Neither a Rationalist Nor an Empiricist Be: The Primacy of Interpretation Over Theory or Data

There is a dramatic diversity in the methodologies employed by social scientists, even within a single field. These range from in person ethnographies and interviews (which may be relatively structured or not) to structured surveys, and all the way up to statistical analysis of aggregate, socioeconomic or demographic data. When controversies flare up over the validity of particular approaches, a predictable pattern plays out.

The modern empiricist makes the seemingly obvious point that theory doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t line up with reality. Data is about collecting information about reality, therefore one should begin with the data.

The modern rationalist replies that you need theory to tell you what data would be salient in the first place, and to understand the meaning of the data you do collect.

The empiricist replies that it doesn’t take much theory to get off the ground, as long as you focus on making your theory testable (or more popularly, falsifiable). But a strong emphasis on theory tends to insulate ideas against the real world, rendering them worse than useless; perhaps actively harmful.

The rationalist replies that these are all theoretical considerations, checkmate empiricist!

The empiricist rolls his eyes at this example of the kind of unhelpful tautological thinking rationalists engage in.

And so on.

Neither theory nor data reign supreme; interpretation does. Data is not self-interpreting, and theory can guide interpretation but is never the whole story. The scope of possible interpretations we can make is constrained by what Gadamer called our horizons. We speak of people having broader or narrower horizons, and that’s more or less what Gadamer had in mind.

The Zebra Storyteller” is a silly, simplistic version of how this works. It’s not so much that broader horizons increases the scope of what you believe, but of what you are capable of believing, or even of imagining. Having more and varying life experience, but also fiction, art, poetry, and conversation, can all broaden your horizons, expanding the different ways in which you are capable of understanding something. This is the heart of the human capabilities required to make theory or data actually useful; indeed, usable.

Horizons can be broad or narrow as a general matter but they can also be relatively broad or narrow in a specific domain. In science and in scholarship, reading about the different theories, approaches, and analyses available in one’s field (or outside of it!) are key ways to expand one’s disciplinary horizons. But that does not mean the resources from the rest of your life cannot be brought to bear; a novel interpretation of the data may occur to you due to experiences quite apart from those in your discipline or even in any discipline. A theorist may devise a new model based on a favorite story from childhood. And so forth.

And then, once you’ve written your paper, your interpretation is submitted to the larger disciplinary conversation. Other people whose horizons have been formed by different experiences, studies, stories, art, and conversations, can criticize your interpretations, perhaps even see things about why you would leap to that interpretation you yourself did not realize.

A healthy discipline absolutely needs practitioners that submit themselves to the rigors of formal theory in order to promote clear thinking. It also absolutely has to orient its practitioners towards making observations of the actual world, rather than remaining confined to models built up axiomatically. But unless those practitioners also have broad horizons, enriched through intra- and inter-disciplinary reading and discussion, general life experience, and even (especially) any and all forms of art—they are unlikely to produce much of merit.

This is the good version of what is meant when people say “we need the humanities.” It’s quite possible that the actual humanities as currently taught don’t promote this well enough. I couldn’t say; I was a history undergraduate, and while that certainly expanded my horizons, that was one field of the humanities at one college 13 years ago now. I can’t vouch for the state of the humanities and feel no need to; we live in an era absolutely saturated with storytelling. The classics—nonfiction and fiction—are largely available for free or cheap online. Streaming services offer vast libraries of films. Moreover, top scholars are usually accessible via email or sometimes even venues like Twitter. I have never sent an email to a scholar with a question and failed to receive a generous, helpful reply.

The theory vs data debate is useless and ought to be scrapped. The conversation instead needs to focus on making sure practitioners are exposed to a wide range of theories and observation methods, are engaged in fruitful conversation with their peers, and in general are doing what they can to continue to grow, as scholars but also as human beings.

Hermeneutics and Constitutionalism

Heidegger, Gadamer, Taylor, and Rorty all saw poetry, literature, art, and even sports as powerful lenses for understanding the world and explaining their philosophies. Ever since Gadamer bent my framework to the breaking point, I have found that stand-up comedy is the best lens for my own edification.

I have employed this lens in numerous venues before, so I hope you’ll forgive me quoting myself:

There’s something mysterious about a truly successful set. The comic spends no small amount of time laying groundwork, and then lands a punchline that lights up the room. There’s a palpable effect; people loosen up, they’re more likely to laugh at things they might have only chuckled at mere moments earlier. In a sense, the comedian seeks to master the room rather than any specific people in it. But he never knows ahead of time, or even most of the time he’s up, whether he’s going to pull it off or not. Comedians, especially unknowns and especially unknowns performing at open mics, step into a situation of great uncertainty and emotional vulnerability.

