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Stigmergy Structures and Yom Kippur

Here is a rather obscure and confused invocation of stigmergy.

Our habits, the way we present ourselves to others and the persona we have created, our social context – all these things constrain us, limit our capacity for change, and drag the “old” us into any attempt to start afresh. Kol Nidre annuls those vows and breaks the chains that hold us back from reassessing our goals and practices as the year begins.

This is vulgarly rationalistic and at odds with custom and tradition which is by it’s very nature is stigmergic.

To human beings, “essence” and “self” depend on ideals and values, on will and commitment, and on actions and practice. The moment we truly change course on those levels, we are different – and we will begin to build other stigmergy structures that are better suited for the new place that we want to be.

There is a tension here. Mereological theorizing from a stigmergic perspective does not preclude personal identity issues: “actions and practice” are part and parcel of stigmergy.

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The Fate of Rationalism in Oakeshott’s Thought

Here is Ken Minogue’s intro paragraph to his essay in the Companion to Michael Oakeshott (I recently had dinner with Ken and am pleased to report that he is doing quite well).

Michael Oakeshott is perhaps best known as the foe of a political vice called “rationalism,” and it is a vice because, in believing that all knowledge is technical, it fails to recognize the crucial role of what Oakeshott calls “practical knowledge.” The famous distinction between technical and practical knowledge, however, obscures the sheer complexity of Oakeshott’s understanding of political activity. We can, indeed, find a simple theme running through much of Oakeshott’s criticism at this period: namely, that the contingencies of the human world cannot be reduced to a simple, abstract (and manageable) plot. Rationalism does this, and Oakeshott detects it also in Whig history as analyzed by Herbert Butterfield: “What is, in fact, a resultant, or even a byproduct, of conflicting purposes and interests is made to appear as the consummation of a single homogeneous stream of activity triumphing over opposition and obstruction” (WIH 221). But this general theme becomes recessive as he developed his political philosophy in the years after the famous Inaugural. He seeks a more complex understanding of these things.

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Hayek’s Post-Positivist Empiricism: Experience Beyond Sensation

The intro from Jan Willem Lindemans’ paper:

