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.

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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”

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.

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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.

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Mistrust and Misunderstanding

Featured image is The Weighing of the Heart Ritual, from the Book of the Dead of Sesostris.

There’s a path dependence to trust. We trust the people we already know, we guess at the trustworthiness of people we meet for the first time based on what we’ve learned from people we already trust.

There’s a path dependence to understanding. Our pre-established understanding of our situation, and the range of possible situations we might encounter, heavily influences how we read each new situation we enter into.

There are political implications for each. To extend our trust is to empower, to withhold it is to deny options or access. To read a situation one way means to affirm that some responses to it are called for, and deny others.

These things cannot be profitably examined apart from one another for long. How we understand the games that life throws us into is the basis of who we trust, but the web of trust we are within is what pulls us into the specific games we find ourselves playing, and shapes our understanding.

We understand our situation based in part on what we are told by peers, family, and authorities (such as teachers when we are children), because we see them as peers, family, and authorities. Our understanding is shaped by trust which is shaped by our understanding.

To extend our trust is ultimately to make a leap of faith, whatever our understanding of the person and their role. We are always capable of making that leap, to trust people we’re initially inclined to believe are untrustworthy.

When we analyze these things in merely formal terms, it’s hard to understand how we can ever grow beyond our initial position. Faith and spirit do not lend themselves very readily to formal treatment. A good faith effort at conversation, approached in a spirit of openness to the new and unfamiliar, likely contains no formal differences from its opposite. Anything we can take as a signal of good faith or openness can just as easily be interpreted as a cynical maneuver to get an interlocutor to let their guard down.

One can understand, then, why many people think Gadamer is simply doubling down on the cage of our nature when he affirms the power of tradition:

That which has been sanctioned by tradition and custom has an authority that is nameless, and our finite historical being is marked by the fact that the authority of what has been handed down to us—and not just what is clearly grounded—always has power over our attitudes and behavior.

When in reality few are more optimistic about our ability to reach new understandings than Gadamer:

The fact that we move in a linguistic world and grow up into the world through an experience preformed by language does not at all remove the possibilities of critique. On the contrary, the possibility of going beyond our conventions and beyond all those experiences that are schematized in advance opens up before us once we find ourselves, in conversation with others, faced with opposed thinkers, with new critical tests, with new experiences. Fundamentally in our world the issue is always the same as it was in the beginning: in language we are trained in conventions and social norms behind which there are always economic and hegemonic interests. But this is precisely the world that we as humans experience: in it we rely on our faculty of judgment, that is, on the possibility of our taking a critical stance with regard to every convention.

It may seem like a paradox, but it is precisely our starting point, path dependency and all, that makes it possible for us to arrive at understandings which are radically different from them. You cannot go on a long journey without starting from somewhere—but obviously your starting point makes some end points more or less likely.

I agree with Paul that the essentially contested nature of trust and understanding have, as I said above, political implications. He draws on the work of Miranda Fricker, who shows her debt to Rawls by making justice the prism through which the political is viewed. But justice—that is, determining who is owed what, and how much, and in what way—is not prior to the hermeneutic problem. It is rather the other way around. The very notion of justice is “sanctioned by tradition and custom” with “an authority which is nameless”. We can see this clearly in Fricker’s formulation, which presupposes the heritage of late 20th century liberalism. We cannot get around the thrownness of our understanding by appealing to some notion of justice intended to stand outside of it. No understanding can stand outside of this thrownness.

It seems trivially true that our webs of trust and the understandings that make them possible create relationships of domination. But we should not be seduced into thinking that such relationships are one-directional; the dominion of the cartel of mutual trust against the untrusted. The narrative of the hegemony over the narratives of the oppressed. No, just as often trust and heterodox narratives are weaponized against the trusting and the orthodox.

The Catholic priest abuse scandal was just a special case of the basic fact that the people we trust are overwhelmingly the most likely to hurt and exploit us. According to one source, 68% of child abuse cases are perpetrated by a family member, and 90% are done by someone the child knows. Priests and other high status officials in a community command a trust that is dangerous not only because potential victims let their guard down, but because victims are by default less credible than the victimizers.

Moreover, any understanding can become a tool of domination. Look at the communists. They believed that they had the one, true understanding, which would allow them to overthrow exploitation. How’d that work out for them?

