Saturday, January 11, 2003

This looks good

Philosophy, like physics and engineering, has traditionally been a male dominated enterprise. But the women have decided things to need to change. Philosophy is just too important to be to the men. Rightly so. They came close to destroying the creativity of philosophy in Australia. The women, especially this one rescued it. And some of the interesting work is being done here
So check out this from California. It looks good.
And so do the back issues.

One of these back issues, Vol. 3, Special Issue, April 2002, is entitled, "Rawls' Law of Peoples and International Terrorism'. It has an article entitled, 'Terrorism and the Philosophy of History'. In this article we find the following statement that undermines the religious Bush/Howard scenario of good and evil. It says:

"Terrorists are not merely pathological. They are political agents who utilize what I want to call a calculus of terror. This is the negative caricature of a utilitarian or hedonic calculus. The calculus of terror is designed to bring about certain ends. It is a rational decision procedure based upon the insight that terror disrupts social structures. The terrorist is not interested in causing pain per se: terror is not simply causing pain or killing. Rather, the terrorist is interested in using the threat of pain in order to antagonize a people and destabilize a social structure. Terrorism is evil insofar as it aims at destabilization and disruption. It is insidious in that it destabilizes and disrupts by creating an atmosphere or mentality of fear. It is significant, for example, that the September 11th terrorists succeeded in disrupting the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the Western world by the "mere" hijacking of four airplanes resulting in the deaths of over 3,000 people. In strictly utilitarian terms, terrorism is an economical means of political activity. In this sense, political agents who use terrorism are not pathological at all, but are quite rational: they know how to do cost-benefit analysis in order to maximize the results of their activity."

If we are engaged in a war against terrorism then we should treat the other side as engaged in war also.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Multiple interpretations of history

In a recent posting at John Quiggin's weblog, called, 'More from Ron Brunton', John quotes from an email sent by Ron to John. John says:

"I'll quote another passage with which I'm in (almost) complete agreement".

He then quotes the following two paragraphs from Ron Brunton, who is referring to Windshuttle's book:

"For instance, Lyndall Ryan, who receives the heaviest battering in the book, wrote an article for The Australian which could be read as a collective suicide note for her profession. She did not contest Windschuttle's allegations of fact against her, and even admitted to a few `minor errors' in her footnotes. But she had her `truth', Windschuttle had his, and history was a `complex terrain in which multiple stories and interpretations are represented'.

Fine, but if there is no way of deciding between such strikingly different accounts, why do we need university departments of history? Perhaps the public interest would be better served by closing them down and using the money to establish schools of astrology or feng shui."


John then makes his quick comment about his disagreement:

"My main concern with the last suggestion is that one of our 'enterprising' Vice-Chancellors will take it seriously. I'm sure there's a big unmet demand for degrees in feng shui."

My main concern is with what these two guys agree on. They agree that to say, that history was a `complex terrain in which multiple stories and interpretations are represented', means that there is no way of deciding between such strikingly different accounts.

So there is no need to have university departments of history, since what we have is non-science masquerading as science.

Hence the public interest would be better served by closing them down and using the money to establish schools of astrology or feng shui.

There is no pretence with non-sciences like these. Unlike Ryan's sort of history you get what you see.

Therefore, Ryan is an idiot (along with all postmodernists). Thats my gloss and it is put in to indicate that I am making an interpretation of John and Ron's text.

That is my reconstruction of the implied Brunton/Quiggin argument, which they claim is what Ryan actually said. My concern here is not with what Ryan said. It is with the philosophical trick being played by Ron and John. ie., their rhetorical question that poses as a knock down argument. There is no argument given by Ron and John at all. All we have is a rhetorical question. Its all smoke and mirrors. Indeed, these are destitute times when senior academics engage in such tricks to defend their conception of history as a science, or, more minimally, an empiricist history.

My concern is with the way an interpretation has been disparaged without any engagement at all with the conception of writing Australian history as the deciphering of the meaning of a text---either the primary/archival source, the secondary meaning of the texts of historians which overlays the primary texts; the possibility of supplementary meaning or the possibility of interpreting otherwise; and meaning as something other than deciphering, such as invention or creation of meaning.

