Home > Uncategorized > What do Durer and Soros have in common?

What do Durer and Soros have in common?

from Peter Radford

I know, this is one of those more philosophical moments.  In my case prompted by my continued meditation on the deleterious effects of a belief in utopias.  Such beliefs seem always to end up with authoritarian consequences.  People can all too easily get swept up by the illusion of having solved life’s great mysteries.  It’s been going on for ages.  It appears to be a commonly held human attribute.  We need, apparently, to think we understand things that are, beneath the surface, remote, opaque, and inscrutable.  It’s the way we are.

The issue keeps popping up.  In the humdrum world of economics and economic history utopian ideas bedevil analysis.  Whereas we began with the humanistic description of the workings of an economy, for instance as articulated by Adam Smith, we end up with a cramped mechanistic and needlessly formal model of human behavior that is stripped of all humanity in its effort to be all encompassing.  Each step away from the initial description, each small addition of reasonable progress, each brick in the wall, and each hard won insight merely solidify the edifice, making it ever more difficult to challenge, and ever more difficult to improve.

This difficulty is then compounded by the necessary effort to become conversant with its entirety.  In modern economics it isn’t even possible to be truly fluent across the board.  We rely on others.  It has become a community effort, an act of solidarity rather than an act of individual accomplishment.  How does someone on one edge of the discipline know and trust the notions and analysis taking place on a distant edge?  Mutual trust.  Which is ironic in a discipline so committed to models of the individual.

This ought to breed a humility in all of us.   Each is simply a small part of an organic whole that no one can master.  But humility doesn’t seem to be an attribute of the whole.  Indeed economics, taken as a single entity, often appears to be arrogantly self confident to a degree unfounded by the results of its application to its raw material — the real world economy.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the effort to extract some sense of order from the increasingly complex interdependencies that characterize an economy results in an overconfidence and belief in the universality of the accrued knowledge.  It is then just one step away from being a belief in utopia — we have arrived at a nirvana, we are supreme in our understanding, we are masters of our surrounding.  We posit a utopia because we have invested so much effort into arriving at what we know and want to close off that effort by declaring we have insight into the ultimate state of affairs.

Utopias are useful because they imply we don’t have to think anymore.  We already have the answer we were looking for.  Utopias are immutable and cannot be improved upon.  That’s also useful because they then become benchmarks against which we can measure our surroundings.  The perfect market becomes such a benchmark.  The ultimate victory of the proletariat is another.  We know where we are in history or in our environment by reference to the fixed point on our mental map: that fixed point being our particular vision of utopia.

Economics long ago fell into this trap.  Instead of contenting itself with being the contextual social critique that it ought to be, it tried to mine from its data certain inflexible realities.  It tried to assert universal laws.  It substituted the hubris of utopia for the humility of reality.  And, by so doing, has become ever less able to understand the workings of that reality.  It’s as if it decided to stand still in a particular moment and ignore the processes of history.

One victim of this is that it has become unable to revise or update its understanding of the raw materials of an economy.  It still speaks in the language of the agricultural era as it passes into industry.  It speaks of capital and labor and not of information and energy.  It is still intensely material rather than digital. Its practitioners grapple with modern issues, but through a lens designed for an earlier era.  The heroic efforts of those around the fringes allows us to investigate complexity, evolution, and the necessary solidarity created by the ever increasing division of labor, but all these efforts have, then, to be translated back into archaic individualistic language in order to fit within the established whole.

Instead of learning and fitting within a contemporary context, economics has to unlearn and retrofit its new knowledge so as to preserve the past.  It’s as if all that could be thought has been thought and the apex of understanding was reached somewhere in the middle twentieth century.

What new theory is there?  Really new.

In any case, and back to the beginning, I came across this quote from Durer, whom most of us think of as an artist, but who was also one of those broad thinkers that the modern division of thought has obliterated under the weight of our acquired knowledge:

“But I shall let the little I have learnt go forth into the day in order that someone better than I may guess the truth, and in his work may prove and rebuke my error.  At this I shall rejoice that I was yet the means whereby this truth has come to light.”

