The Mosh-Pit of Philosophy, the Pedestal of Science, and a Plate of Green Beans


Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of addressing the ISI Conference at Taylor University, “Whose Capitalism? Which Free Market? Exploring the Moral Dimensions of the Market.” My message to the 200-plus participants was an attack on the philosophic bases of modern economic theory: utilitarianism and the fact-value and positive-normative distinctions. I asserted that justice was necessary for the both liberty and economic order, and that the bases of a sane economy were justice, property, and strong families. Indeed, the whole purpose of the economy, as Aristotle noted, was to provision the family, and not merely to pile up wealth.

Many of the economists in the audience (though by no means all) took offense at this message. And so I was not at all surprised to see at dinner a gentleman at the end of the table who was positively glowering at me. By way of introduction, he announced that he was going to show me why I was wrong on all counts. Not a good beginning to be sure, but he began reciting some of the worst clichés of economic liberalism. I smiled and nodded at him, and then turned my attention to the other end of the table, where they were holding an actual conversation.

So I was somewhat surprised when dinner was brought to find him sitting, not at the end of the table, but across the table from me, with that same glow in his eyes, the one you might see from an evangelist determined to make a convert, and at all costs. In this case, the cost was dinner. Although it was a country restaurant, dinner was a rather decent chicken saltimboca and fresh green beans well prepared. But it was going to be difficult to give it the attention it deserved. I normally enjoy such exchanges with the true believers of liberalism, but not over dinner. Drinks and cigars are the time for such battles, for I take it as the summation of the law—yea, and of all the prophets as well—that if you are going to show someone the error of their ways, you should first buy them a decent drink. And it is the essence of all etiquette that if one is going to pound the table, one should wait for the table to be cleared. Dinner is the time to concentrate on dinner, and conversation should be limited to japes and jibes that display one’s wit, amuse one’s companions, but without distracting one from the business at hand, the proper appreciation of the meal. But the Baptist takes no note of dinner, as I would not if it consisted of locusts and honey, and there was a convert to be made.

The conversation did not begin well, and after a few moments I had to point out that his tone was exceedingly hostile, that he had not permitted me to finish a single sentence, and barely allowed me to begin one. After that rebuke, it settled down to a decent exchange, even if inappropriate for dinner conversation. But after a while, he used a phrase that was so marvelous, it made the exercise worth the effort. He was defending the “scientific” nature of his work, which for him meant that it was “positive,” that it dealt with “facts” and let the “values” fall where they may.

The problem, however, is that there are no such things as “naked facts,” only details. “Facts” are the details we select because we believe they will be useful for some purpose, such as constructing a theory. We might compare the construction of a theory to the making of a map. Any map of necessity leaves out more than it includes, but the details selected as “facts” depend entirely on the purpose of the map. That is, a road map will have one set of facts, while a political map another set and a topological map a third, and only the selected details will count as “facts” for the purpose of the map; everything else will be irrelevant detail, to be excluded.

In the same way, the creation of theories involves a selection of details that one believes will be useful in constructing the theory. Further, this process must be, by definition, pre-theoretical; that is, the researcher starts with his own beliefs, his values, in selecting the details that will count as facts. For example, a statement like, “Unemployment stands at 8.9%,” certainly sounds “scientific” in the “value-neutral” sense, but it turns out that it involves value judgments at every step of the process: what is to count as “unemployement,” how it is to be counted, who will be included in the count, what will be considered the final terms, etc., are all value-laden—and political—decisions.

In other words, we must have some purpose in mind before we decide which details will count as facts; the facts do not create the theory, the theory creates the facts. As in the case of the map, it is the theory that discriminates between “facts” and “irrelevant details.”

This is a view that wounded my antagonist to the core, and he responded with the most remarkable metaphor I have ever heard on the subject. As near as I can recall, he said, “You are trying to drag us [the economists] off the pedestal of science into the mosh-pit of the philosophers.” Of course, he is absolutely right, and my only regret is that I do not have the wit to devise that metaphor myself. For it was a witty remark and instantly conjured up a vision of Aristotle throwing an elbow into the ribs of the sophists, of Plato poking the eye of a positivist, and Thomas Aquinas, that sumo-wrestler of the philosophers, tossing bodies out of the ring as if they were rag dolls.

For in truth, philosophy is a mosh-pit, which is only to say that it is dialectical. Indeed, if one is not prepared to take a few elbows and throw a few punches, one is not fit for the higher life, and should confine one’s activities to those sections of the Academy that require no actual thought, and hence no real combat. These days, that still gives one a wide choice of careers, so we need not mourn for them.

From my point of view, my friend’s own metaphor placed him in a trap. For what he wished to assert was a value-free science capable of judging the philosophers, but could only do so in value-laden language, for indeed, no other language is available. And even if his metaphor had not been so apt, anything he said would have turned out to be a metaphor, for language is metaphoric at its core. His rich metaphor was not merely descriptive, but normative. He drew a hierarchy of the sciences with a spatial metaphor, with one group in the dirt, and another above them in on columns. He was thus in the position of those philosophers who assert, “There is no truth,” which would itself be a truth, if it were true; the exercise is self-defeating.

