Quick Roundup 148

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

George Will on Global Warming

George Will has written a column on global warming hysteria (and specifically discusses the Senate's rejection, so far, of the Kyoto Protocol) that makes many good points, among them two that mortally wound the silly position of the "Terror-Free Oil" movement, which Bush shares (in bold below):

In 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol's essential provisions were known, a "sense of the Senate" resolution declared opposition to any agreement that would do what the protocol aims to do. The Senate warned against any agreement that would require significant reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States and other developed nations without mandating "specific scheduled commitments" on the part of the 129 "developing" countries, which include China, India, Brazil and South Korea -- the second, fourth, 10th and 11th largest economies. Nothing Americans can do to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will make a significant impact on the global climate while every 10 days China fires up a coal-fueled generating plant big enough to power San Diego. China will construct 2,200 new coal plants by 2030.


The president is now on the side of the angels, having promised to "confront" the challenge of climate change. The confronting is one reason for his fascination with new fuels. (Another reason, he says, is U.S. imports of oil from unstable nations. Our largest foreign source of oil is turbulent Canada. Our second largest is Mexico, which is experiencing turbulence because of the soaring cost of tortillas. They are made from corn, which is ... well, read on.) [bold added]
And speaking of tortillas, Nick Provenzo, Galileo, and I have all blogged at one time or another about the diversion of corn to fuel -- which the left is driving in the name of environmentalism while gearing up to blame the consequences on capitalism!

Amit Ghate Returns

It looks like posting has resumed at Thrutch. Among the attractions are this hilarious Rick Moranis satire on a trendy green co-op inhabited by limousine liberals in New York. It takes the form of a letter to its board of directors:
I've spoken to Time Warner about whether their coaxial and fiber optic cable can be restrung laterally across the courtyard for laundry drying. Needless to say how much energy this will save. Bob knows several people on the TWX board and says he'll pitch them on the "P.C.-P.R." of this.

The operator I spoke to (Magda was on hold for hours, though she has extra time now that I've stopped her doing the towels every day) said that he thought it wouldn't affect basic cable reception but wasn't sure about high-def. Bob says we shouldn't do this until well after the Final Four.
I was unaware that Moranis has his own web site. I plan to check in there once in awhile after this. Look for it in the Humor section on my link page.

Mr. Deity

And speaking of new items on the link page, you can find a nifty online etymology dictionary (under Reference", HT: Ian Hamet) as well as another Humor link, to the hilarious Mr. Deity site. There, you can find links to You Tube skits premised on God interacting with various elements of the celestial bureaucracy. The embedded short below shows God deciding which afflictions and misfortunes he should "keep" as he creates the world.

Creator (pun intended) and star Brian Keith Dalton hopes to turn this into a television series. I wish him well! (HT: HBL)

Tom Rowland on Tracinski

The Blogger Formerly Known as the Walrus has started a series of posts in reply to Robert Tracinski's still-unfinished "What Went Right?" series. I have also added his blog, The View from Here, to the side bar.

Backlinks Fixed

I have solved the biggest outstanding glitch left over from my recent transition to new blogging software. It is now possible to jump directly to the backlinks for each individual post when you click on "backlinks". Since the backlinks often lead to later references I have made to my own posts, I plan to keep the functionality as it essentially provides automatic updates to posts on old topics.

To Boycott -- or Not?

Being very introverted, I rarely participate in such forums myself, so the question of whether I should boycott Steve Speicher's Forum for Ayn Rand Fans is almost moot, nevertheless, I found the following interesting....

The back-and-forth about Robert Tracinski's still-incomplete "What Went Right?" series continues in some of the forums, notably Steve Speicher's Forum for Ayn Rand Fans. Today, Diana Hsieh features a guest post by Tore Boeckmann on the suitability of such forums for developing a better understanding of Objectivism, after which she presents some good arguments of her own for boycotting Speicher's Forum. On the other hand, Myrhaf disagrees with her.

Not being a regular on Speciher's forum (or any other), I lean strongly towards Diana's position, particularly since, as she points out:
Stephen and Betsy Speicher [have been] publicly post[ing] quotes from Harry Binswanger's very private e-mail list for the sake of criticizing Objectivist intellectuals. ... I regard the public reposting of material from HBL without permission to be a clear violation of HBL policies.
This actually may be a very generous way to put this. Aside from putting the intellectuals in question in a very awkward position, depending on exactly how this was done, this might have been a violation of Harry Binswanger's property rights.

