Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Identity Fetishism

Marx wrote incisively about commodity fetishism—the tendency of people to see only the results of production (commodities), ignoring the hours of human labor that actually created them. The humanities seems to suffer from something of the reverse problem: a tendency to be absorbed by the names of big people and not seeing beyond to the ideas they espouse.

The most extreme example is Leo Strauss, who encouraged his students to put aside their prejudices and fully imerse themselves in the worlds and minds of the greats. The greats were so great, Strauss suggested, that if you disagree with them, you probably just don’t understand them well enough.

But even other teachers of philosophy have the same problem, presenting the views of X and Y even when X is pretty clearly wrong. Despite its absurdities, students must learn to understand X’s view. This seems fairly universal; even books like What is the Meaning of it All?, which explains philosophy without the names or complex terminology, still presents clearly bogus ideas on the same footing as more reasonable ones.

In other fields, this pattern is less frequent, but still there for whole courses of research. In sociology, papers must cite long-dead patron theorists to lend their empirical research an air of legitimacy by presenting it as a member of a recognized family. Even more recent works, like Annette Lareau’s brilliant Unequal Childhoods, are at pains to show how they adhere to a theoretical model (the recently-alive Bourdieu in that case). In most other fields, the theorists take pains to make sure their work is consistent with the evidence, not the other way around.

Even in most humanities classes, the course content consists of a series of papers making arguments. The goal of the class is to understand the view of the authors and determine (in the best ones) to what extent you agree or disagree.

This isn’t particularly unreasonable, but is a far cry from life in the hard sciences, where usually there is an actual consensus on some subject and otherwise there are a couple of named theories, each being developed by a group of people.

Why the diference? First, is it perhaps hard science that’s in the wrong? I don’t think so. The goal of science is to discover the truth about the world. Truths remain true no matter who says them and it’s unlikely that one person will discover the whole truth. Thus the pattern of letting multiple people develop a theory and try to find evidence for it to convince the others.

So why don’t the softer sciences follow the same model? The problem gets worse the softer you get, which suggests the problem lies in the softness itself. The problem is that without identities, one has to judge the ideas themselves which, in a soft science is somewhat difficult to do.

It’s easy in science to run an experiment and see if it proves a theory true or false, it’s much harder to get consensus about a reasonable theory of morality in philosophy. But it is easy to pick out the famous in academy culture and assign their stuff.

Identity fetishism thrives in a world afraid to make its own judgments. It exalts the thinkers of the past and, in doing so, diminishes its own capacities. But science must march forward instead of backward and that requires the daring to distinguish true from false.

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November 21, 2006


For a while I was worried you were going off the deep end into sociology yourself :) A very eloquent appraisal of what I view as a major problem with the soft sciences.

I assume you’ve read Feynman on this; if not, you ought to.

posted by David M. on November 22, 2006 #

The ‘stuff’ of philosophy is ideas. Most of the ‘stuff’ of hard sciences is material reality. Ideas need articulation. The ‘greats’ are just those who articulated the ideas well.

Humanities courses do a fair bit of arguing about theories without references to ‘greats’. You can argue about democratic peace theory or whether protestantism fueled capitalism and western individualism without naming anyone.

The consensus model in the fields is exactly the same. The philosophy community chooses the great philosophers, thus establishing validity through consensus, just as the science community approaches consensus by filtering out theories they don’t support, as human beings.

I find it rather surprising that you don’t see the hard sciences straitjacketed by exactly the same ‘we build on precedent’ notion of learning and teaching as the social ones are. Indeed the barrier to entry for a new idea in the social sciences is way lower than that in the ‘hard’ sciences.

Clearly absurd thinkers and theories tend to fall by the wayside in both. I guess I’m more prepared to relate endurance to quality (Darwinism of Ideas?) than you seem to be.

posted by Firas on November 22, 2006 #

David: I am going into sociology. No science is without its flaws.

Firas: Did you really just suggest that the discoveries of physics don’t need to be articulated because they are material reality? What is it you think that hard scientists do?

I think endurance in philosophy is related to interestingness, not accuracy. Take utilitarianism. Maybe I’m reading the wrong journals, but it seems like most of the effort is spent repeating old holes poked in the theory, not working on patching them up.

My complaint isn’t that the field builds on precedent, it’s that it doesn’t build enough: a new thinker introduces a theory and either lauds it or everyone pokes holes until a newer theory comes along. There’s very little group work trying to improve theories.

posted by Aaron Swartz on November 22, 2006 #

Me thinks you should rethink this article in the light that the truth when it comes to social domains, does not exist. It is a myth. All there is, are people, what they choose to believe, and the pursuit of a better truth.

posted by Seth Russell on November 22, 2006 #

Erm, no, if you look at the trajectory of Strauss’ work, he clearly rejects much of the work of the “Greats”: Heidegger, for just one example. The point of Straussian hermeunetics is that understanding the “greats” as they understood themselves is just the required first step. After that has been achieved, then criticism is fully justified.

On a meta-level, one of Strauss’ main tenets was The Battle of the Ancients vs. Moderns, so the “greats” drastically disagree with each other - eventually, one needs to take some position and disagree with some of the “greats” at minimum.

posted by burritoboy on November 25, 2006 #

I agree with Aaron’s original point. There is far too much lingering in philosophy especially. This is precisely where people like Feynman step in.

One of the most primitive human clan instincts is to gain recognition and respect. In philosophy that means coming up with significant improvements to an existing theory, creating an entirely new theory or aligning yourself with a previous theory or school of theories. It would seem that aligning is much easier than actually doing original work. So maybe philosophy is in this state simply because it’s the path of least resistance (or path of greatest laziness).

posted by Brad Fults on December 2, 2006 #

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