Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’


[ht: cwc]


Lou Reed and Arthur Danto couldn’t have been more different. One used music to make us feel the contradictions occasioned by the desperate situations people find themselves in, while the other used philosophical language to make us think about what constitutes a work of art.

But they were also connected, at the very start: The Velvet Underground & Nico was produced by Andy Warhol (in 1967), while Warhol’s Brillo Box was the object that led Danto (in 1967, pdf) to argue that art is whatever the artworld says it is.


I can’t say I was ever fully satisfied by the answers Reed and Danto offered but my encounters with the work of both of them led me to feel and think about life, music, and art in new, unexpected ways. And the world is now a less interesting place without them.


Philosophers’ conceptions of economics are both a symptom of a crisis and an opportunity to exploit that crisis.

OK, that’s a pretty broad thesis (which would require, of course, a great deal of evidence). But I do think it holds in general, and it certainly is an apt characterization in the case of Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain. Their view is that, after the Great Crash of 2007-08, which economists for the most part failed to predict, the idea that economics is a science needs to be abandoned.

But economics has never been able to show the record of improvement in predictive successes that physical science has shown through its use of harmless idealizations. In fact, when it comes to economic theory’s track record, there isn’t much predictive success to speak of at all.

The fact that leading academic economists were completely unprepared for the crisis that broke out six years ago—they didn’t see it coming and, more importantly, failed to even include in their models the possibility that such a crisis might occur—certainly represents a crisis in and of economics. According to the official philosophy of economics, the criterion of success of theoretical and empirical work in economics is the ability (even when the underlying assumptions are unrealistic) to predict both the path of the economy and the effects of implementing different economic policies. On that score, most of mainstream economics has failed miserably.

That crisis of economic thought certainly created an opening for philosophers like Rosenberg and Curtain. If all were well in academic economics, there simply wouldn’t be an opportunity for philosophers of economics to comment on whether or not economics meets the standards of a science.

But it is also the case that philosophers such as Rosenberg and Curtain exploit the opportunity they’ve been offered by providing a particular philosophy of science, one that emphasizes prediction (a standard they consider to be satisfied elsewhere, like physics), and arguing that economics actually follows a different model.

Social and political philosophers have helped us answer this question, and so understand what economics is really all about. Since Hobbes, philosophers have been concerned about the design and management of institutions that will protect us from “the knave” within us all, those parts of our selves tempted to opportunism, free riding and generally avoiding the costs of civil life while securing its benefits. Hobbes and, later, Hume — along with modern philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick — recognized that an economic approach had much to contribute to the design and creative management of such institutions. Fixing bad economic and political institutions (concentrations of power, collusions and monopolies), improving good ones (like the Fed’s open-market operations), designing new ones (like electromagnetic bandwidth auctions), in the private and public sectors, are all attainable tasks of economic theory. . .

For the foreseeable future economic theory should be understood more on the model of music theory than Newtonian theory. The Fed chairman must, like a first violinist tuning the orchestra, have the rare ear to fine-tune complexity (probably a Keynesian ability to fine-tune at that). Like musicians’, economists’ expertise is still a matter of craft. They must avoid the hubris of thinking their theory is perfectly suited to the task, while employing it wisely enough to produce some harmony amid the cacophony.

In the end, Rosenberg and Curtain let mainstream economics off the hook, in the name of designing better institutions and fine-tuning the economy. That’s because they take the goal of economics as a given: to fix market imperfections.

What they don’t understand is that economics is not a singular science, with a singular object, but rather an agonistic field made up of a variety of theories and objects. There is neoclassical economics and Keynesian economics and Marxian economics, all of which have different objects. Economists who use those theories literally see different economies and associated economic problems and solutions. Economics is therefore a battleground and no amount of fine-tuning or craft serves to pick out the correct theory or approach. It is still the case that any attempt to “produce some harmony amid the cacophony” on the part of a neoclassical or Keynesian economist (e.g., by implementing rules-based monetary policy or supporting fiscal stimulus) presupposes an economy in which one group of economic actors appropriates the surplus created by another group. No amount of fine-tuning or craftsmanship solves that particular problem.

It is merely exploiting the current crisis in economics to argue otherwise.

As I explained back in April, I often suggest to students they read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It is particularly important for economics, a discipline in which many practitioners—both mainstream and heterodox—fetishize science and suffer from physics-envy.

John Naughton explains why, even though paradigm shift is “is probably the most used – and abused – term in contemporary discussions of organisational change and intellectual progress,” Kuhn’s book remains important as a challenge to Whig versions of the history and philosophy of science.

