Saturday, February 28, 2015

187. System tragedy

I continue the preceding discussion of the notion of a script as a composition of nodes that can each be filled in from a repertoire of alternatives that can substitute for each other in that node, in that script. 

This repertoire is limited by the need to preserve the function of the node in the overall script. Something that would jeopardize that role and hence threaten the integrity of the script would not be permitted. All scripts, of action, bodies, sentence, type, style, building, theory, or organization impose limitations on what can be substituted in nodes.

Taking a seat and waiting to be served will not work in a self-service restaurant. Poison destroys a body. Poetic license in putting words in strange places creates wonder or confusion. Prior to impressionism paintings were made in studios and going into nature to sit and paint was odd. Postmodernism evoked ridicule in mixing styles. The wrong kind of concrete will cause a building to collapse. Offering taxi services by private car owners upsets the taxi industry.

The script of established theory, with basic core assumptions, established methodology and logic, and underlying ethics, is called a ‘paradigm’. In economics it is utilitarian ethics, methodological individualism, rational choice, and the ‘spirit of geometry’ with the use of mathematical models.    

In items 33 and 34 of this blog I discussed how scripts yield prototypes as a template for recognition. That makes for efficiency in human action and interaction, but it does constitute a form of prejudice. The practice of non-linguistic scripts is accompanied by what Wittgenstein called ‘language games’, socially and often tacitly accepted linguistic scripts, and, vice versa, language can be understood as being embedded in scripts of practice, in Wittgenstein’s doctrine of ‘meaning as use’.

This perspective yields one way of looking at conservatism and at what elsewhere (item 109) I called ‘system tragedy’. Often, justified as they may seem, things are ruled out because they threaten the integrity of the wider system, or are ignored or simply not perceived when they do not fit in a script that is relevant to the situation. Worse, operating outside the established language game one is seen to speak nonsense. Innovation and reform have a hard time when not fitting in established scripts.

How to break out of that? For this I proposed a ‘cycle of invention’ in item 31. To escape from the conservatism of the established order one has to break out into a new ‘selection environment’ with different scripts and corresponding nodes. There, one may have to make new local substitutions into some nodes of the script, or bring in entire new nodes, in order to survive in the new environment. That, in turn, puts pressure on the larger order of the script and may trigger or necessitate its restructuring, in experiments with new structures of old and new nodes.

Self-service forced such change in restaurants, poets force new meanings by bringing in words in odd places, artificial limbs produce new body scripts, impressionists went outside, in nature and outside established academies and galleries, and after struggle came in triumphantly, nylon replaced sisal in ropes, plastics replaced cotton.

So, to escape from system tragedy, one must challenge the system with novel conditions in novel contexts, and allow for opposition and competition from niches outside the established order. There lies the merit of markets and democracies, with all their imperfections and perversities. A flourishing life is a game of breaking up scripts.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

186. Commensurability and substitution

For the sake of rational calculation of optimal choice, economics assumes that everything can be brought together under the single measure of utility (‘commensurability’).[i]

I propose that one aspect of commensurability is that things are equivalent, can replace each other, or can ‘substitute for each other’, as economists say. More of the one can compensate for less of the other. Labour and capital can be substituted for each other in production, in more capital- or more labour-intensive production.

There is something similar in language. One criterion for two expressions to have the same meaning (in the sense of sameness of reference), is that they can replace each other in propositions while maintaining their truth. For (a classic) example, the proposition ‘the morning star is a planet’ remains true if we replace ‘morning star’ by ‘evening star’, since both expressions refer to the same planet: Venus.

Earlier in this blog (item 180) I proposed that often things cannot be added in a single measure. As an example I used ethical values, which led me to virtue ethics instead of utilitarian ethics, with multiple values and virtues that cannot all added or subtracted or traded off against each other.

There is another counterexample. The body requires calcium, vitamins, minerals, amino-acids, and oxygen, and those cannot replace each other. One needs some minimum of each. Living systems are geared to keep values of different items within boundaries. Aristotelian virtue ethics, with its striving for ‘the middle’ between extremes, does the same for ethics.

I discussed wholes and their parts in the preceding item of this blog. The point now is that wholes are seldom simple aggregates of their parts, but mostly compositions, structures of connections between them.

We can elaborate on this with the use of the notion of scripts that I used before in this blog (in item 35), as a composition of connected components called nodes. The nodes can represent activities in some action script. The example I used was that of a restaurant, with subsequent nodes of entry, eating, ordering, eating, paying and leaving.

Nodes may also denote words in a sentence, connected by grammar and syntax, or elements of a theory or argument, connected by logical inference. In the case of calcium, vitamins, etc. in the body: they fulfil different functions in the body script. The script may also represent an architectural composition, with elements connected by logics of use and of construction. I will return to this in a later item. It may represent connections of dependence, interests and rivalries in economic systems, as in industry structure. I will later return to that also.

