It is common to think of Western Civilization as rooted in classical antiquity, the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the languages, history, and cultural attainments of Western Europe. It is also common to think of Western Civ as particularly favorable, and maybe even essential, to modernization as exemplified by the industrial revolution and the modern market economy. An example of both these ways of thinking is Huntington (1996). But this view is open to challenge, and in this post, I want to examine two such challenges: Scott Alexander’s “universal culture” and Joseph Henrich’s “WEIRD culture.”
In a Slate Star Codex post, How the West Was Won, Scott Alexander argues that what people often call Western culture is really universal culture, the omnivorous culture of “what works.” For example, “Western medicine” is really just whatever has been found to be the most effective at curing disease, maintaining health, etc. It is driven fundamentally by empirical standards, and in that sense is nonideological, and so the contrast with “natural” or “traditional” or “Eastern” medicine is bogus, in at least two ways. First, despite claims of its opponents in these other camps that “Western” medicine is forcing a certain conception of health or science or efficacy onto people, the truth is that it is the opponents who are playing that game, not “Western” medicine, which will adopt indiscriminately whatever can be shown empirically to get the job done. Second, there is nothing geographically Western about “Western” medicine, except insofar as the “what works” approach to medicine first began making spectacular progress in the West in the nineteenth century, and Western Europe and the Anglosphere nations have maintained a lead ever since. But it is not peculiarly “Western.” For one thing, it will take new ideas from anywhere, indiscriminately; the criterion is efficacy, not region of origin. For another, it can be adopted anywhere—and it is. Its essence is a rational standard of acceptance, as opposed to any ties to tradition, culture, region, or ideology. It is an accident of history that “Western” medicine was developed in the West.
Alexander gives some other examples of what he claims is the same phenomenon: Coca-Cola succeeded because it is “refreshment that works,” egalitarian gender norms “work,” sushi “works.” And note that sushi, of course, was not invented in the West. That’s the point.
So, Alexander calls it “universal” culture. This is a culture devoted to finding ways to satisfy people’s wants and needs through experimentation and innovation that does not rely on tradition (and is indeed hostile to reliance on tradition), that is relentless in its drive to find such ways, and that takes reason as its only standard of evaluation in this. Alexander suggests that what set this universal culture going in a big way was the industrial revolution, which set off “a frantic search for better adaptations” that became the new norm. This frantic search for better adaptations is the antithesis of tradition, which is why it looks more or less the same no matter who engages in it and why if it had begun in China or India instead of Western Europe, it would have looked pretty much the same. “The best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize.”
Alexander wrote his piece in reaction to a blog post by Bryan Caplan claiming that Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ. In discussions of U.S. immigration policy, one argument for restricting immigration is that Western culture could be overwhelmed by too great an influx of immigrants. Caplan’s reply is that the claim that Western culture is vitally important and has brought us our freedom and prosperity is incompatible with the idea that it is so fragile that it can be demolished by immigration. The truth is, Caplan says, that Western culture is taking over the globe, seducing nearly everyone who comes into contact with it. Which is why governments hostile to it find they must fight it with censorship and social regulation.
Alexander agrees with all this, except for the label “Western Civ.” For Alexander, it’s universal culture that is taking over, not Western culture. Indeed, Western culture is just one more of the victims of universal culture. Going back to the example of medicine, culturally Western medicine was the four humors, not germ theory. Neither are egalitarian gender norms culturally Western, much less sushi—or for that matter Coca-Cola. Alexander likens the birth of universal culture in the West to a summoner (the West) of a demon (universal culture) who then kills the summoner. On this story, Western culture—Greco-Roman antiquity, the Christian Middle Ages, Stonehenge, Shakespeare, and all the rest—really have rather little to do with our vibrant modern society and are certainly not responsible for it. Indeed, they are as incompatible with universal culture as any other traditional culture, and it is wiping out any remaining vestiges of them here—in the rural southern United States, for example—as mercilessly as it is undermining every other traditional culture everywhere else.
This is a striking conception, and it got me thinking about Joseph Henrich’s recent proposal that the industrial revolution and the modern form of what we call Western culture has been the result of the more or less accidental development of WEIRD psychology. By WEIRD psychology, Henrich means the mental processes and thought patterns of people who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. The acronym was introduced by Henrich and two co-authors in an influential 2010 paper (with the same title as his new book), which argued that it is a mistake to draw conclusions about “human psychology” from research based only on the study of “WEIRD” people. They produced examples showing that WEIRD populations differ from the rest of the world not only in moral reasoning, self-concepts, and reasoning styles—areas that might have been expected to show some differences—but in visual perception, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, and the heritability of IQ. Moreover, it’s not just that WEIRD people are not the same as other people. They are outliers, occupying the extreme end of the distributions of the various dependent measures in question. Accordingly, WEIRD people are not representative of the human species, and it is not valid to draw inferences about humanity as a whole from research on, say, Western university undergraduates.
From this starting point, Henrich’s new project attempts to explain “how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous.” Briefly, the argument proceeds in two stages. First, WEIRD psychology is well suited to produce the industrial revolution and to support the institutions of a market economy. WEIRD psychology is individualistic, prizing self-esteem and self-improvement, low conformity and questioning of tradition, love of free choice, self-control, and hard work. WEIRD psychology tends to locate the cause of people’s actions in their personal characteristics (“personality,” dispositions) and consequently emphasizes guilt over shame. WEIRD psychology also promotes what Henrich calls “impersonal prosociality,” meaning cooperative and prosocial behavior extended to anonymous strangers and associates with whom one does not necessarily have particular bonds of community or kinship. Impersonal prosociality includes applying social rules impartially; indiscriminate trust, fairness, honesty, and cooperation; muted concern for revenge but willingness to punish third parties; reduced in-group favoritism; judgment of the moral status of a person’s actions by his intentions, not merely by the actions’ consequences; and moral universalism—the idea that there are universal moral truths in pretty much the same way there are universal mathematical truths. If you are reading this list and thinking, “This is mostly just common sense, isn’t it?”, then you are WEIRD. Most of the world, especially in tradition-bound places, does not think this way. But this kind of individualism and impersonal prosociality is needed to support a market economy. (On the necessity of impersonal prosociality especially, see here.)
Now, how did Western Europe get to be WEIRD? This is the second stage of Henrich’s argument. He claims that WEIRD psychology is the ultimate result of the early Roman Catholic Church’s obsession with sexuality and the family. Beginning in the early fourth century, the Church articulated rules about marriage and the family that had the effect of undermining the intensive kinship institutions of Europe, which until that time were not much different from those that prevailed in most of the world. The new rules: prohibited marriage to blood relatives, beginning with first cousins and eventually extending to sixth cousins; prohibited marriage to in-laws (for example, if your husband died, you could not then marry his brother); prohibited polygyny; prohibited sex slavery and prostitution; required both bride and groom to publicly consent to marriage (“I do”), thereby suppressing arranged marriages and linking marriage to romantic love; encouraged and sometimes even required newly married couples to set up independent households; prohibited marriage to non-Christians; encouraged individual ownership of land property and inheritance by personal testament, meaning that claims of family and tradition did not necessarily govern inheritance. Henrich calls these rules and more like them the Church’s “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP).
From unsystematic and scattered beginnings in the fourth century, the MFP gradually intensified to a climax in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (The Church gradually relaxed many of these rules after this, but by then the social changes they induced were set in motion.) These rules severely disrupted patriarchal and clan-based power structures, and even tribal-level social controls. But there were broader results, as well. The emphasis on nuclear families living independently meant that people were no longer so closely tied by family obligations and inheritance. People were thus free to move to new places and choose their own associates. Released from clan-based, inherited structures of social organization, people began to develop whole new forms of voluntary association, such as free cities and charter towns, professional guilds, universities, and monasteries. This in turn led to the development of WEIRD psychology, as independence channeled people’s thinking in the directions needed to support it: independent thinking, a focus on the self and one’s qualities, work, time management, habits of trust and norms of fairness and cooperation in dealing with non-kin, and so forth. This in turn led to commerce and the development of impersonal legal codes and other market institutions, as well as institutions of self-governance, and eventually the concepts of individual liberty and individual rights (which, be it noted, are universal moral principles that are regarded as properties of individuals).
Henrich emphasizes the accidental nature of these developments. The MFP was hardly designed to produce John Locke or the industrial revolution. It merely worked out that way. But what induced the Church to initiate and pursue the MFP? Henrich thinks that was an accident, too:
Why did the Church adopt these incest prohibitions? The answer to this question has multiple layers. The first is simply that the faithful, including Church leaders, came to believe that sex and marriage with relatives was against God’s will. …
… we now need to … remember that there were many religious groups competing in the Mediterranean and Middle East, each with different and often idiosyncratic religious convictions. The Church was just the “lucky one” that bumbled across an effective recombination of supernatural beliefs and practices. The MFP is a mixture that peppers a blend of old Roman customs and Jewish law with Christianity’s own unique obsession with sex (i.e., not having it) and free will.(2020, 176)
Henrich thinks the Church ultimately benefited from the MFP in several ways. Notably, by weakening kinship bonds and the extended family as an organizing structure, it strengthened people’s bonds to itself as an alternative. This is why the Church was “lucky” to stumble upon the MFP. But again, the MFP does not seem to have been designed with this thought in mind.