But if philosophy is a mosh-pit, is there really a “pedestal” that stands above it, and from whose lofty heights we may be judged? I think not, and even if there were, it would not be economics. For most of the economists root their work in utilitarianism, and all of them root their work in some view of man, which is to say, in some philosophy. Like all the other philosophers, they are more than willing to throw a punch or spoil someone’s dinner to make a point. By refusing to recognize their own involvement in the dialectics of philosophy, they lose philosophy as a means of self-examination and convert it into a means of fortifying their prejudices. By hiding their own presumptions from themselves, they engage in the supreme act of self-deception. By the pretense of “objectivity” freed from philosophic considerations, they do not lose a philosophy, but merely convert their philosophy into a dogma that is hidden and can hence never be examined. Where they really stand is not on a pedestal, but in an ivory tower, one that isolates them from actual contact with the subject of their science, and hence they end up as neither scientists nor philosophers, but mere dogmatists, repeating formulas that have little connection with any reality, economic or otherwise. And the only cure for this is for someone to throw them off the ivory tower and into the mosh-pit, where all true science and philosophy takes place.

As we left, the economist noted that I hadn’t finished my dinner. Indeed, I had barely started it. He took that as a perfect example of “marginal utility,” noting that the next bite of green beans was not worth the effort. Well, I suppose the situation would yield to such a description, merely because it doesn’t actually describe any real event. I didn’t finish my dinner because someone had interrupted it, and the neat explanation of the economist not only doesn’t actually describe an actual event, it prevents the event from actually being described. What “description” remains is dull, flat, and uninteresting, precisely because it pretends to be a description of everything in general and therefore of nothing in particular. By pretending to see everything (because, no doubt, one stands on a pedestal) one actually sees nothing.

If one had to describe the event in terms of exchange and marginal utility, it would be more accurate to say that I exchanged a plate of green beans for a very useful metaphor. In the process, I made a profit, though perhaps not anything the economists would recognize as profitable.



  1. I was at the ISI conference, and I greatly enjoyed your talk. In fact, it was the only one I really enjoyed – the other speakers were conservative-conventional to the point of dullness. I especially enjoyed your point that self-interest is a foolish base for decision-making, since we can’t know what is truly our self interest until after the fact, and in the context of tradition.

    I’ll be picking up your book.

  2. “I asserted that justice was necessary for the both liberty and economic order”

    On the surface iounds like a call for chaos, mass murder, and dictatorship, and in summary, everything that the front porch byline stands against.

  3. John, don’t know if you’ve seen the new (May) First Things yet, but it contains a fascinating essay by Edward Skidelsky called “The Emancipation of Avarice.” Very much worth looking up, even if you don’t normally get the mag.

  4. John Gorentz:

    On the surface iounds like a call for chaos, mass murder, and dictatorship, and in summary, everything that the front porch byline stands against.

    That’s only true if you accept the leftist understanding of “justice”. I don’t, and I don’t expect that the author does either, so I’m not especially worried by this.

  5. Great piece, John.

    At the same time, the utility of your companion’s metaphor might be improved by putting it into its full and proper context: a mosh-pit is a violent throng below a stage at a rock concert. So if we extend the analogy, the one upon the pedestal, whether he be an economist, an evolutionary psychologist, or whatever, must be the intellectual equivalent of a rock musician. I.e. an uncredentialed, drug-addled authority on all matters, political, sexual, aesthetic, etc. The proof of the rocker’s authority? An electric guitar and a pair of tight pants. The authority of the pedestaled economist must bear some relation.

  6. Mr. Medaille,

    I was present at the conference at Taylor U., together with a contingent from Grand Rapids, Michigan and surrounding localities. I confess that I was concerned going in that you would be eaten alive by the economic liberals who constituted the vast majority of attendees. But when you delivered your paper it was evident to everyone with any degree of discernment, unclouded by ideology, that is, that your remarks constituted the most coherent and profound presentation offered at the conference.

    And I do believe that much of the reaction (heat) generated by your comments was a consequence of jaded intellects having been roused from their ideological comfort zones, perhaps for the very first time. Right-wing liberals, especially when it comes to economic dogma, are rarely exposed to such critiques, and when they are, they are at a loss as to how to reconcile their certitudes concerning The Market and their evident goodwill in wishing to profess Christian faith and sound philosophy. The strain of attempting to square that circle was so very evident in several of the presenters, and your experience at dinner may have reflected the psychic tension that must be a constant companion of those individuals who espouse this kind of Averroism.

    I had several dear friends who were in attendance, one of whom, sat next to you at table for much of the day. These friends are professors of economics and proponents of the Austrian school. Having briefly spoken with one of them after the conference, I can assure you that he was “rattled” by your talk, and though no where near ready to apostatize, was at least given pause. No little thing that!

    It was a sincere pleasure to meet and speak with you afterwards, and to express to you our appreciation for your work. I cannot do better than to echo professor Wilson’s comments above. Thank you. (And it was a joy to learn that you were acquainted with dear Fritz Wilhelmsen during his tenure at U. of D.)

  7. Clever, clever. What an opportunity to be able to use not only Aquinas’ capacious mind but his capacious girth as well.

  8. Andrew, no, that is not a “naked fact,” but a formal relationship, necessarily true only insofar as it has no material content. You can only add a material content by making a selection process. So, for example, the statement “1 apple plus 1 apple equals 2 apples” is not strictly or necessarily true, since “1” is the identity function and no two apples are identical. What we really mean when we say this is “one thing with the quality of ‘appleness’ and another thing with the quality of ‘appleness’ makes two things with the quality of ‘appleness’.” Normally, we have no need to talk that way, but the point here is that even in the trivial case, we must make a selection process, ignoring all the “accidentals” of the apple to focus on one quality rather than any others.

  9. Nice post! Although I’ve not researched it deeply, I’ve been increasingly worried that our standared economic indicators may not be indicating anything of great importance. You’ve got to start with what you think is important and then measure it, not the other way around.

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