Kuhn’s version of how science develops differed dramatically from the Whig version. Where the standard account saw steady, cumulative “progress”, he saw discontinuities – a set of alternating “normal” and “revolutionary” phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst. These revolutionary phases – for example the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – correspond to great conceptual breakthroughs and lay the basis for a succeeding phase of business as usual. The fact that his version seems unremarkable now is, in a way, the greatest measure of his success. But in 1962 almost everything about it was controversial because of the challenge it posed to powerful, entrenched philosophical assumptions about how science did – and should – work.

Naughton, in contrast to many commentators, notes the importance of incommensurability in Kuhn’s approach:

But what really set the cat among the philosophical pigeons was one implication of Kuhn’s account of the process of paradigm change. He argued that competing paradigms are “incommensurable”: that is to say, there exists no objective way of assessing their relative merits. There’s no way, for example, that one could make a checklist comparing the merits of Newtonian mechanics (which applies to snooker balls and planets but not to anything that goes on inside the atom) and quantum mechanics (which deals with what happens at the sub-atomic level). But if rival paradigms are really incommensurable, then doesn’t that imply that scientific revolutions must be based – at least in part – on irrational grounds? In which case, are not the paradigm shifts that we celebrate as great intellectual breakthroughs merely the result of outbreaks of mob psychology?

In my experience, the idea that different paradigms or discourses (to use the Foucauldian term) are incommensurable—such that, for example, neoclassical and Marxian economic theories are radically different and literally incommensurable ways of looking at the world—challenges and undermines traditional ways of doing and teaching economics.

In that sense, Naughton is wrong: at least in economics, Kuhn’s approach to the history and philosophy of science is still remarkable.

Chart of the day

Posted: 27 June 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

This is one piece (parts of the so-called Continental tradition) of a much larger chart of the history of philosophy created by Simon Raper.

To cut a long story very short I’ve extracted the information in the influenced by section for every philosopher on Wikipedia and used it to construct a network which I’ve then visualised using gephi. . .

Each philosopher is a node in the network and the lines between them (or edges in the terminology of graph theory) represents lines of influence. The node and text are sized according to the number of connections. The algorithm that visualises the graph also tends to put the better connected nodes in the centre of the diagram so we the most influential philosophers, in large text, clustered in the centre.

I used to understand physics. Now, I don’t. Not at all.

I don’t understand dark energy and dark matter. And I don’t understand the latest “observation” of the Higgs boson in the data from the U.S. Tevatron accelerator before it was shut down. They’re beyond my 20-year-old (even then, partial and incomplete) understanding of physics.

I do, however, get the statistics:

  • Particle physics has an accepted definition for a “discovery”: a five-sigma level of certainty
  • The number of standard deviations, or sigmas, is a measure of how unlikely it is that an experimental result is simply down to chance rather than a real effect
  • Similarly, tossing a coin and getting a number of heads in a row may just be chance, rather than a sign of a “loaded” coin
  • The “three sigma” level represents about the same likelihood as tossing more than eight heads in a row
  • Five sigma, on the other hand, would correspond to tossing more than 20 in a row
  • With independent confirmation by other experiments, five-sigma findings become accepted discoveries

And I’m quite sympathetic to the the spontaneous philosophy of the physicists:

Most professional physicists would say that finding the Higgs in precisely the form that theory predicts would actually be a disappointment. Large-scale projects such as the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] are built with the aim of expanding knowledge, and confirming the existence of the Higgs right where we expect it – while it would be a triumph for our understanding of physics – would be far less exciting than not finding it. If future studies definitively confirm that the Higgs does not exist, much if not all of the Standard Model would have to be rewritten. That in turn would launch new lines of enquiry that would almost certainly revolutionise our understanding of the Universe, in much the same way as something missing in physics a century ago led to the development of the revolutionary ideas of quantum mechanics.

But I still have no idea what a bump in the data between 115 and 135 gigaelectronvolts looks like or what it would mean to rewrite the Standard Model.

Back when I studied in Brazil—in high school, in 1970, during the one of the most brutal years of the military dictatorship—a course on Moral and Civic Education was mandatory. Now, and since a law in 2008 creating “the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere,” philosophy courses are required of all high-school students.

That’s a lot of progress (and perhaps a bit less order), notwithstanding the many forms of opposition to the idea discussed by Carlos Fraenkel.*

Among the greatest skeptics of the 2008 law is José Arthur Giannotti, one of Brazil’s most respected academic philosophers. He is a close friend of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who vetoed the law when it was first proposed in 2001, after it had already been approved by the legislature. “Teaching philosophy to students who can hardly read and write,” Giannotti said in 2008, “is sad foolishness.”

Philosophy, of course, can be a mode of learning how to read and write—and to think. Not only Brazil but also the United States could use a lot of more of all three things.

