Quick Roundup 149

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Thought on "What Went Wrong?"

Pursuant to a recent comment by Adrian Hester on Tom Rowland's criticism of Robert Tracinski's still unfinished "What Went Right?" series, I think that I have managed to understand the nature of Tracinski's error a little better.

Here is what I said after reading one of Hester's comments about how there are different lengths of time between some types of causes and some types of effects within a culture. (And I am focusing on just one part of Hester's very interesting discussion of historical analysis, which he starts at that comment. I love it when he gets on a roll!)

... Tracinski is failing to keep ... the implicit philosophy of the culture ... in mind when he makes his historical analysis. Since he does, he lacks for an explanation of why so many people are so rational and ends up falling back on nonphilosophical causes for the very reason that the long-range causation of whatever era's academic or formal philosophy simply cannot explain what is going on in its time.

This is interesting. It amounts to taking the man-made -- the implicit philosophy of a culture at some time -- as the metaphysically-given.
Hester comments on this later on, making explicit why this mistake is so easy to make.
The implicit philosophy of a culture is man-made, certainly, but not usually consciously so, so it's a nice integration to make its man-made status explicit. However, there's the man-made and then there's the man-made, if you will. There are consciously held ideas and then there are the unconscious conventions of our society. Because these all are man-made but not out there in the world, they're considered subjective by some; others might distinguish between the former as objective since they have some obvious reference to reality, and the latter as subjective or as arbitrary. I've pondered this sort of distinction elsewhere, so I won't go into it more here. [bold added]
Tracinski is certainly not unique in making this error. I think it is quite common among certain libertarian types, and often takes the form of the "virtuous cycle" argument I have been contemplating off and on for some time.

But if this error results in a certain failure of analysis, it also affects one's approach to intellectual activism. Why? Because if one concludes, as I think Tracinski does, that fundamental ideas do not drive history, then on what basis can one engage in intellectual activism? Or: If principles cannot explain what is going wrong, then they also cannot offer a prescription for how to correct it. And so one is left advocating whatever happens to be out there -- in the case of the current war, Bush's half-measures -- and hoping they will "work". Or arguing for incremental improvements in such an approach without mentioning how the right approach would look.

This underlying doubt about the power of philosophic ideas as drivers of history would manifest itself as a lack of moral certainty, which could show up in various ways, such as a quality in Tracinski's writing -- a decided lack of "fire in the belly" -- I seem to recall a couple of other bloggers touch upon in the recent past.

Really Bad Ideas: "Denial"

In an installment of Spiked's series on 'Really Bad Ideas", Frank Furedi makes some interesting points on the newest type of leftist attack against dissent: "[insert favorite pet cause here]-denial". He correctly notes that this drive to (1) label legitimate dissent from its orthodoxy as "denial" and the (2) quash such dissent under the government's boot originated in a well-intentioned, but still very bad precedent:
Paradoxically, the absence of moral clarity today gives rise to an illiberal and intolerant climate. At a time when moralists find it difficult clearly to differentiate between right and wrong, they are forced to find some other way to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. So they seize examples of unambiguous evil -- paedophilia, the Holocaust, pollution -- in order to define potential moral transgression. Today's heresy hunters strive to construct new taboos. The most ritualised and institutionalised taboo in Western society is to question the Holocaust, or to refuse to stand opposed to it. Numerous countries now have laws against Holocaust denial. In Austria, denying the Holocaust can lead to a 10-year prison sentence. Targeting Holocaust deniers allows politicians to occupy the moral high ground, which explains why, this month, German justice minister Brigitte Zypries called for a Europe-wide ban on Holocaust denial and the wearing of Nazi symbols.


[F]ree speech is not a matter of pragmatic convenience; it is a fundamental democratic principle. This was recognised by the French National Assembly in 1789 when it stated: 'The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write and print freely.' This right has become divisible, it seems. Western societies find it difficult to live according to their principles. Pragmatic politicians and legal theorists continually lecture us about how free speech is not an absolute right. Others claim that free speech is an overrated myth. We spend more time discussing how to curb free speech than we do extending it. And every time curbs are introduced on one form of speech, they serve as a prelude for censoring another form. Thus, the criminalisation of Holocaust denial has led to the repression of other denials of conventional wisdom.
My main criticism of the piece is that Furedi is too generous in ascribing a desire to differentiate between right and wrong to those who wish to shut down free debate. Such people see "moral high ground" not as a worthwhile place to live, but only as a place from which it is easier to seize political power.

