Wednesday, October 26, 2022

João Ohara's new synthesis of the philosophy of history

What is the subject matter of the philosophy of history? This is an extremely difficult question to answer given the wide range of topics, methods, and philosophical perspectives that have been included under the umbrella since 1750. It is therefore a welcome development to read João Ohara's very interesting and illuminating discussion of this topic in his recently released Cambridge Element, The Theory and Philosophy of History: Global Variations. As Ohara puts his aim in the book in the opening section, "this Element is dedicated to ... arguing for a broad and inclusive understanding of the theory and philosophy of history" (1).

Ohara's approach is an appealing one. He draws a number of clear distinctions between "philosophy of history", "theory of history", and "philosophy of historiography", but he resists the idea that it should be possible to give a clear, exact, and sharply delineated definition of the discipline of the "philosophy of history". Instead, he argues for an open-ended set of intellectual questions and approaches that all concern "history" but derive from substantially different intellectual orientations. And in aid of this approach, Ohara's deep knowledge of the many literatures that have contributed to philosophical statements about knowledge of the past gives his analysis great credibility.

Ohara brings a specialist's knowledge to the work of tracing out the various groups of thinkers who have reflected on "philosophy of history", "philosophy of historiography", and "theory of history". He identifies clear exemplars of each phrase, and shows that they involve rather different assumptions about the nature of the task of "reflection upon our knowledge about the past". For example, he points out that Leyden and Gardiner use the latter two phrases interchangeably; whereas in his view, they need to be separated; 16. And he prefers Herman Paul's definition in Key Issues in Historical Theory of historical theory: “conceptual analysis of how human beings relate to the past”. Ohara's careful and specific delineation of different conceptions of these sometimes interchangeable concepts is a highly valuable contribution to the practice of "philosophical reflections on historical knowledge".

Ohara gives particular attention to the theory of "narrativism" associated with Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit (6 ff.). Here the crucial questions surround the issue of historical truth and objectivity. Does narrativism force the reader to adopt the view that there are alternative and apparently incompatible narratives about the same major events in history, and there is no rational basis for judging that one account is more true, or better supported by the available evidence, than another? Here Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen's "post-narrativism" (Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography) provides a relevant basis for recasting and defending the ideas of "approximate truth" of various historical accounts.

Another valuable dimension of Ohara's treatment is his global approach to the question of the nature of "history". He is equally comfortable with Continental, Anglo-American, and Latin American and South Asian contributions and insights into how we create and understand "history". He emphasizes the historical fact of colonialism as a crucial dimension of non-European thinking about "history" and historical events. Ohara takes up this theme in detail in section 3, "Theory and philosophy of history beyond 'The West'." One part of the difficulty for intellectuals in colonized societies, or post-colonial societies, is the fact that much of the conceptual space concerning "history" has been filled by the very traditions and nations that exercised colonial dominion over their own countries. This is the issue of Eurocentric historical thinking (much along the lines contested by Bin Wong when it comes to China's history (link)). And Ohara believes that important new insights can be gained by reading seriously the writings of non-European thinkers on the topic of history. Referring to Spivak, Mbembe, Chakrabarty, and Seth, he writes: "All these authors raise questions that are fundamental to our philosophical and theoretical understanding of history, from the metaphysics of historical experience to the epistemology of historiography" (22). Ohara's treatment makes it clear that there is much to be learned from the different perspectives found in diverse world traditions of thought about "history". A concrete example has to do with the perspectives taken by philosophers on colonialism and liberation in South Asia or Latin America:

As introduced in Argentina in the 1970s, the philosophy of liberation sought to overcome the “model and deviation” framework by exposing the Eurocentric foundations of modern Western thought. For one of its proponents, Enrique Dussel, Western philosophy’s claim to universalism was inseparable from Western colonialism and imperialism: “Modern European philosophers ponder the reality that confronts them; they interpret the periphery from the center. But the colonial philosophers of the periphery gaze at a vision foreign to them, one that is not their own. From the center they see themselves as nonbeing, nothingness”. (Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation)

In the end Ohara favors an inclusive conception of the philosophy and theory of history, serving as an umbrella for philosophical consideration of a number of different kinds of issues raised by the tasks associated with gaining knowledge about the past. He quotes Herman Paul once again with approval, from Paul's 2021 contribution to Kuukkanen's Philosophy of History: Twenty-First-Century Perspectives:

Paul has proposed that we think of a “hermeneutic space” where historians and philosophers of history can engage each other’s ideas in an open-ended conversation, a space he called the History and Philosophy of History (HPH). As the “hermeneutic” adjective suggests, this space does away with the need for previously agreed concepts, approaches, or questions, or a well-defined research agenda. Instead, “the only demand that this space makes upon participants is that they are, and remain, committed to dialogical virtues (curiosity, generosity, empathy, open-mindedness) without which no productive exchange can take place”. (40-41)

This open-ended approach raises the question, how do working historians contribute to the philosophy and theory of history? Ohara refers to Aviezer Tucker's view that philosophers of history should observe the actual intellectual work of historians, but should pay little attention to the historian's comments about the nature of that work, on the ground that historians are not often well equipped to provide compelling theories of the historical enterprise (12). But Ohara's approach suggests that this draws too sharp a line between "doing history" and "theorizing history". And in fact, there seems to be a wide variation in the interest that historians have in "theorizing" history. E.P. Thompson, for example, is an outstanding social historian; but it is hard to think of anything he wrote that could be regarded as a serious, thoughtful contribution to the question, "how historians reason" (link). On the other hand, Robert Darnton -- likewise an outstanding social and cultural historian -- had a great deal of substance to say about the nature of historical research and reasoning (link). So the jury is out -- but that implies that philosophers of history should at least seriously consider the reflective writings of historians about their discipline.

