Random Reflections on Intellectual History, Abstraction and Social and Political Values
by Mark English
Terms like “pragmatism” as it applies to philosophy and the history of ideas – most isms really – are intrinsically vague and useful only to the (necessarily limited) extent that they help to bring out persistent or more fleeting strands or commonalities in thinking within or across populations.
Even the views of individuals are often difficult to fathom and characterize accurately. That these views generally change over time, from book to book, from article to article, from diary entry to diary entry, makes the task even harder.
Nor is any one thinker’s work privileged over another’s. Judgments on the intrinsic merits of individual works or of the merits of particular thinkers are very difficult to make in an objective manner. But individual thinkers can be readily assessed according to the compatibility of their views with the findings of contemporary and subsequent scientific and scholarly investigation. Certain thinkers can also be shown to have been more influential than other thinkers. Unfortunately there is very little correlation between these two vectors. Sometimes it seems that an inverse correlation between compatibility with science and personal influence applies.
In my view, there is no grand narrative and no abiding canon. We find ourselves with respect to the history of ideas – just as we do with respect to any and every aspect of this relentlessly evolving world – in the midst of complexities which can only be satisfactorily “simulated” or modeled by the reality that is generating them. The best we can do is make marginal notes.
One of Louis Rougier’s early books was called, En marge de Curie, de Carnot et d’Einstein: études de philosophie scientifique. Marginal notes, you could say, by a marginal figure.
Rougier’s works are not on anybody’s essential reading list today. He made some bad career moves and got pushed aside, but he was a rising star in the 1920’s and a very influential figure in the 1930’s. You want to pigeonhole him? Not possible, I’m afraid.
Rougier was aware early on of the thought of William James (whom he read in translation). It was James’s version of pragmatism that he singled out for attack as a young man, but which arguably was not all that far from his own developing views. As Rougier himself often pointed out, intellectual history can be seen as a dense network of ironies and contingencies.
Language and abstraction
There is another angle to this. It relates to the nature of language. I see natural language as something that evolved for specific reasons and which is well suited to certain uses (e.g. storytelling and facilitating and coordinating social interactions of various kinds) and not so well suited to other uses. In particular, I am wary of the dangers of using abstract concepts in a relatively unconstrained way as often happens in theology and philosophy.
Common concrete nouns involve abstraction. There is no instance of a dog that is not also a particular animal of a particular breed or mix of breeds; or of a table that is not of a particular type and size and shape and color etc.. Such words, however, are clearly both semantically constrained and useful. Common abstract nouns are also useful as a sort of linguistic shorthand.
The trouble is that we have a natural tendency to hypostatize concepts and this has led, variously, to myth, ideology, philosophical puzzles and the elaboration of metaphysical systems.
Mythic elements in our thinking are unavoidable. Likewise ideology to an extent. Our brains just naturally generate value-laden narratives. Beyond this we are, as language users, committed to certain rudimentary metaphysical assumptions associated with grammatical structures that can lead to philosophical puzzles or pseudo-problems. But the deliberate construction of free standing or self-contained metaphysical systems is something else again.
Arguably myths, ideologies and metaphysical systems (unless the latter are closely tied to science) lack any real connection to non-human reality. Many metaphysical systems fail even to connect to human reality in any significant way.
Within science, abstractions are necessarily constrained. They play their assigned roles within, and take their meaning from, theories. The abstractions are constrained by the theories, and the theories are constrained by the rules and protocols of the discipline in question and ultimately by empirical evidence.
The formal sciences take us further from natural language than empirical science generally does. Abstractions in mathematics and logic take their meaning from, and so are constrained by, the rules of the systems involved. They are, as it were, contained within the system. What Rudolf Carnap referred to as “external” questions about these concepts are misguided and ultimately meaningless.
I would not want to commit too strongly, however, to a distinction between the formal and the empirical. Many developments point to a blurring of the distinction. For example, pure mathematical structures have long been known to play important roles in modeling physical reality. And, of course, the rapid development of computers and artificial intelligence is changing the nature of mathematics, arguably moving it closer to empirical or applied science. Algorithmic information theory is a case in point, focused as it is both on practical problems and on deep questions concerning the fundamental nature and limitations of computation and mathematical thinking (i.e. on meta-mathematics).