Even seasoned comics with well-tested material can blow it and face the agony of an uncomfortably or tensely silent room. There’s never a guarantee, no matter how good they are, that this day won’t be a bad one, this performance won’t win the audience over. And that is after years of almost entirely bad days. In short, it takes not only practice, but considerable commitment in the face of discomfort and humiliation in order to become skilled at comedy.

There are a few key pieces here. First and foremost, the circumstances; jokes do not stand on their own, but are funny in specific contexts. Then there is delivery, of course; the performance. To paraphrase Aristotle, a joke is funny when told the right way to the right audience under the right circumstances. Then there’s a relationship between the two: a successfully delivered joke actively influences the circumstances, improving conditions for the next joke and the one after that. Finally, there is an irreducible, even oppressive, uncertainty; no matter how experienced and skilled the comedian, no matter how reliably their set has worked for however long a time, it is impossible to know that here, tonight, at this performance, they will succeed.

This array of contingencies makes scientific humor impossible:

Now imagine cognitive scientists attempting to study humor. They have a set of pre-written jokes and have people read them in a controlled environment. Or use your imagination—try to think of any controlled environment in which they could systematically study humor. I can’t. Professional comedians brave pitiless audiences for years in order to master the art of formulating and delivering jokes. If they can’t be guaranteed to make you laugh, do you really think cognitive scientists could, much less reliably and in a way that replicates?

In Gadamer’s formulation, understanding is an event, it is something that happens to someone, not something they choose to have. In comedy, a polite laugh is not the same as a deep belly laugh, the kind that leaves you laughing so hard you are crying. The latter is not something you can choose, it is something that happens to you, perhaps in spite of yourself.

For Gadamer, hermeneutics is what we reach for when something has gone wrong, when understanding has not happened. Much as we can choose to try and understand why other people find a joke funny when it failed to make us laugh. Perhaps the end result will be understanding, and as a result when we read new texts employing related ideas, we will understand them from the outset. And perhaps in attempting to understand what people find funny about a joke we did not laugh at, we’ll grasp something intellectually for now that will make us more likely to laugh at similar humor in the future (even if, as anyone can tell you, the very act of understanding a joke in this way kills the particular joke).

Now imagine a judge ordering his bailiff to take away a defendant the jury has just pronounced guilty. Imagine this bailiff does not immediately act; perhaps they are simply spacing out, perhaps they are actively hesitating for some reason. The judge, annoyed, barks his order again, startling the bailiff, who at last complies. Yet into this situation entered the possibility that the bailiff would not act, something that seems more strange, more alien, than the notion that a human being would almost mechanically comply with what another one told them to do simply because the words had been spoken. The judge’s annoyance conveys a frustrated expectation, but only frustrated, not impeded—he still expects to ultimately get his way, and has not even conceived of a scenario in which the bailiff ignores him entirely.

The judge’s order is a speech act, something more specific and institutionalized than the well delivered punchline or the interpretation of a text. Yet the three can usefully be put in parallel for my purposes. Speech act, punchline, and interpretation are all performed actions that achieve an effect on other human beings in specific circumstances. When all goes well, it is almost like an incantation; the bailiff’s body moves on command, the audience roars with laughter with a timing that couldn’t be more precise if it were rehearsed, and a “lightbulb goes off” in one’s head—the reader suddenly finds it impossible to understand something in any other way than the one that has just occurred to them.

I am currently working on a project, a crash course in the political science of the American system. When people have asked me why this project has consumed me the way it has, I have had trouble answering. One answer which is not exactly wrong is that it is relevant. Hermeneutics and pragmatism are fascinating to me, but at the end of the day the payoff of each is that you ought to attend more to the details of life than to the heady abstractions of (even pragmatist and hermeneutic) philosophy. Understanding how the American legal and political system works in practice has much more concrete and useful applications.

But this answer is incomplete. I’ve had trouble articulating the other part but think I have it at last. To me, constitutionalism—which is what this project of mine truly is, constitutionalism in the British sense, the sense not tainted by contractarianism—is simply institutional exegesis.