Ron and John engaged in interpretation at the second level:they makes comments and offer interpretations of the work of Ryan, Reynolds and Windshuttle. This is particularly obvious with Ryan----they offer a particular interpretation of one of her texts----an article which is not produced. The meaning of this text they say, is one in which there are multiple truths, stories and interpretations, that we cannot evaluate these interpretations, and so we can kiss Australian history goodbye.

I am labouring the obvious here for a particular reason. Ron and John are engaged in the practice of interpretation (of Ryan's Text) and they are implying that their interpretation is the correct/right one. So, and this is my point, they are tacitly saying that we can choose between competing interpretations. But they offer no grounds/criteria for why we are able to decide between competing interpretations.

It is quite clear that we do have conflicting and multiple stories and interpretations of frontier history in Australia ----otherwise the historians would not be arguing about what happened. They are arguing about interpretation and meaning not just fact. This is openly acknowledged in Robert Corr's post, 'More on Windshuttle', here by Dr. Raymond Evans.

An ontological point can be made here. Our human existence is such that it is involved within a giveness of meanings that are embodied in texts. This world of meanings---let us call it culture--- form the background to the present. Some of these meanings lie neglected in the background, others have an active presence and are pursued----eg., the conception of the frontier relationship between Aborigines and white settlers as one of conflict, war and massacres. This example indicates that these meanings are structured, have a past and a future. They appear to us, e who live in historical time, as a kind of horizon. The flow of our historical existence is the disclosure of meaning. This practice of ongoing fundamental deciphering of meaning requires elucidation, and so we have hermeneutics.

It does not follow from viewing history as 'a complex terrain in which multiple stories and interpretations are represented' that we cannot evaluate the different interpretations. What it means is that we have a problem: How do we going about evaluating the competing interpretations? What is involved in this? And, as we all know, we are going to get a variety of ways at resolving this problem.

By blocking this problem Ron and John (an anthropologist and economist) close out all the attempts by an interpretive/hermeneutical tradition to address the problem, and they do so in order to defend their view that history is a science. They are gatekeeping, as they are saying that there is no other kind. To say otherwise is to commit collective suicide as a profession. The name for this trick is Enlightenment blackmail.

Keith Windshuttle is far more honest: he acknowledges the existence of a literary history, and he then argues against his case against this literary conception of history, albeit badly. He presents arguments. We cannot say the same for Ron and John.
(unfinished)

Monday, January 06, 2003

Windshuttle, Fabrication & writing Australian history

The political debate over the writing of Australian frontier history is in full swing. See public opinion and mentalspace for the latest shots fired by those on the lefty side of politics.

One of the conservative claims about lefty frontier history is that the misuse of, or errors in the use of historical sources means an untruth, which means fabrication, which means fakery and lies. You can find this junk argument---its all fakery and lies ----in Padraic P. McGuinness Tackling fakery in the halls of Academe. I'm not going to address the counterattack here because it concentrates on minor errors and cheap point-scoring, avoids the deeper underlying that are more difficult to 'refute', and is unwilling to concede that the art of history writing could be to avoid misunderstanding. Its the deeper issues underlying the minor errors and point scoring that I want address in this post, because they inform the way that Windshuttle approaches public debate with his opponents.

Lets put the lies and fakery to one side and concentrate on fabrication. What does that mean in terms of writing Australian history? It means writing a different kind of history to the standard empiricist one. But what kind of historical writing? We have made suggestions along the lines of interpretation at philosophy.com from the perspective of a hermeneutical tradition concerned with understanding and misunderstanding texts.

How is this different kind of writing history understood by conservatives? The following article A Critical Essay on the Impact of Postmodernism on the Historical Profession gives us some idea. It says that:

"....postmodernist theories have transcended across the boundaries of the fabricated literary world and into the supposedly objective and scientific discipline of history. The zealots of postmodernism would state that history as a factual narrative fails because of a flawed system of language that can neither accurately tell history nor drive man’s interpretation of reality. They would, in a few short and ironically understandable words, state that history, like literature, is merely a fabrication, a fictionalized account of events that may or may not have even happened".

