Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Revisiting The Federalist Paper No. 31 by Alexander Hamilton: An Analogy from Geometry

July 10, 2018

[John Platt’s chapters on social chain reactions in his 1966 book, The Steps to Man, provoked my initial interest in looking into his work. That work appears to be an independent development of themes that appear in more well-known works by Tarde, Hayek, McLuhan, Latour, and others, which of course are of primary concern in thinking through metrological and ecosystem issues in psychological and social measurement. My interest also comes in the context of Platt’s supervision of Ben Wright in Robert Mulliken’s physics lab at the U of Chicago in 1948. However, other chapters in this book concern deeper issues of complexity and governance that cross yet more disciplinary boundaries. One of the chapters in the book, for instance, examines the Federalist Papers and remarks on a geometric analogy drawn by Alexander Hamilton concerning moral and political forms of knowledge. The parallel with my own thinking is such that I have restated Hamilton’s theme in my own words within the contemporary context. The following is my effort in this regard. No source citations are given, but a list of supporting references is included at bottom. Hamilton’s original text is available at: https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers#TheFederalistPapers-31.  ]

 

Communication requires that we rely on the shared understandings of a common language. Language puts in play combinations of words, concepts, and things that enable us to relate to one another at varying levels of complexity. Often, we need only to convey the facts of a situation in a simple denotative statement about something learned (“the cat is on the mat”). We also need to be able to think at a higher level of conceptual complexity referred to as metalinguistic, where we refer to words themselves and how we learn about what we’ve learned (“the word ‘cat’ has no fur”). At a third, metacommunicative, level of complexity, we make statements about statements, deriving theories of learning and judgments from repeated experiences of metalinguistic learning about learning (“I was joking when I said the cat was on the mat”).

Human reason moves freely between expressions of and representations of denotative facts, metalinguistic instruments like words, and metacommunicative theories. The combination of assurances obtained from the mutual supports each of these provides the others establishes the ground in which the seeds of social, political, and economic life take root and grow. Thought itself emerges from within the way the correspondence of things, words, and concepts precedes and informs the possibility of understanding and communication.

When understanding and communication fail, that failure may come about because of mistaken perceptions concerning the facts, a lack of vocabulary, or misconceptions colored by interests, passions, or prejudices, or some combination of these three.

The maxims of geometry exhibit exactly this same pattern combining concrete data on things in the world, instruments for abstract measurement, and formal theoretical concepts. Geometry is the primary and ancient example of how the beauty of aesthetic proportions teaches us to understand meaning. Contrary to common sense, which finds these kinds of discontinuities incomprehensible, philosophy since the time of Plato’s Symposium teaches how to make meaning in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences between the local facts of a situation and the principles to which we may feel obliged to adhere. Geometry meaningfully and usefully, for instance, represents the undrawable infinite divisibility of line segments, as with the irrational length of the hypotenuse of a right isosceles triangle that has the other two sides with lengths of 1.

This apparently absurd and counter-intuitive skipping over of the facts in the construction of the triangular figure and the summary reference to the unstateable infinity of the square root of two is so widely accepted as to provide a basis for real estate property rights that are defensible in courts of law and financially fungible. And in this everyday commonplace we have a model for separating and balancing denotative facts, instrumental words, and judicial theories in moral and political domains.

Humanity has proven far less tractable than geometry over the course of its history regarding possible sciences of morals and politics. This is understandable given humanity’s involvement in its own ongoing development. As Freud put it, humanity’s Narcissistic feeling of being the center of the universe, the crown of creation, and the master of its own mind has suffered a series of blows as it has had to come to terms with the works of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud himself. The struggle to establish a common human identity while also celebrating individual uniqueness is an epic adventure involving billions of tragic and comedic stories of hubris, sacrifice, and accomplishment. Humanity has arrived at a point now, however, at which a certain obstinate, perverse, and disingenuous resistance to self-understanding has gone too far.

Although the mathematical sciences excel in refining the precision of their tools, longstanding but largely untapped resources for improving the meaningfulness and value of moral and political knowledge have been available for decades. “The obscurity is much oftener in the passions and prejudices of the reasoner than in the subject.” Methods for putting passions on the table for sorting out take advantage of the lessons beauty teaches about meaning and thereby support each of the three levels of complexity in communication.

At this point we encounter the special relevance of those three levels of complexity to the separation and balance of powers in government. The concrete denotative factuality of data is the concern of the executive branch, as befits its orientation to matters of practical application. The abstract metalinguistic instrumentation of words is the concern of the legislative branch, in accord with its focus on the enactment of laws and measures. And formal metacommunicative explanatory theories are the concern of the judicial branch, as is appropriate to its focus on constitutional issues.

For each of us to give our own individual understandings fair play in ways that do not give free rein to unfettered prejudices entangled in words and subtle confusions, we need to be able to communicate in terms that, so far as possible, function equally well within and across each of these levels of complexity. It is only to state the obvious to say that we lack the language needed for communication of this kind. Our moral and political sciences have not yet systematically focused on creating such languages. Outside of a few scattered works, they have not even yet consciously hypothesized the possibility of creating these languages. It is nonetheless demonstrably the case that these languages are feasible, viable, and desirable.

Though good will towards all and a desire to refrain so far as possible from overt exclusionary prejudices for or against one or another group cannot always be assumed, these are the conditions necessary for a social contract and are taken as the established basis for what follows. The choice between discourse and violence includes careful attention to avoiding the violence of the premature conclusion. If we are ever to achieve improved communication and a fuller realization of both individual liberties and social progress, the care we invest in supports for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must flow from this deep source.

Given the discontinuities between language’s levels of complexity, avoiding premature conclusions means needing individualized uncertainty estimates and an associated tolerance for departures from expectations set up by established fact-word-concept associations. For example, we cannot allow a three-legged horse to alter our definition of horses as four-legged animals. Neither should we allow a careless error or lucky guess to lead to immediate and unqualified judgments of learning in education. Setting up the context in which individual data points can be understood and explained is the challenge we face. Information infrastructures supporting this kind of contextualization have been in development for years.