The philosophical foundations of Hayek’s works are not beyond dispute (Gray, 1984, Kukathas, 1989, Caldwell, 1992, Hutchison, 1992): was Hayek a rationalist or an empiricist; did he follow Kant or Hume, Mises or Popper? Difficulties arise because these questions touch upon social theory, political philosophy, methodology and epistemology. Moreover, on different occasions, Hayek (intentionally) gave different definitions and evaluations of already complicated views such as ‘rationalism’ and ‘empiricism’. In this paper, I try to shed some light on the rationalism/empiricism issue by focusing on epistemology, where this issue really belongs. The debate there is mainly about the sources of knowledge (e.g., Markie, 2008). Empiricists argue that experience is the source of all our knowledge. This view was held by John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776) but its roots go back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and even further to the ancient Greek Empiricist school in medicine (founded in the third century B.C. by Philinos of Kos or Serapion of Alexandria) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). In contrast with his teacher Plato, Aristotle believed in the ‘induction’ (epagōgē) of general knowledge from particular observations. I will not have the space here to relate Hayek’s ideas to this long history of empiricism. But I will try to refer to David Hume now and then, because Hayek was a great admirer of Hume’s social and political philosophy and Hayek’s ‘Humeanism’ is extensively discussed. I will also get back to the less well known Empiricist school in medicine, because it has a very special conception of ‘experience’ which I believe to be useful to the discussion. In contrast with empiricism, rationalism or ‘apriorism’ is the idea that some knowledge is independent of experience or ‘a priori’. Traditionally, this meant that knowledge is based on rational intuition, or embedded in our rational nature or the structure of the mind. If knowledge is embedded in our mind or nature, it is ‘innate’, which is why philosophers speak of ‘innatism’ or ‘nativism’. Since this was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) view, it is often called ‘Kantianism’. I will also use the term ‘Kantianism’ rather than ‘rationalism’ because Hayek most often defines the latter as the false view that social phenomena are rationally designed, which is a completely different issue. Kantianism goes back to the ‘innate ideas’ of René Descartes (1596-1650) and the anamnesis of ideas in Plato’s philosophy (429-347 B.C.). Many scholars have tried to position Hayek in the Kantianism/empiricism debate. Most scholars would probably agree with Connin (1990, p. 301) that “Hayek’s theory of knowledge is undoubtedly Kantian” (see also Feser, 2006, p. 300). However, many also understand that there is more to it (Caldwell, 2004, p. 273). Since ‘experience’ is undeniably a basic concept in Hayek’s epistemology, some believe that his epistemology is a kind of synthesis between Kantianism and Humean empiricism (Horwitz, 2000, p. 25). De Vecchi (2003, p. 152) is less optimistic and says that “there is an unresolved tension between empiricism and anti-empiricism within the theory of the process of the formation of knowledge set out in The Sensory Order”. Moreover, some have made the link with ‘evolutionary epistemology’ (Bartley, 1987, p. 21; Gray, 1984; Kukathas, 1989; Dempsey, 1996; Vanberg, 2002). However, scholars have rarely wondered how Kantianism, empiricism and evolutionism can be reconciled, and, more importantly, what ‘empiricism’ and ‘experience’ mean in such a context. Just as there are as many ‘rationalisms’ as there are interpretations of the term ‘reason’, there are as many ‘empiricisms’ as there are interpretations of the term ‘experience’. In this paper, I will reconstruct Hayek’s epistemology based on a careful reading of The Sensory Order and some related writings. I will argue that Hayek’s epistemology is best characterized as a type of ‘post-positivist empiricism’. In the first paragraph, I review Hayek’s neurophysiological explanation of the mind in The Sensory Order. Hayek shows how the nervous system can perform the acts of classification characteristic of the working of the mind. Because the synaptic connections embody a kind of knowledge independent of ‘sense experience’, Hayek is not a ‘sensationalist empiricist’. The second paragraph discusses Hayek’s theory of the formation of synaptic connections. Connections are formed on the basis of what I will call ‘Hayek’s learning rule’, which boils down to the familiar idea that neurons that fire together wire together. Since this means that the knowledge embodied in the synaptic connections is in a sense the result of ‘experience’, be it ‘pre-sensory experience’ rather than ‘sense experience’, Hayek is an empiricist after all, but one of the ‘post-positivist’ kind. In the third paragraph, I analyze Hayek’s views on the evolution of the nervous system and the behavior it generates. There appear to be two kinds of ‘experience’ at the basis of the synaptic connections: ‘experience of the individual’ and ‘experience of the race’. Because Hayek denies that all knowledge is due to ‘experience of the individual’, he is not an ‘individualist empiricist’. However, since ‘experience of the race’ is also ‘experience’, he is again an empiricist in the wider sense. What Hayek failed to notice is that experience of the race is ‘post-sensory’ rather than ‘pre-sensory’ and also in other aspects very different from individual experience. I will call it a kind of ‘selective experience’, which I contrast with ‘inductive experience’. Some links with Donald Campbell’s ‘evolutionary epistemology’ are explored. In the last paragraph, I consider Campbell’s idea that all increases in knowledge are due to selection and make some suggestions for future research.

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Rationalism in Politics

In anticipation of a talk I’m giving later on in the week on Oakeshott’s so-called “dispositional conservatism”, here is a nice little piece by my chum Gene Callahan serving as a good introduction to RIP.

The British philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott is a curious figure in twentieth-century intellectual history. He is known mostly as a “conservative political theorist,” although he rejected ideology and his conservatism was primarily temperamental. Furthermore, his work on politics was only a fraction of his output, which comprised idealist philosophy, aesthetics, religion, education, the philosophy of history, and even horse racing. His popularity reached its zenith in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he was well known on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing on the BBC and becoming the favorite philosopher at National Review. But he never seemed to seek popularity, and did little or nothing to boost his own when it subsequently faded. Today, despite the growing interest in Oakeshott since his death in 1990, even his best-recognized work, his essay “Rationalism in Politics,” is, I contend, not appreciated widely enough—thus, this article.

