Problem Solving and Its Enemies

I have a problem. I cannot go across the street from where I live where there is an open grass-covered block of land and plant some edible plants, or erect a fenced-in chicken coop for a supply of daily eggs. Instead, I have to get these from a grocery store by paying money — which I may be short of, or may not have.

Why can’t I use that empty lot across the street? Because if I try, someone will complain to some government official and a policeman will come telling me that what I am doing is illegal, to stop and desist on the threat of arrest. And if I ignore him, he will arrest me. And I will be in a jail, where they will then feed me some vegetables and eggs, and even give me a chicken breast. In other words, they will give me (in exchange for a deprivation of my freedom to roam) the very things which I was trying to procure by my own efforts.

A bit paradoxical, don’t you think?

To explain this conundrum requires getting some knowledge of the culture of my vicinity. And as with all work — including the getting of information and knowledge — there is a division of labor. Knowledge is obtained by research and study, and the results are published in all sorts of places — mostly in scholarly journals and books. And these are stored, mostly in libraries, and now also on computers.

How does this relate to my problem of trying to understand why if I try to furnish my own food supply on the empty lot, I could wind up receiving food in jail, where I would rather not be?

How and where do I get an answer to this problem? If I go to a library, I am sure that someone there will figure out that this is a legal problem and point to the section housing the law books. And if I tell the librarian that I want a wider cultural and historical perspective, I will most likely be taken to a section on sociology and economics, and then to a section on history. And if I ask the librarian if there are any normative studies as to what should be the case, I will likely be taken to some section on political philosophy or political science (so-called).

You get the picture!

And if you pick up any of these “scholarly” writings, you will be bombarded with a nightmare of references and footnotes. Why? To prove to some decider (like an editor of some publication, or a chairman or a dean in some school who decides whether to hire the scholar), as well as to the reading public that the scholar did a whole lot of “research.”

So, what is literary “research”? It is the scrutiny of the work of others as to how they tried to solve some problem, and referencing the work of authors; so that others — if they so desire — can verify the references for accuracy and plausability of interpretation.

What would happen if we removed from a piece of scholarship all the footnotes and references?

The result would be some sort of alternative proposals for a solution. Let’s call the listing of proposed solutions — a librarian’s list.

But, although a listing of alternatives is good, what I really want is a solution — and if not a solution, at least the best alternative.

Now, I do not mean to single out the book by Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin (1946), but it does serve as an example of what I want to stress. I have consulted it as a book about socialism, and have found the scholarship very helpful — I mean it is full of names, references, and footnotes — all very helpful for further research for a solution to my original problem.

It has led me to look at the work of Anton Menger and the uncovering of the early English writers on socialism, which present more alternatives.

However, the book also endeavors to provide us with the abstracted alternatives gleaned from all this scholarship, and to adjudicate between them.

Here, I believe, it fails. Not all the plausible alternatives are presented for consideration. There are too many conceptual blunders, and too many emotive disparagements.

In a broad sense of speaking, too much concentration on scholarship distracts and prolongs the finding of a solution to a problem, and is thus, in this sense, its enemy.

In Search of Scholarship about Social Problems

I feel confident about how to find scientific and technological information. Today this is quickly accomplished through the internet. If you want to cook cassava (or find out what it is) or if you want to restart your hot water heater (as I had to do recently), use a search engine, and you mostly likely will not only receive the needed information, but you will also most likely find a video demonstrating how to do the cooking or the repair.

When it comes to normative social issues, the matter is not that simple. By a “normative” issue, I mean some prescription of what should be done, rather than just a description or even an explanation of what is being done.

There are, of course, various recipes and procedures for using particular methods and tools for achieving particular goals. For example, there are prescriptions for using a hammer for the purpose of driving a nail, and a prescription for how to hold and use a hammer. I, myself, gave a prescription or recommendation to use the internet for getting information and a demonstration. You, of course, can get such information and demonstration from some live persons, or you could find some paper source.

But my concern is with the state of the social world. The fact that we are facing an ecological doomsday, the fact that there is war, genocide, protest, violence, a stark division of people into wealthy classes, poor, and desperate. These are problems for which I want solutions; if not a practical one, at least an ideal one. And I read and listen to people with their proposals, and to date I have formulated my own solutions to the extent that I have. But I do not rest content. I entertain the possibility that I may be wrong, and that others may have formulated better solutions. So I keep reading, listening, watching, searching.

If you have been reading my blogs, then you know where I stand so far.

