What Makes An Idea Popular?

In my recent piece on James C. Scott’s toweringly excellent The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), I suggested that there are unwritten laws governing the up-take of particular theories.  Laws that have less to do with logic, reason and scientific rigour than they do with our deep psychological needs.

For example, Gibbons’ The History of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789) argues that the Roman Empire fell into decline because the Romans lost their sense of civic responsibility and their hunger for military conquest.  This idea that power leads to moral corruption and that moral corruption leads to social decay seems to coincide with a similar pattern of rise and fall that features in the theories of both Giambattista Vico and Ibn Khaldun.

These different works attempt to account for radically different societies and yet they all share a similar underlying narrative.  A narrative of rise and fall that even pops up in places such as The Bible and Plato’s allegory of The Cave.  In my piece, I suggest that the over-arching narrative described by Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed is so powerful that it may come to rival that of Vico and Ibn Khaldun as a source of inspiration for writers and artists (let alone academic historians and political scientists).  My aim with this piece is to delve further into this intuition and try to unpack some of the ideas contained within it.  Does it make sense to talk about selecting theories on the basis of criteria other than truth? Do these other criteria in any way relate to truth?  What are the aesthetics of ideas?  These are some of the questions I will try to address with this piece.

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Absence of Mind (2010) By Marilynne Robinson – For Christ’s Sake Let it Go!

It has become something of a critical cliché to end a review or an essay with a phrase such as “…and find out something about what it means to be human”.  The elevation of this simple characterisation of a piece’s themes and ideas into a full-blown cliché is partly a reflection of its over-use by unimaginative critics and partly a reflection of the sheer number of works of art that attempt to engage with issues of personal identity.  Indeed, the crisis of identity is perhaps the central recurring theme behind all of modern literature.  However, despite all of the books, films and plays devoted to excavating conceptions of the self, surprisingly little headway has been made.  We are still alienated from our deepest desires.  We are still trapped between the need to be social creatures and the desire to be true to ourselves.  We are still fundamentally estranged from each other’s subjectivities.

In fact, art’s lack of progress has been so complete that one might well be tempted to conclude that art — whether it be literary, dramatic, cinematic or figurative — simply lacks the capacity to generate the kind of robust truths that stand up to close intellectual scrutiny.  After all, if one does not turn to interpretative dance when one wants to discern the nature of a neutron star, why should we turn to poetry when we want to discover who we are?

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson’s extended essay Absence of Mind – The Dispelling of Inwardness From The Modern Myth of The Self is an attempt to address this very question.  Robinson feels that the rise and rise of scientific conceptions of the self have resulted in a general impoverishment of discourse surrounding human nature.  An impoverishment that has left us alienated not only from the many ancient and richly metaphysical traditions embodied by the arts, philosophy, and religion, but also from ourselves and our willingness to trust our own insights into who we are and what we want.

Unfortunately, rather than clearly defenestrating these shrunken visions of humanity and providing a sustained and rigorous argument in favour of a richly metaphysical conception of the self, Robinson provides us with a one hundred and thirty page-long howl of entitlement.  Robinson is sloppy in her choice of targets, meretricious in her engagement with science and vacuous in her proclamations.  Absence of Mind is a book that fizzles with anger at the idea that scientists refuse to take Robinson’s private intuitions into account when formulating their theories but when the time comes for Robinson to articulate a reason — any reason — as to why they should, she remains oddly silent.  Absence of Mind is a book written with little insight and with little to say.

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Storytelling (2010) by Christian Salmon – Botching the Modern Argument

I am going to begin this piece by presenting you with some insights.  Hot off the digits and delivered fresh to your pre-frontal squire :

  1. Human neurology is such that we prefer engaging with narratives to wrestling with raw data points.
  2. This fondness for stories means that we are inclined to draw a line of best fit through the facts, eagerly accepting those claims that fit our narratives whilst turning a blind eye to those facts that contradict or complicate the story.
  3. This tendency to seek out narratives means that it is considerably easier for people to sell us a story than it is for them to convince us of isolated facts, even if the facts are more obviously true than the competing stories.
  4. Advertisers, politicians and all forms of demagogue are aware of these tendencies and factor them in to their dealings with the public.

These four insights can all more or less be inferred from the title of Christian Salmon’s book-length essay Storytelling – Bewitching the Modern Mind.  They are also the only insights that the book contains.  Sadly, instead of fleshing out these concepts and painting a picture of the dangers inherent in such lazy thought patterns, Salmon prefers to indulge in a number of weak forms of argument that are, somewhat disappointingly, rife in the non-academic non-fiction sub-genre.

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