To meet the need for new communicative capacities, features of these information infrastructures will have to include individualized behavioral feedback mechanisms, minimal encroachments on private affairs, managability, modifiability, and opportunities for simultaneously enhancing one’s own interests and the greater good.

It is in this latter area that our interests are now especially focused. Our audacious but not implausible goal is to find ways of enhancing communication and the quality of information infrastructures by extending beauty’s lessons for meaning into new areas. In the same way that geometry facilitates leaps from concrete figures to abstract constructions and from there to formal ideals, so, too, must we learn, learn about that learning, and develop theories of learning in other less well materialized areas, such as student-centered education, and patient-centered health care. Doing so will set the stage for new classes of human, social, and natural capital property rights that are just as defensible in courts of law and financially fungible as real estate.

When that language is created, when those rights are assigned, and when that legal defensibility and financial fungibility are obtained, a new construction of government will follow. In it, the separation and balance of executive, legislative, and judicial powers will be applied with equal regularity and precision down to the within-individual micro level, as well as at the between-individual meso level, and at the social macro level. This distribution of freedom and responsibility across levels and domains will feed into new educational, market, health, and governmental institutions of markedly different character than we have at present.

A wide range of research publications appearing over the last several decades documents unfolding developments in this regard, and so those themes will not be repeated here. Some of these publications are listed below for those interested. Far more remains to be done in this area than has yet been accomplished, to say the least.

 

 

Sources consulted or implied

Andrich, D. (2010). Sufficiency and conditional estimation of person parameters in the polytomous Rasch model. Psychometrika, 75(2), 292-308.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21, 5-31.

Black, P., Wilson, M., & Yao, S. (2011). Road maps for learning: A guide to the navigation of learning progressions. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspectives, 9, 1-52.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005, August 1-3). Data standards for living human, social, and natural capital. In Session G: Concluding Discussion, Future Plans, Policy, etc. Conference on Entrepreneurship and Human Rights [http://www.fordham.edu/economics/vinod/ehr05.htm], Pope Auditorium, Lowenstein Bldg, Fordham University.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007, Summer). Living capital metrics. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 21(1), 1092-1093 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt211.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November 19). Draft legislation on development and adoption of an intangible assets metric system. Retrieved 6 January 2011, from Living Capital Metrics blog: https://livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/draft-legislation/

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement: Concerning Foundational Concepts of Measurement Special Issue Section, 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009). NIST Critical national need idea White Paper: metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital (Tech. Rep. No. http://www.nist.gov/tip/wp/pswp/upload/202_metrological_infrastructure_for_human_social_natural.pdf). Washington, DC:. National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Measurement, reduced transaction costs, and the ethics of efficient markets for human, social, and natural capital, Bridge to Business Postdoctoral Certification, Freeman School of Business, Tulane University (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2340674).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). The standard model in the history of the natural sciences, econometrics, and the social sciences. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 238(1), 012016.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 12(1), 49-66.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Stochastic and historical resonances of the unit in physics and psychometrics. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspectives, 9, 46-50.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012). Measure and manage: Intangible assets metric standards for sustainability. In J. Marques, S. Dhiman & S. Holt (Eds.), Business administration education: Changes in management and leadership strategies (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2012, May/June). What the world needs now: A bold plan for new standards [Third place, 2011 NIST/SES World Standards Day paper competition]. Standards Engineering, 64(3), 1 & 3-5 [http://ssrn.com/abstract=2083975].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). A probabilistic model of the law of supply and demand. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 29(1), 1508-1511  [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt291.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2018). How beauty teaches us to understand meaning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2018). A nondualist social ethic: Fusing subject and object horizons in measurement. TMQ–Techniques, Methodologies, and Quality, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Oon, E. P.-T., & Benson, S. (2018). Applying Design Thinking to systemic problems in educational assessment information management. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 1044, 012012.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., Oon, E. P.-T., & Benson, S. (2018). Rethinking the role of educational assessment in classroom communities: How can design thinking address the problems of coherence and complexity? Measurement, in review.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2013). On the potential for improved measurement in the human and social sciences. In Q. Zhang & H. Yang (Eds.), Pacific Rim Objective Measurement Symposium 2012 Conference Proceedings (pp. 1-11). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2016). Theory-based metrological traceability in education: A reading measurement network. Measurement, 92, 489-496.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2018). Ecologizing vs modernizing in measurement and metrology. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 1044, 012025.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1980). Dialogue and dialectic: Eight hermeneutical studies on Plato (P. C. Smith, Trans.). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gari, S. R., Newton, A., Icely, J. D., & Delgado-Serrano, M. D. M. (2017). An analysis of the global applicability of Ostrom’s design principles to diagnose the functionality of common-pool resource institutions. Sustainability, 9(7), 1287.

Gelven, M. (1984). Eros and projection: Plato and Heidegger. In R. W. Shahan & J. N. Mohanty (Eds.), Thinking about Being: Aspects of Heidegger’s thought (pp. 125-136). Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma University Press.

Hamilton, A. (. (1788, 1 January). Concerning the general power of taxation (continued). The New York Packet. (Rpt. in J. E. Cooke, (Ed.). (1961). The Federalist (Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James; Jay, John). (pp. No. 31, 193-198). Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.

Lunz, M. E., Bergstrom, B. A., & Gershon, R. C. (1994). Computer adaptive testing. International Journal of Educational Research, 21(6), 623-634.

Ostrom, E. (2015). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (Original work published 1990).

Pendrill, L., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). Counting and quantification: Comparing psychometric and metrological perspectives on visual perceptions of number. Measurement, 71, 46-55.

Penuel, W. R. (2015, 22 September). Infrastructuring as a practice for promoting transformation and equity in design-based implementation research. In Keynote. International Society for Design and Development in Education (ISDDE) 2015 Conference, Boulder, CO. Retrieved from http://learndbir.org/resources/ISDDE-Keynote-091815.pdf

Platt, J. R. (1966). The step to man. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.

