Talk About The Passions

The Stoics give it a shot–at least Seneca the Younger does: talking about the passions. In defining anger, he plays the good Stoic, removing anger from man’s nature altogether; it is an alien characteristic.

Perhaps that isn’t fair: “Man’s nature,” he says, “is not desirous of inflicting punishment.” Inflicting punishment, you see, is the Aristotelian definition of anger with which he cites almost complete accord. Anger, therefore, is not in accordance with man’s nature. Is that fair to the Stoics? I think so.

Are the Stoics being fair to the human experience? I don’t know. I do know, however, that we at Sweet Talk talk an awful lot about virtue, about justice, about honor, and other abstractions. I mean, I’ve been pecking away at AG’s perfectly innocent little post on Justice for two days, now, and I realize that I’m just digging around for nothing, as I told him offline, maybe, finally, for some worthless crystal-nugget of enlightenment. Who knows? Indeed, mine is a pure intellectual pursuit. If I gain intellectually, what gain?

Philosophers seem readily able, armed with massive libraries, to speak with all due palaver on empty prayers and empty mouths, but I don’t know that we have much in the way of philosophical repositories to do the work of speaking about the entire human experience. It’s a tyranny, of sorts, to put the desires of the gut into the hegemony of the intellect. We have made an easy move relegating passions as primal responses to environmental stimuli, but the Stoics recognized that such a passion as anger is not found in the wild kingdom; it is unique to the human experience.

Likewise love. Come to think about it, so is justice, honor, virtue, etc.

“Easy,” as I write above, is a pejorative term, and I mean for it to be. I suppose the long and short of this post is somewhere in this question: Is it ideal that the intellect should rule passions? We certainly like it that way, but Plato’s Divine Maxim requires it not to be so.

Might I suggest, as my tantrum subsides, that newfangled category all the kids are dancing to these days: human dignity. Can we talk more about that?

The Three Perspectives of Justice

The view from nowhere does not exist; it is accessible to no one.

I think that justice—the character trait—is arrived at through a lifelong dialogue among three points of view.

The first is your own, honed through proper notions of prudence, courage, temperance, charity, inheritance and hope.

The second is the person or people you are trying to figure out what you owe, or what they owe you. Hume’s faculty of sympathy, or what we call sympathy today plus what we call empathy, is your primary tool here, as well as a lifetime of experience attempting to understand yourself and others.

The final one is Smith’s impartial spectator; impartial not in the sense of objective but in the sense of not being partial, not having a stake in the outcome.

All three are in a way mental constructs, as we must have mental models of ourselves, the people we are dealing with, and an imagined impartial judge observing the matter. And all three require nourishment through use and persistent critical evaluation over time.

You arrive at just decisions through the effective weighing of the claims made by these inner agents; you become truly wise when these inner constructs closely approximate real people who exist outside of your mental world.

Nussbaum Reaches out to Psychology, Finds Only Philosophy

I highly enjoy Martha Nussbaum’s “Who is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology” but Pamela believes that Nussbaum is not fair to the psychologists she mentions. It’s been a month or two since I first read the paper, so I decided to reread it with Pamela’s critique in mind.

Nussbaum certainly presents a good, nuanced picture of the various theories of happiness and satisfaction in philosophy. What she does not do is really engage with psychology, even with the two psychologists—Seligman and Kahneman—on whom she focuses her criticism.

I am convinced by the paper that Nussbaum knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the philosophy of this area. Indeed, I would be concerned if she did not. What I did not come away with is the sense that she had really familiarized herself with the positions of any psychologists. It’s quite possible that she has—but I don’t think she quotes more than three words of Kahneman in the whole paper, and even Seligman, who she treats in greater length, she does not deal with in more than paraphrase.

The contrast with the philosophers, with whom she is obviously quite familiar, is stark. Even Rousseau’s Emile, which she only mentions in passing, she manages to communicate the sense that she is quite familiar with the work and could explain it in depth if called to.

