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These things take time

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Last week, I spent a few days in the Dalton-Brand Research Room, at Duke University, skimming through the Samuelson papers. They make everybody excited there, and for good reasons. Samuelson was all over the place for about 70 years: in the academia, in the medias, in the arcane secrets of governmental policies. As a result, some of his papers read as mystery novels. There are many different plots intertwined there and you just want to read the end of the story – okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Of course, when one sees this kind of materials, he has many ideas for future papers and want to have them written – and published – as soon as possible. Accordingly, the Samuelson papers seem to generate a very competitive market. There will be a roundtable on “the prospects of writing on Paul Samuelson” at the next HES meeting, (at least) two biographical projects are being undertaken at the moment, and of course, there is also the perspective of the 2013 HOPE conference on MIT, which will hopefully result in a lot of new fascinating contributions, not only on Samuelson but on the many other important economists who interacted in this place where a lot of what constitutes the economists’ workaday toolbox has allegedly originated. There is this sensation that things will come out rather quickly but also an uneasy feeling of misplaced haste and pressure. Of course, I am not blaming anyone: that feeling has gotten all over me as well!

Yet, it is not without an afterthought that, soon after my return to Paris, I grabbed the copy of Robert Leonard’s Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960 that I had ordered from my university’s library and which had finally arrived on shelf during my absence. Leonard’s book has been expected  for over a decade and it fully delivers on its promises. It does not rely on a forced grand narrative or on an overly repeated thesis. Instead, it is constructed  like an impressionistic picture, where individual paths and the larger context are subtly intertwined until they finally make sense to the reader. Robert Leonard is never where you expect him to be. When one anticipates pages on abstract formalism, Leonard depicts Chess games and the politics of Red Vienna, when one sees a critique of neoclassical economics, he describes a theory of social interaction and when one thinks of wartime reorganization of science and its aftermath, he tells the ending of a very personal journey. It is meticulously crafted, with an economy of words that makes every sentence necessary. Obviously, these things take time.

Written by Yann

5 May 2011 at 8:12 pm

The End of Relativism?

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The beginning of a new year is always the occasion to reflect on the recent past, as the posts of my fellows Benjamin, Clément and Béatrice [to whom the opposite Calvin & Hobbes comic strip is dedicated] have shown. Though their interrogations mainly concern the purposes and practices of historians, I would like to add another one, which may be a bit more ‘philosophical’ – pardon the grand word! What has struck me during the year is the slow decline of what some thinkers call relativism.

Relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), as I have argued here and there, is not the idea that everything is equal or that there is nothing demarcating the good and the bad, the true and the false. Instead, it is the observation that what we call truth or scientific facts or fair decisions is affected by the context in which we are located and that they can be appraised differently in different communities or cultures. It is not surprising that relativism – a term sometimes used pejoratively by its detractors – has been associated with literary theorists such as Stanley Fish, because rhetoric is where it is used more conspicuously. My literary style will greatly change depending on the people I am addressing to and, as a result, the meaning of what I am saying too. For instance, while writing a scientific paper, I can call some previous contribution ‘misleading’ or ‘unfortunate’ while in front of friends researchers, I will call it a ‘piece of crap’, and back at home, in a sign of deep fatigue and irritation,  I will paraphrase Lennon and call it ‘the shittiest pile of shit ever’. Talking about Samuelson in a private correspondence, Stigler wrote Friedman: “It may merely be prejudice, but I’m inclined to write him off as an economist” [in Hammond, Making Chicago Price Theory: Friedman-Stigler Correspondence, 1945-1957, p. 97]. This is certainly not something he would have used – in spite of his renowned acerbic wit – in publication, and though Samuelson may have been conscious of such animosity he certainly did not take it into account when he called Friedman “an able scholar” and “an old friend” [Samuelson, Economics From the Heart, p. xi). There is nothing abnormal in this. Whatever our opinions are, we have different ways of communicating them to our interlocutors – from our closest friends to the scientific community and the public at large.

This, however, has seriously been threatened in 2010 and I will only mention two events that struck me in this respect: the first one is the fact that a few people have been legally fired from their jobs after talking badly about their supervisors on Facebook, the other one is the whole Wikileaks affair. In the former, it is quite striking that people who have written on their wall a few negative words about their work environment – like calling their boss an idiot, or their job crappy – have been recognized as guilty of serious professional mistakes while we know that everyday people spend most of their time at the workplace, near the coffee machine for instance, unfearfully disparaging other colleagues and immediate superiors. Why is something that is considered normal in the workplace is suddenly demonized when it is done outside of it? The wikileaks affair is quite similar, as it simply shows that when diplomats talk between then, they do not adopt the same discourse that they will use publicly. Is there anything shocking about that? I don’t believe so. You may have to deal in a friendly manner with that head of state you believe is an arrogant and disagreeable human being, especially if world peace is threatened. Similarly, you can perfectly envision with some allied country the use of the military force  toward a country you are simultaneously conducting amiable negotiations with – just in case this does not work, as Clausewitz believed . The fact that these seemingly inconsistent behaviors are suddenly judged negatively by law courts and the public opinion at large will make people adopt the same discourse whoever they talk to. Whether we are blogging, writing academic papers or chatting on our Facebook walls, should we adopt the same writing style? Some people obviously believe we should and the huge informational database that is constituted on the internet seems to put some pressure upon us to do so as well.

