Philosophy as the Mirror of Economics

I found a rather interesting little post over here. Except I probably found it interesting for different reasons from most people.

The author of the article, for those who don’t want to have to read it, argues that the failure of academic economists to predict the financial crisis is down to three things:

…specialization, the difficulty of forecasting, and the disengagement of much of the profession from the real world.”

Now, I must briefly ridicule the idea that due to these problems “it may well be that academic economists have little to say about short-term economic movements, so that forecasting, with all its errors, is best left to professional forecasters” – that’s like saying after an unpredicted hurricane that maybe meteorologists have little to say about short-term weather conditions and that weather forecasting is best left to guys with pine cones or gammy weather-legs that twinge when a storm is coming. But my main thought when reading the article was: is he talking about economics, or about philosophy?

Like economics, (analytic) philosophy is highly specialised, both in the way that few philosophers are notable in more than one area (particular if we’re talking about analysis of historical philosophy), and in the way that the analytic movement (even the modern soi-dissant “analytic” movement) likes to take one point of trivium at a time. And like economics, philosophy is, I think, at great risk of divorcing itself from social realities and abandoning its purpose – inculcating wisdom. Philosophy can bring wisdom on two levels – at the first order, by solving or resolving particular questions in ethics (in in prior years in science also), and at the second order, by resolving tensions of the mind and confusions or disordered thoughts. Modern philosophy, however, seems entirely divorced from both these problems. What possible function has an answer to the question of perdurance and endurance (even if we admit that such a question can have ‘an answer’)? It feels as though philosophy has fallen in love with its own method, and forgotten what the method is for. Instead, academics apply thought not to the world but to the writings of other academics. This in turn leads to that specialisation: if my only interest in writing about Epicurus, for instance, is to undermine him on his own premises, or to refute the attempts of others to undermine him, or even if I happen to rise above that and try to work out what he really means… well, why would I care what the guy next door is writing about Mill? The determination to analyse each thing by itself, on its own foundations, precludes the attempt to draw together divergent strands into a productive and synthetic work. Meanwhile, the public need for wisdom in thought and deed has not gone away, but now must be met by pop-psychology, self-help, incoherent cod-philosophy and second-hand religion – the market forecasters or the men with pine cones.

More fundamentally, I wonder whether this ‘academisation’ of both economics and philosophy is no coincidence. Philosophy, either as a cause or as a mirror of something underlying, often tells us a lot about a culture: and just as the lunacies of the Continent (chiefly France) can often be untangled by realising their roots (or reflection) in Continental philosophy, perhaps the lunacy of Angloaustria can be untangled in the light of our own philosophical weakness, our isolate scholasticism. The pervading atmosphere of our academia (outside those departments, chiefly in the arts and humanities, that have been infected by Continental wiffle-waffle) is pedantic, scholarly small-mindedness insulated by a pervasive distrust of overaching theory, systemisation, syncretism, or just about anything bold enough to make any claim or prediction.

Although I do believe philosophy, as a sort of model for academic respectability, has had a causal role in setting different academic atmospheres in different places, the article about economists may also lead us to consider the economic and political reasons for the way modern philosophy is. Just like economists, philosophers are lead into specialisation and reactiveness by the stresses of financial competition, which reward the limited expert over the generalist, and punish anybody brave enough to let themselves be proven wrong. At core, then, beyond questions of the actual state of modern philosophy – which no doubt is debateable – is the more fundamental question of whether the modern academic system, and its interaction with the economic and political systems, is really incentivised to produce the results that are best for philosophy itself. If everybody follows what is best for them, we may be in a situation where the discipline as a whole suffers. And the same is also true for other subjects – not just economics, but science, art, and the humanities also.

If I might be allowed a philosophical moment: if philosophy is turned into a profession, then philosophers will act like professionals. Professionals have many good qualities, but the professional way of thinking is not noted for its inculcation of wisdom. It is as easy to get rich as a fool as it is to get rich as a wise man; easier, perhaps. The safetyguard here should be the wisdom of those who purchase philosophy – department heads, the peers who review books and articles. But all of them are professionals too! And the common public who buy pseudophilosophical trash, and pseudoscience likewise, clearly are not rewarding wisdom either.

