Conducted behind their backs

A striking methodological salvo from the opening chapter of James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism:

The populist tendency of anarchist thought, with its belief in the possibilities of autonomy, self-organization, and cooperation, recognized, among other things, that peasants, artisans, and workers were themselves political thinkers. They had their own purposes, values, and practices, which any political sys­tem ignored at its peril. That basic respect for the agency of nonelites seems to have been betrayed not only by states but also by the practice of social science. It is common to ascribe to elites particular values, a sense of history, aesthetic tastes, even rudiments of a political philosophy. The political analysis of nonelites, by contrast, is often conducted, as it were, behind their backs. Their “politics” is read off their statistical profile: from such “facts” as their income, occupation, years of schooling, property holding, residence, race, ethnicity, and religion.

This is a practice that most social scientists would never judge remotely adequate to the study of elites. It is curiously akin both to state routines and to left-wing authoritarianism in treating the nonelite public and “masses” as ciphers of their so­cioeconomic characteristics, most of whose needs and world­ view can be understood as a vector sum of incoming calories, cash, work routines, consumption patterns, and past voting behavior. It is not that such factors are not germane. What is inadmissible, both morally and scientifically, is the hubris that pretends to understand the behavior of human agents without for a moment listening systematically to how they understand what they are doing and how they explain themselves. Again, it is not that such self-explanations are transparent and nor are they without strategic omissions and ulterior motives—they are no more transparent that the self-explanations of elites.

The job of social science, as I see it, is to provide, provision­ally, the best explanation of behavior on the basis of all the evidence available, including especially the explanations of the purposive, deliberating agents whose behavior is being scruti­nized. The notion that the agent’s view of the situation is ir­relevant to this explanation is preposterous. Valid knowledge of the agent’s situation is simply inconceivable without it. No one has put the case better for the phenomenology of human action than John Dunn:

If we wish to understand other people and propose to claim that we have in fact done so, it is both imprudent and rude not to attend to what they say. . . . What we cannot properly do is to claim to know that we understand him [an agent] or his action better than he does himself without access to the best descriptions which he is able to offer.

Anything else amounts to committing a social science crime behind the backs of history’s actors.

This is an especially pernicious flaw in a great deal of historical writing, where motives and explanations for large-scale social transformations—say, the American Revolution—are often identified solely and unreflectingly with the motives and explanations of elites (intellectual, social, political). Writing history is very hard, at least if one wishes to be truthful. One way to characterize the error Scott discusses is to say that it turns all history into intellectual history: the history of what intellectuals have said and done. (I am reminded that when I expressed an interest in intellectual history to one of my math professors at MIT—a world-famous algebraic geometer—he mused, skeptical of the need for the adjective and with all the false confidence of the naif, “Isn’t all history intellectual?” He meant something banal rather than provocative—isn’t historical work intellectual work?—but I still wince at his reflex to dismiss what he found unfamiliar.)

I am struck by this passage in part because it helps to illuminate one dimension of the academic debate—never mind the more general culture war—about Nikole Hannah-Jones’s claims for the revolution in the 1619 Project (the most contested being that “one of the primary reasons” the United States fought the war was to preserve slavery): there is a historiographic contest over whose reasons for revolution matter—Ben Franklin’s and James Madison’s, your salt-of-the-earth antislavery New Englander’s, or that of the scale-tipping planter Virginian who had not yet gone over to the Patriot cause but was spurred to do so after Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation threatened to free his slaves.

The problem is not always political or ideological, or a residue of Great Man history writing (though it sometimes is, more than it ought to be). At bottom, the temptation to ignore the reasoning and views of nonelites is material and methodological: we typically have more records, more documents, more texts—or even if not numerically more, at least more easily accessible ones—from elites than from the masses. This is a lesson the full significance of which I have learned only gradually myself, not least because of my absorption in intellectual culture and my interest in the history of ideas. It is far easier for the graduate student, the journalist, or the researcher to reach for a popular book still in print, or a volume only an interlibrary loan away, or the carefully preserved archives of prominent or simply well-remembered members of society, than to try, painstakingly, to piece together a more faithful portrait of the full range of opinion from the vastly more unorganized mass of materials that record what the mass of most of us think. There is always more being said than what the most prominent or visible members of a society are saying. (And not only is there more being said; it matters, as a force of history. The conflation of history with elite history both rides on and reinforces the conceit that power only resides with elites—that only their beliefs and actions make anything happen.)

