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The Experts Are Out of Ideas: A Debate
Are today's technocrats careful, knowledgeable and rigorous - or anything but?
Welcome to another Wisdom of Crowds "Debate,” a recurring feature where we work through tensions and explore why we believe what we believe. In this debate, we’re doing something really special we have never done before. We’ve invited one of our earliest and sharpest readers, , to take on Wisdom of Crowds Editor-at-Large and political philosopher . Tom has engaged substantively with Sam’s work, particularly his recent essay “Thinking Is Risky” in our comments and elsewhere, so, Sam decided to reach out to let him make his case. We would love for you to take part as well. Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments! And if you aren’t already a subscriber, join us today.
Tom Barson grew up in Oberlin, Ohio and attended college and graduate school in New York City. He retired in 2019 as an IT Services director for global supply chain projects. He now lives in East Lansing, Michigan and blogs occasionally here.
Samuel Kimbriel is a political philosopher, Editor at Large at Wisdom of Crowds, and directs Aspen Institute’s Philosophy & Society Initiative.
Of late, you have been lamenting the pettiness and the obsession with “conceptual minutiae” that define our intellectual culture and contemporary professional philosophy. You suggest that both problems are symptoms of how small we have become, and you want to go big.
Let me start by restating how I have read your argument. In both your essay on this site and a follow-up podcast with Ross Douthat, you complain about the lack of ambition among contemporary philosophers, their refusal to take risks or violate tidy boundaries, their unwillingness—or inability—to offer novel, even if strange accounts of the “coherence of the world and humanity’s place in it.” Only such reckonings, you say, “are genuinely consequential.”
As a counterexample to our smallness you offer the Kitāb al-Šhifāʾ (“The Book of the Cure”), Ibn Sina’s massive eleventh-century summa of both contemporary knowledge and his own philosophy and metaphysics. You also list numerous early-to-mid twentieth century philosophers—Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Russell, Carnap, Maritain, Benjamin, Adorno, Fanon, Said, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil—whose ambition, for all their differences, forms a powerful contrast to a contemporary scene marked by professional overspecialization and the petty-as-Versailles world of social media. Nonetheless you conclude that our smallness is a symptom rather than cause:
The reason we get bogged down in conceptual minutiae or find the Twitter gladiatorial games amusing is that we stand somehow on the other side of an opaque wall from the thinkers noted above—whether Ibn Sina or Heidegger or Weil—and their ambition.
I agree there is a wall between us and, say, Ibn Sina. But I don't think it's opaque, and I think the twentieth century figures you mention are all, even if unhappily, on the same side of the wall as we are.
The wall is really composed of two historical bricks. The first was the scientific revolution. The European philosophers of the seventeenth century, however much they maligned the “schoolmen,” would not have perceived any wall between themselves and Ibn Sina. Like him, they were polymaths. They didn’t typically gather all their work in different areas into single-titled, knowledge-spanning summae, but their work arched over the entire intellectual landscape. Descartes, Pascal, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz were all, in various combinations, every bit as much scientists, mathematicians, and inventors as speculative philosophers.
The difference was that these figures (and their great “natural philosophy” contemporaries) not only sought to extend knowledge, they succeeded in doing so in a way that both changed the world and also began to feed back into traditional philosophical questions. Their successors knew more things and began to take that knowledge as a starting point.
Which brings us to the second brick: the Kantian critique of metaphysics. Kant contrasted rationalist metaphysics, which “constantly revolves around the same spot, without advancing a single step,” with the “continual advancement” of the natural science, and in the end cast serious doubt that a coherent theory of reality could be validly constructed out of introspection (or “pure reason”).
