Who Will Speak For Us?

Storytelling is central to the human experience. It sets us apart from other animals to almost the same degree as language itself.

As stories are generated and retold, we develop a kind of grammar. These days, we call the units of that grammar tropes. I have a trope in mind that I wanted to begin with, but for once TV tropes appears to have failed me. There’s one that’s in the ballpark of what I’m going for, but not exactly there. But I’m betting you’ll find this familiar.

Imagine a father who has very particular expectations for their son. Beyond expectations, he have been excited by the prospect of his son taking over the family business, or becoming a doctor or lawyer, or starting a family, ever since he was born. The father has invested an enormous amount of emotional energy into this vision. The son wants to go to college, or wants to be an actor, or doesn’t want to have kids, or is gay. When he confronts his father about it, it is a tremendous blow. His father is completely devastated to lose this story of his son’s life that he had held onto so tightly. But the father pulls himself together, and gives his blessing, even if it isn’t needed. Even if the son is still dependent on the father materially, the father respects his son’s autonomy too much to try and strong-arm him into the path he wanted.

The son goes on to pursue his chosen path, and the father never once gives him grief about it again. But he also never entirely recovers from the disappointment. Perhaps it is only a lingering sadness, perhaps it becomes a more acute depression as the years go on. But he genuinely cares about and respects his son, and never makes him feel as though this depression is his son’s fault. Perhaps he skillfully conceals it; perhaps the son lives in a distant city so the visits are few enough that not much skill is required. But he takes pride in the life that his son has, even if he still can’t help letting the glimmering dream of what could have been weigh on him.

A Story of a Different Kind

Now, let’s tell that again in the language of economics.

The father had strong preferences when it came to how his son was to live. His son’s life choices thus constituted an externality on him, positive or negative. When given the opportunity to attempt to credibly threaten to impose costs should his son deviate from his preferred path, the father revealed through his action that he more highly valued his preference for being respectful than his preference for the specific life plan he had in mind for his son. This choice entailed certain costs but it gave him the most value out of his available options, as it must have if he made the choice voluntarily.

Has rather a different feel to it, doesn’t it?

At my request, Mark Lutter offered a few critical comments on Deirdre McCloskey’s latest paper. I’m not going to get into the comments on economic growth; for one thing, I’m not all that qualified to. For another, McCloskey hasn’t really made her positive case there yet. But I want to address his last three points, especially the last one:

McCloskey is arguing that economics should embrace speech, stories, shame, and the Sacred. I agree. Economists should also take culture more seriously, take beliefs and morality more seriously, and rely less on complex mathematics. However, economists can do all that just fine within the existing framework.

Related is his sixth point that “she argues that things like identity and morality cannot be captured by neo-classical economics, but gives little reason as to why.” I would say that “cannot” is probably the wrong word. You can capture anything within any framework, if you desire to—but beyond a certain point it often means assuming the can opener.

What McCloskey means when she makes statements about “the immense literature on ethics since 2000 BCE” or “the exact and gigantic literature about ideas, rhetoric, ideology, ceremonies, metaphors, stories, and the like since the Greeks or the Talmudists or the Sanskrit grammarians” she is advocating learning from the humanities. She is saying that there has been a conversation about human nature and culture and ideas for thousands of years, and economists would do well to familiarize themselves with it. If they’re going to dismiss it, they ought to dismiss it from a place of knowledge rather than because it is the path of least resistance.

I think the central point of debate here is what should be integrated into what. Should the sacred be integrated into “the existing framework” in economics, or should the existing framework be integrated into something bigger, older, and richer? I think you know my answer, and McCloskey’s.

The story I started out with is based on insights drawn from a storytelling tradition that I have been immersed in since practically before I spoke my first word. You tell me: do you want to reduce that story to the version that can be accommodated by the existing framework in economics? Or do you want to use the insights of economics without giving up on what is at work in the older tradition?

The Conversation of Social Science

“Cross-discipline” is a phrase used to describe the collaboration across the traditional boundaries between academic schools, but usually still within social science. It’s the talk among economists, sociologists, and psychologists, to name a few prominent fields that come to mind.

