Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Review of Part of Gene Callahan's Review

In The Review of Austrian Economics Gene Callahan reviews Austrian Economics Perspectives on Individualism and Society: Moving Beyond Methodological Individualism, Guinevere Nell, ed., in which I have a chapter "On the Varieties of Spontaneous Orders." Callahan singles out several essays to complement and criticize, and mine is one he criticizes.

Now, I am hardly above criticism. I could have perhaps defined culture better than I did (though I may have used the definition I did for a purpose), and I perhaps could have been a little more precise here and there, but what he defines as a "vacuous platitude" is really no more vacuous than the one he replaces it with. More, he takes the sentence out of context, failing to mention why I may have said what I said in that particular location in that essay and emphasized that particular point rather than the opposite point. In other words, yes, there is little doubt that there are plenty of things in other cultures which we could and should criticize. But equally, the mere fact that there is something in another culture which is different from our culture or how we do things in our culture, that doesn't mean it's necessarily bad. Which is the point. Difference may be good, may be bad, and may be neutral. Given that there are still those who think difference is bad, or that reversing the West is Good and the Other is Bad to the West is Bad and the Other is Good as the postmodernists have done strongly suggests that this point still needs to be made.

Callahan also seems to think that whatever the Pope thinks or historians think negates some of my arguments, as though either are infallible on these issues. There is in fact strong evidence that technological innovations drove scientific discoveries. Yes, there was a change in ideas, but the ideas actually followed the desire to do science unmolested, and the science was driven by technology. Improvements in lenses resulted in better telescopes which resulted in changes in ideas or in the adoption of certain older ideas over other older ideas. I will take his criticism about my statements about religion being concerned about the "world of abstraction" as being a case of less than precise language. However, let us look at the statement in context:
Among the wisdom orders, philosophy should be considered the most abstract, dealing as it does in ideas – often with little or no concern for the real world. Religion, on the other hand, is deeply concerned with the real world, and the ramifications of what we do in this world for the world of abstraction (however conceived). Art and literature (see Camplin 2010 on the arts and literature as spontaneous orders), on the other hand, always deal with the physical world, either directly in the use of physical objects, or indirectly in having concrete referents (the worst thing you can do in fiction or poetry is to be completely abstract – you are no longer creating literature, but rather philosophy, when you are). We of course see any number of overlaps among these orders. Consider all of the religious art, music, poetry, etc. Consider the philosophers who were also religious figures and leaders. Indeed, one of the most productive times in French literature and philosophy was when philosophy and literature overlapped during the Existentialist period. But note that for this to occur, each order must exist as a spontaneous order and be free to interact; when the Soviet Union attempted to impose the philosophy of historical materialism onto literature, the result was bland, identical Soviet Realism.
 In the essay I had delineated several kinds of spontaneous orders and classified them. I argued that there were spontaneous orders that dealt with abstractions, those that dealt with the real world, and those that dealt with a mixture of the two. I argued, for example, that mathematical discovery was in the realm of pure abstraction, technological innovation was in the realm of pure concreteness, and that the natural sciences took place in the realm of concreteness and abstraction. In this paragraph, I made the argument that there were three spontaneous orders we could consider to be "wisdom orders," and which included philosophy in the realm of pure abstraction, the arts and literature in the realm of pure concreteness, and religion in both realms, concerned with real-world realizations of certain kinds of abstractions. Given that his example was a mathematical example, and I had already discussed the mathematical order as a realm of a certain kind of abstraction, one can either conclude that he was either purposefully choosing to misunderstand what I was saying or he has some difficulty with textual analysis and understanding. Each sentence must be taken within the context of not only its own paragraph, but the section in which it's embedded and the chapter, in this case, in which it was found. My statement is very confusing when taken out of context as it was, and it may still be somewhat less clear than it ought to be, but it's not as confusing as he makes it out to be when we place it in its proper context.

We can truly see how petty and purposefully obtuse Callahan is being when he makes the comment that cosmologists are trying to understand the entire universe "which includes us." First, he is about as completely wrong as humanly possible, and he knows it. Cosmologists are interested in studying the movements of planets, stars, galaxies, and other interstellar and intergalactic phenomena. They are not at all interested in parliamentary procedures. And he knows damn well they're not. They are in fact interested in a set of very simple phenomena which follow relatively simple laws. What they study is at a very low level of complexity. Which hardly makes what they study any less difficult.

As a summary of "kinds of spontaneous orders," I had intended to spur people to think about the complexity of our societies and to thus encourage people to start thinking about studying those different kinds of social orders. This includes democracy, which I did not create an argument for being a spontaneous order precisely because, as I note, diZerega has already done so. Surely references to others' work precludes a lengthy argument when the purpose of the paper is in part to summarize a variety of spontaneous orders. If he wanted a lengthy argument for the proposition that democracy is a spontaneous order, he can by all means to read the works to which I referred.

Finally, to return to the beginning of his criticisms of my chapter, I will note that he completely missed the point of my discussion of heterogeneous vs. homogeneous cultures. What he completely fails to mention in the criticism is that I was making a point about the importance diversity when we have the same institutions. He leaves out that important distinction I make, which is really a distinction made by the paper I cite. Again, it was not my job in this paper to completely reiterate others' arguments in the papers I cite, but to pull out certain points relevant to my argument, which is that heterogeneity of spontaneous orders creates a healthier civil society than one would have in civil society in which a single order dominated and that institutions matter when it comes to the overall health of cultures and civil society and the interactions among all the spontaneous orders. But again, he has to take my comment completely out of context to make the point he does.

Certainly Callahan is not the only person guilty of completely misunderstanding (or misrepresenting, if we want to be less generous) what he reads by taking something completely out of context. It seems to be a common sin by altogether too many readers. It is as though each sentence being read is completely disconnected from every other sentence in the work in question. There is a certain strain of postmodern deconstruction in which decontextualization is emphasized. Thus, we have "the death of the author" and dissociation of texts from their cultural contexts. Somehow this trend has extended itself not just to decontextualizing texts from their authors and cultures, but decontextualizing the very sentences within a given text. That is the only way I can understand the criticisms of people like Callahan while still having the generosity of assuming that they are completely well-meaning in their reviews and criticisms.
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