Friday, January 25, 2008

Lee McIntyre: Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior

My review will appear in Philosophy in Review

Lee McIntyre Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press 2006. Pp. xx + 144. (Paper: ISBN: 0-262-13469-1)

Lee McIntyre is a man on a mission. He has written a book which is not a monograph on the philosophy of the social sciences, but rather a manifesto and a call to arms. We must save the social and behavioral sciences in time for the social and behavioral sciences to save us! Our technologically modern world is still plagued by the ancient societal ills of crime, war, poverty, etc. However, McIntyre is convinced that with a bit of pluck and methodological purity, the human sciences can become genuinely predictive. Once that happens, human beings will be able to cure society’s ills with the help of evidence-based, rational, and scientifically valid policies. Appropriately, Dark Ages is written with painstaking concern for clarity and is addressed to a rather broader reading public than would be usually associated with the MIT Press.

According to McIntyre, the human sciences are currently in a very sorry state. While the natural sciences have largely thrown off the shackles of cultural dogmas, research and theory-building in the social and behavioral sciences are still held back by religious and ideological prejudice. He mostly cites examples of the pernicious effects of liberal political correctness, which stymies the search for innate gender and ethnic differences (as illustrated by the reception of Hermstein and Murray’s book, The Bell Curve) and which blindly attacks any methodologically sound research that might undermine liberal policy dogmas (such as Gary Kleck’s work on guns and violence in America). More generally, people simply try to avoid serious confrontations with ideas – such as the thesis that freedom of the will is an illusion – that challenge their fundamental human self-worth. McIntyre does not offer his own speculations on any of these emotionally-charged topics, but rather insists that we must wait upon the self-correcting process of scientific discovery to give us answers.

McIntyre further claims that the human sciences have suffered because they have failed to adopt the self-critical empiricist methodology that has propelled the natural sciences to greatness. He retells the story of the “cold fusion” fiasco of 1989 as an example of how the validity of scientific knowledge is preserved by the constant vigilance of researchers who seek the empirical falsification of proposed hypotheses. Unfortunately, such attempts at falsification are rarely made in the human sciences.

Some might claim that the quest for predictive human sciences faces obstacles with which the predictive natural sciences did not have to contend. McIntyre counters by employing historical examples to demonstrate that the natural sciences had to overcome the same kinds of methodological and societal barriers as face the social sciences today. Early modern physics and astronomy had to free themselves of a disciplinary mind-set which eschewed empirical testing and sought truth through sheer intellectual speculation. The authority of Aristotle, Scripture, and Church doctrine blocked the way towards genuine advances. McIntyre devotes half a chapter to recounting Galileo’s battle for the heliocentric model of the universe as an illustration of how the natural sciences prevailed over the kinds of biases and methodological weaknesses that still plague the social sciences today.

Another challenge comes from the philosophy of the social sciences. Some philosophers claim that it is impossible to describe human psychology in terms of the kinds of explanatory laws which make possible the scientific prediction and control of natural phenomena. McIntyre is well aware of this trend of thought; he has devoted an entire earlier book, Laws and Explanations in the Social Sciences: Defending a Science of Human Behavior to the examination and critique of such claims. In what should have been the most philosophically interesting section of the book, McIntyre spends a mere fifteen pages describing and dismissing what he counts as the five major arguments made against the possibility of a predictive social science: A) The subject matter of the human sciences may appear to be overwhelmingly complex, but McIntyre assures us that the natural sciences have successfully studied complex systems. B) “Human behavior is part of an open system” (27) and thus determined by a potentially infinite array of factors, but this claim must itself be proven, and in any case science can handle open systems. C) Critics may say that “it is impossible to be objective about our own behavior” (28), but the natural sciences have also had to contend with illegitimate biases and interests. D) It is often impossible to perform controlled experiments in the social sciences, but that is also true of geology and astronomy. E) If people have free will, their behavior cannot be predicted. McIntyre replies that the hypothesis of human free must itself be subjected to empirical testing.

Many academic philosophers will be disappointed by McIntyre’s short list of objections and his quick treatment of them. However, it must be said in his defense that this is a book intended for a lay audience and that a fuller version of his arguments can be found in his earlier publications. Leaving those philosophical issues aside, a few other aspects of the book remain troubling. McIntyre over-dramatizes the policy failures of modern western societies. We simply do not suffer from many of the ancient social problems: no one dies of famine in western democracies, the rule of law is generally respected, people can travel across the countryside without fear of bandits, and illiteracy has been largely eradicated. McIntyre’s treatment of contemporary religion (including the surprising claim that, “It is an empirical question whether God exists” (54)) is weak and seems out of place. Perhaps this was an attempt to hitch his agenda to the neo-secularist bandwagon? (Sam Harris contributed a complimentary blurb to the book’s back cover) He also seems unconcerned about the danger that once armed with purportedly rigorous human sciences, governments might be tempted to interfere more deeply in the lives of citizens – for their own good, of course. Unfortunately, determination of the proper balance between social utility and individual freedom is not a problem that even a genuinely predictive social science would be able to solve on its own.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College, Israel

Peter Osborne: How to Read Marx

My review will appear in Practical Philosophy

Peter Osborne
How to Read Marx
London: Granta Books, 2005
ISBN1862077713 (pb), pp. vii + 136 pp.

