Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Energizing Creative Outbursts in the Spontaneous Orders

To better understand civil society as a whole, it is necessary to break it down into its constituent economies and spontaneous orders. This allows us to understand each of the orders on their own terms -- simplifying clarifies. However, there is always a danger in doing this in the possibility of overspecialization putting blinders on the researchers and thus failing to understand the complexities of overlaps and interactions among the different orders and economies.

We can see this quite clearly in economics, where economists consider technological innovation to be an "external shock." To the extent that economists only ever study the catallaxy, they are right. But the market economy includes market technologies, money and finance, and technological innovation. Those three spontaneous orders interact to create the market economy as a whole. All of this is missed by the economists studying the catallaxy, the finance and monetary economists studying money and finance, and the sociologists of technology (who are scant few in number compared to those studying the other two orders in the market economy) studying technological innovation. But it seems these three groups never speak to each other.

A result of this is most of those who study the catallaxy do not understand the role money and technology play in their chosen fields of study. This, despite the fact that Schumpeter argued for the inclusion of technology in understanding the market economy.

Another result is the predominance of equilibrium models to study these different orders. An equilibrium model might make sense if the spontaneous order being studied is in pure isolation, but the minute another order comes in contact with it, the steady-state equilibrium system is thrown into a far-from-equilibrium state. (And I am making a generous assumption, given the fact that I do not believe that equilibrium is necessarily the best way to understand any order, given the presence of bipolar feedback in every self-organizing process.)

Certain institutions can act as stabilizing elements in a spontaneous order, providing a predominantly negative feedback environment that will drive the system toward equilibrium. The German-style university system may be precisely such an institution. Indeed, once the initial rounds of creativity which emerged from the university reforms settled down, we have seen what can only be described as a very stable realm of philosophy in the United States, Britain, and Germany for many long decades. The exception has been France, where the German university system was never adopted. The result is that philosophy and literature have overlapped more:

The bases and products of philosophy and of literature have usually been distinct. The networks of these two kinds of intellectuals have touched on occasion; a very small number of individuals have overlapped both networks and produced memorable work in both genres. Most have been successful in only one attention space or the other; nevertheless, something is transmitted structurally, for where the networks of philosophers and literary practitioners have connected, the result has been to energize outbursts of creativity in either field. (Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, 755)
 The "something" being transmitted structurally is the far-from-equilibrium state that comes about from two orders coming into contact with each other. Each order has a disequilibrating effect on the other orders, resulting in creative bipolar feedback. The French Existentialist and postmodernist movements are great examples of this sort of thing, since the main players in each were either hybrid writers themselves (Sartre wrote plays, fiction, and poetry as well as philosophy) or were heavily influenced by literature if they were philosophers or philosophy if they were literary writers.

Collins also points out that when philosophers primarily write for a writer's market rather than within universities, they become more political. Part of this is from the demands of the writer's marketplace. Universities promote high levels of abstraction in philosophy, but the popular reading public will not put up with it. Thus philosophers writing for more popular readers tend to deal with more pedestrian topics, like politics. This is why the Existentialists and postmodernists have typically been more radical in their politics than even university political philosophers like Habermas. We can also perhaps begin to see why French philosophy has found a home in American English literature departments (rather than our philosophy departments).

Given all of this, we should expect to see, as universities undergo reform in response to the internet and online universities, a new round of creativity in philosophy (and other fields dominated by the German university system). We should also expect, however, considerable resistance from those who are comfortably entrenched in that system and prefer the stability and predictability of a philosophical system at equilibrium. But this, too, will contribute to creativity, as conservative retrenching has always done in the past.

In the end, there is a role for those who study each of the spontaneous orders in isolation -- but we have to be aware of the dangers, too, of doing so. Economists can mistakenly believe the market economy as a whole is properly studied as a steady-state equilibrium system, meaning they have to consider money to be neutral and technology to be an external shock, when in fact insofar as they are studying the catallaxy in combination with money/finance and technological innovations, what they are studying is a far-from-equilibrium process in which money is non-neutral and technological innovation is an inseparable part of the system. The catallaxy is not the market economy -- it is but a part of it, even if an important part. But it is almost exclusively the catallaxy economists study, and it is almost exclusively the catallaxy economists consider to be the market economy. And even then, it is rarely a catallaxy that takes place in time and space.

The same dangers can come from studying any of the orders in isolation from the others. Yet, this is a danger well worth risking in order to gain understanding of each. The disciplinary scholars are responsible for understanding their own realms; the interdisciplinary scholars are responsible for making the connections among them. More than that, there are dangers of only working within a given order, ignoring the presence of the rest. The artist, writer, philosopher working in isolation is producing work that can only be appreciated by those who also work primarily in those orders -- thus we get art about art, literature about literature, and philosophy about philosophy -- a kind of sociopathy only appreciated by those who also work in those orders, even as those who live more healthy lives, in multiple orders and, thus, in civil society, create works that matter to the rest of civil society.
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