Up until this point, I’ve avoided talking about Jordan Peterson in any serious manner. In part because I thought (and continue to hope) that he’s the intellectual version of a fad diet who will shortly become irrelevant. My general impression of him is that when he’s right, he’s saying rather banal, cliché truisms with an undeserved bombastic air of profundity, such as his assertions that there are biological differences between men and women, that many religious myths share some similar features, or that taking personal responsibility is good. When he’s wrong, he’s talking way out of the depth of his understanding in his field (like the infamous lobster comment or this bizarre nonsense). Either way, it doesn’t make for a rather good use of time or opportunity for interesting, productive discussion—especially when his galaxy-brained cult-like fanboys are ready to pounce on anyone who criticizes their dear leader.
However, since everyone seems to be as obsessed with Jordan Peterson as he is with himself, I guess it’s finally time to talk about one example of him ignorantly bloviating that particularly annoys me as a philosophy student: his comments on postmodernism. There’s a lot one can talk about with Jordan Peterson because he says almost anything that comes to his mind about any topic, but for the present purposes you can pretend that I think everything he’s ever said that isn’t about postmodern is the deepest, most insightful thing ever said by any thinker in the history of western thought. I’m not interested in defending any overarching claims about him as a thinker. At the very least, his work on personality psychology does seem rather well respected and he surely got to his prestigious academic position with some merit, though I am not qualified to really appraise it. I am, however, more prepared to talk about his rather confused comments on philosophy which might shed light on why people are generally frustrated with his overly self-confident presence as a public intellectual.
Postmodernism, According to Peterson
Peterson often makes comments about “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which he calls a “rejection of the western tradition.” Now the very phrase “postmodern neo-Marxism” strikes anyone remotely familiar with the academic literature on postmodernism and Marxism as bizarre and confused. Postmodernism is usually characterized as skepticism towards grand general theories. Marxism is a grand general theory about how class struggle and economic conditions shape the trajectory of history. Clearly, those two views are not at all compatible. As such, much of the history of twentieth century academia is a history of Marxists and postmodernists fighting and butting heads.
Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.
That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”
He then goes on to concede to the criticism that Marxism and postmodernism can’t be described as theoretically aligned, but moves the goal posts to say that they are practically aligned in politics. Further, he contends postmodernisms’ commitment to analyze power structures is just “a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.”
It is worth noting that this attempt at nuance is surely an improvement at Peterson’s previous comments that postmodern a Marxism are a coherent “doctrine” that just hated logic and western values. But his attempt at a “definition” is unsatisfactorily way too restrictive for every thinker who gets called “postmodern,” and the attempt to link the politics of postmodernism up with the politics of Marxism is a complete mischaracterization. Further, his attempt to “critique” this position, whatever one wants to call it, is either (at best) vague and imprecise or (at worst) utterly fails. Finally, there really is no alliance between postmodernists and Marxists. Whether or not a thinker is called a “postmodernist” or not is not a very good predictor of their political views.
Why Peterson’s Definition isn’t what Postmodernists Believe and his Critique Fails
First of all, I am really not interested in dying on the hill of offering a better “definition” of postmodernism. Like any good Wittgensteinian, I tend to think you can’t really give a good list of necessary and sufficient conditions that perfectly captures all the subtle ways we use a word. The meaning of the word is the way it is used. Even within academia postmodernism has such broad, varied usage that I’m not sure it has a coherent meaning. Indeed, Foucault once remarked in a 1983 interview when asked about postmodernism, “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date.” The best I can give is Lyotard’s classic “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is rather vague and oversimplified. Because this is the best I think one can do given how wildly unpredictable the usage of postmodernism is, we’re probably better off just not putting too much stock in it either as one’s own philosophical position or as the biggest existential threat to western civilization and we should talk about more substantive philosophical disagreements.
That said, Jordan Peterson’s definition is unsatisfactory and shows a poor understanding of postmodernism. While the first half of the fundamental claim is a pretty good stab at generalizing a view most philosophers who get labeled as postmodern agree with, the second half is rather unclear since it’s uncertain what Peterson means by “canonical.” If he takes this to mean that we have no determinate way of determining which interpretations are valid, then that would be a good summary of most postmodernists and an implication of Peterson’s own professed Jamesian pragmatism. If what he thinks it means is that all perspectives are as valid as any other and we have no way of deciphering which ones are better than the other, then nobody relevant believes that.
Peterson objects to is the implication “that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations.” He tries to refute this by citing Charles Pierce (who actually did not at all hold this view) and William James on the pragmatic criterion of truth to give meaning to “valid interpretations.” He says valid means “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.” However, it doesn’t follow from this view that you can specify the number of valid interpretations. It just begs the question of how we should understand what “the desired outcome” means, which just puts the perspectivism back a level. Even if we did agree on a determinate “desired outcome,” there are still multiple beliefs one could have to achieve a desired outcome. To put it in a pragmatically-minded cliché, there is more than one way to skin a cat. This is why, in fact, William James was a pluralist.
Perhaps by “specifiable,” he doesn’t mean we can readily quantify the number of valid interpretations, just that the number is not infinite. However, nobody believes there are an infinite number of valid perspectives we should consider. The assertion that a priori we cannot quantify the number of valid perspectives does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid or that there are an infinite number of valid perspectives. Peterson’s argument that we have limited cognitive capacities to consider all possible perspectives is true, it’s just not a refutation of anything postmodernists believe. On this point, it is worth quoting Richard Rorty—one who was both a Jamesian pragmatist and usually gets called postmodern—from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:
When it is said, for example, that coherentist or pragmatic “theories of truth” allow for the possibility that many incompatible theories would satisfy the conditions set for “the truth,” the coherentist or pragmatist usually replies this merely shows that we have no grounds for choice among thse candidates for “the truth.” The moral to draw is not to say they have offered inadequate analyses of “true,” but that there are some terms—for example, “the true theory,” “the right thing to do”—which are, intuitively and grammatically singular, but for which no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given which will pick out a unique referent. This fact, they say, should not be surprising. Nobody thinks that there are necessary and sufficient conditions which will pick out, for example, the unique referent of “the best thing for her to have done on finding herself in that rather embarrassing situation,” though plausible conditions can be given as to which will shorten a list of competing incompatible candidates. Why should it be any different for the referents of “what she should have done in that ghastly moral dilemma” or “the Good Life for man” or “what the world is really made of?” [Emphasis mine]
The fact that we cannot readily quantify a limited number of candidates for interpretations or decide between them algorithmically does not that we have absolutely no ways to tell which interpretation is valid, that all interpretations are equally valid, nor does it mean there are an infinite number of potentially valid interpretations. Really, the view that many (though not all) postmodernists actually hold under this “primary claim” is not all that substantially different from Peterson’s own Jamesian pragmatism.
