Wider Than Science, Deeper Than Politics

by Mark English

I once came across a cartoon from the early 20th century depicting a street scene with everyone – pedestrians, business people and even a cart-horse – looking puzzled and slightly confused. The wording of the caption I have forgotten, but it was along the lines that the theory of relativity had suddenly changed the way we see the world.

In reality scientific theories don’t have quite this kind of psychological impact – and certainly not on horses. But, as is the case with most humor, a reality lies behind it that is being exaggerated or played upon in some way. The humor implicit in the childhood version of Alvy Singer (the Woody Allen character in the film Annie Hall) being depressed about the expanding universe represents a variation on the same general theme.

Little Alvy has become lethargic and stopped doing his homework. His mother has taken him to see Dr Flicker. When Alvy explains his concerns about the expanding universe his mother becomes frantic and interjects: “What is that your business? […] What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.”

As I say, for these jokes to work there has to be something – something real – which they are perceived to be exaggerating. There has to be a sense that at least some regular folk – and not a minuscule minority – are indeed impacted psychologically. If that Alvy Singer scene still resonates and is still much referred to, it is because there are (still) people around who have experienced something approaching Alvy’s depression in the face of scientific findings or experienced something similar to this or witnessed similar cases. Otherwise it just wouldn’t connect.

This sort of thing is difficult to prove, but I suspect that we have drifted away from science in the sense that it is no longer “mainstream.” From (at least) the late-19th century until, say, the 1960’s and 70’s, the educated public tended to embrace not just technology but science also as an essential part of the general culture, C.P. Snow’s complaints about the “two cultures” notwithstanding. (Snow’s concerns related primarily to what was essentially a local problem deriving from certain anomalies of the English class system.)

Not just positive attitudes to science, even the very notion of objective knowledge has been progressively undermined. Rigorous scholarship of a secular nature was seen to work hand in hand with science. There have always been many different sciences and kinds of scholarship, with different methods and strategies applying in different subject areas. But, until relatively recently, there was always a discernible sense of common purpose across disciplines. For centuries scholars and natural philosophers saw themselves as having a common goal: scientia, knowledge.

In comments on a recent article of mine in which I suggested a link between current intellectual trends (particularly philosophical pragmatism and certain forms of anti-realism) and social decline, E.J. Winner challenged the substance of what I was saying and implicitly accused me of exhibiting and/or promoting fear and bitterness.

I welcome the criticism to the extent that it has prompted me to try and articulate my views more clearly, but I will leave others to judge (if they are so inclined) precisely what dark forces, motives and emotions are driving me.

I alluded in the essay to the decline and falling status of institutions responsible for passing on knowledge from one generation to the next: specifically the family and the formal education system. Traditional educational institutions have played a pivotal role in passing on not just knowledge in a scientific or scholastic sense but also attitudes and values. And there is no doubt that, like families, these institutions are failing and being displaced (by disruptive new technologies, etc.) as drivers of learning and knowledge.

The social consequences of these changes are difficult, perhaps impossible, to isolate. Likewise it is difficult in these sorts of cases to distinguish cause from effect. But it seems not unreasonable to believe that our understanding of the nature of science and scholarship and knowledge in general has profound effects on how we see the world. We also know that ideas and assumptions to which young people are exposed can and do make deep and lasting impressions.

A commenter pointed out that crude and popular forms of anti-realism need to be distinguished from more sophisticated forms. It is the former that pose problems, not the latter. I agree. Moreover, I do not deny that there are problems with many forms of realism, nor that certain forms of anti-realism may be defensible.

It must be said, however, that – over the course of the last century – even relatively sophisticated forms of anti-realism have often been bound up with (and perhaps driven by) political or ideological considerations. Unfortunately, these trends have led educators and activists with no real interest in intellectual inquiry to deploy (usually crude) versions of anti-realism in their polemics. This is done basically for rhetorical purposes: to provide a veneer of intellectual authority to their own positions, for example, or to justify anti-science attitudes.

Please do not interpret what I am saying as politically partisan in a simplistic left-wing/right-wing kind of way. Note that the physicist Lee Smolin, whose style of scientific realism I have in previous essays presented somewhat sympathetically, has left-wing political views. His concerns about knowledge were (I claimed) wider than science and deeper than politics. There are issues at stake here which transcend technical and strictly scientific questions as well as partisan-political considerations.

Elsewhere I have suggested that recent internecine conflicts amongst self-described progressives derive from deep-seated contradictions and flaws within certain forms of progressive and radical thought.

Some of these problems relate to the Enlightenment view of the mind as infinitely malleable, a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Even the myth of original sin has more psychological plausibility than this view.

Another fallacy of progressive ideology is the belief that complex problems of ethics and society are amenable to theoretically-elaborated solutions (based on discursive reason). Strangely, even feminist thinking – typically (and irrationally) hostile to science and mathematics – often falls into this trap. Though core feminist ideas are anti-rationalistic in certain ways, they are presented nonetheless as “theory.”

Theory necessarily involves abstraction, and abstraction is a necessary (and extremely powerful) intellectual instrument. But, like any tool or instrument, it can be misused and misapplied.

It seems obvious to me that judgments regarding moral, social and political matters depend on a multitude of factors which no theoretical construct or ideological narrative can adequately represent. The classical and conservative notion of practical wisdom – encompassing as it does both personal and cultural contingencies – is far more closely aligned with lived experience than any theoretical construct or ideological narrative could ever be.

The errors of progressivism have been compounded and exacerbated by the notion that objective knowledge of the world is not possible. This idea has deep roots in radical social thought and philosophical pragmatism. But it is self-defeating; and perhaps it is the realization of this fact which lies behind the attempt to present traditional – and commonsense – views of objectivity and truth as being not simply in error but also as somehow morally or politically tainted.

Various forms of radicalism, feminism and identity politics rely heavily on this kind of rhetorical moralizing. We are dealing here, in effect, with emotional manipulation, ploys designed to promote or prop up ideas which cannot sustain themselves in the absence of a particular kind of value-laden belief system or set of narratives.