So fabricated history is literary history. History is akin to fiction and it is more like a novel than a classic history book. So we go from the positivist account of history as an objective and scientific discipline to postmodern fiction. This is how Windshuttle sees things in his History, Truth and Postmodernism. He says:

..."the essence of history has continued to be that it should try to tell the truth, to describe as best as possible what really happened. Over this time, of course, many historians have been exposed as mistaken, opinionated, and often completely wrong, but their critics have usually felt obliged to show they were wrong about real things, that their claims about the past were different to what had actually happened. In other words, the critics still operated on the assumption that the truth was within their grasp.

Today, these assumptions are widely questioned, even among some people employed as historians themselves. Many theorists of postmodernism, or of cultural studies, which is another name for the same thing, assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all. We can only see the past through the perspective of our own culture."


What is happening here is that an extreme position is being constructed and imposed on different kinds of writing. It is given the name 'postmodernism' and nearly everyone responds like Pavlov' dog: they go of their heads, let fly with one liners, forget to use their minds and engage in point scoring. Windshuttle breaks with this to the extent that he gives us the prevailing assumptions of postmodern history writing. These are, in Windshuttle's words:

"1. Truth is not an absolute concept but a relative one. Different cultures and even different political positions each have their own truths.

2. History cannot give us any knowledge in an absolute sense. Different ages reinterpret the past for their own purposes.

3. We do not have access to any such thing as a real world. What we think of as reality is a construct of our own minds, our language and our culture.

4. The meaning of any text is in the eye of the interpreter. People of different ethnic, sexual and cultural backgrounds will read historical evidence their own way, and that way will be different to people from other perspectives.

5. History is thus not fundamentally different to myth or to fiction. When historians look at past cultures they cannot be objective, nor can they escape from the cocoon of their own politics or culture. What historians see in the past are their own values and interests reflected back at them."



Windshuttle then gives examples of historians who write in this postmodern tradition. He says:

".... the guru of the postmodernist movement, the American historical theorist, Hayden White, author of Metahistory, tells us we should "recognise historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are more invented than found". One of the movement's newest advocates, Hans Kellner, co-author of A New Philosophy of History, goes further and claims: " 'truth' and 'reality' are, of course, the primary authoritarian weapons of our time". The three authors of the new national history standards for American high schools (Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn, History on Trial, 1997) assure us: "Modern historiography has taught us that historians can never fully detach their scholarly work from their own education, attitudes, ideological dispositions and culture." Disinterested scholarship "is not simply an uneducated view. It is also an ideological position of traditionalists and the political Right."In short, they say that if you believe in truth and objectivity you reveal yourself as a conservative. If you reject these concepts you become a radical."

One way to evaluate this text is to ask: how convincing is the argument? Mu judgement is not very. There are some big philosophical tricks going on here----I recognize them from my academic days only too well. They were wheeled out against me as a graduate student like a machine gun by those philosophers whose masculine comportment was hard-edged materialism. They were designed to make the opponent, woolly powder puffs. Windshuttle's use of them derive from the work of David Stove, an analytic philosopher who hung about Sydney University for many a long year -- for far too long. The tricks are designed to construct the opponent's position as a subjective idealism, which basically means that the world is simply what is in our heads. What fool would think that in academia? QED.

This is trick is update by taking into account the shift to culture in academia by lefty's grooving on semiotics or poststructuralism. Subjective idealism is then reworked into cultural idealism by Windshuttle, and hey, presto, out pops postmodernism. The overall strategy deployed to produce this is a dualist either or. QED. Basically, its philosophy by numbers, but its amazing how many buy it, hook line and sinker.