We can see, then, how Alexander’s and Henrich’s views are similar. Both regard the culture that led to the industrial revolution and the vibrant, modern market economy as something distinct from and even contrary to traditional Western Civ. This is the really striking claim, which I imagine will be unwelcome in some quarters. Plato, Aristotle, Judeo-Christianity, etc. not only are not the roots of the West, they actually have little to do it, and they certainly are not responsible for its success. What we call the West today is really either universal culture (Alexander) or WEIRD culture (Henrich). Its emergence in Western Europe in the last 300–400 years was largely an accident of history. Moreover, being a cultural development not rooted in a particular language or religion or ethnicity or literary tradition, it is portable. Universal/WEIRD culture can be and is being adopted far and wide through globalization. And this would appear to be a good thing, insofar as prosperity is a good thing.
Of course, there’s also a large gap between Alexander and Henrich. Alexander seems to claim for universal culture the status of being objectively right, in that it consists of the best means discoverable, given human nature and our material conditions on planet Earth, for promoting human well-being. So, “if China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed [universal culture], and it would have been much the same.” But Henrich would say that WEIRD culture is as culturally bound as any other, notwithstanding that it has enabled its practitioners to achieve unprecedented levels of prosperity and power. For instance, I doubt Henrich would say that the standards of reason are universal, or the categorizations we impose upon the world and upon ourselves, or our patterns of moral judgment. He acknowledges that WEIRDness, like Alexander’s universal culture, is spreading throughout the world through urbanization and globalization, and sometimes through deliberate, top-down imitation (for example, in Japan, China, and South Korea). But I suspect that he would say there are limits to this process. For one thing, cultures do not change overnight, even in the most favorable circumstances. The roots of culture run deep and are embedded in traditions of child rearing, business practices, religious customs, and many other things that do not quickly change. And as a general principle, Henrich thinks we are much less in charge of our own culture than we think. Culture shapes us at least as much as we shape it, and this also sets limits to how fast it can change. Furthermore, “the best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize” assumes that the goal is fixed and that rationality consists merely in finding the most effective means of reaching it. But the goal of industrialization depends on how industry is conceived. It is not certain that even cultural developments moving in the same general direction will necessarily wind up in the same spot. The development of culture is an evolutionary process, not unlike biological evolution. Was it inevitable that mammals become the dominant large land animals?
And yet, aren’t there limits to this kind of relativism? Math is math, isn’t it? There is no culture that does it differently. Likewise, any culture that investigated long enough would have discovered that the earth revolves around the sun. For that matter, any culture’s fundamental physical theories would have to be in the same ballpark as general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics, wouldn’t they? For, the reality that the different cultures’ theories would be converging toward is the same for all. Similarly, human nature and human needs are fundamentally the same everywhere, as is (arguably) the best way of satisfying them—namely, through the division of labor, trade, and innovation. And if the large-scale practice of these depends in turn on individualism and impersonal prosociality, might not some variation on WEIRDness be the necessary outcome of any cultural evolutionary process that is successful enough to result in some form of industrialization?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But if they are yes, then Alexander’s and Henrich’s views can be seen to converge. In libertarian terms, Alexander’s view resembles the universalism of Rand and Rothbard and Nozick, whereas Henrich’s view resembles Hayek’s evolutionary approach. (Hayek’s social evolutionary theory is eerily similar to that developed later [mainly] in anthropology, of which Henrich is only the most visible current exponent. See here for an exploration of this.) On universalist libertarianism, rights are real moral attributes of individuals; economic science implies one best way (within limits) to structure society—namely, with as little government as possible; and rationality implies one best way (within limits) of organizing society (namely, through voluntary agreements that result in division of labor, trade, and innovation). On evolutionary libertarianism, cultures evolve through a process akin to natural selection in which the cultures that thrive best tend to prevail and grow at the expense of those that do not thrive. Rights are a useful cultural invention that promote the development of the cultures that seem to thrive best—namely, those governed by the rule of law in such a way as to protect the liberty of their citizens, and which consequently come to be organized through voluntary agreements resulting in the division of labor, trade, and innovation. Although conceptually—one might even say ontologically—different, universalist and evolutionary libertarianism would nevertheless be very similar in their conception of a good society.
On both Alexander’s and Henrich’s views, Western culture turns out to have little to do with Western Civ in the Great Books sense of the term. Is this true? Again, I don’t know the answer to this. There is a long tradition, to which I am sympathetic, that holds that fundamental ideas drive the development of historical events, at least at the large scale. Our self-conception has implications for our capabilities and aspirations. Likewise our conception of the purpose and meaning of life. Our conception of the world around us has implications for our activities with regard to it. As a simple example, Rodney Stark argues that it is no accident that the scientific revolution took place in Western Europe. For, the scientific revolution was ultimately stimulated by the conception, unique to Christianity, of the universe as the creation of a perfectly rational God, whose handiwork must consequently function in accord with immutable principles that are discoverable by reason (2003, 147–157). It was because of the concept of a universe governed by laws capable of being discovered (and because it would glorify God to discover them) that people undertook to search for them. In this way, fundamental ideas have long-term consequences. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there is really much support for this view in general. Arguments such as Stark’s seem altogether post hoc. It seems doubtful that if we could somehow run multiple trials of cultural development, we could seriously predict that cultures with the concept of a perfectly rational God would have a high probability of inventing modern science. And wouldn’t the Enlightenment philosophers have other ideas about the intellectual roots of the scientific revolution, having to do with, say, the liberation of reason from the fetters of tradition? I do not see a reliable way of discovering which if any such account is true. Of course, this doesn’t mean that no such account is true. But it does seem to mean that the notion that ideas drive the world is more hopeful than demonstrated. If so, then Henrich’s account is as plausible as the alternative, and maybe more so.
This may seem to be a depressing outcome. I mean, why did I put in all that time learning Ancient Greek? But after all, the answer to that is easy: to know philosophy. And philosophy, Western or otherwise, is an important branch of knowledge, even if it doesn’t drive the world.
- Alexander, Scott. 2016. “How the West Was Won.” Slate Star Codex, July 25, 2016.
- Bryan Caplan. 2014. “A Hardy Weed: How Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ.” EconLib, June 22, 2014.
- Henrich, Joseph. 2020. The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33 (2–3): 61–83.
- Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Touchstone.
- Potts, David. 2016. “Morals and the Free Society: 3. Morals that Create the Free Market.” Policy of Truth, March 24, 2016.
- Stark, Rodney. 2003. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton University Press.
- Stone, Brad Lowell. 2010. “The Current Evidence for Hayek’s Cultural Group Selection Theory.” Libertarian Papers, 2 (Art. No. 45): 1–21.
Well, the list of WEIRD values looks a lot like the values that emerged out of various Western intellectual movements, most notably Greek philosophy and (certain aspects of) Christianity. I find it hard to believe that’s a complete coincidence. However, one can find many aspects of these in the histories of other cultures too; and one can find plenty of anti-WEIRD values in the history of the West also. So I’d be inclined toward a hybrid view: which values come to the fore in a given culture is a combined product of pre-existing ideas/values and exogenous situational influences. Some exogenous situational influences will favour the further development of some pre-existing values over others; on the other hand, people will tend to look at the exogenous situations they face through the lens of whatever values are already dominant. So it’s a two-way street.
Of course reciprocal determination is my answer to almost every question like this ….
I’m afraid I can’t think of what would move this discussion forward. If the idea is that WEIRD and anti-WEIRD values and ideas are floating around in pretty much every culture without either being dominant, then they can’t explain the development of WEIRD culture in the West. For, what makes the difference between the outcome in the West and in other places must then be non-intellectual factors, like say the Church’s Marriage and Family Program.
When you say that people will “look at the exogenous situations they face though the lens of whatever values are already dominant,” this is a point where Henrich would disagree, I suspect. I think he would say that ideas and culture evolve in response to conditions. This would be just the sort of cultural evolutionary process he is talking about. This doesn’t seem unreasonable. Sexual morality in America was one way before the birth control pill and became something else after its introduction. Obviously, there are many causal factors here, but I think people often espouse the values they do post hoc, as a justification for what is in fact imposed on them by the logic of the circumstances. A prohibition on sex outside marriage made sense when pregnancy was hard to prevent. Once unwanted pregnancy became pretty easy to prevent, there was little reason not to have sex before marriage, and people’s behavior changed accordingly. I don’t think a change of mores drove the change in behavior; it was the other way around. Likewise, people finding themselves independent, free to move, and not automatically supported by clan networks, would seek out the ideas and values that seem most helpful, given those situations. This would include a new appreciation for individualistic ideas articulated in the past, as well as inventing other, new ideas (such as individual rights). So, individualistic values wouldn’t have to already be dominant to come to the fore when they were needed.
Ideas are important, of course. They are how we make sense of our world and guide our actions. So there must be an element of reciprocal determination.
However, if the idea is that WEIRD values and ideas were already dominant, and that’s what tipped the balance eventually in favor of full-bore WEIRDness and the industrial revolution, then I guess I’m skeptical about that, for the reasons you state. And I don’t know what sort of metric we could use to count units of individualistic vs. collectivistic ideas, etc., in different cultures. Maybe Western soil was well-suited to planting WEIRD culture before the Church’s MFP, but I don’t know how we’d sort that out.