Theory and Philosophy of History: Global Variations is a valuable and instructive contribution for anyone interested in understanding how philosophy intersects with historical knowledge. Ohara makes the case for an inclusive and open-ended definition of the field, inviting new questions and new approaches. His preferred specification of the scope of philosophical questions about historical knowledge is "theory and philosophy of history" (41). This pluralistic approach welcomes perspectives coming from the many strands of thought in western philosophy of history; but it also emphasizes the fundamental importance of opening the discipline to the perspectives of scholars and intellectuals from other global cultures. Ohara demonstrates what is all too often overlooked: that research and theory in the human sciences proceeds on the basis of different mental frameworks in different world traditions. The Eurocentrism that characterizes much discourse in social and historical research is best undone by taking seriously the intellectual traditions and discoveries of other global intellectual networks. Ohara has helped us do that in the field of the philosophy of history.

(Here are several earlier posts on global history; link, link.)

Friday, October 21, 2022

Constitution Day lecture 2022

Note: these are notes for a short talk I gave this month to students at my university on the topic of the importance of maintaining and defending our liberal constitutional democracy.

Democracy at risk?

Dan Little

University of Michigan-Dearborn Student Government session on the US Constitution

October 20, 2022

Thanks for this opportunity. It is a great pleasure to be invited to speak with you today, in this place in America, on this important subject.

There have been times when commemorations like “Constitution Day” were a bit perfunctory. Almost all of us as citizens of a constitutional democracy quietly appreciated the freedoms that we had, and we assumed that the arrangements and institutions specified by the Constitution were permanent and solid parts of our political world in the US. We were complacent about the institutions of our constitutional democracy – even when we criticized various parts of our society. Today – October 20, 2022 – the situation feels very different. Just recall a few books written in the past six years by accomplished political scientists, historians, and legal scholars – How Democracies Die (Levitsky and Ziblatt), Fascism: A Warning (Madeleine Albright), On Tyranny (Timothy Snyder), or The New Despotism (John Keane).

Many careful observers agree that our constitutional democracy is at risk, and this is a life-determining challenge for all of us.

1. Why liberal constitutional democracy?

Let’s start with a simple question: why should we care about living in a liberal constitutional democracy?

The answer is simple: liberal constitutional democracy is uniquely best for free, equal human beings living together. All of us a citizens value our freedoms. And we recognize our fundamental moral equality: men and women, black and white, native and immigrant, straight and gay, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, atheist … We are all equal within a liberal constitutional democracy, and we come to value the fundamental moral fact that our identities are our own business – not in the scope of collective law-making.

We recognize our differences – differences of religious belief, political affiliation, gender and sexual identities, national origins. And through reflection we come to see the fundamental value of pluralistic equality: citizens accept the divergent beliefs and practices of their fellow citizens without using the processes of law to compel them to abandon their beliefs and identities.

These values are reflected in a long tradition of thought: for example, John Stuart Mill (On Liberty), JJ Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft, and John Rawls.

Here are some of the features of a liberal constitutional democracy that benefit all of us as free and equal human beings.

Rule of law: all individuals accept the legitimacy and authority of the system of law and the procedures that implement political life: election law, police powers, scope of authority of elected officials, … No person is above the law.

Independence of judiciary: Courts exist to neutrally interpret the application of law and constitutional requirements. Judges and justices on courts at every level are expected to leave their substantive religious, political, social, and economic commitments at the door. In the words of John Roberts during his confirmation hearings, “Our job is to call balls and strikes”.

Full and extensive establishment of voting rights: every person has the right to participate in voting, and every person’s vote should count the same. This has an implication: no barriers to registration and voting, no gerrymandering, no voter intimidation.

How “constitution” constrains “democracy”: The Bill of Rights establishes certain rights as prior to normal democratic voting and representation processes. Protection of rights of freedom of speech, thought, religion, association. (Notice that the Constitution is not literally beyond the electoral process; but the amendment process is deliberately a difficult one.)

Does a liberal democracy require that we all share the same values? Not at all. John Rawls argues that the stability of a just society depends on finding an “overlapping consensus” of values that converge to provide support for the existing system. Different groups have different “comprehensive conceptions of the good” which disagree with each other and give rise to different goals for legislation. But agreement about rights and democratic process may provide a basis for an overlapping consensus across these differences.

2. The erosion of US democracy

So let’s turn to our current situation in our American democracy. What are the signs of erosion already in front of us? Unhappily, we have witnessed profound attacks on the most important features of our democracy in the past decade or more.

Undermining of constitutional liberties

  • weakening of freedom of the press through additional libel-law restrictions, bonds, and other "chilling" legal mechanisms
  • weakening of freedom of thought and speech through legislation and bullying concerning critical / unpopular doctrines -- "Critical Race Theory", "Queer Studies", "socialist/anarchist thought", ...
  • weakening of freedom of association through extension of surveillance, official violence, "anti-riot" legislation limiting demonstrations, and vilification by leaders, trolls, and social media of outspoken advocates of unpopular positions

Further restrictions on voting rights and voter access to elections

  • extreme gerrymandering to ensure one-party dominance
  • unreasonable voter ID requirements
  • limitations on absentee voting
  • voter intimidation at the polls

Intimidation of dissenters through violent threats, paramilitary demonstrations, and the occasional murder

  • encouragement of political violence by followers of the authoritarian leader
  • persecution through informal and sometimes formal channels of racial and social minorities -- immigrants, people of color, Asians, LGBTQ and transgender people, ...
  • threats of violence and murder against public officials, librarians, public health officials, journalists, and dissidents

Weakening of the independence and neutrality of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court's politicization and ideological bias are now very clear. And other levels of the Federal court system have begun to show these biases as well.

