A plan for philosophy of social science circa 1976

image: Imre Lakatos


My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy was written between 1974 and 1977 and was accepted in 1977. The topic was Marx’s theory of science as embodied in Capital, and it was one of the early attempts to join an analytical philosophical perspective with careful study of Marx’s ideas. The title of the dissertation was Marx’s Capital: A Study in the Philosophy of Social Science. The dissertation proposed a different way of attempting to understand Marx, and it also proposed a different approach to developing the philosophy of social science — an approach that gives greater attention to the details and history of social-science research. This part of the introduction to the dissertation describes the view I then had of the purposes and current deficiencies of the philosophy of science.

The image of Imre Lakatos is used above because his work from the early 1970s was part of the inspiration for the more contextualized and historical view of the philosophy of social science described in this introduction. I found Lakatos much more stimulating than Kuhn in the early 1970s.

The full introduction is posted here. The full dissertation is posted here.

The philosophy of social science

The philosophy of social science is not a particularly strong area within contemporary philosophy. To some degree it suffers from the division between continental and analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophers have stressed the positivist theory of science, and have consequently come to social sciences with some distrust, while continental philosophers have been preoccupied with the relation of social science to philosophy, rather than the more central question of the defining characteristics of social science. Neither approach has been conducive to the project of constructing a viable, systematic, and sympathetic theory of social science. More importantly, however, the philosophy of social science suffers from its proximity to the philosophy of natural science. The analytical theory of science took shape in the hands of philosophers whose primary training was in natural science, and consequently, whose chief examples were drawn from the natural sciences. Philosophers of social science have all too often shown a tendency to merely import into their field the categories and questions formulated with respect to natural science, rather than posing questions and categories more closely tailored to the real outlines of typical social sciences.{6} It may eventually turn out, of course, that all sciences have the same epistemological structure; but that issue ought not be prejudged. The philosophy of social science needs, therefore, to develop a theory of social science which is not parasitic upon theories of natural science.

Ideally, a philosophy of social science ought to contain an analytical theory of social science which directs attention at the particular trouble spots of social knowledge. It ought to include a discussion of the peculiar nature of the subject matter of social science, an account of the characteristics of social explanation, an account of the relation between empirical evidence and theory in social science, and so forth; and more generally, it ought to consist of a set of questions and categories specifically suited to the special problems confronting social explanation and social theory. Contemporary philosophy of social science fails to come forward with such a theory, in large part because it formulates its theory of science in terms of concepts suggested by the philosophy of natural science.

This diagnosis of the weakness of philosophy of social science indicates that the philosophy of natural science bears a large responsibility for that weakness; happily, however, it is now able to provide the beginnings of a method of philosophical inquiry which can begin to undo that damage. For in the past two decades the philosophy of natural science has witnessed an important transformation in its method of inquiry. It has been transformed from an attempt to provide high-level abstractions concerning the basic concepts of explanation, confirmation, empirical significance, theory choice, and the like, to an attempt to provide a more detailed theory of scientific practice through detailed studies of particular examples of scientific inquiry. Historians of science have argued that the philosophy of science will benefit from greater attention to particular scientific theories and programmes of research, and increasingly philosophers have accepted this judgment. And this shift of attention has already begun to pay off in the form of theories of science which correspond more closely to the actual nature of science, and which thereby come closer to explaining science as a form of human knowledge.

I suggest that the philosophy of social science can benefit from the application of this historical method: its theory of social science can be enriched and corrected through closer attention to actual case studies drawn from the history of social science. Such studies have the potential of suggesting new categories and new questions concerning the nature of knowledge about society and history, and they provide the means by which the analytical theory of science itself may be assessed.

We may get a better idea of the logical relations between case studies of that sort and the formulation of a more general theory of science by working out a rough taxonomy of the logical structure of the philosophy of science.{7} The philosophy of science is (at least in part) a meta-level theory of the epistemological, methodological, and structural characteristics of science. If all scientific theories share certain epistemological characteristics in common, these certainly ought to be part of that theory of science; and if there is diversity, the theory of science ought to indicate the dimensions around which such diversity occurs. The theory of science ought to answer questions like: What is scientific explanation? How are scientific theories organized? How are scientific hypotheses given empirical justification? The theory of science, in other words, attempts to codify the most general characteristics of scientific knowledge.