As for the secondary claim, which he thinks is Marxist, that “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.” This view is basically just one just Foucault might have held depending on how you read him. Some would argue this isn’t even a good reading of Foucault because such sweeping generalizations about “all interpretations” is rather uncharacteristic of a philosopher who’s skeptical of sweeping generalizations. However, you read Foucault (and I’m not really prepared to take a strong stand either way), it certainly isn’t the view of all postmodernists. Rorty criticized this habit of Foucault (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 63), and thought that even if power does shape modern subjectivity it’s worth the tradeoff in the gains to freedom that modern liberalism has brought and thus is not the best way to view. It’s also telling that Peterson doesn’t even try to critique this claim and just dogmatically dismisses it.
Postmodernism’s Alleged Alliance with Marxism
So much for his vague, weak argument against a straw man. Now let’s see if there’s any merit to Peterson’s thought that Marxism and postmodernism have some important resemblance or philosophical alliance. Peterson says that the secondary claim of postmodernism is where the similarity to Marxism comes. However, Marx simply did not think that all theories are just attempts to grab power in the Foucauldian sense: he didn’t think that dialectical materialism the labor theory of value were just power grabs, and predicted a day when there was no competition for power in the first place at the end of history since a communist society would be classless. If anything, it’s the influence of Nietzsche’s Will to Power on Foucault, and oddly enough Peterson thinks rather highly of Nietzsche (even though Nietzsche anticipated postmodernism in rather important ways).
The only feature that they share is a narrative of one group trying to dominate another group. But if any attempt to describe oppression in society is somehow “Marxist,” that means right libertarians who talk about how the state and crony capitalist are oppressing and coercing the general public are “Marxist,” evangelicals who say Christians are oppressed by powerful liberal elites are “Marxist,” even Jordan Peterson himself is a “Marxist” when he whines about these postmodern Marxist boogeymen are trying to silence his free speech. He both defines “postmodernism” too narrowly, and then uses “Marxism” in such a loose manner that it basically means nothing.
Further, there’s Peterson’s claim that due to identity politics, postmodernists and Marxists now just have a practical political alliance even if it’s theoretically illogical. The only evidence he really gives of this alleged “alliance” is that Derrida and Foucault were Marxists when they were younger who “barely repented” from Marxism and that courses like critical theory and gender studies read Marxists and postmodernists. That they barely repented is simply a lie, Foucault left all his associations with Marxist parties and expunged his earlier works of Marxist themes. But the mere fact that someone once was a Marxist and then criticized Marxism later in their life doesn’t mean there was a continuing alliance between believers in their thought and Marxism. Alasdair MacIntyre was influenced by Marx when he was young and became a Catholic neo-Aristotelian, nobody thinks that he “barely repented” and there’s some overarching alliance between traditionalist Aristotelians and Marxists.
As for the claim that postmodernists and Marxists are read in gender studies, it’s just absurd to think that’s evidence of some menacing “practical alliance.” The reason they’re read in those is mostly courses is to provide contrast for the students of opposing perspectives. This is like saying that because Rawlsian libertarians are taken seriously by academic political philosophers there’s some massive political alliance between libertarians and progressive liberals.
Really, trying to connect postmodernism to any political ideology shows a laughably weak understanding of both postmodernism and political theory. You have postmodernists identifying as everything from far leftists (Foucault), to progressive liberals (Richard Rorty), to classical liberals (Deirdre McClosky), to anarchists (Saul Newman), to religious conservatives (like Peter Blum and James K.A. Smith). They don’t all buy identity politics uniformly, Richard Rorty criticized the left for focusing on identity issues over economic politics and was skeptical of the usefulness of a lot of critical theory. There really is no necessary connection between one’s highly theoretical views on epistemic justification, truth, and the usefulness of metaphysics or other metanarratives and one’s more concrete views on culture or politics.
Now Peterson can claim all the people I’ve listed aren’t “really” postmodern and double down on his much narrower, idiosyncratic definition of postmodernism which has very little relation to the way anyone who knows philosophy uses it. Fine, that’s a trivial semantic debate I’m not really interested in having. But it does create a problem for him: he wants to claim that postmodernism is this pernicious, all-encompassing threat that has consumed all of the humanities and social sciences which hates western civilization. He then wants to define postmodernism so narrowly that it merely describes the views of basically just Foucault. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: define postmodernism narrowly to evade criticism that he’s using it loosely, and use it as a scare term for the entire modern left.
Peterson’s Other Miscellaneous Dismissals of Postmodernism
The rest of what he has to say about postmodernism is all absurd straw men with absolutely no basis in anything anyone has ever argued. He thinks postmodernists “don’t believe in logic” when, for example, Richard Rorty was an analytic philosopher who spent the early parts of his career obsessed with the logic of language. He thinks they “don’t believe in dialogue” when Rorty’s whole aspiration was to turn all of society into one continuous dialogue and reimagine philosophy as the “conversation of culture). Or that they believe “you don’t have an individual identity” when K. Anthony Appiah, who encourages “banal ‘postmodernism’” about race, believes that the individual dimensions of identity are problematically superseded by the collective dimensions. This whole “definition and critique” of postmodernism is clearly just a post-hoc rationalization for him to continue to dishonestly straw man all leftists with an absurd monolithic conspiracy theory. The only people who are playing “crooked games” or are “neck-deep in deceit” are ignorant hucksters like Peterson bloviating about topics they clearly know nothing about with absurd levels of unmerited confidence.
Really, it’s ironic that Peterson has such irrational antipathy towards postmodernism. A ton of the views he champions (a pragmatic theory of truth, a respect for Nietzsche’s use of genealogy, a naturalist emphasis on the continuity between animals and humans, etc.) are all views that are often called “postmodern” depending on how broadly one understands “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and at the very least were extremely influential over most postmodern philosophers and echoed in their work. Maybe if Peterson showed a fraction of the openness to dialogue and debate he dishonestly pretends to have and actually read postmodernists outside of a secondary source, he’d discover a lot to agree with.
[Editors note: The last line has been changed from an earlier version with an incorrect statement about Peterson’s source Explaining Postmodernism.]
John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:
He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.
But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.
What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.
You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)
In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.
Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.
We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.
Let me sum up:
- Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
- We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
- We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
- At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).
Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically, though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.
This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):
It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work, and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.
Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.
Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.
In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.
For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here. I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.
Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.” 
What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.
 Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”
 In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.
 Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.
 For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.
eNote: This is part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one, defining democracy, and part two, summarizing classical liberal perspectives on democracy. In this section, we’ll analyze how pragmatists conceive of democracy as a broader philosophy. The final post will argue that a dialectical synthesis of libertarianism and pragmatism on democracy will yield an argument in favor of market anarchy.
As classical liberals have pointed out throughout history, particularly in since the mid-nineteenth century, democracy as a system of political decision-making can be extremely dangerous to individual liberty and social prosperity. It could lead to tyranny of the majority, it may be characterized in practice as the rule of the ignorant and irrational and yield awful policy, and it leads to a reification of the state as the just “voice of the people” which can cause further tyranny. For these reasons, there is a very strong argument from moving away from constitutions which rely primarily on democratic means for decision making for the protection of individual liberty. The natural question is: what is our current democratic regime to be replaced with?
