The Merits of Greatness

Featured Image is some painting by an overhyped hack

Last year Gregory Lewis advanced a provocative argument: maybe the greats were not all they are cracked up to be.

What’s provocative is not the conclusion, but the statistical manner in which an argument about the humanities is made.

He adds nuance as the argument goes on, but the essence is like this:

  1. Assume “personal greatness” varies randomly from person to person.
  2. Post-population explosion, more people are alive now than at any other time in history.
  3. Therefore, it is immensely unlikely that the greatest thinkers or artists occurred in antiquity, rather than very close to the present.

With that in mind, here is my quick response:

  1. Can we judge the greatness of a work on its merits, or not?
  2. If not, why can we judge the merits of Lewis’ argument?
  3. Lewis’ own method can be turned against his conclusions.

I’m going to start backwards, with the third point. Consider the following from the end of Lewis’ post:

It does mean, though, we should pay less deference to the achievements (and achievers of the past). Instead of the vast secondary literature to try and find a charitable account of Socrates techne based refutation of Thrasymachus at the start of Plato’s Republic (because Plato and Socrates, intellectual titans they are, would not give a bum argument) we should trust our judgement that this was just a bad argument, because Plato and Socrates were not that brilliant, and were living in comparatively unenlightened times, and so our prior on them just making a mistake should not be that low. More generally, much of our scholarly emphasis on the old greats is probably misplaced if this enterprise is motivated (in part) by the hopes of excavating some hidden gems of insight in their work – they’re much less likely to have insight relevant to our current state of knowledge than modern day thinkers.

Let us assume that the ability to discern whether an argument is good or bad varies randomly across individuals.

If that were the case, then what are the odds that Lewis’ individual judgment, or mine, would be superior to the cumulative judgments of a very large number of individuals who have posited a “there’s more to it than that” interpretation of a great work?

As I have said before, when approaching a widely discussed work, it’s usually a good idea to assume:

  • All obvious criticisms have been made.
  • All obvious criticisms have been responded to.
  • A back-and-forth has occurred and the conversation has moved forward.

Statistically, what are the odds that one individual would be able to fruitfully skip the results of such a conversation among many individuals?

Going out of order, let’s go to my first point—can we judge greatness on its merits or can’t we?

It would be one thing if Lewis had actually examined Socrates’ response to Thrasymachus and made a direct case that it was lackluster. No one thinks Plato is perfect; indeed the vast majority of people who would put him in the top 10 thinkers of all time are themselves not actually Platonists. Clearly, even if they admire his greatness, they think he went wrong somewhere.

If Lewis had gone that route, a philosopher or philologist could then have jumped in and argued that Lewis had misread. Perhaps Plato was attempting to demonstrate something indirectly, rather than in Socrates’ argument itself. Perhaps with the right context, which specialists in this subject have and Lewis does not, the meaning will be clearer. In any case, if Lewis had attempted to broach this issue directly, we’d be back at human judgment as usual.

But Lewis tried to make an argument about the odds that such judgments were sound, externally from consideration of the works themselves. And so we must ask: if the case for these works’ greatness is not to be considered on its merits, but based on probability, then what is the probability of Lewis coming along and discovering this novel argument that undermines the judgment of the larger part of people who have considered the matter?

That is, how are we to evaluate Lewis’ own argument, if the evaluation of things on their merits is off the table?

He might respond that a statistical argument can be evaluated more objectively than the greatness of a philosophical work or a painting. But the statistical argument is quite weak without simplifying assumptions that themselves require a non-statistical defense—that is, a defense on the merits.

I am reminded of a statement I’ve heard attributed to Asimov, to the effect that the probability of life just happening to spring up on a given planet is so small as to be just this side of impossible. Conjuring up a probability distribution in which what has happened is unlikely isn’t very revealing—in my humble opinion.

I believe it comes down to how much judgment can be relied on to evaluate arguments, ideas, and art on the merits. If we can’t rely on it at all, then we can’t rely on it to determine whether Lewis’ own argument has merit. If we can rely on it, then odds are Lewis’ argument is in the same position as Asimov’s—good for a soundbite, but not very informative.

Breakfast With a Side of Hustle

Featured Image is New York, by George Bellows.

New York’s cardinal virtue is hustle. It is also its chief vice.