An article by Sonia Zawitkowski is worth looking at in this context. She comes across as reasonable and moderate and makes some good points, but her basic thesis (as I see the matter) is flawed. The article is a defense of standpoint theory, and standpoint theory entails a highly politicized approach to knowledge and value. The “oppressors” tend to see everything in distorted, self-serving ways, while oppressed groups tend to see things more truly.

Zawitkowski writes: “[T]he complexity of today’s most controversial social problems coupled with an increasingly polarized political climate means that we need standpoint theory more than ever.”

Do we really? Sure, we need to take account of social situation, self-interest, etc. when assessing people’s opinions (including our own) on various controversial social issues, but we don’t need standpoint theory or any other kind of theory to do this.

I have points of agreement with Zawitkowski. She speaks, for example, of:

a glaring disregard of the moral and normative nature of [early arguments concerning universal suffrage and the status of women]… There exist rational arguments for and against most egalitarian policies, but ultimately people are arguing for their preferred state of affairs based on their conception of the Good. This necessarily involves the prioritization of different rights, each conferring benefits and drawbacks for different groups.

Yes, it is always unfortunate when values-based and ideologically-driven arguments are presented as if they were not values- and ideology-based.

As I see it, social harmony is a function of the extent to which moral and social values are shared within a population, and the social fragmentation we see today in most Western countries is directly associated with the loss of a shared culture. That shared culture has, in the West in the modern era, included a commitment to the twin institutions of science and secular scholarship and the ideal (or myth, as radical skeptics see it) of objective knowledge.

I recognize that it is difficult to draw a clear line between real scholarship and pseudo-scholarship. There is no simple algorithm for doing this, just as there is no algorithm for distinguishing between good science and bad science or between science and pseudo-science. But distinctions must be made.

If all knowledge is deemed to be subjective or ideology-driven, if neither science nor rigorous scholarship has a privileged position (epistemically speaking) vis-à-vis other kinds of discourse, then everything becomes ideological, everything is up for grabs. Such a view, far from providing a solution to our problems, only serves to exacerbate social and political tensions by undermining the neutral epistemic space that science and scholarship once provided.

41 Comments »

  1. On reading your essay, I’m not at all sure what it is that you are trying to say. It reads a bit like your personalized version of “The Closing of the American Mind” (and I always disagreed with that book).

    Maybe there is also a cultural divide. You criticize progressivism and give support for conservative values. But in the USA it is the conservative supporters of Donald Trump who are busy reconstructing truth.

    I study human cognition. Perhaps you could call that a hobby, since I am retired. From studying human cognition, I cannot help but see that truth is socially constructed. But I don’t find that at all threatening. Our ordinary use of truth in ordinary life works pretty well. There is a reality that is independent of us, and our social construction is used to enable us to better describe and deal with that reality. I don’t see anything threatening there.

    Yes, some people take these ideas to extremes. For as long as I can remember, there have been fringe groups taking things to extremes. It seems to be part of the nature of being human.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Neil

      “Yes, some people take these ideas to extremes. For as long as I can remember, there have been fringe groups taking things to extremes. It seems to be part of the nature of being human.”

      But my point is that some of these fringe groups (as you call them) are exerting real power and have influenced the culture in fundamental ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark,
    I see little difference between the possible relativistic political positions you attack and your own brand of politically suspicious relativism – the notion that certain political ideologies are epistemologically driven, therefore certain epistemologies are ideologically driven, and must, on that account be held suspect.

    In the comment you remark, I put my reading of your position as “We must all be realists or the world will go to hell.” That’s an over-simplification, but that article of yours really had very little meat on the bone. This is certainly more fleshed out, and you are trying hard to enrich your position through greater inclusion of matters you think your position can account for. But it still remains unconvincing for those not already members of your choir.

    For one thing, you paint your presumed opponents with too broad a brush: “Strangely, even feminist thinking – typically (and irrationally) hostile to science and mathematics – often falls into this trap.” I’m sorry which feminists are you discussing here? There is not, and has never been just one ‘feminism.’ And that’s important because at various points in the development of feminist thinking, certain thinkers have argued their case on strongly empiricist bases, others on strongly rationalistic bases. You really want to alienate women scientists and mathematicians who may also support feminist claims of right politically?

    “This idea has deep roots in radical social thought and philosophical pragmatism.” You obviously have not read Marx carefully, and are not familiar with philosophical Pragmatism. This uninformed charge undercuts your position in ways you obviously haven’t thought through.

    “Various forms of radicalism, feminism and identity politics rely heavily on this kind of rhetorical moralizing.” And your acerbic conservatism doesn’t? All you write is unbiased, unvarnished ‘truth?’ “Yes, it is always unfortunate when values-based and ideologically-driven arguments are presented as if they were not values- and ideology-based.” Like your own.

    You try to meliorate what is in fact a hardline position, first by dragging in Lee Smolin (a kind of ‘hey one of my best friends is a -‘ gesture), and then by trying to find some agreement with Sonia Zawitkowski – before swatting away her whole argument as politically biased and, anyway, unnecessary. I’m sure she’ll be happy you’ve put her in her place. That’s no way to win friends, Mark!

    But then, you’re not really interested in winning friends, are you. Your chief appeal seems to be to those who have not read Marx or studied Pragmatism, who are unfamiliar with the history of the struggle for women’s rights. You can’t account for why, given his commitment to realism, Smolin remains on the political left. You have no explanation to account for the historical reality that there have been oppressors and oppressed, and that certain political activities have been useful or necessary to correct for such situations.

    But this is to be expected given a certain ahistorical bias underpinned by a skepticism concerning history per se.

    There may be something misguided about epistemology per se, and I’ve wondered recently whether that might not be the case. However, given epistemology as a reasonable intellectual pursuit, it would seem rather authoritarian to close off certain lines of an reasonable working through of various arguments and their implications, just because they might be adopted by some with a politics opposed to your own. If a line of thought leads a thinker toward realism; or nominalism; or instrumentalism (or any of the many variants of these), should the thinker really stop to say, ‘whoa! that’s dangerous! The world will go to hell if we think that way!’

