L0063630 Hebrew manuscript B.1
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Wellcome Hebrew B.1
Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Reductionist Poetics

Featured image is a Hebrew manuscript

We explain the world we see with concepts that remain unseen. We explain the act of choosing with models unavailable to the choosers. We bridge these gulfs without knowing how it is possible. Our first guess is always epistemology, but the better bet is poetry.

Poetry and prose are not separated by any such gulf. Terseness and parallelism characterize poetry, but both can be found in prose. They form the heart of the poetic function, which beats a steady rhythm in language of all sorts. The particularly poetic enters into prose and the characteristics of prose enters into poetry. It should not then surprise us to find a vibrant poetic heart beating in the breast of scientific language.

Terseness is simple enough, and not so important for our purposes. Parallelism is deceptively simple, and the key to bridging the gulf between life and model.

When language at any level is brought close together, equivalences can create meaning. Similar looking but dissimilar sounding words can be highly significant. Related genre tropes invoked soon after one another can produce a greater effect. Each potential type of equivalence can be combined or operate independently from any other type.

Equivalence highlights difference; to equivocate is not to tautologize. Rhyming couplets produce a similar sound, but different meanings. A connection is drawn by that similarity, but meaning is made in partnership with contrast.

A man has “cried wolf,” and a parallel is drawn with a story. A man is not a story. Or this man is not that story. An equivalence has been drawn, and its value is only possible because of the differences. The man’s life does not have a clear lesson, but the story does. Parallelism can form a bridge to that lesson from the man by drawing equivalences.

The economic man is more equation than story, and men are neither equations nor stories. But even equations and stories are not completely transparent to us, any more than we as equation and story makers are to ourselves.

Economic man is largely unlike us, so putting his decisions in parallel with ours suggests something new. This “something” itself remains more concealed than unconcealed, but its arrival adds to our visible horizon. Unconcealing by drawing together several untransparent elements together: this is the mysterious effect of parallelism. Like the liar who cried wolf, the tension between clear difference and equivocation generates fresh insights. For this reason truth can flower even among false models.

Our horizons may yet be narrowed by an idolatry of the newly unconcealed. Reductionism is the name given to this class of idols. It is the project of not A because B. A table is not a table, but atoms and the void. Love is not lovely, but a brute Darwinian impulse. The world we see is an illusion, the concepts unseen are the true reality. Human experience counts for nothing, the products of human intellect are sovereign.

To eliminate A with B is to cut the threads of parallelism. These threads stitch together human intellect itself. Sovereign intellect without parallelism is little more than a chimpanzee with a crown. Without the table we see, we would not seek the atoms. The “true” reality can only come into view in parallel with the “nominal” one of appearances. The great unconcealments of the era put formal models in parallel with appearances, as the liar is put in parallel with “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” With the unconcealing power of parallelism, even higher primates such as we have achieved kingly deeds.

Science must proceed poetically to proceed at all, and poetry makes meaning by drawing parallels.


Word Games

Featured image is Lower-Austrian Peasant Wedding, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

J. L. Austin made a tremendous breakthrough in linguistics and the philosophy of language when he demonstrated the performative character of language—that is, by saying something we are always doing something. Extreme cases include “I now pronounce you man and wife,” which, when uttered in the right circumstances, changes the status of two people from being single to being married.

The problem with operationalizing this comes in with the notion of “in the right circumstances.” Can these be specified in advance? At what level of detail? How small do deviations need to be before the speech act is nullified (or “infelicitous” as Austin put it)? Are some infelicities more important or decisive than others, and does this vary for each sort of speech act?

Austin ultimately gave up on a completed system, though many speech act theorists since him have taken up the torch. Among these, his former student John Searle is the most notable.

But I stand with critics like Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish in thinking that a high degree of uncertainty is required by the subject matter. Derrida has pointed out that if the successful performance of a speech act is determined by context, and context is boundless, then we can never know with the certainty of mathematical or logical necessity that we have avoided infelicity. There may be aspects of the speech situation that we did not notice at the time which invalidate it retroactively, and the uncertainty around this is ineradicable.

It is akin to digital security—we may use top of the line cryptography, we may use stricter than best practice implementations, but we cannot know about security holes that haven’t been discovered yet. If we could, then we would have discovered them already. There is no reducing, much less eradicating, uncertainty of this sort—in security or in speech acts.

The point is not that no speech act ever succeeds, but that it isn’t something we can really measure externally from the situation and the people involved. Moreover, even to participants it is not known with the certainty of the solution to mathematical problems.

Without pretending to such certainty, I’d like to build off of our previous discussion of Aristotle’s notions of actuality and potentiality, as well as efficient and finals causes, in order to continue the discussion of when speech acts go right or wrong. Continue reading “Word Games”


Frayed Edges of a Web of Belief

Featured image is a painted backdrop of a palace, by Edgar S. Paxson

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk.

– Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

A farm boy enters a barn with an empty pail. He has been in this barn, and barns like it, so many times before, that he does not even register most of his surroundings. He milks the cows almost without thought; the motions come to him as effortlessly as walking or scratching an itch.

The next day he returns, but something is not right. He is sure that he came the same way that he always does, but he doesn’t recall ever seeing this barn before. Thinking as hard as he can, he supposes that the barn he usually goes to looks something like this one. Trying to move beyond the strange sensation of unfamiliarity, he goes in. But it is no good—even inside, something feels very off. He looks around for some sign that this is the correct barn. He stares at a cow for several minutes before realizing he ought to get started. Once he is in position, he finds that he cannot make his hands work correctly. He does not tug hard enough to produce any milk, or he misses the pail. He simply cannot perform the task the way he knows he should be able to.

How many times must we send a farm boy in with an empty pail to get milk before we are satisfied that he knows how to milk a cow? Can we call no one a farm boy until he is dead?

W. V. Quine argued that any of our beliefs are only coherent within a larger web of belief, most of which we are not conscious of in a given moment. Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks, in like fashion, of a horizon of meaning which form the conditions of intelligibility for every one of us. But where are these horizons? Where do the visible threads in this web lead?

John Searle once thought that the beliefs we are not conscious of right at this moment are kept in a sort of inventory of unconscious mental states. In attempting to flesh this out, however, he found unresolvable problems. The only workable model of the unconscious he could come up with was one of the potentially conscious—so to say that someone believes the world is round even when he is asleep is really to say that if he woke up he would be capable of consciously holding that very belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.


Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

This is more in line with (to my knowledge) the neuroscience of memory. Memories are not stored and retrieved, but constructed in the moment of remembering.

I am also reminded of Gadamer’s discussion of moral knowledge:

But we do not learn moral knowledge, nor can we forget it. We do not stand over against it, as if it were something that we can acquire or not(…). Rather, we are always already in a situation of having to act (disregarding the special position of children, for whom obedience to the person educating them replaces their own decision), and hence we must already possess and be able to apply moral knowledge. That is why the concept of application is highly problematical. For we can only apply something that we already have; but we do not possess moral knowledge in such a way that we already have it and then apply it to specific situations.

A stage actor or a stand-up comedian, or a baseball player for that matter, has good days and bad days. Do they ever know why? Can they do anything about it even if they do?

When we walk up to the plate, what else can we do but hope? Hope that the scant threads we can see before us still connect back to the larger web. That, just out of view, they haven’t become frayed ends, unconnected and blowing in the wind.

Related Posts:

The New Bondage

Adam has been mighty preachy lately. Now we are all to blame, as he puts it, “Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.” Thus the malady. Later, the means: “Above all, [acceptance] is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both.” Here endeth the lesson.


But we’re left without an end. Why would I want to do this? After all, we’ve been subject to several homilies whose rhetoric is designed to discourage me from doing much of anything of this nature. For example, in The Morality of Futility, Adam writes, “Our moral sphere should not be stretched beyond the scale appropriate for an individual human life.” This is early Adam Gurri, of course. What about something more recent? Here he is less than a year removed from this recent spate of moralizing: “The bigger your ambitions, the worse the consequences for your flaws.”

Ah. So we see the connecting principles, revealing that we do not have a contradiction, but an exchange, and not necessarily an exchange of one ideal for another, but an exchange of emphasis. Telescopic Morality, as a pejorative, emphasizes vocation, i.e., doing the tasks at hand, inasmuch as one is able; Culpabilitarianism, on the other hand, emphasizes accepting responsibility for the condition of the cosmic order, with the moral impulsion to do something about it. “We must,” Adam pleads. “Thou shalt.”

So Adam would bind us.

One of my best friends in the whole world informed me that he does not buy anything made in China, and, in attempt to bind me in his moral world, he implied that neither should I. He made it clear that he was not making a Buy American argument; he was making a moral argument: child slave labor is morally wrong, and any moral person would not support child slave labor. “Well, actually…” I began, followed by an explanation of world markets, noting that his slightly more expensive hecho in Mexico shoes would be exponentially more expensive were child slavery abolished, seeing as how demand for non-slave labor would drive the price of cheaply made shoes to the point where the poor could not afford shoes, just like it was before Chinese child slave labor.

Indeed, we participate in evil.

Now what? Do we close world markets? Do we shut down food factories? Do we go to war against China? And on what basis? On our moral purity? What a fanciful idea! What fantasy!

