Review of The Square and the Tower

IMG_20180331_093532Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower is a caution against seeing our new, networked world as an unalloyed blessings. Human history (and NF’s book) is filled with examples of networks and hierarchies, many worth celebrating and equally many worth decrying. NF’s central worry is that our latest networks make us vulnerable to economic and political anarchy. He sees the rise of the internet as very similar in important ways to the print revolution, and no student of history can regard that revolution as smooth and peaceful. So we should be concerned about the sorts of disruption and anarchy our own networky revolution encourages.

We’re naturally wired to form social networks – up to about 150 friends, if the research is to be believed. Human culture, at its core, is just distributed cognition over a social network. Yet humans have also been enthralled to hierarchies which (unlike other networks) have a top and a bottom. How come? NF mentions the advantages of making communal action more efficient, and providing greater social cohesion. I would add that hierarchies make group strategies possible: in a battle, it helps to have a general on the hill whose commands must be obeyed. Also, who can deny that, once a hierarchy forms, it behooves those at the top to preserve and perpetuate that hierarchy, regardless of any benefits that might trickle down? One important question that comes up tangentially from NF’s discussion is whether networks naturally become hierarchies over time: the most densely connected nodes become bosses, just in virtue of the wealth of their connections. But NF is acutely concerned about the opposite transformation, from hierarchy to network: “Hierarchs have long been uneasily aware that fraternizing amongst subordinates can be the prelude to a palace coup” (41).

From his introductory coverage of network theory, NF draws seven insights: 1. No man is an island. 2. Birds of a feather flock together. (Networks are prone toward clusters of homogeneity.) 3. Weak ties are strong (meaning, if there are lots of connections among nodes, the network is strong). 4. Structure determines virality (“some ideas go viral because of the structural features of the network through which they spread”). 5. Networks never sleep. 6. Networks network (when networks confront one another, usually something very dynamic happens). 7. The rich get richer: “Because of preferential attachment [see #2], most social networks are profoundly inegalitarian” (47).

The thickest middle of the book – parts two through seven, or chapters 11-49 – is a long history of various sorts of networks and hierarchies. We encounter the Renaissance bankers, the empires of colonization, the Reformation, the Republic of Letters, scientific societies, the Freemasons, the royal families of the Victorian era, the empires of industrialization, the Rothschilds, Chinese dynasties, networks of spies, the clubs of extraordinary British gentlemen, the transmissions of plague, the Bolshevik revolution, the Nixon-Kissinger White House, and the delicate balance of European powers which, when it fell apart, became WWI. It is a considerable tour de force, and the reader may be excused for finding the particular accounts so fascinating as to forget from time to time whether any sort of overarching thesis is being established.

We eventually arrive at our own doorstep: the internet, Al-Qaeda, the crisis of 2008, ISIS, the rise of FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), and the most recent results of hyperconnected network activity: Brexit, and the election of a baboon to serve as President of the United States. Alongside FANG, BAT has developed in China: Baidu (Chinese Google), Alibaba (Chinese Amazon), and Tencent (Chinese Facebook or Twitter, approximately, as it includes the messaging app WeChat). In a hazy way, the development of these two incredibly powerful systems of networks demonstrates that the injunction to “only connect” does in no way guarantee that connectivity automatically brings democratic free expression in its wake.

Whenever there is networked power unchallenged by any sort of law-governed structure, we should worry. That is fundamentally NF’s point. Hierarchies can accomplish all manner of evil, it is true; but so can non-hierarchical networks. The choice, it would seem, is between the dangers of tyranny, and the dangers of anarchy. NF is alive to both dangers, and the point of his book is to make sure we are too.

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The mind, as under construction

The human mind is a moving target. We might trick ourselves into believing it is a thing, with a definite nature and a set of properties to call its own, but in fact the mind is always under construction. At an early age, we begin to learn what to say about our minds – I see, I understand, I don’t get it, I feel confused, part of me thinks so, but another part isn’t so sure … – and, depending on the feedback we get from our conversational partners, we are brought into a general conformity with the rest of our culture. But that whole culture says what it says about our minds because of a long development of literature, philosophy, art, and science. Mind is about as much of a thing as art is. And, like art, part of what mind is depends on the things we say when we start talking about what mind is. With mind, as with quantum mechanics and the interpretation of novels, what we see depends a lot on what we are looking for.