To answer this question, perhaps it is worth examining what is admirable in democracy. Thus far, I have mostly been referring to democracy in the second sense mentioned in the introductory section (henceforth referred to, for want of a better term, political democracy), as a means of political decision making. However, there is also the fourth sense which, although related, is distinct from political democracy which may be called philosophical democracy. To further explore this meaning of democracy, and perhaps give an answer to the aforementioned question, it is worth engaging with the thought of some of the most strident defenders of democracy: the American pragmatists.
Pragmatists on Philosophical Democracy
The writings of John Dewey and Sidney Hook are exemplars of philosophical democracy (though certainly others in this tradition are as well). Dewey, in his 1888 essay “The Ethics of Democracy,” specifically argues against Henry Maine’s view that “democracy is only a form of government.” Dewey explicitly defines democracy as a much broader “way of life,” as he says in his 1937 work “Democracy and Education:”
Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws, and carrying on government administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officials. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The keynote of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in the formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the development of human beings as individuals.
Indeed, Dewey’s emphasis on how democracy allows for participation in the formation of social values is a common thread throughout his entire political philosophy. In his earlier days, he was deeply influenced by the Hegelian notion of society as a “social organism” (although, in his later work he became a bit more cautious about the collectivist and possible authoritarian implications of this doctrine; see his 1939 essay “I Believe”). In 1888, he argued that democracy, by allowing participation of all, “approaches most nearly the ideal of all social organization; that in which the individual and society are organic to each other.” He explains:
In every other form of government there are individuals who are not organs of the common will, who are outside of the political society in which they live and are, in effect, aliens to that which should be their own commonwealth. Not participating in the expression of the common will, they do not embody themselves. Having no share in society, society has none in them.
…The government is not made up of those who hold office, or who sit in the legislature. It consists of every member of political society. And this is true of democracy, not less, but more, than of other forms. The democratic formula that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed…means that in democracy, at all events, the governors and the governed are not two classes, but two aspects of the same fact—the fact of the possession of a unified and articulate will.
Thus, Dewey argues that “Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental.”
Dewey expands upon the sense in which Democracy is an “ethical conception” in his much later work “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us,” in which he characterizes democracy as a “personal way of individual life” (his emphasis). In this sense, democracy is not only to be found in institutions but in “free gatherings of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gathering of friends in living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another.”
The sense in which democracy is a personal way of life is characterized by what Dewey calls the “democratic faith.” There are two elements to this democratic faith, one is faith in “the possibilities of human nature.” That is, faith that “every human being, independent of the quality or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for the development of whatever gift he has.” Second, is a “faith in the capacity for human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are fostered.” These two faiths combine to make democracy an overarching philosophy that characterized by “belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness.” It can be seen, then, how these faiths may be found in not so much the political institution of democracy but in every day deliberative discussion and face-to-face encounters like neighbors and friends discussing news.
Sidney Hook in his 1938 essay “The Democratic Way of Life” further expands on the ethical character of democracy as a personal way of life. He argues that there are “three related values which are central to democracy as a way of life.” Those are the “belief that every individual should be regarded as possessing intrinsic worth or dignity,” the “belief in the value of difference, variety and uniqueness,” and, to mediate between such values, a belief in “the method of intelligence, of critical scientific inquiry.”
In regards to that last value, it could be said that for Dewey and Hook participatory democracy is not only a “way of life” or an “ethic,” but also a social epistemology. He argues in “Democracy and Education” that, although intelligence is unevenly distributed among individuals, “it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all.” He says in Liberalism and Social Action that rapid changes in society “have to be directed” and “controlled that it will move in some end in accordance with the principles of life, since life itself is development.” For Dewey, taking advantage of the dispersed intelligence through the democratic process is essentially the application of the scientific method to political problems. Indeed, the idea of democratic experimentalism comes to the forefront in this philosophical conception of democracy precisely because of Dewey’s epistemological commitments to the scientific method.
Thus, democracy in this pragmatist sense is a personal philosophy and social epistemology that accepts scientific deliberation, humanism, and pluralism as necessary conditions for growth of individuals and society as a whole.
Dewey on Political Democracy
Of course, the pragmatists not only conceived of democracy as a way of life but defended democratic institutions. What is striking about this is how Dewey characterizes political democracy as a means to the aspirations of philosophical democracy rather than an end itself. Indeed, he writes in “Democracy and Administration” that the institutions of political democracy “are not a final end and a final value. They are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end.” The end here, of course, is the extent to which it allows individuals to participate in the formation of social values and the defense of liberty necessary for such participation.
Recall that in The Constitution of Liberty Hayek also conceived of political democracy as an end, and there is a striking similarity between Dewey and Hayek on this point. One may be tempted to say that the ends they are seeking are entirely different as Hayek is seeking individual liberty. However, this is not necessarily the case, as Dewey argued in Liberalism and Social Action that the end of liberalism is “a social organization that will make possible the effective liberty and opportunity for personal growth in mind and spirit of all individuals.”
To be sure, Dewey’s and Hayek’s conceptions of what constitutes liberty are very different: Hayek specifically cites Dewey as conceptually confusing “power” with “liberty” for accepting a positive rather than negative conception of liberty. For Hayek, liberty simply means “the absence of coercion.” For Dewey, liberty means “the liberation of individuals so that realization of their capacities may be the law of their life.” However, what at first seems to be two contradictory beliefs in liberty are not necessarily contradictory. One may say, with Dewey, that positive liberties are necessary so that individuals may grow in mind and spirit and participate in the formation of social values, but agree with Hayek that a necessary prerequisite for such liberties is absence of coercion. Indeed, this defense of negative liberty for the sake of positive liberty is precisely the stance many modern neoclassical liberals take, most notably Jason Brennan and David Schmidt. Thus, Dewey’s and Hayek’s views on democracy as a means to the end of liberty are quite possibly complementary. (This is not to be confused with claiming they really said the same thing, which they clearly did not.)
Dewey defends democracy as the most effective means to this end on the basis that “no man or limited set of men is [sic] wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent[.]” Political democracy is understood by the pragmatists, as Sidney Hook says, to be a society “where the government rests upon the freely given consent of the governed.” This consent (which Hook acknowledges is not in complete existence in reality) is given through voting.
Criticisms of the Pragmatist Incorporation of Political Democracy
The pragmatist conception of philosophical democracy is certainly admirable from a classical liberal standpoint. Its emphasis on dispersed knowledge, its call for liberal tolerance of diversity, its humanistic respect for the dignity of every individual, and its use of a broadly scientific (though not scientistic) approach to social issues are all well in line with classical liberalism’s goals. However, clearly the incorporation of political democracy as the political ideal by the pragmatists would irk many classical liberals and especially modern libertarians. In fact, I would argue that political democracy in practice is somewhat antithetical to the philosophical aspirations of the pragmatists.
There are four ways in which political democracy undermines the aspirations of philosophical democracy. First, in no meaningful sense could it be said that political democracy has the consent of the governed. Second, political democracy in practice is in no meaningful sense actually an application of intelligence and the scientific method to political issues in practice. Third, the centralization of political authority and planning in democracies undermines Dewey’s point that intelligence is distributed throughout society (particularly in his extremely interventionist views on economics). Finally, the democratic process undermines the mutual respect of individual human dignity philosophical democracy exalts.
