, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 399-402
Date: 23 Sep 2011

Wholes, parts, form and powers

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Dave Elder-Vass has written a very useful book. As suggested by the title, it is an attempt to specify what it might mean to say that social structures can do things. At the same time, it is a claim that they can. Social theorists are perhaps accustomed to such talk, but within the parameters of contemporary analytic philosophy, developing such a line of argument is harder than it might seem – and this for reasons that might not be readily apparent. I’d like to set this all out up front, as it has to do with why the book is as useful as it is.

At the risk of giving offense, I will assert that a serious engagement with the question of what social structures can or cannot do presupposes three key assumptions: (1) that ‘being able to do’ is a property borne by at least some things; (2) that such a property can be borne by things other than those deemed by physicists to be the most fundamental; (3) that ‘things’ such as social structures exist, by which I mean that they do not reduce ontolo