On this account the theory of science stands at the greatest degree of abstraction: it attempts to make assertions which are true of all or most sciences. At the opposite end of the spectrum stands the particular scientific hypothesis or system: Darwinian evolutionary theory, Newtonian mechanics, Piaget’s psychological theory, and so forth. Each such theory is an attempt to apply empirical rationality to the problem of explaining some complex domain of phenomena; and each advances a theory to the scientific community for some form of evaluation or acceptance. The crucial point to note, however, is that each such theory is an extended and complex argument, in which the principles of inference are almost always left unstated. The scientist engages in a complex form of empirical reasoning, but he does not codify that process of reasoning. For each such example of an empirical hypothesis and explanation, therefore, it is possible to attempt to unravel the implicit standards of empirical rationality, or the implicit conceptions of scientific explanation, inference, evidence, and so forth. This process is in large part the domain of the history of science; however, its results are of plain importance to the general theory of science described above. For if we suppose that any scientific theory rests upon a complex and unstated “grammar” of scientific inference and argument, we may sensibly ask whether there are any regularities among those implicit. theories of science. These particular theories of science embody the set of standards of empirical rationality which guide and regulate the particular scientist, and they constitute part of the raw material for the analytical theory of science. They are what the analytical theory of science is a theory of.

Using this basic taxonomy of the philosophy of science, it is possible to restate the innovation in the practice of the philosophy of science which was described above as having occurred of late: historically minded philosophers of science have argued that we ought to make more explicit the relationship between the two levels of theories of science, and ought to pay more attention to the concrete theories of science implicit in particular scientific systems when formulating and criticizing the analytical theory of science. We ought, that is, to formulate an analytical theory of science which is more sensitive to the particular details of the actual practice of scientific explanation and justification, rather than relying on a priori and unsystematic arguments about science in general.


1. Consider social theorists like Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Lucio Coletti, and Maurice Godelier; empirical sociologists like Tom Bottomore, Ralph Miliband, and J. H. Westergaard; economists like Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, and Ernest Mandel; and historians like E. P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, Eric Hobsbawm, and Albert Soboul.
2. For a description of a similar project in the biological sciences, consult David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 5-7. Consider also Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 2.
3. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1970), pp. 30-1;Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1969), pp. 34-5.
4. David McLellan, Karl Marx (New York: Viking Press, 1975), pp. 303-305; Albrecht Wellmer, Critical Theory of Society (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), Chap. 2; Carl Boggs, Gramsci’s Marxism (London: Pluto Press,·1976) Chap. 1.
5. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. ·(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery; Imre Lakatos, “Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science. These works share a commitment to constructing a theory of science based on a close reading of some specific scientific theory.
6. Cf. Richard Rudner, Philosophy of Social Science (Englewood Cliffs., N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966). This is a good example of such studies.
7. Consider Israel Scheffler, The Anatomy of Inquiry (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), pp. 3-15, for a similar discussion and taxonomy of the philosophy of science.

My program of research, circa 1976

image: philosopher at work

My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy was written between 1974 and 1977 and was accepted in 1977. The topic was Marx’s theory of science as embodied in Capital, and it was one of the early attempts to join an analytical philosophical perspective with careful study of Marx’s ideas. The title of the dissertation was Marx’s Capital: A Study in the Philosophy of Social Science. Given the focus and approach of this work, it might be described as a very early contribution to analytical Marxism. Gerald Cohen’s pivotal Karl Marx’s Theory of History appeared in 1978, Elster’s Making Sense of Marx appeared in 1985, and my Scientific Marx appeared in 1986. More than forty years later I now find it somewhat interesting to see how a young graduate student formulated the task of approaching Marx’s theories in a new way, and perhaps it will be of interest to some readers of Understanding Society as well. The dissertation proposed a different way of attempting to understand Marx, and it also proposed a different approach to developing the philosophy of social science — an approach that gives greater attention to the details and history of social-science research. 

Excerpts from Introduction to Little dissertation, 1977

This thesis is an essay in the philosophy of social science. It is an attempt to address Marx’s social theory as an important episode in the history of social science, and to try to uncover in detail its implicit standards of rational scientific practice. Marx advances the social and economic theory of Capital in the spirit of an objective theory in social science with empirical content and justification. That theory purports to explain certain fundamental facts about the capitalist mode of production, and it has stimulated a tradition of research in social science which is active and productive today.{1} It is therefore important to try to discover the epistemological and methodological characteristics which define it, or in other words, to discover in detail the standards of empirical rationality which underlie its scientific practice. How does it define its subject matter? What sorts of explanations does it advance? What assumptions does it rest on concerning the nature of social explanation? What sort of empirical justification does it advance?{2}

My investigation has consequences for two fairly independent families of questions. First, it is relevant to the question of the ultimate significance of Marx’s work. There is controversy in the Marxist literature concerning the relation between the early Marx and the later. Some critics (like Althusser) assert that only the theory contained in Capital represents the mature Marx, whereas the earlier writings are mere juvenilia.{3} Others argue, on the other hand, that the most significant contributions which Marx makes are contained in the early and middle writings– the theory of alienation, historical materialism, and the philosophical concept of socialism–and that Capital represents an unfortunate excursion into positivism and scientism.{4} We will be able to contribute to a better assessment of the relative merits of these opposing positions if we are able to determine in’ detail the scientific significance of the theory articulated in Capital.