Both Dewey and Hook argue that political democracy’s legitimacy and its epistemic superiority rest on its ability to take the freely given consent of the governed through the electoral process. Dewey is, at best, vague on what this means, but Hook is a bit more explicit in “The Democratic Way of Life:”
In saying that government rests upon the “consent” of the governed, it is meant that at certain fixed periods its policies are submitted to the governed for approval or disapproval. By “freely given” consent of the governed is meant that no coercion, direct or indirect, is brought to bear upon the governed to elicit their approval or disapproval. A government that “rests upon” the freely given consent of the governed is one that in fact abides by the expression of this approval or disapproval.
Hook gives three conditions of how this consent must be reached. First, the method of giving consent must not be obstructed (in this case, free elections without coerced voting). Second, there can be no economic threats to political dissenters, so the economic policy must be controlled through political means. Third, there can be no monopoly in education or the press. I argue, though the third may be reached in political democracy, the first two are nearly impossible to be achieved in political democracies.
On the first point, it is highly dubious that voting is truly a method of consent in the first place. Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority identifies three arguments that are typically given to claim democracy has the consent of the governed. First, “naïve majoritarianism,” which believes that if all vote or have the opportunity to vote in an election the majority has just authority to govern as they please. Second, deliberative democracy, which holds that if participants can publicly reason about their proposals, have an equal voice, and a consensus can be aimed at, the resulting consensus or majority vote is just. Third, equality from authority which holds that treating others as equals means we must respect democratic decisions. Though neither Hook nor Dewey explicitly explain why they think a vote constitutes consent, it is safe to say that their beliefs fall somewhere between naïve majoritarianism and deliberative democracy, thus it is worth rehashing Huemer’s arguments against those views. (The equality argument is mostly irrelevant for present purposes.)
Against naïve majoritarianism, Huemer asks us what if such a principle were applied to everyday situations through a thought experiment of a number of friends trying to decide who pays for the tab in bar. Imagine that, against your wishes, everyone among your friends says they should take a vote on who should pay for the bar tab, and they happen to choose you. Are you morally obligated to pay the tab? Do your friends have the right to forcibly take your money away from you and pay the tab? Our intuition says no and that this isn’t really consensual, so why, Huemer asks us, is it any different with political institutions?
The more interesting argument Huemer takes up is Joshua Cohen’s conception of deliberative democracy, which certainly bears some similarity to the pragmatists. Huemer characterizes Cohen’s notion of deliberative democracy as bearing the following features:
- Participants take their deliberation to be capable of determining action and to be unconstrained by any prior norms
- Participants offer reasons for their proposals, with the (correct) expectation that those reasons alone will determine the fate of the proposals.
- Each participant has an equal voice.
- The deliberation aims at consensus, however if consensus is not achieved, it is decided by voting.
First of all, as Huemer notes, there is little reason why deliberation in democratic institutions should legitimize the claim that participants have consented to the results. If we return to the bar tab example, imagine if we just added the stipulation that before the vote was taken everyone gives you reasons and arguments about why you should pay the tab, fail to convince you, and still vote that you pay for it. Nothing changes in terms of your consent to their taking your money. Indeed, the fact that government coercion involves deliberation is irrelevant to whether that coercion was consented to.
However, there is a second reason why the argument for political authority from deliberative democracy fails, and this brings me to my second argument against the application of political democracy for the ends of pragmatist philosophical democracy. Dewey and Hook, as well as Cohen, act as if democratic discourse is actually deliberative as if reasons are actually given, as if everyone participates in the process. Dewey likens this process to the scientific method, holding that it is the “intelligence” that can control and direct changes in society.
This is decidedly not the case in any actual modern democracy. As public choice theorists note, the incentives facing voters is not to apply their intelligence and knowledge to voting, they instead vote as rationally ignorant. Further, contrary to Dewey’s democratic faith in the ability of people to make good decisions voting, they are systemically biased and irrational, as Bryan Caplan argued in The Myth of the Rational Voter. The result is not the controlled, experimental, scientific deliberation and discourse the pragmatists describe, but rule of an ignorant, irrational majority. How one can look at the cacophonic caterwauling in political discourse, the superficial pomp and circumstance of the electoral process, the irrational partisanship that low-information ideological voters possess, and the sensationalism of media coverage and call it “deliberative” or “intelligent” in any sense is quite beyond me. It seems that democracy is more like cheap pornography than science and deliberation, deliberative democracy and intelligence in the scientific method of actual democratic institutions is a myth.
Further, the idea that everyone has an equal say in any existing democracy is, at best, absurd. A fraction of the population votes and their votes are controlled by an even smaller fraction of the population in the press, policy research, and who controls campaign ads. The actual policies are not controlled by elections, but by backroom deals and bureaucracies in modern democracies. As public choice theory teaches us, this makes policy in democracy the whim of special interests who contribute to the politician’s campaigns, who engage in rent-seeking and regulatory capture, not the majority and this certainly undermines the idea that anyone has an equal say in political democracies.
Hook has another condition of consent for political democracies, that there is no indirect economic coercion. He elaborates on this point:
There are less obvious but no less effective ways of coercively influencing the expression of consent. A threat, for example, to deprived the governed of their jobs or means of livelihood, by a group which has the power to do so, would undermine a democracy even if its name were retained. In fact, every overt form of economic pressure, since it is experienced directly by the individual and since so many other phases of his life are dependent upon economic security, is an overt challenge to democracy…Where it cannot influence the expression of consent, it may subvert or prevent its execution. This is particularly true in modern social instruments of production, necessary for the livelihood of many, are privately own by the few…Genuine political democracy, therefore, entails the right of the governed, through their representatives, to control economic policy.
My strong disagreement with Hook here brings me to my third point, that political democracy’s tendencies towards centralization are antithetical to Hook and Dewey’s arguments that philosophical democracy acknowledges and takes advantage of the dispersed intelligence among individuals. Anyone schooled in public choice theory immediately sees the problem with Hook’s analysis that government policy controlling economics is necessary to reduce indirect economic coercion. As the concept of “concentrated benefits, dispersed cost” shows, the reality is that when policy is controlled by the government in democracies a select few special interests have the incentive to use government policy to their ends at the expense of the public good. In other words, what Hook calls “economic democracy” is undemocratic in every way due to the public choice problems embedded in the democratic process for selecting economic policy. Further, Hook’s point about unequal distribution of wealth needing to be subverted by state intervention is far off the mark; that exact state intervention is what causes such centralization of wealth in the first place.
But this brings me to my broader point about how political democracy is inconsistent with Dewey’s assertion that “it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all[.]” Political democracy has resulted in the centralization of decision making into ever larger governments by an increasingly elite group of bureaucrats, politicians, and special interests. This is not taking advantage of the intelligent contributions of each individual.
Further, Dewey’s general views on economic policy and favoring for big government that were bordering on socialism at times and were definitely in favor of progressive state intervention, are at odds with his broader epistemic commitments which are closely linked to philosophical democracy. This may be seen by directly comparing Dewey on these points with Hayek.
