Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What Went Right? Part III

Part 3: Pajama Epistemology by Robert Tracinski
The evidence of the current state of the world tells us that every thinking man who does honest work in his own field is our ally and is helping to move civilization forward. The work of such men is not mere cultural "momentum" from a previous era, but an active addition to human knowledge and achievement. And whatever their philosophical errors, in their professional work these men are creating valid and important ideas that do change the course of events.

I do not mean to deny the crucial importance of fundamental philosophical ideas, but to suggest that the relationship between philosophical ideas and all other ideas, and the means by which ideas are propagated in a culture, is more complex than the standard Objectivist theory has recognized. We must look in more detail at the role of fundamental philosophical ideas, their relationship to the achievements of the special sciences, and their relationship to the other intellectual factors that we can see at work in the world today.

The first relevant fact to recognize is that achievements in the special sciences like economics, psychology, and biology, and in other specialized fields such as history, law, and even journalism—all of these are not mere "applications" of philosophy. That is, one cannot arrive at them simply by deducing them from one's philosophical knowledge. They require original observations and integrations derived directly from experience.

Any valid new observation or theory in a specialized field is based on an immersion in facts and observations, and on a whole range of lesser integrations and preliminary conclusions derived from those observations. Thus, there is a very important sense in which specialized knowledge is independent of philosophy. It is independent because it is based on and integrated directly from observation of reality. It is induced up from the facts, not deduced down from philosophical principles.

Philosophy does have an indispensable role to play. It provides a crucial context for valid work in specialized fields, a context that provides the specialist with guidance on his basic method and with basic principles about the nature of the world and the nature of man. But philosophy does not and cannot dictate the content of a specialized field. A specialist cannot produce knowledge within his own field simply by "reading off" results from the assumptions taught to him by philosophers.

Unfortunately, that has been an implication of the standard Objectivist interpretation of the role of ideas in history. Here, for example, is how Leonard Peikoff describes it in his epilogue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Philosophy is not the only cause of the course of the centuries. It is the ultimate cause, the cause of all the other causes…. The books of philosophers are the beginning. Step by step, the books turn into motives, passions, statues, politicians, and headlines.

This is a kind of trickle-down theory of intellectual influence, in which the philosopher is the originator and only source of the ideas that drive the course of history, while the public intellectuals and the men in the specialized sciences are mere transmitters and translators of those ideas.

But a productive thinker must ultimately get his assumptions—both about method and about content—from reality, not just from the philosophers. The philosopher can give him a head start, by providing him with a broad integration of previously acquired knowledge. But this knowledge, to be useful, must be grounded in, validated by, and built upon by the specialist's own first-hand, inductive understanding of his field.

Thus, while it is valid to say that philosophy is the "foundation" for the specialized sciences, in the sense that philosophy explicitly analyzes and validates the wider assumptions about reason and human nature that the specialist employs, there is a crucial respect in which specialized knowledge is the foundation for philosophical principles.

The only way to properly understand and validate a philosophical principle is to understand how it is grounded in the facts of reality. Since philosophy deals in the widest abstractions, it is built upon narrower integrations and conclusions derived from the previous work of the special sciences. For example, before there can be a science of epistemology—the branch of philosophy that explains the means by which man acquires and validates his knowledge—men must have already acquired a significant store of valid knowledge in the fields of physics, biology, mathematics, astronomy, and so on. And more: they must have already begun to develop specific methods of systematic observation, experimentation, and inference.

Historically, it was only on the basis of the early achievements of science that men were even able to conceive of such a field as epistemology. It was only on the basis of the achievements of science that philosophers were able to distinguish reason as a method distinct from reliance on authority or claims of divine revelation, and it is only on the basis of the continued and unchallengeable achievements of science that it was possible to claim that reason is the only valid method of acquiring knowledge. And in today's context, it is only this kind of concrete, specialized knowledge that can breathe life into one's understanding of the abstract philosophical principles that are drawn from it.

It is worth noting that the first great pro-reason philosopher, Aristotle, was also his era's greatest biologist and an inheritor of several centuries of progress in Greek science. Or, in a modern context, consider where the defenders of reason would be without Newton and Darwin—men who provided natural, scientific explanations for the nature of the universe and the origin of man, two questions that had traditionally been the exclusive domain of religion.

