How Not to Criticise Big Ideas

I want to try to get clear about a faulty line of reasoning that I seem to encounter regularly. When people are confronted with an idea that is supposed to explain some large-scale historical or social phenomena, they often seem to think that by giving a single counter-example, they have refuted the idea in question, or at least shown it to be too simple. The thinking behind this is wrong, but before I get into why, let me give a recent example of the sort of thing I’m talking about.

A few days ago I came across this interesting article on how Richard Rorty saw the shape of things to come way back in 1998. Here’re the paragraphs that brought it all home:

“… something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

I think Rorty goes too far with the words “wiped out” – here’s hoping I’m right! – but there’s no doubt the passage is extraordinarily prescient. What struck me about the article, however, was the criticism the author made of Rorty:

Is his analysis a bit oversimple? Yes. Even within universities, there have always been optimistic champions of America, those who ever-passionately believe in the moral arc bending toward justice and work ever-diligently on formulating concrete, actionable policies that would make the country more just.

By focusing only on his own environment, academia, Mr. Rorty’s arguments also seem strangely parochial. During the 1960s, the academic left may have started to turn its back on poverty, but actual politicians on the left were still thinking a great deal about it: Robert F. Kennedy was visiting poor white families in Appalachia; Lyndon B. Johnson was building the Great Society.

Right through the ’90s and into the 2000s, we had left-of-center politicians singing the praises of hope, rather than the hopelessness that Mr. Rorty decries.

I should start with the qualifier that I haven’t read the book in question, so my response to this criticism of Rorty should be taken with a large grain of salt (though knowing what I do of Rorty, I doubt he would have been knocked over by what I’ve just quoted). But defending Rorty is not the real issue here. Rather, we have an example of a specific kind of criticism of explanations that seek to explain large-scale human phenomena.

To say that Rorty’s analysis is “a bit oversimple” is to import a heavily loaded assumption into the conversation about what we should expect from an adequate explanation. Clearly the idea is that a less ‘simple,’ and thus more adequate, explanation would not have failed to account for certain pertinent facts (e.g., optimistic champions of America in universities and beyond). The fact that these things are not covered by Rorty’s analysis is thus considered a failure, so that the demand that lies behind this line of thought must be that a fully adequate analysis would include every single detail you could think up.

A more severe variety of this criticism would replace “a bit oversimple” with ‘wrong.’ Some months ago I was telling some friends about a man I’d read about who, having had two children by a woman, not only decided against marrying her, but also decided against playing any substantial role in the lives of his children beyond financial. This was an expression, I claimed, of the lack of regard for the family and its attendant duties in our time. No!, came the response, and an example was given of parents who dote excessively on their children, the very opposite of what I had been suggesting. The same assumption was at work in this criticism: a single counter-example is sufficient to refute the theory, or at least to show its overly simple nature.

If Rorty or I had been trying to set out a law of math or physics, which must apply to every conceivable case, the counter-example criticism would be justified. There are, however, other ways to think about these things.

The comparison of the body politic to a human body goes back a long way indeed. Plato’s analogy of city and soul is well-known, and many have seen in Thucydides an analogy between the progress of an idea in a city or in Greece to the progress of a disease in a body. So let’s think this analogy through.

Imagine if you’re told you have pancreatic cancer, and that you’ll likely be dead in six months. If I were to respond to this diagnosis by saying that your body has a vast number of entirely healthy cells – the great majority of them, even in the pancreas – that wouldn’t show that the diagnosis is wrong. A cancer diagnosis does not assert that every single cell in the body has cancer – and this is true of pretty much all sickness. What matters is that cancer is present, and that there is a logic inherent in the body that means that we can predict, from something that is present in a tiny fraction of the body’s cells, that the whole body will be dead in a matter of months.

With this in mind, look back at Rorty and the criticism made of him. What if the phenomenon he’s pointing to is like a disease in a body? Just as there are healthy cells in a body that’s fatally ill, so too can there be people in academia and beyond who don’t fit Rorty’s case, but that need not affect his analysis. What’s important is that he has identified something that can determine the future of American politics, just as pancreatic cancer can determine the future of the body it’s found in (and before you go getting too upset about the analogy, remember that many diseases are not fatal).

That this manner of thinking can possess genuine foresight should be clear enough from the fact that Rorty saw something the shape of our current politics back in 1998. Not only that, but the sort of foresight at issue here is, in certain contexts, far superior to anything empirical-scientific. No number crunching, data-driven analysis could possibly have seen what Rorty did, and certainly not so far back.

This is not to say that the analogy of a disease to ideas that are said to be driving society is always appropriate. Many ideas are merely partial, though even here, alternate cases can present complementary phenomena – e.g., I’m inclined to see both economic factors and a backlash against political correctness as important to the presidential election result, but not as conflicting phenomena, but instead like two streams running into a river. (And in the case of the example from my conversation with a friend, I’m inclined to see two sides of the same phenomenon: the breakdown of the conventional idea of the family can find expression both in a lack of regard for children and for an excessively sentimental relation to them.)

There is a potential problem with this disease-analogy, of course: how do you criticise it if counter-examples are not necessarily refutations? I’d be inclined to find the answer by pursuing the disease-analogy further, but I think I’ve written enough for now.


Author: Babbington

Citizen of the English-speaking world, resident of the German. Refugee from academia, writing a blog because, well, "in my heart there was a kind of fighting/That would not let me sleep."

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