The constitutional whole

Wood has all the scholarly credentials needed to aid us in the reading of Hegel, but his purpose is to open up the richness of Hegel’s thought, and to answer in his own way Hegel’s claim that “the true is the whole.” This claim too is a source of difficulty, since it seems one must know everything to know anything. And yet this view can also be a source of enabling rather than hindering. If the true is the whole, in a sense one can start anywhere, one can start wherever one happens to be, and traverse the pathways of connection revealed by attentive thinking.

William Desmond’s foreward to Hegel’s Introduction to the System, by Robert E. Wood

To understand the court system you must understand parts like the role of judges, bailiffs, juries, prosecutors, and so forth. These parts add up to the institution of American judiciary as a whole. Only this picture is still partial; the judiciary operates in relation to other institutions; congress, the presidency, the administrative state, the many components of state and local governments, but also the law school system and the pillars of the American legal community. All these and more add up to the American constitution, small-c, which amounts to the whole social system of the nation.

Now, to return to the notion of “performed actions that achieve an effect on other human beings in specific circumstances.” Part of what drew me to constitutionalism in particular of all the possible fields of interpretation was reading more about the details of performed actions in our institutional setting that didn’t have the effect they are formally supposed to have. So The Color of Law contains numerous examples of Supreme Court decisions which simply did not change the reality on the ground at the municipal level, even though the Supreme Court is formally at the top of the system and the rulings were explicitly about municipal laws (rather than being federal cases). Here were judicial punchlines intended to light up the room that were instead met with utter silence.

I began to think of things in terms of:

  • What actors
  • under what circumstances
  • performing what actions
  • achieve what effects

The massive amount of possible combinations means that one cannot ever hope to achieve a comprehensive catalog, even if you lived for a thousand years (the circumstances component alone would be impossible to be comprehensive about). So what can you do?

You can draw an incomplete, imperfect outline of the whole—the constitution. Each part of the constitution is a subject of study with specialists (and practitioners!) who make whole careers out of just that part, or some part of that part. As a constitutionalist, you draw on these specialists from across each institution and corner of society and attempt to flesh out the relations as best you can, to see the big picture that creates the context that each component operates within.

No social action occurs in a void. Audiences are not passive receptacles of comedians’ jokes. Some may not even be there to enjoy the routine; they may be there begrudgingly, and seek to ruin it for everyone or to draw positive attention to themselves by upstaging the comedian. When a comedian sets up a joke, these hecklers can take specific action to torpedo the conditions the comedian is seeking to create. Skilled comedians know not only how to tell a joke to receptive audiences, but how to parry hecklers and use their barbs to the comedians’ own advantage.

Similarly, a ruling issued by the Supreme Court is not met by a passively accepting institutional structure; actors seated at different perches of power throughout the system can take action to nullify any possible effect the ruling might have. In as much as the jurisprudence known as legal realism has a useful practical message for judges on the bench, it is that these factors—how institutional actors will actually respond to rulings—need to be considered when deciding the rulings in the first place.

A good constitutionalist will be able to see a particular action by a particular actor under a particular set of circumstances, and, without being able to scientifically predict anything, have useful thoughts about:

  • What the likely effect would be if no other actor made an attempt at nullification
  • What actions from what actors could potentially nullify the effect of the action
  • What actions from what actors would strengthen or complement the effect of the action

At this time, to speak of constitutionalism in America is rather presumptuous. We have political science and sociology. We have a legal community with a great deal of knowledge of case law. We have capital-C Constitutionalism, which, when it takes the form of philosophy rather than knowledge of relevant case law, is little more than a species of rationalism. But few really attempt the exegesis of American society, to read our institutional character, the constitution that matters more than any other could.

And it just seems to me to be very hard to get a sense of how a particular institution truly functions in the American setting if you don’t have at least a sketch of the overall constitution to provide context.

That, then, is part of my current interest—OK, obsession—with constitutionalism. Gadamer’s hermeneutics truly turned my world upside down and made me reconsider a great deal from scratch. Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation, exegesis its practice. The more comfortable I became with the former, the more I hungered for a topic in which to practice the latter. Constitutionalism, for a number of reasons I hope I made clear above, has a great deal about it that excites me intellectually.

That Feeling When You Take Memes Seriously

Memes are destroying America. Haven’t you heard? Whether produced by enemy nations as psy-ops or simply by the evil among and within ourselves, they are definitely bad. And they are definitely serious.

