Recycling Complexity-Worship

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Via Arts and Letters Daily is an article poking bemused fun of the latest fads in academia even as its author refuses to completely reject them. The following passage will sound eerily familiar to anyone with a solid familiarity with the works of Ayn Rand:

To defend binary thinking is to invite opprobrium. It is true that fixed oppositions between good and evil or male and female and a host of other contraries cannot be upheld [Really? --ed], but this hardly means that binary logic is itself idiotic. Binary logic structures the very computers on which most attacks on binary logic are composed. Some binary distinctions are worth recognizing, if not celebrating: the distinction, let us say, between pregnant and not pregnant, or between life and death. Others are at least worth noticing -- for example, that between a red and a green light. You either have $3.75 for a latte or you do not. Can that be "complicated"? [bold added]
The phrase "complexity-worship" immediately popped into my mind, along with that old ivy-covered hex, "simplistic". A search of the latter term yielded the following, from "How to Read (And Not to Write)", an essay penned by Rand in 1972!
By "clear, simple extremes," modern intellectuals mean any rational theory, any consistent system, any conceptual integration, any precise definition, any firm principle. Pragmatists do not mean that no such theory, system or principle has yet been discovered (and that we should look for one), but that none is possible. Epistemologically, their dogmatic agnosticism holds, as an absolute, that a principle is false because it is a principle -- that conceptual integration (i.e., thinking) is impractical or "simplistic" -- that an idea which is clear and simple is necessarily "extreme and unworkable."Along with Kant, their philosophic forefather, the pragmatists claim, in effect: "If you perceive it, it cannot be real," and: "If you conceive of it, it cannot be true." [The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. 1, no. 26; bold added]
Thirty-five years after that essay, the academic left is still using deductive logic unmoored to reality as a straw man for reason so that some fuzzy alternative to whatever rational conclusions its adherents don't like can get a pass.

It should come as no surprise that those who would sell this old snake oil in new bottles would speak of multiple "alternatives to academic dishonesty" or that their political standard-bearer, Barack Obama, would shout "change" while advocating the same old statist chicanery (minus troublesome specifics) as before.

Or that he would so easily deflect charges of plagiarism with his own alternative to unoriginality. Or that his grand ideological larceny would go unnoticed while he stood accused of the petty theft of Deval Patrick's words. His speeches, apparently accepted as other than plagiarized, sound familiar only to people who fail to notice that this time, collectivism isn't being pushed by an old white man.

Russell Jacoby would, I imagine, say that he is merely pointing out the "excesses" in modern academia. But one cannot concede a premise so monstrous that one cannot uphold a "fixed opposition" "between good and evil" while pointing out the obvious usefulness of logic -- which still isn't the equivalent of reason -- in computers, without having something up his sleeve. Jacoby is in fact merely making fuzziness -- that is to say, irrationality -- look respectable by keeping the kids from running with it to its logical conclusions while the adults are looking. (Alternatively, Jacoby has a perfectly valid point in mind, but due to philosophical error, he achieves the same end result.)

-- CAV

PS: On linking to the web site that sells the Ayn Rand Research CD-ROM, I noticed that sales will end at the end of this month!


: (1) One minor edit. (2) Added parenthetical note at end of post.


johnnycwest said...

Gus - thanks for the heads up on the CD - I just ordered mine - cool to have (and use!).

And Gus I admire your tenacity in reading beyond that sentence: "To defend binary thinking is to invite opprobrium." My eyes just glaze over. In some ways, I have become a much more patient person, and in others I have none. The number of dim bulbs in academia is astounding. Bad writing is like a dagger to my brain and I avoid it at all costs. Given bad thinking, I guess it should not be surprising that the writing follows, but come on, put away the thesaurus and think for a change.

Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, you quote Russell Jacoby and comment thus: "It is true that fixed oppositions between good and evil or male and female and a host of other contraries cannot be upheld [Really? --ed], but this hardly means that binary logic is itself idiotic."

I'm wondering exactly what he has in mind with those two examples. For good and evil, he might be thinking of morally neutral actions, or he might be thinking of changing your evaluation of someone as you learn more about his context of knowledge, though prolly not. For male and female, he might be thinking of hermaphrodites or even of sex change operations (since those make the opposition not entirely fixed). As knowledge increases, some distinctions we make do get modified, sometimes even thrown out (the synthesis of urea from inorganic compounds being a good famous example--it showed there was nothing magical in the chemical realm about life), so there's good reason on occasion to take a close, hard look at accepted distinctions (and especially at bundles of distinctions heretofore assumed as one of a piece) to see if they're still borne out.

But that might well not be what Jacoby is getting at, and it sure as hell ain't what many academics in the humanities do. For them "binary oppositions" are not only a stalking horse but a straw man (how's that for an image?)--quite often you'll find some writer setting up a straw man version of what people in the unspecified bad old days of Enlightenment or modernist thought that no one ever actually held, a description so drastically oversimplified, one-sided, and stripped of the complexity people of that era saw clearly and discussed forthrightly that the writer is either thoroughly incompetent or gleefully dishonest (or both). Then the genuine complexities added to the picture bring us to the state of discussion in the field of about, oh, 1930 or even earlier.