Well-known political scientist and democratic theorist Yascha Mounk notes in The People vs. Democracy that populist leaders and parties seek to undermine the press: “In the early phases, the war on independent institutions frequently takes the form of inciting distrust, or even outright hatred, of the free press” (44). He sees this effort as an attack on liberal principles. But the war waged by radical populist leaders against the press is not merely anti-liberal; it is anti-democratic. Its aim is to disenfranchise the portion of the population that would oppose the populists’ policies and action by denying them access to information and fair interpretation by other intelligent, well-informed observers. It is to replace “freedom of thought and speech” with the power of propaganda, and the goal is not merely to deny information to potential opponents, but to shape “knowledge” and political discourse in ways that favor the political fortunes of the populist. Again — democracy without liberal institutions and values is only sham democracy.

The non-partisan democracy institute V-Dem at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden has attempted to monitor the level of commitment to democratic values expressed by parties in the world’s democracies. And the findings of this research are worrisome: a widespread retreat by conservative and populist parties across many nations from the values of democratic governance and constitutional liberties. Indicators of low democratic commitment include “low commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence” (“New Global Data on Political Parties" (link): 1). And V-Dem research finds ample evidence that each of these tendencies are worsening in the United States and elsewhere.

Here are the worrisome observations of Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Die:

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

The signs are ominous. The indications of erosion mentioned here taken together suggest the possibility of the extinction of liberal democracy: the integrity of constitutionally-defined equal rights for all individuals, and the principle of majoritarian public decision-making are at risk.

3. The emergence of “illiberal democracy” and soft dictatorship

What might our liberal constitutional democracy become if these trends continue? One possibility is an “illiberal democracy”. This is a political regime in which elections occur, but in which an enormous amount of discretionary power is vested in the leader – president, prime minister, numero uno. The qualifier “illiberal” is important: it means that this form of government does not rest upon the premise of secure rights and liberties of individual citizens (the fundamental premise of liberalism), but instead, citizens (subjects) are governed according to the dictates of the leader. There are no constitutional protections of individual rights and liberties.

There is a new term (to me, anyway) that is being used to describe this kind of regime: anocracy (semi-democracy). Part democracy, part dictatorship. And there are a rising number of rulers who fit this model of “illiberal democracy”, including Viktor Orbán (Prime Minister, Hungary), Narendra Modi (Prime Minister, India), and Jair Bolsanaro (President, Brazil). Orbán explicitly defends his rulership of Hungary as an “illiberal democracy”. Marc Plattner describes Orbán's view in the Journal of Democracy:

Then, on 28 July 2018 (at the same venue where he gave his 2014 speech), Orbán emphatically and unequivocally expressed his support for illiberal democracy. He contended, first, that “there is an alternative to liberal democracy: it is called Christian democracy.” But he underlined that Christian democracy as he understands it “is not about defending religious articles of faith.” Instead, it seeks to protect “the ways of life springing from Christian culture.” And this, he added, means defending “human dignity, the family and the nation.”

Orbán then went on to warn his listeners to avoid an “intellectual trap”—namely, “the claim that Christian democracy can also, in fact, be liberal.” For to accept this argument, he told his partisans, is tantamount to surrendering in the battle of ideas. Therefore, he urged his listeners, “Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal.”

This is Christian nationalism, religious authoritarianism. And it appeals to American conservatives, judging by Orbán's reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas in August 2022 (link).

Another expert, Andrew Marantz, writes in the New Yorker in June of this year:

Experts have described Orbán as a new-school despot, a soft autocrat, an anocrat, and a reactionary populist. Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of international affairs at Princeton, has referred to him as “the ultimate twenty- first-century dictator.”

“You do not have to have emergency powers or a military coup for democracy to wither,” Aziz Huq, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Chicago, told me. “Most recent cases of backsliding, Hungary being a classic example, have occurred through legal means.” Orbán runs for reëlection every four years. In theory, there is a chance that he could lose. In practice, he has so thoroughly rigged the system that his grip on power is virtually assured. The political-science term for this is “competitive authoritarianism.”

4. The very real threat to democracy in the US

What is the evidence that the United States is sliding towards illiberal authoritarianism? Here are several important points of reference.

  • The January 6 insurrection: meticulously documented by the House Select Committee.
  • The persistent refusal of many candidates for office in 2022 to commit themselves to the outcome of the upcoming election. For example, Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, says “I will accept the election … if I win.” For example,
  • The extensive preparations in place for voter intimidation and allegations of fraud in 2022.
  • The extensive efforts by right-wing legislatures to interfere with voting rights of populations that they believe will vote against them.

Tim Alberta writes in the November 2022 issue of the Atlantic, “Bad Losers” (link):

The GOP assault on the legitimacy of Biden’s victory has led to death threats against election workers and a lethal siege of the United States Capitol. But perhaps the gravest consequence is the erosion of confidence in our system. Late this summer, a Quinnipiac poll found that 69 percent of both Republicans and Democrats believe that American democracy “is in danger of collapse.” They hold this view for somewhat different reasons. Republicans believe that Democrats already rigged an election against them and will do so again if given the chance; Democrats believe that Republicans, convinced that 2020 was stolen despite all evidence to the contrary, are now readying to rig future elections. It’s hard to see how this ends well. By the presidential election of 2024, a constitutional crisis might be unavoidable.

5. Conclusion

So we are faced with a choice that Benjamin Franklin formulated in 1787. On the final day of the constitutional convention a woman asked Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” In our current terms, the question is, will we have a constitutional democracy or some form of authoritarian “strong man” rule? And our reply must be, “a constitutional democracy, if we can keep it.” If we can keep it ...