As someone who takes rhetoric pretty seriously, I requested a review copy of a certain book by what I had been assured were two of the top scholars studying rhetoric today on the topic of memes, and specifically alt-right memes in 2015/16. I assumed the narrow focus would allow for a deep dive; I was incorrect. The book was 75% comparative communications theory, 20% summaries of news and articles about memes, and 5% engagement with source material.

The rule of serious attempts to analyze memes as rhetoric is that such attempts are impossible to take seriously. They mutter ominously about dark motives and dire consequences (or scream about this “VIRTUALLY UNREGULATED” genre), all sound and fury, without insight whatsoever.


The combination of their newness, their frivolity, and the audience for which serious works are written, seems guaranteed to produce the most empty, pointless analysis imaginable.

What’s special about memes? Well, it’s like a third of the population became political cartoonists overnight, only the result is even less subtle than that. And of course, politics is but one area that’s been memed; everything from video games and sports to philosophy and theology have subreddits and Facebook pages aplenty dedicated to creating and sharing memes.

But that’s it, really. It’s a more participatory political cartoon. In day to day interactions online, it is less propaganda (which is what the serious analysts want it to be) than a visual stand-in for a one-liner. It’s a means for shit-talking as well as just dicking around for laughs and attention.

Other than that, its significance is no different from any other form of rhetoric. It seems significant now because it’s everywhere. But like all rhetoric, its very pervasiveness militates against a general significance. To put it differently; the literary theorist might think Coca-Cola can brainwash you with advertising, but Pepsi, and for that matter health drinks, can advertise too. A lot of rhetorical effects cancel one another out, just like my vote for a Democrat cancels out your vote for a Republican.

An Actual Serious Analysis™ would focus on specific source material from a specific period and analyze specific effects. This is what the aforementioned book should have done; just gone through hundreds and hundreds of memes and traced their proliferation and evolution, and attempt to suss out their specific impact from how they are received in particular communities. THAT would be interesting. I would find it interesting, at any rate.

Rhetoric does matter. Business-as-usual rhetorical effects occur within the comfortable confines of institutions; you following the voting procedure. The officiant declares a couple married. In as much as the typical meme or the typical political ad has an effect, it is to change people’s within-institutional choices, in this case who they vote for. But the institutions themselves only exist because, much like money, the community “understands” them to. Some rhetorical effects can thus weaken institutions, as when confidence in a currency plummets and people stop accepting it as tender altogether. Part of the buzz around memes is that people really think we’re memeing our way to institutional death. I am skeptical that the memes are the problem. But if you think, as I do, that rhetoric matters, and also that memes are a form of it, then consider bypassing the unified-theory-of-memes approach in favor of an approach that sticks close to specific examples and pays attention to the communities that make use of them.

Truth Imperiled

We join our hero as he seeks aid in his quest to save truth, science, and western civilization itself.

OUR HERO: Sir! Sir! Am I to understand you are a philosopher?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER: Why, yes, that is my trade.

OUR HERO: And are you one of those—one of those villainous characters who believes that truth is relative, or there is no such thing as reality, or what have you?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER (offended): I should say not. Truth and reality are the whole point of our enterprise!

OUR HERO: Forgive me. I have just finished watching several videos on YouTube which have disclosed some rather alarming revelations about the state of our culture. Were you aware, sir, of the pervasiveness of postmodernism?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER: Don’t even get me started. All these “critical this” and “critical that” fields, the impenetrable prose…believe me, my colleagues and I are well aware of the problem.

OUR HERO: It is a great relief to hear you say that. Did you know, for instance, that they do not think one can merely observe reality? As if I couldn’t just reach out and touch this table right here, right now!

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER (smirking a little): Well, what you’re saying is naive empiricism. Everyone knows that doesn’t work. But the postmodernists certainly go too far.

OUR HERO (uncertain, but pressing on): Yes…for example, they think that knowledge is merely a product of social relations! As if science itself just rested on the flimsy basis of trusting one another and behaving in a trustworthy manner! But any schoolchild knows that with the scientific method you can directly test hypotheses!

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER (growing smug): Well…that’s just naive realism. Knowledge is a product of social relations, though I wouldn’t say “merely”.

OUR HERO (baffled): What are you saying?? Are you one of them?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER: Come now, read a book once in a while. Philosophers like Sir Karl Popper, for instance, are very popular with scientists themselves, and he agreed with every word of what I have just said to you. That’s not the problem at all.

