Monday, 14 March 2011

The Specialist

Look at him!  So happy with his new delivery, and so contented, surrounded now by all these filing cabinets; the last one received today.  The door blocked, and he is trapped forever in his self-made labyrinth.  At first the shock, and then the ecstasy: never to leave this room again!

He sits down, with a smile on his face.  This is the happiest he has ever been.  Composing himself, he puts on a sombre mask and slices up his scholarly articles; and places them meticulously inside his empty drawers: passion next to bearded heads on coins.

Passionate beards?  It doesn’t seem possible in our clean-shaven century, as those austere Victorian patriarchs walk across our memories.  Although this is an odd one; a Roman who kills dinner guests with rose petals, and would like to make of his penis an accommodating flower.  He shifts and cuts, and allocates; he puts castration next to cult, the Vestal Virgin in amongst the blue food; he sorts and catalogues, he analyses, and cuts and cuts until there is nothing left…

In an excellent review of a new book on Emperor Elagabalus[i] Mary Beard describes such a specialist at work.[ii]  Elagabalus was a short-lived and very minor Roman emperor, but whose reign produced excesses that exceeded even those of the worst tyrants; such as Nero and Caligula.  Given just how fantastic many of these stories are a question has always been how much of his reputation is a fiction: “did he really serve 600 guests ostrich brains all at one meal?”  Our professor thinks he has found the answer: he will rely only on the facts.  A strange assertion, when you first read it, for it seems odd that thousands of other scholars would have never done the same.  But for de Arrizabalaga y Prado these facts are of a very special sort:

[H]is test for “facts” [is] that historiography alone can hardly ever count as a fact, unless it is backed up by artefactual evidence (trust the coin or the inscription, in other words, not the accounts that Roman historians have transmitted to us); and, second, that public documents are more reliable than private documents, as it is much harder to tell a bare-faced lie in public than in private (not something we have noticed in the politics of the past couple of decades).

Wikileaks, and the Public Record Office when they release government archives each year, has demonstrated the unreality of the professor’s belief.  On that one point alone the whole book falls: the methodology is not so much seriously flawed as redundant.  We feel sorry for him; but also envious: behind his filing cabinets he has avoided the outside world, its banality and horrors, its newspapers and television screens.  We feel for him, and we imagine him thinking, in some vague way, of how an aristocratic oligarchy is still in charge, wearing togas and sandals; and giving elaborate speeches in well-turned Latin, full of paradox and classical allusion…[iii]

The first assertion, to rely on just on the artefacts, reminds me of an old interview between A.J Ayer and Bryan Magee, when they discussed Logical Positivism on the BBC.  Here was a movement that thought it had solved the problem of philosophy: if an assertion could not pass the verification test it had no meaning, and was therefore nonsense.  This test of knowledge also had two main strands:

They said that any statement that wasn’t either a formal statement (a statement in logic or mathematics), or empirically testable, was nonsensical. (Ayer)

Ayer himself was very important for a time, as he brought his movement to England from Austria, where it had an enormous early influence.  By reducing everything to a scientific method, or mathematics and logic, the key epistemological problem would be solved.  No wonder it was intoxicating!  Ever since the fall of medieval Christianity the central philosophical issue has been how to ground knowledge.  With God gone, the search had been on to find something to put in his place; to give our knowledge certainty and stability.  Everyone had been asking the question: what foundations will our new churches be built on, if they are not to be ramshackle and unsound.  The Logical Positivists had at last found the answer.  And even better, had found it from within what was regarded as the working practices of the sciences themselves.  However, there was a problem.