It’s this conversation that I thought of when I read Mark’s seventh point:

Seventh, and this applies to McCloskey more broadly than just this paper, what basis does she have for abandoning central economic assumptions. For ideas to matter either preferences are not constant (what she seems to be arguing given her jabs at de gustibus) or rational expectations is false. You cannot have all constant preferences, rational expectations, and ideas mattering. Given the importance of constant preferences and rational expectations the burden of proof is on McCloskey to change methodological assumptions. This burden of proof is especially difficult to reach in complex problems, and she fails to meet it.

Setting to the side whether McCloskey provided enough evidence, it seems odd to say that the burden is on those who are challenging assumptions just because those assumptions are important. Especially since constant preferences is one of the most notorious assumptions of economics outside of the field. To quote Daniel Kahneman:

To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish , and that their tastes are anything but stable. Our two disciplines seemed to be studying different species, which the behavioral economist Richard Thaler later dubbed Econs and Humans.

Kahneman and Thaler are one side of a big conversation that started in the 70s between psychologists and economists, the impact of which is still being felt in the latter field today. Psychologists like Kahneman can point to experimental evidence indicating that people’s preferences are not stable.

Economists, especially the institutional and Austrian variety, argue that taking people outside of institutional and cultural contexts into the highly specific environment of (usually) a college lab can only yield limited insights. Moreover, they point out how microeconomics makes the best predictions in specific domains, most concretely in auctions or in finance. And those predictions rest on the assumption of stable preferences, among others.

The categorical nature of the debate as I have witnessed it can grow tiring. Personally, I am persuaded by the “of course preferences aren’t stable” line of argument; I find it hard to believe that the changes I’ve witnessed in people in my own life are merely anecdotal. On the other hand, preferences must be stable to some degree; while not completely unchanging, nothing would get done if they were just constantly cycling.

So my question is: to what degree are preferences stable. Or more methodologically significant: what degree of stability is required to explain the empirical phenomena that line up with economic theory? I’m sure there’s a literature on this, but I confess to not having read it. Perhaps Mark or a reader can point me in the right direction.

More Human Than H(u) = α + βM + γA + δN + ε

But the most important disagreement is right there in Mark’s sixth point:

A simple explanation of identity and morality is they serve to signal in group status. People want to trade with people who have a shared set of expectations about what constitutes fair trade. More importantly, they want to live with people with a shared understanding of permissible violence. Because the most convincing person is one who believes what they are saying, identity and morality are a central part of humanity.

This is the exact sort of thinking that McCloskey is going after.

A relevant passage from her paper:

I get the price theory: price and property, the variables of prudence, price, profit, the Profane as I have called them, move people. But the point here is that they are also moved by the S variables of speech, stories, shame, the Sacred, and by the use of the monopoly of violence by the state, the legal rules of the game and the dance in the courts of law, the L variables. Most behavior, B, is explained by P and S and L, together:

B = α + βP + γS + δL + ε

Signaling, avoiding violence, setting terms of trade; these are P variables or possible P and L variables. McCloskey doesn’t deny them. But if Mark thinks he’s “embracing” S variables “within the existing framework”, he’s wrong. He’s simply reduced them to P (and possibly also L) variables.

This can perhaps be understood by reference to an earlier Sweet Talk conversation on the subject of honor and honoring. Sam, ever the economist, pointed out that honorable behavior is often socially desirable. As a result, we confer honors upon people who have proven themselves to be honorable; we give them medals in public, we announce their names on a list, sometimes we even erect monuments. This serves to subsidize the positive externalities to honorable behavior.

I agreed, but quickly added that there is such a thing as honor. Honor is not simply about producing social value—not that Sam every claimed as much, mind you! No, honor is about doing the right thing, even if you are not honored for it, even if it results in a material or emotional loss. And the conversation, reaching back before the Greek tragedians and up to the present from thinkers such as Rosalind Hursthouse, is full of people arguing that you should do the right thing even when it is in some way spiritually or morally deforming. If the only options in front of you are all terrible ones, you still must do what a good person ought to do, given those options.