OUR HERO: Then…then what is the problem?

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER: Well those damned continental postmodernists just don’t see that [long angry rant fleshing out a set of highly technical distinctions]. I mean, whatever happened to basic academic standards?

NEXT TIME: Having discovered how deeply the cancer of postmodernism has spread even among its critics, our hero must venture into the Intellectual Dark Web to find his true allies in this glorious struggle.

Philosophy as Genre

As we walked along the paved path in Millerton, NY, my father posed to me this question:

“What is the point of all this reading you’re doing? What are you trying to accomplish?”

My father is hardly the type to suggest one ought to read less, and he is without a doubt where I inherited my habit – some might say compulsion – of regular reading.  Yet his reading is often directed by some overarching questions or project. So what he was asking me was not “why are you reading so much,” but “what’s the goal? What’s driving it?”

If I had to answer, I’d have to say: more questions than I can count. More than I know how to formulate.

I started out on the trajectory that ended up shifting my reading habits from being heavily skewed towards popular nonfiction towards being heavily skewed towards academic philosophy with some specific questions and even a specific project, which has been all but abandoned.

What I came to feel was that philosophy could not provide satisfying answers to those questions. Literature and poetry and art in general are, without a doubt, more fertile grounds of exploration.

Yet after concluding this, I continued to read philosophy. If anything, I read more of it.

Hence my father’s question.

The answer is simple: because I love it.

Richard Rorty said that philosophy is a kind of writing, which is not quite right: it is a genre, and like science fiction it can take forms other than writing. To the tradition of thought we could broadly characterize as rationalist, this is a heresy; to them, philosophy is modeled on science, not literature. To model it on literature is simply a sign of the unseriousness of pragmatists like Rorty and postmodernists like Derrida.

But to say so is to presume that science is serious while literature and art are not. This is precisely what I would dispute, with Rorty. Great literature and art have the potential to broaden our horizons, to teach us about life and the human experience. To show us the way to wisdom.

Philosophy, like other genres, can broaden our horizons as well.

Or perhaps I’m simply an unserious person, putting off the literature and poetry I ought to be reading more of, in favor of philosophy, my favorite guilty pleasure.

Reasons for Knowing Knowledge

There are many theories of what knowledge is. That is clear enough from the past 400 years of philosophy, never mind the thousands before that. What has drawn less interest is that there are different reasons we may wish to know what knowledge is.

René Descartes and David Hume were quite clear on why they wanted to know of knowledge. Though they had radically different theories of knowledge, each believed that epistemology was necessary to shore up the foundations of other fields. From this perspective, historians and physicists and linguists need to wait around for philosophers to sort out how they can tell if they actually know anything about their fields. That is the central conceit of the so-called “demarcation problem,” for example.

It is against this sort of epistemology that Richard Rorty framed his pragmatism as anti-authoritarian. Imagine historians thinking they were the authorities on statecraft or politics. It’s laughable. Much has been said about the value of knowing history so one doesn’t repeat past mistakes, but to think of history as primarily a source of practical insights is to seriously misunderstand the field. I have to wonder if anyone who suggests such a thing has ever actually read a history book. Or, on the flipside, perhaps they are a little too well read in history and too short on practical experience. In any event, one needs to be deeply disconnected from either history as it is written, or the practical affairs of the world, to think that the former could be a manual for the latter, or that historians are in a special position to tell practitioners how to do what they do.

To Rorty, the image of philosophers lecturing scientists on when they can know they know anything in their own fields is even more absurd than the image of the historian telling politicians and public officials how to do their jobs. Scholars and scientists did not wait around for the perfect theory of knowledge to be developed before getting to work. And the notion that outsiders to those fields are in a position to dictate the terms of inquiry for insiders is highly questionable. I won’t reconstruct Rorty’s argument here, but suffice it to say that he sees epistemology of the Cartesian and Humean sort as a sort of will-to-tyranny over other disciplines.

His pragmatism is cast as a liberation of the disciplines to pursue their own discourses on the terms negotiated by fellow practitioners, rather than by interfering outsiders. Its value is akin to the counter-punch in boxing; rather than making the first move, it comes as a response. If we imagine historians and physicists minding their own business and pursuing their work, when a interlocutor comes along with an argument drawing on philosophical positivism or related frameworks, pragmatism is the tool to get that interlocutor to back down.  It nullifies the stultifying effects of tyrannical philosophy, rather than offering a substantive alternative.