Ricoeur, P. (1966). The project of a social ethic. In D. Stewart & J. Bien, (Eds.). (1974). Political and social essays (pp. 160-175). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1970). Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Violence and language. In D. Stewart & J. Bien (Eds.), Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1977). The rule of metaphor: Multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language (R. Czerny, Trans.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Star, S. L., & Ruhleder, K. (1996, March). Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: Design and access for large information spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), 111-134.

Wilson, M. (2005). Constructing measures: An item response modeling approach. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wright, B. D. (1958, 7). On behalf of a personal approach to learning. The Elementary School Journal, 58, 365-375. (Rpt. in M. Wilson & W. P. Fisher, Jr., (Eds.). (2017). Psychological and social measurement: The career and contributions of Benjamin D. Wright (pp. 221-232). New York: Springer Nature.)

Wright, B. D. (1999). Fundamental measurement for psychology. In S. E. Embretson & S. L. Hershberger (Eds.), The new rules of measurement: What every educator and psychologist should know (pp. 65-104 [http://www.rasch.org/memo64.htm]). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Reductionist vs Nonreductionist Conceptualizations of Psychological and Social Measurement

April 19, 2018

Reductionist

  • Root metaphor: Mechanical clockwork universe
  • Paradigmatic case: Newtonian physics
  • Complete, consistent, deterministic structures
  • Whole is sum of parts
  • Sufficient statistics: Mean & std deviation
  • Uncertainty is variation across repeated measures
  • Test/survey items in use define totality of universe of possibility; changes in items change that universe
  • Descriptive, reactionary
  • Microlevel facts are supposed to additively combine into general laws
  • General laws are discovered by measuring
  • Top down data analytics influence policy
  • Externally imposed assembly processes
  • Subject/object dualism institutionalized in data analytics process
  • Data are hallmark criterion of objectivity
  • Subjectivity discounted, removed if possible
  • Counts are quantities
  • Ordinal scores treated as interval measures with no justification
  • Score variation relates solely to person characteristics
  • Score meaning tied to particular questions asked
  • Quantitative methods don’t define unit quantities or test for them
  • Qualitative data and methods are separated from quantitative data/methods
  • No model of construct stated or tested
  • Group level multivariate focus
  • P-values are primary model fit criterion
  • Population sampling motivates probabilistic approach
  • Equating based on statistical assumptions concerning score distribution

Nonreductionist

  • Root metaphor: Living organic universe
  • Paradigmatic case: Multilevel ecosystems
  • Incomplete, not perfectly consistent, stochastic structures
  • Whole is greater than sum of parts
  • Sufficient statistics: scores
  • Uncertainty is resonance of stochastic invariance within individual measures
  • Test/survey items in use sample from infinite population; changes in items used do not change that universe
  • Prescriptive, anticipatory
  • Microlevel facts self-organize into meso abstractions & macro formalisms
  • Measuring presumes general laws
  • Bottom up alignments and coordinations of decisions and behaviors move society
  • Internal processes of self-organization
  • Mutually implied subject-object entangled together in playful flow institutionalized via distributed instrumentation
  • Objectivity requires data explained by theory embodied in instruments
  • Subjectivity included as valid source of concerns and insights scrutinized for value
  • Counts might lead to quantity definition
  • Interval measures theoretically and empirically substantiated
  • Empirical & theoretical measure variation maps construct via items and persons
  • Measure meaning is independent of particular questions asked
  • Quantitative methods define unit quantities and test for them
  • Qualitative methods are integrated with quantitative methods
  • Mathematical, observation, and construct models stated and tested
  • Individual level univariate focus
  • Meaningful construct definition primary model fit criterion
  • Individual response process motivates probabilistic approach
  • Equating requires alignment of items along common dimension

 

Economy of language, Eros, meaning, the public, and its problems

July 11, 2017

The medium is the message. The more transparent the medium is, the more seductive the messages expressed in it. The seductiveness of numbers stems from their roots in the mathematical quality of all thinking: the way that signs are used as the media of concept-thing relations. Our captivation with numbers is entirely embedded in the allure of language, which stems in large part from its economy: knowing how to read, write, speak, and listen saves us the trouble of re-inventing words and concepts for ourselves, and of having to translate each other’s private languages. The problem is, of course, that having words for things and sharing them by no means assures understanding. But when it works, it really works, as the history of science shows.

Seductive enthrallment with meaning and beauty defines the parameters of the difference between the modern Cartesian dualist world view and the emerging unmodern nondualist world view. This is the whole point of taking up Heidegger’s sense of method as meta-odos. As Plato saw, Socrates’ recounting of the myth of Eros told to him by Diotima conveys how captivation with beauty embodies the opposites of wealth and poverty in a simultaneous possession and absence, neither of which is ever complete.

The evolutionary/developmental paradigm shift taking place will transform everything by institutionalizing in every area of life an order of magnitude increase in the complexity of relationships, and a corresponding increase in the simplicity with which those relationships can be managed. The compelling absorption into the flow of meaning that necessarily informs discourse but currently functions as an unacknowledged assumption informing operations will itself be brought into view and will become an object of operations.

As Dewey understood, public consciousness of an issue or set of issues, and the will to take them on, emerges when existing institutions fail. We are certainly living in a time in which our political, economic, social, educational, medical, legal, environmental, etc. institutions have been failing to live up to their responsibilities for quite a number of years. The efforts of the public to address these failures have been obstructed by the lack of the media needed for integrating the complex, multilevel, and discontinuous opposites of harmony and dissonance, agreement and dissent, that structure a binding, coherent culture.

Science is nothing but an extension of everyday reasoning. Instead of imitating the natural sciences, the social sciences need to focus on how science extends the complex cognitive ecologies of language. As we figure that out and get these metasystems in place, we will simultaneously create the media the public needs to find its voice and organize itself to meet the challenges of how to build new institutions capable of successfully countering human suffering, social discontent, and environmental degradation.