    Look, I think you’re also making a basic mistake that intellectuals, especially those who have worked in the academy, often make – the conclusion that, since intellectuals dominate the written word, in an era of mass-publication, intellectuals have enormous power over cultural and political events. They don’t. In my doctoral program, I ran afoul of a couple of ‘Radical Feminists’ (their own preferred label) who, BTW, were strict empiricist in their epistemic stance, but who were convinced that if only women could achieve mastery over English studies, this would contribute to a social and political revolution. They were wrong. Now nearly twenty years out of the academy, and surrounded by men and women, some of whom have never gone to college, some with graduate degrees, not any of us give a damn who runs the English departments at our local colleges or alma maters. Yes, the loss of the Canon, and the loss of highly developed reading skills needed for difficult texts, is sad – having been trained in English studies, I feel this more than most. But I also understand why parents might be more concerned with whether their children get a good job than whether they can read Shakespeare.

    It was not Marxist theory that brought Communism to Russia; it was 2 million dead in the trenches and a million dead of famine. The Bolsheviks had a simpler, more powerful rhetoric than the Mensheviks, and a simpler, seemingly uncomplicated agenda (that proved mistaken). However, let’s understand that the Russian people knew they could only expect more of the same they had suffered for the past two centuries from the Czar.

    Given my unpleasant experience with Radical Feminism in graduate school, why have I not carried a grudge against feminism per se such as you exhibit? For one thing, my TA advisor was a wonderful teacher who loved literature – she was feminist of a different variety, a Deconstructionist. For another, most women I’ve known, who were willing to speak about it, say they have at some point been molested by a relative, or raped, usually by someone they knew. And again, that women get paid less then men, despite equal experience and demonstrated abilities, is clearly unjust by any rational standard. We have to stop thinking of women as some other species, having a place assigned by God or nature.

    Shifting to the side somewhat: Why do I still support movements like Black Lives Matter, despite the fact that I see a profound mistake in the rise of Black Nationalism in the early Seventies, with concomitant rejection of any hope of assimilation by large swathes of the African American? Well, more than half my surviving family happens to be of African and Caribbean ancestry. Should I not help find a way to both protect them and also broaden their horizons?

    Experience has more to do with politics than any theory.

    in any event; no epistemology implicates a politics; no politics necessitates any epistemology. Any totalistic ideology holding that we must all be on the same page, philosophically or politically, is misguided. The relativism we see around us today has much more to do with technology and commercial interests than with any intellectual concern. Bill Gates is the true Postmodernist, not Jacques Derrida. Derrida concerned himself with a culture of books, of a Canon of literature, that he loved to read, even while critiquing it. Gates has shaped our world in ways no book ever prophesied – except perhaps McLuhan’s Understanding Media.

    Finally: the severe identity politics that has been considered critically at this site for some time, is not strictly anti-realist. It is grounded in the belief or at least assertion – that God or a gene has ‘made me this way.’ That’s not anti-realist that Neo-Platonism – an idealistic form of realism, which holds that the Power that makes one a female inside a male body is the true reality that must be honored. And the fact that we can actually find an ‘idealistic realism’ tells us that variant epistemologies range both wide and deep.

    In any event, to defend an epistemology or epistemic stance, you need to make an epistemological or epistemic argument, not a political argument. For the same reasons I reject radical “sociology of science” claims that science reduces to ideology, I must reject your argument that epistemology does.

    Liked by 3 people

    • ejwinner

      I am going to take your comment slowly, a bit at a time.

      Let’s start with feminism (or should I say “feminisms”?).

      “For one thing, you paint your presumed opponents with too broad a brush: “Strangely, even feminist thinking – typically (and irrationally) hostile to science and mathematics – often falls into this trap.” ”

      In order to properly analyse what I am saying you need explicitly to take account of what this supposed “trap” I am talking about is. You ignore the substance of what I am saying and just pick up on what you perceive as a hostility to feminism (or feminisms?) within the sentence.

      My explicit claims *within* the quoted sentence are that feminism is typically hostile to science and mathematics; and that such hostility has no rational basis. The second claim needs no defense, I think. The first claim is broad brush but I signal this fact myself by the qualifier “typically”.

      One academic feminist with whom I have had extensive dealings had a background in mathematics and a very sensible attitude to science and scientific knowledge. My understanding (which is based on hearsay and may be wrong) is that these attitudes created tensions between her and other feminists. Also, anyone who has read or listened to a certain amount of feminist discourse will inevitably have encountered some anti-science or anti-maths attitudes. No?

      “You really want to alienate women scientists and mathematicians who may also support feminist claims of right politically?”

      Of course not. And I would be interested in asking such women whether they would agree that many forms of feminism incorporate an unfortunate anti-science bias.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “This idea [that objective knowledge of the world is not possible] has deep roots in radical social thought and philosophical pragmatism.” You obviously have not read Marx carefully…”

      I did not mention Marx. I know his views. I am also aware that these views have not been shared by many radical leftists (who may or may not call themselves Marxists). And of course there are other radical traditions which have nothing to do with Marx.

      “… and are not familiar with philosophical Pragmatism. This uninformed charge undercuts your position in ways you obviously haven’t thought through.”

      I might know just a little more about intellectual history than you give me credit for. I don’t know where to start on this one. Let me just reference (from memory) a very influential book called Les paralogismes de rationalisme by Louis Rougier, published in the early 1920s. In a long, polemical preface he characterizes pragmatism in precisely the way I am characterizing it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “I did not mention Marx. I know his views. I am also aware that these views have not been shared by many radical leftists (who may or may not call themselves Marxists). And of course there are other radical traditions which have nothing to do with Marx.”
        I used Marx as exemplar to get this out of you. You know of Marx’s views, so you must know he’s not an anti-realist. So you must know a many leftist views are not driven by anti-realist epistemologies. Yet your essay suggests that all are – except for Smolin (but of course he’s a physicist, so he’s exempt). Uh-huh.

