The dangers of dialectic

post by PhilGoetz · 2014-08-05T20:02:25.531Z · score: 11 (18 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 12 comments

I'm reading The Last Intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe by Russell Jacoby (1987). It contains many interesting and important observations and insights, but also much stupidity. By the last chapter, I was as interested in the question of how a person can be so smart and stupid at the same time as in the author's actual arguments.

Jacoby's thesis is that Intellectuals (I capitalize to denote a definition with scope local to the book) are socially-engaged intellectuals who stand outside institutions, culture, and class to critique society and call for change. Their natural habitat is the coffee shops of Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and New York City, where they lived lives of social activism fueled by coffee, cigarettes, sex, poetry, and perhaps resentment. The species has gone extinct, driven out of urban areas by crime, high rent, and (literally) automobiles, and having been co-opted by the academic establishment. Academia provides would-be Intellectuals with a paycheck and possibly tenure, in exchange for their disengaging from politics and instead making only harmless, jargon-laden theoretical arguments readable only by other specialists. Jacoby documents that the generation of leftists since 1960 have retreated into purely academic arguments and politics; for instance, from 1959-1969, "the three leading political science journals published but one article on Vietnam".

The stupidity arises when he goes into detail about good guys versus bad guys. He blames all of the following for the decline of intellectualism:

Every person and every idea at play must be either for him or against him. He can never quite acknowledge the existence of conservative intellectuals, though he admits there are smart conservatives who have learned and activist journals; his vocabulary does not admit terms that don't have a single position on the conservative-leftist axis. "Intellectual" is a synonym for "leftist", which is a synonym for "Marxist". Everything that is not Marxist is another insidious force suppressing intellectuals.

Yes, even quantitative science. The craziness is at its peak when he spends pages bemoaning the new emphasis economic journals place on data and mathematics. This he opposes to the older generation who "still confront the economic reality lucidly". He cites a study that was aghast to find that, of 159 papers in The American Economic Review from 1981-1983, "only 6 used words alone," and says, "The obsessive use of statistics, diagrams, and 'explicit simulation' has damaged the field." I'm more shocked that the AER published 6 "economics" papers with no numbers. How, exactly, do you do economics without numbers?

Like Marx did, I suppose. Jacoby is a Marxist. I don't know what that term means anymore, but it does seem to still include adherence to a materialist historical dialectic. That means that social structures are the outcomes of conflict from two opposing views.

(Brief digression to justify applying Marxist dialectic to ideas: Hegelian dialectic took two opposing ideas and resolved them via synthesis. Marx said that Hegel was wrong in imagining dialectics applied to ideas, but that it applied to history and social structures instead, and that he had therefore "turned Hegel on his head". But since the ideas that Marxists discuss are all about social structures, there is a one-to-one mapping between social forces and ideas in their discussions. So they've had to turn Hegel over again, and think of ideas as being in dialectical opposition. I am still confused about the "synthesis" part, which Marx seems to have global-find-and-replaced with "violent annihilation of the older".)

Marxism claims that the proper way of thinking about problems is to realize that forces are relevant only if they are aligned with one of two opposing viewpoints. It deliberately trains people to collapse their analysis of every problem into a single dimension. The rise of grants, and of quantitative economics, are significant developments during the same time period Jacoby is analyzing; therefore, they must take positions on the conservative-leftist axis.

In short, dialectics tacitly prescribes mandatory use of one of humanity's major irrational biases.

Once he's identified every major change over a time period, and assigned each to either the conservative or the leftist side, his analysis is done! Because he has an explicit ideology that says that change is caused by conflict between two opposing and incompatible forces. There is no point looking for compromises or technological solutions. There is no way forward but for one of these forces to overcome the other. At that point the job of the Intellectual can only be as a cheerleader, to motivate everyone on his side to push harder. And this is really what Jacoby is bemoaning in this book: that intellectuals are not doing enough cheerleading anymore.


(Question: Should I post this to Main? Should I make certain changes before posting to Main?)


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2014-08-06T02:05:03.895Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Should I post this to Main? Should I make certain changes before posting to Main?

I don't see why a book review about a topic that isn't directly related to rationality should be posted to Main.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-08-06T03:42:45.342Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is not a book review. It's a post about dialectics, which is a formulation of rationality that was until recently the only allowed model of rationality in something like half of the Western world.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-08-06T08:33:47.171Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It's a post about dialectics based on review of one book. Maybe the lessons from that book apply to all dialectics, maybe they don't. You generalize from one example (or maybe two: Jacoby and Marx). Also, I have no idea how much this Jacoby guy is important (representative) or not; I think I have never heard about him before.

