I don’t usually say much here about politics. But because I’ve already written about the philosophical implications of the Hobby Lobby case, I figure I should also address the most recent ACA ruling. For the typical conservative response to the latter may, at first glance, seem to contradict its response to the former. After all, “Hobby Lobby can have religious freedom” and “Congress cannot have intentions” at first sight translates into “Corporations are persons, governments are not”–a position, alas, no more coherent than its contrary. If collective action is possible, shouldn’t it be possible in all cases?
I don’t think the conservative position necessarily entails a contradiction, but it does, again, seem to me that conservatives aren’t doing a very good job defending themselves against the charge. Consider some of the reasons conservatives give for the impossibility of Congressional intentions:
More generally, what Arrow showed is that group choice (aggregation) is not like individual choice.
Suppose that a person is rational and that we observe their choices. After some time we will come to understand their choices in terms of their underlying preferences (assume stability–this is a thought experiment). We will be able to say, “Ah, I see what this person wants. I understand now why they are choosing in the way that they do. If I were them, I would choose in the same way.”
Arrow showed that when a group chooses, there are no underlying preferences to uncover–not even in theory. In one sense, the theorem is trivial. We know or should always have known that a group doesn’t have preferences anymore than a group smiles. What Arrow showed, however, is that without invoking special cases we can’t even rationalize group choices as if leviathan had preferences. Put differently, the only leviathan that rationalizes group choice has the preferences of a madman.
A nice result, in theory–indeed the mathematics behind it is well worth looking into. But when it comes to practical application, it has two gaping holes, neither of which should come as a surprise:
- Individuals persons are not entirely rational, and not only are their preferences unstable, but they are only sometimes even coherent. Having “the preferences of a madman” is not particular to groups.
- Corporate action is a kind of group action, and it can be rationalized just as easily as individual action. Groups need not always have “the preferences of a madman.”
So if Congressional intentions are impossible, it cannot be a result of the nature of group choice: reasonable Republics are not less possible than reasonable philosophers. Rather, it must have something to do with how Congress, in particular, makes decisions. To make explicit the allusion to Plato, it will have something to do with how democracy really means the rule of that thousand-headed Hydra, the passions.
How does Congress make its decisions?
Consider a king–he need not even be mad; perhaps he seeks a kind of democracy–who gives the following order: “Go to the place where three roads meet. For each person that passes by, record a dash if they’re on road one; a dot if on road two; and a blank if on road three. Using Morse code, translate the result of this into English, and treat it as the law of the land.” This process, miraculously, produces a legible document; produces, in fact, the ACA. In the course of enacting the new law, however, an ambiguity arises regarding whether subsidies are available for insurance purchased on federal exchanges, or whether they are limited to insurance purchased on state exchanges.
Is speculating as to how the king would have rewritten the law, had he known of the ambiguity, the best way to resolve it? Surely not. Does the king lack the ability to have reasons, or to intend things? Again, surely not.
Democratically enacted laws–however much it might pain patriotic Americans–are analogous to the result of such a process. We can, of course, inquire into the causes of certain lines of the ACA having the shape they do–for example, asking why the authors drafted the law the way they did, or why certain representatives voted the way they did– but this is akin to asking why the relevant persons were travelling the relevant roads at the relevant times, or to asking why each head of the random-like Hydra was inclined in the direction it was inclined. It would have nothing to do with the king’s reasons for giving the order he did, and it would tell us nothing about how the result of the Hydra’s writhing ought to be interpreted.
Interpretation is, however, necessary, for practical reasons: the ambiguities must be resolved. The best way to do so would be to ask the king how he wants it resolved–and this is entirely different from speculating as to how he would have answered such a question. The king may, however, refuse to clarify the law, yet without repealing it; and this would throw us back to the problem, only tangentially related to the problem of group intentions, of how to interpret a piece of writing which has been, not murdered, but orphaned.
[For context, read this post.]
Johan Huizinga (pronounced “Housing-ha”) published his Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (Autumn (or, Waning; literally Autumn-tide) of the Middle Ages) in 1919, and it was thought behind the times: too impressionistic, insufficiently scientific, for serious historical scholarship. Popular among literary types, it was an inspiration for the emergence of the field of “cultural studies”; historians paid attention to it when they felt they had no choice, then forgot about it when it became in fact behind the times–that is, when historians stopped paying attention to anything written more than thirty years ago. I found a used copy in a bookstore last year and read it immediately; I soon decided it would fit into the history section of my list as well as just about anything else.
