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Introduction and Index To We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

I’ve been reading We Have Never Been Modern, a 1991 book by the French thinker Bruno Latour, pictured above. It doesn’t lend itself to my usual treatment, reading and commenting on a chapter or two. Instead, I’m going to try to lay out some of the aspects that seem important enough to merit discussion.

Background

1. It seems to me that we as a nation, and me personally, are caught up in the controversy of the day, and that dominates our conversations. I notice it not just on Twitter and in the media, but in my personal life, talking with friends.

That’s especially true in our political discourse. In the Democratic party, two candidates talk about systemic problems, but nobody focuses on their critiques. Instead, the media and the other candidates focus on details of the specific plans that rise from those critiques. They complain about cost, argue about whether those plans could be turned into law, nit-pick personalities, and say anything to distract from the central critiques. Those responses turn into the controversy of the day, and the two central and powerful critiques are never discussed. We will never know what we think about corruption or about grotesque inequality, because they are not fodder for the controversy of the day.

I hope this book will help get away from short-term thinking and into a larger perspective.

2. I agree with the definition of problems laid out by those two candidates, corruption and obscene inequality. I see them as the expected outcomes of the capitalist system. Capitalism is one part of an even bigger structure in which we find ourselves. The other part is our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as members of society. You will note that in this structure, I have divided the large structure into two parts, a) our conception of ourselves and our role in society, and b) the economy, taken as a proxy for all that isn’t human.

These two systems might seem to be separate, but they are intermixed. Neoliberal capitalism is a product of the philosophical tradition of utilitarianism. It teaches us that the individual is homo economicus, fully defined by individual production and consumption. [1] This is not a subject of discussion in the public sphere, only in backwaters in academia and the occasional blog. Other ways of understanding ourselves as individuals and as members of society are rarely discussed in any serious way outside those backwaters.

I’ve been thinking that we need a framework that places these two systems in a more united perspective. After all, these systems do intermix into an overarching system that generates each on a continuous basis, a system in which both society and the conception of the self evolve over time, all the while affecting each other.

3. In my introduction to the series on The Origins Of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, I quoted this from Leszek Kolakowski’s book Modernity On Endless Trial:

If we are to believe Hegel – or Collingwood – no age, no civilization, is capable of conceptually identifying itself. This can only be done after its demise, and even then, as we know too well, such an identification is never certain or universally accepted. Both the general morphology of civilizations and the descriptions of their constitutive characteristics are notoriously controversial and heavily loaded with ideological biases, whether they express a need for self-assertion by comparison with the past or a malaise in one’s own cultural environment and the resulting nostalgia for the good times of old. Collingwood suggests that each historical period has a number of basic (“absolute”) presuppositions which it is unable clearly to articulate and which provide a latent inspiration for its explicit values and beliefs, its typical reactions and aspirations. If so, we might try to uncover those presuppositions in the lives of our ancient or medieval ancestors and perhaps build on this basis a ” history of mentalities” (as opposed to the “history of ideas”); but we are in principle prevented from revealing them in our own age, unless, of course, … we are living in the twilight, at the very end of an epoch. P. 3.

Latour tries to answer the question anyway: what does it mean to be “modern”? Arguably we are at the very end of an epoch in human history, now that relentless capitalism has rotted liberal democracies and set the planet on fire. Arguably Latour follows Collingwood’s suggestion of looking back in time to the end of one period, the premodern and the start of this period, the modern.

4. There is little point in these abstractions unless they help us solve a problem. The problem I’m thinking about is approximately this: How should we arrange society so that each of us can flourish as individuals and as social creatures who inhabit the this world with others?

Observations

1. When confronted with a problem, we often try to break it into smaller problems. Then we try to solve those and put the results back together to form a solution. That seems to work pretty well in science, where things cleave in only one or a few ways. It works less well in other areas of life, because there are all sorts of ways to divide social things up, and putting the results back together is an exercise in judgment if not guesswork.

2. I divided society into the economy and the human, because capitalism is so all-emcompassing. This has the virtue of connecting two strands of thought that run through my posts. But there are other ways we could divide it into two parts. One might be nature and society. And there are many more, some more useful than others. We should think about these divisions from the perspective of the use we intend to make of them.

3. I talk about society as if it were a monolith. If we think of society as an umbrella term that encompasses the circumstances of life in the US, it seems so. But everyone experiences those circumstances differently. It’s impossible to take those different experiences into account when we think at this level of abstraction. That doesn’t mean that these different experiences aren’t important, they are. And any hypothesis we might develop should be examined to see if that important factor would make us see things differently.

Resources

This is a difficult book, and I am not going to discuss large parts of it in detail. [2] For those interested in a brief overview, I suggest listening to Episode 230 of the podcast Partially Examined Life. It features Lynda Olman, one of the authors of an article based on an interview of Latour (Lynda Walsh in the following citation.) The first pages summarize some of Latour’s thinking. Forum: Bruno Latour on Rhetoric, by Lynda Walsh, Nathaniel A. Rivers, Jenny Rice, Laurie E. Gries, Jennifer L. Bay, Thomas Rickert & Carolyn R. Miller, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 47:5, 403-462 (2017). It should be available online through your library.

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[1] The hidden assertion, that the people at the top of society are exempt from this condition, is never mentioned in this discussion, although it is one of the main points made by Philip Mirowski in his book, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste.

[2] One of the things I won’t discuss is Latour’s attitude towards postmedernists such as Derrida and Lyotard. This is sad because it’s funny and quite rude, and I agree whole-heartedly.

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The Ugly Results Of Inequality

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

In the last two posts in this series I looked at the the way unequal freedom and hierarchies of social relationships play out in the US. In this post I address two ugly consequences of those inequalities.

Anger and Hostility

Most people have a good idea of where they are in the social hierarchies described by Elizabeth Anderson in her paper Equality, those I discussed in previous posts in this series. They know who dominates them, who holds them in high or low esteem, and whether their opinions about their best interests influence decisions affecting them. They live their lives in these webs of influence and social relations, and they respond emotionally and practically.

I don’t think people have very clear ideas about freedom. Everyone understands negative freedom, because they constantly confront it. But I doubt people think about their positive freedom, the range of opportunities they can reasonably enjoy. If they do, they certainly don’t think they have any chance of changing that range. [1]

Freedom from domination is even less well understood. For people of color and most poor white people, domination is normal. That isn’t so obvious to most non-poor white people. I don’t know, but I’d guess working people don’t think of their employer as dominating them. I’d guess most people think this is perfectly normal, the natural operation of the job market. This is the view Anderson attacks in her book Private Government.

As we learned from Pierre Bourdieu, the dominant class arranges things so that both the dominant and the subservient classes think everything is normal, that one class should dominate and the rest should be subservient, and that everything is just fine. But today it’s hard to sustain that illusion.