        Moving on: how does reading of Louis Rougier somehow take the place of reading Peirce, James, Dewey?

        A lot of people didn’t like the Pragmatists (it’s said that as a student Mortimer Adler slipped angry notes under John Dewey’s door), and intelligent thinkers could misunderstand it – Russell certainly did. And even understanding it, one certainly has a right to disagree with it.

        But the suggestion that Pragmatism contributed to the ‘leftist’ corruption of modern life is simply idle chatter. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was not a leftist.

        The central line of Pragmatist thought holds that “objective knowledge” is so because all those honestly inquiring into that knowledge have reached the same conclusion by whatever methods chosen. What you seem to suggest (since you still haven’t made the argument) is a mental representation exactly identical to the world’s actual configuration, to be asserted or described in a precise language the truth of which is undeniable because of the structure of the description or assertion strictly conforming to that or the mental representation. That’s an acceptable position; I disagree with it, but I’m willing to entertain argument for it, and am familiar with the literature that has argued it. However, I don’t suggest that the ‘world is going to political hell’ if anyone believes in it.’

        Like Mortimer Adler, you’ve mistaken philosophy of knowledge for political theory. Russell had the decency to treat Dewey like a colleague.

        I have never encountered Rougier, but a quick check leaves me confused as to why you reference him? Did he critique Pragmatism? Are you suggesting this logical empiricist is paradigmatically Pragmatist? Did he say he was influenced by Pragmatism? Did he reject it? What is his characterization when compared to that of Peirce or James or Dewey? They’re the Pragmatists. (And Peirce, BTW, was an avowed Moderate Realist in the Thomistic sense. How do you account for that?)

        You’re basically just trying to fold all your personal intellectual prejudices into one basket that you can point to and cry: ‘there! bad guys! all related (they’re in the same basket, see?)’ No, that’s not very convincing.

        Liked by 2 people

        • “I used Marx as exemplar to get this out of you.”

          What? You explicitly accused me of being ignorant of Marx, knowing or suspecting that I was not, as a rhetorical trick to get me to say something you wanted me to say?

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    • Then why not account for this possible discrepancy with language that admits it; eg, ‘according to a small (but I suggest influential group) of feminists….’

      “The first claim is broad brush but I signal this fact myself by the qualifier “typically”.” – Well, that’s comforting – not. That you signal you’re painting with a broad brush does not rhetorically mitigate the distancing you achieve by painting with a broad brush. As our current President might have put it (and probably has): ‘Typically, Mexicans are rapist drug dealers – oh, I didn’t mean you, Carlos.’ Carlos feels much better now?

      But as I’ve suggested previously, it seems you want the broad brush. And “I don’t care what you intended to do, it’s what you did I don’t like,” as the postmaster remarks at the beginning of Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch. I could be wrong, but you seem to want to use labels as trigger words that draw quick and easy lines in the sand between those who agree with you without much argument and all those ‘bad guys in the basket.’

      That’s not an argument; and it really isn’t doing your cause much good.

      Like

      • “That you signal you’re painting with a broad brush does not rhetorically mitigate the distancing you achieve by painting with a broad brush. As our current President might have put it (and probably has): ‘Typically, Mexicans are rapist drug dealers – oh, I didn’t mean you, Carlos.’ Carlos feels much better now?”

        You are overstepping the mark here by implicitly imputing to me something comparable with racism when the issue is simply a matter of what I mean by “feminist” in the context of certain claims.

        Like

        • I was using Trumpspeak (and I think we’re now familiar with this President enough to be able to call it that) as an extreme example of the kind of move I saw you mistakenly making – the comparison intended was that between rhetorical formations, not between the sentiments involved.. I was not trying to imply that you are a racist. If anyone, including yourself, takes it that way, then clearly I have myself made a wrong move here, and I apologize.

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  3. Nark,
    After a first quick reading I can say congratulations on your fine essay.
    I agree with the broad substance of what your are trying to say. But my diagnosis of the causes differs. I will come back after a careful-re-reading to outline what I mean.

    Disagreement should not mean the hostility which underlies the reactions I see to many of your essays. It is disappointing. I am always impressed by the measured and reasonable tone that both you and Robert(he is another frequent target) display in your manner of dealing with hostile comments.

    Disagreement is a normal part of life. It is while negotiating disagreements that we learn the most but that is only true if disagreements are conducted without hostility.

    Like

    • Peter

      Nark? For a minute there I thought you had gone hostile. 🙂

      An old aunt of mine used to use the word a lot. US readers probably would not be familiar with it.

      I sometimes type Marj instead of Mark; my feminine side trying unconsciously to express itself no doubt.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mark,
        Yes, our US comptratiots won’t recognise the word. It is commonly used to indicate a police informer. Or to indicate annoyance or irritation. For example, some commentators nark me.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Mark English:
    Like E.J. I was disappointed that you were not more specific about Feminist departure from Realism. Let me offer an example where a subsection of Feminists depart from sound thinking due to a political stance or as they might put it ‘standpoint’. I refer to the idea that Gender qua Gender is a harm inducing factor in human life. How is this so when as mammals and hominids all along the evolutionary trail Gender has been highly adaptive? Why does it become a harm engendering blot on life now with homo sapiens? There seems here to be a lack of distinction between Gender and gender ie. individual society’s invidious but corrigible practice. I would expect philosophers to be clear on this and the fact that they are not leads me to consider that their own division of sex and gender qua lesbians might be the source of the muddle. (cf.IAI debacle, tinpot dictators). There may even be, as E.J. suggests, a Platonic basis for their view They, as it were, seek the yolk and shell of the same egghead.

    Doubts about the cause of tracks in the mist of cloud chambers, knots in string theory and the twins paradox in S.T.R. are particular to the philosophy of science. The acceptance of physics by the average user of a computer is not affected by ontological worry.