In a great paper entitled “Hayek’s Challenge to Dewey,” Alan Reynolds points out that both Hayek and Dewey have very similar epistemic views and both derive their political views from their respective epistemologies. However, Hayek’s and Dewey’s respective visions of liberalism are very different. Hayek counts himself in the old classical liberal tradition which seeks limited government to maximize individual negative liberty, while Dewey, despite acknowledging this older liberalism’s success at progress in the past, sees classical liberalism as an obstacle in Liberalism and Social Action and says it should be replaced with a “renascent liberalism” that embraces large government policies to guarantee positive liberties.
Yet, as Reynolds notes, both Hayek and Dewey have similar epistemologies, and his analysis is worth quoting at length on this point:
Dewey constantly argues that the philosophical tradition, starting with Plato but achieving its sharpest articulation with Descartes, portrayed humans as fundamentally rational beings, whose rationality has a single universal structure and is capable of detaching itself from experience to grasp universal truths. Dewey instead puts forward a radically different view, in which knowledge is fallible, limited, social, embodied, and contextual. He argues against the “old notion that intelligence is a ready-made possession of individuals.” This view is a “purely individualistic notion of intelligence” that fails to recognize the social character of intelligence. Knowledge, for Dewey, is not primarily acquired and developed in detachment from social interactions, but is embodied in them. We live “in an environment in which the cumulative intelligence of a multitude of cooperating individuals is embodied.” This means that knowledge is much broader than the articulation of it found in the philosophical tradition. Dewey’s conception of knowledge, according to Posner, “includes tacit (‘how to’) knowledge as well as the articulate knowledge acquired by formal reasoning and systematic empirical methods, for both are useful.” Knowledge is not confined to the articulate and explicit, but includes the knowledge weaved into the emotions, common sense, know-how, and intuition. This broader sense of knowledge is not reducible to the articulate and explicit.
…Hayek’s vision of epistemology similarly deflates the pretensions of human rationality and broadens out our notion of knowledge to include those practical aspects of our know-how that remains unthematized (and possibly unthematizable). Hayek offers a distinction between two opposing conceptions of “the place which reason plays in human affairs.” There is the Enlightenment (and specifically Cartesian) view that “assumes that Reason, with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason.” In contrast to this rationalist epistemology, he offers what he refers to as his evolutionist, “antirationalist approach,” which “regards man not as a highly rational and intelligent but as a very irrational and fallible being, whose individual errors are corrected only the course of a social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material.” Human reason is able to provide the on-the-ground knowledge that helps to navigate particular contexts and situations – and this knowledge will be overwhelmingly what we might call “practical knowledge,” or know-how, which is not easy to formalize into know-that type information. It is false (and potentially dangerous) to view humans as beings that are specially equipped to access universal truth via universal reason; contrarily, we are creatures that can navigate certain kinds of situations via practical problem-solving. A great deal of this knowledge is “tacit, inarticulable, and therefore uncommunicable.” In this view, “man has achieved what he has in spite of the fact that he is only partly guided by reason, and that his individual reason is very limited and imperfect.” This rejection of Cartesian-inspired rationalism, and defense of an anti-rationalistic, fallibilist epistemology, is central to Hayek’s picture of the individual and the limits of knowledge.
Unlike Dewey, Hayek continually applies this critique of a hyper-inflated view of reason to government policy where Dewey stops short. Hayek’s point that our knowledge is inarticulate, incomplete, and fallible means that no man or group of men possess the knowledge to design an economy. Instead, we must rely on the decentralized decision making of the price system, on the spontaneous order of markets to allocate resources. Any attempts to design, plan, or control an economy are destined to fail due to this fundamental knowledge problem so closely linked to Hayek’s critique of Enlightenment rationalism that Dewey shares. Reynolds comments:
This assumption that socialist planning is possible and desirable relies, I argue, on the following moves on Dewey’s part: (1) Dewey throws out bad Enlightenment “Reason” and puts in its place the notion of “intelligence;” and (2) although “intelligence” does not harbor the pretenses of coming into contact with absolute truth like “Reason” does, it is still powerful enough to be capable of successfully planning and guiding the economy. While Hayek joins Dewey in step (1) (deflating the pretensions of Reason), Hayek would rightly be concerned with step (2). For Hayek, the shift from Enlightenment “Reason” to fallible “intelligence” should make us far more skeptical about the possibility and desirability of economic planning. If Deweyans took Hayek seriously, they might find themselves in agreement with Richard Rorty when he asks the Left to “stop talking about the ‘anticapitalist struggle,’” and content itself with “sticking to small experimental ways of alleviating misery and overcoming injustice.”
It is a little strange, however, that Dewey failed to anticipate this Hayekian challenge. He does acknowledge in Liberalism and Social Action does acknowledge the very Hayekian point that “society in general is served by the unplanned coincidence of the consequences of a vast multitude of efforts put forth by individuals without reference to any social end” as a “new formulation” in classical liberalism. Further, his criticisms of aristocracy and the progressive tendency to over-rely on technocratic experts for government administration come close to Hayekian knowledge problem critiques of socialism at times. However, Dewey’s excessive focus on the historical abuses of early industrial state capitalism blinded him to the potential for markets to be a spectacular coordinating mechanism.
Getting off the topic of economics and back to democracy, it is clear that political democracy’s tendency to centralize everything and apply a one-size-fits-all approach to social problems based off of majority rule are at odds with the social epistemology of Deweyan philosophical democracy.
The final reason why political democracy fails to meet the end of philosophical democracy is it undermines the democratic faith in the dignity of humans, and deliberative discussion and hermeneutical openness to opposing opinions necessary for such a faith. Turn on cable news while covering a political issue or read the comments of the majority of internet political forums and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any examples of people respecting the dignity of “the other side.” Indeed, Jonathan Haidt notes in The Righteous Mind that political discussion tends to go ugly do to the way our minds process morality. Michael Huemer notes just how irrational political discourse in modern democracies can so often get. This bodes ill for any political project that seeks to use outright public debate (as opposed to dialogue) to be “deliberative,” especially pragmatist democracy.
Yet there’s another sense in which modern political democracy completely undermines the dignity of the human person. Modern democracies lead to a false identification of the state with “the will of the people,” a false identification Dewey himself bought in his earlier writings though repudiated after the rise of totalitarianism. Any individual who goes against the state, then, is going against “the people,” all of humanity. Often times, these people are written off with such labels as “unpatriotic,” “irrational,” “anti-democratic” (in the first sense as a meaningless insult) and the sort. That seems completely contrary to respecting the dignity of each individual, and to openness in dialogue and deliberation with other opinions that Dewey wants to embrace.
As we have seen, on almost every aspect political democracy fails to deliver the promises of philosophical democracy extolled by the pragmatists. Dewey himself did acknowledge in a later essay entitled “I Believe” that “democratic institutions are no guarantee for the existence no guarantee for the existence of democratic individuals.” Further, he insists that democratic institutions are a means to the philosophical ends and “are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end[.]” It seems that it is not inconsistent, in light of recent evidence from public choice theory and experience, to oppose political democracy from a pragmatist perspective yet still embrace Dewey’s broadly “democratic” philosophical commitments.