The public at large is fully aware of their lack of freedoms available only to the dominant class. Too many of us are faced with the limitations imposed by the negative freedom of others, dominated, and lacking in realistic opportunities for human flourishing. People know they are low in all social hierarchies, they feel it in their bones. They are aware that the dominant class holds them in contempt, and controls their lives. This breeds anger and hostility.

Unequal distribution of material goods

The interests of the dominant class have controlled our political discourse, but the level of control has increased dramatically during the last 50 years. The result is historically high inequality in material wealth. In my view, the ultimate cause is neoliberal ideology, which is supported by both political parties. It drives the government to abandon the interests of the majority in favor of unregulated capitalism. [2] I think that underlying the neoliberal ideology is an economic theory, neoclassical economics, which is based on the hypothesis of marginal utility, which in turn is based on utilitarianism. [3]

One good example of the way utilitarianism creates norms is set out in this post. The theory of marginal utility is used to show that wages, rents, and returns to capital are balanced in accordance with a natural law, and everything works out justly. In the real world, this is nonsense, but lots of people believe it even today. The post also shows that other outcomes are possible.

In the real world, it’s a simple fact: the rich arrange the rules of the economy to benefit themselves at the expense of the lives, health and income of the rest of us. See, e.g., this detailed discussion of the manipulation of the “market” by the insulin cartel.

A Toxic Combination

As these inequalities increased and became apparent to the least observant after the Great Crash, the dominant class refused to allow any changes to the system that made them rich. Instead, they and their allies became even more vociferous in deflecting the blame from the dominant class to groups of people in the subservient class, immigrants, the poor, people of color, academics, activists, the left, scientists, liberals, and professionals. Their demagogues have inflamed a large group of people. History teaches us that there is always a substantial group that can be counted on to respond to that kind of rhetoric with anger, fear, and occasionally violence. [4]

The claim that they are responsible for the problems facing society seems preposterous to the targeted groups, especially academics, scientists and liberals. They see themselves as supporting a good society, one in which there is more freedom and equality. None of the targeted groups have a good way to engage with what they see as idiocy. Their responses seem patronizing, or defensive, or angry, or morally unmoored.

Right-wing authoritarian demagoguery cannot be tamed by counter-rhetoric or by PR fixes. It appeals to something deeper than rational argument. I hope it can be effectively countered by appeals to morals and values, coupled with actions to show that things can be better. I believe that the values Anderson discusses and the morality they represent are the basis for that battle.

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[1] For a general look at this, see my discussion of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. See also Jennifer Silva’s book Coming Up Short. This paper by Silva and Sarah Corse investigates factors that explain how some working class young people are able to drive themselves through to college.

[2] I arrived at this conclusion after a long course of reading and writing. You can find it on my author page, which is linked to my name above. For a summary, see this post.

[3] I give a brief description under the subhead Modern Monetary Theory here. You can find more by searching on Jevons at this site.

[4] See, for example, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, especially the discussion of anti-Semitism. See also Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. I discuss these books at length in earlier series, indexed here and here.

Inequality In Social Relationships

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

In the last post in this series, Freedom And Inequality, I discussed the societal distribution of freedom as described by Elizabeth Anderson. In this post, I do the same with her description of equality. [1] Anderson says that egalitarians think of inequality as it relates to social hierarchies, as opposed to material distribution which is the usual understanding of the word. She discusses three forms of social hierarchy: domination, esteem and standing.

Domination

The most obvious form of social hierarchy is the hierarchy of authority. These are arrangements in which one person has the right to arbitrary control over the actions of another. Most domination hierarchies are not absolute, either in the allowed arbitrariness of the superior or the powerlessness of the subservient person. For example, an employer can harass an employ with weird hours, or unreasonable demands, but cannot hit the employee; and the employee can at theoretically walk out.

Dominance hierarchies are everywhere in our society. The wealthiest people have high positions in these hierarchies, but it is useful to note that most of that day-to-day authority is delegated to subordinates in long well-defined chains. The people at the top may not be as free to operate without accountability as their positions would seem to allow. For example, the CEO of a giant corporation is constrained by the board of directors, and by the need to operate through immediate subordinates who may or may not agree to act as directed. [2] That is just as true lower down the chain of authority. People at any level may be in a position to abuse those below them in the chain. The chain of authority closely mirrors incomes at each level.

In most other areas of society there are dominance hierarchies. In civil society the police are effectively the superiors of certain classes of people, mostly lower income people, and people of color. In Churches, there may be control through a group of members, as the Deacons in a Baptist Church, or the Preacher may seize control. The members of the Church are subject to the direction of the leaders, in many cases with the sole option of dropping out or being excommunicated. In social groups, such as tennis clubs and condominium buildings, there are similar hierarchies, with greater or lesser accountability. In general, I’d guess that the poorer one is, the less ability one has to dominate others.

Esteem

I usually think of esteem as a positive feeling. For example, I hold LeBron James in high esteem, not simply because he is a great athlete, but because it’s obvious he is a self-controlled person, an unusually disciplined person, who has worked extremely hard to excel, both physically and mentally. And as far as I know, he is a good husband and father, and a good member of society. He has earned esteem as a good person. Of course, we can also hold people in low esteem. For example, I hold Kristjen Nielsen in low esteem. She received every advantage society has to offer and used her power to cage children and separate them from their families forever.

Most of us can earn esteem from others. In our work lives, our colleagues may esteem our contributions. In our churches, the choir singers are esteemed for the work they put in to enhance services, as are the flower committee members. In clubs and condos, the people who are willing to devote the time to manage are esteemed and their service is frequently gratefully acknowledged. This kind of esteem is open to practically everyone, without regard to income or wealth.

Rich people do not receive much of this kind of esteem. Even their donations of money are suspect, either because of the source of their money or because they seem to be trying to buy esteem, which must be freely given to be of value. That’s why people question the political acts of celebrities that are all talk and no action. Compare that with the acts of George Clooney or Jane Fonda. [3]

Anderson uses the word esteem somewhat differently:

The second type of objectionable social inequality is hierarchies of esteem. In these systems, those occupying inferior positions are stigmatized — subject to publicly authoritative stereotypes that represent them as proper objects of dishonor, contempt, disgust, fear, or hatred on the basis of their group identities and hence properly subject to ridicule, shaming, shunning, segregation, discrimination, persecution, and even violence. In some cases, subordinate group members may be allowed to participate in mainstream organizations and benefits but only on the condition that they repress, hide, or abandon their stigmatized identities—for example, their sexual orientation, religion, language, customary dress, or ethnically distinctive name. Because esteem is positional, public representations of socially stigmatized groups are always shaped in invidious contrast to the stereotypes ascribed to those possessing honored group identities. Quoted from her paper Equality.