New Yorkers’ hustle seems a poor fit for Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean; the greatness and the excess of it seem too tightly intertwined. Quite possibly they are aspects of the very same thing. It seems instead more at home in a tragic view of human nature, which both precedes Aristotle and comes later in the form of Christian fallenness. New Yorkers hustle to get where they are going so they can work hard on whatever work they are called to do.

The deli where I occasionally get my breakfast is most alive when the line is most backed up. The unyielding energy and efficiency of the two men who handle orders for breakfast sandwiches and wraps is quite a sight to behold. What impresses me the most, as someone with an unreliable memory, is their mental queue—they take an additional order while still working on two or three ahead of that one. Each order is broken out into specific tasks, which they work on concurrently, usually concluding two at right around the same time.

In the two years or so that I have been going there, they have never made a mistake, and they always remember who it was that ordered each item. I’m sure they make mistakes—I’m not saying that they are perfect, superhuman breakfast sandwiches factories, though you might forgive me for beginning to suspect as much.

If there is a virtuous hustle, without vice, it is the ordinary, every day hustle that is embodied behind that counter, day after day. No stockbroker, or programmer, or statesman, could possibly outmatch the extraordinary wonder of such ordinary virtue.

It almost makes one forgive the hustle of fellow New Yorkers who shove you aside on the street or in the subway, or run you over in their cars.


Context Reduction

I’m working on my brevity these days, so I’m going to try to write this post in twenty minutes or less.

In Adam’s recent post about context, he writes (emphasis mine):

Ryan’s recent post relies on an optimistic hermeneutic. At least, it is optimistic in the sense of holding that it is possible to know the relevant context for understanding something, if pessimistic that most people will bother. I share his optimism.

But in discussing the post with him, it seems that he believes a lot of meaning is radically historical, where most believe there to be more general meaning outside of the most contingent of context.

I may indeed be radically historical, but I haven’t ever considered that. In fact, the mere notion of a “radically historical perspective” is  an entirely new ingredient not initially contained in my post about frames of reference. It’s entirely possible that Adam is correct about my perspective – but I honestly don’t know about that, and it doesn’t directly pertain to my point.

The reason I’m writing about this is to highlight a risk in the consumption of ideas: Not only is it possible to lack context, it is also possible to import context that was not or should not be there.

I see this quite often. The news is replete with stories of well-meaning university faculty whose innocuous emails receive an identity-politics reevaluation, and next thing we know, a scandal has erupted. Scarcely can any major crime occur that the media begins saying things like, “We don’t know yet if the suspects are tied to terrorist groups,” which is a factually correct statement that nevertheless imports the context of terrorism to a situation that might not actually involve real terrorists.

I see this also in the marketplace for ideas. For example, Paul recently wrote a blog post about capabilitarianism that I quite liked. I felt that he was correct in the main, but Paul references the ideas of Amartya Sen in absence of the context of the Indian partition, the Pakistani genocide of Bangladeshis, the subsequent Bangladeshi war of independence, and the resulting martial law and systemic bifurcation of Bangladeshi society between “rich” and “poor.” In that context, the context in which Sen’s ideas actually emerged, the comparison to American civil liberties is much weaker. And because I know a bit about Bangladeshi history, I found that part of Paul’s otherwise excellent blog post less strong than the balance of it.

In short, it is possible to universalize something that is not truly universal. It’s possible to bend the language of the civil rights movement so that it can be deployed against campus faculty emails, it’s possible to use emerging market societies’ theories to attempt to explain developed-market social trends, and so forth.

My view is that we should be very cautious about generalizing intellectual principles. In some cases they can indeed be generalized, but in some cases not. What you include in your frame of reference can affect your conclusion every bit as much as what you exclude. The goal should always be not to be “right in a manner of speaking,” or “right from a certain perspective,” but to simply be right.

I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m just saying that’s the goal.

Torturing the Data, Attending to the Text

by Timo Elliott
by Timo Elliott

The risk of talking about context is the temptation to treat it as some undifferentiated thing. Just add three more cups of context, stir, and voila—a valid interpretation of the facts. I tried to show by example that this was not so, but the distinctions among context are worthy of independent investigation.

Continue reading “Torturing the Data, Attending to the Text”


Some context for understanding context
Some context for understanding context

Featured Image is Still Life with Bible, by Vincent van Gogh.

Consider a simple hermeneutic (that is, theory of interpretation):

  1. To correctly interpret something, you must have the right context.
  2. To know what context is right, you need yet more context.
  3. Context is boundless.
  4. You need to know all context in order to know what finite amount of context is necessary to correctly interpret a specific thing.
  5. You cannot know all context, because 3.
  6. You cannot correctly interpret anything.