When we demand that people yield to our understanding over theirs, when we claim that ours is the path to righteousness and theirs is a pretense for protecting their interests, this can be described as an attempt to dominate. After all, our reading of a situation has political implications—and so rhetoric, ethics, and politics can all be collapsed into various struggles for power. If we choose to embrace cynicism whole cloth.

Acknowledging the truth of all this while avoiding vulgar cynicism requires, I think, an embrace of faith and of spirit. As I said elsewhere:

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.

Whether or not a given conversation, a decision to extend or withhold trust, to spend our time trying to understand something new or simply apply what we already understand—whether any of these are better treated cynically or idealistically depends upon the spirit in which they are pursued. We cannot trust everyone, and we cannot understand everything. We cannot even completely understand the concepts we are already most familiar with; our time on this Earth is simply too short, and our concepts are too rich in implications and too broadly interconnected with other concepts.

Every attempt to abolish privileged (or prestigious) roles or frameworks will fail, because it is in the nature of the game to create such privileges. To put it differently, they are a necessary part of how humans act in concert; we could not achieve our greatest accomplishments without making ourselves vulnerable to our worst abuses.

So I must conclude that Fricker draws some useful distinctions, but the direction of her inquiry (as Paul represents it in any case) seems wrongheaded. The problem is much larger than whether or not we have good reasons to mistrust someone, or whether we misunderstand the plight of the oppressed because we haven’t formulated enough concepts.

But that’s probably just a convenient fiction I am holding onto in order to advance the hegemony of my web of trust.

The Hermeneutic Situation

Featured image is Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater, by Hishikawa Moronobu.

Imagine the first American to see kabuki theater.

Did it seem completely unintelligible to him?

Or did that American mistake it for something like the performing arts he already knew? A play, or an opera, or even a dance. Did he miss what made it idiosyncratic?

What the American already knows, what he’s capable of understanding as, constitutes what Martin Heidegger calls his hermeneutic situation. It is not knowledge in the sense that we know arithmetic, but something we have that is prior to understanding and provides the necessary conditions for intelligibility.

Imagine in time this American began to see what sets kabuki apart from other performing arts; what is particular to it. He did not just add one more type of performing art to a mental list; his understanding of the performing arts he already knew about is changed by his having understood kabuki. In seeing how they are different from kabuki, he can see their particularity more clearly, and seeing what they have in common is similarly transformative.

This process is what Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to as a fusion of horizons, which in reality constitutes a transformation of both. It is akin to when an English speaker is learning Spanish, and reaches the moment in which they stop trying to mentally translate English sentences word by word.

Once you can formulate what you’re trying to say in Spanish from the start, you’ve broadened your horizons in a meaningful way. Your hermeneutic situation has been transformed; you have not merely added Spanish to English because your understanding of the latter is changed. Things you took for granted about language construction you are now capable of seeing as one possibility among others.

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Skepticism Without Nihilism

Featured image is The Philosopher Pyrrho from Elis, by Petrarcha

The Greek term skeptikos means, not a negative doubter, but an investigator, someone going for the skeptesthai or enquiry. As the late sceptic author Sextus Empiricus puts it, there are dogmatic philosophers, who think that they have found the truth; negative dogmatists, who feel entitled to the position that truth cannot be found; and the sceptics, who are unlike both groups in that they are not committed either way. They are still investigating things.

Julia Annas

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin lamented that he used to love poetry, but could no longer “endure to read a line” of it. He complains:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

I think economics trained me to think this way. When I began a fresh foray into philosophy a couple of years ago now, I approached it from this stance. Every book went into the grinder, to mash up and join with others in the cage of general laws. I steamrolled my way through book after book; when I couldn’t follow them I just pressed on so I could get to the next one. There was no thought of reading for pleasure or respecting the book before me like I might respect a partner in conversation. What is more rude than completely dominating a conversation without consideration for the other person?

But I launched into reading as if quantity equaled quality, as if I could become an expert simply by reading a lot.

I did, indeed, learn a great deal. But for the last year or so, I felt that I had stumbled on authors who helped me grow in an important way—they helped me to see more clearly a wide and yawning ignorance in myself, including an ignorance of how far the ignorance itself extends.

Increasingly, I wonder: isn’t this what philosophy is supposed to teach? For all the flaws of the historical and fictional Socrates, don’t we still admire him for saying that he only knew that he knew nothing?

Continue reading “Skepticism Without Nihilism”