Monday, September 28, 2015

218. Eclipse of the intellectual?

 Is the intellectual, the moon of reflection, approaching eclipse?

I adopt the definition of the ‘the intellectual’ from Foucault[i]: ‘The person who uses his knowledge, his competence, and his relation to truth in the field of political struggles’.

A scientist mostly is not an intellectual. In item 99 of this blog I suggested that the difficulty of applying science to policy is threefold. First, the scientist posits him/herself as an outside spectator, objective and disinterested, while politics is about reconciling differences of interest. Second, he/she engages in abstraction, seeking universal truths, laws or regularities, while politics is about specific problems in specific conditions. Third, the scientist is specialized in a certain field, while policy needs to be integrative, including a variety of perspectives.

To resolve the tension, I proposed the pragmatist approach that I advocate in this blog. That entails a process orientation, in fallibilism, imperfection on the move, rather than an orientation towards presumed optimal and stable outcome, and an endeavour to combine disciplines. That turns policy advice into discourse rather than presentation of fixed and univocal conclusions.

Here, I reconsider the issue more widely and philosophically. As in the preceding items in this blog, I employ views from Foucault, adding to them and deviating from them.

In pragmatist and ‘postmodern’ philosophy, if that is still a useful term, philosophy developed away from the Cartesian view of the subject as an outside, objective, disinterested observer of the world, building on some prior foundations of knowledge and morality. Philosophers Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein take the view of the subject as developing its identity, cognition and judgement in interaction with the ‘object’, the world, muddling through and improvising, in ‘bricolage’. Meaning of words is found in their use. Universals have become suspect, and attention has shifted to individuals and specific conditions. Attention has shifted from substance to process, from being as a substantive to being as a verb.

Foucault proposed a transition from the ‘universal’ to the ‘specific’ intellectual. His example of the latter is the expert (he used the example of Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist), knowing of specific features of specific phenomena.

If the intellectual is defined as the bearer of universals and free-floating abstractions, then indeed he/she is inevitably in decline, or eclipse, and deservedly so. Or not? Do we now only have use for technical experts? I think not.

In a pragmatist, process-oriented view of knowledge, there is a dynamic of alternation between the general and the specific and between stability and change, between the abstract and the concrete, between Pascal’s spirit of geometry and spirit of finesse.

I argued that in my proposal of a ‘cycle of discovery’ in items 31 and 35 of this blog, and in the ‘hermeneutic circle’ in item 37.

This brings me back to my earlier plea for the intellectual as engaging in pragmatism and debate, with practitioners and people from other disciplines, deriving lessons from failure of abstractions and generalizations to work in specific contexts, shifting ideas to cope with failure, abstracting and generalizing from that, and so on. Not apodictic edicts, but pragmatist, fallibilist intellectual practice and discourse.

Isn’t that what Popper proposed with his falsificationism? 

Counter to Foucault, this entails more than technical expertise. But in agreement with Foucault, it requires that the intellectual have not only the scientific knowledge (‘connaissance’) but also the knowledge of the power system in which knowledge is embedded (‘savoir’).

However, it is also part of the concept of the intellectual to maintain independence, not to become a partisan of vested interests or dogma, an intellectual mercenary even. It is hard to combine independence with close knowledge of the system. ‘Savoir’ requires some degree of approach, familiarization, and this can easily slide into co-optation. Smart, educated people ‘in the know’ easily become virtuosi of the status quo. They become public figures, mandarins, but in my book are no longer intellectuals. The intellectual should have the moral courage to opt out. Is that too much to ask?

[i] In an interview on ‘Truth and power’ in 1976, reprinted in James D. Faubion (ed.), Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984, volume 3, Power, The New Press, 2000.

Monday, September 21, 2015

217. How power can destroy itself

Power seems attractive but when excessive can turn against itself, in several ways.