But keeping our constitutional democracy requires commitment, passion, and courage on our part. Ivan Ermakoff, a leading historical sociologist, wrote a major and instructive book in 2008, Ruling Oneself Out, about the behavior of political elites in late Weimar Republic during the rise of Hitler and the decision by the French National Assembly to transfer constitutional authority to Marshal Pétain in July 1940. In each case, dictatorship emerged out of constitutional democratic institutions, and individuals who could have resisted these abdications simply stood aside. Some believed that "we can handle this Hitler fellow." This was a tragic mistake, with world-historical consequences.

The best remedy against these terrible outcomes is to struggle for our democracy now. We must give full and deep support to politicians and candidates who demonstrate a commitment to democratic values, and we must reject the very large number of populist politicians who countenance the subversion of our democracy through their adherence to the lies of the “stop the steal” activists. This is not a struggle between "liberals" and "conservatives"; it is a struggle between those who value our liberal democracy and those who cynically undermine and disparage it. And perhaps we will need to take the example and the courage of men and women in Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong in their willingness to stand up against the usurpation of their democratic rights through massive peaceful demonstrations.

So my message to you on Constitution Day 2022 is a very simple one: our constitution and our constitutional democracy are vital, singular features of our lives as free men and women. We must rise to the occasion and defend our constitutional democracy to the full extent possible.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

A culturally conservative streak in Tony Judt

Tony Judt was a remarkable historian of the twentieth century and a sparkling public intellectual. In most dimensions he was a progressive force within the space of commentators on recent history and contemporary politics. However, in a number of instances he was a bit tone-deaf in his version of American progressive values. This tendency is most evident in Ill Fares the Land (2010). 

Most evidently, he seems excessively bothered by "identity politics" in US universities. He tends to portray the generation of young people in the 1980s as solipsistic, self-interested, and trivial.

The narcissism of student movements, new Left ideologues and the popular culture of the ’60s generation invited a conservative backlash. (94)

When I began university teaching, in 1971, students spoke obsessively of socialism, revolution, class conflict and the like—usually with reference to what was then called ‘the third world’: nearer to home, these matters appeared largely resolved. Over the course of the next two decades, the conversation retreated to more self-referential concerns: feminism, gay rights and identity politics. Among the more politically sophisticated, there emerged an interest in human rights and the resurgent language of ‘civil society’. For a brief moment around 1989, young people in western universities were drawn to liberation efforts not only in eastern Europe and China but also in Latin America and South Africa: liberty— from enslavement, coercion, repression and atrocity—was the great theme of the day. (235)

Students frequently tell me that they only know and care about a highly specialized subset of news items and public events. Some may read of environmental catastrophes and climate change. Others are taken up by national political debates but quite ignorant of foreign developments. In the past, thanks to the newspaper they browsed or the television reports they took in over dinner, they would at least have been ‘exposed’ to other matters. Today, such extraneous concerns are kept at bay. (120)

The new Left, as it began to call itself in those years, was something very different. To a younger generation, ‘change’ was not to be brought about by disciplined mass action defined and led by authorized spokesmen. Change itself appeared to have moved on from the industrial West into the developing or ‘third’ world. Communism and capitalism alike were charged with stagnation and ‘repression’. The initiative for radical innovation and action now lay either with distant peasants or else with a new set of revolutionary constituents. In place of the male proletariat there were now posited the candidacies of ‘blacks’, ‘students’, ‘women’ and, a little later, homosexuals. (86)

In these passages and other similar ones, he sounds a bit curmudgeonly, as though the struggles against racism, patriarchy, sexism, and gender discrimination were trivial. But they are not, and curiously enough, Judt sometimes inadvertently illustrates this fact through his own comments about women in other writings. (His excuses in Reappraisals for the sexual predations of Arthur Koestler are far too forgiving.)

Moreover, Judt's offhand remarks about the egoism and materialism of the current generation of young people in the United States (people in their 20s in 2010) are unfair to the generation. Having met many students at public universities and in public service programs like City Year and AmeriCorps, I know first hand that a great many of these young people are moved by "practical idealism" and engagement in community service and partnership. These are not self-interested "wolflings of Wall Street" just looking out for the gold ring; many young men and women in this generation are deeply interested in changing the world and making a better future.

Also of interest is Judt's complete silence on populist authoritarianism. This was a social development that he simply could not anticipate. He assumes that liberal democracy has prevailed (as of 2010), and the remaining disputes have to do with the scope of the state, the level of economic intervention that is justified for state agencies, and the characteristics required in an adequate "social-democratic" state ensuring a decent level of wellbeing for all citizens. In a sense, he suggests that there is no powerful agenda left for the left.

Social democracy, in one form or another, is the prose of contemporary European politics. There are very few European politicians, and fewer still in positions of influence, who would dissent from core social democratic assumptions about the duties of the state, however much they might differ as to their scope. Consequently, social democrats in today’s Europe have nothing distinctive to offer: in France, for example, even their disposition to favor state ownership hardly distinguishes them from the Colbertian instincts of the Gaullist right. The problem today lies not in social democratic policies, but in their exhausted language. Since the authoritarian challenge from the left has lapsed, the emphasis upon “democracy” is largely redundant. We are all democrats today. (143)

But Judt missed completely the emergence of a virulent, powerful, and politically persuasive conservative populist reaction, founded on racism, anti-immigrant hatred, and misogyny. The Front National is not mentioned once in the book, nor are its near-fascist leaders. Even the term "racism" appears only once in the book. Western democracies suffer from "dilapidated public conversation" -- and yet here we are, just over a decade later, involved in a life-and-death struggle for the survival of liberal democracy with the forces of reaction -- the Orbans of Europe, Asia, and the United States.

