U.S. Intellectual History Blog

David Harvey’s “Mental Conceptions”

Yesterday, I finished writing up my comments on Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture, which I will present at our conference in November. This was a difficult review for me to write because there are so many things about the book that sparked my intellectual curiosity. I settled on examining the epistemology implied by the book, in part because, though we’ve done a great deal of speculating about it here (see for example David Sehat’s posts on whether Rodgers is Rortyian here and here and here), none of the formal reviews have addressed Rodgers’s theoretical underpinnings to my satisfaction. I also rested my review on epistemology because, as regular readers of this blog have no doubt noticed, I am always thinking about it in relation to history and historiography.

This is not to say that my epistemological influences or interests are necessarily well rounded. As our frequent gadfly Varad pointed out in a recent post, the theories of culture and power I focus on tend to run the gamut between Marxism and its derivatives. Fair enough. In my defense, this gamut seems large when I’m trying to decipher the differences between Marx and Derrida. But I admit this might be the narcissism of small differences. Oh, well, at the risk of beating a dead, narcissistic horse, today I continue my thread about theories of culture by returning to the subject of last week’s post: David Harvey, specifically, his latest book, The Enigma of Capital (which I find a deeply satisfying read).

In Chapter 5, “Capital Evolves,” Harvey pauses from his historical dissection of capitalism (by way of Marx’s Capital) to offer up a general theory of history (by way of, you guessed it, Marx’s Capital). I find this theory worth discussing because it makes sense to me, but also because it puts into clear words the nuanced sense of culture that Harvey displayed in his classic work, The Condition of Postmodernity. I also find it worth discussing because I think its an implicit structuralist response to those poststructuralists who only see base-superstructure determinism when they see Marxism.

Harvey argues that “cultural norms and belief systems (that is, religious and political ideologies) are powerfully present but do not exist independently of social relations…” Pretty standard stuff, and not far removed from Althusser or from Marx for that matter. Harvey calls these cultural norms and belief systems our “mental conceptions of the world,” one of seven “distinctive activity spheres” that comprise the historical development of capitalism. All seven in Harvey’s words:

1. Technologies and organizational forms
2. Social relations
3. Institutional and administrative arrangements
4. Production and labor processes
5. Relations to nature
6. The reproduction of daily life and the species
7. Mental conceptions of the world

This last “sphere” of course speaks most to intellectual historians. Harvey sees all of these spheres as mutually constitutive: no one sphere dominates even as none of them are independent. “Each sphere evolves on its own account but always in dynamic interaction with the others.” So though this is a structuralist account of historical change, in that a contrived mental conception like a metaphor cannot take on a life of its own apart from the other spheres, and although it’s “total” or even “totalizing” in its sense of a social formation, which postmodernists of the world have united against, it is not economically determinist in the “vulgar” sense that economics underlies all else. More from Harvey to give a sense of how he sees this at work:

Our mental conceptions of the world… are usually unstable, contested, subject to scientific discoveries as well as whims, fashions and passionately held cultural and religious beliefs and desires. Changes in mental conceptions have all manner of intended and unintended consequences for [the other activity spheres]…

Harvey argues that we should think about the interrelatedness of these spheres as we think about an ecosystem. Parts of the ecosystem can act seemingly independent of the rest, but have consequences for the whole by way of the dialectic processes of accommodation and resistance. “The complex flow of influence that move between the spheres are perpetually reshaping all of them.” In stable societies, these seven spheres roughly harmonize. In societies in flux or crisis, there are imbalances that shakedown in unpredictable ways.

In Harvey’s conclusion, he provocatively asks if this co-evolutionary theory of social change can be projected into a co-revolutionary theory of a break. He argues it can and it should. In fact, he maintains that past revolutionary projects failed in part because “they fatally failed to keep the dialectic between the different activity spheres in motion and also failed to embrace the unpredictabilities and uncertainties in the dialectal movement between the spheres. Capitalism has survived precisely by keeping that dialectical movement going and by embracing the inevitable tensions, including crises, that result.”

Some might think this all too abstract or utopian. But I like the way, as a general theory of history, it allows for the importance of structure without being deterministic; and the way it allows for (mild) optimism while also calculating heavy constraints.

One Thought on this Post

  1. “As our frequent gadfly Varad pointed out . . .”

    You wound me, sir, and deeply. My card says “Resident Gadfly,” and I demand to be referred to as such. But glad to be of service.

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