On this scale, the poorer one is, the more likely one is to be low on the esteem scale. In the US, poverty is often seen as a personal failing. This view is internalized by most of the people so stigmatized. [4] Of course, there is a modest number of people among despised groups who have money, and plenty of it. That, however, is not sufficient to drive an increase in esteem for the class. For example, New York cops broke NBA athlete Theo Sefolosha’s leg and ended his season in a ridiculously aggressive pretend arrest. Obviously the cops held him in low esteem, but the city settled for $4 million; he donated a substantial part to a non-profit that trains public defenders. It seems to me that esteem is not strictly related to income or wealth for people in the despised classes, but for some classes, say white men, esteem is closely correlated to wealth and income.

Standing

Anderson describes this as the right to have one’s interests considered in decisions that affect one. Standing is closely correlated with wealth and income, but for people in classes held in low esteem, the general level is lower, as is the case with esteem. In general, the wealthy use their high positions in the three kinds of socisal hierarchies and their wealth to assure their continued domination. [5]

Equality Before the State

For the most part, I have looked Anderson’s hierarchies from the standpoint of individual members of society. Here’s how Anderson characterizes these hierarchies from the standpoint of the state:

Egalitarians oppose such hierarchies and aim to replace them with institutions in which persons relate to one another as equals. For example, they want members of society to be treated as equals by the state and in institutions of civil society (standing); to be recognized as bearing equal dignity and respect (esteem); to have equal votes and access to political participation in democratic states (authority). Each of these conceptions of relational equality is complex and implicates numerous features of the social setting.

Conclusion

Anderson looks at the three categories of freedom and the three social hierarchies mostly from the standpoint of the broader society. In this and my last post in this series, I try to see the relationships between these categories and wealth and income. As I worked my way through them, I came to think these categories have broader meanings, and some of that comes through, I hope. They apply not just in the broad view of society, but at every level of society right down to our daily lives. Each of us can work out for ourselves our approximate place in these categories, and we can see how they influence our social interactions and our sense of our place in society. In the next post I look at two larger implications of the disparities revealed through these categories and their impact on individuals and society.
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[1] Anderson takes this up in her essay Equality in the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. Perhaps it’s available through your library.

[2] On the other hand, the CEO might just dump anyone who doesn’t agree to act as directed. Trump is an example of this kind of abusive use of authority. The result in corporations is usually an economic disaster. In government, it’s worse.

[3] Fun fact: Fonda spoke at an anti-war rally on Armed Forces Day in Fayetteville, NC, near Ft. Bragg, in May 1970; she also spoke at a rally at a meeting house of the organizers, GIs United Against The War In Indochina, the night before. I was there for both. The army was afraid, and cancelled its Armed Forces Day ceremonies. You can find a description here at .pdf page 9, and a fascinating discussion of the connection between GI resistance to the war and the creation of the all volunteer army in Chapter 3. The underground newspaper of GIs United, Bragg Briefs, carried stories about the M-16 rally in the June 1970 issue, available here. This paper is a marvelous example of resistance to the military during wartime.

[4] See, e.g., Jennifer Silva’s book Coming Up Short. See also this interesting piece.

[5] I discuss one form of this in a short series on the French scholar Pierre Bourdieu. Regrettably I did not index this series; Here’s the last one on symbolic violence. See also Oligarchy Inside The US? and other works by Jeffrey Winters and Benjamin Page.

Edit: I have updated the post on symbolic violence linked above to add an index to the Bourdieu posts.

The Conservative Lie About Moral Relativity

Periodically leftists get blamed for creating a moral relativism that is destroying society. Here’s one Marcy caught:

And here’s a piece from Dan Dreezner, tongue-in-cheek, but still:

Traditionally, commentators have tended to assume that those articulating “there are no facts, just opinion” views came from the left. No longer!

Well, those commentators can just fuck right off.

1. Patrick Chovanec seems to think the dominant class never thought of using its position to control the definition of facts, and to write history to show that they deserve to be dominant until philosophers and then leftists started talking about the nature of truth. [1] Rightists say the left is responsible for the decline of morality for pointing out that the dominant class are self-serving liars and haters.

Political conservatives deflect with harpy shrieks that the left denies the existence of all facts and history. No. Leftists deny the fabrications of the dominant class. Lefties reject the facts that the tobacco industry created denying that cigarettes cause lung cancer. Lefties deny the manufactured facts about climate change spread by the fossil fuel industry. Why, some lefties even deny the truth of Parson Weems’ stories about George Washington.

There have always been people who contested the facts asserted by the dominant class; for example, Galileo. The Catholic Church made him deny his own factual observations on the ground that he must be wrong because he contradicted their interpretation of the Bible. That contradicted the claim of the church hierarchy that it possessed the sole power to interpret scripture. This is mirrored by the decision of Catholic prelates to handle child rapist priests in-house rather than through the justice system.

The right wing thinks academics are leftists. These scholars are writing histories that recover and include the voices of working people in the labor movement and other dissidents who are canceled by the dominant class in their histories. [2] Making new factual observations and finding old records to incorporate into histories is the exact opposite of denying the existence of facts and histories.

2. In this post I take up a not so post-modern view of facts and truth, that espoused by Charles Sanders Peirce and Henry James. Truth is a property of our beliefs: do they correspond with reality in ways that are useful for some human purpose. Peirce and James and other pragmatists do not deny that there are facts. They know that things exist in the world, separate from individual human beings. But they deny the existence of non-corporeal things that only a few people can perceive. They reject the Platonic idea of the “forms” external to the reality we can experience directly or indirectly. They say that what we can sense is all there is for us of that external reality. [3]

Those who take the other view insist that there are absolutes like the Platonic Ideal Chair of which the chair I’m sitting in is merely an exemplar. But that’s just pretend. What they mean is that there is an external source for absolute morality. In the US, most of them mean that their Christian Bible establishes absolute morality, and anyone who questions that is wrecking society.

A lesser person that I am might point out that it’s a strange religion that teaches that character is the only important factor in voting for president, so adherents must not vote for any Clinton; but also teaches that a different adulterer and liar who is also a corrupt businessman is an instrument of the Almighty, and that it’s sinful to believe otherwise.

I’ll just say I can’t understand why anyone would pay attention so someone claiming that they are receiving directions from the Almighty, directions no one else can perceive. [3] For example, when people tell us they killed their children because God told them to, we consider them criminal or insane. Why is it different when similar people abuse our LGBTQ brothers and sisters because God told them to? [4] Why should they be allowed to enact laws to enshrine their hate-filled views like the laws that wrecked the life of the genius Alan Turing? So, yes. Some lefties and lots of other people really do reject the idea of absolute morals.