Secondly, this essay is relevant to broader concerns in the philosophy of social science more generally. One of the most fruitful tools brought to the philosophy of science in the past two decades has been the application of the methods of the history of science to research in the philosophy of science.{5} Historically minded philosophers of science have shown–particularly in the natural sciences– that the analytical theory of science may be significantly enriched and tested through detailed attention to case studies in the history of science. These philosophers of science have reconsidered the distinction between description and prescription in the philosophy of science, and have sought to produce theories of science which conform more closely to the actual practice of scientific research. The outcome of such studies has frequently been of great significance to questions in analytical philosophy of science (questions like the nature of explanation and the character of empirical justification, for example). It has also cast some doubt on the principle of the unity of science, at least as an a priori assumption, for detailed case studies of different sciences have suggested that there are.important differences in the practices of these sciences, I will argue below that this historical approach is of particular significance for the future development of the philosophy of social science. Consequently, case studies of the sort I now advance will be of great use in furthering the condition of the philosophy of social science in general. In the next few pages I would like to discuss these two lines of significance of my research in somewhat greater detail.

Marx’s Significance

Marx’s writings encompass a wide range of intellectual activities — philosophical critique, historical analysis, political economy, political commentary. Nonetheless, these disparate activities show a remarkable constancy of direction and pattern of development. Marx’s attention is directed throughout his active career to the problem of comprehending· modern society and its peculiar inadequacies for full human development, what changes from his early contributions to the fully mature position in Capital is chiefly the view he takes concerning the proper method of acquiring such understanding. Marx begins his career as a professional philosopher, trained in the critical dialectics of post-Hegelian Germany. At this stage his social theory is a form of philosophical critique; it is an attempt to diagnose modern society from an abstract and philosophical perspective. This stage of his thought is continuous with Hegel’s social theory in the Philosophy of Right, in method if not in substance, This period includes the Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State and On the Jewish Question as well as lesser articles.

Marx soon transforms this form of philosophical criticism into a methodology for social knowledge which leaves the purely philosophical realm. This transformation begins in the critique of Hegel, where Marx first begins to criticize Hegel’s ”logical mysticism”, or his tendency to try to explain social phenomena solely on the basis of the categories of pure reason. Marx urges in the place of this logical mysticism a methodology for social analysis which turns rather upon concrete historical and empirical investigations rather than purely speculative philosophical critique. This line of thought begins with Marx’s observation that Hegel’s social theory is too abstract, non- historical, and speculative; and it culminates in a full- fledged commitment to concrete historical and social research as ·a method for understanding society. This transformation marks the second stage of Marx’s development as a social theorist: it culminates in the full statement of the principle or historical materialism as a method for social theory in the German Ideology. On this method, if we are to understand the most important characteristics of society, it must be on the basis of detailed empirical and historical research, not philosophical speculation.

Having once posed the question of understanding society in terms of the method of historical materialism, however, Marx is drawn inexorably into a more and more detailed study of history and the most advanced form of social science, political economy. This study leads in turn to the formulation of Marx’s. own analysis of capitalism, Capital, in which he advances an attempt to provide an objective and scientific analysis of the structure and development of modern capitalist society. This represents the third stage of the development of Marx’s distinctive approach to social analysis. Here Marx undertakes a sustained and scholarly attempt to -provide a science of the capitalist mode of production. What has changed from the beginnings of this process of development to its nature form in Capital, however, is not the objective, Marx is still committed to comprehending the essential characteristics of modern society and the nature of its inadequacy as a context for full human development. But now his method is historical, empirical, and scientific rather than speculative and philosophical. Philosophical criticism has been transformed into critical social science.