Lovers of liberty should keep Oakeshott’s work on rationalism in mind for at least two reasons. First, it offers a complementary but still significantly different critique of planning to those of Mises and Hayek. However, at the same time, it provides a warning to the advocates of freedom not to fall into the rationalist quagmire themselves. The relevance of the latter point is demonstrated by, for example, the tendency of many development economists, even those who are “market oriented,” to attempt to impose their theoretical schemes for taking a shortcut to westernization on some Third World country, while running roughshod over all the traditions, customs, and morals native to the place, which, whatever their short-comings, at least managed to sustain the society in question over previous centuries. Freedom cannot be “imposed” on a people according to some preconceived scheme. We all need to watch out for “the rationalist within.”

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Cosmos and Taxis

I chanced upon this painting entitled “Cosmos and Taxis“. The inspiration is, of course, as the artist states:

One effect of our habitually identifying order with a made order or taxis is indeed that we tend to ascribe to all order certain properties which deliberate arrangements regularly, and with respect to some of these properties necessarily, possess. Such orders are relatively simple or at least necessarily confined to such moderate degrees of complexity as the maker can still survey; they are usually concrete in the sense just mentioned that their existence can be intuitively perceived by inspection; and, finally, having been made deliberately, they invariably do (or at one time did) serve a purpose of the maker. None of these characteristics necessarily belong to a spontaneous order or cosmos. Its degree of complexity is not limited to what a human mind can master. Its existence need not manifest itself to our senses but may be based on purely abstract relations which we can only mentally reconstruct. And not having been made it cannot legitimately be said to have a particular purpose, although our awareness of its existence may be extremely important for of successful pursuit of a great variety of different purposes.

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Shapin on Polanyi

Shapin’s London Review of Books review of Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science by Mary Jo Nye. (Both Hayek and Oakeshott are mentioned by Shapin).

Michael Polanyi lives on in the footnotes. If you want to invoke the idea of ‘tacit knowledge’, Polanyi is your reference of choice. You’ll probably cite his major book Personal Knowledge (1958), maybe the earlier Science, Faith and Society (1946), maybe the later The Tacit Dimension (1966). ‘We know more than we can tell’ was Polanyi’s dictum. We know how to ride a bicycle, but we can’t write down how to do it, at least not in a way that allows non-cyclists to read our instructions, get on their bikes and ride off. We can reliably pick out a familiar face in a crowd, but we can’t say just what it is about the face that we recognise. And, crucially, since Polanyi is now known mainly as a philosopher of science, a scientist can’t adequately describe how to do a bit of science through any version of formalised ‘Scientific Method’. Whether the craft is cooking, carpentry or chemistry, the apprentice learns by watching and doing. Where knowledge and skill are concerned, it’s not all talk.

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A Disposition of Delight

My chum and the new president of the Michael Oakeshott Association, Elizabeth Corey, has just had this article published in First Things. Since this article is by subscription, I will only post a couple of extracts that caught my eye. Elizabeth is an excellent scholar whose chapter entitled “The Religious Sensibility of Michael Oakeshott” will be appearing in Paul and my edited book A Companion to Michael Oakeshott - see here for the table of contents. Anyway, here are the two extracts from Elizabeth’s article:

This disposition of delight can be detected throughout Oakeshott’s corpus—in his notion of the poetic character of experience, his love of conversation, his fondness for all activities that might he pursued as ends in themselves: friendship, liberal learning, poetry, and fishing, among many others.

Oakeshott’s insight into the conservative disposition is actually quite simple. It is that in responding to the excesses of contemporary liberalism and progressivism, as well as to Rationalism when it appears among conservatives, we ought not to compete on Rationalist terms, as if yet another mission statement or manifesto or policy could save us. The work of conservatives is above all to identify, preserve, and enjoy, and in doing so rejuvenate, those good traditions and institutions that remain, especially those activities that may appear pointless and wasteful from the perspective of those who want only to maximize utility: the life-giving activities and pleasures of poetry, liberal learning, conversation, friendship, and love.