To put it more succinctly, this is just another example of selection bias. More than a half-century after the first broadsides in the new bottom-up social history of the 1960s were published, and forty years after the title of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States inaugurated a new formula for restoring agency to the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of history, the evidence historians choose to adduce remains predominantly elite, and the overblown conclusions they draw remain trained on a remarkably limited set of data. We like to criticize data scientists for analyzing whatever information just happens to be available, however biased, however unrepresentative a sample; we too readily forget that historians are data scientists, too, of a sort. All of them: even the ones who don’t do Franco Moretti–style quantitative social science or digital humanities. This is not to say that to write history one must do statistics. Historians just have a more capacious, less numerical notion of what counts as data. And when they choose to read whatever data is readiest to hand—off the shelf, in popular memory, national mythology, or other received wisdom—they almost inevitably distort the richness and complexity of the period they study. (As Sontag said in an interview for BR, “The main mistake people make when thinking about something, whether an historical event or one in their private lives, is that they don’t see just how complicated it is.”)

I say almost inevitably, because a few conscientious objectors at least take care to cast their conclusions in sufficiently modest language, acknowledging that their limited datasets do not license grand claims. (The price we often pay for this modesty is tedious prose: we sacrifice the stylistic thrill of a breezy narrative, propelled by the easy causation of a story, for more insipid accuracy. The pressure to oversimplify that no writer can escape is perhaps above all stylistic, even more than cognitive. It is not so hard to think about complexity. It is very hard to express it elegantly.) “My goal isn’t to portray the full complexity of this period, but only this very tiny part of it” is always a way out of this trap. But even these more responsible projects—the best kinds of micro-history, now the dominant mode of so much academic work, which has forsaken the writing of Bigger History precisely for some of the reasons I’ve given here—must be subjected to scrutiny: why not do the harder work of writing the history that is not so easily told (whether because it is the history of elites, or because it is the history of terrain so narrowly drawn that only very few readers will be interested)? We must always be on guard against only writing the history that is easiest to write, just as we must be on guard against only thinking about those things that are easiest to think about.

Contrary to folklore

Paul Samuelson, “Heads I Win, and Tales, You Lose,” in the sixtieth anniversary edition of von Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior:

Contrary to folklore, mathematical ability is not a rare gift uncorrelated with other intellectual abilities: testing demonstrates that the child good with words and logic is most likely to have native potentiality for mathematics also. That schools […] should turn us out ignorant of and resentful of mathematics, is a crime. And not because, in the age of Sputnik and automation, mathematical proficiency is a prerequisite of national prosperity and survival, but rather because of the sheer fun that people miss […]

I think of this old title on my shelf: The Sheer Joy of Celestial Mechanics.

Sure to be noticed

Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death:

A person can go on living fairly well, seem to be a human being, be occupied with temporal matters, marry, have children, be honored and esteemed — and it may not be detected that in a deeper sense this person lacks a self. Such things do not create much of a stir in the world, for a self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss — an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. — is sure to be noticed.

Each readily falls into excess

Bacon’s 55th aphorism in the Novum Organum, translated by Joseph Devey, some two centuries before Darwin on lumpers and splitters:

The greatest and, perhaps, radical distinction between different men’s dispositions for philosophy and the sciences is this, that some are more vigorous and active in observing the differences of things, others in observing their resemblances; for a steady and acute disposition can fix its thoughts, and dwell upon and adhere to a point, through all the refinements of differences, but those that are sublime and discursive recognize and compare even the most delicate and general resemblances; each of them readily falls into excess, by catching either at nice distinctions or shadows of resemblance.

Cf. Stravinsky.

See how high the seas of language can rise

from Kripke’s Naming and Necessity (1980):

If one was determining the referent of a name like ‘Glunk’ to himself and made the following decision, ‘I shall use the term “Glunk” to refer to the man that I call “Glunk”‘ this would get one nowhere. One had better have some independent determination of the referent of ‘Glunk’. This is a good example of a blatantly circular determination. Actually sentences like ‘Socrates is called “Socrates”‘ are very interesting and one can spend hours talking about their analysis. I actually did, once, do that. I won’t do that now, however, on this occasion. (See how high the seas of language can rise. And at the lowest points too.)

Even the subtlest experts

from Kripke, “Outline of a Theory of Truth”:

The versions of the Liar paradox which use empirical predicates already point up one major aspect of the problem: many, probably most, of our ordinary assertions about truth and falsity are liable, if the empirical facts are extremely unfavorable, to exhibit paradoxical features. Consider the ordinary statement, made by Jones:

(1) Most (i.e., a majority) of Nixon’s assertions about Watergate are false.