As somebody wiser than me once said: “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind”.

In some ways, perhaps academia, and in particular philosophy, is facing a Malthusian crisis: there are more and more people, and more and more philosophers, but the amount that can be said has not increased in proportion. As a result, we have more and more people saying less and less (something which applies equally to the Continental tradition – while we write more and more about fewer and smaller things, they write less and less and pretend to be saying more and more); and the question must be asked, whether the acceptance and support of a system that encourages mediocrity will actually hinder the production of great thoughts?

So here’s a radical suggestion: make it harder to be a philosopher. Don’t encourage people to study it. It goes against all my instincts, but perhaps it would be for the best. Reduce the number of academics, reduce the feasibility of a life lived entirely in close specialisation, and maybe the standard of discourse would be raised. I certainly believe that at earlier levels of education the fundamental skills of philosophy – which is to say the fundamental skills of living and of being human – should be taught to everybody, but is anything really gained by having so many people sitting around congratulating each other?

Of course, it’s not a practical idea by itself. If there are fewer places, there will be more competition, which means more pandering, not less. Perhaps there’s something to be said for idleness; but now that we have developed a conscience, perhaps the renewal of idleness, and hence the renewal of philosophy, may have to wait until a time beyond scarcity.

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12 thoughts on “Philosophy as the Mirror of Economics

  1. Hans says:

    Maybe it’s not only “professionalisation” – maybe it is so that all reasonable answers we can come up with have already been given? Maybe all roads towards wisdom available to us have already been travelled, and there’s simply no way to solve the questions that have not been solved in a new way? So all tht’s left is to re-examine the existing answers? A bit like (as I see it) in art, where in the 20th century all kinds of experiments have been made, all exiting traditions and rules have been decostructed, and where it’s still possible to create beauty, but impossible to create somethings stunningly new as still was possible until (say) the middle of the 20th century? Or am I too pessimistic?

  2. nac says:

    hahaha like classical philosophy once explored all available inroads into wisdom… until the world changed, lost its jadedness and was again willing to try complex and preposterous new ideas. at the same time, other parts of the world were exploring completely different domains of understanding. who’s to decide what is “reasonable”? might as well worry that one day, we’ll exhaust every valid permutation of english words and reach the end of literature! also, how is inculcating wisdom in the individual the same as making new discoveries?

  3. vacuouswastrel says:

    Hans: you have a point. But not a big enough one, I don’t think. I don’t think philosophy is exhausted yet. I think there are three major deficiencies:
    a) many philosophers have failed to accept, or have even rejected, the work of Wittgenstein, and of various philosophers of a similar bent – largely because, I think, Wittgenstein would have most of these academics become unemployed. Experts in a field are loath to accept theories saying that the field should be smaller;
    b) historical philosophy is still treated too much as obsolete theory of historical interest, and not as live philosophy. In some cases (closer to physics) this is perfectly justified, but in others (closer to ethics) it is not. This is now changing, with a lot more attention paid to Classical ethics and its possible modern application, for instance – but this is still underdeveloped;
    c) philosophy has largely retreated from thought to meta-thought to meta-meta-thought. Even if we don’t think it should return to the first order (which it should in some areas – ethics), it should at least return to the second! That is, rather than telling people how they should be thinking, it now discusses how to think about how they should be thinking. Few philosophers (and there are exceptions!) seem to be willing to dirty their hands by unknotting actual dilemmas. The discussion about how to unknot things are valuable, but there’s also a function to actually applying that knowledge and unknotting things.

  4. nac says:

    My last question wasn’t an idly rhetorical one. There’s no maximum depth to which any issue can be explored.

