Why are there so many ignoramuses in political theory? A rational choice perspective.

July 10, 2012 at 5:26 am (Oh the humanities!, Price theory)

I discovered a “ranking” of the upcoming stars in political theory today, as ranked by a collection of over a thousand political theorists in Moore’s Political Theory Today: Results of a National Survey. Out of sheer boredom, I went through the works of perhaps twenty or so, reading their biographical details, education, main publications and notable ideas. I would categorize these political theorists mainly into three similarly sized groups:

1) Shameless demagogues who see academic research as another front in a larger political struggle. The young theorist in Chicago is a nice example.

2) People well-trained in the rhetoric and obscurantist techniques of political theory, but without a cogent argument, nor any basic understanding of political processes.

3) A minority of liberal theorists defending what the rest of us already know, with ever more arcane language and terminology that they themselves probably are uncomfortable with. (Free Market Fairness…)

If this is not enough of an evidence of the continued intellectual hollowness of the field, consider this: there are perhaps 25% of liberal theorists who consider the rest of the field to be a complete joke; and there are perhaps 25% Marxist/post-structuralist theorists who also consider the rest of the field to be a complete joke; and this has been the state of the discipline for roughly a hundred years. They can’t both be right, and it follows that at least 50% (you do the math) of the discipline is a complete joke and has been for a hundred years. That is not a sign of a healthy discipline.

So why is political theory such a mediocre field? Why do they seemingly not advance despite the mountains of contrary evidence against the relevance of Hegelian theory, the hollowness of ethics, the irrelevance of moral philosophy without an analytic foundation? How can they proceed so comfortably in their theorizing even as the rest of the discipline (political science) moves further and further away?

C.P. Snow, and later Krugman, refers to this fundamental divide as a difference of “culture” – the culture of nerds and the culture of the literary intellectuals. But I think the difference in culture is merely the result of something more fundamental – a difference in incentives. A personal anecdote would be illustrative here. When I was in my first English class in college, which was taught from a heavily postmodernist perspective, I managed to convince myself that the various vices commonly associated with postmodernist writing – the use of obscurantist terminology, the use of namedropping, analogies and anecdotes as proof, the avoidance of any clear argument or direction, and the general lack of rigor and preciseness – as, indeed, virtues. If they’re not, how else could I have any faith left in the “elders” of the literary tradition that I was eagerly following? And more pertinently, if I do not pretend that postmodernist writing is rigorous and useful, how do I bring myself to conjure up the 8 paged, double spaced essays that I desperately need for a good grade in the course?

After I abstained myself from (or rather, was yanked away from) the literary tradition and switched to economics through the influence of some brilliant minds, I found it pretty obvious, in retrospect, how silly it all was. And I think any reasonably educated and astute mind – once he suspends his faith in the intellectual authority of some literary academics for a moment – can easily recognize after some serious reading and thinking that there is little value in postmodernism, or the poststructuralist tradition, or more specifically deconstructionism. The key thing I want to point out here is that there really is no culture. Culture is persistent, unchanging and, in the short term, irrational. Yet it is possible for one to turn from an addict of postmodernism to a fervent critic of it merely in response to the changing of incentives.

So why do some disciplines seem to have such failing incentives? How do these incentives come by? It may be worthwhile to consider how some disciplines succeeded as a contrast. Economics and analytical philosophy are two disciplines that are widely regarded as successful, in the sense that they have managed to weather criticism, and in the case of economics, colonize other disciplines. A crucial common characteristic, I propose, is that both disciplines arose primarily in Anglo-Saxon countries, which have several cultural characteristics that influence the incentives of the academe:

  1. The Anglo-Saxon academe is highly reverent of positivism and the natural sciences
  2. The Anglo-Saxon and especially American public tends to be critical or skeptical of authority and elites
  3. The Anglo-Saxon countries were relatively unaffected by the Second World War, and thus are less prone to political radicalism in its aftermath

The combination of these factors, I think, are why economics and philosophy both had an analytic turn in the first half of the 20th century. In economics, this is what critics justifiably deride as “physics envy”; an obsession with putting everything into neat mathematical models and equations, and an eventual complete rejection of all non-mathematical research (in stark contrast to the early 20th century, when mathematical economics was a fringe, suppressed field). This was necessary both to gain some credibility in the public, especially among bureaucrats and the business elite; and as a reaction against the rapid turn to Marxism in the continental academe. I think, in retrospect, it would be fair to credit much of the modern relevance and rigor of economics – especially compared to other social sciences – with this (in the context of the global intellectual culture) rather accidental quantification of economics.


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Freedom in markets and freedom in the academia

June 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm (Information, Oh the humanities!, Price theory)

Here’s one curious phenomenon: The vast majority of those academics who spend careers studying market failures and how government intervention can correct them (by this I don’t mean only economists speaking in the language of economics, but any social scientist implicitly arguing for a role in public planning and regulation in controlling markets) are also vehemently against public control of a market that is probably the most prone to the pursuits of self-interest at the expense of others (i.e. failures to internalize costs) – the academic market.