Rather than whether or not S variables can be integrated into economics, the real debate is whether they exist at all. McCloskey’s claim, which I believe, is that attempts to translate S variables the way Mark did is the same as writing them off entirely for P variables. In an otherwise marvelous paper, Vlad Tarko errs in seeming to think that McCloskey herself makes a symmetrical mistake by assuming that there are only S variables, or that they are the only ones that matter. In fact, The Bourgeois Virtues is simply about making the case that there are S variables at all, in the face of a discipline that effectively rejects it.

Tarko takes an approach that I think McCloskey would approve of, speaking of “incentive-invariant” ideas and culture. It reminded me of this section of her paper:

The equation is not wishy-washy or unprincipled or unscientific. The S and L variables are the conditions under which the P variables work, and the P variables modify the effects of the S and L variables. Of course. For example, the conservative argument that laws serve as education would connect L causally to S, by a separate equation. Or again, when the price the Hudson Bay Company offered Indians in Canada for beaver pelts was high enough, the beaver population was depleted, in line with P-logic. But S-logic was crucial, too, making the P-logic relevant. As Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis explain, “Indian custom regarding the right to hunt for food and other aspects of their `Good Samaritan’ principle mitigated against the emergence of strong trespass laws and property rights in fur-bearing animals; conflict in the areas around the Hudson Bay hinterland contributed to an environment that was not conducive to secure tenure, and attitudes towards generosity and even a belief in reincarnation may have played a role” in running against better P-logic rules that would have preserved the beaver stock.

What this is all getting at is that there are true, internal goods as well as external ones. Commitment to particular internal goods both face external constraints, and have implications for the shape of some of those constraints. S variables influence P variables and are influenced by them in turn.

The traditional agrarian way of life has been largely washed away by the tide of the Great Enrichment in the countries where it has advanced the furthest. But the Amish have largely preserved it in their communities. They have done this in part through a commitment to shared values; S variables. They also have a very unique way of governing their communities, and are highly committed to enforcement through practices such as shunning; L variables. They have also had to buy up farmland in order to maintain their way of life; as that strategy has been exhausted they’ve had to allow a larger and larger fraction to work off the farm and even open businesses; P variables.

McCloskey’s equation is, of course, just a useful metaphor. As David Weinberger paraphrased:

As Umberto Eco says, there are many ways to carve a cow but none of them include a segment that features a snout connectd to the tail.

McCloskey’s three variables are a useful way of carving the cow, as is “the existing framework” in economics. But none should stand on their own, and (to stretch this metaphor a bit further than its usefulness) all end up discarding large segments of the original animal.

The best approach to understanding the human animal is to take in the whole conversation, not just economics and not just social science. For McCloskey as well as Michael Oakeshott, the voice of poetry, one of the oldest voices, deserves a place. Personally, I stand with them.

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Individual Volition and Conjective Reality

A couple of weeks ago, Nathan continued what as been a very fruitful conversation on the subject of individual responsibility and group decisionmaking. The first couple of paragraphs give you the gist:

I don’t agree with Adam that individual responsibility emerged within a tradition, or only ever existed within a space framed by groups. Individual responsibility may be a relic of the state of nature, if one ever existed.

The Durkheim and Foucault schools seem to rightly identify that the individual is shaped by structures and institutions, wherever the individual does not practice volition. But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.

For Nathan, individual responsibility truly is individual; in origin and in operation. He acknowledges that institutions influence individuals, but treats those institutions as external things, acting upon otherwise autonomous individuals who hold “volition over the shaping of self in every respect.”

Against this, I want to argue that most of what makes us particularly human is what Deirdre McCloskey calls conjective; that is, existing neither in the subject nor in the object but in the group. She draws heavily on John Searle’s institutional ontology; her “conjective” fact maps to his “institutional” as opposed to “brute” fact.

But Searle’s analysis needs another word, which one might coin as “conjective,” what we know together as against what we know inside an individual head or what we imagine to be God’s objectivity. The conjective is a result of human agreement or acceptance. The Latin is cum + iactus, that is, “thrown together,” as after all we humans are in our mammalian cuddling and especially in our conversations.