Although my link policy clearly states that a link is not an endorsement, I now wonder whether I should continue listing the Forum as an "Objectivist" resource any longer.

More Profound Than They Realize

The Onion, on the rebuilding of New Orleans:
After an unprecedented 18-month cleanup and repair effort supervised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several state and local government bureaus, Undersecretary for Federal Emergency Management R. David Paulison announced Monday that the city of New Orleans has been successfully returned to its pre–Hurricane Katrina state of decay and deterioration. [bold added]
Indeed. We seem to be paying for everything but reform of the corrupt governments of New Orleans and of Louisiana. Until that happens, everything else is window dressing.

Note to Self

I am scared to death at the prospect of becoming a father in the next couple of years. Part of that fear comes from how terrible primary "education" has become, and not just in the public schools. At the end of this very interesting post on --of all things! -- diagramming sentences, Lisa VanDamme mentions that she publishes a newsletter, "Pedagogically Correct". I plan to subscribe.

And get a copy of Rex Barks, which she recommends, from Paper Tiger Books.

-- CAV


Today: (1) Corrected typo -- although "coop" for "co-op" almost merited leaving it as is.... (2) Added last section.
2-7-07: Added note at end of post.
2-9-07: Added second note to comments.


Notes on Comments

(1) Due to a bug-like feature of Gmail, which I use to track new comments, my replies to your comments will not necessarily be in the right order. My apologies for any inconvenience this might cause.

(2) A reader has emailed me to let me know that at least under some versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer, a bar obscures part of the comments. I had known of this error before, but until I saw his screen shot, I had no idea how bad this problem was, at least for some. I will almost certainly not get to fix this until next week as I have some travelling to do this weekend. Until then, I recommend two workarounds: (1) Download and install Firefox, which does not suffer from the bug that is causing this in Explorer. -- OR -- (2) Find a phrase from the comment of interest, and search the comment feed for it. (This will only work for the latest comments.)

It may be that a cut-and-paste into another program, like Word, might allow you to read the full comment. I probably won't have a chance to try this today, however, to see whether it works.

My apologies for the inconvenience.


Anonymous said...

Yo, Gus, that Etymonline.com is a very nice etymological dictionary. Thanks for linking to it. I usually use the American Heritage Dictionary, but this one looks like a useful supplement. The AHD gives more information about the Proto-Indo-European roots of a word and is informed by more up-to-date knowledge of PIE than you'll find in Buck or the OED (major sources at Etymonline.com), which for a historical linguist like me is catnip. On the other hand, Etymonline.com gives more information than the AHD does on the history of the word in English, and with the amount of detail most people would need. (If you want real detail, which you would if you're reading older literature or studying English dialects in the past or doing really detailed history of English, for example, there's always the wondrous and supremely praiseworthy OED as well. And most of the other sources you'd need for serious English work are sources at that dictionary, with one glaring exception: Kurath, Kuhn and Lewis's Middle English Dictionary.)

Anonymous said...

Yo, Gus, you write: "Today, Diana Hsieh features a guest post by Tore Boeckmann on the suitability of such forums for developing a better understanding of Objectivism, after which she presents some good arguments of her own for boycotting Speicher's Forum." Sad but not surprising. I don't read the Speichers' forum any more since I found it unrewarding on the whole. Stephen Speicher's discussions of math and physics are always well worth reading, but I found his moderation in other realms, especially such matters as the election and Tracinski's articles on history, to be heavy-handed and unfair and his replies too often intemperate. Besides, the range of topics and the tone of discussion on ObjectivismOnline suits me better.

Anonymous said...

Yo, Gus, you mention Lisa Van Damme's recent post: "At the end of this very interesting post on --of all things! -- diagramming sentences..." It had one sentence I wonder about: "Prominent linguists tell teachers that grammar is an innate faculty and cannot be taught." While I wouldn't be surprised there are some linguists who do actually tell teachers that, it sounds much more like what our supremely unintelligent teacher trainers would take away from a course in linguistics.

First, grammar means different things to linguists and everyone else, particularly English teachers. In modern American linguistics, "grammar" means all the rules of a language, particularly spoken language, which are indeed learned mostly without explicit instruction. (Linguists focus on spoken language because it is logically and temporally prior to writing for all native speakers and because its processing is subconscious and largely automatic, which makes it much more amenable to scientific study than writing.)