Capital, then, is the result and culmination of a long process in which Marx constructs a method of inquiry for social theory. It is advanced as an exercise in social science. It is deliberately based upon a method of inquiry securely grounded in historical and empirical research; and it purports to be an objective and scientific theory of the real characteristics of the capitalist mode of production. In Capital Marx attempts to explain the basic structure and historical dynamic of capitalism, and he expects the hypothesis he advances to be evaluated according to the standards of science. His commitment to objectivity and scientific rationality is unequivocal. Social explanation must be objective, empirical, and historically informed, this conviction lies at the heart of his criticisms of Hegel’s method, of Proudhon, and of vulgar political economy, and it defines his criteria of’ successful social analysis.…

It is now possible for me to state the aim of my thesis quite precisely: I would like to uncover the implicit theory of science which underlies Marx’s argument in Capital. Capital consists of a complex and extended argument by which Marx attempts to establish a basic hypothesis and show how it explains certain fundamental facts about the capitalist mode of production. This argument implicitly defines a particular set of standards of empirical rationality, it embodies a concept of explanation, justification, and subject matter or social science which underlies and informs the detail of the argument. In this thesis I want to extract as sensitively as possible the details of this conception.

The significance of the thesis can be stated just as succinctly. Having unraveled the theory of science which underlies this particular example of a social science, it will be possible to return to the more abstract and analytical theory of science with a fresher and richer view of what categories and questions are most significant for social science. This thesis, therefore, becomes part of the raw material necessary for the broader enterprise of constructing a theory of science which is adequate to social science.

In what follows I will observe a fairly simple division of labor in attempting to reconstruct Marx’s implicit theory of science. I will focus on three questions: What is Marx’s a theory of, or more generally, what are the principles and assumptions which define its problematic, subject matter, and basic structure? Secondly, what sort of theory is it: a what is the logical structure of the theory? And thirdly, how is it justified: what sort of concept of evidence and the relation of evidence to theory does it rest upon? By answering these questions, we will have established the basic characteristics of Marx’s empirical practice: his conception of explanation and subject matter, the logical structure of his theory, and his concept of empirical justification.

Intellectuals tell their stories

image: Holcombe Austin and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, Wheaton College

Since reading Neil Gross’s book Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher I’ve been once again thinking about the ways that a given thinker takes shape throughout his or her life. (I touched on this question in a post several years ago on influences, and most recently in a post on Peter Berger.) There are a couple of dimensions to this problem. We can think of the thing undergoing change as the thinker’s framework of thought or intellectual imagination. This would be to look at the intellectual as the creator or curator of a body of ideas and approaches to a subject matter.  Or we can think of the thing that is changing as the career — the pathway the intellectual takes into and through the publicly defined standards, appointments, and indications of success of the chosen field of thought, and the series of career-field locations that he or she occupies over time. The first is more interior and the second more situational and public.

Gross and Camic refer to this question as the “sociology of ideas.” It has also been treated by historians of ideas — subject to the criticism that they’ve paid too much attention to the logic of development of the ideas themselves and not enough to the socially situated authors and promulgators of those ideas. But we could also refer the question to the social psychologist or even the existential biographer: in what ways does the individual create his or her own intellectual itinerary?

To map the content of the intellectual’s thought-work we need some way of recording the signposts of the evolution of the thinker’s thought. These might be things like these:

  • Field of thought (mathematics, philosophy, sociology)
  • Style of thought (constructive, critical, analytical)
  • Key topic areas selected (justice, the Holocaust, the nature of being, other minds)
  • Key insight
  • Methods of reasoning (empiricism, hermeneutics, metaphysical reasoning)
  • Constellation of other thinkers treated as experts or dullards

So W.V.O. Quine becomes a philosopher rather than a chemist; he immerses himself in analytical philosophy; he focuses on the problem of scientific knowledge; he gets to a pathbreaking insight (critique of logical positivism from within); his reasoning is logical, analytical, and deductive; and his constellation of stars includes Pierce, Carnap, and Reichenbach. At each juncture we can ask “why?” — why did the person make the choice or move in a particular direction?  Sometimes the answer will be an explicit choice; sometimes it will involve the shared presuppositions of a discipline at a point in time.

To map “career” we can highlight choices made and opportunities conveyed that signal advancement within the social realm of the profession:

  • Graduate school
  • Doctoral supervisor
  • Publications over time
  • Invited conferences
  • Network of other scholars with whom he/she interacts
  • Series of academic appointments
  • Recognitions and prizes

There is an intertwining connection between these two frameworks. The intellectual makes choices in each zone — which topics to pursue and which career milestones to seek out. And as Gross and Bourdieu make plain, the choice of topic has consequences for the opportunities offered in career — a circumstance that explicitly or implicitly influences the intellectual’s choices of topics and approaches. But the direction one’s research and thinking take also are positively influenced by the events of the career. Burton Dreben’s opportunity to become a Junior Fellow at Harvard under the mentorship of Quine fundamentally shaped his thinking as a mathematical logician.