Lets do a bit of philosophy to show the tricks. Lets take 1 & 2 and apply them to the interpretative conception of writing Australian history that has argued for at philosophy. com. Windshuttle says:

"1. 'Truth is not an absolute concept but a relative one.' This is what has been argued here on the grounds that we cannot catch a skyhook, escape our history and see the world as if from God's eye. Windshuttle continues, " Different cultures and even different political positions each have their own truths". Well....we do have different interpretations of Australian history---- that is what all those history books are that have been written since the 1850s---- and of our living traditions, such as the Anzac one. But that doesn't imply dumping truth per se, which is what Windshuttle implies. What is displaced at philosophy.com is a crude correspondence theory of truth (mirroring fact) in favour of the disclosive truth of interpretation. (See the previous post Oral history, historical fact, interpretation). This interpretive position is closed out by Windshuttle. He wrongly presumes that there is only one account of truth. That's trick no.1.

Now for Windshuttle's " 2. History cannot give us any knowledge in an absolute sense. Different ages reinterpret the past for their own purposes." This captures our position at philosophy.com and so we are in agreement here.

So what does Windshuttle infer from these two points? This is the job of:
" 3. We do not have access to any such thing as a real world. What we think of as reality is a construct of our own minds, our language and our culture."

Note trick no 2----the crude either or used that is as a wedge by Windshuttle's Humean empiricism. If it is either access to the real world or reality is a construct, then there is inbetween. This wedge drives out the middle ground of history as a historical representation of what happened. That history---eg, the constellation of texts of Reynolds, Ryan, Windshuttle and others-----is constructed by them out of various materials including primary documents, stories, other texts etc. It is a fabrication since it is an interpretation of what happened.

This interpretative does not preclude us representing what happened on the frontier in the 19th century.-----we can represent what happened through our cultural concepts and senses. What is denied is that we can get out of cultural concepts and access things with a blank mind. Its the argument Kant used against Hume over 2 centuries ago, and given a historical twist by Hegel, and accepted by most continental philosophers from Marx onwards. This philosophical tradition abandons the transhistorical subject of knowledge outside of social determination in favor of viewing knowers as socially situated.

Like Stove, his philosophical mentor, Windschuttle ignores this philosophical tradition. He doesn't engage with it and so his empiricism is a dogmatic one grounded on faith not reason. Pretending otherwise is trick no. 3. Not many spot it. And diehard empiricists aren't going to tell you that their classical foundations are built on sand are they?

How then does Windshuttle view his interpretative/hermeneutical opposition, which places the emphasis on understanding the meaning of a text rather than explaining human action.? His perspective on his opposition is indicated by:

"4. The meaning of any text is in the eye of the interpreter. People of different ethnic, sexual and cultural backgrounds will read historical evidence their own way, and that way will be different to people from other perspectives." Windshuttle's opponents are constructed into subjective idealists.

This implies that the text is empty and that we active interpreters project our content by way of interpretation onto the text. Note the superbig Trick used here. This subjective idealism trick is employed to do a job. It blocks out the whole semiotic or structuralist position, which places the emphasis on language proper ---its rules, signs or grammars---rather than the individual. Windshuttle knows about this semiotics/structuralist tradition----see here----but he avoids engaging with it in favour of a straw dog opponent.

This is how he can makes his position appear to be reasonable and his opponents unreasonable. Its philosophy by numbers since he simply avoids tackling the hard stuff about language, how language works and how our cultural concepts are embedded in language. Basically Windshuttle is a dirty fighter. He is out to win the battle in the culture wars and so he constructs straw dog opponents---postmodernism.

Why a straw dog? Well, consider the way that I approach Windshuttle's text. I am not treating it as a blank upon which I project my own interpretations. I am interpreting the words, sentences and paragraphs by trying to understand them in terms of the philosophical underpinnings. I am doing so in terms of the structure of thee text---the way Windshuttle organises his text in terms of the oppositional duality of empiricism and postmodernism.

This avoidance enables him to deliver the knockout blow, a namely " 5. History is thus not fundamentally different to myth or to fiction." Hence we have the polar opposite of writing history based on truth. This writing history as myth or fiction is the opposite because, when historians look at past cultures they cannot be objective, nor can they escape from the cocoon of their own politics or culture. What historians see in the past are their own values and interests reflected back at them. So the only way to avoid this is to escape history and adopt a God's eye perspective. Hence we come back to the starting point of the circle at 1. about truth. Absolute truth is the way to escape the circle.