Of course, Dewey would reject completely separating the means of democracy from the intended ends. As he wrote in an essay called “Democracy is Radical,” “The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by the means that accord with those ends.” Further, he was immensely critical of Trotsky and revolutionary radicals for their attitude that the means justify the ends.
What is needed, then, is an alternative set of political institutions to democracy that can approximate the pragmatist philosophical aspirations of humanism, pluralism, open dialogue and serious scientific inquiry that are also consistent with individuality and liberty. In the next post, I will argue that this set of institutions can likely be found in market anarchism with a polycentric legal system.
As the treasurer of the philosophy club at Chico State, I help organize weekly meetings to either explore topics from class more in-depth, or just argue with each other until the majority wins. As anyone will tell you, a group of philosophers is called a disagreement.
In this century, positions like absolute idealism, transcendental dualism or “free” free will are very marginal, and outside of those that favor the continental and those that favor the analytic schools, philosophy talk at a state college can tend toward groupthink.
One position that never fails to attract criticism is relativism, whose adherents persist to this day about morality. Someone will even come along now and then and claim truth itself is subjective (alethic relativism). Although at least the latter notion seems outright preposterous — it too easily leads to contradictions — Marvel Studios, of all places, recently gave me some insight into this debate.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, says “the truth is a matter of circumstance.” Before I’m kicked off this site for talking about mainstream cinema twice in a row, I want to argue that this off-hand sentiment raises some powerful and plausible connotations.
Truth does sometimes seem to be circumstantial. I don’t want to get grouped into the alethic relativists or skeptics quite yet, but sometimes truth at one level (or circumstance) becomes falsity at another. The most obvious example is our dual systems of mechanics. Newtonian physics describes the physical world we function at with excellent approximation, including planetary motion. After its creation, it defined the paradigm for over two hundred years, improved upon by greats like Faraday and Maxwell, until experiments with optics wore heavily on our common sense and prevailing calculus. The nature of light was questioned, and so a new theory of optics was necessary (and thence truth). This would be theorized by Einstein.
Albert Einstein formalized light as quanta, and went on to pen special relativity to understand bodies approaching the speed of these sometimes-packets, sometimes-waves. And he went on again to redefine our understanding of gravity. Arthur Eddington’s eclipse expedition in 1919 corroborated Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, which predicted light, traveling along the indenture of space-time by massive bodies, would appear curved. In the eclipse observation a star which should have been hidden was shifted outside of the eclipse — confirming that starlight itself, which is massless, had been affected via light deflection. It was a dramatic event in scientific history, akin to Galileo’s confirmation of the Copernican heliocentric universe, or the abandonment of Aristotelian innate qualities.
Just like this early test of light deflection helped cement general relativity a century ago, physicists with LIGO just confirmed gravitational waves, another Einsteinian prediction. Stephen Colbert recently featured Brian Greene (whose online courses I used to learn special relativity) on his show to discuss the pivotal discovery, and Greene does an excellent job modelling the experiment in three dimensions. So exactly a century after Einstein first thought up his theory of the workings of the universe, scientists have transformed the mysterious and radical postulates into the popularly tangible.
The theory of general relativity explained the flaws and limits of Newtonian physics, but did not completely retire the mathematics. It became the new theory of truth for new areas of study. The problem being that general relativity doesn’t work for everything.
Albert Einstein never thought we would be able to practically test for gravitational waves, and he also denied a fundamental discovery of the fresh field of quantum mechanics: nonlocality. After the 19th century two-slit experiment, in which electrons were found to behave with wave-particle duality, quantum probability and nonlocality were introduced, to which Einstein proposed multiple solutions to avoid. These tenets have since been generally accepted. However, quantum mechanics, for all its brilliant complexity, works only to describe the extremely small scale, and fails to describe the universe we live in, which Newtonian mechanics excels in practically predicting, but which in turn fails to with true accuracy describe cosmological characters, like black holes and spacetime itself, in turn best explained by general relativity. The issue of gravity has been a key dissonance between the theories, as the other forces (electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear) have their explanations in quantum field theory on the fundamental level at certain speeds, but a quantum explanation of gravity has been empirically evasive. Scientists must utilize classical or relativistic or quantum mechanics or quantum field theory, and each has its own domain of validity.
All of our current presiding and college-instructed theories, though compatible in certain contexts, war with each other at others, and ultimately fail to describe everything in every scenario… which is where “the truth is a matter of circumstance” comes to play. What can indisputably be said to be true for one scenario becomes false in another. Meaningfully saying that this is certainly true here, and anything else would be false, but then there, speaking of the same “this,” is false and an anything-else is true, seems to be only a reward of the past century of physics. Truth has a context within our understanding of the scale it admits to. It’s important to notice that, within these conflicting physical theories, a truth doesn’t become a falsity in its same context; it is only when the truth is examined through a different circumstance that, in light of the new circumstance, the truth no longer applies. It would sound like alethic relativism, except that in the example of physics, there are three or so set systems or rubrics from which to evaluate truth-values, instead of the complete toss-up commonly theorized by global relativism, in which there are as many systems as there are individuals or methods of viewing a given system.
The most obvious opposition would be that though we use these distinct theories to describe our reality based on our early place in scientific progression, we don’t assume they are necessarily correct; a final, accurate picture of the nuanced intricacies of the universe is singular and still beyond our experimental comprehension. In which case, parallel to the idea of circumstantiality, there is a vagueness whose truths are still humanly inaccessible (the idea that there is a definite but forever unknowable quality to outwardly-vague systems of speaking or discernment has been defended as epistemicism). This doesn’t get us anywhere closer to truth, however, and for practical purposes it’s as if to say truth is a convention of any given, temporary system of thought: a social construct.
That there is a discoverable and definite system of truth is still hoped for by theoretical physicists. The popular, almost celebrity theory — that one-dimensional oscillating “strings” make up fundamental particles — has most of the platform, as compared to the alternative loop quantum gravity. However, much criticism directed at string theory centers on its nonempirical evidence (perhaps epitomized in the polemic “Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit that chastises the theory for a purported lack of testability). The use of nonempirical arguments is very controversial in 21st-century science, but they could possibly shed light on truth; in any way we may be forced to accept this consequence of not having the adequate technology to make observations, or retire particle physics altogether.
Now, how concerned should we be with what occurs on a quantum level, as applicable to our own lives? This is relevant for truth as well as our conception of free will. The answer is that the quantum level is just as true as the functional human level, and dismissing it as less valuable or irrelevant is absurd. Not only are special relativity and quantum mechanics necessary for much of our modern technology, they speculate about the very processes that comprise all experience and function and moreover, what it’s like to exist.