Neil Gross and Crystal Fleming illustrate several of these points in their study of Mike Johnson in the Camic-Gross-Lamont volume, Social Knowledge in the Making.  They offer a thumbnail of Johnson’s first steps towards the career of academic philosophy, his considerations about career advancement, and his own particular insights into philosophical issues that have bearing on the experience of Native Americans.  With this as background, they offer an ethnographic account of the making of a conference paper that Johnson was to present in Paris.  Their account demonstrates a complexly intertwined reality of internal philosophical work and career management.

So calculation, ambition, and the incentives of the field play a role in the academic’s intellectual development.  At the same time, we would like to think that the intellectual has his or her own internal compass for topics and why they matter (which Gross handles with his discussion of “self concept”, and which Gross and Fleming identify in their study of Mark Johnson under the rubric of the particular insights that Johnson’s cultural and class background led him to). We want to suppose that there is a degree of creativity, originality, and self-direction that plays some role in the intellectual’s development.

Then there are the great events that set the context for the intellectual’s choices throughout a forty-year period. There are the generations who took shape during the Great Depression, or during the Holocaust, or during the Civil Rights Movement, or during the Cultural Revolution. And we have the idea that these great events somehow left their marks on the writers and thinkers who came of age during their grip.  (Though I introduced the example of Quine above; and yet it’s hard to see the impact of any of the great events that the United States underwent during his formative years in his philosophical system.)

And there is the stochastic ebb and flow of minor events that influence the course of an intellectual’s development: this book was published, that funding opportunity came along, that invitation to contribute to a volume was received. Each of these minor events puts a small impetus into the stream — a new idea, a new approach, a new set of stimulating colleagues who provide further impetus. It might be the case that for some intellectuals, these are the most important influences of all in the shaping of thought and career.  Curiosity plus intelligence plus random exposures to intriguing questions = a cumulative but meandering body of thought.

This is fairly abstract. But make it more concrete by considering a conversation with three sociologists and a philosopher about the ways a sociologist develops over time. The sociologists are highly accomplished and valued in their discipline. One is born in 1931, one in 1949, and one in about 1950. The youngest, a woman, was born in Cuba. For her the experience of witnessing revolution and social movements as a child was fundamental. Her career has focused on better understanding these events and processes in Latin America. The oldest, a man, talked about the mentors whose example had influenced him — dissertation advisor, more senior colleagues in early teaching posts, and now more junior colleagues (by half a century!) who continue to stimulate his thinking. An important turn in his career took place about twenty years ago when he began thinking about sociology as a humanistic discipline. The third, also a man, offered a “maverick’s” view of his career. Topics were chosen because they were interesting to him at the time, not because the discipline incentivized these topics. He gave the impression that his thinking had developed in a way that might be described as “oppositional”. New topics emerged over time through fairly accidental circumstances. There is no rhyme or reason to his development, no characteristic signature. (Knowing this sociologist’s work well, I disagreed: there is an arc to his work and a very distinctive style of thinking.) All three had known Chuck Tilly well and had thoughtful things to say about how Chuck’s program of sociological thought had developed. (A new element emerged there: the very close and productive relationships Chuck had with hundreds of graduate students.)

I am not a sociologist, and empirical study of this issue probably isn’t in my future. But it seems very worthwhile to have the kinds of conversations I’m describing here and try to piece together more detailed genealogy of American sociological thought through the development of its innovative traibreakers. And in fact, the interviews I’ve done with a number of leading sociologists (link) perhaps sheds a little bit of light on this very subject. My interest in doing the interviews was to capture some of the person’s most innovative ideas. But along the way there has been quite a bit of talk about how their thought developed. 

Another result of the conversation I describe here was something you might expect in a conversation among academics–a list of useful readings. Here are three collections of autobiographical writings by sociologists and theorists that try to relate their careers to their times.

Alan Sica and Stephen Turner, The Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the Sixties
Bennett Berger, Authors of Their Own Lives: Intellectual Autobiographies by Twenty American Sociologists
Barbara Laslett and Barry Thorne, Feminist Sociology: Life Histories of a Movement

Herbert Simon’s satisficing life

Herbert Simon was a remarkably fertile thinker in the social and “artificial” sciences (The Sciences of the Artificial – 3rd Edition (1969, first edition)).  His most celebrated idea was the notion of “satisficing” rather than “optimizing” or “maximizing” in decision-making; he put forward a theory of ordinary decision-making that conformed more closely to the ways that actual people reason rather than the heroic abstractions of expected utility theory.