However, I feel that I am not that well informed about the history of that vague thing called “socialism.” I mean I know that socialism was widely discussed from the early part of the nineteenth century, after the French Revolution (1789). But I wanted some comparative historical guidance about socialism. Don’t ask me how or when, but I stumbled on a book by Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin, 1946. In some previous blogs I have expressed my dissatisfaction with the book, but still in all, it has a bibliography, an attempt at classification, and commentary. All this is helpful.

One thing that I noticed is that Gray is more concerned with “influence” than with the truth, coherence, feasibility, or value of an idea. The result is that in this book he views Marx as the most influential socialist writer. By “influence” he means the amount of literature devoted to examining his writings, and I suppose to how many people have heard of Marx and Marxism, and called themselves Marxist. And, in terms of this kind of “influence,” he is probably correct.

The result of this view of Marx is that a very important part of his chapter 11, is called “The Pre-Marxians.” And the reason he gives them this title is that they had some similar ideas to Marx, and, in fact, Marx learned from some of them and accepted some of their ideas.

Reading Gray’s exposition of these “pre-Marxians” was an eye-opener. I wanted to read them myself. And I took careful notice of Gray’s footnote #1 to his exposition of William Thomson: “[Anton] Menger, The Right to the Whole Produce of Labour, with introduction by H.S. Foxwell (1899).” But what grabbed my attention was the next sentence: “It was this volume that brought belated recognition to the members of this group.” Aha, so it was Anton Menger’s book which was the source of Gray’s knowledge of these “pre-Marxians.”

So, I have now read this book by Anton Menger. In a future blog I will make a critical assessment of this book. But here I simply want to express two thoughts.

1. After reading Menger’a book, it turns out that Menger has given a systematic examination of socialism from a juridical perspective which pales Gray’s approach by comparison.

2. My second observation is this. A current writer on a social topic is not necessarily better informed or a better thinker just because he has access to past writings. For example, Alexander Gray apparently read Menger, and learned the names and books of the English socialists, but as far as learning from Menger’s critical thought, he learned nothing — so it seems.

Put-down writing and other side-issues like “influences,” “schools,” and “movements.”

I am going to comment on the book by Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin, 1946. What I say about this book can also be said about many other books as well.

On the one hand, I find the book very valuable for several reasons. Among these is its listing and coverage of a host of socialists and its classification of socialisms, and its bibliography. I also find valuable the exposition of the ideas covered, and for the critical commentary.

However, on the other hand, I find the book annoying for its attempts at psychological and sociological commentary, and more so for Gray’s — what can I call them? — put-downs. As examples of put-downs which annoyed me are: “The fundamental trouble with the anarchist is that, though he may be highly intelligent, he has no sense.” (p. 381) “Anarchism is rather the charming dream of an innocent child.” (p. 495) Without explanations, these are simply ridicule and insult.

This reminds me of the famous description of Noam Chomsky [Paul Robinson,”The Chomsky Problem,” The New York Time, Feb. 25, 1979.] as “arguably the most important intellectual alive today.” This is followed by a criticism of his political writings. It leaves the impression that the writer is using the following put-down: “How is it that such a brilliant linguist is so politically naive?”

There are other things in Gray’s book which annoy me. They could be classified under an attempt at psychology and sociology.

Let me begin with psychology. Instead of just stating and evaluating an author’s ideas, he also attempts at trying to understand what caused him to have these ideas. Thus he looks into a thinker’s biography for what are called “influences.” Instead on focusing on the ideas or claims themselves, Gray seeks some sort of assimilation from someone else’s writings — perhaps a “borrowing” or “stealing” from someone else. What is being ignored or postponed is an exposition of an author’s position — his ideas and claims. Where they came from — other than from his own brain — is a different question — perhaps a question of originality, plagiarism, or subconscious assimilation. But this is a separate matter from understanding the ideas themselves.

In reading a piece of argumentative writing, for most of the time, I have no idea who the author is — and I really don’t care. Why? Because I am able to critically evaluate what I am reading regardless of who the author is. To think that the character of the author has some bearing on the truth or value of his writings is to commit the genetic fallacy. [See my similar criticism: “A bullshit argument against the writings of Karl Marx by Stefan Molyneux”]

The other sort of irrevancy relative to an understanding of an author is the matter of his “influence” or “impact” on others. And here Gray introduces the ideas of “schools” and “movements.” I suppose a “school” exists when two or more thinkers have similar ideas as a result of talking to each other. And as to a “movement,” I don’t know what to say. Perhaps it requires some kind of association — a party, a club; or perhaps a periodical or periodicals with a broad readership. I associate the word “movement” with the flowing of lava from a volcano, land-slides, floods, a tsunami, an approaching storm with moving clouds, a herd of reindeer or buffalo moving over a grazing ground, or a crowd of people moving in some direction. All I know is that talk of human “movements” is a sociological matter, which is in principle a matter of numbers and percentages.