Let’s call this the skeptic’s hermeneutic. It’s pretty silly, right? But once you bring context into the equation, it gets very hard to resist the pull of this logic. A paper by Deirdre McCloskey I read recently had a section that seems relevant here:

Still, Mokyr and Grief are vexed that I keep giving them reading lists in the humanities. I must say I am astonished by their vexation. I myself admit that I have not read all the works in neo-institutional economics that the critics gathered here cite. I am ashamed that I haven’t, and promise to try to do better. I thought this was the way we do things in science—giving out reading lists, testing one another, discovering our hidden presuppositions, many of which can in fact be discovered by serious listening to literature and its literature (called the humanities, Geisteswissenschaften, sciences humaines). Science is difficult. We’re not supposed to whine that it’s too much work to listen, really listen. A long time ago, in a group of admiring grad students and faculty at the University of Iowa’s narrow Department of Philosophy, I asked John Searle, whom I know a bit and whose books are on the reading lists I give out, whether he had read Hegel. John replied, “No, and I intend never to do so”, at which we all (even I, to my shame) laughed, signaling a [purposely ignorant] scorn for the whole of what is known in the trade as Continental philosophy.

One defense mechanism against the pull of the skeptic’s hermeneutic is to dismiss a lot of potential context as worthless. Thus McCloskey’s critics dismiss the relevance of the humanities, and Searle dismisses Continental philosophy. McCloskey, on the other hand, confesses that she does not have all of the relevant context, and promises to try and do better. What more can one ask?

Ryan’s recent post relies on an optimistic hermeneutic. At least, it is optimistic in the sense of holding that it is possible to know the relevant context for understanding something, if pessimistic that most people will bother. I share his optimism.

But in discussing the post with him, it seems that he believes a lot of meaning is radically historical, where most believe there to be more general meaning outside of the most contingent of context.

To respond to this, let’s perform a little exegesis (the practice of interpretation) on a relevant post of David’s.

Here is one bundle of context:

Here is another bundle of context:

  • People struggle with how much research they have to do before they can be confident they really understand something.
  • The structure of knowledge seems to be such that you can always add more context that sheds some light on something you had not previously noticed.

Let’s call these Bundle A and Bundle B, respectively.

I would argue that almost every likely reader of David’s post will come knowing Bundle B, at least implicitly.

Bundle A is entirely made up of contingent context that almost no reader would have. Does it help to have? Well, it certainly helps to interpret the following passage:

It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to learn to play Beethoven’s piano music with this teacher, not anytime in my lifetime, so I fired her, which made me feel bad because it was my mom, and she needed the money, which was the immediate cause of her homelessness, along with all those of hers.

“Oh, that’s in response to that thing the critic said,” I thought at the time.

That’s nice to know. But do you really need that information to understand the meaning of the piece?

Of course not. Everyone who has read this piece has probably grasped its meaning; that is, that it’s hard to find the “ground” where it’s OK to stop adding more context. Where you feel sure of your footing.

I think we can all relate to that.

Previous Posts in This Thread (read all of these first, for context):

Frames Of Reference


Some people read Moby Dick and think it’s a story about hunting whales.

There are people out there who have read and have loved The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without having ever known that Robert Louis Stevenson had bipolar personality disorder.

There are people who find Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to be powerfully moving despite having absolutely no idea that Wilde was not heterosexual.

There are people who claim to love the works of Franz Kafka. They talk about their love for The Castle or The Trial, but they know almost nothing about German bureaucracy in the decades leading up to the rise of the Nazis. They love The Penal Colony, but they have never read The Bible in depth. They love The Metamorphosis, but they have never witnessed the slow decline of a person suffering from a serious disability or a chronic illness.

A lot of people love Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture despite not knowing what was happening in the year 1812.

There are people who are converted to Islam upon reading The Qu’ran, but who have never read the Old Testament. There are people who read The Bible and are converted to Christianity without having ever read about the competing religions of the period and the area, without having studied the Torah and Talmud.

I have encountered folks who quote Gandhi fondly, even though they’ve never been to a remote Indian village and have no thorough understanding of the lives lead by the lower castes there. Nor have they ever fought for freedom under a genocidal occupying government. And their closest frame of reference is the disadvantaged groups they’ve seen in North America. That’s the kind of thing that they think Gandhi was talking about.