How much our practices as historians [of economics] are to be affected by that? I believe History as we construct it is built upon the idea that things – ideas, objects, etc. – evolve and differ in different periods of time and among different communities. If they do not, there is simply no story to be told. The denial of relativism is then the denial of historicity. Happy new year!

Written by Yann

3 January 2011 at 8:41 am

Crisis as History: Reinhart & Rogoff vs. Galbraith & Mackay

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Exciting results; but not reading

My bedside table is a victim of the debt crisis – how else can I explain it being overburdened by Reinhart & Rogoff’s This time is different (2010), Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929 (1954) and Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions (1841) ? Reinhart & Rogoff”s book nearly topped the Amazon best-seller list (only beaten by Stieg Larsson), but will it become a classic like Galbraith or Mackay? I don’t think so, even though Reinhart & Rogoff make an incredible important historical argument about national debt crisis, and crises more generally. It turns out that crises happen often – every country it seems has had one or more in recent times – they play out in various ways and there is a lot of novel data and research in the book (!) to prove it. But it’s a pain to read…

I don’t understand why it is so difficult to make an argument simply and clearly. The writing – or possibly the editing – is just poor. Never mind that they make a lot of technical points first, that’s fine; it’s the general structure of the writing which is frustrating. Whenever an argument begins to be developed (and you have to get to chapter 4 before arguments appear) they interrupt the story with two-page text-boxes, unrelated tables or other random elements. All of them valuable in their own right, but none of them in an order that makes much sense. Consider the opening of chapter five on page 68:

We open our tour of the panorama of financial crisis by discussing sovereign default on external debt… (Some background on the historical emergence of sovereign debt markets is provided in box 5.1). Figure 5.1 plots the percentage of all independent countries… [and between 1820-1840s] nearly half the countries in the world were in default (including all

That’s where the page ends… ! The next two and half pages are one long text box, and thereafter the sentence “(including all…” is completed. By the next page we get to see figure 5.1 (promised at the start), but they throw in figure 5.2 for good measure, not that it’s clear what it means yet (Reinhart & Rogoff, 2010: 68-72).

A classic; and great read

It’s annoying. And particularly so, as Reinhart & Rogoff has such an important point to make, with such interesting data. Apparently it took 10 years to write this book. I wish they’d spent some more time editing. There is a reason why Galbraith’s and Mackay’s work not only became standard references in the literature (as Reinhart & Rogoff’s will), but also became classics (which Reinhart & Rogoff’s won’t). The classics are well researched and well written. At times wonderfully so; as with Galbraith’s commentary on how banks are shy to advertise their very efficient operations which actually facilitate speculators liquidity positions and led to instability:

Banks supply funds to brokers, brokers to customers and the collateral [which customers use to leverage stock transactions] goes back to the banks… Wall Street, in these matters, is like a lovely and accomplished woman who must wear black cotton stockings, heavy woollen underwear, and parade her knowledge as a cook because, unhappily, her supreme accomplishment is as a harlot. (1954 [2009: 47-8])

Reinhart & Rogoff has much to contribute with their book. A good read is tragically not one of them, and that may stop its transition from good research into great piece of work. What a shame.

Written by Benjamin

3 December 2010 at 2:02 pm

Rudolf Modley (?)

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There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.

Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath's]“. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.

Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.

Experiencing the Shock Doctrine

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Thanks to some friends journalists, I got an invitation for a press projection of The Shock Doctrine, a movie by British directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross based on Naomi Klein‘s much discussed bestseller, which will be released on March 3 in France. For 82 minutes – it does not seem very long but, believe me, it is – I have been exposed to unbearable images: the massacres in Chile and Argentina, the bombing of the Russian Duma, the collapse of the Twin towers, the tortures at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, tsunamis and hurricanes, dead bodies in the streets of New Orleans, Milton Friedman being held responsible for all these horrors. The images are so violent, indeed, that I could not keep myself from thinking that the directors were themselves nurturing some kind of fascination for it and were trying to apply the Shock Doctrine to the spectator – that poor little me huddled up by fear and anxiety in his red velvet seat. Are you more virtuous than your opponent when you end up using the tools you are denouncing? Then, came to mind this sentence by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (roughly translated by yours truly): “We are not responsible for the victims but in front of the victims. And there is no other way than imitating an animal (growling, digging, giggling, convulsing) to escape the scurvy. Thought itself is sometimes closer to a dying animal than a living man, even a democrat.”

Written by Yann

29 January 2010 at 7:19 pm

“Je m’en Foucault!”