Now, the “modern history” section of the Fundamentals exam always gives people trouble. There the usual Enlightenment suspects–Gibbon, Carlyle, Michelet, etc.–but their books are very long, and very much products of their time. In any case, by the time you get to the late 19th century, such grand unifying endeavors have for the most part been replaced by historical scholarship. We might define “scholarly” as the opposite of “fundmental”: a scholarly work is one which later scholarship can render irrelevant. I don’t know that such scholarly amnesia is necessarily a bad thing, but it does make locating a fundamental work of modern history difficult.
I thinks Huizinga’s Autumn makes the cut for three basic reasons: one historiographical, one psychological, and one historical.
First: While primarily a work of history focused on the culture of Burgundy (roughly north-eastern France) in the late Middle Ages, Autumn can also be read as an historiographical manifesto. At the time Huizinga wrote, historical research was dominated by study of legal charters and merchant records, in an attempt to uncover the hidden truth of how the society of the era “really” “worked”. Huizinga insisted on the importance of the chronicles and arts and literature of the time: that is, of its self-understanding and self-expression. Autumn thus argues against “objective” history and in favor of an entering into an era’s Weltanschauung–not naively taking its inhabitants at their word, but rather seeking to understand what lead them to value, believe, desire what and how they did. This is a timeless question about historiographic methodology, and Huizinga argues his position well. Such attempts to psychoanalyze the past have their dangers, but it seems right to me to think that, if we cannot describe what it was like for a 14th-century Burgundian to go on a pilgrimage, hear an itinerant preacher, attend a tournament, read the Roman de la Rose, then we really know very little about him.
Second: The approach Huizinga takes to such historical psychoanalysis (a phrase which need not invoke Freud) remains even today both compelling and problematic. The book opens with these words, from which the title of this post has been taken:
When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. (p. 1)
And so it sounds, at first, as if this will be yet another narrative of mankind’s journey from childhood, Medieval superstition, through adolescence, Renaissance skepticism, to adulthood, Enlightenment secular humanism. But in fact, Huizinga says, the late Middle Ages are not young, but old, very old, and nearly dead; as the first chapter concludes:
It is an evil world. The fires of hatred and violence burn fiercely. Evil is powerful, the devil covers a darkened earth with his black wings. And soon the end of the world is expected. But mankind does not repent, the church struggles, and the preachers and poets warn and lament in vain. (p. 29)
The Middle Ages were what they were, not because they had yet to arrive at civilization, but because the forms of their civilization were old, worn-out, empty husks, letters without spirit. The possibilities of the forms of life had been exhausted, nothing new could be said, and all that was left was to repeat ad nauseam what others had said before, to mindlessly recite the prescribed formulae for times of sadness, times of joy, good fortune, or bad. The hallmarks of the era were repetition, exaggeration, multiplication of symbols, mechanical irony. There could be no nuance; it was impossible to mean what one said. The problem could only be solved by piecing together a new form of life–no less artificial, but at least younger, more flexible–out of the fragments of the old. (Huizinga’s account of the end of the Middle Ages is sarcastic and difficult to parse, but he seems suspicious of the idea that Renaissance humanism really changed much of anything; one wonders what he’d think of a narrative focused not on letter-writing circles, but on the printing press.)
The broadly-speaking-psychoanalytic innovation here is the concept of “form of life.” To be sure, it picks out something real; the conventions of social life are in many ways akin to the conventions of poetry or painting. And Autumn‘s account of the aging of the medieval mind is subtle and sympathetic. And yet, there’s a danger here, a trap Huizinga may not fall into, but which he leads us towards. Do we really want to say that medieval mind simply could not speak with nuance? Some languages may be more difficult to learn than others, some more difficult to use well, but are there really linguistic contexts in which fully honest thoughts cannot be spoken? Or even contexts in which any thought whatsoever can fail to find expression?