  5. Hans says:

    @nac: I’m not saying that you cannot write anything in philosophy anymore. I also don’t say that you cannot come up with some new ideas, what I’m saying that is that -maybe- we just have explored all avenues that make sense to what I would call “Western” ways of thinking. We can still raid other traditions for ideas, although, that again, would mostly mean ripping ideas out of their context and forcing them into frameworks that have been developed in the process of forming our philosophical traditions. We also can, as v.w. says, revisit Classical philosophy or develop Wittgenstein, or return to discussing more practical matters – but again, these are not new avenues, only returns to avenues already travelled, trying to take in sights and rest at places that we left out for lack of time and interest before, and attempts to put the souvenirs we brought home from those travels to use. And, of course, there’s no maximum depth for the exploration of any issue, but that was exactly one of the points in v.w.’s original post – philosophers, ecocnomists (and scientists in general) explore ever smaller problems in ever more detail, but there is a law of diminishing returns

  6. nac says:

    Except for a few isolated thinkers, characteristically “Western” thought came to an end centuries ago. Now all you’ve got are a number of divergent narratives like analytical, postmodern, etc. I suppose you could group these under an umbrella term “Western”, but that’d have little meaning besides “originating in the West”. So what exactly do you mean by “Western” thought?

    As for depth, one issue is not always One Issue, you know. Incandescent bulbs can lead to quantum mechanics.

  7. nac says:

    (even 20, 30 years would be “centuries” to me)

  8. Hans says:

    @ Western – all these “divergent narratives” build on the same traditions and are only further developments of threads that go back to the beginnings of Western philosophy. You couldn’t have “analytical” or “post-modern” thinking without the predecessors they argue against or deconstruct.

  9. nac says:

    Even if that were the case, which it isn’t, so what? Why should you, I or anyone else be concerned about it being increasingly difficult to come up with original footnotes to Plato? Explore other interesting ideas without giving up the work you’ve already done, maybe?

    Also, would you have to go out of your way to ignore everything Plato said, shutting him out completely, for new ideas not to be footnotes to his work? Re ideal origins, here’s one example: (from; see also

    Influence of Indian logic on modern logic

    In the late 18th century, British scholars began to take an interest in Indian philosophy and discovered the sophistication of the Indian study of inference, culminating in Henry T. Colebrooke’s The Philosophy of the Hindus: On the Nyaya and Vaisesika Systems in 1824 [8], which provided an analysis of inference and comparison to the received Aristotelian logic, resulting in the observation that the Aristotelian syllogism could not account for the Indian syllogism. Max Mueller contributed an appendix to Thomson’s Laws of Thought (1853), in which he he placed Greek and Indian logic on the same plane: “The sciences of Logic and Grammar were, as far as history allows us to judge, invented or originally conceived by two nations only, by Hindus and Greeks.”[9]

    Jonardon Ganeri has observed that this period saw George Boole and Augustus De Morgan make their pioneering applications of algebraic ideas to the formulation of logic (such as Algebraic logic and Boolean logic), and suggested that these figures were likely to be aware of these studies in xeno-logic, and further that their acquired awareness of the shortcomings of traditional logic are likely to have stimulated their willingness to look outside the system.

    Indian logic attracted the attention of many Western scholars, and has had an influence on pioneering 19th-century logicians such as Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan, and particularly George Boole, as confirmed by his wife Mary Everest Boole in an “open letter to Dr Bose” titled “Indian Thought and Western Science in the Nineteenth Century” written in 1901[10][11]: “Think what must have been the effect of the intense Hinduizing of three such men as Babbage, De Morgan and George Boole on the mathematical atmosphere of 1830-1865″

    De Morgan himself wrote in 1960 of the significance of Indian logic: “The two races which have founded the mathematics, those of the Sanscrit and Greek languages, have been the two which have independently formed systems of logic.”[12]

    Mathematicians are now aware of the influence of Indian mathematics on the European. For example, Hermann Weyl wrote: “Occidental mathematics has in past centuries broken away from the Greek view and followed a course which seems to have originated in India and which has been transmitted, with additions, to us by the Arabs; in it the concept of number appears as logically prior to the concepts of geometry.” (Weyl, 1929)

    In his Histoire de la logique, Robert Blanché, the author of Structures intellectuelles, published in 1966, mentions that Bochenski speaks about a sort of Indian logical triangle to be compared with the logical square,invented by Aristotle and Apuleius. It seems that with this logical triangle, Indian logic proposes a useful approach to the problem of particular propositions.

    So, no, there is no hermetically sealed Western thought anymore, except as a label denoting an idea’s place of origin, just as there’s no essentially Indian thought.