This conclusion can be challenged. If a text could mean anything, then it really has no meaning. This is not the case with Windshuttle's text and most texts. When interpreting Windshuttle's historical text I am not trapped in my own lefty cocoon seeing only my values and interests reflected back at me. These values and interests are biases that orientate and inform my reading of the meaning of Windshuttle's text, since I locate this in the cultural wars. Others do the same including Windshuttle. These biases or prejudices are not something independent of, or supervienient upon, a language, but they are embedded in the meanings of our concepts themselves. Thus Windshuttle's biases are embedded in his dualism----empiricism is good, postmodernism is bad. In adopting this particular language Windshuttle has adopted the empiricist tradition and this shapes his interpretation and understanding of postmodern texts.

Secondly, the text is not a mirror since it has a particular context, and content. My prejudices (lefty values and interests) may lead me to misunderstand the meaning of this text because they lead me to concentrate on the way that Windshuttle's argues against his opponents. There are competing interpretations of Windshuttle's text as others since a historian, as distinct from a philosopher, may have a different understanding of the meaning of Windshuttle's text quite differently. Yet both us can still be respectful of the text's particular context and content but locate it relationships to other text differently. My location of Windshuttle's text within a field of other philosophical texts would not be the pathway followed by a historian: she would choose other history texts. Both of us work within different horizons so to speak, but we can come to some agreement about the meaning of Windshuttle's text and help to correct one another's misunderstandings.

So we can reject Windshuttle's conclusion that writing history differently can only mean that history is not fundamentally different to myth or to fiction.

As I said this is philosophy by numbers.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

Economics, Markets, Philosophy

I had been planning to start writing on this theme for some time. I was going to do by picking up some comments that I had made atPublic Opinion about the failure of electricity markets and National Competition Policy, and by drawing on some of the work on California electricity market by Lynne Kiesling at Knowledge Problem. Xmas got in the way.

In the meantime I came across some very fine work on the limitations of neo-classical economics by Rob Schaap at MORE ECONO-POLEMORRHOEA.. Itwas posted on 27th December and is an extended commentary on the Ross Gittens article, December 23 article, 'Beware of economists wielding simple models'.

Rob's posting is very high class work. But you will need your wits about you and to have some time to much over the argument. It is an extended piece of writing.

Blogorrhoea is very much a companion site to philosophy.com----it is a philosophical commentary on public things and the postings by Rob arevery much on the sort of things that I would write. But Rob does it all so much better---its a class act.

There are extended comments to the above post. These are followed up by a further post NECESSARILY WANKY RESPONSE TO INDIGNANT DERRIDA-DERIDING ECONOMIST that responds to the comments of Derrida-Deriding Economist.

Rob is a high class blogger with a sharp intellect and a keen eye.
Mugged by reality

There is a bit of a story currently being told in Australia these days about how the new conservatives were once part of the Left. The story they tell is that the lefty theory they held in the 1970s got mugged by reality during the 1980s and so they became liberal conservatives in the 1990s.

Now it is unclear what conservative liberal means as a tradition in Australia. According to one Christopher Pearson it does seem to embrace cumulative wisdom and experience, the common suburban life, the work ethic, committed family life, unselfconscious patriotism and regular churchgoing. But Australian conservatives are having recognition problems because conservatism is not treated as a respectable, contending philosophy that enables us to make sense of the world. Hence the conservative lament. How the Australian conservatives must envy their American counterparts.

'Mugged by reality'---its a great line. What does 'mugged by reality' actually mean? Presumably, it means the theory of the Left doesn't stack up. Left theory is out of kilter with reality in some way. What does that mean? And what is Lefty theory?

The Weekend Australian (no link) indirectly addresses these questions by downloading an article from The Economist. called, 'Poor Marx, he wasn't so prescient after alll.' You know the story---its was the story been told throughout the 20th century in one variation or another. Marx got it wrong. The variation this time is that Marx got it wrong where it really mattered. The Economist says that:

"On everything that mattered most to Marx, he was wrong. The real power he claimed for his system was predictive and and his main predictions are hopeless failures."