Literary and “cultural” scholars, of course, love the idea that there are things we can think that they could not, and vice versa, though somehow we’re always able to say what it is that we can’t. I find this tendency troubling. To be sure, there are things they didn’t say, and thoughts they would have found prima facie implausible, and ways of feeling they found natural that we find bizarre. But none of this makes them artificial and us natural (it’s all second nature), nor does it make them unable to understand us as we understand them. Intelligibility might be difficult, but it’s either mutual, or absent entirely. And the thought that the past is unintelligible I find even less plausible than the thought that it could not have understood us.
Third: Despite my concerns regarding Huizinga’s psychology, I find the interpretation Autumn offers of Burgundian art and literature quite compelling. The book originated, Huizinga said, in an effort to understand what kind of a culture could have produced a painter like Jan Van Eyck. This explains both the book’s limited scope–it examines only the 14th & 15th centuries, only Burgundy, and only, for the most part, the aristocracy–and how it might be responsibly extended. Where both the social phenomena and the artistic production appear to be of a similar cast to those of medieval Burgundy, there analogous interpretive arguments to those made about van Eyck will likely obtain. And where literature and art do not resemble those of medieval Burgundy–as, in my estimation, (and here I reveal an ulterior motive for interest in Autumn–what does it say about Chaucer and Langland and the Pearl-poet?), those of medieval England do not–there a correspondingly different analysis of society will be required.
Huizinga’s analysis of Burgundian art is difficult to summarize; to give a taste of it, I’ll close with a few quotations from the ante- and penultimate chapters of Autumn, in which he offers close readings of several poems and paintings, including Van Eyck’s Annunciation, the painting featured above. I find particularly fascinating the account the angel’s clothing.
The painting of the fifteenth century is located in the sphere where the extremes of the mystical and the crudely earthy easily touch one another. The faith that speaks here is so overt that no earthly depiction is too sensuous or too extreme for it. Van Eyck is capable of draping his angels and divine figures in the heavy ponderousness of stiff robes dripping with gold and precious stones; to point upwards he does not yet need the fluttering tips of garments and fidgety legs of the Baroque. (p. 317-8)
Literature and art of the fifteenth century possess both parts of that general characteristic that we have already spoken of as been essential for the medieval mind: the full elaboration of all details, the tendency not to leave any thought unexpressed, no matter what idea urges itself on the mind, so that eventually everything could be turned into images as distinctly visible and conceptualized as possible. (p. 333)
It seems as if Van Eyck [in the Annunciation] intended to demonstrate the complete virtuosity, shrinking away from nothing, of a master who can do anything, and dares everything. None of his works are simultaneously more primitive, more hieratic, and more contrived. The angel does not enter with his message into the intimacy of a dwelling chamber (the scene that the entire genre of domestic painting took as its point of departure), but, as was prescribed by the code of forms of the older art, into a church. Both figures lack in pose and facial expression the gentle sensitivity displayed in the depiction of the Annunciation on the outer side of the altar in Ghent. The angel greets Mary with a formal nod, not, as in Ghent, with a lily; he does not wear a small diadem, but is depicted with scepter and splendid crown; and he has a rigid Aegean-smile on his face. In the glowing splendor of the colors of his garments, the luster of his pearls, the gold and precious stones, he excels all the other angelic figures painted by Van Eyck. The dress is green and gold, the brocade coat dark red and gold, and his wings are decked with peacock feathers. Mary’s book, the pillow on the chair, everything is again detailed with the greatest of care. In the church buildings the details are fitted with anecdotal elaborations. The tiles show the signs of the zodiac, of which five are visible, and in addition three scenes from the story of Samson and one from the life of David. [...]
And again the miracle that in such an amassing of elaborate details [...] the unity of key and mood is not lost! [... T]he most mysterious darkness of the high vaulted church veils the entire scene in such a mist of sobriety and mysterium that it is difficult for the eye to detect all the anecdotal details. (p. 335-6)
Last November I took in interest in the difference between philosophical truth and probabilistic certainty. Reading John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent has recalled me to this theme, and to the problem of how the common-sense man (and the Christian) can find a middle way between the probabilist and the philosopher.
Socrates, in the Phaedo, says that to practice philosophy is to prepare for death. This means, most obviously, that the philosopher seeks freedom from worldly attachments and entrance into eternity. But it means, also, that he seeks a truth that he would die for. Athens gives Socrates the option to live, and even to remain in Athens, if he will just stop stirring up trouble. He refuses because he would rather die than cease proclaiming “Thou must know thyself.”