3. Conservatives are convinced that if there is no source for absolute morals, no God, then everything is permitted, as Dostoevsky puts it in The Brothers Karamazov. This is a shocking proposition. It implies that people will only act morally if there is some form of punishment or reward. But that is not the way we live. We are all raised to understand our obligations and responsibilities in our families, in our schools and in society at large. We know the rules, and we know why we have those rules. This is true of Pakistani Muslims, Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Indian Hindus, Chinese Confucianists, US atheists, and Bolivian Catholics, Native Americans, in fact, in avery society ever. There are customs, mores, rules of etiquette, rules about food, hierarchies of respect, funerary customs, laws, and institutions to teach and enforce all of these and more.

This is from an essay by Richard Rorty titled Moral Relativism, 1996.

In his more recent book Thick and Thin, [Michael] Walzer argues that we should not think of the customs and institutions of particular societies as accidental accretions around a common core of universal moral rationality, the transcultural moral law. Rather, we should think of the thick set of customs and institutions as prior, and as what commands moral allegiance. The thin morality which can be abstracted out of the various thick moralities is not made up of the commandments of a universally shared human faculty called ‘reason’. Such thin resemblances between these thick moralities as may exist are contingent, as contingent as the resemblances between the adaptive organs of diverse biological species. [5]

In other words, we can’t reason our way to an absolute morality, any more than we can have it handed to us by people claiming they know the will of the Ineffable. We inherit a morality by osmosis and direct teaching, and we inherit ways of judging our actions based on that morality. That suffices for many. But we can learn about other cultures and their moralities, and we can make value judgments about both our own and other cultures. Further, we are able to question our own standards for judging moralities. As Rorty puts it,

The pragmatist view of what opponents of pragmatism call ‘firm moral principles’ is that such principles are abbreviations of past practices – ways of summing up the habits of the ancestors we most admire. P. xxix.

I don’t admire those of my ancestors who thought that enslaved people are not human beings, or that Jews are cursed, or that women are chattel or that the LGBTQ community is an abomination. I admire my ancestors who fought against those firm moral principles, trying to wreck the morality taught by the then dominant class.

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[1] I discuss this use of power to create a kind of reality here, with links to other aspects of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas. Of course, my citation to a French scholar makes me utterly irrelevant.

[2] For example, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the US and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, both of which I highly recommend.

[3] For a different view, see Thomas Merton’s book Mystics and Zen Masters.

[4] I urge readers to consider Kierkegaard’s Fear And Trembling carefully. And maybe watch the excellent 1991 movie The Rapture.

[5] Philosophy and Social Hope, p. viii, at xxxi; it’s aimed at lay readers, and is very accessible. On the subject of what Walzer calls transcultural moral law, see Karen Armstrong’s book, The Great Transformation. I liked this book, but reviewers are less favorable. Roughly, Armstrong discusses the idea of The Axial Age, put forward by Karl Jaspers, noting similar reactions across cultures to the dislocations of the period 1000-200 BCE.

Inequality Of Freedom

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

I have updated the Index linked above with a brief description of the end of Chapter 2 and the remaining four chapters of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government. As I note there, two of the comments are disappointing: the commenters largely ignore Anderson’s views of freedom and equality as they relate to the workplace, choosing to argue that workers don’t really care about these issues, or are satisfied with the current arrangement or that corporations don’t actually trammel on workers. This seems remarkably short-sighted in light of recent resurgence of worker actions, such as the GM strike and the Chicago Teachers Strike. In the GM case, the union won the end of the two-track wage system. The Chicago Teachers strike was notable in the solidarity among the teachers and the other employees of the school system, and the parents and the kids (shout-out to my daughter’s family!).

Anderson’s definitions of freedom and equality give us a completely different way to analyze our society. Disparities in both have created the material inequality that is wrecking our society. I begin by looking at these disparities in practice. Recall that in Anderson’s terms freedom can mean negative freedom, positive freedom or freedom from domination.* Inequality refers to differences in social relationships: differences in standing, authority and esteem. I don’t know how to quantify these categories, so let’s look at them again and ask where different people stand. In each case, as a general matter, minorities have less freedom and less equality in each of the six categories, in some cases, substantially less.

1. Negative Freedom, or freedom from interference. This refers to the ability of a person to use the force of law to protect their actions or their property. This is the only freedom economists, especially neoliberal economists, consider relevant to their practice. It’s clear that rich people have the most negative freedom. They have lots of property, and the right to bar others from using it. Their wealth gives them a very broad scope of actions, for example travel, general consumption, and political action. As we go down the wealth scale, property and the range of possible actions drops. Among the lowest income groups, there is little property, and thus little negative freedom, and the scope of actions is much more limited, especially because they are easily excluded from all except public property.

Wealthy people enjoy negative freedom created for their benefit. They can join exclusive clubs that keep the rest of us out so they can play at golf, shoot skeet, eat among their wealth peers, and gamble. They go to exclusive parties, where private security guards keep the rest of us away. They have their own airport terminals at our public airports for their private jets and helicopters. That too declines as we move down the wealth scale.

Of course, we all have some negative freedoms. For example, we can all own guns, and in many places carry them with us. No one can stop us from using those guns to “stand out ground” in some states. That means that for some people the consequence of negative freedom is death or injury by gun, interfering with their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

2. Positive Freedom, or range of opportunities. There is almost no limit to the opportunities available to the rich. As we move down the wealth incline, opportunities gradually decline. Consider the different educations the rich have had, compared to the educations of the less well off, and working class and poor people. Think about the jobs available to those who can stumble out of elite private schools with degrees, compared to those with good grades at state universities. Then think about the working class kids trying to get decent training at for-profit trade schools, which load them up with student debt.

One way to measure positive freedom is social mobility. Here’s a comprehensive study by Raj Chetty and his colleagues of social mobility in the US. Here’s one of the charts in that study, showing relative social mobility estimating the probability that a child born to parents in the lowest quintile of income will attain an income in the top quintile compared to such chances in other countries.**

Here’s another chart from Chetty, showing the likelihood that a child will exceed the income of her parents. This chart is especially depressing, because we used to think that this was proof of the excellence of the US economy.

Note that the y-axis on this chart is shortened by dropping out the bottom 40%.

This more difficult study calculates IGE:

The most widely used measure of intergenerational economic mobility is intergenerational income elasticity (IGE), a coefficient obtained via a regression model that captures the statistical connection between parents’ income and their children’s income in later life.

They apply it across the income distribution, trying to estimate the effect of parental income on their children’s incomes. Here’s how they describe their results:

We estimate an IGE value for the pooled sample of 0.47 at the mean of the income distribution, which is in line with the literature. More importantly, we observe a U-shaped pattern in the parental income influence on children’s income. Thus, IGE is highest at the lower quantiles of the distribution (0.6 at the 5th to 20th percentiles), falls to a minimum of around 0.38 at the 70th percentile, and then increases again up to almost 0.5 at the 90th to 95th percentiles.