Consider the greatest mind thingifier of all time, Descartes. When he meditates in his stove-heated room and finds that he is because he thinks, he is only one half step away from declaring that the mind is an independently existing substance, res cogitans. About a century later, when David Hume looked inward, he found only a scattering of impressions and memories with no thing at the base to serve as their foundation. Hume had read Descartes, but he had also read Locke’s skeptical treatment of selves and souls, and had very likely also been speaking with a Jesuit who had recently returned from Japan with insights from Buddhism. A couple of generations later, Fichte and Hegel had realized that humans work out who they are as individuals in communication with others, and by recognizing their place within a social and political structure. The self is a social construction – not discovered on one’s own in a stove-heated room. And later on, Nietzsche, Freud, and Joyce all begin to suspect that the mind is spun from the warp and woof of grammar: our words make us. And, needless to say, they did not believe that language issued from the grand sense of social purpose that fuelled the idealists’ views of mind.

We inherit all these views, and others. When the clutter of life abates we think about who we really are. In the throes of struggle, we know too well the jumbled feelings and impressions that surface. In heartfelt conversations, we hear ourselves putting our selves into words that seem both disingenuous and also the sorts of things we are expected to say. And when we turn to write an essay on what mind is, we can’t resist giving the concept a starring role in some long developmental story.

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Niall Ferguson’s Hegelian aspirations

SquaretowerI have just started reading Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower. This comes after reading some of his other books, and hearing him in interviews. He’s an extraordinarily well-read, well-spoken, and intelligent fellow – and, I gather, viewed with some hostility by academics because he sells a lot of books and is a swaggering conservative. But I’m still looking for a critical engagement with his views that goes beyond disparaging these qualities.

The Square and the Tower is a history of the influence of networks, which means looking not so much at what people try to do and believe so much as at how the connections among people amplify, dampen, exalt, or destroy what people try to do and believe. People can be connected in various ways, in different sorts of hierarchies or in different styles of networks. Ferguson’s question is: to what extent does the structure or form of a social network affect the advance or decay of a culture or civilization?

As I said, I’ve only started the book, but I’ve been struck early on by the Hegelian dimensions of it. (It’s no coincidence that students and I are studying Hegel now, so I’m likely to see Hegel everywhere. Bear with me.) According to Hegel, if we want to make sense of human history, we need to understand the logic of evolving human structures. For history is not just one damn thing after another, but a story that makes sense; and if we want to grasp the plot, we need to understand how the elements of history – ideas, institutions, and the occasional great person – follow from previous elements and give rise to future ones. Once again: there is a logic in history, and historians will always come up short so long as they ignore that logic.

the-square-and-the-tower-by-niall-ferguson-17-638Ferguson’s book is peppered with diagrams of kinds of networks, and how they compare along various dimensions. Some networks are resilient, and some are fragile; some rely critically upon a few hubs, and some are “scale free”, or more equal in terms of how well-connected each node is. The upshot seems to be that, if you want to understand human history, you need to bear in mind the logic of the structure of human networks. (*) For example, Luther’s attempt at reformation would have been forgotten had it not been for the ways in which the printing press extended and amplified the networks of proto-Protestant people; and the plague spread much faster in Europe than in China precisely because of Europe’s (relatively) scale-free networks.

I nearly fell out of my Hegelian armchair when Ferguson at various points characterized ancient China as a rigid hierarchy in which only the emperor was allowed flexibility; ancient Greece as a network of limited flexibility; and early modern Europe as one with such flexibility as to allow for the emergence of science and global trade. Actually, Ferguson’s claims more careful and nuanced than this hasty sketch suggests, but I’m putting it this simplistic way because his conclusions mirror Hegel’s bold claims that in China one man was free, while in Greece some men were free, and in Germany (of course) all men are free. The close parallel between Ferguson and Hegel makes me wonder to what extent the form of an author’s approach determines the conclusions they are likely to draw. Does the structure of the network in an historian’s own head determine the kind of story that gets told?

I doubt that Ferguson is eating the entire Hegelian burrito, and prophesying a grand telos for human history. But he might claim that, given the logic of networks, there is a most-stable sort of social structure which, once we get into, we’re unlikely to get out of. We’ll see.

I’m sure I’ll write about the book again as soon as I finish it, but right now I’m having a grand time thinking through the broad territory Ferguson is taking on.

(*) Sid Meier’s Civilization V provides some modeling of  a society’s formal structure in its “Choose an Ideology” mechanism.

