Monday, 29 August 2011

A View from the Top

…but without the hedgehog’s generalizations – on the class struggle, imperialism, (colonial) dependency etc… the poor foxes like myself are condemned to a sort of intellectual pointillism lacking an overall design.  Even more, we remain deprived of the satisfactory experience of digging a tooth into and clamping a jaw on a generalization in order to break its neck.  (Raymond Carr quoted by Ronald Fraser TLS 29/07/2011)

Carr wrote the standard history of modern Spain.  He is referring here to Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, and the fox who knows lots of little ones.

This quote came to mind after my recent punch up with Michael Albert.  As I recovered from the severe swelling around the forehead, and surreptitiously peering over my dark glasses when no one was about, I mused on what he meant by my “special approach”.  I didn’t think I had one.  I haven’t, of course.  But what if I did?  I’d be a hedgehog, like disciples everywhere; such as those who follow Freud and Marx, Darwin and the rest…

Am I a fox then?  Already I feel the hedgehog’s spines poking my soft fur.  Oh! Ah! Ee!  For if foxes enjoy the pointillist method, I must be a member of some wider family; sharing similar views and intellectual ancestry…  Do all foxes upset the chicken shed…

It is that last sentence where Carr begins to go wrong, as in a different context both his biographer and reviewer clearly see: believing he doesn’t have an ideology he thinks he is non-ideological.  A typical mistake; especially for a professor belonging to the ruling classes; one’s views seeming all too natural, arising organically from the local landscape; with all resistance out of sight, over the hills in the country’s inner cities.  In the quote above the mistake is the idea that all generalizations are essentially false, though useful as a sort of heuristic tool.  It is that old British empiricism,[i] discredited by modern science, which demonstrates we create the world as well as find it.  A world based on a relatively small number of remarkably well-grounded theories, which have immense predictive power; suggesting how close they are to the underlying reality.[ii]   Generalizations are more than just convenient fictions.

A tendency to generalize is built into the mind, we cannot get away from it.  John Locke argued that the very nature of language has this propensity, reducing just about everything we see to common properties: house, man, horse, dog etc etc…  This was one of the reasons why he turned towards experience, and away from words, and the Schoolmen who loved them so: for the most part he thought they were engaged in empty phrase-making.  He wanted to understand reality by grasping the particular; he wanted to understand this chair, here in this living room, not the chair as general category; those mass productions from Aristotle that had filled the academy’s shelves for centuries.[iii]  Find out what this chair is made of, and how nature constructs it, and we will have better, richer, more profound, generalizations, which explain the world not obfuscate it.  Theories would thus be based on the world out there, not on our own beliefs and prejudices; often created through tradition and idleness.  And we would come to see our limitations, how little we really know.  Most of what we think we understand, made up by ourselves…

The history of science, and the great thinkers always, has been to put the accepted generalizations to the test, not necessarily to destroy them, but to understand them better.  Sometimes this has involved their reformulation; to make them subtler or more encompassing.  Sometimes new ones have been created; which have embodied much greater explanatory power; fresher and more convincing perspectives.  Often they have got it all wrong…

A special approach?  Mine’s very old and rather boring; quite conservative if you compel me to tell the truth.  It’s the perennial fight to stay afloat on an ocean of facts; aware always that one could drown.  Raymond Carr, although seeing this more perceptively than me, forgot that he was standing on a raft….

[i] A distinction has to be made between the great Empiricist thinkers like John Locke and David Hume, and the debasement of their thought in their followers, and into what became a sort of unreflecting induction; believed to be acquired through common sense. It reached its apogee in Britain just after the war, with the influence of the later Wittgenstein and the remnants of Logical Positivism – it was the Oxford Linguistic School.  Both Locke and Hume were always more complicated than that.
[ii] I simplify, of course.  Dropout Boogie has a much better analysis – in its footnotes.  An excellent wider discussion can be found in Alan Sokal’s and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures.  Noam Chomsky has given us insight into this process:
            “Galileo… very often disregarded data that would have refuted the system.  This was not done simply with reckless abandon, but out of a recognition that explanatory principles were being discovered that give insight into at least some of the phenomena at the cost of not being able to handle all of the phenomena: that I think was one of the most striking intellectual achievements of the great scientific revolution…
            “This shift of intellectual attitude from concern for coverage of data to concern for insight and depth of explanation, and the related willingness to deal with highly idealized systems in order to obtain depth of explanation – this shift of point of view has taken place very rarely, I think, in the history of thought.”  (Language and Politics)
            This passage may give an insight into Michael Albert’s views, as expounded in our discussion.  However, the problem is that Chomsky is talking about a relatively small area of inquiry, restricted to the hard sciences. Go beyond that, and the idealizations risk vacuity.  That is, I would suggest, Albert is trying a little too indiscriminately to apply the methods of science to human affairs.  He follows the master, but like all disciples, loses their subtlety.
[iii]The essence, or form, of a species accounts for the properties of that species, and a definition of it provides the means of demonstrating that the species does have those properties, and why it has them.  Facts about the properties of a given species are exactly the facts that a ‘science’, with its initial definitions, is meant to give causal knowledge of.  Science is knowledge of what is necessarily the case, and of why it is so.  The properties of a species necessarily belong to things of that kind, and the essence, or definition, of that species is the cause, or reason, for their having them.  So one has acquired scientific knowledge when one has a series of syllogisms which, on the basis of ‘formal’ definitions and other first principles, demonstrates that certain properties of a species must belong to it.”  (R.S. Woolhouse on the scholastic idea of ‘substantial form’.  The Empiricists)  There is a certain circularity to this procedure; the result is that the natural world is trapped within a series of definitions, generated by the human mind.

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