Second, is grammar an innate faculty? There you'll run into controversy in American linguistics. Chomskyans will tell you that not only is grammar innate, not only that it logically must be, but that their research program has shown that it is. However, not all American linguists are Chomskyans, and what they have shown is only that a straw man version of language acquisition based on a highly reduced version of behaviorism is untenable; whether acquisition of grammar is an innate faculty or a consequence of general cognitive faculties is most certainly not decided yet. However, given the predominance of Chomskyanism in American linguistics, it's quite possible that any number of education majors picked up that claim.

Third, despite the previous, in the sense in which "grammar" is used in linguistics, there's a sharp distinction between the capacity for acquiring grammar (the faculty), which is in some sense innate, and the grammar of a particular language, which is precisely what is acquired from outside in learning a language and not innate at all. (This is the sort of basic distinction that I've found personally to be very hard to get students to grasp in introductory survey classes, and given the abyssmally poor quality of most education majors in particular in the United States--routinely from the bottom quarter of their graduating classes, according to figures I've seen--I can easily see "forward-thing, innovative" educational "thinkers" vomiting out a very crude misunderstanding of what they vaguely remembered from that linguistics class they were required to take.)

Fourth, all of that has nothing to do with teaching writing, and I suspect most linguists would be the first to point that out. (We certainly did when I was teaching the introduction to linguistics that was recommended for English-education majors.) Writing is a distinct medium from speech that must be consciously learned, and there's not too much that linguistics can contribute to that apart from a general knowledge of linguistic structure and, ironically, diagramming sentences! Mind you, constructing syntactic trees is different in the details from diagramming sentences, but the basic discipline is precisely the same. It's one of the things students have to do a little of in most introductory linguistics courses (and one they'll have to do ad nauseam in more advanced courses on English linguistics, say), and it was probably the part that education majors bitched the loudest and most whiningly about since it was "too hard" and "too rigorous" and absolutely unnecessary for English-language pedagogy since it did nothing for helping one identify with the students. (Which is in a way a very revealing claim--the best way to identify with your students is to be as ignorant as they are, though only the students who are stupidest, one suspects, will permit such a teacher total identification.)

I'm just damned glad I didn't have teachers like that when I was in school--and unlike you I went to public schools throughout my undergrad career. They made us diagram sentences and memorize the prepositions and the auxiliary verbs, for example, and in general taught us well on writing. (An appalling point, there. I remember when it came time to discuss verbs in class, and when I mentioned "auxiliary verbs" a handful of students nodded and knew what I was talking about. Not one of them was an education major; rather, they were history majors or computer science majors, say. The education majors, even the ones in English education, didn't know, and worse, they didn't give a damn for longer than necessary to pass the quiz.) This is the saving grace of American public education--the teacher trainers are rotten through and through, devoted to social engineering and virulently opposed to mastery of anything beyond "minimum basic competence," and they hold a monopoly on licensing, but the system is too decentralized for their malign hand to weigh equally everywhere.

Gus Van Horn said...

Coming from you, that's a strong endorsement!

Your mention of the OED reminds me of a humorous bit of advertising I thought about doing a few days ago: Placing the $6000 OED as an advertising link in my sidebar.

I'd get something like a 4% commission if it sold through my site, which would be $240.00!

As if.

But hey, they do seem to have a used copy for about 700 smackers! Buy it from the above link -- You know you want it! -- and I'd still pocket $28.00! Get it NOW, before you realize there's nowhere to store it!

I may yet put it up as a sort of inside joke....

Anonymous said...

Wow, another comment! Gus, you mention Tom Rowland's post on Tracinski: "The Blogger Formerly Known as the Walrus has started a series of posts in reply to Robert Tracinski's still-unfinished 'What Went Right?' series." It's quite a good post, and it made me think a bit more about why I disagree with Tracinski--more precisely, why I disagree with his methodology. What does it mean to talk about causation in history?

On the face of it, it's obvious: Someone did something, and that caused subsequent events. However, each such action takes place against a historical background, a context of previous events whose consequences (intended and unintended) rule out some opportunities and create others. Those previous events can also be said to "cause" the event, though a better term is that they were causal or contributing factors. (Comes down to the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions.) However, besides events, there are also general conditions (price levels are the most concrete example) and processes (such as large social changes) that can affect the course of events without agents being aware of them.