Clearly, nothing is intrinsically wrong with (1), nor is it ill-formed. Ordinarily the truth value of (1) will be ascertainable through an enumeration of Nixon’s Watergate-related assertions, and an assessment of each for truth or falsity. Suppose, however, that Nixon’s assertions about Watergate are evenly balanced between the true and the false, except for one problematic case,

(2) Everything Jones says about Watergate is true.

Suppose, in addition, that (1) is Jones’s sole assertion about Watergate, or alternatively, that all his Watergate-related assertions except perhaps (1) are true. Then it requires little expertise to show that (1) and (2) are both paradoxical: they are true if and only if they are false.

The example of (1) points up an important lesson: it would be fruitless to look for an intrinsic criterion that will enable us to sieve out—as meaningless, or ill-formed—those sentences which lead to paradox. (1) is, indeed, the paradigm of an ordinary assertion involving the notion of falsity; just such assertions were characteristic of our recent political debate. Yet no syntactic or semantic feature of (1) guarantees that it is unparadoxical. Under the assumptions of the previous paragraph, (1) leads to paradox. Whether such assumptions hold depends on the empirical facts about Nixon’s (and other) utterances, not on anything intrinsic to the syntax and semantics of (1). (Even the subtlest experts may not be able to avoid utterances leading to paradox. It is said that Russell once asked Moore whether he always told the truth, and that he regarded Moore’s negative reply as the sole falsehood Moore had ever produced. Surely no one had a keener nose for paradox than Russell. Yet he apparently failed to realize that if, as he thought, all Moore’s other utterances were true, Moore’s negative reply was not simply false but paradoxical.) The moral: an adequate theory must allow our statements involving the notion of truth to be risky: they risk being paradoxical if the empirical facts are extremely (and unexpectedly) unfavorable. There can be no syntactic or semantic “sieve” that will winnow out the “bad” cases while preserving the “good” ones.

This notation sucks!

Paul Votja on Serge Lang:

During my time at Yale, I gave two or three graduate courses. Serge always sat in the front row, paying close attention to the point of interrupting me midsentence: “The notation should be functorial with respect to the ideas!” or “This notation sucks!” But, after class he complimented me highly on the lecture.

While on sabbatical at Harvard, he sat in on a course Mazur was giving and often criticized the notation. Eventually they decided to give him a T-shirt which said, “This notation sucks” on it. So one day Barry intentionally tried to get him to say it. He introduced a complex variable Ξ, took its complex conjugate, and divided by the original Ξ. This was written as a vertical fraction, so it looked like eight horizontal lines on the blackboard. He then did a few other similar things, but Serge kept quiet—apparently he didn’t criticize notation unless he knew what the underlying mathematics was about. Eventually Barry had to give up and just present him with the T-shirt.

One does well to listen to them

The opening of Nietzsche’s lesser-known incomplete book, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (c. 1873), translated by Marianne Cowan:

There are people who are opposed to all philosophy and one does well to listen to them, particularly when they advise the diseased minds of Germans to stay away from metaphysics, instead preaching purification through physis as Goethe did, or healing through music, as did Richard Wagner. The physicians of our culture repudiate philosophy. Whoever wishes to justify it must show, therefore, to what ends a healthy culture uses and has used philosophy. Perhaps the sick will then actually gain salutary insight into why philosophy is harmful specifically to them. There are good instances, to be sure, of a type of health which can exist altogether without philosophy, or with but a very moderate, almost playful, exercise of it. The Romans during their best period lived without philosophy. But where could we find an instance of cultural pathology which philosophy restored to health? If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker. Wherever a culture was disintegrating, wherever the tension between it and its individual components was slack, philosophy could never re-integrate the individuals back into the group. Wherever an individual was of a mind to stand apart, to draw a circle of self-sufficiency about himself, philosophy was ready to isolate him still further, finally to destroy him through that isolation. Philosophy is dangerous wherever it does not exist in its fullest right, and it is only the health of a culture—and not every culture at that—which accords it such fullest right.

A non sequitur of numbing grossness

Strawson on Kant in The Bounds of Sense:

In the Second Analogy Kant expresses in a number of ways the thought that the order of perceptions of htose objective states of affairs the succession of one upon the other of which constitutes an objective change is—as, in the sense examined and with the qualifications mentioned, we see it is—a necessary order. The order of perceptions is characterized not only as a necessary, but as a determined order, an order to which our apprehension is bound down, or which we are compelled to observe. These may all perhaps be admitted as legitimate ways of expressing the denial of order-indifference. But from this point the argument proceeds by a non sequitur of numbing grossness.