After Postmodernism: Epistemological Ecosystems

The economy is an epistemological ecosystem. It is not the only one, but the kind of knowledge created through the unimpeded price system makes it a very efficient and effective one. Some epistemological ecosystems–such as art, literature, philanthropy, philosophy, and others–suffer from the ambiguities inherent in reputation as the primary medium of value-exchange. Science works better than these with its peer review, but is still not quite as efficient and effective as is money-mediated trade. Technological innovation participates in the economy precisely because its winners and losers are chosen through the price mechanism. That fact also makes technological innovation effective, efficient, and wealth-producing.

All of these are knowledge-producing activities. To refuse to trade therefore means one is purposefully trying to remain ignorant, and to make sure that others too remain ignorant. Reducing trade–whether through trade barriers, wage and/or price controls, taxes, and so on–increases ignorance. We cannot know what would be the best use of raw materials, capital, capital goods, or human capital any time prices are distorted. Price distortions not only include the list above, but also include subsidies, regulations, and monetary inflation/deflation (real inflation/deflation, on the other hand, communicated information more accurately).

Insofar as postmodernism is a kind of radically skeptical epistemology, denying the existence of an objective reality (or at least an objective social reality), insisting that all knowledge is merely constructed and can therefore be deconstructed, denying any sort of human nature, and therefore that knowledge itself is impossible, we can see that postmodernism is an active denial of the very existence of epistemological ecosystems. It is not that it’s not true that there is an element of knowledge-production (or else how could one even have an epistemological ecosystem), but rather that for there to be an ecosystem of any sort, there has to be foundational organisms to interact with each other and co-evolve. The ecological equivalent would be for postmodernists to deny the existence of organisms or species because there is evolution.

If knowledge-production is in one sense impossible, and in another sense nothing but imposition of power/power-relations (another postmodern claim), then any sort of structure is as valid as any other sort of structure. What matters, if knowledge is nothing more than the imposition of the powerful on the non-powerful, is who has power. We can begin to understand pretty much every postmodernist position from that perspective.

If free markets are simply ways business people create power relations that benefit themselves at the expense of others, and business people are bad (for some reason or other that seems to involve “greed”–never mind that postmodernists are also supposed to be radically skeptical of moral “facts” as well, meaning we could just say “greed is good” and accept that for just as much or little reason as anything else), then we need a system that benefits some other group of people instead. The most popular are the victim classes–which seems to somehow include something like 90% of the world’s population–as those who somehow properly deserve the reins of power. It all thus becomes a bunch of arbitrary choices being made by self-appointed secular saints who are all somehow right-thinking, even though if they were consistent with their own postmodern epistemology, there could not be any such thing as right-thinking.

If knowledge truly were power, I’d be President now and not Donald Trump. Those who hold power in our governments around the world are the surest falsification of postmodern epistemology possible. But postmodernism means never having to say you’re wrong.

The understanding that there are in fact epistemological ecosystems helps us retain the insights of postmodernism while evolving well beyond their nihilistic conclusions. It’s not a choice between structuralism and poststructualism, but both simultaneously. It’s not a choice between The Truth and radical skepticism, but rather truth as a strange attractor, with truth statements coming closer or moving a bit away, but always circling, circling–and often generating more truth attractors. This is how all ecosystems–natural or epistemological–exist over space and time. Yes, we create knowledge, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge we create isn’t true. Yes, there is socially constructed knowledge–which makes that knowledge useful rather than denying its existence–but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts in the world which we must live with, by, in, and through.

What comes after postmodernism? It’s already been around for a while. Epistemological ecosystems is what comes after postmodernism. Given that people like Hayek and Michael Polanyi developed this idea, it’s a bit ironic that the postmodernists were already behind the times when they came up with their ideas, since their replacement was already being developed before they even came on the scene.

Suggested Reading:

Michael Polanyi:

Personal Knowledge

The Art of Knowing

Knowing and Being

Meaning

The Tacit Dimension

The Logic of Liberty

F. A. Hayek:

Individualism and Economic Order

Law, Liberty, and Legislation

The Fatal Conceit

It’s the Small Things

David McElroy has an interesting piece in which he laments the decline of general competence. As he points out, we are seeing this more and more. Being concerned about people misspelling words may seem a bit much, but what happens when even highly educated people are often misspelling words? What happens when school teachers and administrators misspell words or make errors such as using “could of”?

While there is a degree of carelessness and, worse, not caring, there is also a strong degree of miseducation and, even worse again, false confidence. Everyone thinks they can write and don’t need an editor. Except that, no one can write and literally everyone needs an editor–especially if you’re a regular writer (it’s simple math: the more you write, the more errors you’ll make; it’s also psychological: the more you write, the more confident you are, and the less likely you are to catch your own errors). Excellence matters, and it is precisely excellence which it being put aside throughout our culture.