Although I agree with what you wrote, it is a political article, so there is an extra high burden of proof, which you don't provide. (I agree with you because of the opinions I already have, not because your article is so convincing.) I wouldn't want to see more political articles on LW based on this amount of data, or this kind of reasoning. I'd say it's okay-ish for Discussion (you did good work and explained some things), but not for Main.

The main argument against is protecting a Shelling point: I don't want to see people trying to use Main to defend their political ideas or to attack the opponents. And we already know that politics makes people stupid, so that fact that it made Jacoby stupid is not so educating.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-08-06T12:29:24.197Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

...[dialectics was] a formulation of rationality that was until recently the only allowed model of rationality in something like half of the Western world.

Surely this is a joke. Please, let this be a joke.

comment by H. Skip Robinson (h-skip-robinson) · 2019-01-22T15:57:51.656Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It is a fact that much of academia and the mainstream media has been affected by very powerful special interests for a very long time that promote gatekeeping, as economist and Professor Thomas Di Lorenzo writes about in his book Lincoln Unmasked. He devotes a couple of chapters on it that is well referenced and very interesting as he goes through what historians tried to conceal versus the material facts.

If you haven't read this book, you are missing some really interesting facts and observations.

We like to think as a society we're better than everyone else and thus in situations like the civil war, we the Union was 100% correct and righteous in their ambitions and results. Obviously there is little truth in war other than some people win, usually the more wealthy and some people lose, usually everyone else, especially young males.

Thus, It's not a joke.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-08-05T23:47:50.104Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I am still confused about the "synthesis" part, which Marx seems to have global-find-and-replaced with "violent annihilation of the older".

I've suspected for a while that "synthesis" is a bad word for the Hegelian/Marxist idea and that the concept is better approximated by something along the lines of "supersession", or "dissolution" to put it in LW-ese: the establishment of a new framework that renders the previous dichotomy irrelevant. This can involve combining dichotomous elements but doesn't have to.

In the context of the 1800s politics that Marx would have been familiar with, it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that this would necessarily involve people getting shot at.

comment by H. Skip Robinson (h-skip-robinson) · 2019-01-22T16:16:07.115Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Many assume Marx was intellectually honest when it doesn't appear he was. He gave us the means to destroy our societies, but he did not give us a workable or foundational rule of law or bill of rights in which to hang our civility on to reestablish or rebuild it.

He gave up 10 planks in The Communist Manifesto which has worked at destroying any assemblance of, prosperity, liberty and justice in any society, but then leaves us hanging.

Like I say to many Marxists, give me some operational rules like our Constitution tried to do and tell me when we should give up a right for the common good, as the Bill of Rights tried to do and then we can talk.

As someone I once read wrote "communism is the social method through laws, for the ruling class to steal the wealth of a nation." and Marx gave them the outline. The question is, was Marx a Zionist of not?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-08-06T03:46:52.971Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hegel did use synthesis. I think the go-to reference is his book The Logic of Science, whose title I remember only because I heard a lecturer describe it as being peculiar for a book that contained no discussion of either logic or science. By "logic" he meant his dialectic method, which is not logical (in the sense of having operators with defined outcomes).

comment by [deleted] · 2014-08-06T12:28:36.545Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Hegel did use synthesis.

You're looking for the German word Aufhebung.

I think the go-to reference is his book The Logic of Science, whose title I remember only because I heard a lecturer describe it as being peculiar for a book that contained no discussion of either logic or science.

Har har. Wissenschaft has a broader meaning than science. The book does actually discuss logic, devoting an entire section to the analysis of the various meanings of being.

More cached thoughts for you to clean out.

comment by H. Skip Robinson (h-skip-robinson) · 2019-01-22T16:24:26.922Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The various meanings of being? An entire chapter? Let's logically ty to define the meanings of consciousness while we're at it.

Now if you want to analyze the general differences between men and women using dialecticism which women often use and men, which most do not use, that would be interesting.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-08-11T19:28:40.686Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's worth quoting some of the Wikipedia article on Aufhebung that you link to:

Aufheben or Aufhebung[1] is a German word with several seemingly contradictory meanings, including "to lift up", "to abolish", "cancel" or "suspend", or "to sublate".[2] The term has also been defined as "abolish", "preserve", and "transcend".

No Wonder we're confused.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-08T12:28:01.669Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hegel does quite strange things to language. He wrote in German and any English translation is not going to get everything right.