Thus we are doubly bound, both with the moral imperative to decry immorality, paired with the added moral imperative to accept culpability. And then what? What shall we do then? How do we bear in mind the rhetoric of culpability when we have no moral norm beyond solipsistic striving? How do I actually accomplish culpability? Do I work it off?

This is the impulse behind leftist ideology, and it has been for a century and a half, in its modern incarnation, namely that civilization is deeply flawed, and benefits materially from obvious evil (a term which, in a post-religious context, has been termed materialistically, but still carries the same moral freight): government policy has become primarily social policy, progressives, liberals, anarcho-fascists, leftists, Marxists, and whatever nomenclature whichever sect of the Left you can derive–policy is about forcibly righting moral wrongs; freedom is anathema because free people are culpable in evildoing. They are at fault. They must work harder at love. We will see to it.

It is no wonder that civilization developed a hankering for an all-powerful, all-seeing, personal God who could hold us accountable, ultimately. Our ancestors even developed the notion of an eschaton, at which point this personal God would judge us, each individually, those who did good going to heaven, those who did evil going to hell. Alas! What if God has caught you committing evil? Not to worry: you can buy him off, either with money, a tithe of your firstfruits, or with the blood of a common beast or the most-evolved animal.

But now we have acceptance as a choice. I accept that I am culpable. For we are convinced that neither witness nor the outcry of the human heart, nor all the evidence of good and evil, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, armies, wars, bureaucracy, legislation, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all the cold happenstance of existence, will be able to separate us from the discoverable truths. We shall identify and overcome, expunging evils one by one.

Who will accuse me? I may accept culpability, but there is now no condemnation.

V0017193 Still life with a skull and medical book. Oil painting by an
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Still life with a skull and medical book. Oil painting by an Italian painter, 1766.
Published:  - 

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric

Featured image is Still Life With a Skull and Medical Book

This post is intended to be a companion piece to this one

This is going to be a nuts and bolts piece, fleshing out a few technical concepts with examples from a sample of texts. It is meant to be a companion to a shorter, more readable piece. I would suggest starting there, and then returning here if you feel the urge to dig deeper.

Contrary to Sam’s point that rhetoric is an extra skill that scientists would have to learn, I want to demonstrate here that scientists live and breathe rhetoric. A scientific paper is a work of rhetoric; the authors seek to persuade their peers in a number of ways beyond simply accepting their conclusion. This is what Deirdre McCloskey has been saying about economics for decades.

My corpus for this exercise will be the following:

Continue reading “A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric”

A Hopeless Dawn 1888 Frank Bramley 1857-1915 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1888 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01627

Restoring Humanity to the Human Sciences

Featured image is A Hopeless Dawn, by Frank Bramley.

With rare exceptions, 20th century social scientists from B. F. Skinner through Paul Samuelson adopted methodologies which eliminated meaning and the mind from the study of human beings. The former believed that nothing existed beyond our external behavior, whereas the latter treated the mind like something that could be boiled down to an optimization formula.

A number of heterodox schools of social science have reacted to this. The Austrian school of economics, for example, has always been critical of the heavily mathematical models of mainstream economics, as well as the information lost in macroeconomic aggregation.

However, the Austrian school is not innocent here, either. In its crudest incarnations, it simply collapses into a formalism. This is not much better than mathematical optimization.

Its best incarnation, which I think is embodied in the subset of GMU economics under the stewardship of Pete Boettke, is much more sophisticated and open to other schools of thought. His students draw heavily on public choice, institutional economics, and philosophy.

Nevertheless, it is missing something essential. Thirty years ago, Don Lavoie attempted to fill in that gap by marrying GMU-style Austrian economics with hermeneutics. This would have brought human meaning into the social sciences in an unprecedented way. Sadly, he was rebuffed, and then he died tragically young.

As a result, even the most sophisticated treatments of meaning and mental content by members of this school are empty in important and systematic ways. Vlad Tarko’s paper “The Role of Ideas in Political Economy” is an example of this approach at its highest caliber. To understand its strengths and weaknesses, and how it could be humanized, I will evaluate this paper below.

Before we begin, I want to emphasize that I have picked this paper because it is very good. It offers a sophisticated framework that is of great value. In criticizing its treatment of meaning and mind, I do not want that fact to be lost.

Continue reading “Restoring Humanity to the Human Sciences”


We Participate in Multitudes We Cannot Completely Articulate

Featured image is Work, by Fox Madox Brown.

Our practices can be understood as games which have an existence surpassing the subjectivity of the players. But how are these games played? I believe, with Hans-Georg Gadamer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Charles Taylor, that to understand the nature of our practices, we need to direct our attention to the nature of language. In the discussion that follows, I will be drawing heavily on Charles Taylor’s recent book, The Language Animal.

Continue reading “We Participate in Multitudes We Cannot Completely Articulate”