Monday, July 06, 2015

Historicism and/vs Universalism

In the West, at least, there seems to be a constant argument between Historicism and Universalism.

The Historicists, who include the postmodern multiculturalists, claim that to understand any cultural artifact, you have to understand the historical and cultural situation in which the artifact was created. One cannot understand the works of Sophocles without understanding the ancient Greek world in which he wrote. And since we are not ancient Greeks ourselves, we cannot really ever understand Sophocles' works.

Historicism is a Romantic idea, and was in part a reaction against Enlightenment Universalism. The Romantics -- particularly the German Romantics -- favored more regional arts that would reflect the local language and culture. German poets should write German poetry -- which went well beyond the poems simply being written in German -- meaning, with German thoughts and German ideas and reflecting Germanness itself. The Germans thus studied the ancient Greeks as a model of a radical Other to the German. Without understanding this, one cannot understand the German obsession with the Greeks, or what the German Romantics were getting at in writing about the Greeks.

Gunther Heilbrunn, in a review of a book on esotericism, has an extended discussion of Historicism in which he provides several good definitions:
[Historicism] meant that even the greatest philosophers and thinkers were the intellectual hostages of their own era’s conventions. Consider the dwellers in Plato’s famous image of the cave. Shackled so that they can only look ahead, they confuse the images cast on the wall before them with real beings. Only a few ascend to descry the real world, lit by the sun, not artificial fires.

The historicist denies that anyone can escape. Hegel, for instance, taught that the most profound thinkers are those that best captured the spirit of their own age, or rather of the age just past—the owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk. Hegel helped usher in das historische Jahrhundert, the century devoted to history. Timeless truths made way for such as were possible within a certain historical horizon. Plato’s ideas could be studied as a historical artifact; they were no longer live options. The Ideas had become just ideas. Implicit was the notion that progress, with the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, had suffered a pounding from which it could not recover.
 The Historicism of the German Romantics also worked its way into 19th Century German economics. The "Austrian School" was a derogatory term created by the German Historicist economists for those who opposed Historicism and embraced, rather, more universalist ideas in economics. Ludwig von Mises' praxeology, for example, is applicable to all people at all times in all places. This is the very opposite of Historicism.

One of the problems with Historicism -- and one of its strengths -- is the insistence on relativism. If everything is always only ever historically and culturally situated, then there is no universal truth -- there are not even patterns which one can detect -- rather, there are only truths that are truths in their times and places. Truth is, thus, relative. And not just truth. Beauty, morals, human nature itself. All is relative.

The problem with relativism is that it ends up corroding the boundaries between truth and myth, between virtue and vice, etc. If my truth is as valid as your truth, then if I believe that Aristotle stole his ideas from the Great Library of Alexandria, then I am entitled to my truth. You may then complain that the Great Library was built only after Alexandria was founded, and Alexandria was founded only after Alexander the Great took over Egypt, and that therefore the tutor of Alexander the Great, Aristotle, was dead well before the Great Library was built. But if all truth -- ALL truth -- is relative, then your facts don't matter. Of course, this is the most extreme form of relativism, but there have been people who have argued precisely for this approach. Again, Heilbrunn points out that,
The corrosive relativism of historicism threatened to destroy such pockets of virtue that remained. But historicism, it turned out, was itself vulnerable to attack: for one thing, it relied on a circular mode of argument. Suppose that you could understand Sophocles only if you had a firm grasp of the Greek culture from which he emerged. But the tragedies were themselves an integral part of Greek culture. Absent an understanding of the plays, Greek culture was impenetrable.
So, we cannot understand Sophocles without understanding Greek culture, but we cannot understand Greek culture without understanding Sophocles. Of course, for strong Historicists/multiculturalists, this isn't a problem -- it is the point. One could counter, instead, that it seems unlikely that one human being couldn't understand a fellow human being, but this leads us into arguments for universalism, which the Historicist denies to be valid. Yet, there is another problem:
Historicism also suffered from self-reflexivity. Historicists may claim that the thought of all previous eras was confined by the historical conditions that produced it, but from where could a thinker derive suppositions of his thought if not from the world about him? Obvious examples were the Greek polis, the Roman Republic and Empire, and the mental world of feudalism. Yet this insight impales the historicist on the horns of a dilemma. Either he has to claim an exemption from his discovery that all thought is merely an expression of its age, thereby landing in a mass of contradictions, or he has to admit that this insight is as time-bound as any other. Case closed.
The Historicists' world view may itself be a product of his/her time and culture, and thus is just as valid/invalid as is universalism.