Now I propose that things are commensurable to the extent that they are equivalent, can substitute for each other in the same nodes.

A node has a repertoire of different ways in which its function in the script can be performed (different ways of paying a bill, in the restaurant case). Those can substitute for each other. However, equivalence is a relative concept. Two things are equivalent relative to some higher script or purpose (the restaurant script). But they have different (sub)scripts of their own (paying cash, using a bank card).

Back to economics. Labour and capital may replace each other in achieving some volume and cost of production, but they entail very different production processes.

All consumer products (good and services) in some way or another satisfy some of a wide variety of needs and desires. In that sense they are commensurable, but to a very limited degree. Different products fit in different nodes in different user scripts, and as such they are largely incommensurable.

In other words, things that are equivalent for what is ‘brought about’ may not be equivalent in how this is done. We find that also in linguistics. Expressions may have the same extension/reference but not the same intension/sense, i.e. the way in which the reference is arrived at, given differences in knowledge, belief, experience, and values between people.

One might say: The assumption in economics that everything can be summed up in utility is senseless.    

[i] More strictly, the assumption is that everything can be brought together in preferences that satisfy axioms of completeness and consistency (in particular transitivity).

Monday, February 16, 2015

185. The whole and the parts

Analytical thought sees wholes as determined by their parts, and understanding the whole requires taking it apart. Hence the term ‘analytical’.

For example, economic science is governed by the principle of ‘methodological individualism’: economic phenomena should be explained on the basis of individual consumers and producers. In markets, their behaviour is supposed to be coordinated by an  ‘invisible hand’ of competition.

In language, the philosopher Frege posited that the meaning of a sentence is a function of the meanings of the words in it. In my discussion of language, in this blog, I proposed that the reverse also applies: meaning is context-dependent; the meaning of a word depends on the sentence it is in, and on the wider action context.

That principle of reverse dependence of the whole and its parts applies more generally. In societies, a group is to be understood as made up from individuals, but vice versa the individuals are constituted by the group. What connects them are mutual dependence, shared views, meanings, customs and practices, and tacit understandings, in Wittgensteinian ‘language games’. Those are  produced by people but also condition them. This is the issue of ‘structuration’ in sociology. It is widely neglected in economics.

The philosopher Henri Bergson claimed that in traditional philosophy, and in language, time is reduced to space. A lapse of time is seen as made up of points along an axis of time. With his notion of duration he claimed the opposite: units of time are experienced as part of an experience as a whole. That is how we experience time as duration.

This is most pronounced in music. A melody is made up from notes but the notes are heard as being part of the melody.

A walk is made up of steps, but the steps have meaning as part of the walk.  

Bergson even proposed that in the number 2 the two ones that constitute it are not the same as the three ones that constitute the number 3[i]. In the first case they are half the number, in and in the second case a third. Three entities have other properties in their relations than two. Two items can gang up on the third[ii].

So we see that the same fundamental principle, of wholes being a function of their parts and vice versa, applies in many walks of life.

The fundamental significance of the principle escalates when seen as part of a fundamental logic of change or transformation. In several places in this blog (items 31 and 35) I argued for a ‘cycle of invention’. There, novelty arises from alternation between unity and variety, abstraction and concretisation: from lifting concepts or ideas out of the practical context of use, shedding particulars and specificities of contexts, and a subsequent re-embedding in new action contexts, where they are clothed anew in the richness of action. In the process they shift their meaning or may acquire new ones.

We saw it also in the discussion of the hermeneutic circle (in item 36), where concepts (paradigms) constitute meaning in sentences (syntagms), and may acquire new meaning from that context.

In terms of wholes and parts: existing entities are injected into unfamiliar wholes, are modified in the process, and yield new entities that define new wholes.  

[i] See Rebecca Hill, The interval; Relation and becoming in Irigaray, Aristotle and Bergson, New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.
[ii] The sociologist Georg Simmel emphasized the fundamental change that occurs in going from two to three.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

184. Unity in diversity

Here I start a series on ‘the whole and the parts’, on how a composition depends on the components and components on the composition, and how this affects measurability, control and change, and how it can produce ‘system tragedy’.

Development, creation, and innovation, in nature, language, science, art, and politics, require variety, with individuals escaping from the unity of the universal, and thereby, when successful, contributing to its shift.

Evolution is driven by the generation of variety (in biology: mutations, crossover of chromosomes).

We need a combination of unity and diversity, which is an ancient theme. Isaiah Berlin made a distinction between unifiers and multipliers. Learning and innovation proceed by an alternation of integration and disintegration. We need both. This appeared in item 31 of this blog, where I presented a theory of invention. 