And, by the way, this bit is frightening: "[T]he recently published British Social Attitudes Survey ... indicated that a larger section of the British public (64 per cent) support the right [sic] of people 'not to be exposed to offensive views' than support the right for people to 'say what they think' (54 per cent)."

Romney's Religion: Essential or Distracting?

Since Mitt Romney threw his hat into the ring as a contender for the GOP Presidential nomination, there has been much speculation about whether a Mormon can be elected President of the United States.

On the one hand, we should generally want to know whether any candidate expresses a desire, through word or deed, to force us to live in accordance with his religious dictates. On the other hand, what difference does it really make what particular religion a candidate espouses if we answer the first question? To sum up my views on the question: I don't care which sect of Christianity Mitt Romney belongs to, so long as he is not committed to using the government to expand the role of Christianity in my life. Keeping this in mind, I found the following not entirely reassuring:
... Katon Dawson, the [South Carolina] Republican chairman, said he thought Mr. Romney had made significant progress in dealing with [concerns that he is unpopular among evangelicals]. "I have heard him on his personal faith and on his character and conviction and the love for his country," Mr. Dawson said. "I have all confidence that he will be able to answer those questions, whether they be in negative ads against him or in forums or in debates."


Mr. Romney offered assurances that seemed to reflect what Kennedy told the nation in discussing his Catholicism some 50 years ago. Mr. Romney said the requirements of his faith would never overcome his political obligations. He pointed out that in Massachusetts, he had signed laws allowing stores to sell alcohol on Sundays, even though he was prohibited by his faith from drinking, and to expand the state lottery, though Mormons are forbidden to gamble. He also noted that Mormons are not exclusively Republicans, pointing to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader. [bold added]
On the one hand, I am glad that Romney can set aside his religious beliefs to sign into law measures he does not personally agree with. On the other, I am concerned about what he has had to do to court evangelicals and how far he might go to win their votes.

My initial impression -- and I am not very familiar with Romney in this respect -- is that the GOP could do a lot worse in terms of how religion affects a candidate's policies. Having said that, I am afraid that something else is completely slipping under the radar: The fact that Romney -- a "fiscally conservative" Republican -- recently signed into law a significant step towards socialized medicine (or as he calls it "Commonwealth Care") in Massachusetts!

So on the left, Romney's faith will sometimes be discussed in its relevant terms, but he will be called a "fiscal conservative" since his plan for socialized medicine is totally uncontroversial there. On the right, his faith will be discussed in completely nonessential terms, but this quibbling will completely overshadow his views on state intervention in the economy!

So is Romney's religion an essential issue or a distracting one? It is both.

-- CAV


softwareNerd said...

But Gus, the examples that Tracinski refers to are examples of course-reversals. They are not reversals of philosophical ideas; the reversal is within the framework of the existing philosophy. (E.g. Indians -- like everyone else -- are still mostly philosophical altruists, yet they're changing their political apparatus for the better.) Therein lies the conundrum: how can a derivative principle (e.g. a political one) or a derivate action change if the foundational idea did not? [This happens all the time, so it's not a puzzling in the sense of being something odd; just something that requires an explanation in words.]

If one thinks of knowledge as heirarchical, with philosophy at the top, the question that is being raised is: how can a reversal happen at some level in the heirarchy without a change at the top level?

Rather than seeing this as only an issue of the effect of philosophy, I see it as a more general issue of the effect of ideas on action, and on the reversal of ideas.

For instance, many students of finance come out of school learning Modern Finance Theory that tells them that nobody can beat the index. This does impact their actions in various ways. Over the years, theory meets experience and each one changes their implicit ideas to some extent, based on their experience and helped along with the belief that theory and practice may be different.

To the extent the theory is irrational, reality is its enemy. This means that practitioners experience strict adherence lead to failure. They see others succeed by not using the theory.