I am going to have to spend some time thinking about this.
I spent some time pondering your post; generally there is much good in it–through the first 17 paragraphs. Then, unfortunately, the 18th para happens. It’s the one beginning with “I don’t know the answers to these questions.” Indeed, that thought should have been a warning to you.
It’s in that paragraph that you make libertarianism part of your argument. You should not have.
There is little redeeming in that paragraph. Perhaps “rights are real moral attributes of individuals” and perhaps “economic science implies one best way (within limits) to structure society”, but that best way probably does not include “as little government as possible”. That is just naive and over-simplistic.
Rationality likely does conclude that there is “one best way (within limits) of organizing a society (namely, through voluntary agreements that result in division of labor, trade, and innovation)”; but since libertarianism treats “agreements” from coercion and exploitation as “voluntary”, rationalism cannot endorse libertarian social organization. Also, libertarianism–in practice if not in theory–is hostile to “impersonal prosociality” which is supposed to be essential to universal/WEIRD culture.
Perhaps “cultures evolve through a process akin to natural selection in which the cultures that thrive best tend to prevail and grow at the expense of those that do not thrive”; that is quite plausible. That, however does not imply that rights are mere “useful cultural invention[s] that promote the development of the cultures that seem to thrive best”. Cultures thrive best when they are “governed by the rule of law in such a way as to protect the welfare of their members. (I substituted “welfare” for “liberty” because welfare includes so much more.)
The idea that we are living in something other than Western culture is intriguing; the implications are likely to be significant. I thank you for bringing that possibility to my attention. But libertarianism is out of place. If the criterion is “what works” then libertarianism doesn’t fit.
Regarding your final “depressing outcome”, there is nothing in Alexander’s, Henrich’s, or Stark’s views that argues against the thought that “ideas drive the world” IF “the world” refers to culture. Ideas drive culture and its development; what those three dispute is which ideas drove the development of universal/WEIRD culture.
PS: philosophy is not a “branch of knowledge” at all. It is an argumentative pastime devoid of knowledge, possessing only claims and positions. Your view of it is a holdover from Western Civ.
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Sean, how can libertarian practice possibly be out of step with ‘impersonal prosociality’, given the results on pp. 293-94 in Henrich 2020?
There was a man last century who made a living teaching philosophy and writing philosophy books. One of his books was titled LIBERTARIANISM: A PHILOSOPHY WHOSE TIME HAS COME. I don’t know you. Are you familiar with that book? What would you put in place of PHILOSOPHY in that title? He sure gives a lot of arguments for his positions and for positions of his opponents. It wouldn’t be an honest representation of his book to rename his book LIBERTARIANISM: A BS WHOSE TIME HAS COME.
LIBERTARIANISM: A POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY WHOSE TIME HAS COME
I’m glad you found my post thought-provoking.
The paragraph on libertarianism is incidental to the main theme of the post, so feel free to ignore it if you wish. (I somehow have the impression you won’t find that difficult!) That paragraph takes the libertarian point of view for granted. I am not trying to justify libertarian ideas there, just understand the Alexander–Henrich view in libertarian terms.
So, this is more a comment on some of the background readings than on David’s post. I’m slowly working through the background readings before I try to digest the post itself. So far I’ve read Caplan and Alexander. I’ve encountered Henrich’s thesis, but have not read him. I guess my objection here is that Alexander’s critique of Caplan bypasses the most obvious problems with Caplan’s argument, and then, from that less-than-fundamental starting point, makes claims that lead to what seems to me an uninformative dead end.
So let me start in this comment with Caplan. I’ve only read the four paragraphs of his post that Alexander excerpts. But it seems to me what what Caplan is saying there is both question-begging and incoherent.
Start with the incoherence. Caplan opens by saying that Western civilization’s distinctive power consists in its ability to perpetuate itself by “sheer conformity and status quo bias.” One problem here is that neither conformity nor status quo bias are Western values; on virtually any plausible account, conformity and status quo bias are the very opposite of what’s supposed to be distinctive about “the West.” Worse still, neither is compatible with Caplan’s own assertion that “A big part of the West’s strength…is its openness to awesomeness.” Openness to awesomeness is flatly incompatible with conformity and status quo bias.
So I’m frankly at a loss to make even minimal sense of what Caplan is trying to say. Either he thinks that Western Civilization perpetuates itself by a mechanism that involves the magical integration of incompatible values, or he has an incoherent account of what Western Civiliization is. Either way, we’re left in a muddle that Alexander leaves untouched. In the first case, the obvious question to ask is: how can a civilization successfully perpetuate itself by the subversion of its own values? In the second case, we don’t need to ask a question; Caplan stands refuted by his own account.
These problems with Caplan’s account stare me in the face, but for whatever reason, Alexander ignores them to raise his summoner/demon objection. That objection perhaps touches obliquely on the problem I’ve just mentioned, but doesn’t really deal with it in a frontal way, and creates problems of its own that I’ll deal with in a separate comment. But if I had been commenting on Caplan, I’d simply have asked him to clarify what looks like a contradiction at the center of his account.
The question-begging issue is Caplan’s use of the term “best,” which is so wildly implausible that I can’t figure out whether he means it seriously or means it ironically. So I guess I’ll just throw the question out there: does anyone know what he means? What is the self-evident criterion of “the best” that operates in his comment?
As far as I can tell, he has none. That’s why Alexander supplies one (which creates problems of its own). But in the absence of any account of what counts as the culturally “best,” why think that Caplan is saying anything of significance? The sheer fact that something is (for a given historical moment, or even a given epoch) universally accepted by the world’s population doesn’t entail that because it’s universally accepted, it’s humanly “best.” If “the West” on Caplan’s view is just adept at appealing to human tastes and desires, then all that “best” means is: best adapted to human tastes and desires. But that is not what “the best” has ever meant in any civilization, Western or otherwise.
Recall that Caplan was debating Steve Balch, the founder of the National Association of Scholars, who was arguing that Western civilization was fragile, hence that we should go slow on things like open borders. Forget the implausible inference and conclusion involved in Balch’s argument about immigration, and focus on the meaning of “Western civilization” in the premise. Balch obviously does not mean by it what Caplan means by it. So isn’t it a fallacy of equivocation for Caplan to invent a new (totally implausible) conception of “Western civilization” in the middle of a debate with someone who is using it in a somewhat more recognizable and semi-plausible way?
As a footnote to the preceding comment, how obvious is it that “the West” is open to the “awesomeness” of other cultures? So far, the United States has yet to adopt the metric system. So there’s a case where everyone’s paradigm of the West is closed to the awesomeness of another part of the West. In any case, I think some examples would be in order. I think it’s more plausible to say that when “the West” has encountered other cultures, it’s made some very superficial appropriations of this or that cultural artifact, transformed it, and then moved on. That has nothing to do with an openness to awesomeness. It’s just ad hoc appropriation.
If the West were really open to awesomeness, why would it have spent so much time conquering, enslaving, and destroying other cultures? One doesn’t incentivize awesomeness by putting others under severe duress, but that’s what “the West” has habitually done.
The West did trade in that crappy Roman numeral system for the snazzier Arabic one.
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I’m pretty sure that by “sheer conformity and status quo bias,” Caplan did not mean to be speaking of Western values. I presume he thinks these are foibles of human nature everywhere that have a large impact even on people who think of themselves as innovators and seeking out new possibilities. If so, he wouldn’t be saying these are consistent with Western culture, but that they simply operate whether we like it or not. It would be reasonable to say they aren’t really part of culture at all. This would make sense in the paragraph where he speaks of conformity and status quo bias, since the point there is that Western culture is not more fragile than any other. He seems to mean that these principles operate in the same way everywhere. (I doubt Henrich would agree.)
Sorry to be incommunicative, but I’ve been traveling and will be out of action, pretty much, from now until late next week.
David, your post is very thought-provoking. I’m still not sure what further thoughts or conclusions it will bring me to.
I’ve just started reading Jonathan Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge” which I suspect might reach similar conclusions: we’re not in Kansas any more.
I’d not heard of Henrich’s book before reading David’s post. If I add it to my reading list I might get to it sometime this decade. Maybe.
Since you appear to have already read it, you could share with us what results you refer to on pp. 293-4. Then I’d have something to respond to and perhaps a reason to bump Heinrich’s book up my reading list. That’s entirely up to you.
I assume your question about the book title refers to the manifesto by Dr. John Hospers (1971). Since my closing comment had nothing to do with Hospers 1971, I have nothing more to say on it.
Sean, I only mentioned the title of the Hospers book, because of your remark denigrating philosophy. I think his book is an easy counterexample to the view of philosophy you expressed.
Here is a link to the pages in Henrich that Stephen Boydstun referred to, in case anyone wants to see them. What he says here is pretty familiar stuff, actually. (You could see also the earlier blog post of mine cited in the present post. 🙂 )
Note for the record that although Scott Alexander is a libertarian (and obviously Caplan is), Henrich is not. He is an anthropologist with particularly wide ranging interests (stunningly so, in fact).
David; thanks for sharing your scans of the pages in Henrich that Stephen boydstun referred to.
boydstun; “Individuals from more market-integrated communities” are not the same as “libertarians”, not at all. The first group overlaps with “libertarians” for sure, but it also over laps with “non-libertarians”. And I note that the term “libertarian” does not appear on either of those two pages. So, there are no results yet that force me to reconsider my statement, which I stand by: libertarianism–in practice if not in theory–is hostile to “impersonal prosociality”.
