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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"He Says That's Not What He Meant": Not a Knock-down Argument

Many people have claimed that Hayek's The Road to Serfdom states that a single step towards the welfare state will initiate a near-inevitable slide into full-blown socialism. Others have argued that Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions makes the case for total relativism amongst scientific theories. (These are just two examples that happened to pop into my mind this morning; I'm sure you can come up with others.)

In response, people -- and I confess I have been one of those people! -- often trot out what they feel to be a crushing reply: but later, Hayek / Kuhn himself very explicitly declares that that is not what he meant! After all, who should know better than the author himself what a book means?

But this is not the decisive blow people who use it think it is. Why? Well, the text is an historical act, and determining its meaning is an act of historical understanding. In such work, we do not simply take an actor's word for what he/she did or what it meant that he/she did it. That word is a piece of evidence as to what happened and/or what it meant, but no more than that. Specifically, in terms of deciding what a text really means, the author might:

1) Simply be lying in attempt to ward off embarrassment (or a lawsuit, or a trial for crimes against the state, etc.). So, in 1970 an author writes that "Capitalism will lead the world to run out of resources by 1990, resulting in mass starvation and the breakdown of industrial civilization." Now, when 1990 comes around and this hasn't happened, it is hugely tempting for the author to explain why, if you read carefully, "will lead" really meant "might lead, given certain contingencies."

2) Something similar to 1) may occur, but subconsciously, rather than intentionally. We can easily fool ourselves, and revise our own memories to put our past actions in a more flattering light. This can happen as easily with a book as with a gaffe at a party.

3) The author may simply have not written what he meant to write. A simple example: a journalist writes "Barack Obama is clearly guilty of forging his birth certificate." This leads Obama to lose the upcoming election. The journalist is blamed by fellow Democrats, but he protests, "That's not what I meant! It was a simple typo that left out the word 'not'!"

Well, he may be perfectly honest in saying that, but no matter; the proper response is, "That may be what you intended to write, but it is not what you wrote, and we poor non-mind-readers can only interpret what you actually wrote."

The author, like anyone else commenting on a text after it has appeared, if he wants to convince the historically minded of what the text actually meant, must point to historical evidence: first of all, the text itself. His statement about his frame of mind while the text was being composed can certainly be taken into account as a piece of evidence, but only as a piece, not as the final word.

None of this is to say that, in the specific cases of Hayek and Kuhn or any other author, their later interpretations of their earlier work are incorrect, only that they must get in line with other interpreters, and are not entitled to use a chit of authorship to cut to the front of the queue.

UPDATE: As Daniel KuEhn points out, I've been typing his name a lot lately, Thomas Kuhn's not so muc, and what do you know -- I made Thomas Daniel's uncle or something. Corrected.

9 comments:

  1. Good post, and I have done the same thing myself. E.g. "Gene, Rothbard specifically deals with that objection, man you're an idiot." (In that case, I still think I was right; i.e. I think Rothbard adequately handled the objection.)

    Krugman recently did this when he was quoting Keynes who said the General Theory was "mildly conservative" or something like that; Krugman then acted as if this alone proved Republican critics of Keynesianism were clearly paranoid.

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  2. First - I'm flattered by the typo in the second sentence!

    Of course, the people accusing Hayek, Kuhn, or others of these things may be equally guilty of your #2 and #3 (the text might have said something different from what you intended to read in it!).

    When I read Kuhn I read his second edition with the extended defense from his critics at the end. It's a good thing he put it at the end too - that way I got to read it AFTER the text itself. The postscript was interesting and well written of course, but it struck me as highly redundant. When I read the postscript my response was "well of course that's what you said the first time - what kind of dummy ever read you as saying anything else??"

    It was only slowly that I found out that there were all sorts of dummies out there that read that.

    We come to texts with our own priors. Anyone not predisposed to an acceptance of subjectivism, pragmatism, and constructionism might indeed read relativism into it.

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    1. "Of course, the people accusing Hayek, Kuhn, or others of these things may be equally guilty of your #2 and #3..."

      Yes, quite right.

      Delete
  3. While you're quite right, I doubt anyone ever really thought otherwise. No argument is decisive, because we can always imagine some way that it might be wrong, however far-fetched the possibility.

    Of course, Hayek or Kuhn might be wrong about their old work and ideas, but merely listing the possibilities of how an argument might, conceivably, be wrong, should not be mistaken for a criticism of that argument.

    That Hayek and Kuhn both rejected popular interpretations of their work is a strong criticism of the view that either once shared those popular interpretation. Normally, it would take one heck of a counter-argument, one that can undermine usually uncontroversial background assumptions, to convince anyone otherwise.

    In practice, these arguments really are decisive most of the time. Perhaps they even ought to be. If a 'decisive argument' is one that carries the weight of logical necessity, then few, if any, arguments are decisive (after all, people are often mistaken about what they think is a logical necessity).

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    1. "Of course, Hayek or Kuhn might be wrong about their old work and ideas, but merely listing the possibilities of how an argument might, conceivably, be wrong, should not be mistaken for a criticism of that argument."

      Well, yes, but... was someone so mistaking it?

      "That Hayek and Kuhn both rejected popular interpretations of their work is a strong criticism of the view that either once shared those popular interpretation."

      Not particularly strong, for the reasons I mentioned.

      "In practice, these arguments really are decisive most of the time."

      Only for those who aren't thinking of the above points!

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  4. FYI here's ". . . an excerpt from Ian Hacking's introduction to the new edition of Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which commemorates the book's 50th anniversary. To be published by University of Chicago Press at the end of this month . . . .":

    http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type=&id=564&fulltext=1&media=

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  5. I suspect that most of us have done that at one time or another.

    We said X.

    X turned out to be wrong and in retrospect obviously and badly wrong.

    If we admit that we MEANT X, then we were obviously and badly wrong.

    If we claim that we didn't mean X, then we momentarily lost our grip on language.

    We'd rather be momentarily wrong with our language than permanently wrong, in archived glory, on whatever it was we were holding ourselves out as experts on.

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  6. The other thing is that for academics there's not a real penalty for being outrageous, so if they really thought the things their critics accused them of, why wouldn't they have said it as bluntly as their critics did the first time?

    It's not like relativism (for Kuhn) or socialist alarmism (for Hayek) wasn't in the air already. Why would blunt statements of relativism or alarmism be so hard to find in the original work? If that's really what they were saying, wouldn't they have just said it?

    The fact that the critics have to argue that they said it and can't point to an obvious example of them saying it seems like a critical point to me.

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  7. I haven't read "The Road to Serfdom", but I have read excerpts which explicitly endorse a welfare state, which I believe were in the original edition. However, we could still say the book was falsified since he was targeting the central planning of the post-war U.K, which didn't end in totalitarianism. I've heard that in some interview he credited his own work with the avoidance of the disaster he warned about, but my memory is too vague to be conclusive.

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