A useful way I've found to think about it is to distinguish short-term, medium-term, and long-term processes and changes, but that's just a rough turn of phrase; they're distinguished by the degree to which one can plan out the consequences of one's action, and between medium-term and long-term actions the degree to which one's expectations of others' behavior and mental model, however unconscious, of society fit the facts given the changes going on. They aren't distinct categories but rather fade one into the other. They are useful, however, for establishing the habit of looking at historical events in the light of the social and intellectual changes going on as well as the strategies, motivations, and knowledge of the various actors in a series of events. They also allow for a natural way of writing analytic history, in which the narrative of events is tied to the background of social, economic, technological, institutional, military, and intellectual history. Successful history has to always ask, "How much of the course of events thus far can be justly understood by the background that has already been discussed, and which development should be discussed next?" Quite often answering that question leads naturally to introducing the next-longer-term important factor. (For example, it might be necessary to explain certain legal actions by economic factors; these in turn are channeled by institutional factors; and the persistence of these in turn is explained by how they cohere with people's view of a proper society.)

Doing so broadens the historical background, yes, but equally importantly introduces more of the way people in a given society view the world, the customs and ideas shaping their motivations, and the ways they knew to increase their knowledge of the world. Each of these is at root a philosophical concern, and each has long-term, abiding consequences in a society and the actions of its members. It's possible to write history without going all the way down to these basics, but it's only successful when there's no need to, when those people share pretty much our world view. The more distant in the past or the more alien the culture, the more these basically philosophical topics have to be discussed for reasonably full understanding. And the more philosophical their treatment, the more integrated and enlightening such history is. And that is because these basic ideas or views of the world fundamentally shape the course of events, not by acting as the primary forces of the course of events, but by constituting the very basis of judging actions in a society (what is possible or impossible, conceivable or inconceivable, acceptable, praiseworthy, or shameful) and the very framework by which a given agent judges what to do.

If I remember the proper quote correctly, Peikoff described philosophical ideas as the ultimate force in human history. This phrasing is exactly correct: Not primary but ultimate. My immediate reaction to Tracinski was that he was skipping blithely from medium-term to long-term processes and trends, but that doesn't say much unless you think about what that implies; it's not just a question of the number of years but of what exactly is being explained by moving to a vaster backdrop. Doing so brings in, not a wider fan of previous events, but a wider range of social facts and an ever more explicit understanding of the structure of a society, the persistence of its ideals over time and generations, and the view of the world that sustains those ideals--and that's at root philosophy.

Mind you, it's wrong to go directly from the philosophical views espoused by an academic to the concrete course of events a decade or two hence; you can't expect there to be a direct causal link, even assuming that the philosopher's pronouncements fit in with the view of the world held by most people in a society. You have to work out all the intermediate stages by which those ideas change society over time, and when you get down to the concrete course of events, it's rather a question of the atmosphere of a time, if you will, a sense of what is right and wrong and conceivable or not. (As Auden put it in "In Memory of Sigmund Freud," "if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,/to us he is no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion/under whom we conduct our different lives:/Like weather he can only hinder or help.") But that doesn't mean that ideas don't matter or that philosophy is only one among a myriad fields (like science, technology, politics, economics, and art) contributing on the same level. Its effects are longer-term, hence my immediate reaction to Tracinski, but its effects set the framework within which the other fields develop and in turn contribute their bits to the background against which concrete events run their course.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for posting that. And I'm glad I helped you by pointing you to Tom Rowland's post.

After reading your comment (and knowing your background), I feel a little like one of the hacks described by Diana's guest post, but I'll blather on anyway....

This quote seems to me to reach the heart of the matter: "It's possible to write history without going all the way down to these basics, but it's only successful when there's no need to, when those people share pretty much our world view."

This sounds plausible -- but only to the extent that the historian is aware of the shared context and takes it into account. (And I guess that "taking it into account" would mean knowing whether and when bringing up this "shared context" is warranted.)

If I read this correctly (and go ahead and let me know if I didn't), Tracinski is failing to keep this common context -- 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.

Which brings me to a point I made some time ago: "Just as 'many minds' will fail to sustain Western civilization if they are crippled by Islam, so will 'many eyes' fail to matter if the evidence they provide is dismissed by those same minds. It is incorrect to equate mind with matter: A rational mind and a brain are not identical objects."

One can make that error only by taking rationality as a given.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hmmm. I found out you made your comment on Speicher entirely by accident thanks to Gmail's stupid tendencey to thread email notifications of comments together if they come from the same source.