    Like

    • You are conflating sex and gender. I can’t think of anyone who thinks that, e.g., canids have gender issues. Sex is highly adaptive. Gender is a social category.

      Like

      • J.Bogart:
        I find the talk around Gender/gender to be quite confused. I propose to go back to the primal and primitive concept of the person. Persons are male or female with the union between them being the primary unit of society. Exceptions prove this rule. The rearing of children and the wresting of a livelihood from the soil or factory or the cubicle goes on from there. Gendered activity and the folkways of different societies is conceptually downstream from that.

        Like

  5. A Code of Conduct for the Commentariat

    1. I will read the contributions of others carefully and endeavour to fully understand them, taking into full account both context and nuance.
    2. I will interpret them charitably.
    3. I will reply in a way that thoughtfully addresses the substance of what they say.
    4. I will refrain from attacks, implicit, assumed or explicit on the other person.
    5. I will purge my comments of all traces of hostility.
    6. My focus will not be on destroying the arguments of others.
    7. Instead I will strive to enrich the conversation by adding insights that build on the contributions of others.
    8. Ideological differences are permissible and should be respected.
    9. Friendly disagreements are permissible and are to be welcomed if they enrich the conversation with new insights.
    10. Hostile disagreements should be avoided at all costs since they poison the well and erect emotional barriers.

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  6. 1. Woody Allen is spoofing Pascal
    2. When we talk about trust in science, at the population level we are talking about a sizable sociological literature. Overall trust is still pretty good, except in areas where there are organised attempts to attack this: US evolutionary science v. religions – little else in the West, though Muslim world a certain amount; epidemiology v. big tobacco; climatology v. big energy. I suppose less organised are anti-immunization, anti-fluoridation and so forth. Not so much in physics, space science, genetics (swing in favour since the 1970-80s is pretty obvious).

    Like

  7. ejwinner

    “..[I]ntelligent thinkers could misunderstand [Pragmatism] – Russell certainly did. And even understanding it, one certainly has a right to disagree with it… But the suggestion that Pragmatism contributed to the ‘leftist’ corruption of modern life is simply idle chatter.”

    Go back to my claim which you referenced in your first comnent: that the view that objective knowledge is not possible has deep roots in various traditions of thought including philosophical pragmatism. You are *denying* this? It is a very defensible position.

    The other matter is not a factual one. It relates to ideology, narratives and values and the realm of letters, as it used to be called, where robust polemics and persuasion and rhetoric hold sway.

    At various times, in this essay and elsewhere, I have expressed my deeply felt values and opinions in what I see as a perfectly acceptable (literary-rhetorical) way.

    There is a place for this, and there is a place for asking and answering more scholarly questions minus (as far as possible) the rhetoric.

    The fact that we seem to disagree on this last point colors (and sours) all our interactions.

    Like

    • Go back to my claim which you referenced in your first comnent: that the view that objective knowledge is not possible has deep roots in various traditions of thought including philosophical pragmatism. You are *denying* this? It is a very defensible position.

      I’ll start by saying that I consider myself a pragmatist, though my views do not always conform with philosopher’s accounts of pragmatism.

      I remember a discussion of mathematics, a few years ago, at an online forum. Two contrasting views were expressed:

      (1) Mathematics is purely subjective. It is about entities that exist only in the human mind, and that makes it a paradigmatic example of what we mean by “subjective”.

      (2) Mathematics is the most objective form of knowledge that we have.

      I see those as disagreements about the meaning of “objective” rather than as disagreements about mathematics.

      If we go by the meaning of “objective” that is implied by statement (1), then this pragmatist (me) agrees that objective knowledge is impossible.

      If, instead, we go by the meaning of “objective” implied by statement (2), then objective knowledge is indeed possible, though it might not be as human-independent as people assume.

      Like

      • Neil,
        That was a nice distinction. We could not choose between the two were it not for the fact that the laws of nature can be so clearly, unambiguously effective in describing the laws of nature. See especially the paper about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. The laws of nature reflect an objective reality so we can conclude that “(2) Mathematics is the most objective form of knowledge that we have. “

        Like

        • That should have been:

          We could not choose between the two were it not for the fact that *mathematics* can be so clearly, unambiguously effective in describing the laws of nature.

          Keyboard dyslexia 🙂

          Like

    • ” that the view that objective knowledge is not possible has deep roots in various traditions of thought including philosophical pragmatism. You are *denying* this? It is a very defensible position.”

      It is a defensible position, yet I do deny it. Except at the extreme margins, and among professed Pyrrhonian skeptics, epistemological debates have never been about whether “objective knowledge” is possible, but about how and in what way is it possible. “Your side denies the possibility of knowledge” is a rhetorical move in that debate, has been since Plato had Socrates debate the Sophists – it was a charge he made against them, and it was a charge implicit in the indictment against him at his trial. It seems a strong move to make, a claim for the higher ground; but it is a bad move, since it closes off the discussion rather than inviting opponents to reconsider their position.

      “The other matter (‘that Pragmatism contributed to the ‘leftist’ corruption of modern life,’ I take it) is not a factual one. It relates to ideology, narratives and values and the realm of letters, as it used to be called, where robust polemics and persuasion and rhetoric hold sway.”

      But my counter-argument has largely been that your essay conflates the two matters and in a way that puts off rather than persuades those who might disagree with you.

      I’ve never been persuaded that a certain intellectual pursuit has some necessarily desultory political implication to the extent that we should consider it dangerous. In my graduate program, the Radical Feminists made much ado about the Canon being inherently oppressive to women, and the frequently singled out Samuel Richardson as example, since Richardson had indeed been taught, 1n the 19th century, as a model for female students. But by the 1980s, nobody was reading Richardson anymore, except for Radical Feminist critics, since the Richardson mystique, sputtering toward oblivion, was put to final rest during the Fielding revival of the 1960s. Which led me to conclude that in the grand conversation of ideas, in literature as elsewhere, bad ideas will meet eventually their match and drift away. Any direct relationship between an idea in literature or philosophy or art has to be empirically demonstrated – suspicion is not enough. And sometimes, in the empirical research to obtain such demonstration , we come upon contingencies in the wider culture that should lead us to reconsider any such suspicion. I remarked Bill Gates and Derrida, because it was long held among certain camps that Derrida had attacked the Canon and thus contributed to the rising cultural relativism of the times. But in fact Bill Gates helped develop a technology making relativism an appropriate position to take on ‘social media.’ Derrida was a Modernist, committed to a culture of books and careful reading; contemporary ‘social media’ is profoundly anti-literate, reducing exchange concerning ideas to mere ’emojis’ and ‘memes.’

