Economics, Philosophy, Politics

Thucydides and the Social Sciences (Autobiographical)

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This post offers a little piece of intellectual autobiography that I hope will place some other posts in a clearer light — especially the posts related to the later Wittgenstein, and the posts on economics. For me, it’s a chance to sort out some of my current thinking by considering what preceded it.

There was a time, shortly after my first exposure to the history of economic ideas, following years of being focused almost exclusively on the humanities, when I thought that what the scholarly world really needed was a kind of new grand unified theory of the social sciences. All I look for from a social science — from any science — is an increase in the power to predict and control nature in ways that serve our purposes, whatever they are. The intellectual run-up to the global financial crisis seemed to show that orthodox economics, as practiced by the world’s leading economists, was failing by this standard.

And economics appeared to be at the vanguard of the social sciences. If economics was driven by “physics envy” — the scientistic desire to emulate the mathematico-deductive rigor of theoretical physics — then other social sciences, such as political science, seemed to be afflicted with “economics envy.” But the global financial crisis called into question whether the emperor was wearing any clothes. Under such circumstances, it seemed to me, wasn’t it worth questioning the reigning assumptions? Might it not be time for some revolutionary science?

Once I began reading about the history of economic ideas, along with critiques of contemporary economic thought, my enthusiasm for this idea grew. To begin with, the secondary literature on economic thought is full of persuasive critiques of the intellectual underpinnings of a great deal of contemporary academic economics, especially the kind practiced in “freshwater” economics departments and by business school professors teaching finance. The more one reads about rational choice theory and the assumptions of quasi-omniscient, hyper-mathematical rationality that dominate so much of mainstream academic economics, the more the field seems ripe for a paradigm shift based on a skeptical rethinking of the basic phenomena under investigation.

In fact, it occurred to me that the predictive successes of modern economics, such as they are, might be largely attributable to the fact that when one is investigating human behavior related to money and closely related subjects — the core focus of economics as a subject matter — the single most important factor in human behavior is calculated self-interest, or, as economists sometimes call it, “rationality.” When making money, people will generally try to make as much as they can with as little effort as possible; when spending money, people will generally try to spend as little as they can for the greatest possible return; and so on. If you’re trying to predict money-related human behavior using as simple a model as possible, a model based on the assumption that individual actors are more or less rational agents (in the economic sense of rationality) is probably your best bet.

But even if you achieve good predictive results with this model in the context of money-related activity, this success obviously does not imply that rationality will always be the most useful model for predicting human behavior, especially in contexts less directly related to money, or where we have good reason to believe that non-pecuniary concerns may trump pecuniary ones.

For example, when we try to imagine what contemporary American political life would look like if all the political actors behaved purely based on calculated self-interest — without gaming the results ahead of time by redefining “self-interest” to include all sorts of ad hoc preferences and motivations that we would not ordinarily view as “self-interested” — the thought experiment leads to absurd results. Do we live in a world with no voters, where politicians run for office without any ideological commitments, tribal affiliations and moral commitments play no role, and officials attract the public’s support by offering generous populist benefits, such as lavish infrastructure and a guaranteed minimum income, with no concern for the deficit? Not at all. Many of the central features of our political life are phenomena that one would not expect to see if the relevant actors were behaving purely as rational actors — unless, again, the idea of rationality is transformed beyond recognition or usefulness.

So, when one discovers that the rational choice methodologies of economics have expanded, perhaps based partly on economics’ scientistic allure, to other domains in the social sciences, the case for a new grand unified theory of the social sciences seems even stronger. If the use of rational choice theory in economics invites skeptical questioning, the use of rational choice theory in, for example, political science — in so-called “public choice theory” — can sometimes seem not only absurd but useless. What unexpected predictive successes can public choice theory claim, against the countless instances where its models would lead us astray? The same could be asked of many rational-choice-based forays into sociology, such as the study of family life.

Certainly, focusing on calculated self-interest may help to dispel comforting illusions about human behavior — for example, if anyone thinks that crime results from some kind of mental pathology, it could certainly be useful to show the contexts in which rationality helps explain crime. But how many comforting illusions are there left to dispel today? Hasn’t the Machiavellian assumption of cold, calculating rationality as the driving force in all human behavior become our own dominant illusion — comforting us not by flattering our moral characters, but by flattering our cold-eyed realism, our courageous perceptiveness and freedom from childish illusions — even where an equally tractable alternative model might yield superior predictions?

With these thoughts in mind, I asked myself: why doesn’t someone develop a better alternative to rational choice theory that can displace its imperialistic role within the social sciences? Why, for example, doesn’t someone follow the lead of Thucydides, who recognized the great importance of self-interest to human behavior, but saw self-interest as one only one of human beings’ three central motivations — the other two being fear and honor?

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Philosophy

Philosophy “in the doldrums”

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According to an excerpt on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog, Harry Frankfurt has come to agree with this blog’s sense that contemporary academic philosophy is “in the doldrums”:

I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums.  Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field.  There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts.  In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke.  In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead.  Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines — and not only in Europe, but here as well.  And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

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Philosophy

Academic philosophy: not a reason-based discipline?

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As a follow-up to this blog’s earlier posts critiquing the lack of methodological self-awareness in mainstream academic philosophy (that is, analytic philosophy and its descendants), I wanted to quote another skeptical remark from Marcus Arvan at The Philosophers’ Cocoon. The remark appears in Arvan’s post on The Sociology of Philosophy:

Could it be, then, that this is how philosophy sometimes/often progresses: by largely arbitrary snowball-effects in which (A) a few thought-experiments/intuitions by a few famous people, (B) attract a few followers, which then (C) attract more followers, which then (D) marginalize people who do not share the dominant intuitions, thereby (E) leading the dominant class to conceive themselves as making progress on the basis of good arguments when, in reality, (F) the correct explanation of that “progress” is the aforementioned snowball effect (i.e. a self-reinforcing system of people with the “right intuitions” dominating/marginalizing those with “the wrong intuitions”)?