Loosely, this means that most kids whose parents are in the top and bottom quintiles of income are likely to remain in those quintiles, while more kids in the middle three quintiles may move up or down.*** If this is right, poorer kids have the least positive freedom, and middle class kids have more, but have a good chance of falling in social mobility, and rich kids have the most positive freedom, and are protected from failure.

3. Freedom From Domination. The more money one has, the more free one is from domination by others. At the top of the wealth scale people are generally free from domination, and through their influence in the political system, they avoid much restrictive legislation and benefit from favorable legislation.**** Wealthy people often escape accountability for actions that would incarcerate others, or result in civil damages. For example, after the Great Crash for an obvious example: not only did Wall Streeters avoid criminal exposure for causing the Great Crash, they got to keep almost all of the money.

As Anderson documents in her book, average working people don’t have that kind of freedom from domination in the work place; although employers vary in their use or abuse of that power. In other aspects of their private lives, they are able to avoid domination if they are white. That’s less true of people of color, who are easily singled out for hassling by law enforcement, security personnel in private spaces, and others with local authority.

Wealthy people have the ability to dominate many others simply by virtue of their wealth. Among the great middle, there are some opportunities for domination, both in the workplace and to a lesser extent in other private groups, The poorer one is, the fewer opportunities there are to dominate others.*****

I’ll take up social hierarchies in the next post.
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* These terms are discussed in earlier posts in this series. See the Index at the top of this post.

** In 2017, the top of the lowest quintile was $24,000, and the bottom of the top quintile was $127,000. Note the use of income as a proxy for social mobility. Education is often studied as a proxy, with similar and expected results. Education may measure an important aspect of human flourishing not captured by income studies.

*** This material is complicated, largely because of the use of statistical techniques I’m not familiar with, and I am wary of it because it so closely matches what I would expect, creating a risk of confirmation bias.

**** Here’s a discussion of the Gilens and Page study of the legislative preferences of the rich.

***** I exclude families, where men can get away with domination.

Private Government By Corporations

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

The second chapter of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It) begins with a striking image: the US corporation as communist dictatorship. The employer has the absolute rights to do as it sees fit with its employees with few restrictions. She singles out a few of the more absurd rules: an employer can fire a worker because of the way the worker votes, or opinions the worker expresses about politics, or, as we learn in one case, because the son of a friend of the employer raped the employee’s daughter.

We usually think of government as meaning only the state. Anderson says we need a broader definition of government: the legitimate exercise of power by one person over another. Thus, masters govern their servants and slaves, parents govern their children, the Church governs the faithful, the bridge club leaders have the right to exclude people from their games, and so on. We see something akin to this in Foucault’s discussion of governmentality.

Then Anderson draws the distinction between private and public government. A government is public if it is required to consider the interests of the governed, if governed people have the right to participate in the management of the government, and to review its actions and hold it accountable. It is private if the interests of the governed are irrelevant, if they have no power to influence or question the actions of the government.

Anderson defines the state following Max Weber in his essay Politics As A Vocation.

Weber’s definition is the following: “The state is seen as the sole grantor of the ‘right’ to physical force. Therefore, ‘politics’ in our case would mean the pursuit for a portion of power or for influencing the division of power whether it is between states, or between groups of people which the state encompasses.”

The state as the sole grantor of the right of the use of violence has a specific meaning. Only the state can empower a private group to exercise government over others. The master has the right to control the slave because the government says so. Parents’ rights to control children have the sanction of the state. Under the law of Coverture, husbands had the right to control the bodies and wealth of their wives. Anderson points to John Adams’ response to Abigail Adams request to “remember the ladies” in the construction of a new government.

Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.

In each of these cases the state can regulate the control exercised by the grantee. For example, a state could determine that a parent hitting a child is abusive, and could punish the parent and take the child into protective custody. Or the state could simply withdraw its grant of control, as it did with slavery or the law of coverture.

The case of the corporation as employer is similar. The state could withdraw the right of the corporation to exercise any aspect of government it chose. It could, for example, make it illegal to fire a person who refused to attend a political rally for the candidate of the CEO’s choice; or more generally for any reason related to the employee’s politics. It can limit the right of an employer to fire an employee for illness.

In general, capitalists object to any infringement on their right to dominate the lives of their employee. The usual argument has to do with what capitalists call “freedom”, defined as the right to have the state leave them alone. Anderson could argue as she does in other cases, that this negative freedom for the capitalist inflicts massive losses of negative freedom on employees, who cannot support candidates of their choice, or stay away from undesirable political rallies, or organize into unions, or get sick. Thus, unrestrained control for capitalists requires substantial justification.

Instead, she points out that besides negative freedom, there are two other equally or more valuable kinds of freedom*: positive freedom, meaning having a wide choice of opportunities, and freedom from domination. It is frequently the case that restraints on negative freedom for a few produces much larger overall increases in these kinds of freedom.

Comments

1. The idea of private government mirrors the ideas of Bruce Scott and of Ellen Meiksins Wood on the role of corporations in the US. See this post.

2. Anderson seems to think a different outcome was possible, one in which the employer had control over the lives of employees only as to their jobs. I’m less sure of that. It seems to me that changes in the method of production do not impact the general governmental structures of a society. As Anderson points out, in England in the middle ages production was organized around feudal estates and guilds. Each was based on the idea that of top-down control. The monarch owned the real property and granted use rights to the aristocracy, which controlled agricultural production, and took much of the product for itself. Guilds acted as controllers of cloth and other artisanal goods, and decided who could participate and on what terms. In each case there was top-down control by agents empowered by the Throne to impose sanctions and discipline.

Private life followed the pattern. Husbands controlled wives, children, and servants. Churches exercised control over the religious lives of their parishioners, extracting tithes and demanding obedience.

As the methods of production began to change, these governmental structures remained in place. Apprentices were tacked onto that structure in the position of servants. When women started doing piecework for textile mills, they remained dependents. Fathers or husbands took their wages and used them as they saw fit. When children were put to work in mines and mills, they remained dependents of their fathers, who took their wages and used them as they saw fit.

The only change was the way people worked, not their social relationships. Those social relationships arose from ancient times. Anderson discusses the social theory that everyone must be controlled from above. This pattern starts with the Almighty, and continues through the monarch, down through aristos to common people to serfs and slaves, in what was known as the Great Chain of Being.

Social changes were in the long run influenced by the changes in the means and methods of production, as we can see from Anderson’s and Ann Hughes’ (Chapter 3) discussion of the Levelers and other dissidents in the mid-1600s. But those social relationships have a powerful hold on the minds of people. Like most bad ideas, the idea of the necessity of control from above is nearly impossible to eradicate. We see it today in different parts of society; where Biblical injunctions about wives and servants** still hold sway. John Adams was right. Men of all ranks will not want to give up their rights under their masculine systems.
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*I discuss these freedoms at length earlier in this series. See the linked index.
** Some translations have “slaves”.