Or consider the idea that knowledge is the source of economic production, so that economic freedom is a precondition of prosperity—a crucial principle of political philosophy, but one that could only have been grasped and validated by observing the achievements of businessmen and scientists during and after the Industrial Revolution, and by drawing on the explanations offered by the best economists.

All of these factors will be missed if we regard philosophers as the only source of knowledge, which is only propagated downward to the special sciences.

Yet that is the conventional Objectivist view. I ran into an example of this recently in an Objectivist discussion group, where I challenged the notion (which has been propagated for some years in Objectivist circles) that religious dogmatism is an unstoppable intellectual trend, since unlike Communism it cannot be discredited by its consequences in reality. I call this notion the "Brezhnev Doctrine for religion"—once you go religious, you never go back.

In response to my challenge, one of the participants replied that religion can never be refuted by its consequences in reality, because "the sheer misery of putting bad ideas into practice never changed anyone's mind. This is simply because ideas are fundamental…. Though the consequences of bad ideas should be a shock that says, 'check your premises,' philosophical ideas are not validated or refuted based on trying them out to see what happens."

Consider what the claim that "ideas are fundamental" means in this context, It means that each man starts with basic philosophical ideas as his starting point, and that further observation and experience is not capable of inducing him to reject or refine those ideas. This is an excellent description of the essence of a bad methodology.

My own favorite example of this bad methodology—the approach of starting with a certain pre-formed philosophical conclusion and applying it blindly to new events—is the 1816 novel Frankenstein. Most of us think of it as just another science fiction story or horror flick, but this novel is actually a fascinating window into an important cultural moment, a moment at which something went terribly wrong among the world's intellectual elite. The novel was written at the height of the Scientific Revolution and in the first years of the Industrial Revolution. Science and technology were about to transform human life, resulting in the most profound and sustained improvement of the human condition that man had ever known. Yet Mary Shelley and her circle of friends were immersed in the trend of "Gothic" literature, which was based on a fascination with the mysticism of the Middle Ages. And so, on the eve of a scientific-technological revolution that was about to improve human life, she instead wrote a story about how science and technology would create monsters that threatened to destroy mankind. It is a powerful example of an intellectual clinging to philosophical preconceptions, refusing to alter them in the light of new evidence provided by the world around her.

This is an excellent description of the kind of mentality that slows down and occasionally reverses human progress, and which explains what has gone wrong in human history. But this is not a description of a healthy methodology. It is not the methodology that moves the world forward, and we cannot explain what went right if we impute this methodology to every thinker in the world.

This is a methodological lesson that I have had to learn, not only from observation of the world, but from personal experience. I first chose to enter journalism as a profession—after studying to become an academic philosopher—when, as a college student, I was preparing a presentation on a political topic and realized that I could not think of any concrete, real-life examples to illustrate my claims. I realized that my study of philosophy was not grounded in concretes, and I went into journalism in order to stock my mind with the vast store of data necessary to draw genuine, first-hand, inductive conclusions about the world.

My blog is the culmination of that career path, involving as it does a commitment to immerse myself in the details of the daily news—and the damned news never stops, marching on relentlessly day by day, in all of its fascinating detail. I have not been able to determine whether history has moved with a heightened speed and intensity in recent years, or whether I am simply paying closer attention. Either way, writing my blog has taught me my most important lessons about the nature of an inductive epistemological method.

When I first started writing my blog, in order to explain to myself what I was attempting to do, I concocted an elaborate analogy between instant punditry and Italian fast food. In a show on the Food Network, I had seen celebrity chef Mario Batali explain why the "fast food" available at roadside stands in Italy is so much better than American fast food. The key, he said, is that it is really "slow food": its ingredients are salamis that have been cured for six months, cheeses that have been aged for two years, and so on. These high-quality, lovingly crafted ingredients are available to be sliced up and slapped on a griddle to produce an "instant" panini sandwich.

This, I thought to myself, is a good analogy for how to provide "instant commentary" on the daily news. You draw on the philosophical and specialized knowledge that you have gathered over the years, and you simply slice up these pre-made ingredients, slap them into an e-mail, and serve them up to your readers.