Common Languages and Shared Vulnerability

March 27, 2014

A recent partner in conversation insisted that sometimes it just is not possible to arrive at a common language, and that it would never be possible for her to agree with those who hold out for that possibility. In the same conversation, we heard from another participant about the work of peace building in areas of the world that have suffered brutal crimes inflicted by neighbors on neighbors. The realization that there are people overcoming and learning to live with the most horrible pain considerably tempered our exchange.

I think we came to see that it is one thing to agree to disagree about something inconsequential, or even about something that leads to very different opportunities and challenges. But mutual understanding hinges on a shared language. To give up on it is to give up on the possibility of fully inclusive community. It is to give up hope for a future in which healing can happen, in which there are no permanent divisions.

Keeping the conversation going, keeping the dialogue open, changing the rules as we go along to keep the game in play: if there are any principles that should never be compromised, these are among my candidates. Our shared human vulnerability is incontrovertibly at issue most pointedly precisely at the moment when one says we will never agree on the possibility of a common language. This is exactly the time and the place when it starts to be OK to begin a process of delegitimizing and dehumanizing someone else. When there is no hope of a common language, the first step toward rationalizing ignorance, prejudice, misunderstanding, demonization, and scapegoating has been taken.

A shared language is not a prison or a smothering demand for conformity. For one thing, the refusal to hold out for the possibility of a common language is already stated in a common language. Saying “we will never agree” is an instance of what Ricoeur (1967/1974) calls the “violence of the premature conclusion.” The internal contradiction of using a common language to say that we cannot hope for one is the mirror image of the person who argues for violence. Arguing is already a step into a language others can understand, implying a choice in favor of meaning over violence. The fundamental ethical and philosophical human choice takes place right here, in the desire for meaning and, as Habermas (1995, p. 199) puts it, in considerateness for a shared vulnerability. Accordingly, Ricoeur (1967/1974, p. 88) asserts,

The importance of this subject derives from the fact that the confrontation of violence with language underlies all of the problems which we can pose concerning man. This is precisely what overwhelms us. Their encounter occupies such a vast field because violence and language each occupy the totality of the human field.

The process of working out shared meanings in a common language is not a prison sentence, however. Including opportunities and concepts for critical engagement and deconstructive rethinking provide a way to prevent common languages from being overly confining. The Socratic midwife comforting the afflicted is complemented by the Socratic gadfly afflicting the comfortable (Bernasconi, 1989; Risser, 1989).

Heidegger (1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330; Fisher, 2010; Fisher and Stenner, 2011) accordingly describes the ontological (or phenomenological) method in terms of three moments: reduction, application, and deconstruction. Putting things in words is inherently reductive. There are infinities of ways of representing any experience in words, but even the most poetic among us has to choose the words that work to serve the purpose. And we may come to see on repeated application that our purposes are compromised by ambiguities that threaten to enact the violence of premature conclusions. Attentive concern for implicit meanings may lead to ways of discerning new distinctions and new conceptualizations, leading to new reductions and new applications. Languages are living and changing all the time. New sensitivities emerge and come into words by general consensus.

Ironically, being caught up in the desire for meaning can lead to the closing off of opportunities for creating meaningful relationships. Parsing differences into ever more local distinctions and separate historical and cultural dependencies can lead to a feeling that the barriers between positions are insurmountable. This way of arriving at premature conclusions has been especially prevalent among critical theorists who focused so exclusively on the deconstructive moment in the ontological method that they forgot that their writing inherently put a new reduction into play.

For instance, Delandshire and Petrosky (1994, p. 16) proclaimed that one of the ways their “post-structuralist view of knowledge is incompatible with the necessities of measurement is that interpretations are not assumed to be consistent or similar across time, contexts, or individuals.” The extremes in this display of hubris were called out by a number of observers. Bloom (1987, p. 387), for instance, held that deconstruction “is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy.”

In contrast with these opposite extremes, others have kept their critical perspective in close contact with philosophical principles. Gasche (1987, p. 5) offers a “determination of deconstruction” within which “the latter’s indebtedness to the basic operations and exigencies of philosophy comes clearly into view.” Similarly, throughout his career, Derrida (2003, pp. 62-63; also see Derrida, 1981, pp. 27-28, 34-36; 1982, p. 229; Caputo, 1997, p. 80; Kearney 1984, pp. 123-124) repeatedly took pains to explain that:

…people who read me and think I’m playing with or transgressing norms—which I do, of course—usually don’t know what I know: that all of this has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric. …the fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. … When I take liberties, it’s always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I’ve been rigorously trained in.

Derrida (1989b, p. 218) recognized that

As soon as you give up philosophy, or the word philosophy, what happens is not something new or beyond philosophy, what happens is that some old hidden philosophy under another name—for instance the name of literary theory or psychology or anthropology and so on—go on dominating the research in a dogmatic or implicit way. And when you want to make this implicit philosophy as clear and explicit as possible, you have to go on philosophizing…. That’s why I am true to philosophy.

To give up on philosophy is to give up on the desire for meaning, for the working out of a common language, to accept an inevitably premature conclusion as definitive and to choose violence as an acceptable means of working out differences. Spivak (1990, 1993) then speaks to the strategic pauses that must interrupt the critical process to allow new determinations to inform revitalized concepts and applications in dialogue.

Finally, moving forward from here to better understand what it means to measure distances relative to standards requires close consideration of mathematical issues of modeling and signification. These issues reside deeply in the motivating ideas of philosophy, as has been widely recognized over the course of the history of Continental philosophy, through the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida, and others (Derrida, 1989a, pp. 27, 66; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010; Kisiel, 2002). Much more remains to be said and done in this area.

References

Bernasconi, R. (1989). Seeing double: Destruktion and deconstruction. In D. P. Michelfelder & R. E. Palmer (Eds.), Dialogue & deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida encounter (pp. 233-250). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Caputo, J. D. (1997). A commentary. In J. D. Caputo (Ed.), Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida (pp. 31-202). New York: Fordham University Press.

Delandshere, G., & Petrosky, A. R. (1994). Capturing teachers’ knowledge. Educational Researcher, 23(5), 11-18.