I suppose all this shows is that no historian or social commentator, can see through the crystal ball with precision. But some of Judt's assumptions seem to have led him to be especially unreceptive to the signs of racism, authoritarianism, and populist extremism that were already present in the world in 2010. In this respect his friend and colleague Timothy Snyder has proven to be a more insightful commentator on the current moment.


Judt describes the land grant colleges and specifically mentions the University of California, the University of Indiana, and the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan was not a land grant university -- it was established decades before the land grant program (the Morrill Act) was envisioned in 1863. There is no "University of Indiana", but rather "Indiana University". Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, was the only land grant university in the state of Michigan, and it continues to carry out the mission of public service envisioned by the Morrill Act. 

Monday, October 17, 2022

Scientific rationality and anomaly

Some discussion of the empirical status of social science theories and hypotheses in the past has revolved around Karl Popper's formulation of the doctrine of falsifiability. However, this criticism is almost always misplaced in the context of the social sciences. This is true for several reasons: sociologists rarely offer unified deductive theories of social phenomena; the heterogeneity of the social world implies that explanations of social outcomes almost always need to be multi-causal; and as a result of these two features, social explanations and theories can usually be supported through piecemeal empirical investigation -- not through their distant global deductive consequences (link). Sociology is not physics.

Popper's requirement is that all scientific hypotheses must in principle be falsifiable: that is, it must be possible to specify in advance a set of empirical circumstances which would demonstrate the falsity of the hypothesis. Popper writes, "A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice" (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, p. 36). This criterion is often used to fault social science research on the ground that social scientists are often prepared to adjust their hypotheses in such a way as to render them compatible with unexpected empirical results (anomalies).

Popper's falsifiability thesis arose in response to the ubiquitous problem of anomaly in science. Anomalies -- facts or discoveries that appear inconsistent with a given theory -- are found everywhere in the history of science, since scientific inquiry is inherently fallible. If a theory implies some sentence S and S is false, it follows that the theory must be false as well. In such a case the scientist is faced with a range of choices -- reject the theory as a whole; reject some portion of the theory in order to avoid the conclusion S; modify the theory to avoid the conclusion S; or introduce additional assumptions to show how the theory is consistent with "not S." A strict falsificationist requires that we disavow the theory, but this response is both insensitive to actual scientific practice and implausible as a principle of methodology.

When faced with anomaly, then, the scientist must choose whether to abandon the theory altogether or modify it to make it consistent with the contrary observations. If the theory has a wide range of supporting evidence, there is a strong incentive for salvaging the theory, that is, of supplementing it with some further assumption restricting the application of its laws, or modifying the laws themselves, to reconcile theory with experience. Ideally the scientist ought to proceed by attempting to locate the source of error in the original theory. Theory modification in the face of contrary evidence should result in a more realistic description of the world, either through the correction of false theoretical principles or through the description of further factors at work that were previously unrecognized.

It is possible, of course, to modify a theory in ways that do not reflect any additional insight into the real nature of the phenomena in question, but are rather merely mechanical modifications of the theory made to bring it into line with the contrary evidence. The problem of avoiding adhocness is a substantive one. Does the modification contribute to a theory that affords simple explanations of a wide range of phenomena? Does it appear to represent an increased knowledge of the real mechanisms that underlie observable phenomena? Post-positivist philosophy of science substantially extended these ideas by introducing the notion of a research program.

Post-positivist philosophy of science attempted to formulate more adequate standards for modifying theory in the light of anomaly. Important insights resulted from a shift of attention from the level of finished theories to the level of the research program, that is, from the formal laws and principles of a theory to the more encompassing set of presuppositions, methodological commitments, and research interests that guide scientists in the conduct of research and theory formation. The philosophy of science of the 1970s and 1980s offered greater focus on the "context of discovery"--the assumptions and research goals that guide scientists in their research. Philosophers of science in this tradition rejected the idea that the conduct of research is an unstructured, nonrational process, and they tried to formulate a theory of the standards that distinguish good scientific research from bad. From this starting point, the "research program" becomes the central interest. (Larry Laudan's Progress and Its Problems (1977) provided a good critical summary of the views of philosophers of science who give attention to the idea of a research program or research tradition.)

Imre Lakatos was one of the philosophers who explored the idea of a scientific research program in the 1960s and 1970s. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Lakatos by Musgrave and Pigden is very good; link.) A research program is the framework of assumptions, experimental procedures, explanatory paradigms, and theoretical principles that guide the conduct of research. With this different starting point concerning the locus of scientific knowledge, post-positivist philosophers of science have posed a different question for themselves. Rather than the positivists' question--What is the criterion of an empirically adequate theory?--they have asked, What are the features that distinguish a rational and progressive program of research from its contrary? The problem of theory adequacy does not disappear, but it becomes a subordinate concern. This broader approach to empirical rationality lays emphasis on the degree to which the commitments of the research program successfully direct research productively and suggest empirically adequate theories--rather than on the narrower question of the criterion of empirical adequacy of theories. On this view, empirical rationality is chiefly a feature of the program of research rather than the finished theory; theories are tools for understanding empirical phenomena created by the scientist within the context of a framework of methodological and substantive assumptions. And from this research-oriented point of view, falsificationism is an unsound principle of theory choice, since it is an extreme principle that requires the rejection of any theory with false consequences.