The greatest sin that Deirdre McCloskey calls out in Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics is the failure to even credibly attempt to understand what someone is criticizing. Unfortunately, “Who is the Happy Warrior” seems more like an opportunity Nussbaum took to restate what she had already said elsewhere, rather than an opportunity to engage seriously with points of view within another discipline.

Staking out a position is an important part of starting a conversation, but so is listening.

“Against Method” is Rhetorically Destructive

All modern philosophy starts by acknowledging a basic anti-Cartesian premise: that the universe lacks an ‘all seeing eye of god’, that ultimate arbiter of Truth, method, or the thing-in-itself, for humans to access. Only this was not a new realization in 1975, when Feyerabend’s Against Method was first published. So what did Feyerabend add?

Feyerabend’s main contribution was to couch a political program within the anti-Cartesian premise. By undermining the one scientific method to rule them all, he deflated the authority of science in order to raise the relative status of other types of truth seeking, including mysticism, religion and the occult. This effort must be seen within the anti-imperialist zeitgeist of the 70s, with so many minds awakening to the failures of neo-colonialism through the tyranny of experts. But it was also a cause that appealed to Feyeraband as a practitioner of alternative medicine.


In other words, Feyeraband’s contribution was rhetorical: He leveraged a technical philosophical position (epistemological anti-foundationalism) into a political posture against the hierarchical institutions of science, like the state or ivory tower, in order for them to be replaced by an “epistemological anarchism” which demanded our scientific “authorities” be devolved to a democratic system of popular vote.

By harnessing rhetoric Feyerabend was simply living out his own view of how science progressed: Scientific paradigms rise in part on their empirical merits but mostly on how persuasively they’re marketed. This extends the scientific enterprise far beyond the conjecture-refutation dyad of Karl Popper into the realms of rhetoric and aesthetics. For instance, Feyerabend famously argued that Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system succeeded not due to some empirical eureka moment or triumph of reason, but due to Galileo being “one of the greatest propagandists of ideas in the history of science“.

So while it is impossible to dispute the anti-Cartesian premise or the role of rhetoric in science, whether you are a fan or enemy of Feyerabend’s work will depend on your mood affiliations. Think of it as an “if-by-whiskey” contra Descartes. If Against Method is but one way to rhetorically frame our anti-Cartesian condition, the question you should ask is whether it is the best way — That is, if denigrating science and scientists, as such, was a very useful end.

I believe we increasingly live in Feyerabend’s preferred world, where suspicion of experts and the conflation of science with power reins supreme on both ends of the political spectrum. My sense is that this represents a major step backwards in our ability to reach honest agreement. Ironically, without the authority of science we will lose one of the strongest rhetorical wedges we have to hold the powerful accountable.

To see the alternative, contrast the rhetoric of Against Method with the writing of C.S. Peirce. Peirce started with the same anti-Cartesian premise, and yet developed a philosophy of science that re-conceptualized method pragmatically, without demoting science’s status in society. Peirce viewed scientists like blind monks feeling an elephant, who then build theory through a “community of inquiry“. While no method is “ultimately” better than another, our conceptions of reality have practical consequences, so different methods ought to lead to similar conclusion in the long run.

So here we have two attacks on epistemological foundationalism. Using one type of rhetoric, Feyerabend pushed an anti-colonial relativism, giving “equal rights” to creationists and trained biologists alike to claim the scientific credo. Using different rhetoric, C.S. Peirce raised the status of science while at the same time pointing out its fallibility. In Peirce’s own words:

To an earlier age knowledge was power — merely that and nothing more; to us it is life and the summum bonum — the highest good.

Feyerabend’s ideas belong to that earlier age; indeed, the core ideas in Feyerabend were not original. Rather, his legacy is the disrepute of scientific authority. But at what cost?

Whispering Sweet Nothings

Some conversations are distractions, whispers in the ear up here for the hand to make advances down there, toward the knee. Toward the knee, as we all know, is where the important stuff occurs, why fathers fetch firearms, since no amount of talking, sweet or otherwise, will convince the advancing army to stand fast. And at ease, to be sure.