  10. vacuouswastrel says:

    Don’t do that again. This isn’t the place for copypasta.

    You’re also wholly wrong. First, the current Continental/Analytic divide is only a century old. Second, it is a comparatively trivial divide compared to that between the West and India; and that divide is comparatively trivial compared to that between the West/India and China (except in areas where China has been directly influenced by Indian loanthoughts – ie Buddhism).

    Your wikipedia article is transparently a combination of nationalism and balderdash. India has many good qualities no doubt, but sadly a tendency to produce sober and balanced Wikipedia articles about articles with “Indian” in the title does not currently seem to be one of them. In other news, apparently all languages are descendents of Sanskrit, except for Sumerian, which as we know is a dialect of Tamil.

    Alternatively, the nonsensicality of the article may be taken to reflect the incommensurability between our traditions.

    I think a good example of how great that incommensurability is is a scholarly article I once read explaining the Dao De Jing to Western readers. Or it began to. Unfortunately, it took about ten pages of linguistic, historical and cultural contextualisation to explain the first sentence. Or look at the preponderance of “Buddhism and X” books, according to which the exact same Buddhist quotes seem to exactly agree with and exactly disagree with any Western philosopher you care to name.

    Philosophy – indeed, culture – all looks the same from a distance, which is why you get so much cod eclecticism. But if you look more closely, often what you find is parallel but wholly enclosed and distinct movements.

    Undeniably, the West has been influenced by the non-West. But it would be truer to say it has been influenced by its perception of the non-West. How much of that perception is actually exotic, and how much is simply a projection of its own subconscious onto a conveniently incomprehensible mirror, is a rather more difficult question.

    Finally, please stop with that “footnotes to Plato” nonsense. Although it does illustrate my point about having forgotten about Ancient philosophy – most of which is very unPlatonic indeed!

  11. nac says:

    ‘Don’t do that again. This isn’t the place for copypasta.’
    Ok, but why? Does WordPress charge you or something?

    ‘First, the current Continental/Analytic divide is only a century old.’
    Uh huh. :|

    ‘it is a comparatively trivial divide compared to that between the West and India’
    How? How do you miss the point so often? Hans said: ‘You couldn’t have “analytical” or “post-modern” thinking without the *predecessors they argue against or deconstruct*.’ I wanted to show that Western Thought has indeed been contaminated by non-Western thinking, and that’s it! Not that modern philosophy is significantly influenced by aboriginal Indian logics. Honestly, how you could have assumed that I’m spewing nationalist garbage boggles my mind!

    Does the article claim a more exalted status for Indian thought? If I had to paste only one line from it, I’d have gone with: “… and further that their acquired awareness of the shortcomings of traditional logic are likely to have stimulated their willingness to look outside the system.”

    “But if you look more closely, often what you find is parallel but wholly enclosed and distinct movements.”
    I completely agree.

    ‘Undeniably, the West has been influenced by the non-West. But it would be truer to say it has been influenced by its perception of the non-West.’

    “Finally, please stop with that “footnotes to Plato” nonsense.”
    Nah, I don’t think I will. Not without a better reason than: ‘Although it does illustrate my point about having forgotten about Ancient philosophy – most of which is very unPlatonic indeed!’

  12. nac says:

    OTOH, if it did sound like I was lauding the supremely practical & superbly scientific results of Indian philosophy!, then I’m glad you made that comment. I don’t think modern men appreciate just how far removed Indian (and several streams of Greek) thought were from the current zeitgeist. I mean really, an Indian sage once tried to create flying machines by mixing all kinds of spices and alchemical elixirs, and placing the resulting potpourri inside a bird-shaped device:

    These aren’t JUST meditative formulae expressed through symbolic language, they actually tried to build these things after the Wright Brothers had already succeeded! What else would you expect from people who believed the human brain is literally full of shit? -_- Classical Indian thought was mostly uncontaminated by empiricism in the western sense.

    Also, most premodern thinking is characterized by a systematic pervasion of aesthetics not only in ethics, but every branch of reasoning. I’d claim that Indian philosophy has indeed produced results, but generally not in fields where the West excelled.

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