I noted at the beginning that mechanics is the most obvious example of a circumstantiality of truth. At this moment I’m unsure of others. But here would not consist of an example of circumstantiality: at a ski resort, someone traveling up the lift might say they were high. However, to the skier already at the top of the mountain, the person in the lift is low and they are high. So we might say the truth is a matter of either of their circumstances; this is not the case however, because in either situation the quality that is being examined for truthfulness (high, low) is a relative quality, and this will be for every example of the sort. A claim we might expose to Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics (e.g., the body is moving forward) is subject to criteria concerning momentum, space-time, reference point, locality, and a whole conglomerate of standards to evaluate what’s actually happening. In this sense it takes on a less subjective tone than what is high or low, which can, like the first point about global relativity, be examined by a myriad of individual viewpoints. (Also, from an outsider context, high and low are meaningless.) High and low are dependent on their correlatives, and also dependent on scale for their truth; quantum mechanics without any other size would still have truth, and general relativity without any other size would still have truth, and so on.
So, what does all this mean? It’s support for the idea that truth can be evaluated through different systems, and not just like using the tools of sociology, or psychology, or feminist theory, or Marxist history to read and analyze the same event in different interpretations; physics is a physical science, and its truths are not contingent on lived humanity. The circumstantiality of truth on the scientific level might have some consequences for objectivity and vagueness, allow exploration into what the conditions of truth are, and could be formed into a rubric for evaluating all truth and falsity; all that is work for another day though. Right now, all it tells us is sometimes Marvel can say meaningful things in philosophy.
[Update (6/28/2017): I no longer believe much of what I wrote here, having learned much since.]
I decided to read Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Economic Science And The Austrian Method (1995) in order to grasp a deeper philosophical understanding of the Austrian School’s methodology of economic inquiry. I was especially interested in Immanuel Kant’s influence on Ludwig von Mises and how Mises had used Kant’s epistemological insights to construct praxeology, the study of human action (economics included) that is purely deductive in nature.
Those who are acquainted with scientific methodologies in the field of economics may have heard of the controversies surrounding praxeology. Living in an empirical age, many people may be inclined to question the validity of a science that claims to arrive at economic laws from pure deduction whose validity can be established independently from observations. Praxeological propositions are indeed much more “like those of logic and mathematics, a priori” (Mises, 1966, p. 32). Such a science may strike the skeptics as being disquietly dogmatic.
In this book review, I will firstly give a brief discussion why it is important at all to discuss the epistemological foundations of economic science. Thereafter, I will discuss Hoppe’s thesis. I will describe the philosophical aspects of praxeology that can be traced back to Kantian epistemology. I will moreover summarize Hoppe’s critique of empiricism and historicism, and why Mises believed that economics is essentially praxeology. Lastly, I will give my personal thoughts on the book.
Why should we discuss the epistemological foundations of economic science?
The most immediate answer to this question is that different epistemological foundations lead to different methodologies and different theories, which can lead to different interpretations of real-life phenomena. Take for example the interpretation of an historical economic event, the Great Depression. Murray Rothbard, because he is working within the context of praxeology makes use of the praxeological Austrian Business Cycle Theory. This theory focuses on the expansion of the money supply as an explanation of the onset of the ‘boom’ in the 1920’s which eventually resulted in the ‘bust’ in 1929. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in A Monetary History Of The United States (1963), while not applying the ABCT, have focused only on the contraction of the money supply and the resulting higher interest rates in 1928 as the main cause of the Great Depression. Their application of different economic methods has led them to look for different possible historical causes of the Great Depression which has effectively resulted in different accounts of the same historical event. It therefore matters what economic methods are employed in economic research.
Now that we have established the importance of inquiring epistemological foundations and methodologies of economic science, I will turn to Hoppe’s thesis.
Kant and synthetic a priori propositions
Working within the rationalist tradition of Leibniz and Kant, Mises attempts to present the proper way through which economic science – a science that according to Mises falls within the broader science of human action, praxeology – should be conducted. He resorts to the Kantian conception of the nature of knowledge and explains praxeology in terms of Kantian terminology. Hence, Hoppe firstly directs the reader to Kantian epistemology.
Kant had developed the idea that all propositions are either analytic or synthetic and either a priori or a posteriori. The difference between analytic and synthetic propositions is that the former is true by virtue of their meaning or as Kant would have phrased it himself, “the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A” (Kant, 1781, A:6-7). Take for instance the following proposition: “Bachelors are unmarried.” This proposition is analytic, because the predicate, ‘unmarried’, is part of the concept of a bachelor. Analytic propositions are regarded as tautological propositions; they simply restate the definition or a concept incorporated within a word and therefore they do not tell us anything meaningful about the world. A synthetic proposition on the other hand is a proposition whose predicate concept is not contained in the subject’s concept. It could therefore express something meaningful about the world. An example of a synthetic proposition is: “All bachelors are unhappy.” The concept ‘unhappy’ is not contained within the definition of ‘bachelor’, and expresses something meaningful about ‘bachelors’.
The distinction between a priori and a posteriori is as follows: a priori propositions are propositions whose justification does not rely upon experience, but solely on logical reasoning. The justifications of a posteriori propositions on the other hand, do rely upon experience. Examples of a posteriori propositions are “Some bachelors I have met are unhappy” or “Siddharta Gautama left the palace.”
The big question is: do synthetic a priori propositions exist? Kant certainly believed that they do exist, “and it is because Mises subscribes to this claim that he can be called a Kantian” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 18). In Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant contended that synthetic a priori propositions do exist and as an example he took mathematics (Kant, 1781, p. 55). The statement “7 + 5 = 12” is not dependent on experimentation and the concept 12 is not contained in either the definitions of 7 or 5. According to Kant, a priori propositions are derived from self-evident axioms. We can find such axioms by reflecting upon ourselves and understanding ourselves as knowing subjects. However, how can truth claims derived from reflection in our mind have any basis in reality? Is Kant here running into the problem of idealism – a notion that it is the mind that constructs reality and superimposes itself upon reality in such a way that it fits within the mind’s necessary laws?
According to Hoppe, Kant had not given a satisfactory response to this issue and future thinkers would have to take on the challenge of solving this problem. Hoppe believes that Mises had done so successfully when he had averred that action provides the link between mind – body and between mind – external world: “[W]e must recognize that such necessary truths are not simply categories of our mind, but that our mind is one of acting persons. Our mental categories have to be understood as ultimately grounded in categories of action” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 20). It is through action that the mind and reality are related: “[A]cting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 70).
Another issue that arises with regards to the possibility of synthetic a priori propositions, and which I have found quite confusing myself is the following: does Hoppe suggest that we can arrive at knowledge without any experience of ourselves or the external world at all? No, according to Hoppe “the truth of a priori synthetic propositions derives ultimately from inner, reflectively produced experience” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 19). This experience is phrased by Stolyarov II as “the mind’s identification of facts about actually existing entities, including the identifier himself” (Stolyarov II, 2007, p. 53). In this sense, the action axiom is experientially-derived, but it is not subjected to the empiricists’ narrow view that all knowledge must be testable, verifiable, or falsifiable.
Empiricism, Historicism, and Praxeology
When Mises systematically constructed the foundations of praxeology, he faced a double-challenge; (A) empiricism which was quickly becoming the main influence in the economics discipline, and (B) historicism which was then a prevailing ideology at German-speaking universities.
