Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’


Here’s a second video with Antonio Callari (the first is here)—this one on Marx’s intervention into the arena of philosophy and the idea of freedom as the basis of a Marxian project of transforming the world.


[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.