The connection between libertarianism and impersonal prosociality is supposed to be, briefly, that libertarians believe society should be structured by voluntary relations, including especially markets, and since these depend on impersonal prosociality to work, libertarianism depends on impersonal prosociality. A libertarian society (or a market-oriented society, which is the same thing for present purposes) requires people to practice impersonal prosociality. It also encourages them to practice it, since people who are more trustworthy, forthcoming, understanding, agreeable, willing to overlook frictions and work out disputes amicably, etc., make better business partners. A “the customer is always right” attitude is good business for everybody, not just Macy’s. This is mainly what the Henrich passage is talking about. But remember the first point: a market order could not get off the ground at any scale larger than a few hundred people without the widespread practice of impersonal prosociality.
I don’t see the relevance of whether the people in the Henrich passage are described as “libertarians.” The question is about the linkage between market institutions and impersonal prosociality, isn’t it?
Libertarians themselves don’t always see this linkage very well. There is a strain in libertarianism—a prominent one—that sees libertarianism as amoral; i.e., indifferent to morality and dependent purely on the “rationality” of human agents. And there is also, famously, a strain that talks about “selfishness” and caring nothing about the wider community. But to the extent these people mean what they appear to say, they are wrong. And this is increasingly well recognized. Not to burden the discussion with yet more references to long books you won’t read, but in case you’re interested, a good introduction on this is Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues of 2007.
So, I think you’ve got it backwards, actually. It is only in theory that some libertarians are hostile to impersonal prosociality. In practice, they are more than friendly to it (including, implicitly, the people who might seem to be hostile to it in theory).
On the topic of philosophical knowledge, is the point of the video that science isn’t a “body of knowledge” either, so thinking in terms of bodies of knowledge altogether is the wrong way to go about it? Whether that is true depends on how you look at knowledge and what exactly you think science generates. These are philosophical questions….
One highly visible way in which philosophy differs from science is that whereas scientific hypotheses are empirically testable, philosophical hypotheses are not. So, science proceeds almost like engineering: through trial and error. Scientists make models and test them, then refine their models in light of the results. That’s the basic process, and it’s how science makes progress. This method isn’t available in philosophy, which can create the appearance of endless disputation that is never resolved. But this is an illusion, in my opinion. I think there has been tremendous progress in philosophy in the last 100 years. Examples: intentionalism in the philosophy of mind and sense-perception; structural realism in the philosophy of science; Bayesianism in epistemology. Of course, if you need a time span of 100 years to detect progress, that might seem to prove the opposite of my point! Nevertheless, progress happens.
One comment: most of what you’ve had to say has been in the way of strong opinions presented without justification. This makes it hard to interpret what you are saying.
By the way, you’ve influenced me in one way: I decided to get Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge. I try not to get more books than I can read, and always fail. This one has been on my radar screen, but I’d managed to avoid buying it. However, the author is reliable and the topic is important. We’ll see whether he has anything useful to say.
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Equating “market-oriented society” with “libertarian society” is untenable. But I am not surprised at that claim; it seemed implicit in boydstun’s claims about Henrich’s results. Now you make explicit what boydstun left implicit.
Henrich’s results do not show that libertarians have “stronger inclinations toward impersonal fairness” but that “individuals from more market-integrated communities” do. Markets and trade have been features of human behavior for millennia, even in decidedly non-libertarian cultures. Nearly any ancient city you can name served as a trading hub and was a “market-integrated community”. But few IF ANY were libertarian.
Libertarianism does not “require people to practice impersonal prosociality”; those of us who had to endure libertarian efforts to undercut our recent pandemic control efforts (at a cost of well over half-a-million lives) know that full well. I am NOT blaming you, David, for all those deaths, but it was libertarians who promoted refusing to wear masks, or social distance. Libertarians resisted every step of the way.
My point is that people who are “more trustworthy, forthcoming, understanding, agreeable, willing to overlook frictions and work out disputes amicably, etc. [and] make better business partners” do not place others at unnecessary risk merely because they want to. Impersonal prosociality seems more a socialist idea than libertarian.
You are correct that, “a market order could not get off the ground at any scale larger than a few hundred people without the widespread practice of impersonal prosociality.” Exactly. And that happened beginning in ancient times even under very strong Statist regimes.
You are also correct that it’s irrelevant “whether the people in the Henrich passage are described as ‘libertarians’. The question is about the linkage between market institutions and impersonal prosociality, isn’t it?” And that linkage tells us that, because market institutions and impersonal prosociality existed long before libertarianism, linking libertarianism to them requires a separate effort.
The simple fact is that libertarians are not exclusive in the belief that society should be structured by voluntary associations. Therefore, the idea of voluntary associations is not the defining characteristic of a libertarian culture because the idea is too widely shared. Since the late middle-ages, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who believe that the government should regulate who you associate with.
What then is the defining characteristic of libertarianism? I am not sure, but it SEEMS to be the idea that government must be so hobbled as to play no role in human interactions until after a harm is done; and the idea that shared, community-owned resources and services are an evil; especially if supported by taxes. I might be wrong about all this, but after many years of reading what libertarians write and watching what they demand, that is the impression I have.
Regarding, “On the topic of philosophical knowledge, is the point of the video that science isn’t a “body of knowledge” either, so thinking in terms of bodies of knowledge altogether is the wrong way to go about it?”
That was my point. I think I was clear on that. Science is not a body of knowledge; science is an activity, a discipline.
The “progress” you cite in philosophy misses my point. New things to dispute are not important, what is significant is the lack of resolution. Philosophy never settles any question, which is the real reason it cannot be a branch of knowledge.
I did not equate libertarian society with a market-based society. I only said the first requires the second, and that that is what matters for the question of needing impersonal prosociality and also encouraging it.
No one thinks or has said libertarians have stronger inclinations toward impersonal fairness than other people.
Having local markets and trade is not the same as being a market-based society. Yes, trade has gone on since we were hunter-gatherers. The question is how pervasive are markets and how well do they function. Trade that can only be carried on in immediate face-to-face exchanges or only between people of the same religion or under the rubric of reciprocal gifting is not exactly a market-based society. Trade that goes on only under conditions that raise the transaction costs through the roof, so that trade is radically inhibited, is not a market-based society. But these are the conditions that have existed, with few exceptions, nearly everywhere in the world prior to the last few centuries. Earlier societies were not “market integrated communities” by a long way. For example, the ability to pay large sums of money (necessary for any sort of longer distance trade) by promissory notes, as opposed to in gold, was pioneered by Italian merchants in late medieval times, and so far as I know did not exist anywhere prior to that. The Italians also invented means to employ nonfamily agents in banking operations in distant cities, apparently for the first time.
Impersonal prosociality of the kind we’re talking about did not exist prior to the last few hundred years. Henrich’s book is 700 pages long, not counting notes and other end matter. He presents abundant data on this.
Of course, all this is a matter of degree. I don’t dispute that markets and trade have existed from ancient times (indeed, even in prehistory). This is a point commonly emphasized by libertarians (for example, Matt Ridley, Deirdre McCloskey, F.A. Hayek). And to the extent that markets and trade exist, they both necessitate and reward the kind of prosocial virtues I mentioned. What’s distinctive of libertarianism is the desire to increase this to the Nth degree, that’s all.
The way in which a libertarian society necessitates impersonal prosociality is, once again, explained at this link. You only need to read the first six paragraphs. When the discussion turns to Gauthier, stop (unless you want to know about Gauthier).
By the way, saying that the fact that markets existed before libertarianism shows that some special effort is needed to link the two is like saying that the fact that people reasoned before Aristotle invented logic shows that a special effort is needed to establish that Aristotle believed in the importance of reason.
I do think that the belief that human relations should be voluntary, particularly as structured by a legal code designed to protect individual rights, is what is distinctive of libertarianism. It is strange to say you think this can’t be distinctive because everybody has believed this since the middle ages and then complain that libertarians want to restrict the government! Government laws and regulations are not voluntary, pretty much by definition. Government, to a first approximation, is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given territory. All of its laws and regulations are enforced ultimately by coercion. If coercion weren’t involved, we wouldn’t need government at all. The government in the U.S. extracts something like half your income once all is said and done and uses the money to buy all kinds of things you might not want it to. It tells you whom you can and can’t do business with in many circumstances and restricts all manner trade relations, telling you what manner of crops or meat you can sell and under what conditions, what drugs you can sell and when, how and when you can get vaccinated, when you can set up a business and of what sort, and the list goes on and on. Governments in 3/4 of the rest of the world are much, much worse.
One thing you’re right about: impersonal prosociality is not distinctive to libertarianism or to a market-based order. (I never said it was.) I do think socialism would require it also—and a lot more, verging on sainthood. (This makes me think of economist Meir Kohn’s recent reminiscence on becoming a libertarian and his description of his idealistic attempt to live in an Israeli kibbutz. Many people, like him, got discouraged and eventually left. The ones who stayed fell into two groups, “deadbeats and saints.”)