My wish is not to suggest that Kant’s critique of metaphysics, much less his naïve view of scientific progress, can stand on their own terms today. Rather, it’s to point out that, since Kant, philosophers who deem themselves realist have necessarily been more circumspect in their claims around a “theory of reality” and, in that sense, have been less “ambitious” than Ibn Sina or Descartes. Of course, whole other schools have sprung up —idealist, historicist, personalist, existentialist, deconstructionist, post-this-or-that—that represent polite defiance or outright rebellion against Kantian limits. But the fact that these schools come and go without leading to any conclusion is exactly what Kant would have predicted. And the strangeness (which you praise) of many of these works may be a consequence of the fact that, in Kantian terms, they are making things up.
But maybe making things up is what it’s all about. In a different publication, you have provided an excellent parsing of Thomas More’s Utopia. The fictional, implicitly philosophical, utopias and dystopias of our day may deserve equal attention. It may be sad, but I can’t think of any work of twentieth century philosophy that has taught or influenced me more than Brave New World or 1984. More recently, Greg Egan’s Permutation City and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future give both philosophical anthropology and political philosophy a run for their money. And you would allow, I think, that these books’ themes—and maybe the books themselves—are “genuinely consequential.”
Genuinely delightful to have such a sensitive reader not only of my work but of many others as well.
Let’s start with getting the target of this debate on the page. For all of the talk of malaise, there is still an indefatigable engine of thought pounding away in our decadent age. There is constant churn of ideas spilling out on Twitter or The Atlantic; U.S. universities are a 700 billion dollar industry; over 5 million journal articles get published every year, and at least a couple million books. From the outside, we seem to be a culture that cares about ideas (though what that word means is never entirely clear).
My critique then runs two ways—on the academic side, we have been pushed back to technicality and specialization. In philosophy, but also a range of other disciplines—economics, many of the social and political sciences in particular—we have become proficient at managing technical detail but are losing the wood for the trees. On the cultural side, my claim is that we will look back on this period of public debate and see not much in the way of insight, and rather more in the way of social posturing and inscrutable parlor games.
Your genealogy gives a couple of important parts of the story of how we got here. Previous ages of large universal aspiration gave way to periods when we became much more doubtful—in part because the Kantian reasons you cite—about large confident speculation, even as we became much more confident in technical and scientific knowledge (I am currently typing this note from 25,000 feet).
The way you trace the history is almost certainly a very salient part of the story. But now, to my confession—I’ve never actually understood “it’s different now” arguments. They show up in one way in stories of scientific progress; in another in arguments about the necessity of certain political structures. And they also show up in arguments about the status of metaphysics—whether via Kantian critique or otherwise. But in each case, my feeling is always that someone has misunderstood something—in this case, what philosophy is and where it comes from.
Plato and Aristotle famously both claim “philosophy begins in wonder,” but I think the better word may be “confusion.” You wake up in the world and don’t know what the hell it is, or who the hell you are, or how to conduct yourself on Thursday. It may well be true that some Kantian arguments are able to land a blow against Ibn Sina’s confidence in giving answers (though I might even fight on that), but what they don’t seem to have done is alter the compelling significance of the background questions.
When we think about the world, the acute relevance of these largest questions does not seem to have been diminished in the slightest by the grinding movement of history. There can be, to be sure, great benefit in carving out specific domains and working carefully on poverty alleviation or cognitive science. And we do have real moments of insight in such domains.
But the point that I’d press is that all such inquiries, by necessity, are taking place against the backdrop of exactly the questions that Plato and Aristotle were worried about: What does it mean for anything to exist? What is good? How can we know anything at all?
I’ll take your last question first. If it boils down to how we can perceive things, I say it doesn’t matter. That we do perceive (and discriminate among) things is obvious. Kant, whom we’ve mentioned, famously offered to pay a skeptic in imaginary thalers, and his offer seems decisive to me. We can leave the mechanics and the problems of perception to the psychobiologists.