Boy, was I wrong. While it is certainly true that I rely constantly on my pre-existing knowledge of philosophy and of history, art, political science, and so on, to provide an indispensable context for understanding the day's events, I quickly found that I needed to do much more than just "apply" this existing knowledge. Instead, I found that each day's news brought something truly new. Every day brought something that was not encompassed by my pre-existing knowledge—a new integration that had to be made, not merely old integrations to be applied.

The result is that my blog took far more work than I originally expected, because I found it to be far more epistemologically demanding than anything I had done before. But at the same time, I found it to be far more intellectually rewarding.

By the end of the first year producing my blog, I had scrapped my analogy about Italian fast food and developed a new name for what I do. I call it "pajama epistemology."

The name is my homage to my colleagues in the daily news business, the scrappy "bloggers" who were dismissed by the mainstream media as "a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing"—until they ended Dan Rather's career, in the months before the 2004 election, by showing that they were more in contact with the news than their larger, older rivals. They were more in touch with the news because they were interested in learning from new facts, rather than forcing the news into a preconceived leftist story line. That is the attitude I wanted to capture.

That is also what I admire about our culture's "working intellectuals," the reporters, commentators, and amateur bloggers, most of whom have no academic or institutional sinecures but instead sing for their supper every day by reporting on and analyzing the day's events. You know who these people are, because I link to their articles every day. Theirs is a career path with one healthy epistemological consequence: the work of these intellectuals is relentlessly fact-driven. Every day brings new events whose causes and consequences they have to explain. They are driven both to provide the "big picture" and to show a mastery of factual details.

Pajama epistemology begins with the realization that the world is full of six billion people who get up every morning to think and act and do things—that at least some of those six billion people will think new thoughts and do unexpected things—and that the job of intellectuals is not just to condescendingly "guide" these individuals, but also to follow them. As I have discovered, it is a full time job just to keep up with the most important things that the world's six billion people are doing, and to draw the new integrations and new conclusions that they have made possible.

The attitude behind pajama epistemology is to ask: what can I learn by observing what these people have done and said today?

You will notice this process of integration in the repeated use of a particular title for one of my news items I comment on: "The Suicide Bomb Society," "The Great Contradiction of China," "The Fantasy World of the Realists," and so on. The title is repeated because a pattern of facts and arguments has been repeated, indicating a similarity between separate events, or a sequences of events that is falling into a pattern. Often, this repeated title will become the title of an article, and each article is an answer to a question that begins "What can I learn…?"

What can I learn from events in Kiev, Beirut, and Baghdad about the meaning of representative government? See my 2005 article "Three Elections." What can I learn, from comments made by rights activists in Kabul, Beijing, Beirut, and Minsk, about the global impact of the American example—and from that, about the process by which ideas move a culture? See "The Metaphysics of Normal Life." What can I learn, from an incident in which Muslims scream that the pope has "offended" their religion, about the relative immediacy of the threat of "dhimmitude" under a reign of Islamic terrorism, versus the threat of a Christian "theocracy" in the West? See my upcoming article, "What Has Jerusalem to Do with Athens?"

Most of all, pajama epistemology is a dedication to regarding knowledge—and particularly the kind of ideas that move that world—not as something that only comes from the top down, from the philosophers down to the common man, but also as something that comes from the bottom up, from detailed observation of events and from the integrations made by active minds in every field.

This also entails, in my view, a healthy respect for the thinking of the common man, and a grasp of the living institutions by which the mass of men in the developed world, and in rapidly developing areas of the world, actively sustain the civilization of the Enlightenment, even in the face of indifference or opposition from today's academic philosophers and professional intellectuals.


philcoates said...