And this may in fact solve the problem. The dual validity of Historicism and Universalism is not necessarily a contradiction, but may rather be more of a paradox. The difference between a contradiction and a paradox is that the former results in a breakdown of the entire system, while the latter drives the system to new levels of complexity.

We can thus take an idea from the Historicist par excellance mentioned above, Hegel, to solve the problem -- dialectics. If the Enlightenment thesis of Universalism gave rise to the Romantic thesis of Historicism, then we should expect the emergence of a synthesis of the two. We would expect it to emerge once the contradictions of Historicism became too overwhelming. There are bound to be attempts to return to the older form -- Universalism -- as we see with Mises, but the most successful systems of thought will be those that synthesize the two ways of thinking. And we do see some degree of this in the works of such thinkers as Nietzsche, Hayek, M. Polanyi, J. T. Fraser, Frederick Turner, Clare Graves, et al.

For example, what happens when the universal laws of economics meet this or that particular culture? It turns out that cultural diversity affects the degree of entrepreneurship that takes place and thus the degree of wealth created. Cultures can also undermine entrepreneurship in other ways -- through myths that make heroes of liars and thieves, for example. Respect for entrepreneurial endeavors matters when it comes to wealth creation. At the same time, subjective valuation is a universal human trait, as is the law of diminishing returns and marginal utility. No matter how much you like something, you want less of it immediately after your desire for it is satisfied.

Thus, the synthesis of Universalism and Historicism into a pseudo-Universalism/pseudo-Historicism seems closer to the truth of the matter. Think of it as a solid core of truth with fuzzy edges. This suggests that truth is more like a strange attractor than a solid, unchanging Idea. The system of thought in which the truth is embedded comes closer to it and sometimes drifts farther away from it, but always circles around it as an absent center which cannot ever be reached. This is how knowledge works, and it is how memory itself works. Indeed, strange attractors are simultaneously attractors and repulsors, acting together in a paradoxical manner that keeps the system in place. The system is more stable by being both stable and unstable. A better understanding of truth is thus one that sees truth as simultaneously universal and historically/culturally contingent.

Some of the thinkers I mentioned above have demonstrated how this is possible and how it results in a kind of contingent progress. Fraser's theory of time and emergence shows us how it works out throughout the universe, across time. With the emergence of new levels of complexity, we can simultaneously get universalism in the less complex level and historicism in the emergence of the new level. Clare Graves' social psychology does this, too, for human psychology and social order. Plato and Aristotle are universal for their level of complexity (and any levels less complex than themselves they addressed), which would be included in any levels of greater complexity. At the same time, to be purposefully anachronistic to make my point, the Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Smith, Hume, et al are not universal for Plato and Aristotle in the areas in which they have built on their ideas at greater levels of psychosocial complexity.

Complexity, strange attractors (chaos and bios theory), and emergence is thus the paradigm that allows us to synthesize Universalism and Historicism. With it, we are able to get a better understanding of the necessity of both. Further, we are given a model that allows for the simultaneous existence of Universalism and Historicism, of the enduring and the ever-changing. The enduring endures because it is ever-changing, and the ever-changing is prevented from dissipation by the presence of the enduring. Both, simultaneously. And thus we spin ever so slightly closer to the absent center truth of these matters.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Teaching Literature by Helping the Students Lose Themselves in It

Why do students -- college students especially, but high school students as well -- avoid literature classes? We are, after all, a storytelling species. We love stories. Why, then, would we avoid a class on stories?

Perhaps the reason is that literature teachers don't teach literature as stories or as beautiful words arranged beautifully. No, they are primarily teaching them in the worst kinds of reductionist manners imaginable, and are particularly fond of reducing everything to political positions (and it is their political positions which are the height of human virtue, meaning all literature must be thoroughly condemned for not coming to their realizations centuries before).