Magee:  But it must have had real defects.  What do you now, in retrospect, think the main ones were?
Ayer:  Well, I suppose the most important of the defects was that nearly all of it was false.
Magee:  I think you need to say a little more about that.
Ayer:  Well, perhaps I’m being too harsh on it, I still want to say it was true in spirit – the attitude was right.  But if one looks at it in detail. …  First of all, the verification principle never got itself properly formulated.  I tried several times but always let in either too little or too much.  To this day it hasn’t received a logically precise formulation.  The reductionism doesn’t work.  You can’t reduce even the ordinary statements about cigarette cases and glasses and ashtrays to statements about sense data – let alone the more abstract statements of science…  Third, it seems to me very doubtful now whether statements in logic and mathematics are analytic in any interesting sense… the whole reduction of statements about the past to statements about the present and future evidence for them is wrong.  Our doctrine about other minds was wrong…  If you go into detail, very little survives…
Magee:  Would you agree with me if I were to put it this way?  Looking back on it, what seems to have been good about Logical Positivism is almost entirely negative.  It did clear away a lot of hitherto plausible philosophizing which we can now see, through the lenses of the new logic and the new science, to be unacceptable.  A lot of ground got cleared.  But it now looks as if clearing the ground was all they actually succeeding in doing; because what they tried to build on that ground isn’t standing up.
Ayer:  Well, it’s a little more than that.  It was very liberating.  Perhaps we can go back to something not said by a Logical Positivist but by a pragmatist, William James…  [He] had a phrase in which he asked for the ‘cash value’ of statements.  This is very important.  The early Logical Positivists were wrong in thinking that you could still maintain the gold standard – that if you presented your notes you could get gold for them – which of course you can’t.  There isn’t enough gold.  And there are too many notes.  But nevertheless there has to be some backing to the currency.  If someone makes an assertion, well, all right, perhaps you can’t translate it out into observational terms – but it is still important to ask how you would set about testing it.  What observations are relevant?  This, I think, still holds good.  (Men of Ideas)

Logical Positivism was a metaphysics masquerading as a scientist in a lab technician’s white coat.  It failed, and had to accept that while we can acquire knowledge, we cannot ground it with absolute certainty.  However, to do this we have to go beyond the simple-minded view of simply picking up facts and testing them – the de Arrizabalaga y Prado method -, which is really trying to replace knowledge by experience: only what we see with our own eyes is real and definite.[iv]  We have to accept a degree of doubt, which requires a more sophisticated engagement with the evidence, both artefactual and historiographical; relying more on judgement than on facts, with its ability to weigh up the testimony between witnesses, based on their authority and internal consistency, together with an understanding of human nature and the wider environment where these actions take place.  Mary Beard herself gives an example of one such approach:

The most interesting academic studies of the Elagabalan tradition in recent years have steered clear of questions of truth or falsehood in the ancient accounts of his eccentric emperor…  embracing rather than rejecting the exuberant fictionality of the narratives of his reign, modern commentators have concentrated instead on the ways that “Elagabalus” (as an imaginative construct, rather than a real emperor) exposed the anxieties of Roman culture, imperial power, and politics…

The stress on Elagabalus’s obsession with the Syrian cult of the sun raises questions about cultural and ethnic identity at the heart of the Roman Empire.[v]

One problem with Logical Positivism, as Ayer mentions, was its approach to history.  Since historians most summarise, collate and arrange material that they themselves have not witnessed all history is brought into doubt if knowledge is reduced to first hand observation.  Not only God is kicked out of heaven; but Gibbon is too, from the national pantheon.  In the end, as Ayer notes, the only thing we can say about history is that it is a collection of statements made by the people who write books.  History ceases to exist as a serious discipline, and just about all of human past is erased… it is just a series of texts.