Egalitarianism and Markets

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

The text for the next part of this series is Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It). The book consists of two lectures by Anderson, four responses by others, and Anderson’s replies.

Anderson considers herself to be in the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, the subject of several posts in this series. Pragmatism is a method with which she studies egalitarianism, which is the main theme of this book. In the first posts in this series we looked closely at her ideas of freedom and equality, which are the substrate for her justifications for egalitarianism. As a pragmatist, she does not try to create an overarching theory, as we might see in other philosophic traditions. Her analysis begins with her values, as we all should. This book examines how those values are expressed in our contemporary economy, and how they might be better implemented.

In the first lecture, Anderson gives us a short history of egalitarianism in action, beginning in the 1600s. Society was almost completely hierarchical, organized under the Church of England and the Monarchy/Aristocracy structure. Most people owed obedience to both, with no say in the matter, and were forced to support both through tithes and taxes. Gradually a number of people became “masterless men”, free of obligations to one or both. Many were criminals or vagabonds, others were impoverished, but many were artisans, small shopkeepers or yeoman farmers*. These found themselves free of domination and began to see themselves as a group, not quite a class, but separate. They formed the core of Cromwell’s army in the English Civil War, 1646-51. One faction was called the Levellers. The Levellers had a number of progressive ideas, including an elected monarchy, and abolishing the House of Lords. Some even argued for the rights of women! The movement was short-lived, ending in 1651, when the rich and powerful killed them and imprisoned their surviving leaders with impunity.

The ideas of the Levellers were egalitarian in the sense Anderson uses the term: they wanted to get rid of social hierarchies of birth, church, aristocracy, land-holdings, and perhaps even the patriarchy, and they wanted institutions that did not dominate or humiliate them because of their own birth status or employment.

Anderson says that one of their concerns was opening up monopolies granted by the Crown to aristocratic cronies, and allowing everyone to enter into any trade or business, free from interference by the Crown, the rich, and their courts. This was an attack on both royal prerogatives and the remains of the Guild system. It amounted to an attack of the prerogatives of the Church of England, which had its own courts, levied tithes, and had certain powers to discipline people.

Anderson draws from this demand the idea that people who own and manage their own capital and their own skills can meet as equals in the marketplace. It gives meaning to Adam Smith’s theory that a nation of artisans, yeoman farmers, and small retailers would be more productive and innovative than the careless and inattentive aristocracy of rich landlords and monopolists who dominated the economy. The increase in production would benefit every member of society.

In the US, Thomas Paine held similar views. There was plenty of land, so anyone could take up farming. Apprentices would become journeymen and accumulate sufficient capital to open their own businesses and eventually take on apprentices. There were no aristocracies or powerful churches in the US, so the biggest danger to this ideal was government. Anderson sees Paine as libertarian; she says that Paine’s views match those of the non-Trump conservatives.

The ideal of the US as a nation of small farms and businesses operated by self-reliant families was taken up by the Republican Party, and was embraced by Abraham Lincoln. Anderson quotes part of Lincoln’s 1859 speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society in which he lays out this idea. Lincoln is responding to a speech by a South Carolina Senator, James Hammond. Hammond, a wealthy plantation owner, argued that society can only advance if there are classes of people whose only role is performing menial labor, just as a house cannot stand without a mudsill, a foundation. Lincoln explains that labor is the “source by which human wants are mainly supplied”. He says that one group argues that capital is primary, that productive work is not done unless people with capital use workers to do it, and the only question is whether they hire workers or buy slaves. Others, says Lincoln

… hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

In [the] Free States, a large majority are neither hirers or hired. Men, with their families — wives, sons and daughters — work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other. … Again, as has already been said, the opponents of the “mud-sill” theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.*

Lincoln describes two competing theories of the role of capital in society: the mud-sill theory, and the Free Labor system. Anderson asks why the egalitarian vision of Free Labor died out in practice, although not in the imagination of the defenders of capital and their PR flacks. I ask why the mudsill ideology became dominant.

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*In the first response, the historian Ann Hughes provides needed context on this point, as well as a more nuanced view of the Levellers and other dissidents of their time.

*The next paragraph is pure Lincoln, the reason we love him:

By the “mud-sill” theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be — all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all. Those same heads are regarded as explosive materials, only to be safely kept in damp places, as far as possible from that peculiar sort of fire which ignites them. A Yankee who could invent strong handed man without a head would receive the everlasting gratitude of the “mud-sill” advocates.

A Primer On Pragmatism: Applications

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

This introduction to pragmatism was motivated in part by the fact that the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson identifies herself as in the pragmatist tradition, but there are other reasons. Our political environment is toxic. It’s hard to maintain our sense of self, of our values, our hopes, and our sense of security. Philosophy offers us reminders of the existence of our values, and the role they play in holding us together as individuals and in our relations with others. It takes us away from the noise and the turmoil and puts us in a quiet atmosphere where we can nurse our wholeness. It can provide us with armor against the forces that are ripping at us.

With that in mind, I’ll close with a brief discussion of democracy and Modern Money Theory. Both begin with the key idea of pragmatism, that all our ideas, no matter how old, were formed for human reasons, and to meet human needs. All of them, no matter how old, are subject to rethinking in light of new conditions.

Democracy

Pragmatism is particularly well-suited to democracy. The most striking justification for democracy is found in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I’m not so sure these truths are self-evident. Prior to that time, the dominant view was that some people are born to lead, and others are only fit to follow. As Peirce and James point out, philosophical systems then were grounded in the idea that there is a universal truth outside human experience, but one that the best of us can comprehend somehow. Those lucky people can construct a social system that accords with the will of the universe, or the Almighty. Many of them argued for centuries that the King ruled with the blessing of the Almighty, and everyone else was inferior, fit only to follow.

At the time Jefferson wrote, the French and the English were directly contesting the divine right of kings, and there was discontent with the idea of hereditary authority. But the US was the first country to adopt Thomas Jefferson’s formulation as a founding idea. It’s a revolutionary statement, and one we are still trying to reify, not just in our government but in our social lives, our work, and other institutions.

The Declaration was a break with what seemed like a firts principle. And that is fundamentally a pragmatist act: rejecting a first principle because it isn’t working to create the kind of lives people wanted. Jefferson’s formulation wasn’t totally original. It derives from prior thinkers, but instead of laying out a rule, it articulates a value, a value that should guide our efforts to create a decent society. The system of government created by the Constitution was supposed to be one that would enable the creation of a new kind of society, one informed not by rules thought to be eternal, but by values that are thought to be best for human beings.

