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:
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.
My fellow Sweet Talker Paul offered some thoughts on moral objectivity this week. It was not so long ago that I was looking for this very sort of answer to this very question. As few as two, perhaps even one and a half years ago, I might have quibbled with the details but agreed with the spirit of the piece. Eight years ago I took a stab at something like it, though much less sophisticated.
Lately it is not the substance of the answer that I struggle the most with. It is the question itself: is morality objective or subjective? Even intersubjectivity seems dissatisfactory, when most simply treat it as either one or the other–either pseudo-objectivity, or just as arbitrary as plain old subjectivity.
In what follows I will offer, if not an answer, then a picture, an attempt to portray how matters appear. I am not yet at a stage where I could tell you the question to which this picture is a provisional answer.
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.
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.
The answer used to seem obvious to me. I was of one mind with Wittgenstein:
For we can avoid unfairness or vacuity in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as a sort of yardstick; not as a preconception to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)
But to Aristotelians and Platonists, the model appears to belong to reality rather than being some separate thing we construct as a yardstick. And to Heidegger and Gadamer, preconceptions are front and center in establishing the conditions of understanding.
I wandered through conceptual murkiness as I attempted to understand these various lines of thought. When I encountered the Wittgenstein quote above, a particular conception of the model came sharply into focus.
In what follows, I will argue that Wittgenstein is right, but—as he would no doubt have happily conceded—incomplete in his treatment of models. I will integrate it into Heidegger’s notion of the fore-structure of understanding, which makes up our hermeneutic situation. I will try to avoid being overly technical—you can think of the hermeneutic situation as your standpoint, including your prejudices as well as the traditions of thought and practice in which you are embedded, and specifically how those things pre-form your interpretations.
A newborn does not construct reality from first premises or observe a neutral array of objects which must be interpreted. A baby is born into a set of natural relations, especially with the parents and especially with the mother.
Babies don’t have language pressed on them; they instinctively seek it out. Once they find it, they begin soaking it up like a sponge.
Everyone, whether an infant, a child, a teenager, an adult, or the elderly, are thrown into a situation full of significance. Life resembles a game in which both the rules and the purpose are hinted at but never revealed. We encounter most objects in their perceived relation to the game of life. The scissors in our desk in elementary school are not just some meaningless matter; its shape and its location in our desk already hint that it has some specific purpose.
The reason that the rules and purpose of the game are never completely revealed is that they are influenced—I hesitate to go as far as to say “determined”—by the playing of the game itself.
A lot of the game is mere doing—actually using the scissors to cut paper, going to school, sitting at your desk. But a great deal of the game is telling, or saying, or listening—which of course is a kind of doing, but a very special kind.
A community is sustained by a conjective web of significances, including practices understood largely inarticulately, and narratives that give articulated (as well as implied) purposiveness to the world around us.
This web can be usefully thought of in terms of network clusters, rather than something uniform and discrete.
We play sub-games with subsets of the community which nevertheless have implications for the larger game of the community at large.
Sub-games and sub-communities are sources of experimentation with new ideas, rules, and practices. They are therefore the sources of both creativity and disorder for the community at large.
The moves we make can have very different significance depending on which game they’re interpreted as being a part of. A constructive move in a sub-game could be a destructive or counterproductive move if interpreted as a part of the larger game, or a different sub-game. The reverse is also possible.
The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority can be seen as arguing that our current overall situation pushes us to make moves that are considered constructive within our sub-games but are destructive in the larger game. But our current media environment has largely dissolved the walls between such games, so that they are carrying on as before but the moves can no longer be made within isolated sub-games. We tend to view this as good when the moves made by our ideological enemies in previously obscured sub-games are now observable to us, and vulnerable to attack. But the cumulative effect of everyone pursuing such a strategy is negation and nihilism.
Let’s hope that we’re able to adapt the game of life to our new information environment so that such a result is no longer fore-ordained.