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Monday, January 5, 2015


I was sitting here at my desk, wondering what on earth I could find to blog about, when I thought to check my blog to see whether any comments had been posted.  Sure enough, I found a post by Magpie that immediately stimulated a flow of thoughts.  Here is what Magpie had to say:

"Prof., Only now I've come to your tutorial on Mannheim and I find it fascinating.
First, let me explain in my own words (please, bear with me and remember that I'm not a philosopher): In Mannheim's views, "free-floating intellectuals" seem to be characters who, by virtue of their superior knowledge and lack of class attachments, manage to overcome the influence of ideologies. That's why they can see things clearly. Therefore, they can judge what theories are right (or are closer to be right) and can presumably take decisions for the general good.
A few questions about the "free-floating intellectuals":   Aren't they the modern day equivalent to Plato's Philosopher-King?  And don't contemporary economists see themselves in similar ways?"

There is a great deal to say about these observations and questions.  First, Mannheim.  In his great book, Ideology and Utopia, Karl Mannheim begins by introducing us to the extremely troubling idea that frequently, in public debates about matters of major social, economic, and political importance, speakers go beyond questioning the facts or arguments of their opponents to calling into question their very honesty or authenticity.  For example, proponents of tax cuts for business, who claim that such cuts will stimulate growth, are accused of seeking to advance the interests of the rich regardless of the soundness of the arguments.  The aim of such accusations is not to defeat an argument but to wound and even destroy the person making the argument.  In response, of course, those attacked attempt to undermine the reputations of their attackers with similar exposés of their real motivations.

Mannheim moves from analyses of particular accusations of hidden motivations and parti pris to general systemic structures of such unacknowledged motivations, which he groups into two categories:  systematic exaggerations of the stability and inevitability of a social and economic order, whose purpose it is to strengthen that order by representing alternatives to it as impossible or inconceivable -- he calls these ideologies -- and systematic exaggerations of the fragility and vulnerability of a social and economic order, whose purpose it is to weaken that order and encourage those who wish to overthrow it -- he calls these utopias.  [Hence the title of the book.]  Mannheim also calls these full-scale systematic misrepresentations "worldviews" or weltanschuungen.   Drawing heavily on the analyses of Karl Marx, Mannheim argues that the world-view embraced by an individual is a function of that individual's social and economic position.  So, leaving aside what were once called "class traitors," members of the bourgeoisie embrace an ideological world-view that represents the existing order as eternal and invulnerable, while members of the working class [once they have been properly liberated from the ideological blinders imposed on them by their capitalist masters, of course] embrace a utopian world-view that represents the existing order as ripe for revolution.

But as he broadens the concepts of ideology and utopia to encompass full-scale weltanschuungen, Mannheim encounters a problem.  His original motivation in this penetrating analysis was to expose the falsity and illegitimacy of such attacks ad hominem on the person of someone advancing an argument in the public debate.  But that exposure presupposes that there is in fact an alternative free from parti pris, a rational, scientific, academically respectable standpoint from which arguments may be evaluated on the basis of their facts and reasoning alone.  However, once Mannheim moves to what he calls the general notion of ideology, to the notion of comprehensive worldviews, he seems to lose any vantage point from which to offer such rational critiques.  He lacks what Archimedes called a pou sto, a "place where he may stand."  [Archimedes' point was that if he had such a place, he could, with a large enough lever, even move the earth.]

This conclusion, which follows directly from his analysis, clearly troubles Mannheim greatly, and in response he advances a position that I, for one, have always considered wildly implausible and fatally susceptible precisely to a Mannheimian critique:  the theory of the "free-floating intellectual."  There are certain individuals, Mannheim suggests, who have no socio-economic class position but rather float freely in the interstices between the several classes of bourgeois capitalist society, and who are therefore uniquely positioned to offer objective, value-neutral, non-ideological and non-utopian critiques of the flow of arguments in the public sphere.  Who are these individuals?  Intellectuals like himself.

Well you may snicker.  But reflect.  This is exactly the claim made by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice for those on whom the veil of ignorance has descended in the Original Position.

One is reminded of Martin Jay's wonderful report, in The Dialectical Imagination, of what happened when he interviewed the German intellectuals who had emigrated to America from the Frankfurt School of Social Research to escape the Nazis.  He asked each of them whether there was any deeper significance in the fact that they were all upper middle class assimilated German Jews.  To a man [or woman -- he also spoke to Hannah Arendt] they said, "Not a bit."  These, after all, were the most sophisticated social critics in the world, people who were capable of reading deep ideological meaning into popular songs played on the radio.  And yet they were absolutely blind to their own location in a particular socio-economic moment of a particular country.

Magpie asks whether these free-floating intellectuals are the modern counterparts of Plato's Philosopher-Kings.  That is indeed a shrewd thrust.  Plato, of course, has no usable conception of the social as distinguished both from the individual psychological and from the physical or natural, but it is striking that he proposes feeding the lower orders in his ideal republic a myth of the metals that is patently an early version of an ideology.  Plato can of course imagine that his philosopher-kings might over time regress to timocratic rulers, and over several generations descend even to the level of the mob rule of democracy.  But he cannot at all contemplate the possibility that those who have grasped the nature of the Good might nonetheless be in the grip of a self-serving ideology.

As for modern mainstream economists, they float about as freely as limpets!  Their particular self-deception is the belief that mathematics confers upon them freedom from ideology.  Inasmuch as I am about to spend an entire semester dealing with that particular fantasy, I shall say no more here.



Magpie said...


Thanks for the comments! I'll go again through everything later (I've gotta go to work!).

I totally agree on modern day economists being in reality like limpets (more like barnacles, maybe?); but I don't think this is how they see themselves.

Magpie said...

Thanks for the long reply, Prof. Very informative, as always.

I am very interested in this subject of ideology. As I am sure you noticed, it has a lot to do with Marxism and the critiques it has suffered from mainstream economists (perhaps you don't know it, but it has plenty to do with Joan Robinson).

Regardless (seeing that you mentioned mathematics), maybe you would prefer to leave this additional question for another opportunity, but, what the heck, let me ask anyway:

It's a very well-known fact that mainstream economists often make an entirely undesirable use of mathematics; that much is not contentious and even many mainstream economists would readily acknowledge it. From being a shorthand language useful in some cases, it has become the reason d'etre of economics for some other economists. A kind of a fetish, where the fact of expressing nonsense in mathematical symbols makes the nonsense sensible.

But I have observed that some critics of mainstream economics seem to take their opposition to the use of economics to what -- to me -- seems like an equally absurd extreme. Without mentioning names (in fairness, here we find some Marxists, too) some critics seem to attribute to mathematics an almost mystical negative power: for them, it's not the assumptions underlying mainstream economics that makes it largely useless for scientific purposes, it's the development of these assumptions by mathematical means that is responsible for that.

I know you have used maths in your own work. Therefore, you see a legitimate use of maths in economics. What would be the limits to this legitimate use, in your opinion?

Magpie said...

Oops. Where it reads:

"But I have observed that some critics of mainstream economics seem to take their opposition to the use of ECONOMICS"

It should read:

"But I have observed that some critics of mainstream economics seem to take their opposition to the use of MATHEMATICS"