Derrida, J. (1981). Positions (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Original work published 1972 (Paris: Minuit)).

Derrida, J. (1982). Margins of philosophy. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1989a). Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An introduction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, J. (1989b). On colleges and philosophy: An interview conducted by Geoffrey Bennington. In L. Appignanesi (Ed.), Postmodernism: ICA documents (pp. 209-28). London, England: Free Association Books.

Derrida, J. (2003). Interview on writing. In G. A. Olson & L. Worsham (Eds.), Critical intellectuals on writing (pp. 61-9). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a). The mathematical metaphysics of measurement and metrology: Towards meaningful quantification in the human sciences. In A. Morales (Ed.), Renascent pragmatism: Studies in law and social science (pp. 118-153). Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Parts I & II. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011). Integrating qualitative and quantitative research approaches via the phenomenological method. International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches, 5(1), 89-103.

Gasché, R. (1987). Infrastructures and systemacity. In J. Sallis (Ed.), Deconstruction and philosophy: The texts of Jacques Derrida (pp. 3-20). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Heidegger, M. (1967). What is a thing? (W. B. Barton, Jr. & V. Deutsch, Trans.). South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway.

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Kearney, R. (1984). Dialogues with contemporary Continental thinkers: The phenomenological heritage. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

Kisiel, T. (2002). The mathematical and the hermeneutical: On Heidegger’s notion of the apriori. In A. Denker & M. Heinz (Eds.), Heidegger’s way of thought: Critical and interpretative signposts (pp. 187-199). New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Violence et langage (J. Bien, Trans.). Recherches et Debats: La Violence, 59, 86-94. (Rpt. in D. Stewart & J. Bien, (Eds.). (1974). Violence and language, in Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.)

Risser, J. (1989). The two faces of Socrates: Gadamer/Derrida. In D. P. Michelfelder & R. E. Palmer (Eds.), Dialogue & deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida encounter (pp. 176-185). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Spivak, G. C. (1990). The post-colonial critic: Interviews, strategies, dialogue. New York: Routledge.

Spivak, G. C. (1993). Outside in the teaching machine. New York: Routledge.

Simple ideas, complex possibilities, elegant and beautiful results

February 11, 2011

Possibilities of great subtlety, elegance, and power can follow from the simplest ideas. Leonardo da Vinci is often credited with offering a variation on this theme, but the basic idea is much older. Philosophy, for instance, began with Plato’s distinction between name and concept. This realization that words are not the things they stand for has informed and structured each of several scientific revolutions.

How so? It all begins from the reasons why Plato required his students to have studied geometry. He knew that those familiar with the Pythagorean theorem would understand the difference between any given triangle and the mathematical relationships it represents. No right triangle ever definitively embodies a perfect realization of the assertion that the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides. The mathematical definition or concept of a triangle is not the same thing as any actual triangle.

The subtlety and power of this distinction became apparent in its repeated application throughout the history of science. In a sense, astronomy is a geometry of the heavens, Newton’s laws are a geometry of gravity, Ohm’s law is a geometry of electromagnetism, and relativity is a geometry of the invariance of mass and energy in relation to the speed of light. Rasch models present a means to geometries of literacy, numeracy, health, trust, and environmental quality.

We are still witnessing the truth, however partial, of Whitehead’s assertion that the entire history of Western culture is a footnote to Plato. As Husserl put it, we’re still struggling with the possibility of creating a geometry of experience, a phenomenology that is not a mere description of data but that achieves a science of living meaning. The work presented in other posts here attests to a basis for optimism that this quest will be fruitful.

Twelve principles I’m taking away from recent discussions

January 27, 2011
  1. Hypotheses non fingo A: Ideas about things are not hypothesized and tested against those things so much as things are determined to be what they are by testing them against ideas. Facts are recognizable as such only because they relate with a prior idea.
  2. Hypotheses non fingo B: Cohen’s introduction to Newton’s Opticks makes it plain that Newton is not offering a general methodological pointer in this phrase. Rather, he is answering critics who wanted him to explain what gravity is, and what it’s causes are. In saying, I feign no hypotheses, Newton is merely indicating that he’s not going to make up stories about something he knows nothing about. And in contrast with the Principia, the Opticks provides a much more accessible overview of the investigative process, from the initial engagement with light, where indeed no hypotheses as to its causes are offered, and onto more specific inquiries into its properties, where hypotheses necessarily inform experimental contrasts.
  3. Ideas, such as mathematical/geometrical theorems, natural laws, or the structure of Rasch models, do not exist and are unobservable. No triangle ever fits the Pythagorean theorem, there are no bodies left to themselves or balls rolling on frictionless planes, and there are no test, survey, or assessment results completely unaffected by the particular questions asked and persons answering.
  4. The clarity and transparency of an idea requires careful attention to the unity and sameness of the relevant class of things observed. So far as possible, the observational framework must be constrained by theory to produce observations likely to conform reasonably with the idea.
  5. New ideas come into language when a phenomenon or effect, often technically produced, exhibits persistent and stable properties across samples, observers, instruments, etc.
  6. New word-things that come into language, whether a galaxy, an element in the periodic table, a germ, or a psychosocial construct, may well have existed since the dawn of time and may well have exerted tangible effects on humans for millennia. They did not, however, do so for anyone in terms of the newly-available theory and understanding, which takes a place in a previously unoccupied position within the matrix of interrelated ideas, facts, and social networks.
  7. Number does not delimit the pure ideal concept of amount, but vice versa.
  8. Rasch models are one way of specifying the ideal form observations must approximate if they are to exhibit magnitude amounts divisible into ratios. Fitting data to such a model in the absence of a theory of the construct is only a very early step in the process of devising a measurement system.
  9. The invariant representation of a construct across samples, instruments, observers, etc. exhibiting magnitude amounts divisible into ratios provides the opportunity for allowing a pure ideal concept of amount to delimit number.
  10. Being suspended in language does not imply a denial of concrete reality and the separate independent existence of things. Rather, if those things did not exist, there would be no impetus for anything to come into words, and no criteria for meaningfulness.
  11. Situating objectivity in a sphere of signs removes the need for a separate sphere of facts constituted outside of language. Insofar as an ideal abstraction approximates convergence with and separation from different ways of expressing its meaning, an objective status owing nothing to a sphere of facts existing outside of language is obtained.
  12. The technology of a signifying medium (involving an alphabet, words as names for features of the environment, other symbols, syntactical and semantic rules, tools and instruments, etc.) gives rise to observations (data) that may exhibit regular patterns and that may come to be understood well enough to be reproduced at will via theory. Each facet (instrument, data, theory) mediates the relation of the other two.

