In Spirit

Featured Image is Moonrise Over the Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich

In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the Philosopher defended the art of persuasion against the teachings of his master Plato and Plato’s master Socrates. He sought to harness the wisdom of their critiques of the sophists without throwing out the art of persuasion entirely.

The characterization of persuasion as performed by the sophists—handed down to us in the pejorative sophistry—is that of pure manipulation. Other human beings are reduced to means for us to achieve our ends. Alasdair MacIntyre views all persuasion this way. In this, he is more Platonic than Aristotelian.

Aristotle observed that the form of Socratic dialogue doesn’t differ substantially in appearance from the sophist’s rhetoric. Indeed, many would consider Socrates among the worst offenders, where sophistry is concerned.

The difference between dialectic and sophistry is a matter of ethical commitment. Or we could say that it is a matter of committing yourself to the spirit of inquiry, just as the good lawyer interprets the spirit rather than merely the letter of the law, and we honor the spirit of our obligations. In short, it is about practicing in good faith, by honoring the spirit of the practice, rather than cynically and opportunistically bending it for our convenience.

The romantic critics of technology and social science, among whom I would count Heidegger and Gadamer, seem to believe that all technology, science, and bureaucracy are pure manipulation. Yet hierarchy, technology, and inquiry have very long histories. The romantic criticism envisions a past in which we had a more authentic relationship with our tools and our surroundings. It is for good reason that such days-gone-by thinking is derided as romantic in a pejorative sense.

Like rhetoric, the form of the made—from our tools to our organizations—differs only in degree. But differences in kind are determined by the spirit of the thing. A bureaucracy in which everyone holds an ethic of treating one another like fellow full human beings is very different from one in which employees are resources that need to be allocated, like coal.

The technocratic impulse is sold as a detached, rational thing, but in practice it always has a spirit. And in the 20th century, the spirit of technocracy was, ironically enough, usually a species of romanticism.

Thus Heidegger, the critic of technocracy, became an ally to the regime that was iconic for its literal factories of death. Why? Because of the romantic, nationalist spirit behind the thing, evident in their propaganda. The Soviets, which many foolishly put on the opposite end of a spectrum from the Nazis, were basically identical in this regard. Again, just look at their propaganda.


What our age needs is a humanist spirit that has not been warped by romanticism. We need to heal the severed link between spirit and reason. Let us stop thinking of reason as something that concerns narrow, instrumental relationships among objects and objectified subjects, and instead begin thinking in terms of the unity of ethics, politics, and rhetoric.

The current of history runs deep, and there is more to our age than enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, rationalists and romantics. It’s time we began to explore those greater depths again.

Tradition, Authority, and Reason

When I started reading up on the virtues and following the trails through philosophy that I found along the way two years ago, I was pretty sure that I was a Burkean traditionalist of some sort. It was Alasdair MacIntyre who began to throw a wrench in this when he pointed out that Burke treated tradition as a sort of black box—something that actual adherents to traditions do not do. Moreover, Burke somehow did this while remaining an economic liberal for his day, something very much not traditional to his nation.

We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

MacIntyre presents a different sort of traditionalism from Burke, one more like Michael Oakeshott’s. There is reason and reasoning but these are only made coherent by the traditions they are situated within.

Continue reading “Tradition, Authority, and Reason”

The Glamour of Macho Epistemology

One of the central claims of Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics is that there is a major disconnect between the practice of economics and how economists describe that practice. She indicts the field for embracing the ideals of reductionist modernist scientism; that is, of thinking that it is possible to develop a single scientific method that can be explained and easily understood by undergraduates, which nevertheless provides an unshakable foundation for progress in science.

I’ve taken up this argument elsewhere, but I want to focus on an interesting aspect of it here. Unlike the party line at many of the heterodox schools of economics, McCloskey does not deny that economists have made progress in the past 50-100 years. She thinks the proliferation of mathematical models and econometrics have been tremendously beneficial, in fact. She simply thinks that, by taking too narrow an interpretation of what counts as science, economists have handicapped themselves unnecessarily.

But isn’t it interesting that they could hold onto an epistemology that is completely wrong, and yet continue to make progress in practice? The divide between what is described as scientific and what economists do in practice is uncanny; why does it exist? Why does it go so largely unnoticed? Could it serve some purpose?

I am reminded of Karl Popper’s description of the towering figures of the Enlightenment—how they were seized by the notion that truth is manifest, that it is visible and recognizable if only you seek to find it. Popper argued that this is utterly wrong, yet amazingly, belief in it motivated some of the best work in science and scholarship in history.

The irony of this example is that Popper and his intellectual descendants are the primary targets of McCloskey’s book and its sequels. But could Popperian falsificationism play a similar role for economists as the doctrine of a manifest truth did for the Enlightenment thinkers?

It puts me in mind of Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour, though glamour is visual rather than verbal. Still, there is an image here—an image of oneself as scientist, and image of what it means to be a scientist. Glamour is an image that is more simple, more perfect than reality could ever be, and it provokes a sense of longing. It is “known to be false but felt to be true.”

The glamour of Popper’s epistemology is hard to deny. The essay in which Popper discusses the doctrine of manifest truth, “On the Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance,” is part of the collection called Conjectures and Refutations. Throughout the collection Popper calls for scientists to advance “bold conjectures” and then “attempted refutations.” Popper makes the aspiring scientist feel akin to the courageous warrior; not advancing timidly but boldly, sticking your own neck out for the greater good of all. In short, he makes science sound exciting—no small accomplishment.

McCloskey doesn’t deny that science often requires courage—and the rest of the virtues. What she denies is that the practice of science boils down to Popper’s very simple formula. For one thing, falsification is not so straightforward as Popper claims. People must be persuaded that a falsification has occurred, a much more spongy matter than hard-headed methodologists like to make it sound. For another, most of science is getting up to speed on other people’s accomplishments, ideas, failures, and so on. In short, it’s immersing yourself into a body of scholarship. There is simply nothing sexy about that.

What macho epistemology along the lines that Popper and other methodologists may do is spark people’s initial interest in a field. Science, like all practices, has standards of quality that are accessible only to those who have been inculcated in the norms of the community of practice. Before that inculcation takes place, the thing that draws people in the first place, the carrots, are external goods. That is, the promise of material rewards, or fame, or glory, or anything other than the “goods internal to the practice”, and MacIntyre would say.

What are we to make of this? Does science need a noble lie? I would not go that far. Like McCloskey, I believe in the strength of committed self-consciousness. But I also don’t think that sweeping aside shared myths and glamour is a guarantee of future success; for one thing, history has shown us that a great deal can be accomplished even while buying into some very implausible myths. For another, we all need objects of aspiration, even if complete attainment is forever out of reach.

But not all such aspirations are made equal. And there’s a strong case to be made that the methodologist mythology worshipped in economics has run out of resources for spurring further advancements. I stand with McCloskey in believing that it is high time for economics to step out of the sandbox.