Gray seems to be very interested in “schools” and “movements.” I am not. I am foremost interested in the ideas themselves — not in how many people held them or what “influence” they had.

A further criticism. There seems to be some kind of expectation by snobbish writers that all readers are fluent in at least three languages: English, German, and French. And that a knowledge of Greek and Latin goes without saying. Sometimes it is expected that the reader also knows Russian and Italian. This is bullshit. If you are writing for an English reader, translate everything into English beside the foreign quotations and citations!

Bertrand Russell: “. . . the fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.”

Bertrand Russell, Power: A New Social Analysis, 1938.

Bullshit about “Influence”

It is natural to seek explanations. And we are very successful in doing this with inanimate things, as in physics and chemistry. When it comes to living things — well, it gets fuzzy. And when it comes to explaining human activity, it gets to be perplexing. There is in humans something analogous to Aristotle’s saying that “nature abhors a vacuum.” It is to the effect that “the human psyche abhors a tabula rasa.” The result: myths. And in everyday life, there is the aversion to acknowledge ignorance; hence, the production of some claim or other — bullshit.

Why am I dwelling on this. It has to do with my very long uneasiness with claims to “influence.” In trying to understand the actions (including the linguistic acts of writing), all types of explanations are sought. And since causal explanations like those in physics or chemistry are out of place, some other explanations are sought. These are segregated into “influences” and “reasons.” “Reasons” I understand; “influences” leave me puzzled.

Reflecting on my own history. I would say that I was influences by the writings of Wilfrid Sellars and C. D. Broad — among others. How so? Simply in the fact that I read them and critically reflected on what they claimed or argued for. Did I agree with them? In some things, yes; in other things, no.

Alfred North Whitehead, in his book Science and the Western World, talked about presuppositions of the age. And Eric Dodds, in his Greeks and the Irrational, talked about an “inherited conglomerate.” Stephen Pepper talked about “World Hypotheses” as based on models and analogies. And when Descartes said “Cogito ergo sum,” he could have been a bit more reflective in recognizing that what he wrote was in a language. Call this linguistically presupposed set of implicit beliefs, a Weltanschauung. Given this understanding, I would acknowledge that I, and everyone else, is influenced by a Weltanschuung, which has a temporal and a geographical location.

Why am I dwelling on this? I am interested in politics and economics, and I have read a few books which I have tried to juxtapose with each other. Incidentally, I keep discovering old books which seem to be excellent, but which I have never heard of either in my experience with higher education, not in current articles or books . . . But then reflecting on the fact that most books in a library are picking up dust . . .

Anyway, I read Oppenheimer’s The State, and he makes constant reference to Ratzel’s “History of Mankind” and Gumplowicz’s “Der Rassenkamp.” I have also recently read some Max Weber and some Karl Marx. And most recently I have returned to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper is concerned with what he calls “totalitarianism,” which is exemplified by Hitler and Nazi Germany. The Closed Society, he identifies with Tribalism, which in modern times expresses itself, for Popper, as Nationalism. Such a society has a Leader, who has a plan of Holistic or Utopian Engineering. Such totalitarian societies are closed to criticism through censorship.

Popper does a Herculean labor of examining the views of practically the whole history of philosophy, and his criticisms are to the point, insightful, and convincing for the most part. He is critically examing the political views of philosophers and some economists. If one were to justify or rationalize totalitarian practices — then yes, this is the sort of study to do. But such a study as Popper’s is relevant only to scholars who study and criticize the apologists of totalitarianism.

But understanding and explaining totalitarianism is a different matter. But really, how, for example, are the views of political and economic writers relevant to what Hitler did. If Hitler created a totalitarian State, the question should be how and why. Let us compare the mind of Hitler and that of Trump in some respects — like reading. Hitler, I assume was a sincere chauvinistic Nationalist, in the sense that he believed that Germans were superior to others and that Germans should be settled in the regions of Ukraine, by wiping out the indigenous populations. (Remind you of the American treatment of Native Americans? Or the colonial practices of England in Africa and India? Of the Belgian treatment of the Congo?) I suppose Rudyard Kipling’s phrase “white man’s burden” is a rationalization and an encouragement for Americans to take over the Philippines in 1898.