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My dear friend Katy is annoyed. For a few months, she’s been teaching French at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, while writing her master thesis for a French faculty. Every time she shows up at a literary theory class, the Professor expects her to master everything about Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze. Yet, Katy, like most of her French contemporaries – including, I must admit, the author of these lines -, does not know these thinkers beyond the usual cliches: cool guys with turtleneck sweaters and leather jackets who supported the May 68 events before dying of AIDS or crushed by a car, but whose writings are mostly unreadable – if not simply mocked by serious scientists such as Alan Sokal. Though nothing should justify ignorance, let me tell you that we French are not really to blame. Philosophy programs in high school do not include any of these authors – we study Plato, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Sartre, leaving aside everything that has been written after the 1960s. Mainstream philosophy consists mostly of neo-Kantian scholars with long hair and white shirts – most often leaving their chest exposed – who bash May 68 on popular TV shows while advocating the return to the universal values we - the French and more widely the Western countries – have brought to the civilized world since the 1789 Revolution. There are several variants of this discourse – some more progressive and some more conservative – but this is pretty much what they say.

Why such a significant portion of recent French thought remains mostly unknown in its home country yet praised and embraced by academics all over the world is the difficult question François Cusset tries to answer in his fascinating book, French Theory : Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis, certainly one of the best accounts of recent history of thought written in French I have read so far. Cusset’s main argument in this book is that the French Theory, as it is called in the US, is an American invention. He convincingly shows how the American academia, from the most revered scholars to the average undergrad, has managed to appropriate a set of loosely-related if not mutually contradictory texts to build a cohesive curriculum of knowledge which has been used to understand all the aspects of the American society in the second half of the twentieth century. Starting from the recent controversies surrounding the Sokal hoax, which at least served as a reminder for the French public that there were still a few influential fellow-countrymen in the United States, Cusset traces back the influence of postmodern philosophy in the foundations of the American university, showing that its location in the American society allowed for the formation of a theoretical discourse which would accompany the changes in the society – the struggle for civil rights and thereafter the birth of identity and community politics – while remaining strictly confined to the academic debate. Exploring the evolution of literary theory, the rise of gender, race and cultural studies, he shows that for all these questions, French Theory offered a convenient and malleable discourse which has been transformed and affected by the leading scholars in all of these fields. His description of some “campus stars” such as Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson – whose main works had not been translated into French when the author wrote the first edition (2003) – is both luscious and accurate. One of the qualities of Cusset’s work lies in the way he shows that even the criticisms of postmodernism by US scholars have fostered the dispersion of French thought. The author also devotes a chapter on the way the average undergraduate student manages to appropriate these difficult texts by applying Derridian deconstructionism or Deleuze’s “surface effects” to his everyday experiences and the study of pop culture – from Philip K. Dick to Talking Heads. What I liked the most in this account is the fact that Cusset, though he undoubtedly appears as a defender of these French and American trends in thinking, never tries to apply his judgment on the theory itself. Sometimes, he shows how X tried to demonstrate that Y’s philosophy is self-refuting or relativistic but he never commits himself to this criticism. Actually, Cusset’s own views appear only clearly at the very end when he describes the reasons why Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard have become persona non grata in their home country. The coming into power of a peculiar branch of the left in the early 80s, the rise of new philosophers, their penetration in the publishing market and their fame in the medias, the appropriation of Foucault and Baudrillard by French neoliberals leading to a lot of confusion are what prevented the French from recognizing the importance of their fellow citizens in modern thought. Cusset’s conclusion is hard to read but perfectly accurate : “What overconfident French rationalists quickly see as an old structuralist tune, as a badly assimilated linguistic turn or even as a textual relativism for Amerloques* most simply characterizes the way people, all in all, act and think since a quarter Century in the rest of the worldwide intellectual landscape” [my translation].  Finally, French Theory (the book) provides a wonderful example of how ideas travel. While writing this blog entry, I realized that it has been translated into English and published by the University of Minnesota Press. I highly recommend this reading.

* “Amerloques” is the French slang for Americans. By using the term, Cusset implies that a widespread anti-americanism might also be responsible for the fate of the French Theory in its home country.

Written by Yann

13 December 2009 at 7:30 pm

The audience, yet again

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No theorizing today, just a quote from the last paragraph of the preface of the very interesting Let us now praise famous men.

b2ae06e288a21332797b8fcfada672afHere it is: “This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.Those who wich actively to participate in the subject, in whatever degree of understanding, friendship, or hostility, are invited to address the authors in care of the publishers. In material that is used, privately or publicly, names will be withheld on request.”

I am wondering whether anyone ever wrote to the authors/the publisher and what did he wrote?

Written by Loïc

18 July 2009 at 2:28 am

Self help or science fiction?

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Jim-Collins-for-WebBusinessmen are steely figures. They hire and fire. They invest and disinvest. They make decisions in the haze of uncertainty. And for all that they calculate, reason, plan.