I'd have to agree that the tome of Objectivism Online is far better than what I have seen of the Forum.

Myrhaf said...

I have gotten double the visits today that I normally get in a day. Is that the power of a Gus Van Horn link?

Anonymous said...


Re: To Boycott -- or Not?

I've already said my piece at Noodlefood on what I think of Speicher.

"Diana, thanks for the post. Of course, I left "THE FORUM" (!!!!!!!!!!!) (notice, not "a" forum, but "THE" forum - Sorry, "THE FORUM;" you have to capitalize the whole thing for some reason) long ago because of Stephen's bullying behavior.

Sometimes, the most indicting thing about a person is not any kind of intellectual failure, not any kind of major breach with Objectivist Metaphysics, Epistemology, etc, or any kind of factual stretching, but rather, and simply, that someone is a jerk.

No more, and no less."

A lot of Objectivist falling-outs tend to gravitate toward accusations of dishonesty or philosophical disagreements. But in this case, I think it is more fundamental that the guy is simply a jerk.

I mean, come on: "[I] can't help but wonder what corrections are necessary for correcting... " I'd much rather he were called to task for passive-agressive sniping like this. He was constantly pulling crap like that around me; backhanded insults and attacks.

I don't know if "boycott" is the term to apply here or not. There was always that one kid who was just an ass, so you stopped having anything to do with him. That's what I advocate here.

On the topic of the HBL list, it doesn't strike me as his MO to knowingly violate a policy (or to not know a policy)... it does strike me as his MO to skirt around the gray areas of a policy in pursuit of his bullying sessions. Now that he is targeting major and respected intellectuals with this behavior, I am now more certain that my experience with him was not isolated or accidental.

Gus Van Horn said...


Possibly. I looked at my site stats yesterday evening and saw that you were getting lots of "out clicks". But if someone went to your site, then returned to mine and visited another, their last out click is what I would see. I saw something like a dozen over the last 100 visits. That's actually a high rate for following a link even if it isn't the whole story.

I think the ongoing controversy over Tracinski is also adding traffic via people who already know about your blog and through search engines, too. My total traffic was perhaps a third higher than normal, and no blog was sending me large numbers of readers.


Gus Van Horn said...


Great. Not only am I responding to comments wildly out of chronological order thanks to Gmails's "conversation" tic -- er, "feature" -- but things are getting lost.

On your VanDamme comment: I also thought of Chomsky and had hoped you'd weigh in....


Gus Van Horn said...


I saw your comments among the give-and-take at Noodle Food.

I don't know Speicher well at all, so to be fair when posting your comment, I have to refer to the bigger discussion at Noodle Food, not to mention Myrhaf's post.

For the sake of argument, there are many varieties of someone being a "jerk", and not all of them have anything to do with the "jerk's" moral stature, and not all of them are universally applicable.

So let's say Speicher is a jerk. To withdraw moral sanction from him out of dislike vice moral grounds would be grossly unjust. Nobody is OBLIGATED to like another person on moral grounds, but one IS obligated to evaluate that person's moral stature objectively.

I am not accusing you of confusing these issues, but your giving voice to your personal distaste for Speicher does bring up the issue of personality conflict vs. negative moral evaluation, which I think it is important to be clear about.

Should I decide a withdrawal of moral sanction is necessary, it will be solely on sufficient moral grounds.


Anonymous said...


No, I agree with you, which is why I haven't said anything about moral sanction. I guess what I am saying is that, even absent immorality there are other perfectly good reasons to have nothing to do with a person, and in my evaluation he fits that description.

Now, I know you don't know the guy from Adam, so obviously you won't and shouldn't comment. I want to be perfectly clear that I'm not asking you to.

That said...

I'm not going to say whether the things he does are rooted in immorality or not because I honestly don't know; I can't see inside his head. But when it comes to argument, the man plays dirty pool. The methods, behaviors, and tactics he uses are bad, and it's academic at this point whether he knows they are or not.

(i.e. if he knows he is up to no good, then it's a moral issue, and if not then not)

As such, I feel comfortable advising people to steer clear of him and his "FORUM," either way.

But I do want to be perfectly clear that what I am accusing him of being is, exactly as I said, a jerk: no more and no less.

(he might be more, but he certainly is no less)

Hope that clears up my position.

SN said...