Mary Beard notes the same problem here.  She quotes another leading scholar who, when shown de Arrizabalaga y Prado’s method, and its justification, there is no artefactual evidence, said: “nor is there for the battle of Salamis.”  This professor wants too much; he wants something that no knowledge can provide – absolute certainty.  To achieve it he must get rid of everything.  This is the stupidity of reason; or at least of a particular kind.[vi]

Like the Logical Positivists this need, and the confidence that one has satisfied it, creates its own metaphysics and wild speculations.  In the case of Logical Positivism the verification principle itself, while for our Roman specialist it is the fabrication of a new story to replace the old one of sexual and gastronomic excess: of individual freedom and, with the institution of the Syrian cult of Elagabal, a means of self legitimation as an upstart at the top of an empire.  Rather than relying on the accounts of other writers, balancing their reliability with the probability of the claims, using a range of ideas and the work of other scholars, supported by those artefacts, he relies only on the evidence he can see.  That is, he relies on himself alone.  He will decide, with his method, and with his own eyes, on what is real and unreal.  Perfect for the modern man, who lives inside the myth of individual greatness and self-sufficiency.[vii]  We are all rulers now! alone in our own kingdoms.  Little wonder then that his interpretation reflects these contemporary cultural concerns.  Though curiously he feels like a citizen of a more ancient land:

But for a researcher like Pliny, who was in a sense the first martyr of empirical science, since he would die asphyxiated by the fumes of Vesuvius when it erupted, direct observation occupies a minimal place in his work, and counts neither more nor less than what he reads in books, which for him were all the more authoritative the older they were.  At best he admits his uncertainty, saying: ‘However, I would not give my word for the majority of these facts, preferring as I do to rely on the sources, to whom I refer you in all cases of doubt: I will never tire of citing the Greek sources, since they are not only the most ancient but also the most precise in observation.

After this preamble Pliny feels he is now authorised to launch into the famous list of ‘miraculous and incredible’ characteristics of certain foreign races which was to be so poplar in the Middle Ages, and afterwards, and was transform geography into a living freak show.  (Italo Calvino in the essay: The Sky, Man, the Elephant in Why Read the Classics?)

Here is another method based on false principles.  Pliny also wants to be an objective scientist, but he lacks the appropriate techniques and infrastructure.  The scientific method, of which de Arrizabalaga y Prado’s is a poor parody,[viii] is not so much about individual observation and testing as a set of rules within an agreed culture, which has been adopted by tradition and the people who work in its various fields.  Only within this institutional environment can both the insights and their confirmation give rise to the power and efficacy of modern science.  Its very nature is a corporate exercise; and it would collapse if its validity relied on a single individual.  Pliny, and de Arrizabalaga y Prado, illustrates what happens if you go it alone.  For our professor to achieve certainty he must ignore the historians; for his famous predecessor it was only the ancient writers who could guarantee it – instead of collecting facts he collected pages.  Pliny’s was a rational approach – the Greeks were reliable witnesses to what they wrote about because they were closest to the observed incidents – though an incorrect one, based on false premises.  The rise of modern thought began when this assumption was questioned, and the inadequacy of the ancients was recognised.  Separated almost by two millennia our two writers share a common failing, though their prejudices are at its either extreme: for or against the books.  Pliny was the more rational: he lived before the modern era, with its refinement of both knowledge and method, while he recognised that even his trusted sources could contain errors.  De Arrizabalaga y Prado ignores the intellectual history, and places too great a faith in what he believes are uncontested truths.  It is the failure of the specialist, overwhelmed by the amount of stuff he has to process, and on which he concentrates far too much attention.  Better if he collected less facts, and wrote fewer pages, and spent more time reading philosophy and the other disciplines – a wider understanding is more important than a filing cabinet full of shards and dusty quotations.  For as Pliny shows, without a proper method and institutional support, or an intellectual grasp of the world and its causes, you are prone to overvalue the facts; and misinterpret them.

