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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Aristotle and Ideology, II

To continue:

It seems to me that Aristotle was, in fact, responding to the first 'rationalist in politics', Plato, who had initially confused theory and practice, in, for example, the myth of the cave, where the philosopher, because he has mastered theory, is entitled to come back to the masses and dictate practice to them. As Oakeshott commented upon this:

"The cave-dwellers, upon first encountering the theorist after his return to the world of the shadows [very well might be impressed] when he tells them that what they had always thought of as ‘a horse’ is not what they suppose it to be… but is, on the contrary, a modification of the attributes of God [and they will] applaud his performance even where they cannot quite follow it. [The cave-dwellers can appreciate the exotic pronouncements of the theorist, as long as he confines those pronouncements to their genuine field of applicability, ] but if he were to tell them that, in virtue of his more profound understanding of the nature of horses, he is a more expert horse-man, horse-chandler, or stable boy than they (in their ignorance) could ever hope to be, and when it becomes clear that his new learning has lost him the ability to tell one end of a horse from the other… [then] before long the more perceptive of the cave-dwellers [will] begin to suspect that, after all, he [is] not an interesting theorist but a fuddled and pretentious ‘theoretician’ who should be sent on his travels again, or accommodated in a quiet home."

As Aristotle's thought moved away from Plato's, he sought to explore the difference between theoretical and practical wisdom, to clarify where Plato had gone astray. I here quote from an excellent paper by Daniel Deveroux, "Particular and Universal in Aristotle's Conception of Practical Knowledge."

"Practical wisdom, as Aristotle understands it, is analogous not to medicine but to medical skill; it is practical both in aim and in efficacy, and it is self-sufficient in the same way as medical skill: the practically wise person has what he needs to achieve his aims" (1986: 494).

"Matters of health and conduct 'have no fixity,' and therefore it would be futile to attempt to formulate precise statements about how we should act in various situations. One must speak 'in outline' and 'not precisely'" (1986: 494).

"Such statements will at best be useful as rules of thumb; the experienced agent or doctor will be guided not so much by them as by his judgment of what is 'appropriate to the occasion'" (1986: 495).

So, we might define the ideologue this way: He is someone who, lacking in political experience, tries to turn these rules of thumb into hard 'principles' that will provide him with the unambiguous guide to proceeding that his lack of experience has denied him. Thus, contra Geoffrey Allan Plauche, principles, at least as understood by ideologues such as Rand or Rothbard, certainly do not have a place in Aristotelean practical reasoning. The proper role of a statement like "The government ought to respect property rights" is as a rule of thumb; yes, generally, it ought to, but there are clearly other times when to do so would be not practical wisdom but practical idiocy. (See 'Scenario 2' of this post for an example.) And that is just how someone as bright as Rothbard managed to arrive at positions as stupid as his belief that blackmail ought to be legal: by mistaking theory for practice and turning what ought to be seen as rules of thumb into a rigid ideology, he rendered himself incapable of sound practical thought.

10 comments:

  1. There are still a number of problems with your argument:

    1) It is merely argument from authority. I'm an Aristotelian libertarian myself, but Aristotle was not always right.
    2) You have not shown that libertarian principles (Rand's and Rothbard's in particular) are of a kind Aristotle would reject on the grounds of the distinction between theory and practice. You merely make assertions. Where you have attempted to present libertarian arguments in past posts, you have in my opinion consistently done so inaccurately and unfairly.
    3) You are still confusing the relationship between theory and practice for Aristotle. He does not argue that you cannot apply theory to practice. Moral principles for Aristotle are not merely rules of thumb. He does not argue that generally one should be brave, but sometimes one should not. He does not say that generally you should be just, but sometimes not. Etc. Rather, one should always be brave, just, generous, magnanimous, etc. What counts as brave, just, generous, magnanimous, etc., in a specific context depends on a confluence of factors: universal human nature, inborn talents, social context, personal choices, etc. The proper application of moral principles in specific contexts requires prudence, but one cannot truly be prudent without moral principles. As I have written in my dissertation on Aristotelian liberalism: Prudence without the moral virtues is empty, the moral virtues without prudence are blind; but this is not to say that the one could exist without the others and vice versa.

    Thus, you cannot simply point to Aristotle and say that libertarian principles (prohibiting aggression (i.e, the threat or use of initiatory physical force) and upholding private property rights) can only be correct if viewed as general rules of thumb at best.