Innovation is often collaborative because innovation feeds upon variety in order to achieve novel combinations of features in a new product. Different, complementary skills or other resources are required to achieve it.  

I give a few examples of unity in diversity.

A form manifests itself in a variety of ways, in nature (a species), science (a scientific paradigm), and in art (a style, such as impressionism, surrealism).

Along the canals of Amsterdam we see rows of individual gables, with distinctive arches, angles, flats and curves. Yet they have something in common that is pleasing to the eye. What is it? It is the use of the golden ratio[i] for the proportions of the height of windows, with the lowest window the highest, the next window 0.618 of that height, and so on upwards. The golden ratio appears also in nature and in mystic symbols (as in the five-pointed star in the flag of Morocco).      

In politics, the blessing of a well-working democracy is that it allows for diversity. To complement that, and as a safeguard, we need a constitutional state that unifies, in a guarantee of equality under the law.

Alas, in some countries this is being reversed: democracy becomes unified and legality differentiated. Democracy is being crafted to a populist, nationalistic voice that clamours for homogeneous national identity. The rule of law is being differentiated between inhabitants who are and those are not seen to belong to the nation, which is leading to outright discrimination. This is happening in my own country, the Netherlands, which used to be seen as paragon of justice for all. In the Italy of Berlusconi the diversity of private connections of family, region, profession, religion, etc. trumped the rule of law.

In markets, competition elicits diversity in the form of product differentiation. It is not profitable to compete only on price, with a universal, simple product that is identical for all suppliers. Profit is made by distinguishing products from each other, each for a different segment of the market. Yet the different varieties share a function in their use and a corresponding market, in which to a greater or lesser extent they compete.

In the Netherlands, health insurers compete on price for the basic, minimum standard insurance package, obligatory for all insured, which all insurers are obligated to offer. They make profits on additional, specialized insurance products in opaque packages with many different forms, conditions of availability and tariff structures.

Next to these cases of simultaneous unity and diversity, there are also sequential forms.

In science, new theory arises from a disarray of old theory and gets consolidated and standardized in a unified new theory, and then moves on to accumulate empirical misfits that fracture theory again, hopefully to produce a new synthesis, which will sooner or later fragment anew.

[i] Take two segments of a line, the smaller a and the larger b, which satisfy the condition: a/b = b/(a+b). That is the golden ratio. Solving the equation yields a/b = 0.618

Monday, February 2, 2015

183. Sources of happiness

 A large literature on happiness and happiness research boil down to a distinction between two main sources of happiness: purpose and pleasure.

This is not really new, and can be found in ancient Greek philosophy, with the notion of eudaimonia: a ‘good’ life as a meaningful whole, with momentary pleasure only an element in that. Pleasure without purpose yields a sense of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of direction, lack of coherence, and a sense of being forlorn. It entails lack of identity. It misses the point of life. But life without pleasure is not much fun.

Purpose entails the feeling of leading a ‘meaningful’ life. What does that mean?

I think that it is related to the wider notion of religion, beyond, or short of, theistic religion (belief in a God), which I discussed in item 14 of this blog. The fundamental meaning of religion, I proposed, was an orientation towards something beyond and bigger than oneself. The form that I prefer is an orientation to ‘the other’, with what one contributes to life and society, and leaves behind at death, as the only form of ‘hereafter’ we have, making the best of one’s talents and circumstances (see item 124).

Of course there are many ways of making a contribution: raising children, being a good friend, achieving love (see below), teaching, developing a business, being a statesman, science, art, philosophy, etc.

Where does pleasure come in? Ideally, it entails enjoyment in pursuing a meaningful purpose. It can be taxing to strive for a purpose: effort, strife, setbacks, disappointment, grief, pain, …

However, to some people accepting a challenge, fighting for a purpose, exercising discipline, and having to renounce ease and comfort may be part of the enjoyment of life. Think of Nietzsche’s will to power, the enjoyment of overcoming obstacles.

Also, being open to others and exercising empathy form an opportunity, the only one there is, really, to correct one’s prejudices and grow, spiritually and intellectually. That may not only enhance purpose but also contribute to pleasure. Without it we stagnate in our selves.

For some or sometimes pleasure entails excitement, and for others or at other times serenity and peace. Think of Nietzsche’s pair of on the one hand balance and harmony (Apollo) and on the other hand rave and ecstasy (Dionysos). They may alternate, in the striving for fulfilment of a purpose, and one may take pleasure in such alternation.

As discussed in item 121, a prime challenge for happiness is learning to deal with the dynamic, the challenge, tension and marvel, of the pleasure of passion (eros) and the purpose of loving friendship (philia), and trying to have pleasure in going from the one to the other, or combining the two.