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Philosophy

More internal criticism of academic philosophy: Arvan on Graber

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Marcus Arvan at The Philosophers’ Coccoon provides another encouraging example of an academic philosopher criticizing problem-solving methods that continue to be pervasively, uncritically used within the profession today:

I read a really interesting paper today by Abraham Graber entitled, “Creating Truths By Winning Arguments: The Problem of Methodological Artifacts in Philosophy” (forthcoming in Synthese). The paper sort of [crystallizes] a worry that I’ve had about philosophical practice dating back at least to graduate school, and which I explored previously here and here: namely, that a whole lot of philosophy–just about anything having to do with conceptual analysis (including analytic metaphysics and meta-ethics)–is little more than philosophers (1) taking themselves to [be] discovering objective philosophical facts (i.e. what material objects are, what morality is, etc.), where what they’re really doing is (2) making more-or-less arbitrary semantic decisions to settle the semantics of fundamentally vague concepts that (3) objectively have no determinate satisfaction-conditions before those arbitrary semantic decisions are made.

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Philosophy

Peter Unger, Raymond Geuss, and internal criticism of academic philosophy

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In an earlier post criticizing the decadent state of academic philosophy today, and in particular the kind of mindless linguistic puzzle-playing that is celebrated each year in The Philosopher’s Annual, I mentioned that there are a few lonely voices within the academic philosophy community who have recently spoken out against the forms of intellectual blindness that I described. As two examples, I mentioned Peter Unger and Raymond Geuss. More on their recent books below.

But first, I should also note that there are several professional philosophers who have, over the years, published exegeses of the later Wittgenstein that could and should have been understood as devastating critiques of the way most academic philosophy is done today. Robert Fogelin and the great G.P. Baker (in his later writings) are two names that come to mind. There have also been a number of professional philosophers who offered deeply critical views of various aspects of academic philosophy — without attacking contemporary problem-solving methodologies as globally and resolutely as a “therapeutic” Wittgensteinian might do. Richard Rorty, for example, began his career as a mildly optimistic observer of “the linguistic turn” in philosophy, became disillusioned with more or less the entire project of modern epistemology in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and eventually criticized the truth-discovering pretensions of most philosophy since Plato by emphasizing the relativity of all philosophical problems to the contingent vocabularies in which the problems are stated. Appropriately, Rorty ended his career in a comparative literature department, leaving the puzzle-playing philosophers to themselves.

For the most part, however, I suspect that young people today who are interested in philosophy, skeptical, and might become internal critics of misguided philosophical methods are dissuaded from becoming philosophy professors in the first place. A friend who was considering applying to graduate school in philosophy once told me that a professor described what the graduate programs are looking for as follows: they want someone who will be able to “push the ball forward.” The professors want to know that their graduate students will engage with the professors’ problems in a productive way, participating in the same problem-solving methods that the professors use — for example, clarifying puzzles by drawing creative new distinctions involving obscure and highly technical philosophical concepts.

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Philosophy

What is wrong with academic philosophy today?

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The title of this post is actually sort of a joke, because it is so obvious what is wrong with academic philosophy today — and indeed what has been wrong for the last several decades — obvious to everyone but some academic philosophers. Unfortunately, those academic philosophers are largely the ones in charge.

When I say “academic philosophy,” I have in mind the sort of mindless linguistic puzzle-playing celebrated each year in the Philosopher’s Annual. The most acclaimed and ostensibly serious work being undertaken by professional philosophers in most English-speaking philosophy departments today.

Of course, there is a great deal of very important and valuable work being done by relatively professionally marginal figures who happen to remain employed by departments of philosophy, and by philosophers who work in professionally second-class fields such as the history of philosophy and political philosophy. Countless academics working on philosophy outside of philosophy departments continue to do real intellectual work. And who knows, maybe the latest generation of young philosophers is already rejecting the kind of virtuosic non-thinking on display in the Philosopher’s Annual. Maybe they’ll remake the face of professional philosophy — if any of them succeed in getting jobs.

Then, one day, we may refer to “the Philosopher’s Annual style of philosophy” in the same way that we now refer to “the fireside poets” — the once-dominant, now unread tradition of late-19th century genteel poetry that preceded and was overthrown by American modernism.

But for the time being, the professional core of academic philosophy remains, as it has been for my entire lifetime, occupied by work that is characterized by a very unphilosophical lack of questioning toward its own pervasive methodological weaknesses. Nearly every non-historical paper collected in each year’s Philosopher’s Annual, for example, whatever its subject area or narrowly defined school of thought, consists of attempts to solve linguistic puzzles that are designed so as to be unsolvable. The ways in which these problems are unsolvable are clear and have been clear for nearly a century. Even before so-called “analytic” philosophy came to dominate Anglophone philosophy departments, Ludwig Wittgenstein described in simple, uncontroversial terms how philosophical problems of the kind addressed in the Philosopher’s Annual arise, why so many philosophers feel compelled to solve them, and why such solutions do not exist. Nearly before the philosophical puzzle-solving conversation began, the later Wittgenstein had definitively ended it.

Yet the philosophers at the center of the profession apparently remain oblivious to this fact. The general idea seems to be that Wittgenstein’s critique of their methods can’t be correct — because then they would all be wasting their time — and that can’t possibly the case… By showing that the kind of philosophical problem-solving that fills the top academic journals is a hopeless endeavor, Wittgenstein “proves too much,” therefore must be wrong, and can be safely ignored.

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