Because he deflates all of philosophy’s big claims to value, Rorty concludes that there’s little use for philosophy any longer, except as a field of caretakers for a set of classic texts. This is where I must part ways with him.

I look instead to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the pivotal figure in 20th century hermeneutics. Like Rorty, Gadamer didn’t see his theory of interpretation as a guidebook for the social scientists whose fields he discussed in the course of Truth and Method and other works. He had no interest in dictating the terms of inquiry for practitioners. And like Rorty, in as much as it has practical value, it is of the counter-punch variety. Unlike Rorty, however, Gadamer views hermeneutics as discipline itself, as legitimate a field of inquiry as history. Like history, it is a study of human doings. Yet as hinted above, the relationship between these fields and practical insight is a complex one. Gadamer no doubt underplayed the practical value of hermeneutics, but, as mentioned, historians and especially history enthusiasts too often overplay the practical significance of history.

The reasons for knowing knowledge, interpretation, or history that align with the spirit of inquiry in these fields is much more indeterminate than something as simple as generating practical know-how. It is more like satisfying intellectual curiosity, or attempting to deepen your knowledge of the human story, or simply taking pleasure in developing and exercising the skills of inquiry and argument in a specific domain. I would sum up this non-authoritarian (contra Descartes and Hume) but non-eliminative (contra Rorty) sort of reason as seeking wisdom. That is an appropriately vague and indeterminate answer for the question I wished to pose in this post.

3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam

The graduate program in economics at George Mason University was a formal community of a very particular sort. As students, we had been granted membership in that community though a selective (or so I tell myself) admissions process, and kept it by paying out tuition and keeping a full course load (without failing out). We learned economics, yes, but we also learned a common language; the language of Hayek, of Ostrom, and above all, of Coase. In social gatherings among classmates, future spouses joked to one another that they were quite tired of hearing about this Coase fellow. Near the end of the program, some of us wondered out loud, “what are we going to do when we have to go out into the world and never be surrounded by so many people like us?”

We have all managed to survive, somehow. My career has had very little to do with what I learned there, and was probably only impacted in ways that (GMU econ professor) Bryan Caplan would appreciate.

But what I really came away from GMU with was a connection to their scene.

In 2008 when I started the Master’s program there, the department was fairly unique in the high number of professors writing on blogs or putting out podcasts. Part of my desire to enter the program stemmed from having followed these professors beforehand. But it wasn’t until after I started that I really dived in deep.

A scene is different from a community, though it is no less “imagined;” that is, the intersubjective product of games played among meaning-making individuals. In the online scene of which the GMU econ professors are still a part, they form a sort of center of gravity; one network cluster among a few, the boundaries of which are ill-defined and ever shifting. Where communities are shaped by membership and belonging, scenes are shaped by audience and participation.

A common audience forms the glue between GMU econ blogs and podcasts, Slate Star Codex, Modeled Behavior, and a constellation of sites and communities that form the scene I used to be an active participant in. This audience participates in shared experiences – in this case, most frequently shared experiences of media consumption. There was frequently a book of the moment, which everyone who was part of the scene either read or read about. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation was an example that comes to mind, but the book does not necessarily have to be by someone in the scene, or even have much to do with the typical interests of the audience in that scene.

A coworker who follows the comedy scene closely gave me a good example of this recently. He said that a comedian’s wife had passed away and her book would be published posthumously, so the comedian was promoting it on comedy podcasts even though it had nothing to do with comedy. This coworker said that he decided to give the book a shot, if for no other reason than everyone else would be, and he wanted to get the jokes about it and other references to it. You don’t have to keep up with every new text embraced by the scene, but if you stop keeping up with any of them, you’re likely to find yourself falling out of its orbit.

Membership offers a formal boundary for communities, in relationality if not in geography. I don’t want to exaggerate the concreteness of communities; there is churn, there is overlap with other communities, and there’s substantial grey area. But the ebb and flow of scenes is of another order entirely. Participation, either in the audience or as the object of their attention, is more easily withdrawn than membership, which often requires some formal step. More to the point, it is far easier to dip your toes in. You can go to one metal concert without becoming a part of the metal scene. It’s a far bigger hurdle to become even a part time student at a university. And when you do, there is a paper trail to show it; the line between when you go from a casual concert-goer to a part of the metal scene is vague in the extreme.