The biggest problem is precisely the problem of false confidence. And it extends well beyond writing. While I have had former students insist they were good writers because their teachers loved their writing and told them they were good (I always told those students they should go back and sue those teachers), we see people insisting on competence in teaching when they have only graduated a year ago, we see people insisting they know how to fix the economy when they haven’t had a single course on economics, and we see people having opinions about cosmology and biology when they don’t know the first thing about either. In the U.S., math competency is among the lowest in the developed world, and math confidence is the highest.

But these are hardly the only small things. Etiquette is long gone. And so are manners. People are rude, they won’t hold open doors for you, they consider everyone an inconvenience–one could go one an done (and I invite you to include examples in the comments). It seems a small thing, but etiquette is the foundation of ethics. They show what kind of character you have. If morals are the rules that help us live together in social groups, then etiquette is the foundation of morals. Every time you’re rude or call someone a name or bully someone because of their world view, politics, religion, lifestyle, whatever else you want to think of that makes people different from you, then you are acting unethically. Each violation of etiquette is a violation of ethics.

So I think David McElroy is on to something in his pointing out the little things. The little things are the foundations of the big things. Chip away at a dam long enough, and it will break and release the flood waters.

Government and Power Laws

The United States government was created out of a brilliant compromise. The founders took advantage of factions in and among the states, and used them to create a (mostly)  stable, peaceful system. The small states were concerned that the larger states, with larger populations, would take advantage of the smaller states –- so a Senate was created, wherein minorities had complete equality with majorities. The larger states, however, justly thought that majorities should rule in a democracy –- so a House of Representatives that represented population percentages was created. The electoral college –- a brilliant development that is poorly understood or appreciated –- was created to ensure that, with the election of Senators, the states would be the ones represented (we made a grave error in allowing for the direct election of Senators in the early part of the 20th Century, as it made the Federal government less federal, and more national), and with the election of the President, the smaller states would again be more fairly represented. The tenth amendment to the Constitution also made it clear that any powers not given explicitly to the federal government by the Constitution would fall to the states and to the individual citizens, respectively.

The government of the United States was further divided up among the states, which were to have more effect on the lives of the citizens than the federal government. The benefit of having stronger state governments was that each state could set up its own rules, and the citizens of that state could then choose to live in the state that most suited them. The states were further divided up into counties, and into town and city governments. There was a hierarchy of political power, with those governments closest to the people having the most power, and those farthest away having the least. Those with the most power would be the individuals, and whatever organizations they volunteered to join. The founding fathers of the United States stumbled upon the concept of power laws centuries before they were formulated in contemporary chaos theory.

What are power laws? Imagine that you are piling up sand one grain at a time. With the addition of each grain, there will be some stability, but quite often there will be avalanches. The vast majority of avalanches will be small ones –- one-grain avalanches. Many will be just a few grains. There will be fewer small avalanches, fewer still medium-sized avalanches, and only very rarely will there be very large ones, with an entire side of the sand pile collapsing.

As it turns out, there are many things which obey power laws –- all of them systems of some sort. Extinctions follow power laws –- there are many single-species extinctions, a few extinctions that take out several interrelated species, fewer that take out many species, and the rarest of all: mass extinctions. The same is true if we look at the economy. We have many small businesses, fewer medium-sized businesses, and fewest megacorporations. The lifetimes of corporations in an economy also follow power laws: many last only a short time, some last decades, very few last generations.

The United States government too was set up to follow power laws. The individuals have the most power, and have the most effect on their own lives; families too have power, but less overall than individuals (though they affect the place and position of those individuals); voluntary organizations, such as churches, have less power and effect; city governments have less still; county governments even less; state governments less than even county governments; and finally, the federal government was designed to have the least effect of all, with the Senate and the House of Representatives designed to be fighting all the time with each other, so they could not get much done (during the Presidency of George W. Bush, they were getting along altogether too well –- though we got a glimpse of the founders’ intentions when Presidents Clinton and Obama had to govern with a Republican Congress, during which time, very little was accomplished, and we also incidentally had some of the strongest economic growth in American history).

So it seems the government of the United States of America was set up according to the laws that govern nature –- particularly the growth of complex systems in nature. That is the very reason of its success. So why is it that, when the United States goes about helping countries set up new governments, that we do not encourage them to have a system similar to our own government?