One of Nathan’s fears is that if we accept the centrality of groups, people will never take individual responsibility or initiative. Essentially, they will use the centrality of groups as an excuse never to do anything themselves, but if no one does anything then by definition the group won’t be doing anything, either. On the subject of virtue, he says:

[V]irtue is best exemplified and then caught, rather than taught. But who will take the initiative to demonstrate? Particularly when the students might be few, and might not absorb the lesson apart from repeated demonstrations? Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.

Nathan hasn’t fleshed out his model too much, which makes it difficult to respond in too much detail. Suffice to say I also believe that individual responsibility and initiative matter, but I think the very idea of such things is primarily understood conjectively, rather than subjectively.

The idea that the acknowledgement of the group, of “man with man” (as Martin Buber describes the “fact of human existence” and McCloskey quotes approvingly), as a hindrance to responsibility remind me of a similar criticism of Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott argued that politics should be about seeking “intimations” for action from inside of a political tradition. Critics argued that this amounted to no recommendation at all. He responded:

The critic who found ‘some mystical qualities’ In this passage leaves me puzzled: It seems to me an exceedingly matter-of-fact description of the characteristics of any tradition-the Common Law of England, for example. the so-called British Constitution. the Christian religion, modern physics, the game of cricket, shipbuilding.

Clarifying with a sports example:

Again, is Mr N. A. Swanson all at sea when he argues in this fashion about the revolutionary proposal that the bowler in cricket should be allowed to ‘throw’ the ball: ‘the present bowling action has evolved as a sequence, from underarm by way of round-arm to over-arm, by successive legislation of unorthodox actions. Now, I maintain that the “throw” has no place in this sequence .. .’? Or, is Mr G. H. Fender arguing without a standard or criterion, or is he merely expressing a ‘hunch’, when he contends that the ‘throw’ has a place in this sequence and should be permitted? And is it so far fetched to describe what is being done here and elsewhere as ‘exploring the intimations’ of the total situation?

Individual responsibility looks very much like the argument over throwing in cricket, or the manner in which evidence is presented in a common law court. There is a gigantic conjective background that frames any act of individual volition. One cannot conceive of virtue without language, the consensus that bravery, restraint, wisdom, charity, fairness, and similar qualities, are in fact worthy of praise. Moreover, virtue ethics as a specific intellectual tradition is itself a vast conjective enterprise.

Where Nathan may be wary is with the idea that people treat the conjective as given, but McCloskey strongly emphasizes that quite unlike the objective or even the subjective, the conjective is contestable and constantly being renegotiated.

Searle argues persuasively that a society is glued together by conjective facts of the sort “X counts as Y in context C.” Thus, a clergyman saying “I thee wed” counts as marrying two people in the context of a properly constituted marriage ceremony. A $20 bill counts as legal tender in the context of the territories of the United States. A ball going over the goal line counts as a goal in the context of a soccer game. As Stanley Fish so often notes, of course, such conjective facts are always contestable. Objective facts (“water is two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen”) or subjective facts (“Beckham intends to score a goal”) are not. The physical facts of the world and the psychological states of human minds are “brute,” to extend Searle’s word, in the sense of being incontestable in their very nature, their “ontology” as the philosophers say. Physical constraints such as the law of gravity and utility such as a great love for vanilla ice cream are not the sort of facts we can quarrel about once we have grasped in a humanistic inquiry their nature, their “qualia,” as the philosophers put is. All we can do then is measure, if we can.

The conjective by contrast is always contestable and always in that sense ethical, that is, about “deontic status,” in Searle’s vocabulary, “deontic” being about what we ought to do (the Greek means “being needful”). The clergyman might be argued to be not properly authorized to perform the marriage (look at the long controversy about gay marriage), the definition of “U.S. territory” might be ambiguous (embassies abroad?), the goal might be disputed. If any part of the ball breaks the plane of the goal line is it a goal? Was the linesman in a position to judge?

What I have been groping for with my pieces on group responsibility, and what McCloskey’s “conjective” supplies theoretical resources for, is the idea that we are individually responsible for the extent to which we either contest or support a given conjective fact.