Causes of Cultural Movement other than Pure Philosophy:

Most Objectivists, unlike most modern historians, understand the hidden but deep power of "pure philosophy", of the major answers and arguments expressed by Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Descartes, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Hegel, Dewey, the analysts, the existentialists, the postmodernists and others. Even if not consciously or fully accepted, they condition the culture, set the tone, the premises, the types of debate and create (and man) the institutions.
And they have done this down the centuries.
But what happens when pure philosophy has become discredited, when it has reached a dead end? When it is bankrupt and is -seen- to be bankrupt by anyone intelligent? When it is laughed at, and its major figures no longer command public respect, unlike nearly a hundred years ago when John Dewey could write for major newspapers and have his pragmatist theories debated across an entire nation by the intellectuals and by educated laymen? What happens when the universities find it hard to fill their philosophy classrooms and when the "pure theory" professors are ignored, even largely by their own (dwindling and unemployable) students? "I have a degree in philosophy, Mr. employer." "Great, that and a couple bucks will get you a ride on the New York subway, not a job with me."
Philosophy is -potentially- powerful and determinative of the direction of a civilization and it has been in the past. And may be again.
But can philosophy, sometimes in unique historical eras, for a time lose, not its full power, but a **great measure** of its power to build (or to destroy, as in the case of nihilist, relativist, and skeptic philosophies of the last century or more)? Does the explanation for the non-collapse of civilization rest in the fact that humans have free will and no one who is himself enormously influential as a transmission belt is taking seriously the ideas of the most recent generations of philosophers?
Does the vacuum today get filled by those who offer actual answers to the problems of life: religious movements, self-help books, counselors and therapists, by the paterfamilia and elders in more traditional societies (or traditional enclaves of advanced societies)?
Humans have free will.
That is why pure philosophy -alone- does not and cannot deterministically cause history.
Objectivists, for example, have chosen to reject totally all the malign philsophical influences they have been taught. And many of us were impervious to these ideas or were "a-philosophical" before reading Ayn Rand. Human beings can -choose- by the millions to reject or ignore a deep and fundamental theoretical doctrine, or the need to study them. (Whole societies have at certain points in the past rebelled against the deep philosophical wisdom of the times.) People may never have heard of the mind-body dichotomy, skepticism, intrinsicism, and a whole host of other positions and debates. They can drift, it is true, and be subject to random philosophical winds from past centuries. But they can also simply live with "market-driven" substitutes for the philosophies taught in the academy. They can and do live in a practical, everyday Aristotelian world of their professions and friends and families...and roll their eyes and shut their minds when they hear some Kantian or relativist or anti-common sense position advocated.
There once was a time in the West when major philosophers were treated with awe and respect by the educated public of their day: Dewey in the U.S., Kant and Hegel and Heidegger in Germany, Locke and Hume and Hobbes in England, Rousseau and Descartes and Sartre and Camus in France. And this made them enormously influential, simply because they spoke for the Queen of the Sciences, they were occupying the intellectual "commanding heights" and their ideas trumped or determined *every other idea* that would be accepted.
But if they are no longer respected (at least in America, other Western countries such as France and Germany may differ to some measure) because they have been preaching nonsense for a hundred years, if no one (or virtually no one) is listening, it doesn't matter how powerful and fundamental their pure philosophical ideas are.
What we are seeing - and have seen for a good portion of the last century - is a rebellion against academic and fundamental philosophy. It is laughed at and loathed. And to some extent, if an academic philosopher says something, even many prominent intellectuals are likely to not only be skeptical but believe the opposite. When something collapses and stinks to high heaven there is a tendency to rebound toward the opposite (which is one reason why religion - the best known alternative to pure or academic philosophy - and the less rational alternatives such as superstition, witchcraft, magic, cults, etc. are seeing a resurgence: from Islam worldwide to various fundamentalisms in the West).
Your civilization can't be destroyed by those whose ideas you as a culture are to a significant degree unwilling to listen to or take seriously.
This is not true of religion right now (it is not the object of widespread ridicule), but it does seem to be true of fundamental philosophy.

--Philip Coates

[I posted the above today to the website.]

Winston Smith said...

Thank you, Outer Party Comrade Phil!

I thought Julia and I were alone here at the Ministry of Truth.

P.S. Are you an agent of Goldstein and do you where the Underground is located?

P.P.S. Must run -- Time for the Two Minute Hate on CNN.

philcoates said...

No, I am not an agent of Goldstein, but Old Major -- a predecessor of Napoleon and no ally of Snowball:

"Beast of England, Beasts of Ireland,

Beasts of every land and clime,

Hearken to my joyful tidings

Of the golden future time."

(Page 32)