There is something else too.  Universities have grown enormously over the last two centuries; and the body of knowledge it has produced is colossal.  However, the idea that there is a steady progress of knowledge, at least in some disciplines, is undone by a book like this – here it is regression, if it is anything at all.  Its appearance suggests the academy may be suffering from another symptom of the age: obesity.[ix]

[i] I’ve always known him as Heliogabalus, but this name is the one now used by scholars.
[ii] Leanardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado, in his The Emperor Elagabalus; Fact or Fiction?  The review is in TLS 25/02/2011.
[iii] This passage may be revealing in other ways:  it shows the conformity and naivety of the technical specialist; who is both dependent on and indifferent to the authorities.  Thus the excessive trust in public documents – mostly official statements by the rulers and their acolytes.  This has a two-fold effect: lack of critical engagement with contemporary politics and an excessive reliance on the views and beliefs of the elites in the periods when they are studied.  Reinforcing a bias which is inherent in most of written history: it is only relatively recent historiography that has become interested in the views of the ordinary man or woman.
[iv] See extensive discussion in footnote xlv in Dropout Boogie.
[v] Though some of this work risks falling into pure speculation; a new kind of empty rhetoric: “the story of the deadly flower petals points to the inevitable ambivalence of any emperor’s generosity – as potentially destructive as it is benevolent.”
            True of most rulers, one imagines, particularly before the arrival of modern democracy; where official favour always entailed the potential for catastrophic rejection – because all favourites dropped from court could become disaffected rebels they were usually either exiled or killed.  Richard Storry put it well: party politics is sublimated civil war. (A Modern History of Japan)
            The danger is always that a formula replaces insight, and a catch-all explanation covers every particular.  Interestingly though, it does show how post-modernism, so heavily criticised in Dropout Boogie, has had a positive influence across the humanities; opening up new lines of research. 
At its extreme, skirted around by Mary Beard in the quote in the main piece, it can come close to the Logical Positivist ideal: history is turned into statements about statements, rather than anything concrete.  Though here the values have changed: it is celebrated instead of being rejected. This analogy with Logical Positivism does suggest a potentially serious weakness in this approach.
[vi] Dropout Boogie has a lengthy discussion, across a number of footnotes.  In Isaiah Berlin’s Personal Impressions there is an account of an exchange between J.L. Austin and A.J. Ayer, where the latter said of the former: “You are like a greyhound who doesn’t want to run himself, and bites the other greyhounds, so they cannot run either.”  Logical Positivism and the Oxford Linguistic School both shared the same quality – they could tell us why knowledge was impossible, but could not explain why it existed.  De Arrizabalaga y Prado seems infected by the same disease, probably for the same reason: an overdeveloped rational faculty; an example of what Nabokov has called “computerized minds”.
[vii] This myth arises from the modern view that the individual is central to society.  However, this can create some curious ironies – rather than a respect for all other humans it can often lead to contempt, as selfishness and egoism predominates.  In The Unprincipled Society David Marquand writes of how in British culture the person is seen as “opaque” and self-contained, like a Leibnizian monad.  This seems an important insight, and is related to the commercial and industrial history of Britain; and the quite particular needs of an early capitalist economy (countries like Germany and Japan, who developed later, may have been able to bypass both these needs and the culture they required).  The upshot is that in an individualist society the other person is seen as a self-standing, and completely separate, entity; with some of the attributes of an object.  This fuels the egoism but also increases the mistrust: we worry when we cannot see through that blacked out glass.
This is reflected in the knowledge industries in an odd way: other writers and thinkers, as here, are dismissed as unreliable.  We cannot trust their words; and thus their minds.  This seems related to the preference for irrationalism amongst a significant number of intellectuals: we should concentrate on the body, as the mind only deceives and manipulates.  (Dropout Boogie has a number of examples).  This is the curious paradox of the mind – the more it thinks about itself the more it doubts its own capacity; for it wants certainty but is unable to achieve it.  The only solution in the end is to reject it completely.  You would thus expect the irrationalism to increase, at least amongst the intellectual class, as the university system grows, and the society becomes more technocratic.
[viii] Noam Chomsky in American Power and the New Mandarins notes how social scientists apply the methods of science without understanding its nature; resulting in a new type of freak show, where methodology is mistaken for content.
[ix] Footnote xii in Dropout Boogie gives one explanation.

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