Students ought to be able to walk away from a literature class excited about literary stories and poems. They like stories and songs, after all.  If we can actually get human beings hating the best stories and songs (in the form of poetry) ever written, we have either failed or have succumbed to a truly evil world view, one designed to dehumanize us from within.

We should real literature because it is entertaining, beautiful, makes us more empathetic because we are reading about idealized human beings who are doing things that are either greater or worse than we have done but with whom we can empathize and therefore become better people.

That is why we ought to read literature. And that's how it ought to be taught. As great works that can make us great people, not by tearing down the works, but by becoming lost in them.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Paradox Drives Creativity in Nature, including Humans (Executive Function Version)

New research shows that people who are maximally creative exhibit both imagination and attention. While attention requires the use of the brain's executive function, imagination has been shown to be optimal in those with weak executive function. Given that the executive function actually restricts creativity in the form of imagination, as I discuss here, we seem to have a paradoxical situation where the executive function both represses and is required for creativity.

Yet, paradoxical situations are the very drivers of creativity in nature. The strange attractors of chaos and bios both attract and repel, simultaneously. The most creative groups are those that are involve both individualism and group-think simultaneously, and which have a strong core with a clear boundary and also interdisciplinary overlappers with other groups. The strongest, most creative economies are those that exhibit both cooperation and competition simultaneously. It is in the overcoming of paradoxical relations, while maintaining those paradoxical relations, that drives creative problem-solving at every level of reality.

As a result, we should not be surprised that human creativity is driven by a paradox -- that we simultaneously need a weak and a strong executive function to work. Human psychological and social complexity is driven by paradox, and increasing complexity results in ever-more paradoxes, driving ever-more complexity. Still, we should expect to find some basic paradoxes, such as this.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On Minority Values

Understanding economics can be a curse. It can be a tragic knowledge in a real way for someone like me. Absent my understanding of economics, I would be a typical leftist intellectual raging against everyone for not valuing all the things I value, blaming capitalism for not enough people valuing all the things I value. Life would be easy not understanding that value is subjective and, therefore, the only things one can do is either respect everyone's subjective valuations or try to persuade people to value what you value. Or both.

At the same time, I cannot help but sympathize with my leftist intellectual brethren. They are all doing things that very, very few people value at all. The intellectuals who are fortunate to get university or think tank jobs are truly the lucky ones. They managed to find someone who values what it is they are doing. Or, more likely, they have found someone who values something -- teaching -- that is tangentially related to what they really value doing -- intellectual work.

What I value doing above almost anything else is my scholarly and artistic work. But that means that I have to have the time to do those things. If finished scholarly papers and poems are of very marginal value to very few people, almost no one values the time need to work on either one. Nobody cares to give you the time to work on things that few people even care to read.

Given this situation, is it no wonder that so many intellectuals get cranky and wish they could tear down the system? Surely, they think, if they were in charge, people would value truly valuable things, things of lasting value. You know, the things they do. Surely if I were in charge, people would love poems and plays and value scholarship and knowledge. Except, of course, that's hardly true. That, I know. And I know it because I understand economics and the subjective nature of value.

So that leaves me in what one could understand to be a tragic situation. The leftist intellectuals at least have the delusion that the right kind of society would cause people to value intellectual and artistic endeavors. I do not. And at the same time, I value what I value. And I value it deeply. I can somehow communicate to people any number of things very well and very clearly, but not that. I cannot manage to get people to at least understand why I value what I value. My obsessions, my loves are foreign to almost everyone. Even my politics are a minority value. And even those who do value the kinds of things I do value more their own doing it. And that I understand as well.

So I am left with no one to blame for not valuing what I value. I am left not being able to blame society or capitalism or anything else for society being what it is, what it has always been. Very few people value poetry, plays, novels, or scholarship. What I do makes no sense to almost anyone. And so I am left alone with my struggle to realize the things I value in the face of very few supporting me, of very few finding value in anything I do.