Yet, in contrast to this materialistic character, they subscribe to mysticism. Executives are known to pay absurd sums to “management experts” to hear a litany of pedestrian commentary on the great business adventure. For instance, Jim Collins‘ new book, making the cover of Business Week, Why the Mighty Fall: And Some Companies Never Give In. The core of the book is identifying the 5 stages of failure:

    1. Hubris born of success
    2. Undisciplined pursuit of more
    3. Denial of risk and peril
    4. Grasping for salvation
    5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death

In reading it I had the feeling it was a rip off of the Kubler-Ross model, of the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) reordered. It is clearly charismatic for some audiences. (He definitely looks good! Like a younger Michael Porter.) It is undoubtedly successful discourse. But what is it? Is it self-help psychology for organizations? Or is it fiction with scientistic claims to spice the imagination?

Written by Tiago

21 May 2009 at 8:19 pm

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

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pj-orourke-1-1You don’t find jokes about economic graphs every day. Looking for a catch phrase for a paper on visual representation and economics textbooks, I came across political satirist PJ O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich, subtitled “A Treatise on Economics”. On page 110, O’Rourke introduces an absurd diagram in which he relates “the number of pages of Econ text devoted to graphical analysis” to “the number of Econ students asleep in the lecture hall”.  On page 105, he summarizes the attitude of most undergraduate students toward the principles of economics class: “I. There are a lot of graphs II. I’d better memorize them III. Or get last year’s test”. Okay, that’s funny. And so I have my catch phrase.

What is not as fun, on the other hand, is the rather populist background that comes with that joke when we get deeper into O’Rourke’s book. What he really means, in fact, is that economic diagrams as well as other technical elements are thrown in the introductory course only to introduce socialist ideas, for example the idea that “all wealth is the result of criminal conspiracy among: A. Jews B. Japanese. C. Pirates in neckties on Wall Street” (Ibid.). One of the examples provided by the author is the Keynesian equation Y=[C+I+G+(X-M)]/(1-c). He notes that “it’s hard to imagine applying the above formula to any ordinary economic question, e.g. should I put my bonus in a certificate of deposit or buy new stereo speakers?” (p. 106). O’Rourke may well have his definition of “economics” from Aristotle rather than from Robbins, so it’s easy to disembowel the guy for writing that but most importantly, all of the chapter is to show us that mathematical economics is simply socialist thinking dressed in fashionable mathematical nonsense. I thought this kind of thinking had been thrown out with McCarthyism. So this is not so funny, after all …

What is a bit funnier, on the other hand, is that the opposite discourse has become as fashionable: thanks to Sonja Amadae, we know that mathematical economics and assumptions about rational behavior necessarily imply the defense of capitalism as a political discourse. Amadae is probably more researched than O’Rourke in her demonstration but the similarity between the two theses is that mathematical economists are just idiots who are not even aware of the political implications of their discourse. For O’Rourke, they’re just a bunch of socialists in disguise; for Amadae, they just underwrite the protection of big corporations. I am not naive: I would not assert that there is no politics in methods. I just wonder whether it is too much asking for more subtlety…

Should the historian missmarple?

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Lately, I’ve been dwelling on a recent comment by Robert Leonard on this blog:

“I have found the biggest struggle to be learning to stop, or suspend, thinking as an economist. A training in economics is a necessary point of departure, but it can also quickly become a yoke around one’s neck when it comes to writing history, especially a history that tries to embrace the subtleties of language and human behaviour. For that, I’m inclined to view novels and other fiction as better preparation.”

I have never been able to face the use of the novels and fiction I read without a good share of guilt. Using them to immerse in a time, to understand its beat, its fears and hopes I find acceptable (to myself), but using them to get into people’s mind with hope of better understanding people (and thus economists’ and scientists’) motives, wants, ambitions…..is this really decent? Doesn’t it make up for my lack of empathy, sensibility, observation, openess? Why am I unable to explain why I sense that my interest in science fiction should eventually permeate my historical research?

But do I have any other mean to refine this ability to “embrace the subtleties of human behavior” that makes a good historian? Also, when I’m calling in the psychological description of such character to flesh the sense of collapse and uncertainty and a jewish emigré may have felt in the early thirties or a graduate student may have experienced in Vietnam, for instance, I feel I’m making the implicit –and unwarranted- assumption that there is something permanent in the human nature that transcends times and cultures.

miss-marple-investigates-n71727lThis unmistakably bring me back to my old missmarpling dilemma. Miss Marple is this armchair detective by Agatha Christie who is able to solve various crimes by drawing parallels between the riddles she faces and seemingly unrelated and insignificant incidents she had witnessed in her little village of Saint Mary Mead. Her idea is that “human nature is much the same everywhere” the same and that to gain insight into human motives, observing a small microcosm is sufficient. I wonder how much missmarpling historians can/ should afford? Can we write good history by comparing situations we witness or experience (including our professional tribulations) with those of previous economists, even though their individual history, context and, of course, abilities are different? Are we allowed as historians to fill the holes left by published and unpublished records, to flesh the skeleton and endow it with the voice that reflects the murmurs of our empathy for our subjects?