More important than perceiving things is the question of how we go beyond perceptions to figure things out. How do our questions about the world turn into answers, and what are the standards for taking or reporting our or others’ answers as facts? I now know, because you told me, that five million journal articles were published last year. I can take this as a fact because in the context of our relationship and this conversation, I believe you are passing on information that you believe to be reliable and would correct if you found it to be in error. I’m assuming that both you and your sources are operating within both the rules of data gathering and reporting and what Van Harvey called the “morality of knowledge.” In a world of fake news, ethics and what Karl Popper called the “logic of discovery” both precede epistemology.
And your second-last question. “What is good?” Many things. The whole result of the feedback loop from the natural sciences that I mentioned above—especially since that feedback expanded since the eighteenth century to include information from the human sciences—has been plurality. Against first philosophy’s successive ones, the sciences point to the simultaneous many. Over the past 120 years, in works that I would describe as ambitious, William James described the “varieties” of religious experiences,has laid out a broad and divisive range of moral primitives, and, in your own field, Isaiah Berlin insisted upon the irreducible plurality of political aims. Perhaps being against this you seem to see the problem as “pettiness,” but I wonder whether plurality isn’t the real villain. You seemed in the podcast to long for a “resurgent, large-scale moral vision that wants to structure society.” In a political philosopher, I find this alarming. To indulge in monistic good-promoting is to locate ourselves within the problem of competing agendas that proceduralists (like our friend Shadi Hamid) have tried to work out. That Shadi needs to bracket his own thirst-for-the-one to do so is just the point.
And your third question last: “What does it mean for anything to exist?” We don’t know, and we can’t know. We can’t get outside of the is of being any more than we can fully resolve the confused agoras of politics or society. Claims to have certain answers to these questions don’t show us the wood; they are additional trees, right along those planted by Steven Pinker and John Rawls.
I feel like I’m out of space for this round, but I don’t want to leave things seeming to be a simple, pointless argument between a hedgehog and a fox. I think that the morality of knowledge is not just a constraint, a prohibition against exaggerated or improbable claims, but a prescription for making inquiries, reporting results, admitting errors, being open to new information—and to change. I don’t believe we can attain a “view from nowhere” but we can repair to it as an ideal. And I suspect the solution to both the confusion problem and the Thursday problem is to bracket things fearlessly. Eihei Dōgen, a contemporary of both Aquinas and Francis of Assisi, emphasized that to “attain one dharma, you penetrate that dharma; when you take up a task, that task is your practice.” We comprehend the wood one tree at a time.
Let’s start someplace where (I think) we agree—the word “real.” I’m struck by the phrases you use—“go beyond perception”; “figure things out”; “take as a fact.” Underneath there seems to be a sense that there are things to figure out and that we have at least enough confidence in all of that to put a lot of effort into the search. This tracks the word real closely (from Latin for “thing”). Realism is a very distinctive position and one that has many skeptical detractors. The world is not just perception, or language, or appearance but is, in fact, there, and we can know it.
I’m a realist of my own kind (well, of Plato’s kind) too, and as a realist, I very much enjoy talking to skeptics. It’s why I keep Damir around—he’s a skeptic in his domain of political analysis—"there’s unlikely to be free will or any good human intention that doesn’t get reconditioned by violence.” Epistemic skeptics are equally raucous and chastening—“how do you know what the world is?” “How do you know that there is a world at all?” It presses you to realize where you can and cannot be confident, and I’m willing to run pretty far with those considerations. In the end, I take every person’s predicament to be the same. We do not have enough power to know that there is a world and that it is as it appears to us. But we all, skeptic and realist alike, end up having to strike out in one direction or another (even staying in suspension is taking a direction).
I set this out as the territory on which I want to take my stand against your charge of monism. I do—it is right—take reality to have coherence to it. The wild diversity of the world does, in the end, hold together, at root. On the other hand, I think our human lot is necessarily highly plural. The capaciousness of whatever is real, and how hard it is to know it, means that we have to strike out in 10,000 directions and make our way as we will.