Thus, democracy is imperfect, and does not really aggregate preferences, but is that grounds for abandoning the enterprise? I say not. I say the American project is still worthy of our commitment. Making such a commitment just is to take responsibility for your role as citizen, member of your community, neighbor. It is to take ownership of your own influence, however small, on our conjective reality. And in practice it involves the exact sort of shouldering of burdens and public mindedness that Nathan calls for. But it also involves participation in politics—as voters as well as in other roles, which require individuals to fill them.

If I’m lucky enough to get Nathan to reply to this, here are some questions I would like him to answer:

  • What is the relationship of the individual to things like language and social contexts with “deontic” meaning?
  • Are the latter merely external things that an individual takes as given, or is their relationship deeper than that?
  • Do you forsake politics entirely?
  • What is your ideal outcome; what does a polity look like when all of the individuals adopt your radical individualist ethic?

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Michael Oakeshott, Critical Theorist

Michael Oakeshott is often cast as the representative conservative philosopher. I think this is a mistake, one I blame on Oakeshott himself. Taking Oakeshott and his admirers at their word, Jason took a look at Oakeshott’s version of conservatism and came away wondering what was going on there. The description of conservatism that Oakeshott offers is so broad and generic that, as Jason points out, you could fit just about anyone in there—including Karl Marx.

Most people who encounter Oakeshott do so through his most popular collection, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. People like Jason and myself who are more familiar with Hayek are likely to react well to the titular essay. It seems, at first reading, to boil down to something very Hayekian—modern politics is excessively rationalistic and reductionist, but reason is only a tool that works in a context defined by an enormous, non-rational background. By tradition. And Oakeshott even takes a swipe at Hayek; of The Road to Serfdom he remarks “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” More Hayekian than Hayek!

But if you actually read the whole collection (at 600 pages this is a rarity) it slowly becomes evident that something else is going on. The section on Hobbes seems like a contradiction to the sections on rationalism—who is more rationalist than Hobbes? The man gave us the myths of the social contract and the state of nature.

A couple of years ago I finally did read the whole collection, and I was so intrigued that I did some secondary reading. Turns out that Oakeshott came of intellectual age inside the British idealist school, an offshoot of the German idealists. I don’t want to get into all of that and I’m sure I couldn’t do it justice, but suffice to say that pegging Oakeshott as “the conservative with the criticism of rationalism” is not really doing him or his project justice.

 

Custom and Rhetoric

I think that Oakeshott is best understood as a critical theorist. Only not the sort who believe that they can stand outside of ideology and convention in order to deconstruct those things and make them anew. Oakeshott, like McCloskey (who has read him and references him frequently), understands that you can’t criticize anything unless you’re already inside a community of rhetoric of some sort.

If you want to begin to understand Oakeshott, my advice is to go past the beginning of Rationalism in Politics, which everyone has read, and instead go straight to the back. The last two essays, “The Tower of Babel” and “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” are much more representative of what Oakeshott is all about.

The former is not so drastic a deviation from what one would expect from the author of “Rationalism in Politics.” In “The Tower of Babel” he distinguishes between two idealized versions of moral orders, one which unreflectively follows established customs, and one which is self-conscious and critical. He describes the customs-based order as follows:

The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives; conduct is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solutions; there is no weighing up of alternatives or reflection on consequences, no uncertainty, no battle of scruples. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up.

The second order is fundamentally self-conscious.

The second form of the moral life we are to consider may be regarded as in many respects the opposite of the first. In it activity is determined, not by a habit of behaviour, but by the reflective application of a moral criterion. It appears in two common varieties: as the selfconscious pursuit of moral ideals, and as the reflective observance of moral rules.

He continues:

Normally the rule or the ideal is determined first and in the abstract; that is, the first task in constructing an art of behaviour in this form is to express moral aspirations in words-in a rule of life or in a system of abstract ideals. This task of verbal expression need not begin with a moral de omnibus dubitandum; but its aim is not only to set out the desirable ends of conduct, but also to set them out clearly and unambiguously and to reveal their relations to one another.  Secondly, a man who would enjoy this form of the moral life must be certain of his ability to defend these formulated aspirations against criticism. For, having been brought into the open, they will henceforth be liable to attack. His third task will be to translate them into behaviour, to apply them to the current situations of life as they arise. In this form of the moral life, then, action will spring from a judgment concerning the rule or end to be applied and the determination to apply it. The situations of living should, ideally, appear as problems to be solved, for it is only in this form that they will receive the attention they call for. And there will be a resistance to the urgency of action; it will appear more important to have the right moral ideal, than to act.