I don’t want to get into talking about the pandemic, but I trust you aren’t saying libertarians or other skeptics were responsible for 600000+ U.S. coronavirus deaths. If you want to express outrage at unnecessary coronavirus deaths, you might try the FDA, which delayed for weeks approval of vaccines that had already been approved by major and credible European regulatory agencies, and also suspended approval of the J&J vaccine for trivial reasons, which mainly had the entirely predictable result of sewing doubt in the public’s mind about vaccine safety. (First shots of all vaccines fell sharply at that time and never really recovered.) This happened at a time when thousands were dying every day. Nearly all the libertarians I know accept the legitimacy of the principle that the government can make coercive regulations in a pandemic. The argument is over particular strategies and measures. (I will say that one particular group of libertarian writers, AIER, acted very badly, in my opinion. And so I think I ought to call them out. But most libertarians were not like that.) I don’t think it is fair to say libertarians resisted government restrictions “merely because they wanted to.” It is a matter of fundamental values. It’s a cliché but nonetheless true that “war is the health of the state.” That goes not only for literal war like the war on Iraq, but pretty much anything the government tells us is “war,” like the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror. For, “war” legitimates extraordinary government powers and suspension of the usual limits on its authority. All of these fake “Wars” have been assaults on our liberty with disastrous social consequences. It is reasonable to fear that a “War on the Pandemic” will be no different.
Re progress in philosophy, the point of my examples is not that they introduce new topics for endless dispute, but that they settled some issues. Prior to Bayesianism, it was common in philosophy of science to suppose that there can be no rational basis, other than pragmatic reasons, for preferring one empirically adequate scientific theory to another. This led to a considerable amount of bad philosophy—for example, Quine and Popper and the disputes between them. This is now gone, and it won’t be coming back. Phenomenalism in sense-perception is gone, and it won’t be coming back. Talk of sense-data altogether is gone, as a result of the intentionalist revolution. Disputes over the nature of mind and the mind–body relation, which picked up in the 20th century and came to a head in the 70s and 80s, are now over. Functionalism has won, and the issue is pretty much settled, unless or until some radically new development comes along. (The “hard problem of consciousness” does not change this. Chalmers, for example, accepts functionalism, like pretty much everybody else. The “hard problem” adds a new difficulty—and is an exciting new development, in my opinion, but it is an addition to the functionalist conception. I don’t see how it could in any way replace it—unless, as I say, something radically new comes along.)
I should say that, although I think there is knowledge in philosophy, I don’t think it is or should be just like science in its quest for knowledge, only with a different methodology. Philosophy has a special place in being the study at the most fundamental level of our world and our place in it and “the meaning of it all.” This means questioning everything, and philosophers aren’t doing their job if they aren’t taking seriously wild and “crazy” ideas. To be weird and mind-bending is part of the point! This doesn’t mean we don’t want the truth and knowledge, though sometimes it can seem that way to non-philosophers.
Note: I am on vacation as of yesterday, so if I reply briefly or not at all until late next week, that is the reason.
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If you don’t “equate libertarian society with a market-based society” then it was senseless for you to write “A libertarian society (or a market-oriented society, which is the same thing for present purposes) …”
We agree on this: a market-based society requires and encourages impersonal prosociality. It does not require libertarianism. And it’s not at all clear if a libertarian society even encourages impersonal prosociality much less requires it.
If no one “thinks or has said libertarians have stronger inclinations toward impersonal fairness than other people” then Henrich’s results are irrelevant and should never have come up.
You wrote that “impersonal prosociality of the kind we’re talking about did not exist prior to the last few hundred years.”
Having studied European Medieval History extensively, I can say without question that trade between persons of different cultures, religions, communities, etc. occurred since antiquity; since such activity requires impersonal prosociality of the kind we’re talking about, we’ll have to push back its existence by at least a millennium, if not more.
There were practical impediments to trade before the late Middle Ages; but lack of “impersonal prosociality” was not one of those impediments. Roman merchants traded extensively with the Gauls and other “barbarians”; some early Roman wars with the Gauls were based on mistreatment of Roman merchants. The Ancient Greeks also traded with foreigners; they invented the word “barbarian” as a reference to their strange languages. And those Italian merchants were incented to use promissory notes by their trading partners, the Arabs and Mongols. Remember that the Age of exploration began as an effort to reach distant foreign markets.
I have no doubt that IN THEORY, libertarians encourage impersonal prosociality; and I have no doubt that theorists do emphasize that claim. It seems like little more than PR and self-delusion. Libertarianism may sound attractive in theory, but once you get down to the nuts and bolts, it quickly becomes sociopathic. And I use that word quite intentionally; see my later comments about the pandemic.
Aristotle did NOT invent logic; no philosopher did. They merely described what people were already doing. Socrates was using logic to great effect long before Plato or Aristotle. Aristotle contributed a lot to formalizing it, but he wasn’t the first and logic was there long before he or any other philosopher was born.
You say that “the belief that human relations should be voluntary, particularly as structured by a legal code designed to protect individual rights, is what is distinctive of libertarianism”. Odd. We’ve had that in the US since 1791, long before the term “libertarian” even existed. Very old European and non-European cultures embraced that idea much earlier.
And who is it who will enforce that legal code when large groups (white supremicists) reject it? GOVERNMENT. Once you rely on a legal code, you rely on government, warts and all. If voluntary human relations are “structured by a legal code” then they are structured by government too.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic; let me be clear: libertarian ideas (as well as unjustified skepticism) ARE RESPONSIBLE for the vast majority of our deaths and the oft-ignored excess deaths caused by the pandemic.
You blame the FDA for delaying vaccine approvals, but about 2/3 of COVID-related deaths in the US happened BEFORE there was any vaccine. And those vaccines were developed and approved in record time.
We know NOW that the J&J vaccine is safe, but when the FDA briefly suspended its use, we didn’t know that yet. If the FDA had done nothing and it turned out they should have, wouldn’t you be using that as an example of government failure? Damned if they do; damned if they don’t? I’ve also never heard a libertarian alternative to the FDA’s process. All I hear is second-guessing, Monday-morning quarterbacking, and hindsight.
Are libertarians responsible for all this tragedy? I don’t know, but I know that the objections to masking and social distancing were DISTINCTLY libertarian. And that non-compliance IS certainly to blame. If a person spouts libertarian stuff, does that make them libertarian? I give no answer.
You wrote that you don’t “think it is fair to say libertarians resisted government restrictions ‘merely because they wanted to.’ It is a matter of fundamental values.” Really? What fundamental value trumps responding to an emergency? What I recall was self-described libertarians fretting about their freedom, and the economic impacts, and saying that those who were afraid of COVID should just stay home. What economic value trumps survival of one’s neighbors?
Regarding progress in philosophy, I’ve had Quine quoted admiringly to me by philosophers just this year; Popper (pardon the expression) keeps popping up. All that you mention as “gone and won’t be coming back” reminds me of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” (1992) which declared the final victory of liberalism over communism, religion, nationalism, and fascism. That did not age well; neither will yours.
Regarding “Philosophy has a special place in being the study at the most fundamental level of our world and our place in it and ‘the meaning of it all.’”
Physics has the first one covered, and religion does as good a job with the last two as anything; and I say that as a religious skeptic. I endorse questioning everything, but if there are never answers or conclusions, then what’s the point? Saying that being “weird and mind-bending is part of the point!” is to embrace style over substance. Wanting truth and knowledge isn’t enough, without a plan and a method, it’s all for naught. Better to go flip burgers; at least that does some tangible good.
And finally, you never have to explain any delay in replying. Enjoy your vacation!
“Physics has the first one covered”
Physics depends on metaphysical, epistemological, and normative assumptions that cannot themselves be addressed within the framework of physics.
As I’m sure you’re aware, the libertarian community was deeply divided (more or less along the lines of the rest of the country) on proper responses to the pandemic. So I don’t see how libertarianism per se can be painted with the brush of just one side there.
boydstun, I just read the Amazon Books summary of Hospers’ manifesto [https://www.amazon.com/Libertarianism-Political-Philosophy-John-Hospers-ebook/dp/B00DK19CKU/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=]
Question: do you think this summary provides a fair representation of it?
No. The words describing the book in that link are dimwitted or anyway aimed at luring dimwits. Here is a fair representation of the contents of a philosophy book: https://www.amazon.com/Epistemic-Role-Consciousness-Philosophy-Mind/dp/0199917663/ref=sr_1_1?crid=76T9L2A9WQ1D&dchild=1&keywords=the+epistemic+role+of+consciousness&qid=1624818333&sprefix=the+epistemic+%2Caps%2C139&sr=8-1
I’m not interested in other examples of better summaries. If the summary of Hosper’s manifesto is poor, then we’re done with it here. It may be a valuable book; it may be BS. I cannot tell and I don’t have a reason to find time to read it soon.
What the summary of the Smithies book show is the incorrectness of your claim above, Sean, that philosophy “is an argumentative pastime devoid of knowledge, possessing only claims and positions.”
Well, now I am extra puzzled by your view of philosophy as devoid of knowledge, Sean. I gather with a little online search that you have education at a good school, a JD, much experience, and that you are as old as I am old. (I was not recommending the Hospers book, or any book, but from your apparent awareness of libertarianism, simply using that book as a counterexample to the picture of philosophy you had remarked, thinking you might know that elementary book concerning libertarian political philosophy.) When you say that philosophy is devoid of knowledge, do you mean that it it adds no value? Do you mean by ‘knowledge’ something more narrow than its use in ordinary parlance?
