Sunday, February 24, 2013

Beauty and Theory -- The Example of Spontaneous Orders

Francis Hutcheson, who was a teacher of Adam Smith, defined something as being beautiful if "there is Uniformity amidst Variety" (An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, 28). He applied this definition not only to objects, including music and the other arts, but to theories as well. He argues that theory (unity) makes observations (variety) beautiful; accumulating observations makes us uneasy, until we can make sense of it all with a unifying theory (37). Darwin's theory of natural selection is such a theory, as he developed it to make sense of the variety of observations he had made.

Further, Hutcheson argues that a theorem is beautiful "When one Theorem contains a vast Multitude of Corollaries equally deducible from it" (38). I would argue that spontaneous order theory is precisely such a kind of theory. Spontaneous order theory posits the same basic rules will give rise to a variety of different orders. Status equality among participants, freedom of entry and exit, freedom of participants to pursue their own goals within the given order, the order being the result of human action but are not of human design, the participants following abstract procedural rules (which themselves emerge in the realization of the order itself). Spontaneous orders coordinate those attempting to realize the same basic kinds of goals -- increase in economic value in the catallaxy, increase in scientific knowledge in science, etc.

Thus, spontaneous order theory is a beautiful theory precisely because it allows us to explain a variety of social orders without having to eliminate their individual characteristics. The theory allows us to understand the commonalities as well as the differences.

And it is extremely important to understand the differences among the orders -- and to understand those orders as pure orders. If we do not try to understand those orders as pure orders, we will not be able to properly understand the interactions among those orders. A holistic-only approach to understanding culture/civil society can lead us very easily into mistaking what can happen in one order for what can happen in another. We can confuse, for example, economic actions for political actions, and vice versa. Only by understanding the parts can we understand how those parts interact to create the whole.

Consider the history of medicine. When the body was considered only as a whole, we had doctors performing things like bleedings, which often killed patients. Phrenology made sense if the body is holistic-only. But unity by itself is unbeautiful. And such a collectivist view does not accurately represent reality. The body is made up of parts. When we began to study the parts of the body, we began to understand their proper relations to each other. While it is certainly true that the next stage of understanding what it means to be healthy requires re-integration, that re-integration will be a unity-in-variety kind of integration. We must understand both. But we must understand how the parts work separately before we understand how they work together. That is the history of the development of knowledge and understanding.

The social sciences are in many ways no different, even if the "parts" are themselves extremely complex. What we think of as the market economy is in fact made up of a variety of spontaneous orders: money/finance, catallaxy, and technology. Many of the failures of economics as a science has come about in no small part because of the failure to understand these divisions -- and that these are the constituent elements of the market economy. Only by understanding first that these divisions exist in the market economy, then understanding how these spontaneous orders work as independent orders, then understanding how they interact to create the market economy will we understand the market economy itself. More, we then need to understand other spontaneous orders/economies in order to understand their natures and how they interact.

One can consider the gift economy in both their individual orders -- the sciences (hard, social, and math), philanthropy, philosophy, and the arts -- and in their interactions. By doing so, not only will we come to understand them in their pure forms -- we might also come to understand phenomena that emerge in their overlaps.

Surely, too, much can be learned from the arguments that will arise in regards to whether philosophy should be properly understood as being in the gift economy or in the divine economy. The same is true of the divisions among the orders I have proposed and developed over the past several months regarding the relations among the orders. And we need to figure out, too, what to do with "outliers" like the moral order and culture (including whether culture is, as Hayek argues, spillover from the spontaneous orders).

But only if we understand each order as a pure order can we understand their relations and interactions. This is a project I would love to undertake, given the time and money.
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