It is also worth noting that social explanations often depend on discovery of a number of separate and independent causal mechanisms leading to a certain kind of outcome. Sociological explanations do not usually reflect unified, abstract theories that are thought to apply uniformly across a whole society. It is entirely commonplace to discover that a simple monocausal theory of a sociological pattern -- for example, patterns of high infant mortality in low income zip codes -- may begin with a causal theory that turns out to be overly simple. In the infant mortality case, it might first be hypothesized that "infant mortality is increased in a zip code with low average family income because poor families have poor nutrition". But then it turns out that there are glaring exceptions -- zip codes with low income, poor nutrition, and low infant mortality. Further research may discover that the causes of population infant mortality are more complex and numerous. The "poor-nutrition" theory is not abandoned, but is supplemented by the "low level of available and affordable pre-natal care" hypothesis, the "religious composition of the population" hypothesis, and the "environmental justice" hypothesis. These additional mechanisms do not invalidate the original simple theory (poor nutrition), but they demonstrate that a more adequate theory must refer to other mechanisms as well. (This pluralistic view of sociological theory is explored in an earlier post; link.)

These considerations show that the core values of empirical assessment, shared by all scientists, do not entail commitment to the doctrine of falsifiability. Against Popper, it is not scientifically irrational to continue to adjust and modify theoretical hypotheses so as to make sense of anomalous empirical observations. The crucial question is not falsifiability, but rather whether the research program continues to broaden its empirical scope. It is reasonable for scientists to modify their hypotheses and theories in light of anomalous findings; the crucial empirical constraint is that the modified theory ought to have additional empirical scope. The standard of strict falsifiability, then, is not a reasonable constraint on hypothesis formation in social scientific research. (Here is an earlier treatment of Popper's philosophical ideas about history and the social sciences; link.)

(The shape and function of the puffin's beak is sometimes regarded as an anomaly in Darwinian evolutionary theory, since it seems to differ from the case of the finch beak that Darwin analyzes: "beak shape is determined by food source availability in habitat". But in fact, the puffin is not an exception or anomaly to the principle of natural selection; rather, the influences on "reproductive fitness" conferred by beak shape are more complex and multiple than Darwin's analysis of the finch would indicate.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Marx's influences as a social scientist

image: Menzel depicting a proletarian (Adolf von Menzel)

It is customary to hold that the main influences on Marx's thought fell into three streams: French socialism, English political economy, and Hegelian philosophy. Each strand is evident in his writings, from early to late. Certainly Marx's ideas about a communist society were developed in relation to a literature and practice of socialism, most strongly developed in France. The dialogue Marx maintained with political economy was explicit, through his critical engagements with Smith, Ricardo, Senior, etc. And Marx's philosophical education was largely framed within the ideas about history, humanity, and freedom developed by Hegel. (An earlier treatment of Marx's intellectual development can be found here.)

Marx's relationship to the nineteenth-century classical political economists is especially important, since it lay the foundation for his economic analysis in Capital. His relationship to political economy is largely one of "critique" -- an intellectual stance that probes the hidden assumptions of a philosophical or scientific system. Here is an earlier description of "critique" in Marx's thinking taken from a 2011 post:

Marx was a critic above all else. His most comfortable intellectual stance was criticism — most of the subtitles of his works involve the word “critique”. He was, of course, a critic of other thinkers –Proudhon, Smith, Bakunin, for example. And here, the key to criticism is the unearthing of indefensible intellectual presuppositions. But even more importantly, he was a critic of the society he observed around him. The key here is to uncover systemic features of a given society that are fundamentally inconsistent with important human values. His earliest social criticism took its aim at the German society he inhabited in the 1830s and 1840s. But it is his critique of modern capitalist society that is the most enduring, and this critique took shape through his observations of the society and economy of Great Britain in the 1850s and 1860s. (link)

What about the supposed relation to Hegel? The prima facie case in favor of the idea of Hegelian influence is apparently a strong one. Marx's training as a philosophy student took place within the setting of Hegel's followers, the Young Hegelians. Some of Marx's early writings are directly responsive to Hegel's philosophy -- for example, his "Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" (link). There is an important and apparently favorable account of the Hegelian foundations of Capital in that book. And, of course, the general idea of development through a set of contradictions is a "dialectical" idea. For example, Bertell Ollman argued that Marx's ontology of internal relations is genuinely dialectical in Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in a Capitalist Society.

The relation is the irreducible minimum for all units in Marx's conception of social reality. This is really the nub of our difficulty in understanding Marxism, whose subject matter is not simply society but society conceived of "relationally". Capital, labor, value, commodity, etc., are all grasped as relations, containing in themselves, as integral elements of what they are, those parts with which we tend to see them externally tied. Essentially, a change of focus has occurred from viewing independent factors which are related to viewing the particular way in which they are related in each factor, to grasping this tie as part of the meaning conveyed by its concept. This view does not rule out the existence of a core notion for each factor, but treats this core notion itself as a cluster of relations. (Alienation, chap. 2, sect III)

Nonetheless, I don't believe that there is anything of substance in the methodology, ontology, or explanatory schema of Capital that is seriously Hegelian. Against Ollman, I maintain that Marx's conceptions of social relations of production, economic structure, and mode of production can be formulated in a non-dialectical way. A social relation -- the wage-labor relation, for example -- can be defined in objective terms specifying the powers and obligations that the relation entails. So there is no sense in which the properties of one of the terms is logically intertwined with those of the other. The "dialectical method" and Hegelian philosophy plays no important theoretical role in Marx's economic theories and analysis -- or so I argued in The Scientific Marx:

It is no doubt true that Marx's mature works contain a certain amount of admittedly Hegelian language and concepts. Marx writes in Capital, "I openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel], and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him" (Capital II, pp. 102-3). And in the same passage he speaks with approval of the dialectical method: "The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell." There is thus some fuel for the argument that Capital is not an empirical work but rather a work of materialist philosophy in the Hegelian mode. If these dialectical ideas ran deeply the charge would be compelling. In the following, however, I will argue that Marx is irreconcilably opposed to the use of dialectical logic as a method of inquiry in history or social science. At most the dialectical method represents a highly abstract empirical hypothesis about the nature of social change. I hope therefore to leave the way clear for an interpretation of Marx's scientific method that is in basic agreement with orthodox empirical social science. When Marx goes to work on his detailed treatment of the empirical data of capitalism, he leaves his Hegelian baggage behind. (TSM, p. 103)

These influences are important, of course. However, we should not imagine that they constituted the full compass of Marx's thinking. Other influences were also significant. The literature of social discovery and observation -- both unofficial and official -- was an important influence once Marx began living and working in London. Henry Mayhew, the reforming doctors, and the Parliamentary inquiries into social and health conditions shed a great deal of light on the social question at mid-century. (Here is an earlier post on Marx's careful study of statistical and public health studies of "working class London" in the 1850s and 1860s; link. It is an interesting question to know whether there was a similar movement of careful empirical study of "social problems" in France or Germany before 1860.) Here is a quick summary from an earlier post on Marx's use of public health studies:

Marx was very interested in these descriptive investigations -- Dr. Simon, Dr. Julian Hunter, Mr. Smith, Dr. Bell, and the inquiries and Acts of Parliament in the 1860s that shed light on the depth of English poverty. The index for Capital includes a section, "Parliamentary Reports and Other Official Publications," which includes references to over a hundred reports on factories, poverty, nutrition, and health. These range from a Report of Select Committee, London, 1855, on "Adulteration of Bread", to "Reports of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council on Public Health" (1861-66). And these reports constitute the core of empirical evidence that Marx brings to bear for his economic assertions throughout the work. In fact, we might describe some parts of Capital as a sort of "meta-study" of current investigations of the public health status of England's cities. (link)

Further, Marx was well read in the history of ancient Greece and Rome, and there are numerous references to classical literature sprinkled throughout his work. More importantly, he had what appears to be a specialist's knowledge of Roman history by the 1860s, including key works by Gibbon, Niebuhr, Mommsen, Savigny, Coulange, Peter, Ihhe, Nissen, Bury, and Lange. He also made use of August Bockh's Public Economy of Athens. Similar comments can be made about his knowledge of medieval history (as of the 1860s). This supports the view that Marx's guiding ideas within the framework of historical materialism had a substantial foundation in concrete knowledge of the social and economic relations of the ancient world. Historical materialism was not a philosophical theory, along the lines of Hegel's philosophy of history; instead, it was an effort to make sense of the large features of material and institutional life in important stages of European history.

What this brief synopsis suggests is an important dissent from the common view that Marx had only one fundamental idea -- the theory of class conflict -- and instead supports the view that his writings reflected a broad range of influences, themes, and facts from philosophy, history, political economy, and the emerging field of "social statistics". Marx was an analytical scholar, not an ideologue. In the end, he was a pluralistic social scientist, open to new historical and empirical evidence throughout his career.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Democratic socialism in the 1930s

Is it still possible to think big in western democracies about social and economic change in a way that substantially improves the lives and freedoms of most of society? We see the deprivation and indifference of the economic system that has governed most industrialized countries for the past century and a half, leading to gross inequalities, inequities of human wellbeing, and poverty. And we have seen the terrible nightmares created by Leninist-Stalinist Communism. We value freedom, human equality, and human flourishing, and we value democracy. Is it possible to effect a transition to a different economic structure that complies with the values of democracy, individual freedom, and human flourishing?

This was the ambition shared by the socialist movements of the English socialist groups and parties of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And many of those men and women had a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the complicated tensions that exist between the values of democracy and freedom, on the one side, and fairness and equality, on the side of economic life.

What might we want from a reformed progressive economy -- whether it is called social democracy or democratic socialism? Most generally, we would want a set of economic and political institutions that ensure that all members of society are in a position to develop their talents and aspirations, exercise their freedoms, and function as full citizens within a robust democracy. We would want secure protections of the rights of all persons, within a robust system of law. And we would want a public sector that actively works to address failures of the economic system to deliver the prerequisites of these values.

Several key issues stand out as highest priority.

  1. tax policies that constrain wealth and income inequalities to some reasonable level
  2. economic policies by government that work to ensure high employment rates at decent wages
  3. a robust system for universal provision of the prerequisites of productive life in an advanced democracy -- education, healthcare, adequate nutrition
  4. robust social arrangements for preventing and addressing poverty in children and adults
  5. strong assurances that the least-well-off members of society are fully enabled to live decent lives, based on a reasonable income floor and provision of public services
  6. strong assurances of equal opportunity for all members of society in employment, housing, healthcare, and access to social services
  7. provisions for disability, unemployment, and retirement security
  8. assurance of effective political equality, including constraints on the power of wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations to determine the outcomes of policy-making and legislation
(It is striking how many of these issues find a place in Rawls's theory of justice, including his account of a property owning democracy; link.)

Elizabeth Durbin's New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism is an excellent and detailed examination of the economic thinking of British socialists in the 1930s and 1940s, including that of her father, Evan Durbin. And it is important reading for our own generation, when a major reshuffling of the economic relations of capitalism currently seems to be off the table. Two intellectual influences were especially important: a tradition of English trade union activism challenging the power and position of the owners of wealth, and the Keynesian revolution that suggested, among other things, that economic institutions could be modified and managed. Whereas neoclassical economics essentially maintained that only complete freedom of action by economic actors ("laissez-faire") would give rise to "efficient" economic outcomes, these two traditions suggested that regulation of economic activity could be both successful and beneficial for society as a whole -- including the working classes (31-32).