Essentially the concept of satisficing takes the cost of collecting additional information into account as a decision maker searches for a solution to a problem — where to eat for dinner, which university to attend, which product to emphasize in a company’s short-term strategy.  And the theory commends the idea that we are best served overall by accepting the “good-enough” solution rather than searching indefinitely for the best solution.  Rather than attempting to inventory all possible choices available at a given point in time and assigning them utilities and probabilities, the satisficing theory recommends setting parameters for a problem of choice, and then selecting the first solution that comes along that satisfies these parameters.  It means searching for a solution that is “good enough” rather than optimal.

And why not go for the optimal solution?  Because the cost of collecting the additional information associated with a broader choice set may well exceed the total benefit of the current decision.  This is obvious in the case of the decision of which restaurant to go to; slightly less obvious in the case of the decision of which university to attend; and perhaps flatly unpersuasive in the case of decisions where the outcome can influence life and death.

I’ve described the theory of satisficing in a little detail here for an unexpected reason: Simon took some interest in the art of autobiography, and it turns out that he interprets his own life as a series of satisficing decisions.  His autobiography Models of My Life appeared in 1996, and it’s an interesting narrative of the intellectual and personal choices that led Simon from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh and beyond.

The idea is particularly apt for Simon’s view about how a life unfolds.  He rejects the idea that one’s life has an overriding theme.  He discusses the fact that the title of the book is a plural noun — “Models of My Life”.

There is a further reason for using the plural [models].  It is a denial — a denial that a life, at least my life, has a central theme, a unifying thread running through it. True, there are themes (again the plural), some of the threads brighter or thicker or stronger than others.  Perhaps clearest is the theme of the scientist and teacher, carrying on his persistent heuristic search, seeking the Holy Grail of truth about human decision making.  In my case, even that thread is woven of finer strands: the political scientist, the organization theorist, the economist, the management scientist, the computer scientist, the psychologist, the philosopher of science. (xviii)

Rather than one underlying theme that underlies a person’s biography and career, there are multiple choices, directions, and emphases — that add up to a woven lifetime of contribution when the choices work out well.

Simon accepts the implication that this vision of a life presents: that there is no single “self” underlying all these changes and choices:

Which of the wanderers through these different mazes will step forward at the call for the real Herbert Simon?  All of them; for the “real” self is an illusion.  We live each hour in context, different contexts for different hours…. We act out our lives within the mazes in which Nature and society place us. (xviii-xix)

The analogy between daily decision-making and living a life is a direct one: instead of setting upon a course with very specific goals and objectives, and then taking the steps necessary to bring about the achievement of that system of goals, Simon is recommending a more local form of life decision-making. Build capacities, recognize opportunities, take risks, and build a life as a result of a series of local choices.  It is a form of bounded rationality for living rather than an expression of a fully developed life plan.  So we might say that Simon’s “philosophy of living” is entirely consistent with his theory of bounded rationality.

There are a few real surprises in the book — for example, a conversation between Simon and Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina in 1970.  Simon was fascinated by Borges’ use of the idea of a labyrinth in his novels, and wanted to find out from Borges how he was led to this family of metaphors.  Simon himself was drawn to the idea of a series of choices as a maze — incorporating the insight that there are always unexplored outcomes behind the avenues not taken.  So a labyrinth is a good metaphor for choice within uncertainty and risk.

I have encountered many branches in the maze of my life’s path, where I have followed now the left fork, now the right.  The metaphor of the maze is irresistible to someone who has devoted his scientific career to understanding human choice. (xvii)

Here is a snippet of the conversation between Simon and Borges as quoted in the book:

SIMON: I want to know how it was that the labyrinth entered into your field of vision, into your concepts, so that you incorporated in your stories.

BORGES: I remember having seen an engraving of the labyrinth in a French book — when I was a boy. It was a circular building without doors but with many windows. I used to gaze at this engraving and think that if I brought a loupe close to it, it would reveal the Minotaur.

SIMON: Did you see it?

BORGES: Actually my eyesight was never good enough.  Soon I discovered something of the complexity of life, as if it were a game. In this I am not referring to chess.

SIMON: What is the connection between the labyrinth of the Minotaur and your labyrinth, which calls for continual choice? Does the analogy go beyond the general concept?

BORGES: When I write, I don’t think in terms of teaching. I think that my stories, in some way, are given to me, and my task is to narrate them. I neither search for implicit connotations nor start out with abstract ideas; I am not one who plays with symbols. But if there is some transcendental explanation of one of my stories, it is not for me to discover it, that is the task of the critics and the readers.

And a final surprise — it emerges from the conversation that Borges had read “a very interesting book” early in his life, Bertrand Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy — not exactly the most predictable influence on the creator of magical realism.  And Russell’s mathematical logic was likewise a formative influence for Simon, at a comparably early age.