I sympathize with leftist intellectuals to a degree. But I'm afraid I know too much to fully empathize with them. And that leaves me alone even more.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Catallactics as the Study of Human Exchange

Catallactics is the science of exchange.

Exchange is a basic interaction between or among people. There are three basic kinds of exchange.

1) Mutual Exchange -- Each party has something the other wants and each party therefore wants the exchange to take place; both parties are better off as a consequence of the exchange. This is a positive sum exchange. Mutual exchange is the foundation of all economic action.

2) Gift-Giving -- One party has something he wants to give to the other party; the second party is better off, while the first party may or may not be worse off. This is at worst a zero sum exchange (if we include emotions, it may be positive sum as well). Gift exchange is the foundation of science and the arts.

3) Coercion -- One party takes from the other party; the first party is better off and the second party is worse off. This is at best a zero sum exchange (if we include reduction of trust and other emotions involved, it is better considered a negative sum exchange). Included in such exchanges would be robbery, rape, and murder.

These are the basic forms of exchange. They are often mixed.

For example, a mutual exchange in fact has a degree of gift-giving involved. I won't engage in a mutual exchange unless I am made better off by the exchange. Thus, value increases for me. More, the other won't engage in a mutual exchange unless they are made better off by the exchange. Thus, value increases for them. The excess value is a gift each gives the other. This is why mutual exchange is a positive sum exchange.

Those who prefer to work in the gift economy, such as scientists and artists, also have to pay the bills, so it is not uncommon for them to seek gainful employment. And there are those willing to pay. If we are talking about scientists working in an institute, we have people giving gifts to the institute so a mutual exchange involving wages and production is realized so the scientist can produce science, which is a gift. A novelist will seek to publish his book, which enters market exchange with readers.

There are forms of coercion which have elements of mutual exchange. If a government takes your property under immanent domain, often that government (if it's not completely corrupt) will pay you "market value" for that property. Thus, you are forced to make the exchange (which is coercion), but you are given something in exchange (which is mutual exchange). The same is true of taxes and the things done with taxes.

Often people consider threats of being fired from one's job as a threat of coercion. But is it really coercion if you no longer want to contract out their time and expertise? Refusing to continue to engage in exchange is not the same thing as coercion. Firing someone is simply breaking a contract, and breaking a contract is not coercive. Either side can break the contract -- the employee by not doing the work he or she was hired to do, or the employer by firing someone for things other than what the contract stipulates (like having the audacity to ask for a raise when it is due). In the latter case, the employee is in the right to take the employer to court for improperly breaking the contract.

One may not like the term "coercion." I invite someone to come up with another morally neutral term that nevertheless describes all exchanges of this kind.

All government involves the use of coercion. The idea is that it is "legitimate coercion." Democracy makes it more legitimate, as it then involves the discovery of community values that are worth using coercion to enforce. With democracy, versus other forms of government, you have a process that allows for the constant discovery of these values. Votes allows for the change of these values over time. The best democracies would be those with institutions that best allow for continuous change, continuous adaptation.

Catallactics so defined therefore underlies the study of all spontaneous orders, as exchange is what is taking place in each and every case to create the different kinds of orders. It is not just human action (whose study is praxeology), but human interaction. This is the beginning of understanding them.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Nature of Contracts

One of the main issues of our time is the nature of contracts into which we can enter.

I know, that doesn't sound quite as sexy as "gay marriage" or "Obamacare," but really that's what those two issues are about. And not just those two issues.

There is not a lot of consistency of thinking on the nature of contracts. What, if any, role should governments have in the contents of contracts? Courts will have to determine the validity of contracts, what should happen if contracts are violated, etc., but does that mean we have to have governments legislating the contents and who can be involved for the courts to do their jobs?

The issue with gay marriage is that the marriage contract is not simply between the two people getting married, but among each of the couple and the government. You have to register to get a marriage license. So you have to get the government's permission to get married at all. Of course, one can still go through the ceremony -- the ritual -- that makes you married, but you won't have the legal protections involved. And those legal protections are what are at issue in the licensing.