Excessive power can breed excessive distrust, to the point of paranoia. This appears to have happened to Stalin, for example. If one has absolute power, people have no other option than to obey, resign and submit. But trust is meaningful only when there is freedom of choice. When there is no option for people but to obey, the powerful one becomes suspicious of trustworthy behaviour: aren’t people only obeying because there is no alternative, out of fear rather than loyalty, while in fact they are not to be trusted? Everyone becomes subject to suspicion.

When people fear to criticize, the bearer of power lacks opposition, which is needed to correct errors, and sinks away in delusion.

A similar problem arises for the rich or beautiful: one suspects being liked for that rather than for one’s self.

If in entering a new, foreign field of action, one can impose one’s familiar views and practices, without the need to adjust to local views and conditions, then one robs oneself of the opportunity to learn by adopting and incorporating local ideas or practices. The path to innovative ‘novel combinations’ is blocked.

This has happened, for example, to Western firms in the early development of China, where they had the power of offering superior technology, design, employment and access to markets, which enabled them to impose their conditions. 

Imperialism can cripple itself.

In item 206 of this blog I asked whether this also happened, perhaps, when the EU imposed its will and regime on Greece.

A second way in which power can destroy itself is the following. Nietzsche defined will to power as the enjoyment of overcoming resistance. That can also turn against itself. Nietzsche proposed that the will to power of the losers, the weak, the oppressed (the ‘slaves’) can command pity and a morality that restrain the powerful (‘the masters’), and then the will to power of the latter, failing to get purchase on the surrounding weak, may turn in upon itself, devouring itself in guilt.

I think this is what Ayn Rand[i] had in mind with her Nietzschean plea for the masters not to give in.

However, turning will to power inside, against inertia, resistance in oneself, may also yield a mastering, a transformation, transcendence, growth of the self, as Nietzsche (but not Ayn Rand) recognized. But where would one get the insight, the material for that? How does one know towards what to transcend, and how? For this, I have argued in this blog (item 60) that one needs opposition from others, to make manifest how one’s ideas and practices fail and in what direction one might find a way to change them. So, here also power fails unless it opens up to others.  

This connects with the distinction between negative and positive power. In negative power, one restricts access of others to opportunities, including access to oneself, to criticism against oneself, thus locking oneself up in oneself. Positive power opens up opportunities, including opportunities to criticism and deviance, which can enrich oneself, opening opportunities for oneself.

Beyond individual power, how about power embodied in social systems of knowledge, positions, relations, dependence, authority, and institutions, discussed in preceding items in this blog? System power can also turn against itself, in similar ways, getting mired in distrust and paranoia against the outside world, robbing itself of challenges to adapt.  

Here also, one needs to open up to influence, to variety of outside views. That, after all, is the virtue of democracy.

Hopefully, the financial sector will catch on to this, before it destroys itself from its own power.

[i] Author of ‘Atlas shrugged’ and ‘The fountainhead’.

Monday, September 14, 2015

216. Theory, concept and fact

In debates in the philosophy of science, it has been claimed that the notion of empirical testing is problematic because observations and facts are ‘theory laden’. One always looks at the world through the glasses of some prior theory, or concept, or mental category. I have gone along with that. Now I take a closer look.

If facts are theory laden, how can theory be tested empirically? Isn’t there circularity involved? There is, of course, if facts are based on the same theory as the one that is tested. But one can distinguish between concepts underlying facts, and theories tested on them. This distinction between concepts and theory was made by the French philosopher Canguilhem[i].

Here, concepts are based on different, earlier theory, now taken for granted and embodied in instruments and methods of observation.

For example, a microscope embodies theory of light, and yields data on which one can test biological theory. Later atomic theory yielded the basis for electronic microscopes that can look ‘deeper’.

Later in this blog I will criticize mainstream economic theory, but I will maintain useful concepts from economics, such as, for example, economies of scale, substitution between factors of production, entry barriers to markets, and transaction costs.

There are levels of factuality. Suppose one has a cloud of data, in some two-dimensional space. One theory might draw a straight line through the cloud, another a curved line, and they fit equally well. They give different interpretations of the cloud but they see their own curve as the ‘fact’ represented by the cloud. Then they might agree about the cloud but not on what the cloud means. One theory may forbid curvature of the line through the cloud while the other demands it. 