Or, as in the case of Foucault and many of his followers, the history is largely wrong even for the period the author is a supposed expert in, and the sweeping accounts of other periods simply cut from whole cloth. But those, you see, give the sweeping pronouncements against whatever that are then claimed to undercut the corrections of specialists in the other periods as reflecting discredited binary oppositions or whatever. Which is, when you think of it, a false binary opposition of its own (either something reflects binary oppositions or it does not) combined with a sweeping, ridiculously wrong (oversimplified?) knowledge claim: Binary oppositions are false, more complex views true(r). Which is the solid point underlying Jacoby's column, a nicely wry turn of the table.

And I can't resist pointing out one field viewed by the lefterati with approbation that insists on binary oppositions from the get-go and throughout the program: Chomskyan linguistics. The whole thing is built up in binary fashion from the basic cognitive elements (phonemes, the basic "sounds" in a language, essentially the mental entities represented by distinct letters in a perfect alphabet), themselves analyzed further into not just binary but privative features (a vowel phoneme either has associated lip-rounding, symbolized [+round], or it does not, [-round]). (Each feature is a cover-term for essentially the activation of a muscular action or set of associated actions in the vocal tract and its associated acoustic cues.) Then these phonemes are joined sequentially into morphemes (smallest meaningful units) and those into words, then words are strung into sentences in a series of hierarchically-nested hierarchical binary structures (head versus dependent) to convey meaning.

Mind you, below the sentence level it's an excellent program of research that I don't quarrel with overmuch--that level of language is almost exclusively automatic, carried on without conscious attention, and thus easily modeled as sets of ordered rules acting on elements defined abstractly as bundles of features that can change regularly when certain other features occur in their environment (the immediately preceding or following phoneme, for example). (There are some aspects of language that cannot be modeled that way--intonation, for example, is not either-or but indicates degrees of emphasis by continuously varying pitch contours--and these aspects are the poorest-studied by linguists and not accounted for in Chomskyan theory either.) I have serious reservations about the phrase and sentence level (syntax, Chomsky's specialty), partly because of a strong tendency to cram everything into the binary branching on this level, thus leading to a much wider variety of possible analyses than you could decide among with sets of related sentences, a multiplicity cut down severely by ad hoc assumptions. (It's akin to trying to calculate a two-dimensional structure of balls and links from its one-dimensional shadow, which is an insoluble problem unless you introduce severe restrictions...such as the insistence that balls can have only two down-hanging links and one socket on top for a link from above, which is Chomsky's principle of binary branching in a nutshell.)

But then that's a fairly common critique. More serious, I think, are the problems in the model of meaning assumed by the Chomskyan program, which in turn comes directly from modern analytic philosophy of language, and which views meaning fundamentally as reference to things in or states of the world with identifiability of reference as the criterion of meaningfulness; from this there is an almost exclusive concern with propositional meaning, in which meaning is built up strictly syllogistically in the construction of propositions (and thus in the Chomskyan view, sentences, or more precisely their LF, or logical form, which must be derivable from the PF, or phonetic form, of the sentence--note that this view is important in the thus-far-latest version of Chomskyan theory, minimalism, and was not central in ealier forms).

Mind you, this is an important aspect of meaning that must be accounted for in any semantic theory--and on this score formal semantics (the theory of meaning in modern analytic philosophy, heavily indebted to mathematical logic) and linguistic semantics are quite powerful. But what of non-propositional meaning? That includes such things as tense and definiteness, essentially anything in the meaning of a sentence that does not refer to timeless propositions but rather to the circmstances in which it is spoken--and there the theory is much less powerful. (And there linguistic semantics has a lot to say simply from the utter necessity of dealing head-on with those aspects of meaning in natural language that formal semanticists apparently tend to write off.)

But this concern with propositional meaning and timeless, "eternally true" syllogisms, which didn't seem at all motivated when I started digging into it, goes right back to Frege, who distinguished between thoughts (propositional statements of knowledge, timelessly true and their discovery the goal of logic, and thus the same for all people who grasp them) and ideas (essentially the furniture of the private mental world of each individual, and thus as multiple as there are people having them, and indeed essentially incomparable from person to person--saying your sensation of blue and my sensation of blue are "the same" is meaningless, you see). Frege associated "ideas" with the "image theory of knowledge" of the British empiricists, though only implicitly, which is fundamentally flawed for the reasons he adduced, and turned the attention of logicians and analytic philosophers more generally to mental entities that are capable of common knowledge by men--which is similar to Plato's world of forms but not the same since Frege saw it as distinct from, not underlying and giving structure to, the real physical world (which is also capable of common knowledge by men through science and philosophy). Not quite Kantian either, but to similar effect as Plato and Kant had, and relying essentially on the necessary/contingent distinction (another binary opposition! for shame). But enough of that; I'm now out of time. Hope this was interesting.

Gus Van Horn said...


You're welcome. Glad I could help!


"I'm wondering exactly what he has in mind with those two examples. For good and evil, he might be thinking of morally neutral actions, or he might be thinking of changing your evaluation of someone as you learn more about his context of knowledge, though prolly not. For male and female, he might be thinking of hermaphrodites or even of sex change operations (since those make the opposition not entirely fixed)."

Being even shorter on time myself, I was really only criticizing the dismissal of a good-evil dichotomy, but your points still stands. It is quite possible (even likely) in today's philosophical quagmire that Jacoby was doing just that, but could not go as far as he needed to with it. I'm pointing to your comment from the post after I post this reply.