Ideology and science
Challenged to explain in more detail the rationale behind previous remarks of mine on what I see as serious flaws in certain forms of progressive and radical thought, I have been considering the sources of my thinking and looking for a few thinkers to whom I might point and with whom I feel some kind of kinship.
With respect to sources, there are two important kinds: scientific and non-scientific. Of course, scientific findings cannot of themselves provide guidance on values. But, if our social or political views incorporate false or pseudo-scientific ideas, what are they worth?
For example, the idea that human behaviors and attitudes and so on are entirely “socially constructed” and have nothing to do with biology is simply wrong. It is also dangerous in many ways. It has been the driving conviction behind the actions of countless radicals and social reformers.
Take the case of John Money and the Reimer family. Jesse Walker (writing in Reason) called the Reimer saga “one of the darker episodes in the history of pseudoscientific hubris.”
A botched circumcision destroyed the infant David Reimer’s penis. Psychologist John Money, believing that differences in the psychology of the sexes are entirely socially constructed, persuaded David’s parents to allow the boy to be completely castrated and argued for further surgical interventions. The idea was to raise the boy as a girl. Money wrote extensively on the case, presenting it (falsely, as it turned out) as vindicating his views on sex and gender.
John Money had been (in Walker’s words) “a leading exponent of the theory that children were born psychosexually neutral and could be assigned to either gender in the first years of their life.” Over time he retreated from the most radical forms of this thesis but for most of his life he stood firmly by “the central contention that when it came to sexual identity, nurture trumped nature.”
Money’s response to having the case exposed as an unmitigated failure was to blame the fuss on right-wing media bias and the anti-feminist movement.
Moral and social values
Moral, social and political convictions are in some ways similar to judgments of aesthetic value. They are not reducible to neat definitions or able to be summarized in a formulaic way – or summarized at all, perhaps. Why should they be?
I don’t believe that discursive reason can be applied in any really comprehensive or extensive way to normative questions without creating drastic distortions and oversimplifications. Discursive reason operates on one level; values on another.
Whenever I read a philosophical text on normative questions which is framed in terms of arguments mounted in standard philosophical style I rarely get beyond a couple of paragraphs before a move is made which appears unmotivated or to which I object for one reason or another. Historical approaches make more sense to me, especially when they are (or aspire to be) purely descriptive.
My main influences with respect to values were individuals with whom I had dealings in my formative years, on the one hand, and literary authors and filmmakers, on the other. Not philosophers, by and large.
Even my rejection of rationalism in politics, though it is something that philosophers have discussed (Louis Rougier and Michael Oakeshott come immediately to mind), is not something that I learned from them. It was bred into me (as, no doubt, it was bred into Rougier and Oakeshott) at a relatively early age.
Similar environmental influences affect different individuals in sometimes very different ways, of course. Temperament and other personality traits play a big role. Consequently, if you want to understand anybody’s point of view on fundamental moral, social, political or religious questions in a satisfactory way you need to understand the personal history of the individual in question.
I was trying recently to explain my political views to a relatively new friend and I realized that, if I wanted to get him to understand what I really think and what drives my thinking on political and economic issues, I would have to explain to him various family influences and encounters with particular political figures in the city and country in which I grew up. Political demarcations, the meanings of various key political signifiers and so on, are utterly dependent on – they derive their character and meaning from – specific social and cultural structures.
I would have to tell the story, then, not just in terms of the reasons I had for holding such and such a view, but also – perhaps mainly – in terms of my reactions to the political environment of my childhood and adolescence (including family influences) and to the passions and upheavals and schisms within the political and broader culture of the time.
Tastes in literature and film seem to me to be closely correlated with ideological preferences, broadly interpreted. That is, one likes and feels a deep kinship with authors or filmmakers who see the world in a similar way to oneself, who have similar values. One’s politics are, of course, determined by one’s values and priorities. The values come first and often they are not explicit.
Only gradually does one come to realize what one’s deepest values are.