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“Are students snowflakes?” on Access Utah

DQmbemu1Wx7EadWkPC8C4bg6oe2BYEhi1RFHrBctFMhmW2FHost Tom Williams interviewed my colleagues Erica Holberg and Harrison Kleiner and me about the alleged “snowflake” phenomenon on campuses (students who can’t bear to hear any claims that run counter to their own values). Interview here. Certainly there are episodes which sound plenty snowflakey here or there; one question is whether these episodes are indicative of any general trend. A related question is what to do when the cherished ideal of free speech on campus collides with the more sensationalistic and irresponsible speech that seems to be on the rise – white nationalists, xenophobic ranters, and so on. It’s always fun to be on Tom’s show!

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Essay on philosophy and the humanities on Aeon

By the title, “Why philosophers should hang out at the humanists’ parties” – here.

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Work in progress

I’m slowly working on a book that tries to integrate what I’m learning about history with what I know (or think I know!) about early modern philosophy, and thought I’d post an excerpt that covers, in a general way, putting the two domains together. Comments welcome!


The interested reader is struck by the sharp differences between the histories of science told by historians and those told by scientists. Historians see their subjects in the same way I have portrayed them: as individuals both insightful and benighted, acting in complicated circumstances with mixed motives. In Shapin and Schaffer’s pivotal work, Leviathan and the Air Pump (Princeton 1985), for example, we encounter figures who are not simply concerned with the most coherent interpretation of experiments conducted with the new air pump. We meet Robert Boyle and the newly-formed Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, and discover their interest in establishing an independent, non-Royal society that can stand apart from religious and political intrigue and provide accounts of nature that are not inflected with political strategy. We also meet Thomas Hobbes, who knew better. There can be no such thing as scientists operating in a political vacuum. A society which tries to establish facts independent of royal pronouncements is by that very fact a challenge to the crown. A society in the 17th century that insulates itself against religious discourse is about as Protestant (specifically, as Nonconformist) as a society can be.

Shapin and Shaffer’s work was revolutionary because it provided a model for historical inquiries into science. To understand the battle between Boyle and Hobbes, we need never appeal to our advanced knowledge of “what is really going on” inside the bell jar. After all, Boyle and Hobbes had no access to that knowledge; it was precisely that knowledge they were trying to establish. We focus on the ideas, tensions and conflicts that were in fact impinging upon them at the time, as revealed in letters and published texts. Historians of science need not attend to the “true” scientific story any more than historians of politics should attend to the “true” conclusions of political science. Scientific truth, in other words, is not an historical agent. We are left with human motivations, politics, religion, etc, which are sufficient on their own to determine human trajectories.

But turn now to Steven Weinberg’s more recent history of science, To Explain the World (Harper 2015). Weinberg is a Nobel laureate in physics who took an interest in the history of his subject, taught courses about it, and subsequently wrote this book. In the history of science as Weinberg presents it, truth is very much an agent. It runs as a silver thread through his chapters as Kepler, Galileo, and Newton manage to get some things right, and some things wrong. We find, from this perspective, that both Bacon and Descartes are quite overrated, as they did not manage to get much right. Galileo and Newton are lone geniuses who were somehow able to transcend the murky thought of their times and hook some genuine insights onto that silver thread. A footnote reassures us that even though Newton did experiment with alchemy, he was really only trying to do chemistry, and his work “thus did not represent an abandonment of science” (218). Befuddled philosophers criticized Newtonian gravity as an occult force, insisting that scientific theories should be founded on pure reason, but (perhaps by being good students of Newton) “we have learned to give this up” (219). The last third of Weinberg’s book is devoted to technical notes which lay out the truth toward which our heroes aspired. It is a final cause toward which both the book and the history of science itself are drawn, pulling each noteworthy scientist inexorably toward the truth as we know it.

Well. It is no difficult task to show the inadequacies of such a history. Galileo and Newton were geniuses, but far from lone; no scientific advancement has ever emerged Minerva-like from a single Olympian head. The enormous influence of Bacon and Descartes is of course quite distinct from the question of how much they got right – and summing up their influence as “overrated” underestimates the power of ideas, right or wrong, to shape the development of science. No, Newton the alchemist was not merely groping toward modern chemistry; and, no, the criticism of gravity as an occult force did not arise merely from rationalistic philosophers who should have known better (indeed, it troubled Newton himself no end). And, as Weinberg must surely know, final causes rarely provide much in the way of explanation these days.