How I then travel from Miss Marple to Carlo Ginzburg is unclear. Is it the detective analogy that is so often used to describe’s Ginzburg’s work? Is it noting that empathy toward one’s characters is not something an historian studying witches in the XIVth century can afford, but remembering that arousing the reader’s empathy toward unknowns’ histories –microhistories- is how Ginzburg intends to restore justice and truth in history? Is it directly because of his awareness of the relationships of history to litterature (taken from this interview)?

TRG: Would it be correct to say that one of those challenges confronting history is its relationship with literature? You have often written of your interest in the modernist tradition. But literary modernism’s critique of the traditional representations of reality is frequently adduced as one of the chief examples of the impossibilities inherent in traditional historical projects.

CGinzburg: To me, that is yet another artificial contradiction. To regard history and literature as two wholly disparate fields is both mistaken and unhistorical. They have always existed in dialogue, more or less overlapping. The fact that historical writing sometimes devolves into fiction and that, furthermore, it often relies on literary models, should not surprise us. A much more challenging approach – to history and literature alike – is to start out from the fact that both disciplines share an obligation to the truth, and to see how this has been lived up to at different times. I consider literary modernism first of all as an attempt to discover new forms of truthfulness, not least on a formal plane. In that respect it is highly relevant to me as an historian.

Every literary device – be it in a fictional or historical text – makes reality visible in its own way, conveys its vision of reality. Specific linguistic forms are related to specific forms of truth, one might say. There is a kind of formal constraint at work here ­- every literary form forces us to discover one thing and ignore something else. The traditional narrative, for example, has its own innate limitations, it imposes a kind of sequential contstraint: something has to come first, something else later. When I wrote The Cheese and the Worms, I dreamed of writing the whole book on one gigantic page, so that I could escape this straitjacket. It was, of course, a ridiculous idea. But the literary form employed by the historian will always be one of the two central filters that separate the historical work from the reality it sets out to portray. The other filter is the sources themselves. Both these filters in reality imply an infinite number of potentially distorting factors. In that way, the idea of a simple historical narrative is as absurd as the idea of irrefutable historical proof.

TRG: Ever since you published your very first scientific treatise, you retained your own highly distinctive style of writing and composition. Your texts are structured in series of freestanding paragraphs or short chapters, which gives the writing a disjointed, essay-like character, even in a large work like Ecstasies. What induced you to adopt such a style ?

CGinzburg: I came across this way of setting out material when, as a young man, I read an essay by Luigi Einaudi, a distinguished economist and economic historian who eventually became president of Italy. He was the father of Giulio, the well-known publisher. The essay was constructed as a series of numbered paragraphs ­- a device which appealed to my own fascination with cinema and montage. Montage corresponds to what I consider to be the constructive element in historical studies: it makes it clear that our knowledge is fragmentary and that it derives from an open process. It has always been my ambition that the uncertainty of the research process should come through in what I write ­- I try to portray my own hesitation, so to speak, to enable the reader to make his own judgement. Historical writing should aspire to be democratic, by which I mean that it should be possible to check our statements from without, and that the reader be a party not only to the conclusions arrived at but also to the process that led to them.

From Leonard to Miss Marple and Miss Marple to Ginzburg, the relationships of historians to litterature is a fascinating one

Written by Beatrice

18 April 2009 at 9:14 am

To the bone

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Reading some of the comments on a previous post of this blog, I can’t escape thinking that there still exists, even among the members of our community – by “our” community, I don’t mean historians of economics in general, but more narrowly, postmodern and SSK-inflected historians of economics (whatever that is) -, some misunderstandings related to what postmodern thought is, to its influence on the history of science and on SSK. Words such as “postmodernism” and “relativisn” can be used in a quite loose – and sometimes harmful – way. I will not pretend here that I have more knowledge than anyone on that matter, but I know at least one person who does: Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Professor Smith has been trained in psychology, literary criticism and cultural theory and those who haven’t read my review of Stanley Fish’s Save the World on your Own Time, will surely wonder what literary criticism has to offer to those who study the history of economics. The answer is: a lot, actually.

In her last book, Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human (2005), Smith elucidates, in less than 200 pages, some of the questions we are asking ourselves on this blog, with unequaled accuracy, thoughtfulness and what I would call a jubilatory bent for intellectual jousting. This is hardly Smith’s first endeavour in the field of the History and Philosophy of Science. Her previous book, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy (1997) dealt with the same kind of material. Though she proudly acknowledges she is no philosopher, nor is she a social scientist, Smith is a fine reader of science. It is no secret that she is herself a radical relativist/constructivist but the power of her analysis comes from her ability not only to criticize, but also to understand the point of view of those who try to beat postmodernism. She can literally strip her opponents’s arguments to the bone, as to reveal how empty and meaningless they are. If you intend to contradict her, then, choose your words carefully! I will not detail the book chapter after chapter as I did for Fish’s essay, but I will try to give you a hint of a material that certainly repays study.