The protections aren't frivolous, but at the same time, what is being protected involves government legislation that perhaps shouldn't be in place in the first place. When a hospital restricts access to a patient, do you really think it is the hospital alone doing it, or is there a law on the books determining who can and cannot visit this or that person under this or that condition? So being married in the eyes of the government means you can visit your spouse, meaning a restriction created by government is lifted by government.

While one would perhaps prefer to get rid of all of this nonsense, it seems easier for now to simply expand the franchise to allow more people to get the privileges from government. That at least provides equality under the law, even if we may not be fans of the law.

Really, adults ought to have the liberty to enter into any kind of interpersonal relationship they wish. Christians who insist that Christians must only ever enter into monogamous, heterosexual marriages should keep in mind that 1) not everyone is a Christian, so your religious laws do not apply to them, and 2) nobody is or should be preventing you from or forcing you into entering into the kinds of marriages with which you disagree.

Which gets me to another main issue surrounding contracts. We should not be forced into contracts, either. There was a civil war fought over this issue of forcing people into contracts -- what more or less is slavery, after all? We would be outraged if a woman were forced into a marriage. We would be outraged if a man were forced into a work contract out of which he could not exit. But too many are not outraged if a person is forced to bake a cake for someone. Or if a person is forced to buy insurance against their will. All of these are interpersonal contracts, and we should not be forced into them if we do not want to be.

Along these lines, it does not logically follow that by allowing people to enter into one kind of contract (such as a marriage) that one must then force other people to enter into other kinds of contracts (such as making your wedding cake, catering your wedding, or performing your wedding). However, if you are a justice of the peace or other government official whose job description involved marrying people granted a marriage license,the only thing you can do is apply the law equally or resign your position. No one is forcing you to marry people; you can always quit your job if you have moral objections to doing it. This would also apply if the owner of the bakery wanted to make wedding cakes for gay couples but one of his bakers refused on religious grounds. The baker can quit the business and start his or her own, if they so desire. Or find someone with the same world view to hire them. But so long as they work for the owner, they have to do the job they were hired to do. You must abide by the contract into which you have entered, or you must exit it. And equally, you should not be forced to enter into a contract into which you do not wish to enter.

As for breaking contracts, many contracts have such provisions. Those should be worked out by the people in question. If a contract is broken and the provisions in question have been violated, that's what we have courts for. The courts may discover that a given provision of the contract is unenforceable (say, the contract states you can never break the contract -- which violates the very nature of contracts as temporary and provisional). Courts are thus sufficient for resolving any and all issues surrounding contracts. Out of their decisions emerges the common law regarding contracts, which stands as law (and in no way requires legislation).

Most of the problems we find in society involve confusion about the nature of contracts and who should be involved in their creation and decisions about their content and ends and ending. We need to work on clarifying these things. By doing so, we see what it is we are supporting and what we are against in clearer terms. And, hopefully, many of us will change our minds about what we support when we understand the nature of the contracts we are supporting.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Science of Artistic/Literary Production

The brain operates at criticality -- at the border of order and chaos -- resulting in a power law distribution of electrical cascades. As a result, original paintings demonstrate self-organization, just like the brains that make them. The same would be true of any complex product of the human brain -- typically, one of the arts. The production of works of literature, the production of symphonies demonstrate self-organization as well. This can be seen in their fractal patterns of note or theme word distributions.

Our social systems are similarly critical systems -- once they reach a certain level of complexity, of course. Looking back at the time when we lived in tribes is therefore of extremely limited use for understanding complex societies like we find today. We can use this to understand artistic movements in complex societies, for example. We would expect there to be periods of extreme creativity followed by periods of relative stagnation if artistic productivity in complex societies were a social activity. We would expect there to be artistic movements -- strange attractors -- attracting many artists to doing similar things. At least, for a while, until the idea is "used up" and ceases being creative and generative. That's when the paradoxes holding it together drives it apart. Think of how Baudelaire was simultaneously a romantic and deeply challenged romanticism to drive the creation of a new poetic sensibility.

Brains are self-organizing critical, our social systems that emerge out of our interactions are self-organizing critical, and our artistic products are self-organizing critical. Welcome to the science of artistic/literary production.