There have always been people insisting that there are eternal rules, and that deviation from those rules would bring disaster. They settle all doubt by tenacity, as Peirce would say.

Pragmatists say that we have to justify our choices on the basis of what works. But the first step is to decide what our priorities are. We do that by defining our values and our goals, and then by working out the best way to reach them. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness my not be the best goals for today, but they’re a start. Our task is to decide what that means in today’s society. Anderson says we don’t want to be humiliated or dominated. That’s a good way of talking about what liberty and the pursuit of happiness might mean today. We won’t the answers by looking outside our human experience.

Modern Money Theory

Much of neoclassical economics is grounded in normative concepts. One of these is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, discussed in §2.1 of this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The economist and mathemetician William Stanley Jevons used this normative concept to create the economic idea of marginal utility, one of the foundations of neoclassical economics. See pp 9-10 here.

Utilitarianism is a normative idea. This is from the Stanford link:

… [Bentham] promulgated the principle of utility as the standard of right action on the part of governments and individuals. Actions are approved when they are such as to promote happiness, or pleasure, and disapproved of when they have a tendency to cause unhappiness, or pain. Combine this criterion of rightness with a view that we should be actively trying to promote overall happiness, and one has a serious incompatibility with psychological egoism. Cites omitted.

Jevons explicitly sets out to mathematize Bentham’s utilitarianism. Marginal utility is therefore grounded in a normative idea. It incorporates a specific value, but the value is hidden and ignored when it comes to putting marginal utility into practice. It is only loosely, if at all, based on practical experience of human behavior. Nevertheless, it is the foundation of large parts of neoclassical economics and of its modern version, neoliberalism.

Pragmatism rejects the idea of starting from normative theories. I don’t know how to deal with marginal utility from a pragmatic point of view, so I turn to another fundamental idea of economics, the creation of money. As best I can tell, mainstream economists say that banks create money. There’s a story about bank multipliers you can google. Governments get money by taxation or borrowing. In this story, the private sector is responsible for money creation subject only to some loose guidance from the Federal Reserve Board. This protects us by making sure Congress can’t ruin the financial sector with profligate spending and borrowing which would automatically happen, and which would be an inflationary disaster.

Modern Money Theory starts with a question: how is money created? It looks at the things that are done as a result of which there is money. Governments create money by spending it. They reduce the amount of money by taxation. They may or may not issue bonds. MMT is based on observable facts. The description of the creation of money leads to other testable ideas and to a completely different concept of the role of government in money creation and society.

Money creation is a governmental action, and thus is subject to politics. Congress decides how much money is created, and how the new money is used. The old story tries to deny this reality with cloudy abstractions and claims that it’s all the working of some invisible hand. Pragmatists don’t believe in invisible hands. They say that politics is the arena in which we decide about how to use the power to create money.

MMT isn’t just for progressives. Deficit hawks and small government supporters get to argue their opinions, and to assert their values. This is a quote from Modern Money Theory by Randy Wray:

However, I also believe that most of the tenets of MMT can be adopted by anyone. It does not bother me if some simply want to use the descriptive part of MMT without agreeing with the policy prescriptions. The description provides a framework for policymaking. But there is room for disagreement over what government should do. Once we understand that affordability is not an issue for a sovereign currency-issuing government, then questions about what government should do become paramount. And we can disagree on those. (Emphasis in original.)

The fact that MMT is value-neutral, that it can be used by people of every political persuasion is a powerful point in its favor. I don’t think we can say the same thing about neoliberalism.

Conclusion

There is much more to be said about pragmatism. It is a powerful tool we can use to cut through old ideas and useless distinctions. But perhaps its most important contribution is that it is an open-ended theory. It makes room for the endless possibilities of human beings. I think that is a powerful value.

A Primer on Pragmatism: Truth

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

Method

In Part 1 I described Charles S. Peirce’s view of the pragmatic method. William James championed Peirce, and elaborated on his ideas in a series of lectures in 1906-7, published in a book titled Pragmatism: A New Name For Some Old Ways Of Thinking, available online here. In Lecture 2, James describes Peirce’s insights.

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can BE no difference any-where that doesn’t MAKE a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. Emphasis in original.

As an example, consider the notions of appearance and reality. The issue is raised by a question: “How can people know the nature of reality when all that people have immediate access to are appearances?” The idea is like Plato’s cave wall. We don’t see reality itself, just the shadows cast on the walls of the cave we inhabit.* The linked article offers a number of replies to this dilemma. The pragmatist rejects it. What difference does this distinction make to any human being? What different behavior would a decision cause? Scientists have done wonders without worrying about the distinction. There isn’t a test to distinguish appearance from reality. No useful information comes from considering the question. True, it’s fun, and it’s interesting to understand the problem it presented to our ancestors. But contemplating this distinction will never produce anything that will make our lives better, or even different.**

The problem with this view is that it suggests some fixed and eternal reality outside human experience but that we can somehow grasp.

Truth

In Lecture VI, James defines truth as a property of our ideas: whether they agree with reality. Both pragmatists and others agree with this. James describes the dominant view of truth as the copy or correspondence theory. Our ideas are true if they copy or correspond with reality. But that raises two questions: what does copy or correspond mean in this sense? What exactly is the reality we are trying to copy?

Here’s my example: what does it mean for our ideas to agree with gravity? At one point in our history, it meant nothing. Gravity existed and we defied it at our peril, and there was nothing else to say about it. Was that true? Then Newton explained gravity with an equation that included a constant that was hard to measure. Was that true? Then Einstein showed us his equations of general relativity. Are those equations true? Does that mean Newton’s theory was false? That can’t be right, because Newton explains everything we need to function in our day to day lives, without the complexity of Einstein’s theory. And we still defy gravity at our peril.

James says that people who hold to the external reality view have a static view of truth. They think there is some objective truth out there somehow separate from and beyond our senses. Once they find that truth, they can construct a theory that would account for everything. It might be Marx, it might be some form of religion, it might be some economic theory. But it is static and cannot be affected by the growth of human understanding or anything else. They have the truth, and we must all accept it.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (Emphasis in original.)

For pragmatists, truth

… means, {Dewey and Schiller] say, nothing but this, THAT IDEAS (WHICH THEMSELVES ARE BUT PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE) BECOME TRUE JUST IN SO FAR AS THEY HELP US TO GET INTO SATISFACTORY RELATION WITH OTHER PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true INSTRUMENTALLY. This is the ‘instrumental’ view of truth taught so successfully at Chicago, the view that truth in our ideas means their power to ‘work,’ promulgated so brilliantly at Oxford.*** Emphasis in original.