Peter Osborne’s book follows the customary format of the How to read Series. Each of its chapters consists of a passage from Marx’s oeuvre followed by a discussion that is intended to both explicate the passage and to introduce broader issues of Marx’s thought. The purpose of the present book appears, however, to be somewhat different from that of others in the series. How to Read Marx might be more aptly titled How to Read Marx Correctly. While the other How to Read books serve as introductions to the thinkers to which they are devoted, Osborne’s book seems to assume that his audience already posses a basic - if flawed – acquaintance with Marx’s writings. As a result, he fails to give a systematic overview of Marx’s thought. In fact, Osborne consciously avoids overtly systematic interpretation, rather, he wishes “to present Marx’s writings as an ongoing process of investigation, rather than a doctrine” (pg. 6). Instead of explaining Marx from the ground up, he points out the varying rhetorical and historical factors that must be taken into account when reading different texts that Marx authored and he further tries to show us that Marx remains relevant in the age of globalization, that Marx can be read philosophically, that Marx was more innovative than we might have realized, and why Marx the father should not be held responsible for the sins of his Soviet children.

The book opens with a chapter on the “fetishism of commodities”, as set forth in a passage from Capital. Osborne takes pains to explain the historical background of the term “fetish” as it was used in Enlightenment accounts of non-western societies and in Marx’s own writings. He warns us against finding Freudian overtones in Marx’s use of the term. All of this is very well, but what exactly is fetishistic about commodities? Osborne tells us that a commodity’s “use-value” and “exchange-value” are mysteriously related, and that the work that goes into producing commodities is simultaneously both “concrete labour” and “abstract labour.” What he fails to do is to lead the reader through a single down-to-earth example of the production and marketing of a specific commodity in order to demonstrate how all of these theoretical concepts apply to the real world. The recurrent failure to flesh-out highly abstract ideas further undermines the book’s usefulness as a genuinely introductory text.

The next two chapters deal with passages from the “Theses on Feuerbach” and The German Ideology. Osborne uses these texts to explain Marx’s idiosyncratic materialism and how it developed during the course of his life. He tells us that the “Theses on Feuerbach” should be read as belonging to the genre of literary “fragments” as developed in German Romanticism and as an early example of a “posthumously published philosophical notebook” similar to Nietzsche’s Will to Power, Benjamin’s Arcades’ Project and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Osborne assures us that, “If the theoretical content of these texts is dense, at times to the point of enigma, the form of their incompleteness is nonetheless crucial for projecting a unity to the bodies of work to which they are appended’ (pg. 26). I am afraid that statements like this may well leave people who are acquainted with the authors mentioned no less confused than the philosophical neophytes who hope to gain an inkling of what Marx had to say about our world. Be that as it may, we come to understand that Marx’s new materialism is rooted in the standpoint of living, social, human beings who interact with material nature and with each other, rather than in the standpoint of an inactive, isolated scientific observer of material nature. We also learn that Marx’s standpoint is inherently historical, because when our needs move us to interact with nature, the technologies we develop in order to undertake that interaction generate new sets of needs in a recurring historical process. Although the ideas dealt with in these chapters are of considerable philosophical interest, Osborne once again fails to work hard enough to make the concepts involved readily and precisely understandable.

Chapter four uses a passage from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts as the textual anchor of a discussion of Marx’s notion of alienation as set against its Hegelian background. Chapter five presents excerpts from the early Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy (1839) and from the introduction to the “Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in order to consider Marx’s developing views on the respective roles of philosophy and the proletariat in the emancipation of humanity. Chapter six, built upon another excerpt from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, explains that the emancipation heralded by Marx consists of communism – not, as Osborne is careful to tell, the “communism” of state socialism, but rather a truly emancipatory communism. This is a communism “which abolishes private property [especially privately owned means of production – BDL] in such a way as to move humanity to a more advanced stage of historical development” (pg. 79) by managing to preserve the advances that lay hidden and alienated in the capitalist system. Chapter six is devoted to the Communist Manifesto, and deals largely with literary questions surrounding the genre of manifestos in general and the rhetorical considerations that must be taken into account when reading them. Chapter seven treats a remarkable passage from Capital which is written in the first person as the plea or complaint of a worker against his employer. Chapter nine deals with another section from Capital, this time one concerning the problem of “original accumulation” (the question of how capitalists amass the “start-up” capital needed for economies to “take off”). The basic thesis is that this “original” wealth is acquired through violent and underhanded means rather than through thrift and personal virtue. The final chapter discusses a sample of Marx’s pot-boiling journalistic writing. The passage in question deals with the affects of British colonialism on India. Osborne takes the opportunity to soften (but not to entirely excuse) the political incorrectness of Marx’s views on non-Western societies.

In conclusion: there is much of interest in this book for people who have some acquaintance with Marx; it might find a useful place on the reading lists of some undergraduate courses. However, I do not think it can succeed as a stand-alone introductory text.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College,
Akko, Israel,