be extremely violent psychically and physically – leading to the mental experience of the veil of distancing and obstructing one’s own view through the alienation of one’s very being.

As such, I want to raise some issues of what gets left behind or overlooked (and perhaps what might get resurrected and addressed in Wendt’s sequel).

PERFORMATIVITY. Wendt connects the interactive production of individuals with the performative theory of Judith Butler:

on the specific issue of how she [Butler] conceives the relationship between agents and agency, there is a strong parallel to quantum reading of the preference reversal phenomenon. Moreover, one of the issues Butler struggles with in response to critics is the age-old tension between voluntarism and determinism, both of which she wants to avoid. As we will see in the next chapter on free will, a quantum model of agency provides a way to threat this needle, and as such would contribute to further development of her approach. (Wendt 163)

Wendt draws upon a previous book on quantum theory and performativity by Karen Barad to connect her notion of intra-action to game theory inter-action (in threading this needle for Butler):

Human beings only become who they are through collapse of our wave functions into well-defined states, which happens as a result of continuous measurements on and by our environment. She then points out that as quantum systems we are entangled with the social world and thus not fully separable from each other. This vitiates the premise of “inter” action and by the same token motivates the neologism of intra-action, since who we become through measurement on each other is internal to our shared relationship – our entanglement – rather than something that happens outside. (Wendt 172)

Thus, “her argument suggests that the effect of playing a quantum game is to create the separability requirement of classical game – even if that game can never be played” (Wendt 173). This gives rise to cooperation through entanglement that challenges the atomistic notions of traditional game theory; strategies are intertwined between players and their deployment only becomes clear as a result of the game itself (Wendt 170).

Of course, I am not sure I understand how he works through the aspects of Butler’s work (and those following her like Saba Mahmood) about the nature of what exists prior to the interaction and what weight it possesses and what constraint it offers. Wendt suggests that she works against voluntarism and determinism, but within her own discussion she works through notions of grids of determinability and in others applying her theory we see notions of how the performance cements over time making it harder to change. If we are left with flat ontology (“in which individuals are the only real reality” Wendt 33; unlike some of his previous claims about states being real), how do we work through some of the wisdom of the last 25 years on performativity? Are there things beyond the individual and mind that stay and exist beyond the hologram? Is the division between the real, the social, the ideal much more fluid than Wendt wants to claim within his framework?

Most problematically he says: “I know of no interpretivist, post-modernist, or other critic of naturalistic social science who says that social phenomena can violate the laws of physics” (Wendt 10). For such a statement to make sense, we have to know physics, how it can be violated, and how we know it was violated (as do all the theoretical positions laid out in this sentence). Epistemologically I am not sure that every theoretical positions follows the winding metaphysical systems implied within their social ontologies. In a sense, Wendt seems to attribute a certain narrative totality to particular traditions across all the traditional philosophical categories (when such traditions may have avoided, challenged, or radically transmuted such categories from natural objects, as they were, to sites of power construction) – and thus he is smuggling in some overarching, loose, metaphysics to put over all these diverse approaches to discovering/formulating the world.

MONADS. Wendt’s utilizes monads (from Gottfied Leibniz) to make claims about the social positions of individuals and their experiences:

We might call leaders dominant monads, which contain within themselves the reasons for the collective actions of the members. Other monads defer to the dominant, giving the latter “first mover” status in collapsing the state’s wave function and by implication giving up their own right to act against the chosen path (at least at that moment). In quantum terms this may be understood as a system of entangled particles in which, by virtue of its internal structure, when measurements are made on the system by the environment the choice of how to respond is not made locally by the particles on the spot, but centrally by the leaders. (Wendt 270)

Additionally, Wendt tells us the dominant experiences the whole decoherence into experience, “instantiating the consciousness of the collective, not a single cell” (Wendt 281); and anyone can experience the state and what it is like to be the state (but this point of view is the subjective experience of the state, not the actual experience of the state).