Scenes are often called “communities” as in “the online economics community”, and that’s fine; that’s one way the word is used. I distinguish between communities and scenes here not to get at the essence of either word, but merely to observe that there is a distinction to be made. Formal community and scenes are two forms of meaningful existence in the modern world, where we have left the primordial village community of the Romantics’ fantasies far behind.

The Really Real

“There is no ‘we’,” was a catchphrase among the GMU econ company I kept when I went to grad school there. The only really real things were individuals, who made choices, had preferences, and had blood running through their veins, by God! Groups are not really real. They are a myth, a superstition, an excuse for the strong to continue the exploitation of the weak that has gone on since the first social hierarchy was established.

Years later, I explored the communitarians. They seemed to say that there could be no individual at all, without community. I talked with Catholic leftists who would spit out the accusation of “Thatcherite!” at the mere mention of the word “individual.”

The communitarians seemed to have some powerful insights, but the community which glued it all together and made these insights work eluded me. Every time I thought I had my hands on it, it melted away and I had to start anew.

I asked, “what is community?” I kidnapped Dave away from his loving wife and children, at any hour of the night or day, to demand an answer of him. I asked and I asked.

Benedict Anderson, a Marxist, made his legacy on the claim that communities are imagined. But this was not the claim of my GMU mentors, who insisted on the unreality of “we.” Anderson’s communities were imagined only in as much as they were so large, we can never meet all of their members, even though we strongly believe that they are there, and that we stand in a meaningful relationship to them. Anderson did not deny groups in order to embrace only the “really real,” and criticized Marxists who did:

With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention’ to ‘fabrication’ and ‘falsity’, rather than to ‘imagining’ and ‘creation’. In this way he implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

Examples of these “styles” include vast networks of kinship, Christendom, and Anderson’s primary subject matter, the nation.

By the time I began scratching my itch to understand community until I drew blood, I had already been lead to view things through the lens of intersubjective relationality; or the language-games of Wittgenstein and Gadamer. But a community is not a game. So what is it? The grounds of the game, in some abstract sense?

The metaphor of the game was one way of approaching the question of human relationality. But there are many types of relations. In the wee hours, as I interrogated him for some sign of how I might understand this question of community, Dave modestly suggested that membership might have something to do with it. It took quite some time for me to listen to what he was saying.

One thing that helped crystalize this for me was reading Michaele Ferguson’s book Sharing Democracy, in which she attempted to discuss imagined community as I might have, before my many conversations with Dave. Here is the relevant part of my review:

Intersubjective relations are a useful starting place, but relationality per se is not very informative. There are many types of relations, with different implications in different contexts. One important relation that is absent from Ferguson’s analysis is membership. This relation is not between individuals, but between an individual and an entity—an “imagined” entity, in Anderson’s sense, though this is misleading. When the conditions are right, such entities are no more or less imagined than money. Imagined social entities in which individuals are members are precisely the collective agencies that Ferguson mis-defines.

I could not see the entity for so long. But it’s there, often explicitly acknowledged in the ways we relate to one another. We play various roles in our social games, and these roles relate to our standing as members in some common group – or of rival groups, or of cooperating but nevertheless distinct groups. The way our imagined communities shape our relations to one another as individuals is as real as the way money influences our behavior. Free will is not subsumed; I can choose not to accept money. I can choose to walk away. But the reality of what I’m walking away from is not changed by this; I could have taken that money, and I could have used it to acquire possessions or hire people to render services.

So too with the group – it is precisely because I am a citizen of the United States of America, living within the territory of its sovereign body, that I expect to be able to use dollars and not pounds to acquire my possessions. It is because I am an employee of a company that I expect they will let me enter the building and go into the area outsiders are not allowed to wander through unescorted.

Anderson makes reference to “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” which he excepts, tentatively, from being “imagined.” This is a kernel of the Romantics, who judged modernity as false against the really real of the authentically primitive. In the mouth of a Romantic, just as in the mouth of an economic individualist, “imagined” is spat, much like “Thatcherite” in the mouth of a Catholic leftist. It is an epithet against that which is not really real.

Perhaps it is time we loosened our grip on the really real, and grew more comfortable with the reality of the imagined.

Frameworks, Models, and Math

One could go mad seeking a vocabulary to speak of vocabulary, a language to speak of language.

A framework is a shared semantic web, a range of possible pragmatic moves to make in language-games played with fellow adherents as well as with proponents of alternatives. In short, it is a language.