Truth is located in the ability of an opinion to work in the real world. In taking this view, James and other pragmatists are following along in the scientific consensus on truth. We take Newton’s theory of gravity as true because it works. Einstein’s theory of gravity adds more, without taking away the truth of Newton’s ideas under most circumstances. We take Darwin’s ideas as true because they explain our experiences of the real world. Darwin’s ideas enable us to make predictions we could not otherwise make and solve problems we didn’t even know existed. As problems arise, we modify our opinionx, but only as far as necessary to accommodate the new facts, the new opinions or the failure of our opinions to work. Thus, we follow a very conservative path from our current state to the next state.

The cash value, as James calls it, is obvious. We benefit from having opinions that work. They help us predict the future. They are tools to uncover things and processes we can manipulate to make our lives better. They dispel ideas that might cause us harm.

One more thing. James says that all of our oldest beliefs were formed in the same way, as opinions based on the impressions we get through our senses from reality.

Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to generalize this observation and to apply it to the most ancient parts of truth. … They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they ARE true, for ‘to be true’ MEANS only to perform this marriage-function. Emphasis in original.

In Part 3 I will offer some thoughts on these ideas.
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* This is the image behind Marcy’s occasional references to the Twitter cave wall, an image I really like.

** Roman Catholic theology is grounded in Plato and neo-Platonism, including Plato’s distinction between appearance and reality. The application of pragmatism to religion is far beyond the scope of this primer. James takes it up in Lecture VIII, but there is much more to be said. See also this comment by Drew on the previous post.

*** In this quote “they” refers to John Dewey and F.C.S. Schiller, described in the introduction to the book. Chicago refers to the University of Chicago, where Dewey taught. Schiller taught at Oxford.

A Primer on Pragmatism: Method

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

This series is based on the work of Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher who describes herself as a pragmatist. The next three posts will address basic ideas of pragmatism.* The texts for this post are two papers by Charles Sanders Peirce: The Fixation of Belief, and How To Make Our Ideas Clear, both by Charles Peirce, published in Popular Science in 1877 and 1878. Peirce (pronounced “Purse”) is one of the founders of pragmatism, and one of America’s great original thinkers. Here’s his Wikipedia entry, which explains why.

In Part III of the first paper, Peirce begins talking about the main subject of the paper, belief and doubt. From my very limited knowledge, this separates pragmatism from prior philosophical thought, which turned on truth and falsity. There is no reason to define belief and doubt, except to note that they arise in all human beings individually, as opposed to truth and falsity which are somehow independent of human beings, even though they are human words.

Peirce tells us that we know the difference “between the sensation of doubting and that of believing”. Beliefs guide our actions, as a habit does. Doubts make it hard for us to act. Belief is a comfortable, untroubled state of mind. Doubts are uncomfortable. They give rise to a struggle to settle them into belief. Peirce calls this struggle “inquiry, thought it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation”.

He says that the irritation created by doubt is the only thing that will drive us to inquiry. I’d guess that’s because inquiry can be really hard work, which we humans avoid when possible. We hold strongly to our beliefs, and don’t want to change them. We go to great lengths to avoid doubt, because it would entail actual work.

We may think we want a true opinion, but Peirce disagrees.

But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false. And it is clear that nothing out of the sphere of our knowledge can be our object, for nothing which does not affect the mind can be the motive for mental effort. The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is mere tautology to say so.

We have ideas, habits of the mind. We think they are true because we use them to guide our actions.** If it turns out well, we don’t have to think about it anymore. But there is no reason to think we’ll get it right the next time either; often what passes for inquiry is trial and error, and we hold to the new belief until it becomes painful and we are forced to work again. This is a cleansing idea. We could possibly learn to hold less firmly to our opinions so as to remain open to new ideas. We won’t, though.

In Part V, Peirce describes four methods of settling doubt. First, tenacity. We cling to our first belief and refuse to acknowledge any doubt. This is really hard to do, because we are social creatures, and rub up against other humans in ways that cannot but create doubts about some of our certainties. Or so Peirce says. Observing my fellow citizens, I’m not so sure.

Second, some entity could settle all questions by legislating and enforcing approved propositions. That will work if the number of propositions subject to authority is limited, but eventually it will fail.

Third, the a priori method. People sit around and talk in good faith about what they think, and truth emerges. It might sound good, but garbage in garbage out. And with that, Peirce dismisses metaphysics.

Finally, there is the appeal to reality, a permanence outside our thought processes and unaffected by them. Peirce proposes the scientific method.

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion.

That’s exactly the approach to human beings and their habits of thought that attracts me to pragmatism. I note that it works really well for the physical sciences, but it is much harder to apply it to human constructs like institutions and governments, and to social interactions.

The second paper is devoted to a discussion of reality. It’s main point is that

… reality, like every other quality, consists in the peculiar sensible effects which things partaking of it produce. The only effect which real things have is to cause belief, for all the sensations which they excite emerge into consciousness in the form of beliefs. Part IV.

All of our senses produce effects in the mind when stimulated. When we find regularities, we formulate theories based on those regularities Theories that seem to work form our beliefs.

Beyond those things available to the senses, there is nothing of interest in the physical world. Humans invent tools to increase the range of sensations, such as microscopes, UV sensors, and radio detectors. Those things do not change the nature of reality. They simply reveal more of it to our senses.

This approach discards centuries of philosophical thought on matters like the distinction between appearance and reality. These and many other long-standing philosophical issues disappear in Peirce’s theory. They are useless because they do not raise doubts as to how we should act, or raise doubts about our beliefs.

Then Peirce explains how we this method enables us to settle our opinions. We use different methods come to agreement on specific issues, always subject to change or even rejection. He gives the example of the speed of light, offering a number of different methods of estimating it. As different people work out different methods, the answers begin to converge and we get better estimates. At the end there is always an error factor, so the measurement may never be perfect. But no one thinks the answer is a fiction. We assign an error factor and use the best estimate in further calculations and for future efforts to plumb reality.

We could use a similar process to form new beliefs. As William James puts it in his book Pragmatism available online here:

No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. THE ATTITUDE OF LOOKING AWAY FROM FIRST THINGS, PRINCIPLES, ‘CATEGORIES,’ SUPPOSED NECESSITIES; AND OF LOOKING TOWARDS LAST THINGS, FRUITS, CONSEQUENCES, FACTS. Lecture II
(Emphasis in original.)

Pragmatists work from observable facts. They ignore “first principles”, for example, the Natural Law or the principles of Galen or the categories of Aristotle. Sacred texts and religious dogmas are irrelevant. Classifications of reality must stand the test of usefulness for identifiable purposes.

In the next post I’ll discuss James’ views of truth in pragmatism. then I’ll take up some partial conclusions.
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* H/T to PartiallyExaminedLife.com for links to Peirce and James. The podcast discusses these works in Episodes 20 and 22.
** This idea sounds a lot like Bourdieu’s term “habitus”.

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