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The Birds and the Bees of Living Meaning

November 22, 2010

or

How the New Renaissance Will be Conceived in and Midwifed from the Womb of Nature

Sex, Reproduction, and the Consumer Culture

Human sexuality is, of course, more than the sum of its biological parts. Many parents joke that human reproduction would halt and the species would go extinct were it not for the intense pleasure of sexual experience. Many social critics, for their part, have turned a jaded eye on the rampant use of sexual imagery in the consumer culture. The association of sexual prowess with anything from toothpaste to automobiles plays up an empty metaphor of immediate gratification that connotes shortchanged consumers, unfairly boosted profits, and no redeeming long term value.

We would, of course, be mistaken to make too much of a connection between the parents’ joke and the critics’ social commentary. A bit of humor can help release tension when the work of child rearing and homemaking becomes stressful, and it is unlikely that trade would come to a halt if hot dates were banned from TV commercials. Commerce, in the broad sense of the term, is an end in itself.

But perhaps there is more of a connection than is evident at first blush. Advertising is an extremely compressed form of communication. It competes with many other stimuli for fleeting seconds of attention and so has to get its message across quickly. What better, simpler, more genetically programmed message could there be than the promise of attracting a desirable mate?

This hint is the tip of the tip of an iceberg. The larger question is one that asks how the role of desire and its satisfaction in the procreation of the species might serve as a model for economic activity. Might sexual satisfaction and the resulting reproductive success be taken as a natural model for profit and the resulting economic success?

Though this model has been assumed or described to various extents in the domains of ecological, behavioral, and heterodox economics, what we might call its molecular genetics have not yet been described. At this level, the model functions as a positive-sum game, and not as the zero-sum game so often assumed in economics. Properly conceived and experienced, neither sexuality nor profit give one-sided results, with someone necessarily winning and someone else necessarily losing. Rather, in the optimal circumstances we presumably want to foster, both parties to the exchanges must get what they want and contribute to the overall product of the exchange.

In this scenario, profit has to be further defined as not mere gratification and conquest, but as long term reproductive viability and sustainability. The intensity of sexual desire and satisfaction would likely not have evolved without stakes as high as the continuity of the species. And, indeed, researchers are finding strong positive relationships between firms’ long term profitability and their relations with labor, their communities, and the natural environment. Broadly conceived, for commerce to continue, social intercourse can and ultimately must result in viable offspring situated in a supportive environment.

Living vs Dead Capital

All of this suggests that we might be onto something. But for the metaphor to work, we need to take it further. We find what we need in the language of ecological economics and natural capital, and in the distinction between economically alive and economically dead capital.

The ancient root metaphor hidden in the word “capital” derives from the Latin capitus, head. Some might locate scientific or intellectual capital in a calculating center, like the brain, but others might bring out a sense of capital as part of the natural order. The concept of capital likely emerged in early agricultural economies from a focus on head of livestock: cattle, sheep, horses, etc. We might also conjecture about an even earlier prehistorical sense of capital as naturally embodied in the herds of antelope, deer, elk, or bison that migratory hunters pursued. In both cases, given grazing and water resources supplied by nature, herds replenished themselves with the passing of the seasons, giving birth to new life of their own accord.

There is a sense then in which plant and animal life profits enough from naturally available resources to sustain itself. Though the occurrence of population booms and busts still parallels economic cycles, hunters, fishers, and farmers can be imagined as profiting from managing naturally self-restoring resources within the constraints of a sustainable ecology.

Living capital and the sustenance of ongoing ecologically sound profitability are not restricted, however, to forms of capital stock that walk, crawl, swim, or fly. De Soto (2000) makes a distinction between dead and living capital that explains why capitalism thrives in some countries, but has not yet in others. De Soto points out that the difference between successful and failing capitalist countries lies in the status of what he calls transferable representations within networks of legal and financial institutions. Transferable representations are nothing but the legally recognized and financially fungible titles and deeds that make it possible for the wealth locked up in land, buildings, and equipment to be made exchangeable for other forms of wealth. Titles, deeds, and the infrastructure they function within are, then, what comprise the difference between dead and living capital.

In North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, property can be divided into shares and sold, or accumulated across properties into an expression of total wealth and leveraged as collateral for further investment, all with no need to modify the property itself in any way. De Soto’s point is that this is often not so in the Third World and former communist countries, where it commonly takes more than 10 years of full time work to obtain legal title, and then similar degrees of effort to maintain it. The process requires so much labor that few have the endurance or resources to complete it. They then must deny themselves the benefits of having an address, and cannot receive mail, electrical service, or take out a mortgage. The economy is then encumbered by the dead weight of the inefficiencies and frictions of frozen capital markets.

In the same way that the mass migration of settlers to the American West forced the resolution of conflicting property claims in the nineteenth century via the Preemption Act, so, too, are the contemporary mass migrations of rural people to megacities around the globe forcing the creation of a new way of legitimating property ownership. DeSoto’s research shows that Third World and former communist countries harbor trillions of dollars of unleverageable dead capital. Individual countries have more wealth tied up as dead capital locked in their impoverished citizens’ homes than in their entire stock markets and GDPs.

So dead capital can be clearly and decisively distinguished from living capital. Living capital is represented by a title or deed legally sanctioned by society as a generally accepted demonstration of ownership. Capital is dead, or, better, not yet brought to life, when its general value (any value it may have beyond its utilitarian function) cannot be represented so as to be leveragable or transferable across time, space, applications, enterprises, etc.