The Sweet Talk blog is a nice place for sweet talking, but I sometimes wonder: am I being distracted from a life and death confrontation? To be honest, I, personally, wonder this during any civil conversation. Am I being seduced by something said into something I don’t want to do? What if I’m not that kind of girl? What if I am? Oh, no! What if I’m the seducer? When the talking is rude and uncivil, I have no doubts at all about what I believe and who I am.

On the other hand, sweet nothings are rarely nothing; they’re something to conceive the idea of conceiving. Those ideas whispered in the ear might not be a distraction at all, but a context for the advances going on toward the knee, to explain what’s happening and why it’s good, even when it’s bad. Or naughty, or whatever. Moral fortitude lets my no be a resolute no, even if I do not entirely understand the raison de négation. I mean, just what is being whispered into the ear?

Nevertheless, the real work is in talking to Daddy when his ire is up, and also the hammer of his Colt .45. Sweet talk might just save your life.

On Commensurability

Imagine a typical recipe, something you might find at You have a list of ingredients with particular quantities, as well as instructions for what to do. You have some flexibility with the particulars—especially if you are not baking—some ingredients have substitutes that will work just as well or better in the recipe. Sometimes the recipe suggests a few of these substitutes, most of the time it takes judgment and experience—or barring that, a spirit of adventure—on the part of the cook. There are some contingencies that cannot be captured universally in a recipe—the idiosyncrasies of your particular oven, variation in how big or juicy a particular fruit is, and so on.

The rationalist and especially the utilitarian project since the pre-Socratics has attempted to reduce everything in human life to a single, commensurable scale. The Socrates of Protagoras thinks all problems of decisionmaking boil down to a failure to develop the techne of rationality which allows us to see everything according to this single scale, wherein everything is to some extent a substitute for everything else, of greater or lesser value in terms of quantity but qualitatively identical.

Let’s try to imagine a school of cooking which taught that ingredients were entirely commensurable, perfect substitutes for one another. Do you think that such a school would be very successful?

And yet in philosophy the equivalent schools have thrived over millennia. Today there are people who believe, for instance, that Pareto-derived utilitarianism as used in economics has basically provided us with the techne that Socrates sought so long ago.

On Monday at The Ümlaut I’m going to be talking about this in greater length, but for now I’d simply like to suggest that the ingredients for living well are just as varied and incommensurable as the ingredients for a good recipe. Some ingredients have close substitutes, but to treat every ingredient as a substitute for every other ingredient is, quite simply, to fly in the face of plain reality.

Rhetoric and Non-ergodicity Management

My latest at EE is a stab at a Schumpeter-Knight-Kirzner-North synthesis. Boiled down, I find it useful to distinguish risk, uncertainty, and non-ergodicity as zones in a function of decreasing knowledge of possible outcomes. Risk describes well-governed, well-understood probability functions. Uncertainty describes well-governed, but poorly understood probability functions, and non-ergodicity describes wild probability functions. Another way to think about it that risk is a threat to an individual, uncertainty is a threat to a firm, and non-ergodicity is a threat to society. I’m not sure if the way I parse these ideas are capital-T True, but to me this is useful. At the risk of immodesty, that’s good enough for me.

Protection against the unknown satisfies deep atavistic cravings common to many species. In humans, this desire is strong enough to divert many billions of dollars into insurance schemes of one sort or another. A, if not the, function of the finance industry (or at least the vibrant, robust derivatives markets) is to allow people to pool and trade risk (even when what they’re actually trading is uncertainty), easing tensions about the obscure future, permitting long-term planning and investment. Read through a 10-K sometime and you’ll see that quite a bit of the fluff is devoted to talk about how the firm devotes resources to contingency planning and how well diversified they are. One of the big reasons many economists flog the virtues of a stable rule of law is that the productive capacity of the many industries of the nation suffer when the threat of capricious expropriation looms. 