Take the situation in Iraq. And let’s ignore for a moment whether or not the U.S. should have been there or engaged in nation-building in the first place. Given that nation-building was going to take place, it could have been a perfect place for an American-style government. There are several factions we wanted to get along. These sections –- the Kurds, the Arab Sunnis, and the Shi’ites –- could have been  divided up into equal sections –- perhaps five each. These would then be different-sized states, which could elect two senators each. That way they would have thirty senators, and each of the groups would have equal representation, without any group having more power than the other. The minorities would be protected. However, we don’t want a tyranny of the minority any more than we want a tyranny of the majority (the danger inherent in true democracies). So those states would also be subdivided according to population –- so that there would be a House of Representatives. This would allow for majority representation. Thus, there would be two houses of Congress, designed to protect the majority from the minority, and the minority from the majority. If we did this, we could have an executive branch similar to ours, wherein the President has very little actual power, and also a strong judicial branch to balance them all out. Further, each group would also get autonomy within their states, which should have more power overall than the federal government.

The key is to take advantage of the factions in the country, so that they work together to make the country safe and strong. And each state could set itself up slightly differently from the other states. Shi’ites who wanted stronger religious influence on them from government could live in the state that set itself up that way. Shi’ites who were more liberal, could live in the more liberal state. And the Sunnis and the Shi’ites could live in peace, separately together, as would the Arabs and the Kurds. This system would have worked best precisely because it takes advantage of factions. Parliamentary systems rely too much on coalition-building, and as such cannot work as well in a situation such as we find in Iraq. As we have mostly discovered.

There is another place that could take advantage of such a form of government, and it is Afghanistan. In fact, in any country in the world where there are battling factions, this form of government would work best. It would work best because it is precisely the form of government that most accurately matches the way the world itself works, the way nature solves internal tensions — according to power laws. Thus, it is in fact the most natural form of government. So why do we not encourage other governments to set up governments similar to ours? Perhaps we have been reading too many philosophers in the Franco-German tradition, and have forgotten about the Scottish philosophers, who our founding fathers were reading.

We should be reading less Marx, Heidegger, and Derrida, and reading more Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith. The former seek to make everyone the same; the latter realize we are not all the same, and seek to take advantage of that to create better forms of government. The former think if we can just get everyone to love one another in brotherhood, everything will be fine; the latter realize you can’t get everyone to love one another, but you can set up a system wherein those factions learn to get along, because it is to the advantage of each individual to do so. And now we not only have Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith, but we also have the new science of chaos theory and power laws to back them up.

The U.S. has weakened as it has moved away from the natural system set up by our founding fathers. Power has centralized more and more in Washington — and this was aided in no small part by the direct election of Senators (which distributed power down from the states). It is no coincidence that as power was distributed down that it was also distributed up, creating an increasingly dualistic form of government rather than a complex one. This dualism has resulted in an increasingly dualistic politics, with ever-deepening divisions — not of ideology, but simply of tribal loyalties, since there is practically no difference between Republicans and Democrats in what they actually do when in power. This is deeply destabilizing. And we are starting to reap the consequences.

Illiberal Education in Our Universities

The people complaining about the illiberal tactics of the postmodern opponents of learning anything at all about Western civilization are no longer just the conservatives. Some on the left are finally joining in. It turns out left-wing professors who happen to think there is in fact something valuable to be learned from Western ideas, art, and literature don’t like having their voices excluded, either. As well they shouldn’t.

Postmodernism has been fundamentally illiberal from the beginning. It is, after all, a synthesis of two illiberal ideologies: Marxism and fascism. It fuses Marxists like Marcuse and the Marxist Frankfurt School with the Nazi philosopher Heidegger and those he influenced. We should thus not be surprised that the end-result of postmodern ideology (vs. postmodern ideas, some of which are in fact valid) are illiberal attempts to shut down speakers with whom one doesn’t agree and opposing freedom of speech.

Worse, many go so far as to say that speech is violence. The problem of course is that equating speech and violence makes real violence acceptable. If someone is violent against you, you can defend yourself with defensive violence or get the police to engage in retaliatory violence on your behalf. In other words, equating speech with violence justifies attacking people just for speaking, or sending the police in to shoot them because you disagree with what that person has to say. This is the very foundation of dictatorship.

Our universities are guilty of creating citizens ready for dictatorship—not just ready, but demanding such actions from the administrations of the universities and, eventually, of the government itself. It’s a long, complex history, but it may not surprise people to learn that its roots, like Marxism and National Socialism, are to be found in Germany. The U.S. has adopted German/Prussian educational structures, and those structures are the roots of many of  our problems. Institutions matter, and if we’re going to change our culture to overcome the problems beginning to arise in our, we’re going to have to change many of those institutions. Our education, k-12 and the university system, is at the core of what needs to fundamentally change.

If there’s any good news, it’s that many more outlets and ideologies are fighting against the rise of postmodern illiberalism and recognizing the poison that is postmodern ideology on our campuses. But I promise you, the fight has just begun. And unfortunately, there are other illiberal elements arising to fight postmodern leftism. The alt.right, for example, is proof that the enemy of your enemy can definitely be your enemy. Fighting fire with fire will burn the entire forest down.