From one perspective, what Hitler did was a form of colonization which all of Europe had been practicing in remote regions of the world; in particular, Hitler followed the American plan of manifest destiny by expanding the German homeland. Other European countries justified themselves by the “white man’s burden” in respect to savages. Well, Hitler extended the coverage of “savages” to include Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs. And where others killed the indigenous people in makeshift ways, he did it efficiently. It is said that he modeled himself after the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the herding of American natives into reservations (concentration camps).

I don’t see how Popper’s book explains what Hitler did, as it would not explain anything which Trump does. Hitler took the practice of colonialism in a direction adjacent to Germany; while Trump will continue American imperialism, not because of any theory, but because he has the power, and he will use it for his own benefit, as he sees fit. As far as I know, neither Hitler nor Trump are intellectuals of any depth — so the literary tradition of the scholar has no relevance for them.

What is the relevant question? How does a person like Hitler or Trump get such power? And the answer is straightforward. There is the almost universal political practice in the world to give power to a single individual — a monarch, a president, a prime minister, a chancellor; and on a smaller scale to a governor or mayor. And once this power is given, there may or may not be ways to control this power. While it is hoped that these autocrats are benevolent; for the most part, they are not. Only Switzerland has wisely refused to give executive power to a single individual; giving it instead to a council of seven. The modern model of giving power to a council, comes from the French Revolution, but, as we know, it degenerated to the dictatorship of Napoleon. So power structures of any kind are precarious.

The World of the “Intelligentsia” and the World of the Common Person

I am reading Karl Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies” (1943), which is a critical examination of views on politics and history, and I am overwhelmed by his scholarship.  Reading him, and checking on some of his sources, makes me realize how “unread” I am.  I keep learning from authors like him, of various great books which were never mentioned in any list of “great books” which I am familiar with. So, I keep learning.  But I also reflect on the following.  Suppose Popper has — say — a “solution.”  Who will read his book? What difference will it make, and to who?  OK, so I read it, and write something about it, as here. Who will read me, and follow up by reading Popper?  The circle of people who I will influence — in even a miniscule way — is very small.    
There is a European term for the reading public, and it doesn’t mean someone who has mastered literacy and reads fiction, but a reader who has cultural and political interests. The term is “intelligentsia” and is broader than the term “intellectual.” So, there is this class of readers and writers who feed off each other.  But, I think, the circle of this class is small and closed.  I mean that the impact or influence of this class on the wider public is, practically speaking, near zero.

In response to Jordan Peterson’s claim for the evolutionary benefit of religious stories

Aristotle made the observation that nature abhors a vacuum. I want to extend this by saying that minds abhor a vacuum of beliefs. As I was listening to Jordan Peterson saying that there surely must be an evolutionary benefit to religious stories, it struck me that he is probably right but at the wrong level. He seems to be claiming that there is some evolutionary benefit to particular stories  and rituals.  By contrast, I would like to claim that even on the animal level — of say cats, there is a benefit in constructing a map of the world.  I don’t know how to talk about the behavior of cats and other animals without invoking the language of perception, desires, and beliefs.  C.D. Broad introduced the concept of a “quasi-belief” which he explained as trying to understand the behavior of an animal or a human on the model, analogy, or fiction of  a belief.  In other words, to say that an animal or a human has a quasi-belief, is just another way of expressing the idea that the animal or human is acting “as if” it had the belief.

I would like to advance the hypothesis that in some animals there is an innate drive to construct a quasi-Weltanschuung. For example, I have a cat, and I believe that it has formulated a complete picture of its proximate environment — the interior of our house.  At first the cat was relatively slow in moving around the house; but now it moves around the house with speed and confidence, and it seems to know the properties of the objects it encounters.  Furthermore, it has a picture of the house composed of substances and causal properties — perhaps we can call them quasi-substances and quasi-causes. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I called this view Animal Realism.

I bring up the powers of the cat to point out the evolutionary powers which we share with the cat in addition to our conceptual powers embodied in our mastery of language.  What am I driving at?  Just as the cat can and does map the house, we also have the ability, but more than an ability — we seem to have a drive to map and explain our universe.  This drive is aided by imagination.  I am saying that we have a drive to have beliefs about the workings of the whole universe, and this drive is such that what we do not know by experience, we supplement with imagination. This work of the imagination is called myth and religion.  Now, we would now call it the ability to form scientific hypotheses.

I am as skeptical about the evolutionary benefits of particular mythical beliefs, as I am of initial scientific hypotheses — i.e., until they have failed refutation.