I submit to you that the hedge we enjoy against big social upheaval (by this, I mean developments that destroy entire industries, change the political process, or result in mass migrations) is rhetoric. If citizens are comfortable with the decline of patterns of production and exchange, they will be naturally less prone to petitioning the legislature for redress. A civilization that tolerates dynamism, that accepts the destruction part of creative destruction will more aptly resist ossification. The civilization that yields to truculent Ludditism will waste precious resources on protecting incumbents, shielding defunct industry, and perpetuating inefficiency. A society, in other words, of untempered backwards-looking faith is one that will mire itself in the treacle of the past.

Our best hedge against non-ergodicity is to learn to stop worrying and love what truly matters in life.

Parallel and serial

Isn’t it obvious that online media would overtake print media? Wasn’t it a forgone conclusion from the moment that Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web that Newsweek (the print edition) would be supplanted?

It certainty seems so to me. From my point of view, of course Drudge Report took Newsweek’s readers and advertisers. And if Drudge hadn’t, another online media platform would have.

As AG noted, the market for newspapers was a brutal and competitive market. That market was an information processing machine, cycling through business models and exploring unknown reader demand curves to eek out whatever profit could be found.

But then the web was invented, and we see an explosion in the market reach of media producers combined with a lowering of costs in producing media right down to “pocket change”, as this very blog’s existence is proof of. The print media’s information processing machine was immediately out-classed by the online media’s information processing machine in every meaningful respect. More business models, more content, more readers, more advertisers great and small.

As far as I’m concerned, the only question is when print products achieve the same sort of museum quality that we now reserve for illuminated manuscripts or telegraph machines, not if. Online media has more experiments and more failures, more quickly launched and more quickly gone. The online information-processing juggernaut is both broader in scope and faster in execution than anything print can muster, as a basic property of its technological medium.

Kayfabe is Sacred, Truth is Profane

“Kayfabe” is an old carny term, expropriated famously by the pro wrestling circuit. It’s a specific kind of play-acting, in which rivalries, feuds, rancor, and animosity are contrived by players and presented to the audience as if real. In turn, the audience gladly suspends disbelief, ignoring or shunning loud apostates

My good friend and professor Robin Hanson argues convincingly that much of the human brain is optimized in favor of hypocrisy. We, particularly those of us endowed with high social intelligence, are finely tuned kayfabe machines. We lie, cheat, grandilocute, backstab, obsequiate, and connive with zeal and panache. But throughout, we pay diligent tribute to a suite of social norms that include fairness, honor, decency, honesty, and charity. We humblebrag to raise our relative status under a thin fig leaf of modesty. And should you break kayfabe, prepare for trouble (make it double).

The punishment of heretics and apostates should be your biggest hint that kayfabe is sacred. You’re meant to display faith in the obviously absurd to signal conformity to common purpose or shared identity. If you can playact as if meaningless, junk affiliation has merit, surely you can be trusted to participate in more important institutions. It’s the sneaky outsider, the non-believer that can’t be trusted.

Would you let your daughter marry someone who broke kayfabe?

Capital-T Truth, contrarily, does not depend on allegiance to theater, to ceremony. Political sentiments are elevated by theme music—not so academic findings.Truth’s profanity is unsentimental when splatched bare. Storytelling, rhetoric, metaphor, allegory: these are the nougat and caramel that hide the hard nut of truth inside. The chore of the alert citizen is to check those political candy bars for razor blades before eating. The task of the social scientist is to lighten the burden of this chore. 

Kayfabe can be great fun, so long as everyone’s in on the act. Excessive dominion arises when the farce gets elevated enough that constituents forget it’s all a big joke. When that happens, it is Truth that punctures the ambitions of the sovereign. The pleasures of sacred kayfabe are surely to be savored, but prudence demands precautions against excessive leavening. 

The World’s Oldest Euvoluntary Exchange

Among us Sweet Talkers, what’s the general feeling about whores? This one is kind-of the ultimate crass libertarian litmus test: two people are entering into a contract from which both benefit. I thought I’d toss it up here to see what the general contours are with regard to unbound liberty/libertinism vis-a-vis institutionalism in order to know how to appropriately manipulate my intended audience with my next post.

Is prostitution the archetypical euvoluntary exchange?