The advantage of this analysis was that it opened up the possibility of redistributing a much wider range of 'unearned' incomes (not just that from land as Henry George had suggested) without reducing the supply of the factors which received such 'rental' payments. The approach also stressed the importance of transferring to the state all those means of production which earned the 'surplus', so that it would benefit society as a whole, not just individual owners. (33)

The financial and unemployment crisis of the Great Depression posed intractable problems for Labour Party leaders. What policies could be designed that would both damp down the fiscal crisis facing the British state and reduce unemployment and provide meaningful unemployment insurance for workers? 

The continued and intensifying unemployment problem in Britain precipitated major policy controversies across a broad spectrum of political views. The contradictions between traditional market explanations of unemployment and daily reality were already spurring the exploration of new theoretical constructs to explain the apparent failure of the market system. (70)

The combination of economic depression and political crisis had a profound effect on the Labour party in the early 1930s. The experience stirred deep emotions among Labour supporters, which left no one unmarked. It also raised fundamental questions about the role of the Labour party, for it seemed as though the only choice was between capitulation to the market forces of capitalism or preparation for a drastic take-over of the economic system. (73)

The drastic choices included either communism along the Russian model or massive nationalization of banks and industry (73), combined with extensive economic planning conducted by government ministries. Piecemeal reform and adjustment of the political economy of Britain seemed impossible. The democratic socialist movement and Labour party engaged in substantial study and consultation through 1933, and in 1934 the Labour party endorsed a new plan for reform.

The new programme called for the central planning of key industries, to include the immediate nationalization of the banking system, transport, coal and power, water supply, iron and steel and land and the drastic reorganization of electricity, gas, agriculture, shipping, shipbuilding, engineering, textiles, chemicals and insurance. Plans were also promised to extend social services, to provide medical care, to clear slums, to raise the school-leaving age, to abolish the means test and to give adequate maintenance for the unemployed. (87)

In other words -- a fairly detailed plan for a social-democratic welfare state with central economic planning in key industries. Much of this programme formed the core of the Labour party manifesto, For Socialism and Peace.

The question of redistribution within Britain's contemporary capitalist economy in the 1930s was a central topic for socialist debate.

Cole's original research design addressed redistributional issues by posing the question 'How far is it an essential part of socialist policy to promote more equal distribution of incomes (a) by raising real wages, (b) by development of the social services?' (125)

What Elizabeth Durbin documents in New Jerusalems is essentially an unresolved struggle, conducted by economists and politicians on the left in Britain, to design institutions that might succeed in fundamentally altering the tendencies of a functioning capitalist system to create extensive inequalities, crises of unemployment, and chronically low standards of living and wellbeing for the majority of working class people. And they were adamant in seeking institutional reforms that were feasible within the constraints of a democratic polity -- with the implication that their policy recommendations needed to find support from durable electoral majorities. As she puts the point late in the book, "Concern with immediate practicality has always been a trade-mark of British democratic socialism" (186). And in the following paragraph, she reiterates the democratic principle: "Their belief in democratic methods is fundamental to understanding the kind of socialist economic policy which emerged from this process.... They repudiated all Marxist policies and systems which depended upon the dictatorship of the proletariat and were considered by definition undemocratic" (186). What distinguished this tradition from other reformers, she writes, is their ongoing allegiance to the idea of public ownership of major economic assets and subsequent redistribution of income and wellbeing towards the least-well-off. And she believes that by the mid-1930s, British socialist and Labour leaders had accomplished a great deal:

By 1935 the Labour party was far better prepared than ever before to manage the country's economic affairs, to take control of financial policy and to begin serious planning efforts. Legislation had been drafted to nationalize the banking system; important leaders such as Dalton, but also other NEC members, were well briefed on banking options and policy operations; a loyal group of trained young professionals were eager to make their contributions. (222)

And yet -- this program failed during the 1930s. Only after the end of World War II did significant nationalization of industry and banking take place; and these economic changes were not durable. Thatcher's government of the 1980s reversed almost all the gains of post-war Labour governments.
A valuable resource on the nature and effectiveness of social democracy is the 1992 review article by Gosta Esping-Andersen and Kees van Kersbergen, "Contemporary Research on Social Democracy" (link). The purpose of this paper is to review efforts to evaluate the performance of a range of social-democratic countries in terms of their goals of equity and efficiency, and to try to identify some of the factors that seem to be conducive to successful implementation of the policies of a social democracy. Here is an observation about the centrality of a strong working-class movement in support of social-democratic reforms that seems very relevant to our current time:

Using a variety of different measures of both social democratic strength, and of policy outcomes (from social spending and redistribution to various institutional characteristics), most of these studies had in common a theory of working class mobilization of political power, that is, the social democratization of capitalist societies depends on the degree to which the balance of political power favors labor; in most cases, the political parties were identified as the chief causal agents. (191)

The literature seems to be converging around a common model. Simply put, social democratic parties are more capable of altering the distribution system and maintaining growth with full employment when they are linked to powerful and centralized trade union movement. (202)

This observation is concerning for the prospects of significant progressive reform towards policies leading to greater equity and efficiency in the United States, because the labor movement is at a low point of power and influence, and the mainstream Democratic Party is preoccupied with other issues. The authors pose this problem directly:

Since social democracy's strength lay in its mobilization of the industrial working class masses, it is an open question whether it will have any capacity for power in a postindustrial society. (203)

(Here are several earlier discussions of the political economy of democratic socialism; link, link, link.)