Empiricism is the “philosophy which thinks of economics and the social sciences in general as following the same logic of research of that, for instance, of physics” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 28). Hoppe writes that empiricism is governed by the following two related basic propositions:
(1) that empirical knowledge, knowledge about reality, must be subjected to falsifiability and verifiability by observational experience;
(2) and that empiricist research formulates their explanations in terms of causality, i.e. “if A, then B”. (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 28-29)
Hoppe continues to write that the validity of empirical statements
can never be established with certainty… The statement will always be and always remain hypothetical… Should experience confirm a hypothetical causal explanation, this would not prove that the hypothesis was true. Should one observe an instance where B indeed followed A as predicted, it verifies nothing… Later experiences could still possibly falsify it. (Hoppe, 1995, p. 29)
Empirical knowledge is hence contingent on historical facts. Neither confirmation nor falsification by observational experience can prove that a relationship between phenomena does not or does exist. By emphasizing that our knowledge of reality must stem from observational experience, they directly deny a science that avers that a priori knowledge can give us any meaningful explanation of real phenomena. However, as Hoppe and Mises point out, the statement that meaningful synthetic a priori propositions cannot exist is itself a synthetic a priori proposition. Mises has put this empiricist contradiction the following way in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (1962):
The essence of logical positivism [logical empiricism] is to deny the cognitive value of a priori knowledge by pointing out that all a priori propositions are merely analytic. They do not provide new information, but are merely verbal or tautological, asserting what has already been implied in the definitions and premises. Only experience can lead to synthetic propositions. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a … synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience. (Mises, 1962, p. 5)
Hoppe mentions a second contradiction of empiricism which regards historical events. Empiricists believe that particular events may cause any particular human action. They attempt to find such causal relationships in order to explain historical events. However, in order to do so, empiricists must assume that causality within historical sequences exists through all times. This assumption itself is not based on experiential observations, and must presuppose a priori knowledge that “time-invariantly operating causes with respect to actions exist” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 36). In addition, Hoppe identifies a third contradiction with respect to social phenomena. The empiricists believe that in order to confirm and falsify hypotheses, one must be able to learn from historical and social experience. If one would deny this, then why should one engage in empirical research at all? This however presupposes that “one admittedly cannot know at any given time what one will know at a later time and, accordingly, how one will act on the basis of this knowledge” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 37). Admitting that humans learn from historical and social experience, one cannot deny that empirical causal constants in human action do not exist. “The empiricist-minded social scientists who formulate prediction equations regarding social phenomena are simply doing nonsense” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 38). Predicting human action is not a science according to Hoppe.
The empiricists are mistaken in applying the methodology of the natural sciences into the fields of social science in order to predict human actions. Unlike natural elements, human beings can and do act differently under equal conditions. Thus, social history cannot yield any knowledge that can be employed for predictive purposes. Relating this to the quantity theory of money; if the money supply for instance increases, one can still not predict whether the demand of money will change as this is entirely dependent on human action. Nonetheless, one could assert that if the demand for money stays constant and the money supply increases, then the purchasing power of money will fall (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 44-45).
Historicism, the second challenge that Mises had to face, does not take nature as its model but literary texts. Historicists believe that there are no objective laws in economics, and that “historical and economic events are whatever someone expresses or interprets them to be” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 54). Historicism is therefore extremely relativist. However, according to Hoppe also historicism is fundamentally self-contradictory. If there are only interpretations and hence no constant time-invariant relations, then there is also no historicist constant truth about history and economics. If historicism does not give us any reason to believe in its doctrine, why should we adhere to its epistemological philosophy if its proposition implies that they themselves may not be true?
Next to his refutations of empiricism and historicism, Mises had hoped that he could demonstrate the existence of true synthetic a priori propositions. Such propositions would (1) not be derived from experience, and (2) they must yield self-evident axioms so that when one tries to deny it one is involved in self-contradiction. Mises believes that these two requirements are met by the axiom of action – the proposition that human beings act and display intentional behaviour (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 60-61). According to Mises, purposeful human behaviour exhibits a person’s pursuit of an end which he attempts to reach through the employment of particular means (at least time and body). The fact that a person pursues a particular goal with his action reveals that he places a relatively higher value (preference) on the goal than any other goals of action that he could have thought of at the beginning of his action. Human action also happens sequentially, implying that the actor can only pursue one goal at a time in which he has to forego other valuable goals temporally. Action therefore also implies choices and costs. An action furthermore implies loss (and profit), because every action accompanies a certain degree of uncertainty, whether the goal achieved has resulted in the value one has expected can only be known in retrospect. All these categories of action – values, ends, means, choices, preferences, costs, profit, loss, and time – are at the heart of economics (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 61-63). This insight establishes economics as a science of human action. Or as Hoppe asserts more precisely,
all true economic theorems consist of (a) an understanding of the meaning of action, (b) a situation or situational change – assumed to be given or identified as being given – and described in terms of action-categories, and (c) a logical deduction of the consequences – again in terms of such categories – which are to result for an actor from this situation or situational change (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 63-64).
The existence of the categories of action is derived a priori from the axiom of action, and not through observation. Any attempt to disprove it is futile, since “a situation in which the categories of action would cease to have a real existence could itself never be observed or spoken of, since to make an observation and to speak are themselves actions” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 63).
My thoughts on Hoppe’s book
The book serves as an excellent summary of praxeological philosophy and is a must-read for anyone who wants to start learning more about the subject. Reading the book, one feels that it is extremely concise (around 80 pages), but also dense. Hoppe directly discusses the essential philosophical aspects that one must know in order to understand praxeology as developed by Mises, and fortunately he leaves many footnotes for further reading.
I believe that Hoppe has skillfully shown that economics is part of praxeology, and that it indisputably deals with such categories of human action as values, ends, means, choices, preferences, profit, loss, time, and causality. He has furthermore provided a well-reasoned critique of the empiricist and historicist-hermeneutical interpretations of economics by showing that they are necessarily self-contradictory.
Understanding that economics should not be conducted within the methodological framework of the natural sciences has severe implications to the ways we should deal with data of real world phenomena. If, like praxeologists claim, we cannot predict human action then there is also little reason to believe that effective social engineering is possible. The fundamentals of the praxeological methodology are therefore also immediately relevant within discussions on the roles of the state in planning the economy.
 Hoppe calls it entrepreneurship.
Friedman, M. & Schwartz, A.J. (1963). A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hoppe, H.H. (1995). Economic Science and the Austrian Method. Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Kant, I. (1781). Critique of Pure Reason. (W.S. Pluhar, Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Mises von, L. (1942). Social Science and Natural Science. In R.M. Ebeling (Ed.) Money, Methods, and the Market Process (pp. 3-15). Retrieved from http://mises.org
Mises von, L. (1966). The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. Retrieved fromhttp://mises.org
Stolyarov II, G. (2007). The Compatibility of Hoppe’s and Rothbard’s Views of the Action Axiom. The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 10, 2, pp. 45-62.