A comment on a comment on a comment

11 July 2011


While Newton did not himself practise hepatomancy, it could be argued that in some contexts Newtonianism is little better than divination based on the appearance of a liver.

I recently read Citizen Fouche’s Newton Feels up a Liver, which was a response to Mark Safransky of Zenpundit‘s Follow-Up on the “Astrategic” Discussion, which was in turn a comment on Citizen Fouche’s comment on Zenpundit‘s post Not so much Tactical as Astrategic. If we take the original post that spawned this series as the statement of a thesis and the point of origin of the discussion, this post of mine is a comment on a comment on a comment on a comment on a comment. Consider this, then, a highly derivative post.

I must admit I really like Safransky’s coinage of “astrategic” and I suspect now that I am aware of it, I will find myself using it. This also immediately suggests the concepts of the “atactical” and the “anoperational” — interesting though these are, we will leave them aside for the moment.

Citizen Fouche is, as always, highly entertaining and well informed. He has an excellent style that is rewarding to read, and I honestly often laugh out loud when I read his posts. What I would like to take issue with at the moment is this particular rumination from Citizen Fouche:

“As the sausage machine of politics turns out unsightly strategy, the end product will not match anyone’s Platonic ideal of strategy. But theoretical and abstract purity, reaching towards perfection, is neither desirable or possible in strategic theory. Strategic theory must concentrate on producing a consistent description of strategic phenomena passable enough to cause no lasting harm as it trickles down from academic scribbler to supposed practical man. The 10 or so strategic clichés that reach the practical man of state, even in their most bowdlerized retellings, may be the decisive margin of error between national success and natural oblivion.”

The reference in the above to “10 or so strategic clichés that reach the practical man of state” is to be understood in this context provided by Citizen Fouche:

“When meeting new people, one of my college textbooks claimed, most people are ten or so canned personal anecdotes away from conversational oblivion. In a similar vein, the average policymaker is ten or so strategic clichés away from strategic oblivion.”

No doubt. No doubt these are the kind of conversations that mediocre people hold at cocktail parties. I wouldn’t know. I don’t get invited to any cocktail parties, but from what I gather from Citizen Fouche’s aside, I’m glad that I don’t receive any invitations. If conversational oblivion is a mere ten anecdotes away, and beyond that no one can think of anything to say, then the participants richly deserve staring at each other blankly with a nervous sense of discomfiture revealed in subtle twitches that fleetingly play across the strained expressions on the faces of all present. Similarly with the strategic clichés of the average (read: mediocre) policymaker: if such a policy maker is the father of retreat and retrenchment, withdrawal and appeasement, no one should be surprised.

I don’t want to appear to be singling out Citizen Fouche on this point regarding Platonic ideals in strategy, as Zenpundit‘s Mark Safransky seems to be largely in agreement with Citizen Fouche on this particular point. Indeed, the reason I chose this particular formulation is because it seems to sum up whatever consensus emerged from the thread in question. As Nietzsche said of his early Untimely Meditations much later in his Ecce Homo, “I never attack persons; I merely avail myself of a person as a strong magnifying glass that allows us to make visible a general but creeping calamity.”

What is the creeping calamity at this time? Nothing but the renunciation of abstract, theoretical thought, which the contributors to this thread on strategy seem to alike agree: it is no good. If, dear reader, you have read some of my other recent posts, and haven’t merely stumbled upon this polemic in isolation, you will know that I have been writing about the neglect of philosophy in contemporary western civilization, and especially in science. Strategy, too, aspires to scientific status, and indeed I recently wrote about the role of methodological naturalism — the defining trait of western science — in strategic thought in The Possible War and A Short Note on Decisive Battles. The aspiration to science, it seems, comes with an obligatory rhetorical flourish condemning “theoretical and abstract purity” (as Citizen Fouche puts it).

...Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure...

What I think that Citizen Fouche has gotten wrong in this crucial passage is that abstract, theoretical thinking does not aim at holding a mirror up to nature, as Hamlet said of playing. Rather, the point of abstract thinking is to give theoretical underpinnings to one’s practical ruminations. Theoretical thinking attempts to provide a point of reference — in a sense, an Archemedean point of reference — to which one recurs as a matter of principle.

Joseph Wright (September 3, 1734 - August 29, 1797), styled Wright of Derby, was an English landscape and portrait painter — he has been acclaimed as the first professional painter to express the spirit of the industrial revolution.

Newton's clockwork universe, readily modeled by an orrery, is now known to be inadequate, but the spirit of Newton's inquiry lives on in general relativity and quantum theory.

Citizen Fouche invokes the idea of Newtonian precision, with its obvious implications of a clockwork universe that we now know to be inadequate — but Newton’s inadequacy to contemporary scientific theory is not a consequence of his precision, but a consequence of his precision not going far enough. Scientific revolutions such as general relativity and quantum theory have remained true to the spirit of Newton’s model of the universe even while going beyond it in the precision of its account of the world. The greater precision has led to greater fidelity to nature, greater predictability, and greater technological possibilities, even when that greater precision takes the form of the imprecision of quantum theory’s uncertainty principle. To turn uncertainly into a principle and fold it into one’s science is a whole new level of theoretical precision.

Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

Aristotle as depicted by Raphael is gesturing outward at the surrounding world, as befits an empiricist primarily interested in the detail and diversity of the world.

I think that the better model for Citizen Fouche’s ruminations is Aristotle, whom I have elsewhere called “The Great Empiricist,” since Aristotle makes a point throughout his work of demanding no more precision than a given subject matter is capable of attaining. Aristotle, of course, was also the first logician, more or less creating the discipline of formal logic single-handedly, so he knew whereof he spoke when he spoke of precision. Aristotle, however, was not an abstract thinker at bottom, and this is why I call him The Great Empiricist (and this is also why when Raphael painted Plato and Aristotle in the Vatican Stanze, Plato is pointing up to the heavens while Aristotle is gesturing broadly to the surrounding world).

Hilbert, like Aristotle, was an essentially empirical thinker who did seminal work in formal thought.

Aristotle was not alone in having formal interests notwithstanding a largely empirical perspective. Read Hilbert’s essay on axiomatics (“Axiomatische Denken”) sometime and you will find in it a thorough-going empirical/scientific perspective on the most abstract approach to formal thought. Hilbert was no abstract thinker at bottom, any more than was Aristotle.

Rudolf Carnap was an influential German-born philosopher who was active in Europe before 1935 and in the United States thereafter. He was a major member of the Vienna Circle and an advocate of logical positivism.

Rudolf Carnap, 18 May 1891 to 14 September 1970

Rudolf Carnap, on the other hand, was an abstract thinker at bottom. Buried deep within Carnap’s treatise on scientific reasoning, The Logical Foundations of Probability, we find (at IV, 45, D) the section “Dangers and Usefulness of Abstraction” where Carnap makes the following observation that marks out the proper relationship between the empirical and the abstract functions of thought:

“One of the factors contributing to the origin of the controversy about abstractions is a psychological one; it is the difference between two constitutional types. Persons of the one type (extroverts) are attentive to and have a liking for nature with all its complexities and its inexhaustible richness of qualities; consequently they dislike to see any of these qualities overlooked or neglected in a description or a scientific theory. Persons of the other type (introverts) like the neatness and exactness of formal structures more than the richness of qualities; consequently, they are inclined to replace in their thinking the full picture of reality by a simplified schema. In the field of science and in theoretical investigation in general, both types do valuable work; their functions complement each other, and both are indispensable. Students of the first type are the best observers; they call our attention to subtle and easily overlooked features of reality. They alone, however, would not be able to reach generalizations of a high level, because abstractions are needed for this purpose. Therefore, a science developed by them alone would be rich in details but weak in power of explanation and prediction. (This is a warning to those who are afraid of abstractions, especially in inductive logic.) Students of the second type are the best originators and users of abstract methods which, when sufficiently developed, may be applied as powerful instruments for the purpose of description, explanation, and prediction. Their chief weakness is the ever present temptation to overschematize and oversimplify and hence to overlook important factors in the actual situation; the result may be a theory which is wonderful to look at, in its exactness, symmetry, and formal elegance, and yet woefully inadequate for the task of application for which it is intended.”

Rudolf Carnap, Logical Foundations of Probability, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1951, IV, 45, D, p. 218

While this is a longish quote, I needed to quote all of it to make my point, and in fact the whole “Dangers and Usefulness of Abstraction” section is a pro pos and I encourage the reader to seek it out.

If we recur to the example of the cocktail party mentioned above, which leaves most participants ten anecdotes away from conversational oblivion, I suggest to you that the empiricist, dependent upon a handful of anecdotes as he is, will be the one going home alone at the end of the evening. Any attempt at a seduction worth the effort is likely to take the better part of the evening, and if one’s conversational possibilities are circumscribed by a finite list of tropes this list will soon be exhausted. Having a list of principles, on the other hand, gives one a theoretical perspective on any possible state of affairs that may arise and hence one will never be at a loss at offering something of one’s own to the conversation, and keeping the ball rolling, as it were.

The empiricist is on the right; the formalist is on the left. Who goes home alone at the end of the evening?

In my Choke Points and Grand Strategy I wrote, “As long as tactical and strategic thought is allowed to run in the lazy channels of if only we had more resources … the commanders thinking in such terms will be humiliated by more innovative strategic and tactical thinking that looks for the choke points where resources are far less significant than the will to fight.” Similar considerations hold for strategists and grand strategists who allow their thought to run in lazy channels defined by ten or so strategic clichés: they will be defeated and humiliated by others who go beyond these strategic clichés and have something of their own to offer.

I expect to say more about this in the near future — not about seduction, but about having theoretical underpinnnings — but a fuller exposition will take us far beyond this comment on a comment on a comment.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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