‘Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a WIND reef. The wind does that.’

‘So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?’

‘I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally KNOW one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart’

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book— a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me.

A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.

Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi (pp. 46-48).  Kindle Edition.Emphasis mine.

Incomplete Virtue

In his essential book on virtue ethics, Daniel Russell advanced two arguments that I found highly novel and provocative.

The first is that the virtues are what he calls vague satis concepts, something I explore in depth here. The short version is that they have a threshold beyond which “virtuous enough” just is “virtuous in fact.” And this threshold is vague, in the sense that there are boundary cases that cannot be resolved simply by increasing your level of precision. One example of this is the threshold beyond which one goes from having thin or receding hair to being bald. More significantly, the concept of personhood is a vague satis concept, with boundary cases including long term coma patients, the severely brain damaged, and embryos.

In such cases, Russell argues, we need a model. This model is not simply an averaging of the most representative cases. As he puts it:

When we try to say what personhood really is, we construct a theoretical model of what we take to be the essential features of personhood, in some kind of reflective equilibrium, and realized to the fullest degree, since the model must illuminate the central cases, not just join their ranks. This model, we should note, is an ideal, and therefore not merely a central case: you or I could stand as a central case of personhood, but not as a model of personhood, since particular persons always have shortcomings in some dimension or other of personhood, a shortcoming that the model is to reveal as a shortcoming.

The second argument of interest is that virtue ethicists need a limiting principle on the number of virtues there are. The Stoics and Aquinas resorted to a very limited set of cardinal virtues of which all others were but aspects. Aristotle, however, offered no limitations at all, and most modern virtue ethicists follow him in this. Russell finds this unacceptable. This argument flows from the first one—we need a model of the virtuous person. If the number of virtues approaches infinity, then how could we ever hope to model such a person?

It is this second argument I wish to disagree with. Russell thinks virtues need a limiting principle because the model of the virtuous person that he has in mind is a formally specifiable model. But this is precisely what Aristotle’s notion of phronesis, with its radical particularity, precludes.

What Russell seeks is explanation, rather than understanding, when the latter is more appropriate.

Let us say that virtue is like the infinite, fractal coastline of a finite island. How could we model such a thing?

Simply demanding the subject matter be finite will not help. Pointing out that there is more context than we can take in does not mean that the quest for more context is a bad thing—Russell himself makes a similar argument about all-things-considered rationality:

But committing to making all-things-considered judgments is not the same as committing to the (rather queer) life-project of becoming the best maker of all-things-considered judgments there can be. That project, like every other, consumes resources and opportunities, and can no more be assumed to be a rational one than any other project can. That is a fact about practical rationality: when it comes to making all-things-considered judgments, at some point it is reasonable to stop considering, choose, and hope that the choice is one we can live with, or perhaps grow into. Indeed, trying to become persons who do consider all things before acting is something that we have all-things-considered reasons not to do.

My argument is that even the constructing of the ideal itself follows a similar rationale.

Consider my recent exposition of the hermeneutics of novels:

After finishing a given chapter of a novel, we no doubt have certain expectations about what the book as a whole will be like, based not only on the chapter itself but on our understanding of the genre conventions the novel is operating within, maybe even of our familiarity with the author herself or what other people have insinuated about the book. Once we have completed the novel, however, our understanding will have changed—not only of the novel as a whole, but even of a given chapter and its significance. Rereading the novel, we may find the chapter discloses things to us that it didn’t the first time—and these new disclosures, in turn, inform our understanding of the whole novel. In this way, even after we have read the whole book, we can learn from parts of it.

Even something as seemingly finite as a novel we can only understand incompletely. Summarizing Derrida, Jonathan Culler adds to this picture of incompleteness by arguing that meaning is determined by context, and context is boundless. We can always revisit the context and find some new aspect which sheds light on a different meaning.

But Gadamer’s take on this incompleteness is much more optimistic than Derrida’s. It is also ultimately more optimistic than Russell’s, for the latter is forced to ask for models and limiting principles we do not have, implying that we haven’t had much of an idea about how to live virtuously until now.

For Gadamer, it is less about models than about stories. One such story would be the story of the good life. The same story, told differently, is the story of the virtuous person. People have been contributing to this story for thousands of years. Contra Russell, most people already understand virtue and the good life, their understanding is simply and necessarily incomplete. This understanding can be improved, and we should strive to be lifelong learners in this matter, rather than finding a particular understanding and then clinging to it out of a desire for a false certainty. A courageous virtue ethics is one that asks us to accept our inability to complete it, and the necessary day-to-day role that faith must play in filling in the gaps.

Learning as Adventure

Michael Oakeshott referred to philosophical reflection as “an adventure.” He probably wasn’t thinking an adventure of the Henry Morton Stanley variety. Still, who hasn’t had a moment in their education when they were introduced to something new that seemed to open up a whole range of new, exciting possibilities? An adventure is as good a way as any to think about  the process of learning, when it is going well; a journey in which the goals and destination are continuously revised in light of what is discovered along the way.

Our guide today will not be Oakeshott, but Hans-Georg Gadamer. Our goal will be to encourage both optimism and humility in what you can accomplish in your self-education these days, in light of the vast amounts of texts and other media that are always just a few clicks away.

Continue reading “Learning as Adventure”

Science is Persuasion


Even Heterodox Economics is Misguided

Earlier this week, Arnold Kling—who taught the first economics class I ever took—wrote a post comparing behaviorism in psychology to Samuelsonianism in economics. In his view, the chief failings of these approaches are an overemphasis on mechanistic models on the one hand, and a “blank slate” view of human nature on the other. For both reasons, he’s rereading Stephen Pinker, enemy of blank slate models and enthusiastic booster of computational, rather than mechanistic, models of cognition.

I argued that computational models are not different in kind from mechanistic ones, they are just more sophisticated. I pointed him towards works in the rhetoric of inquiry tradition, in particular Economics and Hermeneutics, an excellent collection edited by the late Don Lavoie and available for free online.

It seems that he’s now reading that very collection, which is great. However, I remember my own first encounter with this tradition of thought—through Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics—and I found it quite baffling at the time.

I think there are a lot of people educated in economics who sense that something is wrong in the house that Samuelson built. However, the tools that most heterodox schools have to offer—and here I include even most versions of the Austrian school—simply won’t help you see some of the fundamental errors of the mainstream view. At best the problems of the mainstream schools are replaced with more nuanced, subtle, and complex models that nevertheless share the same underlying characteristics.

This is the basis of McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists; they think they’ve moved beyond Samuelsonian limitations, when in fact they’ve simply subsumed the idea of an institution into a Samuelsonian framework. Thus instead of conveying meaning or providing frameworks of interpretation or shaping conjective reality, institutions are treated as structures of reward-and-punishment designed in just such a way to make utility maximizers cooperate with one another.

The writers in the Project On Rhetoric Of Inquiry, as well as hermeneutics and what Lavoie calls “the interpretative turn” in general, can be hard for outsiders of that tradition to get their head around. So this post will be my attempt to introduce one version of that line of thinking. My intended audience are primarily heterodox economists, but the argument will be relevant to economists and social scientists in general, and indeed any scientist or scholar.

Continue reading “Science is Persuasion”