The general objective of the book is to revisit two decades of science wars and to review all the harms that have been made on contemporary cultural theory and behavioral sciences, tracking the last bits of anti-relativism and positivist philosophy in newspapers articles, feminist writings and recent works in evolutionary psychology. The author does not think that all people criticizing postmodernism are idiots. In her opinion, indeed, most of them are doing interesting – if not fascinating – things but they are also misled by unjustified preconceptions on constructivism. To contradict these authors, Smiths appeals to what she calls pre-postmodern relativists such as Ludwig Fleck and Carl Becker.

The meaning of the title is dual: it refers both to the fact it is often said that “knowledge, or the problem of knowledge, is the scandal of philosophy” (1) and to all the scandalized critiques of postmodernism, which assert that the latter is a threat against the highest values of our society: the ability of making moral and aesthetic judgements, the possibility of scientific progress and nothing less that the pillars of Western democracy. Smith’s response to that critique is that in fact, relativism is an attack against one and only one thing, traditional (i.e. positivist and judgemental) philosophy. But, as Smith observes: “[w]hile it is not clear that the scandal matters to anyone but philosophers, philosophers point out that it should matter to everyone … [f]or, they explain, unless we can ground our claims to knowledge as such, which is to say distinguish it from mere opinion, superstition, fantasy, wishful thinking, ideology, illusion or delusion, then the actions we take on the basis of presumed knowledge – boarding an airplane, swallowing a pill, finding someone guilty of a crime – will be irrational and unjustifiable” (ibid.).

This is a rather serious claim. In chapter 2, Smith illustrates some examples of the implications of it in recent controversies, examining Deborah Lindstadt‘s thesis that postmodern theory is responsible for the rise of Holocaust denial (a thesis that has been given credit by other academics and journalists) and Edward Rothstein‘s contention that the same stream of skepticism has been discredited by 9/11. She observes that such sets of linkages are generally based on no actual quotation from postmodern thinkers. “Who among the figures commonly associated, properly or improperly, with ‘postmodern’ theory maintains that all truth is subjective or that one man’s narrative is as good as another’s? Michel Foucault? Jacques Derrida? Jean-François Lyotard? Hayden White? Richard Rorty? Stanley Fish? David Bloor? Bruno Latour? Actually, of course, none of these” (20). The real problem, she suggests, is that those who support such misleading conclusions often do so because they want to sustain values that they consider beyond scrutiny: “A denunciation of relativism amounts to a demand for dogmatism – for predetermined judgement armoured against new thought” (23).

Smith also points out that many disparaging commentaries on relativism are made by people who often happen to be relativist in the sense actual relativists define it (she illustrates this paradox by quoting from feminist theorician Donna Haraway and from … Proust !). She shows that debates similar to those who appeared at the end of the twentieth also occurred in the 1920s and in the 1930s as Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf or Pablo Picasso were often linked to the more perilous evil of those times: Bolshevism. In fact, she observes, there existed an important stream of pre-postmodern relativism, represented by people like John Dewey or Margaret Mead, during a period “marked by a confident positivism in the natural sciences and a related scientism in much academic philosophy”. Those original thoughts were mostly swept away by decades of “popular beliefs and cultural associations that made-up the Cold War; the global eruption of various radical social movements … ; and throughout the century, dramatic technological developments and widespread demographic shifts” (31). All those events fostered in the same way social conservatism and a “renewed … commitment to the idea and ideals of objectivity” (32).

Related to this historical context is Smith’s account of Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, published in 1935. Fleck’s book was overshadowed by a more popular one, Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, published the same year. Fleck was rediscovered and praised by Kuhn and later by Latour (whose Pasteurization of France, Smith argues, is in some way a reinvention of Genesis and Development). Yet it is no surprise, given the peculiar intellectual environment of the early postwar period that Fleck was ignored and that scientists, in search of legitimacy, preferred the demarcating epistemology offered by Popper. In addition, Fleck was a Polish Jew whose work in chemistry did not draw the attention of Western scientists. He was arrested during the war and sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Nonetheless, he survived the war and emigrated to Israel, where he died in 1961. His conceptions in Genesis and Development were influenced by his practice of chemistry. The book tells the development of the Wassermann reaction, a chemical process that allowed for the detection of the syphilis pathogen. Fleck shows that the Wassermann reaction occured within the development of various beliefs, techniques, theories, methods, political and professional interests (yes, it sounds a lot like SSK !). The following passage, quoted by Smith (57), shows how radical Fleck’s relativism was:

It is true that modern doctrine is supported by much more sophisticated techniques of investigation, much broader experience, and more thorough theory. The naive analogy between the organs of both sexes has disappeared and far more details are at our disposal. But the path from dissection to formulated theory [and pictorial representation] is extremely complicated, indirect and culturally conditioned … In science, just as in art and in life, only that which is true to culture is true to nature.

In addition, Smith shows that Fleck also provided the demonstration that his conceptions of science had nothing to do with the idea that all theories are equally valid because the latter is actually the opposite of the assertion that “the validity of a theory depends on its position in a network of historically specific connections” (64). Smith observes that this justification is similar to Latour’s distinction between relative and absolute relativism.