This quote is the coda that Karl Popper put at the end of his essay “Towards an Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge”.  It is the evolution of knowledge that underlies the evolution of our economy.  Popper is obviously not discussing economics, but his idea undermines the static mechanistic metaphors that underpin it.

In more modern language George Soros says this:

“We have now had 200 years of experience with the Age of Reason, and as reasonable people we ought to recognize that reason has its limitations.  The time is ripe for developing a conceptual framework based on our fallibility.  Where reason has failed, fallibility may yet succeed.”

I found this quote — it’s from Soros’ book “The Capitalist Threat”  — in Peter Erdi’s excellent text “Complexity Explained”.

And it returns us to utopia.  Economics as we now know it, and all the cascade of intellectual consequences it has, is very much a child of the Age of Reason.  It is filled with the hubris that reason can instill in its believers.  But we face a paradox.  The surge in understanding that came as a consequence of the Age of Reason has made the world so complex that it has become inscrutable to reason.  The interconnections are now so dense that the traditional equipment of reasonable scrutiny have become ever less useful.  We have moved our own world forward beyond the scope of our methods.  Which is why we must beware of the consequences of those who rush onward without reflection.  Those who purport to create machines that think like us must be made to understand that we don’t actually know how we think like us.

Polanyi, Michael that is, was right:

“We can know more than we can tell”

We need to be careful with our knowledge.  Because we don’t know much at all.  And our machines know less.  The hubris of utopia is the enemy of our ability to learn.  It is certainly the enemy of human reality.

  1. blocke
    February 13, 2021 at 10:25 am

    Study history. It’s all we got.

    • Craig
      February 14, 2021 at 6:07 pm

      Yeah, like the history of imminent and accomplished paradigm changes. Now THAT is enlightening history.

  2. February 14, 2021 at 3:40 am

    Radford has got a nerve, urging thought while regurgitating thoughtless Marxist abuse against a “Utopia” he has probably never read, or in any case never understood in its pre-Reformation context. “Utopia” was portrayed as a newly discovered (therefore not yet Christian) island, and its common sense was compared with a wool-producing, supposedly Christian England, suffering a vicious slump because it had become “a land where sheep eat men”.

    Again, Radford affirmatively asks “What new theory is there? Really new”; then glosses over Durer answering “Very little, but see how one thing leads to another”. So the theories that blood and electricity need to circulate were not new in their own time? Not new in our own era that Shannon’s computer circuits perform logic which can detect and correct typos? I don’t suppose he’s read Shannon either, never mind where his feedback and theory of information have led me, despite my repeatedly pointing out their significance here.

  3. February 14, 2021 at 1:11 pm

    A second lot of thoughts!

    Precisely what Soros thought was still needed has already been provided by Shannon.

    Blocke needs to remember “history is written by the winners”: the imaginative study of ruins is a safer bet.

    As a German-speaking Continental Jew, Marx could hardly be expected to grasp even the nuances of English, never mind the Whig version of English history and Utopia’s fiercely satirical critique. (That English Christian style of humour seeks to shame rather than blame).

    • Meta Capitalism
      February 14, 2021 at 1:27 pm

      Blocke needs to remember “history is written by the winners” ~ Dave Taylor

      I like history. I read a lot of sources; even go out of my way to read different views of history. Clichés only go so far. Robert is right. History matters. Without it we fool ourselves into believing we have something new to say when in many cases there is nothing new under the sun, so-to-speak.

      • February 14, 2021 at 7:41 pm

        I too like reading history, but I’d rather write my own, which despite the scorched earth policy of the Elizabethan puritans, Thatcher and Dr Beeching, is, I admit, far easier in Britain than in most other countries. As I pointed out with the cases of electric circuit theory, radio communications and computers, it is simply not true that there is nothing new under the sun, but it is true that (as it is said) academics often take in each others’ washing. That is why it is always preferable to study primary sources. Quotation, I again admit, is necessary for teaching purposes, but referring students to significant but inaccessible books is one way of ensuring that they will rarely get read, never mind studied, discussed and evaluated at first hand.

        I’m thinking of the apparently complete ignorance among economists (witness Radford’s Soros quote) of the significance of Shannon’s communication theory. This despite it being obvious (if one looks) that living in or even reading about an economy is much more about communication than ‘market forces’, the ideology of which is as obviously irrelevant as the ‘gravitational forces’ in the Newtonian theory it came from.