I’ll respond to this later, when I have more time for it.
But as a lead in, I suggest you watch his video by Adam Savage:
Especially pay attention to the parts from about 3:20 to 4:30.
Then remember what I said: philosophy is not a body of knowledge.
boydstun, the summary of Smithies book represents a viewpoint; it shows nothing more than some people think philosophy is valuable. That was a given; it’s a viewpoint you and David Potts share. i know many who share that view, and many who share my doubts. If the summary of Hosper’s manifest is unreliable, then the summary of Smithies book is also.
Alexander turns Caplan’s thesis on its head by equating “Western Civilization” with “what works,” then by detaching it from any geographic or cultural boundaries. This seems to me to “solve” one problem simply by exacerbating it. Balch and Caplan were disagreeing about what Western Civilization is. Balch had adopted the traditional understanding of it; Caplan had invented a revisionary one. Neither of the two positions is quite adequate, but at least they concern a semi-recognizable subject-matter in each case. Alexander “solves” the problem of their disagreement by generating a conception of Western Civilization so broad (and vacuous) that no one (he thinks) could disagree with it.
This gambit reminds me of a certain brand of Objectivist who would define “Objectivism” as encompassing every true proposition about the world, so that Objectivism was true by definition–since it simply referred to every true proposition in the world. If it turned out to be true of the world that the essential clams of Objectivism was false, well then–Objectivism entailed its own falsity. Where’s the problem?
One problem with Alexander’s thesis is that the claim “X works” is far more complex (and for that reason opaque) than he makes it out to be. It’s very easy to say, for instance, that “Western medicine works,” but when you get down to interesting cases, it’s totally unclear what that really means. Take, for instance, end of life care. Does “Western medicine” work there? What does that even mean? Do we mean that Western medicine requires us to extend the lives of people nearing death, engaging in semi-futile clinical gestures to purchase a bit more life, one bit at a time, at colossal, system-straining cost? Well, Western medicine sure does a good job of that, but is that working medicine, or is it just neurosis as expressed in long-term care? People in traditional societies lacked the means to do that, hence didn’t do it. Does that mean that traditional medicine doesn’t “work”? Or does it mean that Western medicine appears to work despite its addiction to technologized neurosis? I have no idea, and I doubt Scott Alexander does, either.
This is not a peripheral example. I chose it because it’s at the very heart of the American health care system. But I could multiply examples. The Western way of handling mental illness is to reach, reflexively, for psychotropic medications. Does that work? I don’t mean: are there cases such that it works? I mean: globally, does that approach work? The Western way of handling back pain is to schedule spinal fusion surgery, despite the mixed results. Would Alexander say that that works? Clearly, we need a criterion for “working” that he hasn’t given.
But put that first problem aside. Assume that we know what it means for something to work. If so, does Alexander not find it discomfiting then that among the things that characterize Western civilization are totalitarianism and the mechanisms of mass death? The surveillance state works…at surveillance. The concentration camp works at housing marginalized populations marked out for slave labor or death. Weapons of mass destruction work at killing gigantic numbers of people, or else keeping them in a low-level state of terror. Arguably, anthropogenic climate change works at inducing the destruction of civilization itself. Isn’t that Western civilization making its presence known all over the globe?
Either these things are very costly byproducts of success, or they are part of what success turns out to be. But if success is by definition Western, then totalitarianism, imperialism, weapons of mass destruction, genocide, industrialized- globalized versions of the slave trade, and global warming are all Western phenomena.
If that’s so, why is it such a puzzle to Alexander (as it evidently is) that people romanticize non-Western cultures, i.e.,cultures off the grid that don’t “work” in the sense he valorizes? He writes as though this tendency were some sort of ineffable mystery beyond human comprehension. It isn’t. It’s a modest if quixotic gesture in the direction of sanity. The portrait he paints of Western civilization is one of frenetic instrumentalism unconstrained by any substantive moral values. Maybe he’s comfortable living that way, but why assume anyone else is?
To descend from the high-minded to the trivial: consider his Coca-Cola example. Here my complaint with Alexander is the same as my complaint with Caplan. He says, without apparent irony (that I can detect), that because Coca-Cola has outcompeted every other drink on the planet, it is presumptively the best drink on the planet. Put aside the inconvenient fact that coffee, invented in the Ottoman Empire and imported from there to Europe, beats Coca Cola by a very long shot. (I guess that makes coffee Western, then–and makes the Ottoman Empire ca. 1750 a paradigmatic locus of Western culture.) How would it follow that because everyone drinks Coke, Coke is the best drink? Coke is the most addictive drink because it contains a large dose of high fructose corn syrup, which is the single most toxic mass produced ingredient one can find in food. The only thing that Coke “works” at is inducing people to drink an addictive substance that’s very bad for them. But unless Alexander is joking, he really seems to think that the inference from “it’s tasty” to “it’s the best” goes through. And that is the pattern of all of his inferences: from “it appeals to our tastes/desires” to “it is the best thing ever.” But that seems literally childish.
The conclusion I draw is that the part of this discussion that takes Caplan and Alexander as a starting point is misdirected. (I reserve comment on Henrich until I manage to read him.) Both of these authors start with huge, unargued assumptions and then follow them out in relatively pointless, ill-conceived directions. A much better account of the topic might have been to disambiguate the various strands of thought and practice that make up what goes by the name “Western Civilizaiton,” trace them back to their roots, and explain why they are distinct strands bearing such-and-such relation to one another, and such-and-such relation to other cultures. But ever since Huntington’s contributions to this topic, it seems to me that the entire conversation has been in a state of disarray and confusion. Both Caplan’s and Alexander’s posts strike me as fitting that description.
One last comment on Alexander. Am I the only reader at PoT to find passages like this embarrassingly tendentious and uninformed?
Is it really true that opponents of colonialism tend to believe that cultures are valuable and need to be protected in themselves? Or do they believe, more plausibly, that human lives are valuable and need to be protected against the paternalistic encroachments of people convinced not only of the superiority of their civilization, but of the need to promote it by force? It doesn’t seem to occur to Alexander to consider the possibility that the poverty and irrationality of the cultures he’s mentioning here is often a direct consequence of the intended aims of colonial conquerors. So what opponents of colonialism are defending is not backwardness as such but the claim that deliberately-generated backwardness ought not to become a ready excuse for colonialist exploitation and paternalism. No one who’s actually spent time on an Indian reservation could miss the fact that the poverty and ignorance of the inhabitants is a matter of the reservation’s design, not an accident that somehow “happened to happen.” But if you want a more systematic discussion (from a different context), read, say, Sara Roy’s The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development (2016), which gives exhaustive evidence to that end, for that case.
Contrary to Alexander, opponents of colonialism have no hesitation calling poverty poverty, or ignorance ignorance. It’s really a mystery (to me) what he thinks he’s talking about.
Another, equally tendentious paragraph:
I wonder whether Alexander has read Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, which discusses this very issue. The book came out after his post, but the articles on which it was based were published contemporaneously with his post. Professor Sir Angus Deaton is a knighted Nobel Laureate, not exactly a marginal figure in contemporary discourse. Anne Case is a chaired professor of economics at Princeton. Again, not a marginal figure. Their work has been the subject of hundreds upon hundreds of articles, TV shows, etc etc., and diagnoses the problems to which Alexander alludes in both morally sensitive and empirically informed ways. Somehow, all of this escapes Alexander in his haste to make an off-hand generalization about “our” double standards about “white trailer trash.” His rhetoric here just comes across as an ignorant cheap shot.
Regarding modern medicine and end of life care; is the failure one of medicine or the culture in which it is embedded region-by-region? It’s important to not confuse the current, lamentable state of American Healthcare with the state of modern medicine.
Is this a failure of modern medicine or is it that we (especially in the US) are not completely transitioned from “western” culture to “universal/WEIRD” culture? In the US we may actually be backtracking.
Some European nations have much better end of life care and mental healthcare than the US does. I think many US doctors would like things to be different, but government and religion don’t allow it.
Also, modern medicine remains a work-in-progress; especially in the area of treatment for mental health issues. However we define “what works”; as new evidence is found, our understanding of “what works” will change.
Since I’ve not read much of Alexander or the other back-ground authors, I can’t speak to their writing; but yes, the comment on colonialism or about “white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans” seem silly and uninformed.
In general, your criticism of the back-ground material seems fair and important. I thank you for it.
My quarrel isn’t so much with modern health care as it with Alexander’s facile understanding of “Western culture.” The criterion of “what works,” by itself, is meaningless. “What works” for what? The phrase “what works” just means “conducive to some goal.” What is the goal? When the goal is as complex as “health,” the meaning of the phrase “what works” will be at least as complex as the goal itself. Alexander seems to be treating the goal as self-evidently simple, so that “what works” follows suit. But that flouts the facts, and it particularly flouts the facts in his own discipline, psychiatry. The nature of psychiatric health is anything but simple. “What works” in psychiatry is anything but clear or obvious. So all that the “what works” criterion does is to give a misleading, glib appearance of clarifying something without actually doing so.