I will not try to detail the rest of the book. Smith’s wordings are too precise and subtle to withstand summarization. Trying to reconstruct her thought would result in unproductive paraphrase. Nonetheless, I can’t finish this review without saying a few words on Chapter 6, devoted to Evolutionary Psychology. In this chapter, she addresses the claims of contemporary evolutionary psychology, whose most notable advocate is Steven Pinker. She shows that contrary to what evolutionary psychologists assert, the alternative to the claim that all human behavior – “from incest avoidance and female-adolescent anorexia to past-tense formation and a taste for Victorian novels” (130) – can be explained by our genes, is not dogmatic theology or ideologically driven humanities, but a set of more sophisticated models of development, such as those theorized by Susan Oyama in her book The Ontogeny of Information, giving rise to developmental or ecological psychology. Evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker operate within a mechanical conception of the brain, in which the latter is considered as an information processing computer. This conception rejects – or ignore – major works in biology which explain human behavior in terms of  interactions between cells and their environment (involving “complex social and perceptual coordination”, as well as “internal feedback mechanisms”). The relation between those issues and what has been studied earlier in the book is that evolutionary psychologists often strengthen their claims by discrediting alternative theories as dubious – if not dangerous – postmodernism. Frequently, those claims mistake constructivism for social constructivism (or social constructionism): they identify the claims of alternative theories as the idea that everything is socially/culturally constructed, whereas these theories  simply claim that there is no clear separation between nature and nurture. These distinctions are particularly rich and subtle and one is not even obliged to share Smith’s skepticism to examine them carefully. Those interested in the relations between economics and biology might want to give special attention to these debates.

In her course on “Biological Issues in Cultural Theory” at Duke University, Barbara Herrnstein Smith teaches graduate students in philosophy, theology and natural sciences that Bruno Latour has been the most important theorist over the last twenty-five years. If only to hear that once in my life, I think I have been fortunate to sit in on her class. I hope I have conveyed the pleasures one feels reading her writings, that his, the pleasures of being scandalized.

The Editor’s Curse

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I’ve never been especially supportive of the attempt to describe academic professions by means of the market metaphor, which seems to me too narrow a frame. However, a recent piece by Neal Young, John Ioannidis, and Omar Al-Ubaydli caught my attention. They argue that – just like the winning bidder at an auction – the editors of scientific journals may be over-betting.

The average bid in an auction is likely to get close to a reasonably ‘true’ value. However, accurately predicting the value of a good affords no reward, because it is not the average bidder who wins. ‘The Winner’s Curse’ is a catchphrase suggesting that the winning bid in an auction must come from the bidder who holds the highest expectations about the present value of a good of uncertain value – which is very likely to be too high.

In Young et al.’s paper such good of uncertain value is ‘scientific information’. They suggest that the more trials and repetitions have been conducted for a scientific study, the more likely it is that the scientific community comes to an agreement about its ‘true’ value. As in the auctions, however, these are not the results that get published in top-tier journals. Instead, editors may be biased to grant preferential publications to “extreme, spectacular results”. Regrettably, these results turn out to be ‘false’ all too often. Young et al. report that, of the 49 most-cited papers on the effectiveness of medical interventions published in top journals in 1990–2004, 25% of the randomized trials and 83% of the non-randomized studies had already been contradicted by 2005.

Given the artificial scarcity of good publication outlets, and the large supply of scientific papers, the market for scientific information is bound to fail. Oligopolistic editors serve as middle-men between the producers (scholars) and the consumers (other scholars, funding bodies, society-at-large) and bear minimal costs for their failure to select valuable scientific information. The curse, in other words, befalls the consumer. Who is, let me add, either in a weak position to fight back (if she is not a scholar herself and so suffers from asymmetric information) or in a conflict of interest (if she is a scholar).

The authors conclude that “there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated”. Since when do market failures entail moral indignation? Perhaps this owes to the fact that only Al-Ubaydli is an economist, while Young and Ioannidis Medical Doctors and that the article has appeared on a medical journal.

Written by alelanteri

30 January 2009 at 6:14 pm

“What is history?”

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carrTo initiate the student in the practice and controversies of history, the LSE’s Economic History Department had us read E.H. Carr’s What is History?, originally the 1961 Trevelyan lectures at Cambridge U. That’s a while ago. One expects a terse piece dealing with some debate that have since been “obviously” resolved or obsessed by some minor quibble that made a generation squander time and effort. There is little of it: passing protest about Oxford scholars and a passionate disdain for Professor Butterfield (the one that coined “whig” history), Isiah Berlin and Karl Popper. The pages of my copy were yellowed by the Cold War, Carr was a scholar of Soviet history. Yet, the text feels surprisingly fresh and current. Not like 1961 methodology of economics, or economics proper, sciences of “progress.” Carr’s defense of “causal history” feels a bit overstressed – looking for causes to rank them and identity interconnections; but I did not feel tempted to suggest any editing. I found some bits useful for my polemics. As when he writes,

To describe something as mischance is a favorite way of exempting oneself from the tiresome obligation to investigate its cause and, something tells me that history is a chapter of accidents, I tend to suspect him of intellectual laziness or low intellectual vitality. — p. 102.