An economist might construe the cloud as ‘evidence’ of individual rational choice, a sociologist as ‘evidence’ of imitative herd behaviour. They may accuse each other of ‘not making sense’. They may also try to go back to the cloud and look behind the data to investigate them more closely, or to collect additional data aimed at settling the difference of interpretation, if they can agree on the method of observation.

‘Lower level’ theory underlying concepts used for observation may be more widely shared, even among people adhering to rival ‘higher level’ theories. But the lower level is not infallible or eternal. There regularly are discoveries that alter concepts underlying ‘the facts’.

Hopefully, in a conflict between rival theories one will sooner or later find facts explained by one theory but ‘forbidden’ by the other. It may happen that one theory can explain a fact that the other cannot. There are two views of light: as a stream of particles and as a wave. The wave explains phenomena of interference that the particles do not, but the particles explain phenomena that indicate that light has mass, which the wave does not. So, a dual theory remains.

The problem with social sciences is that such ‘crucial experiments’ seldom exist. There, observation more often remains a matter of perspective, which often hardens into dogma or even ideology.

[i] Gary Gutting, 1989, Michel Foucault’s archaeology of scientific reason, Cambridge U. Press.

Monday, September 7, 2015

215. Ideology, power and knowledge

Ideology loads actions and knowledge with strongly held, prejudicial convictions of interest, purpose, and perspective. It used to be thought that ideology may be avoided, certainly in science, in disinterested, objective knowledge. That is an illusion, according to Nietzsche and Foucault, and I agree. Is every knowledge ideology, then? I don’t think so.

Ideology immunizes itself against critical discourse, blinding itself, deliberately or not. While knowledge is inevitably biased it can yet be open to debate, pursuing what earlier in this blog (item 104) I called warranted assertibility, where one accepts the obligation to substantiate one’s view with arguments and facts, even though  those are never objectively or ‘rock-bottom’ true. So, if there is anything left in the way of a universal principle of scientific morality, it is that.

Karl Popper laid down the principle that scientists should seek falsification, not corroboration of theory. Instead of looking out for facts that confirm, they should look out for ‘forbidden events’ at odds with the theory.

In fact, in science there is bias, dodging forbidden events and criticism, posturing, clamour, painting caricatures, ridiculing the opposition, setting up straw men to flog, in order to draw attention, or to protect established reputation and authority. So, Nietzsche and Foucault are right to say that knowledge entails battle, fight for power.

Counter to Popper’s scientific morality, in fact scientists routinely seek confirmation rather than falsification. 

Progress in knowledge is seldom up to an openness of the individual scientist to criticism or falsification, and more a matter of battle, in rivalry and competition, in arenas of publication and debate, within and between disciplines. Scientists try to falsify not their own theories but those of colleagues.

That may not be so bad, but the process is affected, indeed shaped, by positions and roles of authority, in editorial teams and boards, and by dominant styles and practices of research and publication .

Presently, scientific authority derives from one’s number of citations or publications in highly cited journals, and then gives access to positions of gatekeeping in editorial positions of journals. Countries with a large audience, such as the US, yield the advantage of a larger basis for citation. One gets cited more often as an American. People gain advantage by investing, diligently and diplomatically, in positions in networks, building on and citing the work of the ‘top dogs’, the gatekeepers, imitating their style and acquiring their patronage. 

Top dogs serve as role models, and dominant styles get established. For example, from the US, the norm of producing ‘single-issue’ papers, not ranging too widely, going for incremental, recognizable and easy to place results, rather than ambitious breakthroughs, and aiming for the high-impact journals, which often means US journals. In the rat race for careers Europeans argue that ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’.

Top economic journals select according to the ‘spirit of geometry’ enshrined in mainstream economics. I once submitted a paper to such a journal and received the following one line of response: ‘This paper does not maximize utility subject to constraints, therefore it is not science’.     

 Here, science indeed comes perilously close to ideology.