There is an interesting short section where Simon discusses one of the directions he did not take in his own personal career maze — the step of trying to become a college president at Carnegie Mellon or elsewhere (262 ff.).  Simon writes briefly about the reasons why this might have been a realistic aspiration for him — a history of administrative competence at the department level and a stellar academic record.  But he decided not to pursue the presidency at CMU:

However that may be, I did not seriously consider taking on the context. … I have never regretted the decision, especially in view of Dick’s stellar performance on the job, a performance made possible by a “deviousness” that our colleague Leland Hazard admiringly attributed to him, and that I surely did not possess. (263)

He adds that he didn’t have the personality needed to cultivate the community of wealthy businessmen whose support would be essential to Carnegie: “In fact, the close association with the business community that is essential for effective performance as president of a university such as Carnegie Mellon would have been uncomfortable for me” (263).

But here is the way this discussion strikes me (as a person whose career did take him in that direction): Simon gives no evidence here of understanding even the most basic facts about this domain of choice: what the job of president actually is; what the qualities of personality and leadership are that would lead to success; and what the intellectual satisfactions might be in the event that he became a university president. He seems to be working from a very shallow stereotyped view of the job of university president. In other words, Simon had none of the information that would be needed to make an informed career choice about this option. And this suggests that his decision-making on this issue was narrowly bounded indeed — driven by a few stereotyped assumptions that were probably a poor guide to the reality.

(Here is a lecture by Herbert Simon on organizations, public administration, and markets:)

Intellectual work

It is interesting to think about the work that intellectuals do. Basically, they take on thought problems — what is justice? How does a market economy work? Why do used cars sell for less than their real value? They gather the theories and hypotheses that they have encountered and studied. They look for a new avenue of approach to the problem. They make use of styles of analysis and reasoning they have acquired during their development and education. And they formulate and develop their own attempts at a solution to a problem.
There are some intellectuals — Descartes, for example — who present themselves as starting de novo; framing a problem in purely abstract, logical terms, and addressing it through first principles alone.  Possibly the philosopher mathematician Gottlob Frege falls in this category as well.  He asked, “What are the foundations of arithmetic?” And he presented a constructive logical account of how the truths of arithmetic can be derived from a small set of axioms.  So these thinkers pretend to a “pure thought” approach to intellectual work.  But in fact, this claim doesn’t hold up even in these cases.  Both Descartes and Frege existed within traditions of thought; the questions they posed had historical roots, and the methods they use were historically conditioned as well.

The diagram above represents a stylized description of intellectual work: influences, an embodied cognitive framework (“skill”), important elements of originality, and a product.  The diagram also provides, at the bottom, a highly incomplete inventory of some of the ways in which intellectuals proceed in their work: extending and transforming existing frameworks, introducing novel elements, crossing intellectual domains, and bringing ideas into the public arena.

This puts intellectual work into a certain kind of frame: tradition and influences; problem formulations; invention and creativity; and a new intellectual product — a theory of justice, a theory of general equilibrium, a market for lemons.  It is “work” in the Marxian sense: it begins with certain materials; the materials are shaped and transformed according to the skills and plans of the worker; the worker’s skills are themselves an historical product; and the results reflect both tradition and creativity.

This analysis doesn’t cover every kind of intellectual work; it doesn’t fit the creation of literature, for example. But it seems to fit philosophy, social theory, the early parts of the natural sciences, and even theology.

To the extent this scheme fits an area of thought, we can then address the question of a particular thinker’s contributions from several angles: looking for influences, looking for specific modes of thinking, looking for flashes of genuine originality, and looking at finished theories. In other words, we can think of the task of intellectual biography through the lens of this analysis of the mature thinker’s work, and the arc of development that can be perceived in his/her lifetime corpus.

So, for the individual intellectual, we can ask questions at various points of entry.  First, can we say what some of this thinker’s fundamental cognitive assumptions are.  Can we identify the modes of investigation, analysis, and reasoning that he/she pursued?  Second, can we trace backwards to some of the difference-making influences that shaped the intellectual’s agenda?  What was the tradition of thought into which he/she was introduced through early reading and education?  Who were some of the charismatic individuals who helped this intellectual to establish a perspective and an intellectual framework?  Third, what can we discover internally to the corpus?  Is there a visible evolution of thought over time?  Are there ideas and assumptions that give the corpus coherence from beginning to end?  Can the corpus be reformulated into a consistent and innovative approach to a large set of problems?