Carr is superb in his discussions of history in relation to morality, to biography and the dramatis personae, to the dialogue of past, present and future.

How can that be? How can problems of history feel so much the same? Is there no progress in history? Are there no major quandaries in the theory of history after we’ve settled into a moderate materialism and sociologism? Carr knew the answer in 1961. History is not about method development or the reaching up for some Truth. It’s an open ended labour of imagination and curiosity, playing past, present and future in a mutual construction. History is the celebration of change. Party on!

Written by Tiago

27 January 2009 at 7:10 pm

The judicial model

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pinelliOn the 15th of December of 1969 “an anarchist and railway employee named Pino Pinelli dies by falling from the window of the office of Police Superintendent Luigi Calabresi, on the fifth floor of the Milan police headquarters, where he had been detained for three days.” The story is vividly dramatized in Dario Fo, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (part 1, part 2).

Carlo Ginzburg is one of the great masters of history writing. In 1991, the medievalist scholar of witchcraft trials wrote a book about a ongoing court case – The Judge and the Historian. His friend Adriano Sofri, a former leader of the autonomist group Lotta Continua, was on trial as mastermind of the murder in May 1972 of Superintendent Luigi Calabresi. Ginzburg’s book is a lesson on the use of evidence. Reading the transcripts of the trial, and the record of testimonies, Ginzburg reveals contradictions, the interpretative shortcuts of the judge, the lapses of the carabinieri that express their interference, and finally how evidence was weighted and distorted to justify a heavy sentence. One would think that the historian should reconstruct events, urgently tying actions to individual motives. Ginzburg calls it a “judicial model” and rejects it. Unlike the judge, the historian aims at a larger interpretative frame, studying the courtroom drama as “historical experimentation” where evidence, the document, is being actively produced by the interactions of officials, lawyers, witnesses.

The historian shows the judge gets it wrong. The accused were falsely condemned in a new witch hunt. Reading the book more than fifteen years after its publication, I can’t shake a feeling of powerlessness at the indignation of the intellectual. Sofri and his comrades languish in jail, the former is gravely ill. Ginzburg in all his brilliance cannot save the world.

Written by Tiago

15 January 2009 at 11:01 pm

Real-Time Debates

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I made this piece a standalone contribution instead of a comment to Tiago’s post on Blogs, mainly for its length and for increased visibility (see why below). As Tiago points out, “most of the action in blogs happens tucked away in the comments sections” and their “social/collaborative dimension is the one with the greatest potential to change, to improve and to make a profound intellectual impact.” I agree, but let me stress that their social/antagonistic dimension must not be underplayed. After all, who doesn’t love a heated economic squabble? The progress of economics has been marked by debates about mercantilism, socialist calculation, marginalism, monetarism, rationality assumptions…

Blogs empower (almost) real-time debates. (For the sake of comparison: though Mises’ 1920 seminal article surely received early responses, Lange’s challenge came in 16 years later, and Hayek’s contributions to the socialist calculation debate went on well into the 60’s.) Of course, debates can linger on for years even in the digital arena, too. And, at any rate, debates do not simply pop up because there is a convenient way to debate (though that helps).

All this lengthy introduction to make just two points:

i) Indeed, blogs should be better (understood and then) valued for their contribution to the advancement of the discipline. Yet, I agree with Tim Kane that “it’s still probably not advisable for graduate students or junior faculty to blog instead of focus on tenurable research … for now”.

ii) There should exist some way to transfer the livelihood of blogs and real-time debates into academic journals. In fact, there exists one I know of. So, the increased visibility of a standalone post is to promote a brand new graduate journal: the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics.

ejpe-logo-300x161The only thing graduate about the journal is that the three editors (Tyler DesRoches, Luis Mirels-Flores, and Tom Wells) are graduate students at EIPE. Other than that, it is an extraordinary product of the highest academic standards… with several extras:

* Aris Spanos’ ten pages worth of fierce reviewing/bashing of McCloskey and Ziliak’s latest book on statistical significance. And, of course, the even fiercer fighting back of the authors.

* Maurice Lagueux’s provocative dissecting of Don Ross’ new book on microexplanation, with Don Ross’ own reply.

* Cristina Marcuzzo’s inaugural address as this year’s President of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought.

* An underrated means for conveying histories, stories, and ideas: an interview with Uskali Mäki.

* Summaries of recent PhD dissertations in the history and philosophy of economics.

… and much more.

I followed closely the early developments of the journal, but I admit to not having seen coming anything this good, really. If you think this is petty marketing, be informed that the entire EJPE project is open access. So, stop reading this already, and go take a look at the first issue.

Written by alelanteri

8 January 2009 at 10:39 am

Posted in Literature, Media, Narcisism


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