I once met a woman who traveled to remote and poverty-stricken villages in Latin America and then came home to the comfort of her house, her smart phone, her law degree, her steady income, and her habitual drug use, and told me with a straight face, “I really envy their way of life.”

I asked her why. She told me that she thought their lives were simple.

Never before has so much human knowledge been placed in the hands of virtually everyone. The result is that anyone can start learning at any point in the stream. We can hear The 1812 Overture before we learn about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. (Some of us don’t even know that it happened.) We can be assigned to read a story like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without ever having been taught about bipolar personality disorder. We can watch Hollywood films like The War of the Worlds without having to confront its Marxist thematic elements. We can convert to religions in absence of any understanding of their historical contexts or supporting-but-peripheral canon.

We can espouse the political or philosophical beliefs of people from distant times and places without having to bother about understanding how those beliefs, when initially proposed, were influenced by the specific context in which they first arose. We can think and learn anything in absence of context, of a correct frame of reference, because the information is simply everywhere, and readily available on a smart phone.

And, so long as we talk about them theoretically rather than in their original context, we can completely redefine what the intent of those theories was in the first place.

It all depends on our frame of reference.

The Spirit of Economy

“One must go further, one must go further.” This impulse to go further is an ancient thing in the world. Heraclitus the obscure, who deposited his thoughts in his writings and his writings in the Temple of Diana (for his thoughts had been his armor during his life, and therefore he hung them up in the temple of the goddess), Heraclitus the obscure said, “One cannot pass twice through the same stream.” [Plato’s Cratyllus, § 402.] Heraclitus the obscure had a disciple who did not stop with that, he went further and added, “One cannot do it even once.” [Cf. Tennemann, Geschichte der Philosophie, I, p. 220.] Poor Heraclitus, to have such a disciple! By this amendment the thesis of Heraclitus was so improved that it became an Eleatic thesis which denies movement, and yet that disciple desired only to be a disciple of Heraclitus … and to go further– not back to the position Heraclitus had abandoned.

-Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Featured image is Market Scene, by Aertsen.

The spirit of social science is technocratic. Economics is especially so. Economists seek to understand commerce in terms of its moving parts. Everything recognizably human is stripped away as prejudicing; left behind are algorithms of choice to be studied in terms of how they interact within different systems of rules. And this method has proved quite useful in identifying the strengths and fault lines of such systems.

But they are rarely happy to leave it at that. After failing to find an all encompassing theory of human nature, they relegate what cannot be explained by their methods to a black box. Thus, spirit becomes ranked preferences, the content of which is considered out of the economist’s purview. In as much as this rule is violated, it is because some aspect of human nature has turned out to be tractable to economic mechanics. Thus Robert Frank and the economics of envy—sorry, of status competitions. Frank echoes Thorstein Veblen here, but Veblen was not nearly so mechanistic—though he suffered from other sins.

As economics continues to move in the direction of Frank and those like him, spirit is increasingly being eliminated entirely, rather than kept in a black box. And so economics has moved from inhuman models to becoming actively dehumanizing.

Albert Hirschman believed that this flight from humanity began with the idea that wild, destructive passions must be offset by interests, with successive generations of philosophers narrowing what counts as a person’s interests. Martin Heidegger believed that the problem began with the classical philosophical tradition as a whole, once it lost the original context in which Plato and Aristotle posed their questions.

In any case, the inhuman models, even before they became aggressive in their dehumanizing, rested on a narrow notion of reason that is severed from spirit. The business world is full of rules, choices made under conditions of scarcity, transaction and exchange—these sorts of things make for a great beginning in describing commerce. But they are a bad place to end.

A complete discussion of commerce needs to speak to its spirit, the spirit of business at some place and time. This spirit varies not only across nations or periods of history, but across industries and companies. See Joseph Heath on the criminality that characterizes specific industries.

Whether or not business can be characterized as exploiting the less fortunate or participating in their flourishing, myopically opportunistic or directed towards the common good, may be more a matter of the spirit of the enterprise than of its formal characteristics.

The great apologists for commerce in 18th century Scotland may have done more for the world by developing an ethos of public virtue through prudent dealings, than they did by midwifing the birth of economics as a discipline.

How unfortunate, then, to live in an age characterized largely by the eradication of what spirit we have—in business, in civil society, in government—without a corresponding drive to foster its replacement.