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

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Wittgensteinian philosophical history

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One of the remarkable features of Wittgenstein’s thought is its startling lack of concern for or interest in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein apparently stated with pride that he had never read a word of Aristotle, and his occasional references to Heidegger and Kierkegaard suggest that he read them more as sources of poetic insight into the human condition than as sources of contestable philosophical theses.

When Wittgenstein writes critically of “philosophy” in his later writings—that is, when he is not using the term “philosophy” to refer to his own preferred mode of therapeutic problem-relief—he almost always seems to have in mind the kind of analytic-style philosophical problem-solving practiced by Cambridge philosophers such as Russell and Moore. It is unclear how he would criticize, or indeed if he would criticize, the sort of philosophical writing produced by other philosophical traditions, whether ancient or modern—or for that matter, non-Western or Western.

So, following up on previous posts on this topic (“Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?“), one way forward from the later Wittgenstein might simply be to ask: what would it be like to read other philosophical traditions through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later works? What would an encounter look like between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods and the dialogues of Plato, or the science of logic of Hegel? What might a therapeutic Wittgensteinian think about Heidegger’s ontological claims, or Derrida’s playfully evasive transcendentalist moves? What might Wittgenstein have to say about various figures in, say, Chinese or Indian philosophy?

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Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Deleuze’s production of concepts

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For those who find Wittgenstein’s critique of contemporary philosophical problem-solving compelling, but who resist the idea that philosophy should be nothing more than Wittgensteinian therapy, where can philosophy go?

Continuing from where an earlier post left off, one answer would be to agree with Gilles Deleuze that philosophy should be engaged in “the production of concepts.” This is very different from the puzzle-solving philosophy that Wittgenstein critiques. Whether this puzzle-solving is labeled by its practitioners as a form of analytic philosophy or an alternative to it, it is motivated by the attempt to discover the answers to philosophical problems. It assumes, against Wittgenstein, that there are correct answers to these problems, and that these answers can be determined by logical inference from the linguistic materials at hand, whether these materials come from intuition, natural science, or psychological experiment.

A philosophy based on the production of concepts, by contrast, would seek to create rather than discover, to make rather than find. It could be seen as dedicated to the creation of new “vocabularies,” in Richard Rorty’s use of the term. These new vocabularies might serve some of our ends better than the vocabularies we already use.

What kinds of vocabularies does Deleuze himself create?

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Philosophy

Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

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I’ve mentioned before my view that the later Wittgenstein, nearly three quarters of a century ago, persuasively showed the hopelessness of most of the linguistic puzzle-solving that dominates academic philosophy today. Wittgenstein’s later work shows why the puzzles cannot be solved, why there is no need to solve them, and why attempts to solve the puzzles will only lead to interminable philosophical disputes.

Of course, many professional philosophers seem unaware of Wittgenstein’s critique of what they do, or perhaps unable to understand the critique due to methodological blinders unwittingly slipped on during their training. At the very least, many professional philosophers seem unwilling to accept the implications of Wittgenstein’s critique for their own work. At this point, I doubt there’s much that anyone can say that will succeed in changing the minds of those philosophers who have already committed themselves to a life of the mind hopeless puzzle-solving.

My question here, and hopefully in a few subsequent posts, will be different. Leaving puzzle-solving philosophy to itself, I want to ask: for those who understand and accept Wittgenstein’s critique, what is philosophy supposed to do? Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

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