What I am pressing with my ambition argument is actually that as it stands we tolerate far too much of an unintentional and rather gray monism. We have been pressed back to work on more limited domains (bracketed as you say) because we have been afraid that if we start pressing at these foundational areas, the whole lot will unravel. On a casual level I think we—especially in left-leaning circles—assume various fairly homogenous theories in an under-scrutinized way: that there is a world; that science is able to know it; that the goods of society are pretty obvious (growth, say, or equality).
I’ll say as an aside that the most common fear I encounter when I make arguments about these matters in person, is not of monism, but of endless uncontrollable plurality. In pressing a person to give an argument about “the Good” directly, instead of simply telling me what they think of immigration policy, the response is inevitably that to ask that question is to open up an issue of such deep contestation, that we can’t be certain—better to stick to things we can “know.” At which point I nod and ask Damir for a top-up on whisky.
The point there is salient. Assertions about what is good in immigration policy are always reliant on first order questions about what the word “good” means as such. Failing to ask those latter questions doesn’t mean you have been able to get out of them. It merely means that for all of the rigor you can produce in higher levels of analysis, you are building on a foundation that is anything but firm.
As I have said, I am all for limiting inquiry to particular domains. It is just that I think we must always realize how much those technical discussions are happening within the bounds of much less controllable questions—questions at the very edge of human inquiry—and that those questions are, as much as we may like to pretend otherwise, always going to be genuinely consequential for everything else we do.
I ended with a quote last round. Let me start with one now. Its author, Robert Solow, is an economist, but what he’s trying to do here—at the beginning of one of the most famous papers of the last 75 years—is remarkably parallel to what Aristotle takes on at the beginning of the Physics or what Aquinas acknowledges at the start of De Ente et Essentia.
All theory depends on assumptions which are not quite true. That is what makes it theory. The art of successful theorizing is to make the inevitable simplifying assumptions in such a way that the final results are not very sensitive. A "crucial" assumption is one on which the conclusions do depend sensitively, and it is important that crucial assumptions be reasonably realistic. When the results of a theory seem to flow specifically from a special crucial assumption, then if the assumption is dubious, the results are suspect.
In the above, my “bracketing” has become—and it’s a big improvement—Solow’s “inevitable simplifying assumptions.” And what you’re claiming, in effect, is that the answers to many of our inquiries “depend sensitively” on answers to what you call the foundational questions.
“How can we know anything at all?” In one sense, any conclusions based on evidence must assume or establish that the data are reliable and that constructs based on that data are valid. To stick with the example of economics (and the areas you have mentioned), both Solow’s work on growth theory and Piketty, Saez, and Zucman’s on inequality have been continuously challenged by claims that the data are inadequate or misleading or that key constructs—aggregate production functions, say, or time series of income distributions—are invalid or contain errors of composition. So, foundational questions are present in these issues, but they are posed in different terms than they were in Plato’s time (or even Descartes’) and I hold that this is precisely because the feedback loop from increased knowledge has moved such questions to a different frontier. The “anything at all” has been dropped. It’s now “How can we know this?”
There will indeed be inquiries, such as surely will arise out of AI, where basic questions around the nature of knowledge will be crucial. But this is not to say that the researchers who take on these issues—although we can hope that they will have read some philosophy—will either ask these questions or answer them in terms that Plato would recognize or that you and I will accept as “realistic.” Those coder-philosophers will inhabit a different world than the one in which only people seemed to think, and the form their conclusions take will be determined as much by knowledge and practice frontiers of AI as the categories of traditional epistemology. I don’t see how it could be otherwise.
But to close, I want to go back to the “charge of monism.” I think what the critics of monism complain about is not the view that there is ultimately one world or that we should attempt to give a coherent account of it. It’s just the opposite. The criticism is levied at the monist’s tendency—and this may only be a stereotype—to panic over the “wild diversity of the world” and conclude that the only alternative to “striking out in 10,000 directions” is to impose a “large-scale moral vision that wants to structure society.”