I don’t mean the generation of ideas in the broad sense. I mean the system with which we generate, debate and publicize those ideas in most developed countries, through the research university system and in the form of publications, lectures and conferences. If we were to analyze it as a market – with society (including other academics) purchasing knowledge from academics in return for salary, social status, and reputation – it is a very peculiar market indeed. There are several characteristics that seem to define the academic market:

1. Extreme difficulty in measuring output and productivity, especially in the short-run and outside of the sciences.

2. An almost complete inability to internalize costs. Having bad ideas doesn’t hurt you – look how well our sociologists and anthropologists are doing.

3. Conflation with several other markets – in the sense that society does not only demand knowledge (in the narrow sense of useful, relevant information about society or the physical world) but also entertainment, grading, political ammunition and other goods from academics.

It suffices to say that there is great potential for market failures among academics, the most pertinent of which is probably the incentive for academics to peddle nonsense in place of actual knowledge. Any honest scholar who has bothered to examine the last 30 years of postmodernist research in the humanities surely will not disagree that such market failures exist.

In a sense, “intellectual freedom” is a specific case of “free markets”; if we are so eager to impose our restrictions on badly functioning markets, then why is it considered taboo to even speak of limiting intellectual freedom? Perhaps when one thinks of intellectual freedom, one thinks of a young genius challenging an out-dated orthodoxy with daring conjectures; when one thinks of limits of intellectual freedom, one thinks of Giordano Bruno burning at the stake for questioning religious dogma.

It helps to think in terms of another perspective. Think of intellectual freedom as the struggling sociologist whose discipline is eroding in significance as it is gradually replaced by quantitative methods, and who has never had a knack for mathematics; he has no choice but to join the dying chorus of fellow sociologists decrying the “unrealistic” and “inhumanistic” nature of mathematical modelling, whatever merit these criticisms may have. And think of limits of intellectual freedom as a political adviser in the Medieval times, who is forced to provide useful and accurate analyses of each situation simply because his head will be cut off (by the enemies or by his own liege) if his advice turned out to be wrong.

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Metaphysical nonsense

September 27, 2011 at 9:11 pm (History, Oh the humanities!)

Mao Zedong – “Idealism and metaphysics require the least effort, as they allow people to say whatever they want to say. They are not based on objective reality, and objective reality cannot falsify them.” (1955)

Alain Badiou, philosopher and Maoist – “Our epoch is most certainly the epoch of rupture, in light of all that Lacoue–Labarthe has shown to depend on the motive of mimesis. One of the forms of this motive which explicitly attaches truth to imitation is to conceive of truth as a relation, a relation of appropriateness between the intellect and the thing intellected. A relation of adequation which always supposes, as Heidegger very well understood, the truth to be localizable in the form of a proposition. Modern philosophy is a criticism of truth as adequation. Truth is not limited to the form of judgment. Heidegger suggests that it is a historic destiny. I will start from the following idea: Truth is first of all something new. What transmits, what repeats, we shall call knowledge. Distinguishing truth from knowledge is essential. It is a distinction already made in the work of Kant, between reason and understanding, and it is as you know a capital distinction for Heidegger, who distinguishes truth as aletheia, and understanding as cognition, science, techne. Aletheia is always properly a beginning. Techne is always a continuation, an application, a repetition. It is the reason why Heidegger says that the poet of truth is always the poet of a sort of morning of the world. I quote Heidegger: ‘The poet always speaks as if the being was expressed for the first time.’ If all truth is something new, what is the essential philosophic problem pertaining to truth? It is the problem of its appearance and its becoming. Truth must be submitted to thought not as judgment or proposition but as a process in the real. This schema represents the becoming of a truth. The aim of my talk is only to explain the schema. For the process of truth to begin, something must happen. Knowledge as such only gives us repetition, it is concerned only with what already is. For truth to affirm its newness, there must be a supplement. This supplement is committed to chance—it is unpredictable, incalculable, it is beyond what it is. I call it an event. A truth appears in its newness because an eventful supplement interrupts repetition. Examples: The appearance, with Aeschylus, of theatrical tragedy. The eruption, with Galileo, of mathematical physics. An amorous encounter which changes a whole life. Or the French revolution of 1792. An event is linked to the notion of the undecidable. Take the sentence ‘This event belongs to the situation.’ If you can, using the rules of established knowledge, decide that this sentence is true or false, the event will not be an event. It will be calculable within the situation. Nothing permits us to say ‘Here begins the truth.’ A wager will have to be made. This is why the truth begins with an axiom of truth. It begins with a decision, a decision to say that the event has taken place. The fact that the event is undecidable imposes the constraint that the subject of the event must appear. Such a subject is constituted by a sentence in the form of a wager: this sentence is as follows. ‘This has taken place, which I can neither calculate nor demonstrate, but to which I shall be faithful.’ A subject begins with what fixes an undecidable event because it takes a chance of deciding it. This begins the infinite procedure of…
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