Understanding Society

This blog, by Daniel Little, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I like.


For my next trick I will try to understand Nicholas Taleb

The writer/trader/professor Nicholas Taleb has been puzzling a number of commentators recently and Grid-group Cultural theory also provides a clear context for his approach: he is a Fatalist activist who is looking for a political constituency that understands Fatalism. The British Conservative Party may well not be it.

From the Cultural Theory perspective, Taleb has a position that is under-represented in politics, but one that is instantly recognisable in everyday life. The three acceptable positions on climate change are:

  • Egalitarian: things are getting worse and we have to come together to solve our problems collectively (but really we need to change our values too);
  • Hierarchical: it’s a risk management issue and now that we have a Minister for Climate Change things are being managed better than ever. Next highlight – a global treaty; and
  • Individualist: things are getting better – that’s Progress and all ‘environmental problems’ are simply opportunities for human ingenuity to shine (and make a profit). The real problem is too many rules and too many greenies.

Taleb’s position, Cultural theory would predict, is none of the above. A Fatalist position on climate change is superficially similar to the Individualist position: ‘climates change’. But whereas Individualism interprets this as meaning: prepare to find new ways of making money, Fatalism interprets this as: prepare to duck, and keep your head down for as long as it takes. Solidarity, management and skill-derived benefit are all illusions. The only hope of advancement is through luck and risk-averse opportunism. I didn’t get this from Taleb, I got it from my reading of writers such as Mary Douglas, Christopher Hood, Marco Verweij and Michael Thompson.

A bit like the magician Derren Brown who claims to be able to predict the lottery numbers, I am writing this in advance of reading Taleb’s own clarification of his position in a recent letter to the Financial Times. Now I’ll read it and see how well my prediction went… Continue reading “For my next trick I will try to understand Nicholas Taleb”

Two kinds of tales, one true and one false

More on truth and lies:

‘There are two kinds of tales, one true and one false,’ Socrates claims in Plato’s Republic (trans A.D. Lindsay, 1935, London: Dent, p. 376).

‘The depth of consciousness created by the exercise of the arts of deception is the first arena for the practice of that dissimulation proper to the life of human intelligence. The same spirit permeates other expositions, for instance that of Karl Popper, who equates the capacity to lie with the capacity to imagine: the power to imagine other things, to negate, and thereby to create fiction, even hypothesis – and thence to create science’. (John Forrester 1997 Truth Games: Lies, Money, and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 9)

What, according to Nietszche, the Greeks admired in Odysseus;

‘his capacity for lying, and for cunning, his ability to be, when need be, whatever he chose’ (Frederich Nietzsche 1974 The Gay Science, trans Walter Kaufman, New York: Random House, p. 156).

These quotations are to be found in :

Linda Neil (2009) Beautiful lies my father told me. TEXT Special Issue No 5 The Art of the Real April

Now read: Truth and Lies

How do we know what we think we know? (part 2)

How do we know the tide won’t wash the beach away?

A couple of years ago a local newspaper reported a certain beach-front resident claiming  “It’s ridiculous to think this beach would ever get washed away by a king tide. I’ve lived here four months and it’s just never happened.” This is an example of an heuristic in operation. The particular heuristic the resident used was this: anything that hasn’t happened within the last four months will never happen. Clearly, it’s a deficient way of thinking (parts of the beach have in fact been washed away), but might there be heuristics that, though not infallible, are useful?

This post follows on from one a while back about how we know what we think we know about ‘how things really are.’ I’m seeking to develop a way of characterising grid-group cultural theory as a set of four ecologically efficient social learning heuristics.

Given that we don’t actually know how stable the beach is, or indeed anything much about how things really are:

We use heuristics… Continue reading “How do we know what we think we know? (part 2)”

John Dewey on practical intelligence

For philosopher John Dewey, intelligence – knowledge in the absence of certainty – was a matter of judgement.

“A man[sic] is intelligent not in virtue of having reason which grasps first indemonstrable truths about fixed principles, in order to reason deductively from them to the particulars which they govern, but in virtue of his capacity to estimate the possibilities of a situation and to act in accordance with his estimate. In the large sense of the term intelligence is as practical as reason is theoretical”
(The Quest for Certainty, 1933: 170, quoted in Westbrook, 357)

It strikes me, reading this, that ‘the possibilities of a situation’ are not necessarily obvious, nor exhaustively explored in a given ‘estimate’. But that grid-group cultural theory offers a means of describing a fourfold  field of possibility.

The estimate is conditioned both by what is considered personally to be the limits of possibility and by the institutional context in which certain possibilities may be expressed and others may not.

Reference: Robert B. Westbrook 1993 John Dewey and American Democracy.  2nd Edn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

How do we know what we think we know? What the Density Classification Problem tells us

How can we know what the world is really like?

We often hear fairly frank opinions about how things ‘really’ are. We probably make these kinds of claims ourselves from time to time: ‘the fact is…’, ‘that’s just the way it is…’;  ‘you know what it’s like…’

But how do we know what we think we know? And what makes us so sure that our assumptions are right?

Continue reading “How do we know what we think we know? What the Density Classification Problem tells us”

Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?

This is the title of a recent paper by a group promoting ‘experimental philosophy‘. This involves the “use of the methods of experimental psychology to probe the way people think about philosophical issues and then examine how the results of such studies bear on traditional philosophical debates” (Nadelhoffer and Nahmias, 2007: 123)

The paper examines two related philosophical concepts, determinism and moral compatiblism, and seeks to discover whether views regarding these differ across national cultures. Reading the paper through the lens of the Four Cultures is an interesting experience. Continue reading “Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?”

How to Combine Eastern and Western Philosophy

It’s Christmas time and all around people are revisiting the cultic practices of an ancient oriental sect, as though they were at the very heart of Western culture.Three wise men?

The longer I live the more annoying I find the maintenance of the fairly rigorous distinction between two traditions of philosophy – Eastern and Western. This can be defended as a necessary specialisation – as though ‘world philosophy’ would be just too much for any one brain to comprehend. But the more I think about it the more it seems like an ideology, a deliberate dualism to go with those rightly exposed and criticised by some feminists and some readers of Foucault. The West is active, the East passive, the West emotional, the East inscrutible, the West masculine, the East feminine and so on. Do we really need this distinction between East and West? What is it for? Who does it benefit? Continue reading “How to Combine Eastern and Western Philosophy”

God after atheism – what the word ‘God’ fails to mean

‘The word “God” does not function as a philosophical concept….
Even if one is tempted to say…that “God” is the religious name for being, still the word “God” says more: it presupposes the total context constituted by the whole space of gravitation of stories, prophecies, laws, hymns, and so forth.
To understand the word “God” is to follow the direction of the meaning of the word. By the direction of the meaning I mean its double power to gather all the significations that issue from the partial discourses and to open up a horizon that escapes from the closure of discourse….
The God-referent is at once the coordinator of these various discourses and the index of their incompleteness, the point at which something escapes them.’
Paul Ricoeur, 1995:45-6.

I’d be interested to know what people reading this think it means. It’s a quotation from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Leave a comment below. Thanks!