      Can such empirical evidence for the political influence of bad ideas ever be found. Of course. Leninism doesn’t necessarily lead to Stalinism, but certainly helped prepare Russian politics for the rise of Stalin – and Stalinism itself is a bad idea, if it can even be considered an idea at all and not just an apology for totalitarianism. But generally, suspicions supported by hints and implication and guilt-by-association are simply not enough. The Canon included Richardson simply as a cultural artifact, a moment of development in the history of the novel. His retrograde insistence that rape was somehow permissible and could lead to love and marriage was simply evidence of the attitudes of the era in which he was writing; that Fielding mocked him mercilessly is evidence that even in Richardson’s own era, his opinions did not go unchecked. It was less than a hundred years later that Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Women.

      “At various times, in this essay and elsewhere, I have expressed my deeply felt values and opinions in what I see as a perfectly acceptable (literary-rhetorical) way.
      There is a place for this, and there is a place for asking and answering more scholarly questions minus (as far as possible) the rhetoric.
      The fact that we seem to disagree on this last point colors (and sours) all our interactions.”

      Again, it has been my counter-argument that it is your own essay that conflates the two – and unnecessarily, to my mind. The kind of conservatism you would advocate – I think you referenced Burke some time ago – does not need, and cannot justify, accounting of all opposed philosophical or social positions to be held under an ideological umbrella. I respect your “deeply felt values and opinions;” But there are ways of expressing and informally arguing for these, that are more direct and open, more inclusively persuasive, than the style of presentation you sometimes present.

      Also, any text deploying rhetoric will be open to the scrutiny of rhetorical criticism; the questioning of implicit premises is its stock in trade

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  8. I see Mark as pointing out that, where once Americans enjoyed identifying with a supposed consensus, they now respond to such a supposed consensus by enjoying differentiating themselves from it. This is hardly surprising. The sixties music revolution stressed rejection of any supposed adult consensus and I don’t see that rejection having been outgrown.

    That makes consensus-rejection a norm. More recently that consensus rejection seems to have taken a self-destructive turn. I see the rage for tattooing as part of that. Social media connect us to many more people than before, which we may experience as overcrowding, and experiments in mice show that they respond to overcrowding with anti-social and self-destructive behavior, an effective way and possibly an evolved strategy for lowering the population density. Women may be responding with contempt for the patriarchy, and contempt for their traditional role of wife and mother. Should one complain about that? Isn’t it, in the circumstances, reasonable?

    Liked by 1 person

    • As usual the commentariat herd goes thundering off down a side road that leads into a marsh of confusion. But then, thankfully, a voice of clarity speaks up. Nice one, Shaun, you get it.

      I agree with you that consensus-rejection is driving the process. The interesting question is Why? The noted British sociologist, Anthony Giddens, has written extensively about the subject. Essentially we have stopped deriving our identity from authority and traditions. Instead we have fluid, self constructed identities. These identities must be distinguished from preceding identities(your consensus-rejection) and so we continuously seek out new identities. Essential to this idea of fluid new identities is freedom from past constraints. I will expand on this later.

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  9. David Gauntlett, in Media, Gender and Identity expands on the subject, showing the crucial role that media play in this process. He draws heavily on Anthony Giddens (Chapter Five) to explain the process.

    Damian Thompson, in Counterknowledge, describes the outcomes. They manifest variously as pseudo-science, quack medicine, false history, fake narratives, denialism, etc. Militant atheist extremism can be seen as a similar manifestation. These are all ways that people assert new identities which are their attempt to claim a special status in the eyes of their peers.

    In earlier times identity was claimed, developed and consolidated over a period of many years and necessarily had to have a base of solid substance. This ordinarily was the record of real achievement. Now identities have become superficial and shallow, easily adopted and modified according to the circumstances. The Internet, and Facebook in particular, has enabled this.

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  10. ejwinner

    From your first comment:

    “Look, I think you’re also making a basic mistake that intellectuals, especially those who have worked in the academy, often make – the conclusion that, since intellectuals dominate the written word, in an era of mass-publication, intellectuals have enormous power over cultural and political events. They don’t.”

    They do and they don’t. Certain ideas/ways of thinking get into the education system and the wider culture. They have effects. I explicitly said in the essay that cause and effect are difficult or impossible to disentangle. It is a dynamic process (feedback, reinforcement mechanisms, etc.). Ideas and patterns of thinking are an intrinsic component of culture.

    “In my doctoral program, I ran afoul of a couple of ‘Radical Feminists’ (their own preferred label) who, BTW, were strict empiricist in their epistemic stance, but who were convinced that if only women could achieve mastery over English studies, this would contribute to a social and political revolution. They were wrong.”

    But they helped destroy an institution once devoted to 1) passing on non-partisan-political cultural knowledge, and 2) useful skills (related to literacy and communication, for example).

    Moreover your example illustrates perfectly one of my main points, namely that many of these activists were/are not primarily interested in intellectual inquiry (or passing on useful skills for that matter). Some radical activists have (or had) a genuine interest in intellectual inquiry and in the welfare of *all* their students (not just their acolytes). I am aware of radical academics who exhibit or have exhibited very high standards of professionalism. But we have all encountered examples of those who scorn the sorts of values I (we?) care about, who are ideologues rather than thinkers and who mark down students who exhibit conservative or libertarian or contrarian tendencies.