I read TF4ARF from time to time and post there now and then. It's tone is very different from OO.net but I find that there are good and bad aspects to it. Indeed, I would love it if OO.net could have some of the positive aspects of TF4ARF without giving up what I consider to be OO.net's positives. I don't know if that is possible, so for the time being I think of them as being two forums serving two different needs.

Nothing I've read indicates makes me think the TF4ARF should be boycotted.

I'll say this: it's tough to run a forum and keep everyone happy. At any point of time, one set of people are complaining that you are censoring their legitimate arguments while another set are complaining that you're allowing trolls, rationalists, libertarians, blind-believers, etc. to drown out the reasonable folks with too much 'noise'. Many posters who post irrational things are not immoral, but simply young or confused; still, one has to decide how much band-width one wishes to spend on confusion-eradication, so to speak.

Full disclosure: I help moderate on OO.net, but this post is personal -- it does not reflect the views of anyone else, least of all anyone connected to OO.net

Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you for the clarification.


Thank you for your discussion of the difficulties and pitfalls of running a forum.

To offer a clarification of my own, my reasons for boycotting the Forum -- if I choose to do so in this case -- would be in response to a judgement on my part (that I have not made) concerning the behavior of Steve Speicher in the current controversy.


Anonymous said...

Yo, Gus, you write: "If I read this correctly (and go ahead and let me know if I didn't), Tracinski is failing to keep this common context -- 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." Yes, I'd agree with that.

And some general comments about historians and training in history to flesh out what I wrote before. In response to this, "It's possible to write history without going all the way down to these basics, but it's only successful when there's no need to, when those people share pretty much our world view,"
you continue:
"This sounds plausible -- but only to the extent that the historian is aware of the shared context and takes it into account. (And I guess that 'taking it into account' would mean knowing whether and when bringing up this 'shared context' is warranted.)"

Yes, though historians are usually trained so that it's a more intuitive process than that. In many cases it's probably not so conscious as recognizing a shared context; rather, a historian doesn't feel a lack of something in his presentation that needs to be remedied. This makes for some serious errors, of course, as sometimes the historian doesn't feel a lack where there is one. Most obviously, historians can have all sorts of strange ideas like Marxism or Freudianism that will impose a filter on the evidence that slants the interpretation given to the facts of the past. (Historians readily admit that history is an interpetive field, but by that is meant that any narrative of the past is based on interpretation of the facts: some are selected as significant, others dismissed, and not all historians will agree on every such choice. However, not all interpretations are equal, and presumably free debate over the years will winnow away the less tenable interpretations and refine the better ones. And quite often debates among historians are precisely over the interpretations given to the past, whether over including certain evidence or not, or more frequently what weight should be given to certain pieces of evidence, and why.)

Even without subscribing to peculiar ideas about society and human nature, historians can misunderstand the context of a time. An example might be the case of a book about Chinese history circa 1200, say, written by a historian who views man as a power-maximizing automaton (common among those conversant with political science) versus one written by a historian fully conversant with traditional Chinese culture from a thousand years before. They'll take different things for granted and not feel the need to explain other things that fit their preconceptions. The former is more egregiously at fault, since the model of human motivation he holds will lead him to dismiss a lot of behavior as camouflage or even as later white-washing of the truth in the sources (I have at least one example in mind, in fact), so the damage done to the web of evidence is greater.

However, the second one might well understate the great changes in Chinese culture and political life between, say, 200 AD and 1200 AD, which could more subtly skew the interpretation--official titles and institutional names recycled from the Chinese classics could be taken at face value without recognizing that the function of the office had drastically changed in the meantime, or imperial claims of universal supremacy could be taken at face value (all Chinese dynasties claimed to rule All Under Heaven, but after about 200 AD many of them faced alien dynasties ruling large swathes of Chinese territory who were de facto equals, in which case the fiction of supremacy masked much more embarrassing facts--"tribute" paid by the other court was a cover term for high-level trade, for example), or changes in military techniques, or even a failure to recognize all of the far-reaching changes in Chinese society caused by changes in how officials were recruited (earlier, officials were usually appointed by the emperor upon the recommendation of current officials, which sustained a social elite held together by ties of family and marriage, but by 700 or so the examination system had become established, after which official careers were determined mostly by merit [and ever more fully so as the centuries passed] and the old elite families lost much of their power and influence outside their locales). In fact, it's doubtful the misinterpretations would be that blatant, but that gives some idea of what can go wrong if you haven't learned enough about a period of the past to have a particularly sensitive feel for how the people then saw the world and acted in it.