The essay is not intended to pit each of these styles against the other; instead, Oakeshott believes that each has its strength and the best moral orders are a combination of both. Reason and rationality are not to be done away with entirely because of the inherent superiority of unarticulated knowledge and custom. Rather, reason and critical reflection have their value only when they are properly situated within the much broader context of tradition. The first type of moral order provides flexibility and responsiveness to a far broader range of scenarios; the second type allows for self-conscious reconstruction towards specific ideals that the first order may drift away from over time.

“Rationalism in Politics,” properly understood, is not a screed against reason or rationalism per se, but an argument that we have gone way too far in one direction. Oakeshott implores us to move towards a better balance, to recognize the value of the tacit and the contingent over the articulated and the universal. But notice what he’s doing: the very act of talking about the tacit involves self-consciously constructing an ideal form. Oakeshott could not ask us to get rid of self-consciousness entirely, because the very act of doing so requires that very self-consciousness.

And earlier in the collection, in “Political Education,” Oakeshott spoke of the “ideological style” of politics, which maps perfectly to the self-conscious moral order. Here’s how he describes John Locke, whom he places within the ideological style:

[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript, and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending to their arrangements-a brilliant abridgment of the political habits of Englishmen.

Ideology—and political philosophy—merely abridge a living tradition, rendering it more accessible and possibly more transmittable. But something is lost in the abridging, and so too—therefore—in the transmission. Nothing beats the real thing, but the real thing takes a very long time to grow, and there’s no guarantee about what a given tradition is going to grow into. This context makes coherent Oakeshott’s partiality for Hobbes, which seems so confusing after just finishing “Rationalism in Politics.” Hobbes, like Locke, is abridging tradition. In his introduction to Leviathan, he says:

Leviathan is a myth. the transposition of an abstract argument into the world of the imagination. In it we are made aware at a glance of the fixed and simple centre of a universe of complex and changing relationships. The argument may not be the better for this transposition, and what it gains in vividness it may pay for in illusion. But it is an accomplishment of art that Hobbes, in the history of political philosophy, shares only with Plato.

Where you really see Oakeshott in his element—and where most of the readers who read the front of the book but not the back are likely to be out of their element, myself included—is in the last essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.” Of all his essays, it’s the one I feel I have to most to learn from and the hardest time understanding. But my reading, including the supplemental book I mentioned above, is that Oakeshott felt that pragmatists and logical positivists had excessively narrowed the scope of public conversation.

To simplify to an unjust extent, I would summarize Oakeshott’s “voices” as follows:

  • The practical voice is concerned with effectiveness based satisfying the self’s desires.
  • The voice of science is concerned with “the world understood in respect of its independence of our hopes and desires, preferences and ambitions”; with rational systems we construct in the quest to gain that understanding.
  • The voice of poetry, which is concerned with delight and contemplation for its own sake.

But what is the conversation?

What I have called the conversation of mankind is, then, the meeting-place of various modes of imagining; and in this conversation there is, therefore, no voice without an idiom of its own: the voices are not divergences from some ideal, non-idiomatic manner of speaking, they diverge only from one another. Consequently, to specify the idiom of one is to discern how it is distinguished from, and how it is related to the others.

His concern is that poetry has been marginalized despite being an important and enriching part of what makes us human. Moreover, he feels the conversation has become too narrow and too stagnant in general. Now, rereading this essay after having read some McCloskey and discussed Habermas a little with our Sam Hammond, this line jumps out at me:

To rescue the conversation from the bog into which it has fallen and to restore to it some of its lost freedom of movement would require a philosophy more profound than anything I have to offer.

This seems—with my admittedly very limited understanding of it—to be as clear a statement of purpose for critical theory as one could hope for.