A model is a much more regimented language; its moves are fewer but more penetrating, the domain of its meanings narrower but, one hopes, more illuminating if kept within those confines. In economics, all they taught us were models. Even at the not-particularly-mathematical George Mason University Department of Economics, there was no substitute for the value of a formal model. Simplicity in the model was pared with sophistication in collecting the larger menu of models; we were taught to be undoctrinaire about models that might add up to an inconsistent whole, so long as the application brought us closer to truth for the matter at hand. Somehow, though, these models all fit comfortably inside of a utilitarian framework, albeit the more qualitatively sensitive and uncertainty-emphasizing Austrian variety.

Models turn out to have an unusual portability. The economic models, as I mentioned, were clearly utilitarian in design. They existed in a hermeneutic circle with utilitarian frameworks; the model as the part and the framework as the whole. The law of supply and the law of demand, perfect competition or price discrimination, are all models that are seemingly incomprehensible without a foundation of utilitarian assumptions.

And yet, these assumptions can be relaxed. Perhaps not entirely eradicated. But a humanist like Deirdre McCloskey can comfortably turn these models into metaphors and integrate the “P(rudence)” values into a framework which includes “S(acred)” ones.

But such an integration has its costs, or at least its impact. McCloskey is no mystic. Integrating the economists’ prudent models transforms the framework they are integrated into, just as the models themselves must be transformed as they enter into a new hermeneutic circle with a different whole.

Of course, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding is a creative act, and transformative. All fusions of horizons leave both horizons forever changed. The utilitarian is transformed merely in the act of applying his model to a specific case, just as certainly as the humanist is transformed by integrating models of utilitarian origin.

As I thought about these things, my mind wandered to the question of math. Math, like models, is quite regimented. So much so that – again, like models – it requires a less regimented language in order to provide the resources to explain it, discuss what is going on in a given example, and so on. Nevertheless, there are few things more portable than math. Mathematicians do their work in a staggering variety of vernaculars. And their work can be understood without too much explanation by mathematicians who do not share a common tongue.

It is no wonder that math so dazzled the Pythagoreans and Platonists, seeming to transcend the contingencies of language as it does. But it does not truly transcend those contingencies. The positivist dream of a perfectly rational language is long dead; mathematics requires the resources of unregimented, highly contingent language in order to be understood and to be maintained (never mind further developed). Math itself is, as I said, a regimented language. But it is not just another language. There truly is something miraculous about it, and about the portability of models and of meanings, across the creative and transformative gulf of fused horizons.

It Depends

One important but easily overlooked lesson from hermeneutics is that you must attend to the particulars.

Students who lack experience and have an appetite for abstraction are generally looking for shortcuts. I recall a math teacher who joked that mathematicians would spend enormous amounts of time trying to find the quickest way to solve a lot of problems at once. There’s nothing wrong with that mindset—it’s how we get innovation in general. But there are domains where it is inappropriate.

Understanding texts is one of those domains. It takes patience and consideration to understand a text. Moreover, it is an ongoing task: the more you read beyond that text, the more context you have for understanding it. There is a gulf between an experienced scholar and a newcomer to the field which can only be bridged by a great deal of patient, careful reading. And that takes time—there is no shortcut.

The desire to seek shortcuts where they are inappropriate is common. One man wanted to determine whether the great works of the western canon were really all that great through a very simple probabilistic analysis. Another wants to be able to expand the price system to every facet of life so that he can know what he ought to prioritize. The latter’s impoverished hermeneutical framework makes it literally impossible to conceive that there is concrete knowledge that (say) a dog show judge has about different dog breeds which allows them to have superior judgment over the audience, or that such judgments are qualitative rather than expressed in equations.

Perhaps this is the aspect of hermeneutics that causes those ignorant of it to attribute an anything-goes relativism to it. Unlike the various species of rationalism, or even skepticism, hermeneutics offers no concrete answers. It provides a fairly skeletal outline of how understanding works in general, but offers no constraints on the nature of what might be understood. Intellectual shortcuts are precisely that—constraints on possibilities.

But this isn’t relativism at all. It’s the simple admonition, which we all know on some level but love to deny, that there’s no shortcut to wisdom. It’s very easy to find a reason to be dismissive but much more hard to actually wrestle with what you wish to dismiss, to understand it enough to see if you were correct about its lack of value.

No matter how wise you become, you may have missed something truly crucial. Perhaps you missed a great deal. This is not relativism, but humility.