Funny I thought that the power of Marx's economic science was its explanatory power, not its predictions. Marx was a scientific realist not a positivist. But I understand thats academic stuff. Its minor points that academics fight over to the death and now one else really cares because they have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Of course, The Economist is not willing to grant that Marx's economic system was a part of the scocial sciences, ie ., part of economic science. We get this claim:

"[Marx] was also capable of stupefying dullness and impenetrable complexity. Try the opening pages of Capital (it picks up latter). In his scientific work, as he calls it, he minted jargon at an befuddling rate underlining terms to emphasis their opacity, then changing their meaning at will. Adding to this fog, what Marx believed in 1844 was probably not what he believed in 1874----the only constant was his conviction that what he said at any time was both the absolute truth and fully consistent with what he said before."

Clearly fog is not science. Of course, neo-classical economics is crystal clear, simple and easily understood, the terms are properly defined; economists are fully consistent over a 30 year period, and they do not believe in absolute truth. Oh yeah? Whose kidding who here?

Still the science stuff doesn't really matter, since it is the big picture stuff that really matters in the real world. As the voice of economic reason in the real world The Economist continues:

"Concerning the outlook for capitalism, one can always argue that [Marx] was wrong only in his timing---in the end, when capitalism has run its course, he will be proved right. Put in such a form, this argument, like many other apologies for Marx, has the advantage of being impossible to falsify. But that does not make it plausible."

Note the shift to Karl Popper's philosophy of science with the word 'falsify'. What's happened to positivism? Discreetly left behind because it has done its job of showing that Marx has nothing to do with social science. A line must be drawn in the sand here, and during the last 50 years a lot of intellectual energy was spent in showing that Marx's system was non-science and up there with astrology.

If Marx as irrelevant to modern economics then we are left with politics. And Marx is all about politics ---the class struggle and all that Communist Manifesto rhetorical stuff about revolution and workers of the world uniting. The Economist generously acknowledges that Marx was a "compelling writer punching out first rate epigrams at a reckless pace", and that class antagonism "is the sin qua non of Marx."

Did Marx have anything to offer other than "expressing himself brilliantly"? Nope. Marx got class politics wrong too, so very wrong. Here is The Economist again:

"...class is an idea that has become blurred to the point meaninglessness ... the class war, if it existed, is over."

Silly old me. I thought that class was an economic relationship not just an idea.That it was a social relationship based on the capitalist mode of production----hence we different classes, such as unemployed, working class, middle class, professional and managerial class and the owning class or bourgeoisie. And we still have capitalism as far as I know even though this word is never used these days-----competitive liberal economy is what is in fashion. It has a better ring to it than capitalism, which connotes capital sucking out the life blood of labour and discarding it on the rubbish heap. I thought that capitalism had become ever more global with the fall of the Soviet Russia and that global capitalism was truly dynamic and revolutionary in terms of reshaping society.

Why does class and class war not exist, according to The Economist? Wait for it:

"In western democracies today, who chooses who rules and for how long? Who tells governments how companies will be regulated? Who in the end owns companies. Workers for hire---the proleteriat.... And this is because of, not despite, the things Marx most deplored: private property, liberal political rights and the market."

So Marx is conclusively refuted, yet again.These refutations have happen so many times throughout the 20th century. And still Marx lives on.

Are you convinced by this argument:---that where it mattered most Marx could not have been more wrong? Are you convinced that the reason why Left theory has been mugged by reality is that Marx is irrelevant to modern economics? Are you convinced that we should become liberal conservatives with suburban values?

Strange to say, not even The Economist is convinced that Marx is a ghost from the past. Though it has the decisive, knock-down argument---Marx was very wrong where it mattered----it is confronted by Marx, as a philosopher, social scientists, historian and revolutionary being popular----far more so than Adam Smith apparently; is still accorded respect in academia, and still has a continuing influence in western culture. So people must think that Marx has something to offer than than only having "an enviable flair for hysterial invective."

Though The Economist realises this it does not give an account of why this so. It only addresses it by showing that Marx got it wrong where it mattered.

Seems like the conservatives and the market liberals have still got a bit of explaining to do about the Left being mugged by reality.