The larger question posed by histories like Weinberg’s is to what extent a history of science – and, by extension, a history of philosophy – should concern itself with scientific or philosophical truth. For it is undeniable that, when Boyle and his Royal Society brethren placed a lit candle and a mouse under bell jars and commenced to pump out the air, the candle went out and the mouse died. It is undeniable that bodies do fall with the rate Galileo predicted, and that one can derive Kepler’s laws from Newton’s account of gravity. And it is furthermore undeniable that we can explain these results because – no matter how it may cause an historian to squirm – we know what’s true. We know that vacua exist, and we have an excellent (if still incomplete) grasp of gravity, and we are wizards of mathematics. Pace Shapin and Schaffer, the natural knowledge we have today has always been an historical agent: Newton’s inverse-square law of gravity held (in good approximation) before Newton was born, and indeed even before any humans were born. The political and religious factors described by Shapin and Schaffer may have shaped what the early scientists did and believed, but so too did the very nature of the world – a nature we now know most impressively.

So: what hath Pasadena to do with Athens? In other words, what role does scientific truth play in the history of ideas? Obviously, historians who are trying to uncover the political and religious tensions exerted upon a figure must be concerned with some sort of truth; they would spend far less time in the archives if they didn’t. Is there any principled reason for paying such close attention to social truths while ignoring the truths of nature? The truths of nature may not have been known by the agents, but then again, neither were the agents fully aware of all the social forces acting upon them. Moreover, forces (whether social or natural) need not be known by agents in order for the forces to act upon them. Vacua were every bit as present in the 17th century laboratory as were the religious and political worries of the day, no matter how many people in the room denied their presence. And this we ourselves learn through our fallible estimations of the truth, both historical and natural.

The only sensible approach is to let the requirements of the explanation at hand determine what mode of fact we draw upon. If we want to explain why Hobbes so doggedly attacked Boyle’s accounts, we shall have to draw principally upon his political concerns, and we shall have to proceed in similar fashion if we want to understand Boyle’s political irenicism. If we want to explain why both Hobbes’s accounts and Boyle’s accounts ended up taking on the particular shapes they did, we shall have to appeal to what really happened in those bell jars, and how what really happened figured into the accounts they developed. We know what they were seeing, even apart from what they thought they were seeing. Generally historians of science cannot hope to explain all that they wish to explain without drawing from both history and science. And why should anyone want to traverse the fields of the past without both eyes open?

The same considerations carry over into the history of philosophy, though the value of truth here may be replaced by the value of explanatory adequacy. For my money, Wittgenstein was right when he insisted that philosophy does not have its own facts. Philosophy must outsource the creation of knowledge to the natural and social sciences, as philosophers do not possess any special methods or avenues of insight that surpass those of other empirical inquirers. What philosophers contribute is an exceptionally clear understanding of system mechanics: how a body of general claims might fit together into a systematic unity, and possess both explanatory powers and weak points at which objections and counterexamples can be leveled. To the extent that a science wishes to provide a system of nature, and not just an assemblage of ad hoc explanations, it is helpful to have on hand a “systems engineer” – a philosopher – to assess the integrity of the system, and to locate explanatory gaps in the system.


John Locke, divider of wheat

Thus when we try to understand and explain how John Locke distinguishes between ideas of primary qualities (the ideas that match how things really are) and ideas of secondary qualities (the ideas that don’t), from within our own experience, we must draw upon something more than an understanding of historical context. We need to draw upon our own experience, and our own critical reflections upon the account Locke gives. Locke claims that no matter how we alter an object, we cannot take away the fact that it has some sort of shape and size and state of motion. But isn’t it also true that we cannot take away the fact that it has some sort of color and taste and texture? Locke answers that, if we continually divide a grain of wheat, at some point its taste (at least) disappears. But then he also claims that, if we are very diligent in our dividing, the shape and size of the wheat-parts may become eventually “insensible”. But then why should we not equally conclude that the taste of the wheat is still in the wheat-particle, but is now merely “insensible”? This sort of critical reflection upon Locke’s account in no way relies upon 17th-century accounts of wheat; nor does Locke mean his account to be mired in his own locale. He is trying to discern facts of human experience, which is ours as much as his. The philosopher who reads Locke must take his attempts at explanation not merely as historical artifacts, but as explanations aiming to explain our experience as well as his own.

On the other hand, when we turn to the more general explanation of why Locke is trying to establish a distinction between reality and mere appearance on the basis of experience anyone may consult, it is there that we may find ourselves turning to Locke’s own historical circumstance, and possibly his interest in providing a Protestant epistemology. Is it an accident that Locke employs wheat as an example, when it is wheat that makes the bread served in holy communion? Is there anything really in the wheat but size and shape and motion? Can we discern, through experience, any traces of Christ’s body – or is the idea of the host only an idea of a secondary property, existing only in the mind of the communicant? History gives us the answer Locke was angling toward, and a wider view of his motivations.