An essential point is this: Human, social, and natural forms of capital are dead in the same way that Third World property is dead capital. We lack a means of representing the value of these forms of capital that is transferable across individuals and contexts. The sense of scientific capital as mobile, additive, and divisible, and as deployed via networks of metrological (measurement science) laboratories, is especially helpful here, as it provides a root definition of what capital is. The geometry of the geodetic survey information incorporated into titles and deeds provides a fundamental insight into capitalism and living capital. But an even better understanding can be found by looking more deeply into the metaphor equating sexual and economic success.

The Birds and the Bees

We all learn as children where babies come from. Spontaneous questions from curious kids can be simultaneously intimidating and hilarious. Discovering that we each came into existence at a certain point in time raises many questions. Children are usually interested, however, in a short answer to a specific question. They go about their processes of creating meaningful stories about the world slowly, bit by bit. Contrary to many parents’ fears, children are less interested in the big picture than they are in knowing something immediately relevant.

Today we are engaged in a similar process that involves both self-discovery and its extension into a model of the world. In the last 100 years, we have endured one crisis of alienation, war, and terrorism after another. So many different stresses are pulling life in so many different directions that it has become difficult to fit our lives into meaningful stories about the world. Anxiety about our roles and places relative to one another has led many of us to be either increasingly lax or increasingly rigid about where we stand. Being simultaneously intelligent and compassionate is more difficult than ever.

But perhaps we know more than we are aware of. Perhaps it would help for us to consider more closely where we as a people, with our modern, global culture, come from. Where did the ideas that shape our world come from? Where do new ideas in general come from? What happens when an idea comes alive with meaning and spreads with such rapidity that it seems to spring forth fully formed in many widely distant places? How does a meme become viral and spread like an epidemic? Questions like these have often been raised in recent years. It seems to me, though, that explorations of them to date have not focused as closely as they could have on what is most important.

For when we understand the reproductive biology of living meaning, and when we see how different species of conceptual life interrelate in larger ecologies, then we will be in the position we need to be in to newly harmonize nature and culture, male and female, black and white, capitalism and socialism, north and south, and east and west.

What is most important about knowing where modern life comes from? What is most important is often that which is most obvious, and the most taken for granted. Given the question, it is interesting that rich metaphors of biological reproduction are everywhere in our thinking about ideas and meaning. Ideas are conceived, for instance, and verbs are conjugated.

These metaphors are not just poetic, emotionally soothing, or apt in a locally specific way. Rather, they hold within themselves some very practical systematic consequences for the stories we tell about ourselves, others, our communities, and our world. That is to say, if we think clearly enough about where ideas come from, we may learn something important about how to create and tell better stories about ourselves, and we may improve the quality of our lives in the process.

So what better place to start than with one of the oldest and most often repeated stories about the first bite from the apple of knowledge? The Western cultural imagery associated with erotic sexuality and knowledgeable experience goes back at least to Eve, the apple, the Tree of Knowledge, and the serpent, in the Garden of Eden. This imagery is complemented by the self-described role of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, as a midwife of ideas. Students still give apples to their teachers as symbols of knowledge, and a popular line of computers originally targeting the education market is named for the fruit of knowledge. The Socratic method is still taught, and charges teachers with helping students to give birth to fully formed ideas able take on lives of their own.

Socrates went further and said that we are enthralled with meaning in the same way a lover is captivated by the beloved. By definition, attention focuses on what is meaningful, as we ignore 99.99% of incoming sensory data. Recognition, by definition, is re-cognition, a seeing-again of something already known, usually something that has a name. Things that don’t have names are very difficult to see, so things come into language in special ways, via science or poetry. And the names of things focus our attention in very specific ways. Just as “weed” becomes a generic name for unwanted wild plants that might have very desirable properties, so, too, does “man” as a generic name for humans restrict thinking about people to males. The words we use very subtly condition our perceptions and behaviors, since, as Socrates put it, we are captivated by them.

The vital importance of sexuality to the reproductive potential of the species is evident in the extent to which it has subliminally been incorporated into the syntax, semantics, and grammar of language. Metaphoric images of procreation and reproduction so thoroughly permeate culture and language that the verb “to be” is referred to as the copula. New ideas brought into being via a copulative relation of subject and object accordingly are said to have been conceived, and are called concepts. One is said to be pregnant with an idea, or to have the seed or germ of an idea. Questions are probing, penetrating, or seminal. Productive minds are fertile or receptive. The back-and-forth give-and-take of conversation is referred to as social intercourse, and intercourse is the second definition in the dictionary for commerce. Dramatic expositions of events are said to climax, or to result in an anti-climax. Ideas and the narrative recounting of them are often called alluring, captivating, enchanting, spellbinding, or mesmerizing, and so it is that one can in fact be in love with an idea.

Philosophers, feminists, and social theorists have gone to great lengths in exploring the erotic in knowing, and vice versa. Luce Irigaray’s meditations on the fecund and Alfred Schutz’s reflections on our common birth from women both resonate with Paul Ricoeur’s examination of the choice between discourse and violence, which hinges on caring enough to try to create shared meaning. In all of these, we begin from love. Such a hopeful focus on nurturing new life stands in the starkest contrast with the existentialist elevation of death as our shared end.

Cultural inhibitions concerning sexuality can be interpreted as regulating it for the greater good. But Western moral proscriptions typically take a form in which sexuality is regarded as a kind of animal nature that must be subjugated in favor of a higher cultural or spiritual nature. In this world view, just as the natural environment is to be dominated and controlled via science and industry, sexual impulses are controlled, with the feminine relegated to a secondary and dangerous status.

Though promiscuity continues to have destructive effects on society and personal relationships, significant strides have been taken toward making sexual relations better balanced, with sex itself considered an essential part of health and well-being. Puritanical attitudes reject sexual expression and refuse to experience fully this most ecstatic way in which we exist, naturally. But accepting our nature, especially that part of it through which we ensure the continuity of the species, is essential to reintegrating nature and culture.