Of course, you don’t have to be a monist to feel this unease. The blessed rage for order probably affects everyone who grapples with complexity. I hold strongly to bracketing, or Solow’s “inevitable simplifying assumptions,” as a way of coping.
And the bracketing can be facilitative of others' thinking as well as our own. In your immigration example, my sympathies were with the would-be policymakers who want to stick with what he or she believes is known. If I had my wits about me, I might ask them what objectives they would want from an immigration policy . When people enumerate their goals, they can often be nudged to reflect on them. Sometimes they ask questions and are open to requests for clarification. If it happened—it wouldn’t, always—it would be a different sort of dialogue than the sort that Plato wrote, one that the good can weave its way into, operative but invisible, invited but unnamed.
So for this last note, I’d like to begin with what I take to be the stakes of the dispute between us.
There are first of all, and most importantly, intellectual stakes: we’re discussing what rigor means; how do we know anything at all?
But there are also political stakes. Whether you call it decay or decadence, the general feeling is that the experiment America has been running is flawed somewhere, and we are finding it very difficult to figure out where. The left, where I largely operate, has been split on this question. One view is that the central areas of expertise that helped steward the American dream—economics, political science, Rawls style political philosophy, natural science—are basically sound. The burden of blame falls largely on those who have started to be alienated from these paradigms. The other faction on the left—which encompasses a variety of groups from Black Lives Matter to Bernie supporters—tend to think that there is something legitimate in the critiques of the status quo ante, and that we need space to consider those concerns honestly.
My own view is that our issues around both democracy and decadence stem from an understandable—but ultimately flawed—attempt to sidestep the intrinsic risk of thinking. Existence is risky, and so thinking must be too. We are born without deciding to be, into a situation that we neither understand nor control. Working out what life is or how to go about it is anything but simple.
To be completely clear, I do see great deal of value in the technical intellectual work. Careful papers like the ones you cite are legitimate both as knowledge seeking activity and as contexts to help develop insight for our political life. But there has also been a striking temptation in much of the late twentieth century to try to sidestep the intrinsic vulnerability of thought. In foreign policy this shows up in trying to reduce all human motivation to the idea of “interest.” In philosophy it appears as the Rawlsian desire to constrain artificially the limits of public reason. In policy, it appears in the desire to rely principally on “neutral” analysis.
In your last letter, your write,
The feedback loop from increased knowledge has moved such questions to a different frontier. The “anything at all” has been dropped. It’s now “How can we know this?”
“Has moved” is the premise you and I been disagreeing about most in our conversation. I’m fully willing to concede the elegance of intricate technical debate.
Solow, I think, is an example in my favor. As he says “if the [crucial] assumption is dubious, the results are suspect.” His attempt to dispute a relatively proximate premise (“the assumption of fixed proportion”) is striking, precise, fruitful. But none of that changes the fact that he is also resting on a veritable Burj Khalifa of other “crucial assumptions” about the nature of the world. Let’s leave aside seminar room questions about whether there is an external world or whether other people are alive. Instead, just note in this case, that the interest in writing a paper entitled “A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth” itself involves a theory of value. He clearly thinks that economy is important for society, and, all things considered, it should grow.
There are very democratic implications here. In being entirely honest about what we do and do not know, and what we do and do not value—we are opening ourselves up to debate not merely where it’s comfortable (on data regarding inflation) but where it is more difficult (is economic growth a good theory of life?). I’m defending the space for these latter questions because we are already answering them and should do so honestly, but also because these are matters about which many more people—not just those who went to graduate school—have a stake and feel the question with force. As I have argued elsewhere, any democracy worthy of the name has to open debate about ends, not just means.
To conclude with an obvious point, my argument too is subject to risk. The core assumptions on which I am depending as I call for ambition—that there is a world there to be known, and humans should press into it—could all be wrong. But even in that is the case, it is far better to run the attempt—and learn that truth too—than to forfeit the race.
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