It’s as though I defined Western culture as “what’s good,” and left matters there. So good sex, good coffee, good food, good roads, good moral character, and good WiFi would all be instances of Western culture, and their opposites would not. But that’s a ridiculously hetergeneous list of things. The goodness of the things on the list is similarly hetergeneous. It clarifies nothing to equate Western culture with the goodness of the things on the list, especially when doing so departs so radically from the way the term has ever been used in the past. Think how ridiculous it would be to say that good sex and good character are a monopoly of “Western culture,” then have to correct yourself and say, “Well, I don’t mean Western culture as traditionally conceived! If Neanderthals had good sex, then Neanderthals were examples of Western culture!” I mean, come on. That’s not a useful contribution to the discussion. It’s just a recipe for all-out confusion.
To revert to your example, suppose you’re absolutely right–long-term care in European health care “works,” and its American equivalent doesn’t. This would imply, on Alexander’s thesis, that European health care was Western, and American health care was non-Western. But let’s say that American fireworks are better than European. Then in that respect, American fireworks are Western, and European ones are non-Western. The result then would be that American is neither a Western nor non-Western culture, but a confusing hybrid of both–as is Europe. This would imply, in turn, that unless everything in a culture “worked,” no culture would be Western. Do we really need to hijack the term “Western” to replace the perfectly OK (though vague and uninformative) concept of “what works”? I don’t see why. The problem with Alexander is that he doesn’t see why. He just steamrolls through an entire essay, churning out the ridiculous implications of a ridiculous thesis without stopping to see how ridiculous it is. That’s what I was doing–pausing to say how ridiculous it is. The claims I was making about health care were secondary to that.
But if the topic is health care, all I would say is that things are complex. American health care is good at some things that European health care is not as good at, and vice versa. For whatever it’s worth, LTACH care in American hospitals is probably superior to that in European hospitals, at least for the well-insured, and on its own terms (meaning, they’re good at doing what they think ought to be done, not at asking whether it ought to be done). Americans are great at extending the lives of people at end-of-life, probably better at it than Europeans. The question is whether we ought to be doing that. The distinction shows that “what works” is not a particularly useful concept in this context until we specify what we’re trying to accomplish. That’s what Alexander fails to do.
I wrote above that philosophy is not a “branch of knowledge”. At best it’s similar to science: an activity; a discipline. Neither are compendiums of knowledge, nor branches thereof.
The big difference between science and philosophy is that science has a methodology: the empirical method. There are rules and expectations and standards of evidence. It’s an actual discipline.
I cannot say that philosophy—even at its best—has a method or a discipline. Typically, it seems only a set of behaviors: staking out positions, defending them from all challenge, tweaking claims only when compelled to.
Rinse and repeat.
This is why I called philosophy “an argumentative pastime devoid of knowledge, possessing only claims and positions.”
Science has a point: discovery of evidence about the universe. What is the point to philosophy beyond energetic dispute? Philosophy resembles a religion more than a discipline. It’s not an accident that very little day-light separates philosophy from theology. The (mis)behaviors of philosophy serve theologians quite well.
In 25 centuries, have philosophers settled any significant question? Or made any progress beyond coming up with new controversies? Not that I can tell. Philosophies go in and out of fashion, but they linger and return recast in new language.
I respect philosophers; at least some of them. They labor to give the world clarity and sense. This is what drew me to philosophy. But these labors seem like trying to hold back the tide with a shovel.
Perhaps I’m jaded because of contact with libertarians and objectivists; both are particularly dubious “philosophies”. At least I got to be there when Bleeding Heart Libertarians went down.
Science too, not only philosophy, is always leading to new questions. Same for mathematics. All good.
Yes, science has methods, and they are methods to knowledge. Scientific knowledge is knowledge. Logic is a method (for more than scientific knowledge of course) and logic is a knowledge (beyond a faltering knowhow if one takes in an elementary logic text). Onto science there is philosophy of scientific methods and philosophy of areas of science, such as philosophy of biology. There is philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of logic.
The point of science is more than “discovery of evidence about the universe.” Science brings us knowledge, from which, air conditioning.
The top 5,000 minds (or more) of philosophers today really are very bright and really practice well the methods of philosophy. To learn from them, as from the scientists and mathematicians, is truly wonderful in life of the mind, mine anyway. Argumentation in philosophy to good purpose, the one that interests me (good fulsome reasoning and knowledge, joined with other minds having that interest and interest in history of those), is not its use to embarrass, beat up, or shut up an interlocutor.
By way of personal clarity, I’m not a libertarian or an Objectivist, meaning I have views opponent to essential elements in each of those. My thinking is in significant agreement with each of those, in philosophy (and not in unread blathering or politics du jour bannered as libertarian or as Objectivist). But that does not mean I’m of those schools. Essentials matter. I stopped studying social philosophy by the late 1980’s. That was not because I thought it worthless or the top-notch stuff in social philosophy (and related stuff like game theory and law) uninteresting; it was only that there was this vast sea in other areas of philosophy I wanted to swim in.
You, like David, don’t seem to get it. Finding new questions is no big deal. Science, however, settles matters; philosophy does not. Settling matters is how science enables things like air conditioning (which you seem to appreciate).
The point of science is “discovery of evidence about the universe.” Calling those discoveries “knowledge” is redundant.
I’ve spent some time with some of those philosophers; the most important thing I learned from them is that philosophy is essentially futile.
Enjoy your swim.
The idea that science “settles matters” while philosophy doesn’t is serious misleading.
Now if “settling” is understood to mean “reaching universal agreement,” then neither science nor philosophy settles much of anything, since there are nearly always dissenters, however irrational, to everything. I mean, there are still flat earth theorists, ffs. But if “settling” is understood to mean “reaching a wide consensus,” then both science and philosophy have a solid track record of settling things. And if “settling” is understood objectively, to mean “proving something decisively” (regardless of who agrees), then again, both science and philosophy have a solid track record of settling things.
Science and philosophy both proceed more by showing what can’t be right than by showing what must be right. One uses primarily empirical methods while the other uses primarily conceptual methods, but the structural dynamic is the same. Galileo and Newton proved (mainly empirically, but partly conceptually) that Aristotelean mechanics couldn’t be right. They didn’t thereby show that Newtonian mechanics had to be right; after all, Einstein later came along and proved (mainly empirically, but partly conceptually) that Newtonian mechanics couldn’t be quite right either. (And there’s no reason to think we’re near the end of the process.)
Likewise in philosophy: Gettier proved that the justified-true-belief theory of knowledge couldn’t be right (at least where justification is understood in a purely internalist way). Putnam and Kripke proved that the standard conventionalist theory of meaning couldn’t be right. (They didn’t necessarily refute every possible version of conventionalism that might be more sophisticated, but they certainly refuted the version that had widely prevailed up to that point.). Frege proved that the psychologistic theory of logic couldn’t be right. Kant proved that the standard attempts up to his day to reduce mathematics to logic couldn’t be right. Russell and Whitehead proved that the more recent, post-Kantian attempts to reduce mathematics to logic also couldn’t be right. Thomson proved that the standard arguments for the immorality of abortion couldn’t be right. (She didn’t prove that no possible argument against abortion could succeed, though she did create reasonable grounds for skepticism that any such argument was likely to succeed.). Putnam proved that the hypothesis that we might be brains in vats is incoherent. Sellars and McDowell proved that the standard empiricist model of how propositional knowledge is t be derived from sensory data is incoherent. Apart from the last three examples (Thomson, Putnam, and Sellars-McDowell), all these thinkers not only objectively proved their point but also achieved something close to a discipline-wide wide consensus.
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Sorry for the delayed response; there were other matters I had to attend to first.
In your June 30 response, you referred to “proofs” 13 times, the last 12 of which you should not have. And you omitted one example you should have included.
To be clear: proof is for mathematics, printing, and booze. Science does not deal in proofs; it deals in evidence. Philosophy has only arguments and occasional evidence; no proofs.
By “settling” I mean that a settled question is definitively answered barring the discovery of unexpected new facts. Science is able to settle matters because it has a method and standards. Philosophy cannot settle matters because it has no standards. But you are right that sometimes a matter is settled by exclusion: by showing what is unlikely to be right.
Your second paragraph pretty much guts your fourth, which is weak anyway. Gettier “proved” (argues) that “justified-true-belief theory of knowledge” is wrong SORT OF. Even you give it far less than a conclusive status. Likewise, for Kripke, Frege, and the others. Those matters seem to not be settled even in your mind; and we both know that reviving those “disproved” concepts is simply a matter of creative writing. Philosophy has no standard by which some future thinker’s claims can be rejected other than “because Gettier/Kripke/Frege wrote” something. These “disproved” concepts may no be longer fashionable in philosophy; but fashions change; consensus breaks down. Stay tuned.
Your passage about Kant, Russell, and Whitehead is interesting because of whom you omitted: Kurt Gödel. Here the word “proved” would apply appropriately: Gödel proved the logical incompleteness of mathematics. But Gödel used MATH to do it; not philosophy.
Regarding Thomson and abortion—well!—all I can say is that claiming someone’s even approximately “settled” the question of whether abortion is immoral is bizarre!
You’ve repeated this claim over and over, but you haven’t presented anything like an argument for it:
What is the argument supposed to be? Repeating a claim over and over isn’t an argument.