    “Now nearly twenty years out of the academy, and surrounded by men and women, some of whom have never gone to college, some with graduate degrees, not any of us give a damn who runs the English departments at our local colleges or alma maters.”

    I do care. It matters.

    “It was not Marxist theory that brought Communism to Russia; it was 2 million dead in the trenches and a million dead of famine. The Bolsheviks had a simpler, more powerful rhetoric than the Mensheviks, and a simpler, seemingly uncomplicated agenda (that proved mistaken). However, let’s understand that the Russian people knew they could only expect more of the same they had suffered for the past two centuries from the Czar.”

    I don’t know what this snippet of narrative is supposed to prove. I accept that “theory” does not translate directly into social change. Countless forces and factors are involved (far too many for any narrative to encompass). But, as I said above, ideas and ways of thinking are part of the mix and play into social change.

    How we educate our children (institutions, ideas, technologies) has profound effects on them individually and on the society at large.

    I have said this more than once, but let me try to spell it out more explicitly: cause and effect are difficult to disentangle in social contexts. In the case of radical feminists (or other activists) taking key positions within educational institutions, government bureaucracies, etc., is their rise to be seen as a symptom or a cause of the problem? I would say both. The institutions in question were probably failing from within, many scholars and bureaucrats having already given up on certain previously significant norms and convictions (valuing knowledge for its own sake, disinterestedness, neutrality, various professional standards, etc.). And nobody is denying that broader technological, economic and social changes have had profound effects. But it is also clear that the advent of the activists hastened the decline.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Mark,
    Despite disagreements, I actually like this comment better than the original post – and actually do agree with certain points. It is more persuasive because it does ask me to get everything right – epistemo0logy, philosophical commitments, political leanings. It simply expresses your direct views on topics of concern, some of which we share.

    “‘(…) not any of us give a damn who runs the English departments at our local colleges or alma maters.”
    I do care. It matters.”

    One major reason I say I don’t care (speaking about English Departments) is because English studies whittled itself into a position of social irrelevance by the time I got my doctorate. Radical Feminism, and other -isms, indeed contributed to that, but so did the effort to achieve relevance by shoving just any popular novel into some general reading course. I think the real problem was that by the 1980s, the culture as a whole was losing interest in “non-partisan-political cultural knowledge.” I remarked that Samuel Richardson had finally been buried in the Fielding revival of the 1960s; but by the 1980s, Fielding was gone as well. The loss of Richardson made the Radical Feminist critique of his texts ironically irrelevant; but the loss of Fielding I personally felt rather deeply. Tom Jones is a great novel; but it’s a long novel; in an historically contextualized style that needs considerable effort to learn. By the ’80s many educators – and this cut across party lines – were concerned that asking students to put too much effort into their studies – especially in the Humanities – was asking too much – whether it was the touchy-feely brigade demanding emphasis on self-esteem, or the hard-nosed Chamber of Commerce people asking for fast-tracking career-directed degrees, especially in Community Colleges.

    From my perspective, the ’60s worst legacies have been a culture of television, and a sub-culture of drugs (including certain prescription drugs). They go hand in hand – chillin’ before the boob-tube is so much easier when high, because one doesn’t feel impelled to think about what one is watching. Indeed, one doesn’t feel much at all. How are people in that condition supposed to read a book? The radicals of the ’60s certainly provided explanations and excuses for such developments, but by the ’80s these were unnecessary in the broader culture, and explanations – and excuses – came from departments of medicine, psychology, sociology instead. (Among the prescription drugs I remarked earlier were the proliferations of “anti-depressants” and drugs for treating various “attention deficit disorders.”) Critique of these cultural developments came from both liberals and conservatives – Amusing Ourselves to Death, Culture of Narcissism, The Closing of the American Mind…. And since these behaviors had a history, having to do with the development of consumerism and other economic formations necessary to the maintenance and increase of wealth (itself necessary to maintain well-managed large populations) there had been precursors (A Generation of Vipers, Adorno’s Minima Moralia), and even precursors to these (Theory of the Leisure Class) since such trends had been noticeable by the late 19th Century. Then it was still possible to assume that an enlightened reader of such critiques could contribute to correction of the trends; but by the 1990s it was obvious this was too much to expect.

    But what if we tell the story you have to tell, but by way of a reverse engineering, so to speak. Sorry to invoke the H-word; but I agree with Hegel that the function of philosophy is to explain development of ideas in the past – it is never prescriptive or predictive. So by the time a certain philosophical argument is mounted, the activity or phenomenon it is intended to promote is already well in practice.

    And I’m beginning to wonder whether any explanatory intellection is really only a glance backward. The Radical Feminists saw themselves as revolutionaries; but what if they arrived after their mission was already accomplished. They provided one possible explanation of why people were not reading the Canon – it was ‘an institutionalization of male dominance in literary studies’ that at least some women preferred to ignore. But by the time they were making this argument, the Canon was already on its way out as an institution that people honored and thought they needed to participate in. Other ‘-isms’ promoted an opening-up of the Canon; but what if their arguments were really efforts to explain the diminution of the Canon, the loss of interest in it, the disappearance of its value in the wider culture as a whole?

    The change from the culture I grew up in to the culture I would happily do without, is something I feel deeply about. But I think everyone was responsible, and I don’t think there was any moment when it was possible to “stand athwart history and cry ‘hold, enough!” as William Buckley once explained his own conservativism. History just doesn’t seem interested in personal preferences. It seems like it should; but we must remember that there are millions of personal preferences getting expressed all at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Mark,
        You bring to mind Robert Graves’ famous saying
        the future is not what it used to be

        The human mind has reached the end of temporal progress: the future is not what it used to be, and people talk with less and less progenitive self-precipitation into the future, and behave with more and more fatally decisive immediacy. The future, that is, contains nothing but scientific development. It is an involuntary spending and manipulation of physical forces, empty of consciousness: it no longer matters.

        Although written in 1937 it is extraordinarily prescient. He has summed up things remarkably well. In your writing you seem to be saying something similar.