Equally important is that these preconceptions usually don't entirely invalidate a historical work; some parts will be stronger than others since, for example, some political leaders are power-maximizing automata--Bismarck, for example, flouted the rules of political dealings of his day with great success. Each can illuminate some aspects of the past quite well, and those parts will persist in later interpretations.

More than that, different historians have different strengths. Some excel in narrative (a fine example off the top of my head would be G.M. Trevelyan's trilogy about Garibaldi and the founding of the Italian kingdom--Trevelyan nearly became a novelist, and Garibaldi was nothing if not a dramatic character perfectly suited to a novel-like narrative), others in social history, still others in economic history (and some excel at both--Thomas Smith's superb Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan is the example that comes first to mind). (And there are some sad lapses in historical training--I'd say historians need to learn more physical and historical geography, for example.) Combined with that, the best historians in the sense of mastery of the craft are very empirically minded, sometimes to the point of positivism, and show a rightful distrust of world-building philosophies of history like those of Hegel, Spengler, and Toynbee (all of which are pretty awful attempts to force vast swathes of the past into narrow beds). Taken together, this means that historians who haven't done much intellectual history don't often enough do a good job in the most intellectual aspects of historical interpretation. If they were put to it to explicate the intellectual milieu of the period in question or the shared context they sense between the past and the present, many wouldn't do a noteworthy job. They can be aware of the shared context yet unable to do justice to that awareness.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for answering my question and for the additional comments -- but especially for helping me understand more fully where Tracinski went wrong.

Anonymous said...

The previous reply was a bit tangential, mostly me thinking about historicaal method some more. At the same time I was thinking about this: "This is interesting. It amounts to taking the man-made -- the implicit philosophy of a culture at some time -- as the metaphysically-given." Yes, I'd say it does, and putting it that way shines an interesting sidelight on the distinction.

Metaphysically-given would imply something along the lines that all men have rational premises unless bad philosophy intervenes; thus, bad philosophy would be the thing to pay attention to, while good philosophy doesn't require explanation, at least not in such a great degree, and can be trusted to flourish if only we give it the freedom to do so. By the same token, however, bad philosophy is exceptional in the same way that physical defects are exceptional. Of course, one question arises immediately--if rational premises are metaphysically given, why have so many periods of human history been dominated by bad philosophical ideas?

This goes far further than Tracinski (partly since he hasn't actually made that connection explicitly); it's part of the movement called evolutionary epistemology associated with Karl Popper and others, for example. Reason and human knowledge are seen in this view as simply a refinement of trial and error in lower organisms, and the growth of reason, science, and freedom can be expected to occur pretty much naturally unless actively held back by obscurantism and authoritarianism. It's an interesting view several aspects of which intrigued me when I first read essays on it (can't remember the exact title, I think Essays on Evolutionary Epistemology edited by that Bradley chap who was closely associated with Popper for many years), but it has the basic failing that it dismisses bad philosophy and unreason as exceptions to history. (It also has the failing of tending to erase the line between pragmatic methods refined by trial and error and the human striving towards the truth with reason--the difference between what works and what is right, and among other things this savors quite a bit of Burkean conservatism...)

But that's actually a side issue. 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.

What's important here is another way of looking at Tracinski's arguments. Note that because explicit philosophy has to be discovered by a conscious process of thought, it's more obviously man-made than a man's implicit philosophy. Thus, it's easy to put it on the same footing as other kinds of knowledge that are equally the fruits of conscious thought and experiment; it's also fairly easy to then contrast these on the one hand with implicit philosophies and senses of life taken equally with social conventions on the other. If you then fail to distinguish the latter group as man-made, then it's easy to cloud the issues. Moreover, if the latter are unconscious, learned by "osmosis" rather than instruction and conscious thought, then they might seem to be social ballast, if you will, and not part of the growth of the sciences that Tracinski seems to be arguing explicit philosophy is only a part of. However, that is a false inference--the growth of the various sciences (taken in the broad sense of all branches of knowledge attained by conscious thought) is shaped by the implicit philosophy of the investigator, and more broadly by a society's implicit ideas of the world.

Gus Van Horn said...

Yes. When I made this connection last night,I figured that the mistake was hardly unique to Tracinski. I'd say it's very common and leave it at that. I'm popping in and out of my office at the moment and need to think on this point some more.