You can see a similar process in the move to whole-word teaching and the beginning of as return to phonics. Incorrect theory does influence action and continues to do so in the absence of a good counter-theory. Explicit theory is extremely powerful when it is accepted. If it true, great; but it has great influence even when it is false.

Reality can be a check on the influence of invalid theory. People begin to "cheat" on the theory. They start teaching "Hooked on Phonics" at home, then some tutorial companies do it, then some school districts incorporate it into an eclectic mix, and so on.

Also, failure with implementation is more of a check on bad theory than a guarantor of better theory. I have seen the development of theory in software development and have seen a couple of generations try to implement a wrong theory. Failure did not lead people to question the theory; they simply tried harder to comply more strictly with the theory. Then, finally, a generation later, a group of rebels came along and critiqued the bad theory at its root. But, worse, they criticized some things that were good; and they ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water.

This can easily happen in politics too. There was a time when India was at the cross-roads and a lot of intellectuals were saying things like: "We need to move into a dictatorship; that's the only way to make this socialism thing work."

Unravelling this is beyond the scope of what I can do, but I think it warrants unravelling.

So, it's wrong to lean toward the idea that reality will take care of getting humanity to the right theory. Perhapsm it will over thousands of years, but not if one considers a few generations as one's frame of reference; and, why would anyone care beyond that?

The USSR is an example of multiple generations living under oppression, with things going from bad to worse. In a lesser way, India is the same. In 1947, at the time of India's independence, socialism was the dominant theory and most of India's leaders were Oxbridge educated socialists. Nevertheless there were some who understood the US model and tried to argue for that (and others who wanted to go communist). The predominant intellectual ideas of the day won the stage, and India spent the next 4 decades in socialist poverty.

Gus Van Horn said...

You mention both India and Russia. One could object that India has benefitted greatly from Western influence both from its period under British rule and from the fact that something like a third of its population speaks English, making the culture of the West (minus Russia's strongly mystical culture -- if you count Russia as "Western") far more accessible to its people than to the Russians. I would hazard to guess that with those influences, the implicit philosophy of Indians is more rational than that of Russians overall. Not necessarily in all areas and probably not uniformly so, but overall.

The Objectivist interpretation of how ideas influence history is, as far as I understand it, neither deterministic nor rigidly hierarchical in the sense that even in a dominantly mystical culture, men have free will and the ability to reason (though the culture will throw up numerous obstacles to that). So individuals from such cultures may very well come up with rational discoveries and may indeed affect how others (e.g., colleagues) behave broadly within what that culture will tolerate. And remember, pure, consistent evil is impotent. All irrational cultures depend on some level of hypocrisy and/or parasitism just to survive. (When I observe irrational individuals behave rationally in some walled-off area, I privately nickname this "compartmentalization". I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that this can happen in cultures.)

But if I understand your objection, it may be more instructive to look elsewhere entirely to answer it. Consider America in the 1980s, when it resoundingly rejected Jimmy Carter's economic policies, choosing Ronald Reagan.

For quite some time, America changed its political apparatus for the better. Now yes, you might object that this was through the influence of a better implicit philosophy or even better explicit philosophical ideas, but that does not matter. (So our ideas were already around and, let's say that Tracinski is right in his example with the Indian economist. If his influence caused India's turnaround, then his economic ideas did, and he developed them by a more or less rational thought process.) What matters is that America never gave up altruism and eventually, this more fundamental premise conflicted with the small gains favoring freedom and is now wiping them out.

If you see why we're "losing the American Revolution after we won it", then you should see why a country such as India can also -- IF it does not at some point change its dominant philosophy -- temporarily improve only to regress or, more accurately, to resume its downward course.

Having said that, I would say that Western prosperity in general and technology in particular has perhaps made life more forgiving of irrationality in the sense that we won't as quickly meet our doom for certain irrational choices (but beware an interesting version of the broken window fallacy). But this really just means we (may) have more time to alter our (philosophical) course and this fact is, in a sense, part of the fumes, as it were, from the better times that made such prosperity possible in the first place.

Anonymous said...