Such claims about monads (however grounded in mannish European early modern philosophy of Leibniz) suggest an abstract affinity for standpoint theory (that emerged out of George Lukás and various feminists of the 1970s and 1980s), but that a flat ontology seemingly undermines some of the parallels between these two theories (while simultaneously harvesting the epistemic point from standpoint theory about social position and knowledge about the system). Beyond the flat ontology, should we acknowledge that the unprivileged have a stronger claim on knowledge than the privileged in explaining the nature and logic of the social system? How can we do so within a flat ontology?

SPEECH ACTS. Wendt draws upon speech acts in explaining wave collapses in quantum physics and his own project:

In quantum mechanics measurement is what brings about a wave function’s collapse, which is inherently contextual process that involves first deciding particular question to ask of nature and then preparing the experiment in such a way that it can be answered; if these steps are done differently, then a different result will be obtained. Similarly, in language what brings about a concept’s collapse from potential meaning into an actual one is a speech act, which may be seen as a measurement that puts it into a context, with both other words and particular listeners. (Wendt 217)

This suggests some affinity with securitization theory (that explains the dis-empowering impacts of particular types of speech acts towards referent objects). Does Ole Waever’s existing conception of securitization (and the broader literature around it) remain consistent with Wendt’s metaphysical and ontological claims in the book? What are the overlaps and the differences? My sense is that there are some things I am not seeing, but thinking through on security seems to say, at least from memory, that it could be made to work fairly directly and easily with mind entanglement through the ontological claims that securitization makes at its most basic levels.

TRUTH. Wendt’s general disposition — taking a stand that something is true — is parsimonious and useful for tracing out a clear position on what QT means and its implications for mind/body and social theory. But is there a stronger claim for ontological muddle and epistemic humility in following some type of philosophical wager for a particular commitment to pluralism for different possibilities of the way the mind works consistent with quantum theory (parallel to what PTJ does with his different scientific ontologies — trying to keep several conflicting ways of doing science and approaching the world in the same tent).

EMERGENCE. Wendt’s claims of emergence offers a new explanation for mutual constitution, as the relation between agents and social structures is a “nonlocal synchronic state from which both emerge” (Wendt 260). This makes me think of conceptual blending and conceptual metaphor theories — as ways to explain emergent meaning — that hit on something of the boundaries of context. So much of meaning connects structures that we thought were separated to create new meanings. As such, there are deeper implications for the connection of semantic context through the process of interaction and meaning. Should we consider the role of metaphor in quantum theory in some deeper way? Additionally, why should this be treated differently than the sort of theorizing on assemblages, rhizomes, and lines of flight in the post-Marxist/speculative realism literature?

SUBJECT/OBJECT. Is there an irony with establishing the collapse of wave functions as a measurement problem and then creating a scientism that cleanly separates the researcher from the world out there? Thus, even though he suggests the problem of de-coherence, he offers a position to explain the way reality ultimately is from a knowledge position not fully within the field of quantum physics and thus as an anthropologist outsider engaging a world of texts (Wendt 36-37), where he asks the reader to cobble together a new view of the world from reading his text (that surely represents what the world “is” by offering explanations of quantum physics and social theory). Would Wendt just be better served by reading Campbell’s engagement with him 25 years ago (about how the posts were part of the constructivist project, drawing on Foucault’s notion of the “Blackmail of the Enlightenment”) and taking up his interlocutor’s project of a thoroughly performative series of claims about the world jettisoning all the different layers of physics concepts?

ALIEN ANTHROPOLOGY. The fact that Wendt suggests that aliens could not find or see the state seems a bit ridiculous (even against his discussion of alien encounters and UFOs elsewhere). Do anthropologist not reconstruct social structures that are unfamiliar through ethnographies or gathering artifacts (a point he affirms in his introduction of what he is doing method-wise in his book)? Why would aliens not see the state in the same way that outsider anthropologists do?