Several books recently discussed in other postings are relevant to this question of the development of an intellectual.  One is Clifford Geertz’s autobiographical essay in Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics.  Another is the biographical essay of John Rawls provided by Tom Pogge in John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice.  Geertz highlights many of the categories mentioned here: exposure to a few influential figures in his undergraduate years, the experience of World War II, his exposure to Indonesia as a graduate student, …  Geertz’s work is highly original; nonetheless, we can go some ways towards teasing out some of the ways that his mature perspectives were influenced by his educational and personal experiences.  And likewise, Pogge’s essay on Rawls’s development as a child, youth, and adult sheds a very interesting light on Rawls’s intellectual style as a mature philosopher.

Koestler’s twentieth century

Arthur Koestler is most celebrated for his historical novel about the Moscow show trials, Darkness at Noon. And the book is indeed a deeply revealing look at the heart of totalitarianism in the twentieth century — the more so if you do a side-by-side reading of the trial of the fictional Rubashov and the transcripts of the trial of the historical Bukharin (Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites: Heard Before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court). Koestler caught the psychology and history of the period exactly right — and he did it more or less as a contemporary observer, not an archival historian with leisurely access to the archives after the fact.

But in some ways I find his autobiographical books even more gripping, and none more so than The invisible writing; An autobiography, published in 1954.

The Invisible Writing is an amazing window onto some of the most important events of the twentieth century: the rise of Hitler, the struggles between Communists and Nazis in the streets of Berlin, the gradual decapitation of all forces of the left in Germany in the 1930s, the great famine in the Ukraine, and the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War. Here is a telling description of a moment in time: “With the constant dismissals at Ullstein’s [the publisher], and the shadow of Hitler lying across the country like a monster-shaped cloud, our motley little crowd of intellectuals was too scared to be capable of any clear thought. It was easy to win their sympathy for Russia, but almost impossible to make them take a determined stand for their own interests in Germany. The liberals in Germany — and elsewhere — have rarely understood that there are situations in which caution amounts to suicide.”

Koestler was situated in such a way as to be a participant-eyewitness in these world-historical events. A few snapshots from this period — street fighting in Berlin in 1932 between Communist workers and Nazi thugs; a train journey through the Ukraine during the worst of the deliberate war of famine that Stalin waged against the peasantry; Koestler’s own denunciation of a loved one for a trivial suspicion; and a series of narrow escapes in fascist Spain (including a period of three months in a Franco prison under a sentence of death).

Koestler’s political adulthood witnessed his own movement from Communist journalist and activist in Berlin in the 1930s to a committed anti-Communist in the 1950s. And his anti-Communism derived from his own honest willingness to confront the terrible truths of Stalinism — Comintern’s betrayal of the Spanish republicans, the Moscow show trials, the deliberate policy of famine as a tool of social war, and the repression and brutality of the Soviet state against its own citizens.

The book provides absorbing, valuable reading. And it offers deep lessons for us today — about politics, about personal integrity, about the relationship between individuals and the state, and about the terrible power that ideology has wielded over humanity.

What Koestler learned from his part of the twentieth century, and was able to express so evocatively in his writings, was a series of brutal facts about power: the power of a fascist state to destroy all organizations that might challenge its grip on society, the power of propaganda to conceal and falsify evident social realities, and the power of ideology to blind intellectuals to the meaning of the events unfolding around them. Lies and coercion were the central realities of the state and the party — both in Germany and in the Soviet Union.

Koestler describes the central paradox of the Moscow show trials in these terms:

To the western mind, unacquainted with the system and the rules, the confessions in the Trials appeared as one of the great enigmas of our time. Why had the Old Bolsheviks, heroes and leaders of the revolution, who had so often braved death that they called themselves ‘dead men on furlough’, confessed to these absurd and hair-raising lies? If one discounted those who were merely trying to save their necks, like Radek; and those who were mentally broken like Zinoviev; or trying to shield their families like Kameniev, who was said to be particularly devoted to his son–then there still remained a hard core of men like Bukharin, Piatakov, Mrachkovsky, Smirnov, and at least a score of other with a revolutionary past of thirty, forty years behind them, the veterans of Czarist prisons and Siberian exile, whose total and gleeful self-abasement remained inexplicable. It was this ‘hard core’ that Rubashov was meant to represent.

Here is a final, amazing twentieth century irony. The lead prosecutor in the Moscow show trials (1936-38) — the person who established the jurisprudence of coercion, intimidation, and the crushing subordination of the individual to the overwhelming power of the state, was Andrei Vyshinsky. It was he who stage-managed the shameful miscarriage of justice that led to the executions of Zinoviev, Bukharin, Kamenev, and other leading Bolsheviks. And it was the very same Andrei Vyshinsky who was the Soviet Union’s chief delegate in 1949 in the drafting of … the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here, surely, we find a person with a fine understanding of human rights.