But Adrian Hester's statement that "... Tracinski is failing to keep ... the implicit philosophy of the culture ... in mind when he makes his historical analysis" is incorrect. Tracinski's aim in discussing Ancient Greece is to show the developmentment of explicit philosophy from implicitly held philosophical ideas or, rather, how implicit ideas are made explicit and this processes by which this happens. Furthermore, in my reading of Tracinski's "What Went Right" series thus far, one of the central theses has been precisely the power of even implicit philosophical ideas to move history in a positive direction.

Gus Van Horn said...

Actually, the statement you quote as Hester's is mine, along with any errors or confusion it may have caused.

Speaking of which, ...

You have a point here and, in fact, Tracinski even states (e.g., here) that he thinks people are dealing with philosophical ideas implicitly. At the same time, though, Robert Mayhew points out the following about Tracinskis's earlier discussion about ancient Greece:

"First, 'philosophy' in its broadest sense refers to a person's (or culture's) basic ideas about reality and man. It is in this sense that we can say, for example, that ancient Egypt was driven by a philosophy of death; it is also in this sense, I believe, that Ayn Rand claimed that 'religion is a primitive form of philosophy' ('Philosophy and Sense of Life'). Second, 'philosophy' also (and primarily) refers to the science that studies the fundamental nature of reality and man. Used in this sense, we would exclude the basic beliefs of pre-philosophical cultures, and say, for example, that philosophy was born in Greece (but did not exist, as such a discipline, in Egypt), and distinguish philosophy from religion. Finally, we can also speak of good philosophy and even the pinnacle of philosophy (in the ancient world, Aristotle's). I mention these distinctions because Tracinski moves back and forth between the second and third of these--between when philosophy per se appears and exerts an influence, and when it reaches its pinnacle--and he gives the first sense little consideration (or credit) in assessing the role of philosophy in history. But the view that philosophy is the prime mover in history certainly includes (where relevant) philosophy in this most basic sense--especially when dealing with such an early period as archaic Greece. This is important to the present discussion, because it means that one cannot legitimately claim (certainly not without further argument) that philosophy could yield little or no influence in ancient Greece before it was fully developed and distinguished as an independent discipline (which is what Tracinski implies)." [my bold]

I had this idea in mind when I stated the earlier quote.

Now, consider the following (from the earlier link):

"And notice also that those who do not yet experience the benefits of Enlightenment institutions can now see those benefits clearly, obviously, seemingly on the perceptual level, in the contrast between the unfree societies in which they live and the free societies that they can see next door, or (thanks to advances in telecommunications) on the television or the Internet. Thus, for example, when a small band of dissidents in Europe's last totalitarian enclave, Belarus, made a brief stand against their repressive government, a 23-year-old protester who identified himself only as Kirill explained to a reporter why he was protesting against his government: 'I have been to the United States and to England, and I have seen how people live there. I know what's going on in the world.'"

When Tracinski says things like this, I suspect that he is doing the same thing he did WRT ancient Greece, which is not to consider the full intellectual context of the Kirills of the world. Yes. He's seen how we live here in the West. But what does he think the government ought to do? In a similar vein, lots of Chinese people also dislike their rulers, but don't see the problem as communism, but "corruption". How effectively or permanently can anyone free themselves from such tyranny without either learning a better philosophy or doing a hell of a lot more deep thinking of their own (and doing it correctly)?

Tracinski raises a good point that seeing the West does cause people to question conditions where they are, and, as Software Nerd pointed out, this can lead to some checking of premises against reality. But these same people are also exposed at the same time to ideas from the West, which I wonder whether Tracinski gives enough credit to, and to the extent they are checking their premises, they are behaving rationally -- in other words, their implicit philosophy is rational.

If there is any merit to be salvaged from Tracinski's thesis, it might be along the lines that our superior communications technology might allow this premise-checking to occur faster and among more collaborators, but still, without some recourse to past thinking on philosophy (and there would certainly have to be), you're talking about something that millennia of thinking by numerous very intelligent men didn't succeeed in getting right the first time!

I don't know whether I have fully answered or understood your question, but I hope this helps. In any event, I think your question helped me, so I thank you.

Inspector said...


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