When Locke or any of these other figures were writing, it is fair to say that history, philosophy, and nature were all guiding their hands. It should come as no surprise then that the historian of ideas must appeal to all these forces, as they are relevant, in explaining why they wrote what they did.

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Philosophy as enchantment?

[What follows is a version of an address recently given at the Mountain-Plains Philosophy Conference, where a good time was had by all.]

39749-004-144CF988In a lecture at the University of Munich in 1919 – the year before he died – Max Weber spoke to an audience of students about “Science as a Vocation”. His remarks are frank and clinical, describing with perfect candor the difficulties and disappointments students will face if they choose the academic life. In particular, they will have to get used to being passed over for promotion, to making only tiny contributions to their disciplines, to pressures of attracting larger and larger enrollments so as to fill up the tuition coffers, and to living generally in poverty and obscurity. Moreover, the great ideas and passion that inspired them to be scientists in the first place won’t find any expression in work they do – at least, not if they are good scientists. For while any science always carries along its own presuppositions – particularly, presuppositions of what is important, valuable, or worthwhile – science itself cannot establish anything about how we should live or what our lives should be about. “No science is absolutely free from presuppositions, and no science can prove its fundamental value to the man who rejects these presuppositions” (153). At the most, one might say, science can provide hypothetical imperatives, or connections that say “if you want this, do that”, or practical advice about the most efficient means to given ends. But it cannot give us those ends.

When it comes to figuring out what ends we should take for our own, Weber turns to philosophy. But here again he does not expect that philosophy will establish what values we should adopt. Rather, philosophy will illuminate and make explicit what the options are, and how they fit in or do not fit in with other presuppositions we might be lugging around with us. In the end, it is up to us to establish our values:

And if you remain faithful to yourself, you will certainly come to certain final conclusions that subjectively make sense. This much, in principle at least, can be accomplished. Philosophy, as a special discipline, and the essentially philosophical discussions of principles in the other sciences attempt to achieve this. Thus, if we are competent in our pursuit (which must be presupposed here) we can force the individual, or at least we can help him, to give himself an account of the ultimate meaning of his own conduct. (151-2)

Weber recommends that if his students become teachers, they should not try to push their own values upon their students, but should lay bare the available choices and help their students to choose for themselves. (One cannot avoid hearing in this the great disillusionment stemming from Germany’s loss in WWI.)

The more general backdrop to this discussion of science and values is Weber’s recognition that his world, the modern world, is disenchanted. “One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means” (139). But once we know the world to be disenchanted, we deprive the objects of our knowledge of the magical power required to legislate our life values. No empirical measurement of the world will tell us how things should be, as Hume famously observed. At this point, according to Weber, we are left turning to either “the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations” to find our values. In short: we either make the grounding of value ineffable, or else we base it upon how good it feels to be nice to other people, and we assume there’s some genuine value in that – even if we can’t demonstrate it scientifically.

Scientists who go ahead and believe that there is a supernatural order, or supernatural values, will have to pay for this extravagance with an intellectual sacrifice, according to Weber: they will have to kill off their scientific presupposition that the world is disenchanted. If they do not disown this presupposition – if intellectuals want to have the world both ways, both enchanted and disenchanted, they will be living a lie:

For such an intellectual sacrifice in favor of an unconditional religious devotion is ethically quite a different matter than the evasion of the plain duty of intellectual integrity, which sets in if one lacks the courage to clarify one’s own ultimate standpoint and rather facilitates this duty by feeble relative judgments. (155)

In other words, any scientist or intellectual of the modern age who wants to hold on to overarching values needs to come clean: either admit to having an enchanted view of the world, or sacrifice intellectual integrity.

I am interested in asking about the situation of philosophy in the dialectic that Weber proposed. I will be proposing a trilemma. Is philosophy in the same boat as science, as Weber saw it – meaning that philosophy, thoroughly applied, is an engine for thorough and complete disenchantment? Or can philosophy provide some sort of grounding for value, which Weber thought was not possible? Or, going in the opposite direction: should philosophy possibly be in the business of providing enchantment, and thereby providing overarching values? In exploring this terrain, I’ll first look at the problem of disenchantment in general terms, and then turn to two philosophers: Daniel Dennett, as a voice of disenchantment, and Peter Sloterdijk, as a voice of enchantment.

Continue reading

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