  4. February 14, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    Peter Radford, I agree with you. Yes, it is time to understand that our rationality has its limits. The economy is complex and evolves. So, we must challenge complexity and evolution, but in a suitable way in view of the complexity of problems.

    When we consider complexity, we must distinguish at least three aspects of complexity. What is lacking in extant theories of complexity is the complexity for economists (or complexity for researchers or scientists in general). See two of my comments here and here.

    Evolution should be studied from a similar angle. Entities such as products, behaviors, techniques and institutions evolve. Systems like internet, organizations and knowledge also evolve. But sciences such as physics, biology, and economics are complex entities that easily surpass our ability of rational construction. So, we need a good strategy considering the complexity and how our knowledge evolves. For this purpose, we must unlearn much. We have accumulated too many preconceptions and fixed ideas.

  5. Craig
    February 14, 2021 at 6:08 pm

    Yeah, like the history of imminent and accomplished paradigm changes. Now THAT is enlightening history.

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    March 6, 2021 at 10:58 am

    Utopianism is a slippery notion. It can be defined as the aim of creating the perfect society. Perfection having dozens of connotations considered historically. It can also refer to the ideals or principles of a utopian; idealistic and impractical social theory. Speaking more idealistically, utopianism can refer to the ideas, doctrines, aims, etc. of a utopian; visionary schemes for producing perfection in social or political conditions.

    Considered philosophically, utopianism is the general label for a number of different ways of dreaming or imagining about, describing or attempting to create a better society. Utopianism is derived from the word utopia, coined by Thomas More. In his book Utopia (1516) More described a society significantly better than England as it existed at the time, and the word utopia (good place) has come to mean a description of a fictional place, usually a society, that is better than the society in which the author lives and which functions as a criticism of the author’s society. In some cases it is intended as a direction to be followed in social reform, or even, in a few instances, as a possible goal to be achieved.

    The concept of utopianism clearly reflects its origins. In Utopia More presented a imaginary debate over the nature of his creation. Was it fictional or real? Was the obvious satire aimed primarily at contemporary England or was it also aimed at the society described in the book? More important for later developments, was it naïvely unrealistic or did it present a social vision that, whether achievable or not, could serve as a goal toward which to strive? Most of what we now call utopianism derives from the last question. In the 19th century Robert Owen in England and Charles Fourier, Henri Saint-Simon and Étienne Cabet in France, collectively known as the utopian socialists, popularized the possibility of creating a better future through the establishment of small, experimental communities. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and others argued that such an approach was incapable of conceptualizing let alone solving the problems of industrial society and the label ‘utopian’ came to mean unrealistic and naïve. Later theorists, both opposed to and supportive of utopianism, debated the desirability of depicting a better society as a way of achieving significant social change. In particular, Christian religious thinkers have been deeply divided over utopianism. Is the act of envisaging a better life on earth heretical, or is it a normal part of Christian thinking?

    Since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, a number of theorists have argued that utopianism has come to an end. It has not; utopias are still being written and intentional communities founded, hoping that a better life is possible.

    In Utopia, scenario and plan: A pragmatic integration, Charles Hoch attempts to lay out the relationships between the three. The concepts utopia, scenario, and plan offer important ways to envision the future of place. Utopia describes the perfect, complete place. Scenario compares good alternative stories. Plans offer useful provisional intentions. All three help us imagine how future consequences of select actions might influence current expectations and hopes. Hoch argues that pragmatism can integrate all three along a continuum from holistic inclusive to selective incremental. Utopia dramatizes emotional attachments to the daily details of a purposeful way of life for some future imagined place. Scenario describes the confluence of narrative and explanation, story and cause as coherent testable accounts of relevant consequences for plausible futures. Plan describes how we compose and compare alternatives to inform practical intentions for choices and decisions for immediate problems we currently face. Framing the three concepts pragmatically avoids the contrast between utopian rupture/rapture and narrative continuity by treating both as complementary aspects of a practical imagination. Composing plans requires adaptive attention to specific features of people and place susceptible to purposeful change.

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