 

Empty Conservatism from Burke on Down

Jason accused Oakeshott’s conservatism of being “empty“. I think this is true, and that Oakeshott’s attempt to appropriate the word was misguided. Oakeshott has a tendency to deconstruct things down to such generic pieces that it takes a lot of building back up to get anywhere meaningful again. For instance, look at how he starts to talk about the voice of poetry:

By ‘poetry’ I mean the activity of making images of a certain kind and moving about among them in a manner appropriate to their character.

OK…and that means what, exactly? In this case, he goes on to build it up into something quite meaningful. In the case of conservatism, Jason’s criticism rings true—you could put just about anyone in there. Not his best work.

In fact this is a problem with many of the thinkers who position themselves as traditionalism, but present tradition as a sort of black box. Edmund Burke is the poster boy for traditionalism, which drives Alasdair MacIntyre crazy because Burke’s substantive positions were in fact exceedingly liberal for his day. He believed in the American republic. He was an advocate of property, trade, and commerce just as much as his contemporary, Adam Smith. All of this was not exactly traditional, even in England. He was very much a man of his moment.

But he spoke of the “general bank and capital of nations and of ages,” meaning tradition, and so he is called a traditionalist. But neither he nor Oakeshott are traditionalists in any more meaningful sense than post-modernists who believe in hermeneutic circles and the like. Burke opposed the French Revolution, and Oakeshott (I assume) voted Tory, and so we don’t tend to lump them in with that lot, who historically have been either Marxist or some watered down post-Marxist. But there really isn’t anything inherently conservative about their “traditionalist” philosophies.

I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which they can be lumped with your garden variety post-modernist. Oakeshott is much more in the tradition of Protagoras of Abdera than the tradition of Heidegger.

In any case I concede to Jason’s point—which he intended as a barb—that Oakeshott’s take on conservatism doesn’t really leave much behind that anyone would recognize.

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Love of Wisdom

I asked: do we need philosophy to live a good life or flourish as a social whole?

Chris and Sam H provided excellent answers. In addition to their direct responses, I think Sam H’s post on aesthetics and art also helps us approach something like an answer.

As far as I’m concerned Protagoras (as portrayed by Plato) had this all figured out about two and a half millenia ago:

Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life. Mother and nurse and father and tutor are vying with one another about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand what is being said to him: he cannot say or do anything without their setting forth to him that this is just and that is unjust; this is honourable, that is dishonourable; this is holy, that is unholy; do this and abstain from that.

Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a pupil of ethics, from the time we can understand words to our passing from this world. This the world seen by Burke and by Oakeshott; a world thick with ethical prescriptions and corrections and contested intuitions. Chris puts it like this:

I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.

Emphasis added by me.

This all closely parallels the earlier conversation about art. I made the case that art appreciation is a situated, institutional thing, possible only as part of a community. My brother David thought that there must be more to it than this, just as Socrates rejected the soft socialness of Protagoras’ ethics. Sam H played the peacekeeper by bringing underlying, to some extent pre-social emotions into the picture in addition to the Protagorean framework.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

A Humean or Smithian moral sentimentalist perspective added to a Protagorean and Oakeshottian thick traditionalist perspective is, in short, a very good first approximation of the reality on the ground.

But to come back around to the original question again, does philosophy have a role to play within that reality?

I think so, and so did Protagoras. He taught ethics and charged for the privilege. Thinking it through, this shouldn’t seem so odd—after all, language’s reality on the ground is basically identical, and yet we still have English teachers. Certainly people can speak English without English teachers, but yet we expect English teachers to instill certain conventions, certain norms.

Ethics are contingent and traditional but philosophy can play a role in making these contingent traditions give an account of themselves.

I think Deirdre McCloskey’s account of the clerisy, her word for the writerly intellectual class, is something like what I have in mind. By her reckoning, they are supposed to help out by clarifying and providing coherent (but not Platonically self-sufficient) frameworks that help people both in making evaluations and simply in making sense of their lives. By her reckoning, the class of people has been asleep at the wheel (or worse, drunk and hostile) since at least 1848.

Her call to action goes as follows:

We need to revive a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora.

I knew as soon as I read these words that I did not merely agree with them, but wanted to take action. I wanted to do philosophy, to contribute to the revival of that “serious ethical conversation”.

Sweet talk is one part of that effort, and I am grateful, here in week three, for the contributions everyone here has made so far.