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  2. Gene, maybe I'm not understanding you well, but it seems to me you are saying that all theoretical knowledge should be taken as "rules of thumb" and thus the person should use his experience to decide when to apply them and when not to.

    I read you article in The Freeman on the subject, and my conclusions were that there is a kind of knowledge that escapes theory. The way I see it, this is because knowledge of this kind can't be represented outside the human mind (at least at the present technological state). For example: Roger Federer may write a book about how to play tennis, but this won't enable other people to play like him just because they have read the book (this is related to your cook example in the article). This kind of knowledge is what we could call "practical knowledge" and is, I think, the reason why computers can't be as intelligent as human's yet. It's related to the ability to make qualitative judgements. Federer may give rules of thumb, such as "In a situation like this, it's generally best to do that". But what distinguishes him from others and makes him the best player in the world is his ability to decide when not to apply the rule of thumb.

    But not all theoretical knowledge is of the "rule of thumb" kind. A book about mathematical theory will contain theoretical knowledge which is not of the rule of thumb kind, and so will a book about physics (I would call only that kind of knowledge "scientific knowledge"). A book about how to solve mathematical problems will contain theoretical knowledge of the rule of thumb kind ("heuristic knowledge", one could say).

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  3. "It is merely argument from authority. I'm an Aristotelian libertarian myself, but Aristotle was not always right."

    If I was saying this was right BECAUSE Aristotle said this, you would have a point.

    "You have not shown that libertarian principles (Rand's and Rothbard's in particular) are of a kind Aristotle would reject on the grounds of the distinction between theory and practice. You merely make assertions."

    I think I have -- e.g., the point about blackmail. You are merely asserting I have not. (In any case, I have a large section of my dissertation discussing this stuff, and these are just blog posts -- sorry, I'm not going into the same depth here.)

    "Moral principles for Aristotle are not merely rules of thumb. He does not argue that generally one should be brave, but sometimes one should not. He does not say that generally you should be just, but sometimes not."

    I referenced Deveroux -- read the paper. He handles all of this. I'm not going to rewrite his whole paper here for people who can't bother to read it.

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  4. 'Gene, maybe I'm not understanding you well, but it seems to me you are saying that all theoretical knowledge should be taken as "rules of thumb" ...'

    No, theoretical knowledge, when applied to practice, only generates rules of thumb, or rules so vague as to be of little use in making a concrete decision (e.g., "be just," "be brave," etc.).

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  5. "You are still confusing the relationship between theory and practice for Aristotle."

    Yeah, well, Geoffrey, on my side, saying I'm not confusing it, I've got Oakeshott, MacIntyre, and Deveroux. So maybe you're confusing it, hey?

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  6. Thinking about your condescending remark, "You are still confusing the relationship between theory and practice for Aristotle."

    I had been working on my dissertation on Oakeshott for some time when two different political philosophers each told me, "You really have to look at Aristotle -- he says basically the same thing as Oakeshott." So I read the Nicomachean Ethics and the basis for "Rationalism in Politics" is all right there. Then I look in MacIntyre and find he agrees with me. And I start looking at his references, and find Devereux makes the case even stronger than I would have. So this is not some novel interpretation I just cooked up.

    So you'd think you might write something like, "Well, Gene, I disagree with your interpretation of Aristotle" -- but no, I'm confused.

    Well, I suppose this is what it takes to sustain an ideology -- putting one's fingers in one's ears and singing whenever threatened with hearing something that might shatter that fragile structure.

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  7. "What MacIntyre is ultimate objecting to is the prohibition on violence and other forms of initiatory force. Is this the sort of community tradition he has it in mind to preserve? Perhaps he will reply that if communities are not allowed to enforce their traditions by aggression or the threat thereof, then they will not last in the face of competition. If this is the case, however, then they must not have been as valuable to those who abandoned them for alternatives. Who is MacIntyre, or anyone else who wants to preserve a particular community or tradition, to coerce others into conforming?"

    Wow! Talk about confusion! Talk about totally missing what a thinker is saying! Incredible.

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  8. And, wonderfully, the above paragraph is an example of the exact circular argument that Geoffrey says libertarians aren't guilty of using!

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  9. Ok, now I would be thrilled to read the comments you respond to, but there is only Plauche, pedro, then six from you. What is with Blogger?

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  10. I just respond repeatedly to the same comments, cause I gots so much to say!

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