The Ruiners of Mankind

“all the means by which one has so far attempted to make mankind moral were through and through immoral.” — Nietzsche, TI

In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche warned us against the “improvers of mankind,” that such people never in fact sought to improve a thing, but rather sought to weaken mankind. Why weaken mankind? Because, fundamentally, the “improvers of mankind” hate all of mankind. If they didn’t why would they want to “improve” us?

The racists on the Right want to “improve” us through breeding. They imagine that it is their race which is the superior one which ought to be selected for, but if we are to be honest, this is really an argument for incest, ultimately. The Hapsburgs thought themselves too elite to marry outside their own family–the result being disfigurement and genetic disease. Purebred dogs are much more prone to health issues, while mutts are typically healthier and better-tempered. Those who would prefer one group of humans to another think mankind would be thus improved by breeding more of the preferred group over the unpreferred group(s)—if you think this in any way, shape, or form, you’re a racist (whether you’re on the Left or Right).

The postmodern multiculturalist Leftist version is the position that European culture is the bane of the world, and it needs to be completely destroyed in favor literally all other cultures. Of course, inverting the Right-wing racist position isn’t any sort of actual improvement on anything, since it’s really the same thing. Declaring one race superior to another, regardless of what race is considered inferior, is racist, just like declaring men superior to women or women superior to men is sexist.

Indeed, if you would “improve” women by making them more like men, you are sexist. And if you would “improve” men by making them more like women, you are sexist. Do you want to “improve” homosexuals by making them heterosexual? You’re homophobic.

But do we then need people to “improve” the racists, sexists, and homophobes? Those improvers—those who would impose such improvement on everyone—are little better in their bigotry against people as they are. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to improve mankind? Absolutely. Does that mean mankind cannot improve? Absolutely not. While those who tried to push acceptance of homosexuality primarily put homophobes on the defensive and retrenched their positions, T.V. shows like Ellen and Will & Grace actually caused people’s minds to change and, as a result, the American culture to change. Attempts at shaming people failed and backfired, while artistic representations, fun and entertaining popular stories, succeeded.

We do not need improvers of mankind. We do not need socialists, we do not need fascists, we do not need racists, and we do not need sexists out there trying to improve us. They each and every one want to reform us, improve us, change us because they hate us—they hate human beings as such, qua human beings. They hate human beings for being human. Why should we listen to such people? Would you take advice from someone who hated you?

Should Art Be About Beauty, or Identity?

Sohrab Ahmari has a piece in the Wall Street Journal Titled “Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful?” that addresses the current situation in art–I would even go so far as to call it a crisis in art. Ahmari actually only hints at what is going on in contemporary art in the West when he first discusses the role the oppressive regime of Iran played in what was allowed to be portrayed in art and then discusses the high degree to which contemporary art only ever deals with identity politics.

Abmari is suggesting a connection between totalitarian thinking and the current avant-garde obsession with identity politics. Totalitarian regimes, especially theocracies, tend to demand the art being produced reflect the identity of that regime–and only that regime. The same is true of identity politics-driven avant-garde art in the West. The difference is that in the West the artists have voluntarily chosen within the artistic orders to accept a fundamentally totalitarian world view and impose it on themselves. Totday’s totalitarians are much more clever than the old-school totalitarians: they have managed to figure out how to get people to impose it on themselves.

Ahmari isn’t the only one to note this. I reviewed a book, After the Avant-Gardes, where this connection between totalitarian thinking and the avant-garde is also investigated. This mentality goes beyond my observation that the avant-garde is very much “normal art” now and isn’t remotely avant-garde–if the “avant-garde” is indeed supposed to be what is out ahead of everything else. It’s not, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Worse, the avant-garde is thoroughly institutionalized in our universities, and even receives the overwhelming amount of government art funds. If avant-garde art is in fact founded in a totalitarian mindset, we should not be surprised to find it supported by the government.

Art is supposed to be about beauty. It can even be a critique of current standards of beauty within the art world, but it is supposed to be about beauty. Beauty expands our worlds and our world views; identity politics restricts them and tribalizes us. The ugly identity politics of the left has now been matched with the uglier identity politics of the alt.right–and it seems a very unfortunate arms-race is in the works, with tribalist attitudes being met with even more tribalist attitudes. This is the inevitable result of identity politics of any sort.

Does art reflect the world or does the world reflect art? Inevitably, the answer to that question is, “yes.” There is a degree to which our art has been reflecting the world as viewed by the artists, but that art has in turn been affecting the way others view the world. Only the artists can fix things, but that will mean a complete wiping away of the current dominant paradigm in the arts. The solution is to return art to beauty, not to answer identity politics with more identity politics.