        He is moreover a fine writer and poet..
        I, Claudius and Claudius the God are remarkable and I am sure you have read them. His The Greek Myths is a treasure.

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    • E.J. Winner:

      You will probably be aware of the doubt expressed by George Steiner as to whether the humanities humanize. He writes in Language and Silence:

      Unlike Matthew Arnold and unlike Dr. Leavis, I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text, which is the substance of our training and pursuit, diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart—”to heart” is a suggestive phrase. The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity. What then are we doing when we study and teach literature?

      You bring what you are to the fiction might be the answer to that. You cannot be reading, truly reading the great writers unless you expand your consciousness to the point that you can inhabit the work. No, Steiner demurs, the torturer may have as fine a sense of Rilke as you do. I would add that exquisite stylists have been utter scoundrels.

      Given this very arguable view why should the surrender in the university of the literary canon to the accessible much bother us. The books are there, you don’t have to go to college to read what you should read anyway.

      Like

  12. I realize the main thrust of this essay seems to be about particular feminist political currents within the realism vs anti-realism debate, I just wanted to pick up on a tangential point made in this paragraph: “Some of these problems relate to the Enlightenment view of the mind as infinitely malleable, a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Even the myth of original sin has more psychological plausibility than this view.”

    First, the notion of a tabula rasa or blank slate is not a specifically Enlightenment view, it actually traces back to Aristotle in De Anima. It wasn’t even a widely held view during most of the actual Enlightenment period, except among the British empiricists who revived it from ancient Greece, and even then not all British empiricists. After Locke’s and Hume’s assault on nativism however,, it certainly did influence subsequent thinking on the matter, and by the beginning of the 19th Century the theory of tabula rasa carried the day.

    Second, there is no entailment between the idea of a blank slate and a mind being “infinitely malleable”. A blank mind could be either malleable or non-malleable, depending on its inherent capacities. I’m not even sure what “infinitely malleable” is supposed to mean here (and less sure what “deep-seated contradictions and flaws within certain forms of progressive and radical thought” are being alluded to in the above essay), it almost seems like a bit of a straw man. So yes, on some extreme version of the blank slate, which almost no one holds or has held, including Locke, Original Sin could have more psychological plausibility.

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  13. Joe Smith

    Yes, I could have spelled things out in scholarly detail along the lines that you suggest but note that neither this essay nor the Secular Right piece from which I quoted purport to be pieces of scholarship. To varying degrees, they are both polemical and need to be read as such. Even so, you concede my basic point when you say that, after “Locke’s and Hume’s assault on nativism,” the blank slate view “certainly did influence subsequent thinking … and by the beginning of the 19th Century the theory of tabula rasa carried the day.”

    As I see it, I am staking out a position in a necessarily very condensed and necessarily incomplete way which is opposed to positions generally labelled as “progressive”. The crucial point about the tabula rasa notion is that it presents no basic constraints; you start from scratch — whereas in reality we are always in media res, both in socio-cultural and biological-evolutionary terms. The tabula rasa view is attractive to social reformers because it presents no obstacle to their ideals regarding human behavior and human society being realizable. If there are no innate constraints on human thinking and behavior then any imagined ideal or program can potentially be realized. As we all know, such a view (or similar views) have led to countless failed social experiments, some on a vast and unimaginably tragic scale.

    In the late 19th century there was a strong reaction even on the part of secular thinkers who valued science highly against what was perceived as the dangerously naive social and political views of Enlightenment-inspired radicals and reformers. Progress in scientific knowledge did not in any way (they realized) guarantee or align with moral, social or political progress. They were right to be concerned, given subsequent history.

    “I’m not even sure what “infinitely malleable” is supposed to mean here…”

    I have tried to explain that.

    “… and less sure what “deep-seated contradictions and flaws within certain forms of progressive and radical thought” are being alluded to ….”

    Well, you could see that as a rhetorical flourish if you like. But there is something behind it. I realize that, overwhelmingly, the audience here identifies as progressive and so I expect pushback. But I see all sorts of problems with most manifestations of progressive thinking. Obviously I am not going to explain them all in a single essay.

    Let me just say a couple more things, however, which may be pertinent. Firstly, I think that many progressive social philosophies derive historically from certain strands of Biblical ethics and eschatology and could be seen as a secularization of what were originally religious ideas. I have written a bit about this in the past.

    Secondly (and this relates in some respects to the previous point) you see an awful lot of virtue signalling and in-group/out-group dynamics amongst progressives. Could it be that the current bitter debates and schisms derive at least in part from (as I put it) “deep-seated contradictions and flaws” within and between various forms of progressivism?

    It seems to me that, if the term “progressive” is to have any substantive meaning, there must be at least the possibiliy of there being some coherent and compelling body of “progressive” moral, social, political and economic doctrine.

    I don’t believe there is or can be such a thing. Nor can there be such a body of conservative thought, of course — but this doesn’t matter as conservatives tend to define themselves in cultural-historical rather than doctrinal terms. (Progressives could do the same, I suppose, but my reading of progressive social thinking is that it is fundamentally doctrinal. Certainly it has generally been more intellectualized than conservative philosophies (which are often, when they *are* intellectualized, explicitly and thoroughly anti-rationalistic).

    I just don’t believe that moral or social problems have *theoretical* solutions. And I certainly don’t see things in doctrinal terms — or, for that matter, in terms of the particular Biblical moralities upon which progressive ideas arguably depend.

    This is not to deny that some strands of Hebrew and Christian thought have great moral and psychological depth. Unfortunately, however, these are not the elements upon which progressives and radicals typically draw.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark,
      for the most part I think you made a compelling and cogent reply.

      This statement puzzles me:
      And I certainly don’t see things in doctrinal terms — or, for that matter, in terms of the particular Biblical moralities upon which progressive ideas arguably depend.

      Which/what are the Biblical moralities “upon which progressive ideas arguably depend.
      And why don’t you see things in those terms. I ask because I see a wholesale rejection by progressives of Biblical moralities.

      Like

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