* The motto inscribed on Brazil’s national flag, “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress) was apparently inspired by August Comte’s conception of positivism: L’amour pour principe et l’ordre pour base; le progrès pour but” (“Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal”).

Just this past semester, students in one of my classes wanted to know why they hadn’t been taught anything about economic methodology or the history of economic thought in any of the other courses they’d taken in economics.

The explanation I gave them was similar to what my colleague Philip Mirowski has recently written:

After a brief flirtation in the 1960s and 1970s, the grandees of the economics profession took it upon themselves to express openly their disdain and revulsion for the types of self-reflection practiced by ‘methodologists’ and historians of economics, and to go out of their way to prevent those so inclined from occupying any tenured foothold in reputable economics departments. It was perhaps no coincidence that history and philosophy were the areas where one found the greatest concentrations of skeptics concerning the shape and substance of the post-war American economic orthodoxy. High-ranking economics journals, such as the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Journal of Political Economy, declared that they would cease publication of any articles whatsoever in the area, after a prior history of acceptance.

Once this policy was put in place, and then algorithmic journal rankings were used to deny hiring and promotion at the commanding heights of economics to those with methodological leanings. Consequently, the grey- beards summarily expelled both philosophy and history from the graduate economics curriculum; and then, they chased it out of the undergraduate curriculum as well. This latter exile was the bitterest, if only because many undergraduates often want to ask why the profession believes what it does, and hear others debate the answers, since their own allegiances are still in the process of being formed. The rationale tendered to repress this demand was that the students needed still more mathematics preparation, more statistics and more tutelage in ‘theory’, which meant in practice a boot camp regimen consisting of endless working of problem sets, problem sets and more problem sets, until the poor tyros were so dizzy they did not have the spunk left to interrogate the masses of journal articles they had struggled to absorb.


The first book I ever bought (the first “serious” book, that is) was Herbert Marcuse’s An Essay on Liberation. I happened to find it in a book stall in Grand Central Station in 1969.

For me, it was an important event. I don’t think I had ever heard of Marcuse (certainly not in any of my high school courses), and I can’t say my first impression was all that positive (who did he think he was adding quotations in German without translation?), but here I thought was a serious thinker applauding the liberation movements around the world, from student radicals in the United States and Western Europe to anti-imperialist forces in Vietnam.

And then, in college, I read more of Marcuse: Reason and Revolution, Eros and Civilization, One Dimensional Man, and The Aesthetic Dimension. It all seems like such a long time ago, ideas from a different time, since Marcuse certainly fell out of favor after the decline in the student movement. (Doug Kellner has a nice essay explaining why, and with what effects.)

But now, it seems, there’s a resurgence of interest in Marcuse, according to Carlin Romano. And, in my humble opinion, that’s all to the good. The new political activists, including but not limited to those involved in the Occupy movement, would do well to think through (but not necessarily be limited by) Marcuse’s critique of the “one dimensional society” of contemporary capitalism, the way that hegemony is exercised through repression and consent, the role of philosophy and art in producing and disseminating critical perspectives, and much more.

I’m not suggesting Marcuse can or should become the theorist of the new anticapitalist movement. But like all movements that aspire to transcend the moment, it needs to develop a body of ideas capable of sustaining and expanding the movement’s perspectives and activities over time.

Marcuse’s critique of one dimensional society is a good place to start.

Mark Tansey, "Doubting Thomas" (c. 1985)

Having raised the issue of postmodernism earlier today, the question is: is postmodern relativism responsible for the ability of the “merchants of doubt” to challenge the scientific evidence concerning such issues as tobacco smoke and global warming?

Yann Giraud thinks not. His view is that the distinction between Science (which is “published in leading, peer-reviewed scientific journals” and “carefully researched by devoted—meaning, disinterested—scholars”) and “science” (which is “published in the New York Times or in the Wall Street Journal” and “conceived during business meetings by resentful, outdated researchers”) is problematic. Why? Because “forces and networks are what are responsible for the stabilization of knowledge in any field, not only facts and evidences.”

A better story would have investigated the various networks through which not only businesses try to affect scientific research to sell their products but also, in return, the equally powerful networks scientists can create to respond to these attacks. Also, a more satisfying narrative would show that the “bad” scientists who promote cigarette smoking and polluting industries also use the rhetoric of scientific evidence in order to convince. After all, is this “merchants of doubt” phraseology really different from the Popperian perspective, which asserts that we can never fully prove anything and that the only thing that can be done is to reject scientific ideas? Is it relativism that really hurts here or its philosophical counterpart? Is that “merchant of doubt” ideology the skeleton in the positivist closet? Can we talk about those dangerous modernists, now?