The philosopher seeks a truth that must be spoken–a truth about which it would be better to die than to remain silent. Such a truth is needed because only such a truth can be held with complete sincerity. After all, I cannot lessen the strength of my assertion by speaking less loudly. If I am unwilling to shout it from the rooftop, how can I whisper it in my innermost being? As Newman insists, assent is assent: it does not come in degrees.
So take the most obvious truth imaginable: “This is a table,” said of the table before me. Would I insist on it with a gun to my head? Probably not: I know my senses are fallible, and if someone puts a gun to my head it may well be because I need to be snapped out of a delusion. Before the belief was tested, I had no doubts, but now I know that I do. How can I justify saying something I would not stake my life on?
To this the probabilist says: fine, we’re not certain, so we can’t say “This is a table.” But we still have our uncertain opinion: “It is probably the case that this is a table.” No longer have I said anything about the table that I would refuse to die for.
But–will I die for this attribution of probability? Surely not. If I think of probability as something “out in the world,” then I can be no more sure of this probability than of the table itself; and if I think of probability as something “in my mind,” then I cannot be at all sure of it–after all, I expect it to change as I learn more about the world. Probabilities offer no relief. Still we must speak, and our opinions are the last thing we should speak about: we know we cannot trust them.
Of course the probabilist never claimed to be doing philosophy in the Socratic sense. He sees words as tools: we do not hold to our words, but use them. We assign our beliefs probabilities because beliefs are a sophisticated way of playing the odds, of trying to get ahead in the game of life. If I want to use my belief that “This is a table” is 99% likely to be “true,” and the bookie thinks it 99.9% likely, then I should play the odds and bet on “false.” So, who is the bookie here? On what event am I wagering, and for what prize, and with whom? And what is my stake?
Say I’m betting on whether there’s gold in them there hills, for possession of the gold, against everyone else who might at some point come to possess it, if it exists, and who might get rich at my expense, if it does not and yet I finance a search for it. If the potential gain justifies the expenditure, then I stake the cost of the expedition; if not, then I stake the lost opportunity to do so. This is the game of life; Nature is my bookie.
Similarly, in my “What is a table” scenario, I’m betting on whether this is a table, for my life, against a madman with a gun. I must weigh the worth of my word against that of my life: either he shoots me, or I say “I’m not sure whether this is a table.” But who is the bookie here?
For the probabilist, the answer is the same as before: Nature. Nature always sets the house rules. This neither philosopher nor common-sense man can accept. Whether or not I believe something ought to have nothing to do with whether or not a gun is to my head. I can’t just use certain words as a tool to preserve my life. In Stanley Cavell’s phrase, I ought to mean what I say.
Yet all three–probabilist, philosopher, man of common-sense–would do as the madman commanded. And none would be lying.
The probabilist, because for him there is no such thing as honesty; words are tools, which he uses, in this case, to preserve his life. There are no words the probabilist will die for.
The philosopher, because–as this thought experiment has taught him!–”I’m not sure,” and “Know thyself,” and the like, are the only things he can say honestly. The philosopher will die for these words, and no others.
The common-sense man, because if someone really held a gun to his head, he would become uncertain. He would stake his life on “This is a table,” but only if no one took him up on the bet. He would do so, for example, if he needed a table and nothing but a table would do, and would do so without the slightest doubt that this was indeed a table. But if someone threatened to kill him over saying “I’m not sure,” wouldn’t this, in itself, be reason to doubt? Who would make such a threat without a reason? Until you know he’s mad, his demand gives reason to not be sure; once you know he’s mad, it doesn’t matter–no sounds you make will count as talking to him.
It’s hard to be a martyr for the external world. So what will the common-sense man die for? So far we know too little about him; only, really, that he is ordinary. An ordinary Roman will die for “Rome is great.” An ordinary Christian will die for “Christ is Lord.” Newman thinks any decent man will die for “My mother is not a liar.” What these have in common, I suppose, is that they’re ethics, not physics. They’re matters of fact, but not only matters of fact. They’re not probabilistic stakes, but they’re also quite different from the philosopher’s wager.