I make no claims about the origin of our conceptual abilities, but judging by the nature of myths, I think that Wilfrid Sellars was right in postulating for humans an Original Image — a Weltanschauung in which everything is a person. If animism is the view that everything in the universe is alive, then Sellars is a radical animist in making a more specific claim that everything is a person. And I think that it suffices to say that such a power of imaginatively constructing a Weltanschauung is an evolutionary endowment of man, without having to resort to the additional burden of explaining particular myths in evolutionary terms.

If there is this drive in humans to have a total world view, it would explain the proclivity of people to utter bullshit.  They cannot help it. They always will give you some answer as an explanation. President Trump is almost the perfect example of this. The man is obviously quite ignorant of many things, but when asked he never says “I don’t know.”  Instead he makes up an answer on the spot without any qualms about the truth. He is a bullshitter as described by Harry Franfurther. Apparently it takes some sophistication and courage to say “I don’t know.”

On Reinventing the Wheel

I am troubled by the fact that many  speakers and writers do not acknowledge or are ignorant of previous relevant writings on a topic, and really repeat saying what others have written; thus, “reinventing the wheel.”

What can explain this phenomenon? Well, it is obvious that people want to have personal success and income from their speaking and writing, and so, they try to get attention.  They want people to view their videos, read their books, and be invited to various interviews, debates, and lectures.

They succeed, in part, because they appeal to a wide ignorant audience, which is attracted by the speaker’s or writer’s entertainment qualities, rather then by his or her scholarship.

For example, what do I want from a writer on a topic such as ethics? I want him to begin with something similar to what C. D. Broad did in his Five Types of Ethical Theories (1930). This is what he wrote: “Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics seems to be on the whole the best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written, and to be one of the English philosophical classics.” p. 143.  And the bulk of Broad’s book — 113 pages our of a total 285 — is devoted to a critical examination of Sidgwick’s ethics.

Instead of jumping right into a topic, I would like an author to start by identifying what he considers to be the best work to date on a topic and write a critique of this work.

I had tried to do something like this in my dissertation in the fields of epistemology and metaphysics . I did not outright say that Wilfrid Sellars is the best contemporary thinker on these topics, but I did so implicitly by choosing to critically examine his views and claiming that he had verisimilitude. Here is what I wrote: “The examined philosopher provides an occasion for developing one’s own philosophy, and this is especially rewarding if the examined philosophy has verisimilitude, as does that of Wilfrid Sellars. The conclusions I reach are very close to Sellars’ own — so close, in fact, that I am not certain whether what I am offering as correction are of things I am only misinterpreting.” Andrew Chrucky, “Critique of Wilfrid Sellars’ Materialism,” 1990.

I myself have not done any systematic work in ethics, but it seems that being able to pursue a critical examination of morals assumes a cultural and political  context of such things as having had an education which gives one the critical acumen to pursue such studies, as well as the leisure to do so; rather than working at some unrelated area for a wage; and the means to pursue such a study — as access to a suitable library or the means to purchase necessary books. And, most important, there is the necessity of cultural tolerance and the political right of free speech.

Although I have a concern with ethics, there are also the more basic problems of how to cope with people who do not have a concern with morals and how to cope with institutions which allow such people to flourish. It is a question how to wage war against such people and such institutions.

Criticism of Murray Rothbard and Natural Rights

David Ritchie in his book Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions, 2d ed. 1903, on p. 65,  gives the following description of one kind of anarchism, which he identifies with the French Radicals associated with the French Revolution of 1789.  I see no difference between this description and that of Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism.

“Anarchists are of three kinds. First of all, there is the old-fashioned Radical who repeats the revolutionary creed of 1789 in changed times, to whom an association called a government is an object of suspicion, whilst an association called a joint-stock company is an object of admiration. This old-fashioned Radical does not think himself a survival, but imagines that
he has the verdict of the newest science on his side.  He would abolish legislation, but would leave the judicial functions of government to enforce what he calls natural rights, but what are really the legal and customary rights resulting  from ancient legislation or want of legislation. He professes to give every one a fair start, but does not notice that the runners are unequally weighted. He calls himself an individualist, and is only a half-hearted Anarchist. His anarchy is anarchy based on the existing economic structure of society.  He believes in Nature, but forgets that it is a Nature that has been operating for ages among human beings. Nature to him really means human society under a completely triumphant  “Manchester School.” He would contribute to the amelioration of the species by abolishing all sanitary legislation, but would perhaps leave the tender-hearted private philanthropist a free hand in encouraging the propagation of beggars in order to give scope to his altruistic sentiments.”