I disagree with many of the starting points of David Potts’s piece about Western culture, and I have much less sympathy for libertarianism than he does, but his claims about philosophy are irrefutable, and you really haven’t addressed them at all. Let me re-state them slightly.
Logic is the study of inference, and inference is fundamental to all thought. Without a systematized account correct versus incorrect inference, there is no higher-order knowledge at all (above perception, memory, etc.), including scientific knowledge. No branch of natural science studies inference as such. Just to repeat: NO branch does that, including mathematics. Correct inference is the special province of philosophy, and has been since Plato and Aristotle. Philosophers have cornered the market on it, because philosophy alone studies the whole topic in a comprehensive, rigorous, sustained, and truth-conducive way.
It’s utterly beside the point that people used logic before Aristotle produced his analytic and dialectic treatises. People used math before mathematicians began to formalize the principles of mathematics, too. It doesn’t follow that mathematics is not a branch of knowledge, nor does it follow that logic isn’t, nor does it follow that philosophy isn’t. You’re relying on an invalid inference there. And my saying that–“you’re relying on an invalid inference”–is an instance of philosophical knowledge, precisely an example of how and why philosophical claims, when true, ARE knowledge. “You’re relying on an invalid inference” is not a claim from physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, mathematics, archaeology, political science, or any other natural or social science. It’s philosophy. Aristotle really is the inventor, or at least the originator, of both formal and informal logic. And both are a body of knowledge. Without Aristotle’s’ logical treatises, people would still be stumbling in the dark as far as logic was concerned. Many still are.
Philosophical logic is obviously part of philosophy, and obviously a branch of knowledge–more certain, more rigorous, and more truth-conducive than almost any of the natural sciences, and certainly more so than the least rigorous sciences of the bunch (e.g., medical science, psychiatry, clinical psychology, etc). That one counterexample conclusively sinks your thesis (there’s the conclusiveness you’re looking for, and it came from philosophy), but it’s not the only one at the disposal of someone who wants to defend philosophy. The more fundamental problem is that you haven’t provided an argument of any kind for your claim. You’ve just repeated it in various different ways. If you really want to claim that philosophy isn’t knowledge, leaf through the pages of the Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, and tell me that what’s written on its pages is “not knowledge.” I picked that example because I used to be on its editorial staff, but I could have picked any of several hundred journals.
You make various comparisons of philosophy to science, but that presupposes an account of what “science” is. What is it, exactly? That question is a philosophical one, and philosophers have given by far the best answers to it, over hundreds of thousands of pages, across hundreds (or thousands) of years. No natural science addresses that question, and insofar as scientists address it, they borrow whatever knowledge they claim to have from philosophers. But claim for claim, scientists are not competitive with philosophers of science on the cogency of the answers they give. Very few scientists have even the basic competence that the average philosopher of science has in dealing with the “delimitation problem,” i.e., the problem of defining the boundaries and nature of science itself.
The same general point can be made about the concept of “knowledge,” which you’re relying on but not defining. Knowledge is a philosophical concept, and philosophers have cornered the market on analyses of its meaning. No other discipline is remotely competitive with philosophy for subtlety, rigor, or comprehensiveness on that subject. And to state the obvious: though philosophers disagree on many epistemological issues, there is a great deal of truth, hence knowledge, on the points of agreement they have. The most obvious is that knowledge requires a non-accidental relation between belief and truth. Most analyses of knowledge are accounts of that non-accidental relation. But without philosophy, most people, including most scientists, would have no idea even where to look to start an analysis.
I haven’t read Jonathan Rauch’s new book, but the book of his you’re reading claims to be an inquiry into epistemology. Epistemology is philosophy. So if philosophy is not a branch of knowledge, his book on knowledge is devoid of knowledge–which makes zero sense. A book about knowledge which contains no knowledge contains no knowledge of its presumptive subject matter, in which case the book consists of a lot of words bouncing around in a semantic void.
In more than a quarter of a century of studying philosophy, I have yet to encounter a single argument against it, as such, that made even minimal sense. Most of what I’ve encountered is just strong aversion to philosophers put in strong words, and labeled as a critique of philosophy. Not the same thing, and not an endeavor with any likelihood of hitting its target.
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And as Aristotle pointed out: the nature and value of philosophy is itself a philosophical issue, and so one cannot enter into an inquiry on the topic without thereby engaging in philosophy — so arguing against philosophy is self-defeating.
Regarding, “Physics depends on metaphysical, epistemological, and normative assumptions that cannot themselves be addressed within the framework of physics.”
… and yet physicists seem to get along well enough without paying much attention to philosophy. Humans have always had the capacity to figure things out without philosophy; we were doing that long before there was philosophy.
Regarding, “As I’m sure you’re aware, the libertarian community was deeply divided …”
Actually, I’m not aware of that. I saw much written by libertarians opposing masking, social distancing, and vaccines. Perhaps there was a small number who took the other view, but I never saw that.
What I did see was that libertarian ideas were prominently and frequently cited by those who resisted to reasonable responses to COVID-19. Perhaps a few libertarians (people) fell on the rational side of the controversy; but libertarianism in general (the ideology) was at the heart of anti-science reactions. And it still is.
Regarding, “the nature and value of philosophy is itself a philosophical issue”.
This is just more overreaching. If philosophy is capable of inquiry into its own basic premises, and its own nature and value, then science is capable of the same without philosophy.
I don’t argue against philosophy; but I cannot find a reason to argue for it either. And I do question its claim to authority over other disciplines.
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Regarding “Correct inference is the special province of philosophy, and has been since Plato and Aristotle. Philosophers have cornered the market on it, because philosophy alone studies the whole topic in a comprehensive, rigorous, sustained, and truth-conducive way.”
Ah, no. On this topic it is very important that “people used logic before Aristotle produced his analytic and dialectic treatises.” Since they were using it before Aristotle—before philosophy even—what was Aristotle’s contribution to it? Description; Aristotle described what was already going on. Philosophy cannot have a “special province” nor a “corner on the market” for something that existed before philosophy did, and which continues independent of philosophy to this day.
It’s like Newton and gravity; Newton just described what happens; what happened before Newton and what happens since. No one needs to know what Newton (or any later physicist) wrote to see apples fall.
Logic may be the study of correct inferences, but no one needs to know what philosophers write to make correct inferences. Nor do philosophers have a veto over what is or is not a correct inference.
The relationship between “prior use”—whether for logic or math—is not related to whether philosophy or math is a “body of knowledge”. And a claim that something is an invalid inference is not a claim that requires philosophy. If it did, the claim couldn’t have been made prior to philosophy (which must have occurred.)
Philosophy might study logic, but the subject of study is not the same as the study itself. The map is not the terrain.
Asking questions about things does not make those things the province of the questioner. Asking my name does not make my name your special province. Asking what science is does not make either science, or its definition, the province of philosophy.
No philosopher can define science better than scientists do; all a philosopher can do is report on the answers scientists give, or describe what scientists do. We don’t all work for philosophers; reality is not defined by philosophy.
Similarly, you wrote that “Knowledge is a philosophical concept, and philosophers have cornered the market on analyses of its meaning.” Again, no; and for much the same reasons. Since some philosophers deny the very existence of meaning; all we can say is that while philosophers analyze meaning endlessly, the rest of us just shake our heads and go on with our lives.
I try to appreciate philosophy, but you are overreaching. Philosophers question everything, but they only own the questions, not the things questioned, nor the conclusions often reached without any assistance from philosophy.
I haven’t read Jonathan Rauch’s new book either; I’ve been side-tracked by events. Inquiry into epistemology is just that: inquiry. Will Rauch’s book contain any knowledge? Maybe, maybe not. It could be devoid of knowledge. Rauch would not be the first writer to miss his target.
After a quarter century of studying philosophy, perhaps you’ve not encountered a single argument against it. Since I’m not arguing against it, you haven’t heard one from me either. But after 40 years on the outside watching philosophers and reading their works, I cannot find much value in it either.
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Book I’d not known of until today, possibly pertinent to assessment of philosophy by Sean. THE FAILURES OF PHILOSOPHY by Stephen Gaukroger (2020).
From the publisher:
“The first book to address the historical failures of philosophy―and what we can learn from them.
“Philosophers are generally unaware of the failures of philosophy, recognizing only the failures of particular theories, which are then remedied with other theories. But, taking the long view, philosophy has actually collapsed several times, been abandoned, sometimes for centuries, and been replaced by something quite different. When it has been revived it has been with new aims that are often accompanied by implausible attempts to establish continuity with a perennial philosophical tradition. What do these failures tell us?
“The Failures of Philosophy presents a historical investigation of philosophy in the West, from the perspective of its most significant failures: attempts to provide an account of the good life, to establish philosophy as a discipline that can stand in judgment over other forms of thought, to set up philosophy as a theory of everything, and to construe it as a discipline that rationalizes the empirical and mathematical sciences. Stephen Gaukroger argues that these failures reveal more about philosophical enquiry and its ultimate point than its successes ever could. These failures illustrate how and why philosophical inquiry has been conceived and reconceived, why philosophy has been thought to bring distinctive skills to certain questions, and much more.
“An important and original account of philosophy’s serial breakdowns, The Failures of Philosophy ultimately shows how these shortcomings paradoxically reveal what matters most about the field.”
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This is relatively new (published last November). I was unaware of it too.
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