Finding that sexuality permeates every relationship and all communication is a part of that process. The continuity of the species is no longer restricted to concern with biological reproduction. We must learn to apply what we know from generations of experience with sexual, family, and social relationships in new ways, at new levels of complexity. In the same way that lovemaking is an unhurried letting-be that lingers in caring caresses mutually defining each lover to the other, so must we learn to see analogous, though less intense, ways of being together in every form of communion characteristic of communication and community. Love does indeed make the world go round.

Commerce and Science

There are many encouraging signs suggesting that new possibilities may yet be born of old, even ancient, ideas and philosophies. Many have observed over the last several decades that a new age is upon us, that the modern world’s metaphor of a clockwork universe is giving way to something less deterministic and warmer, less alien and more homey. In many respects, what the paradigm shift comes down to is a recognition that the universe is not an inanimate machine but an intelligent living system. Cold, hard, facts are being replaced with warm, resilient ones that are no less objective in the way they assert themselves as independent entities in the world.

In tune with this shift, increasing numbers of businesses and governments are realizing that long term profitability depends on good relationships with an educated and healthy workforce in a stable sociopolitical context, and with respect to the irreplacable environmental services provided by forests, watersheds, estuaries, fisheries, and ecological biodiversity. As Senge (in de Geus, 1997, p. xi) points out,

In Swedish, the oldest term for ‘business’ is narings liv, literally ‘nourishment for life.’ The ancient Chinese characters for ‘business,’ [are] at least 3,000 years old. The first of these characters translates as ‘life’ or ‘live.’ It can also be translated as ‘survive’ and ‘birth.’ The second translates as ‘meaning.’

Ready counterparts for these themes are deeply rooted in the English language. Without being aware of it, without having made any scholarly inquiry into Socrates’ maieutic arts, virtually every one of us already knows everything we need to know about the birth of living meaning. In any everyday assertion that something is such and so, in linking any subject with a predicate, we re-enact a metaphor of reproductive success in the creation of new meaning.

And here, at the very center of language and communication, the reproduction of meaning in conversation requires a copulative act, a conjugal relation, a coupling of subjects and objects via predicates. The back and forth movement of social intercourse is the deep structure that justifies and brings out its full discursive meaning as a pleasurable and productive process that involves probing, seminal questions; conceiving, being pregnant with, and Socratically midwifing ideas; dramatic climaxes; and a state of enchantment, hypnosis, or rapture that focuses attention and provokes passionate engagement.

When has an idea been successfully midwifed and come to life? We know an idea has come to life when we can restate it in our own words and obtain the same result. We know an idea has come to life when we can communicate it to someone else and they too can apply it in their own terms in new situations.

In his book on resolving the mystery of capital, De Soto points out that living capital can be acted on in banks and courts because it is represented abstractly in instruments like titles and deeds. Dead capital, in contrast, for which legal title does not exist, cannot be used as the basis for a mortgage or a small business loan, nor can one claim a right to the property in court.

Similarly, electrical appliances and machinery are living capital because they work the same way everywhere they can be connected to a standardized power grid by trained operators who have access to the right tool sets. Before the advent of widely shared standards, however, something as simple as different sized hoses and connections on hydrants allowed minor disasters to become catastrophes when fire trucks from different districts responding to an alarm were unable to put their available tools to use.

The distinction between dead and living capital is ultimately scientific, metrological, and mathematical. In ancient Greece, geometrical and arithmetical conversations were the first to be referred to as mathematical because they regularly arrive at the same conclusions no matter who the teacher and student are, and no matter which particular graphical or numerical figures are involved. That is, living meaning is objective; it stays the same, within a range of error, independent of the circumstances in which it is produced.

We can illustrate the conception, gestation, and birth of meaning in terms that lead directly to powerful methods of measurement using tests, assessments, and surveys. In yet another instance of linguistic biomimicry, the mathematical word “matrix” is derived from the ancient Greek word for womb. The matrix of observations recorded from the interaction of questions and answers is the fertile womb in which new ideals are conceived and gestated, and from which they are midwifed.

How? The monotony of the repeated questions and answers in the dialogue reveals the inner logic of the way the subject matter develops. By constantly connecting and reconnecting with the partner in dialogue, Socrates ensures that they stay together, attending to the same object. The reiterated yesses allow the object of the conversation to play itself out through what is said.

Conversational objects can exhibit strongly, and even strikingly, constant patterns of responses across different sets of similar questions posed at different times and places to different people by different interviewers, teachers, or surveyers. We create an increased likelihood of conceiving and birthing living meaning when questions are written in a way that enables them all to attend to the same thing, when they are asked of people also able to attend to that conversational object, and when we score the responses consistently as indicating right or wrong, agree or disagree, frequent or rare, etc.

When test, assessment, and survey instruments are properly designed, they bring meaning to life. They do so by making it possible to arrive at the same measure (the same numeric value, within a small range) for a given amount (of literacy, numeracy, health, motivation, innovation, trustworthiness, etc.) no matter who possesses it and no matter which particular collection of items or instrument is used to measure it. For numbers to be meaningful, they have to represent something that stays the same across particular expressions of the thing measured, and across particular persons measured.

We typically think of comparability in survey or testing research as requiring all respondents or examinees to answer the same questions, but this has not been true in actual measurement practice for decades. The power grid, electrical outlets, and appliances are all constructed so as to work together seamlessly across the vast majority of variations in who is using them, when and where they are used, what they are used for, and why they are used. In parallel fashion, educators are increasingly working to ensure that books, reading tests, and instructional curricula also work together no matter who publishes or administers them, or who reads them or who is measured by them.

The advantages of living literacy capital, for instance, go far beyond what can be accomplished with dead literacy capital. When each teacher matches books to readers using her or his personal knowledge, opportunities for uncontrolled variation emerge, and many opportunities for teachers to learn from each other are closed off. When each teacher’s tests are scored in terms of test-dependent counts of correct answers, knowing where any given child stands relative to the educational objectives is made unnecessarily difficult.

In contrast with these dead capital metrics, living literacy capital, such as is made available by the Lexile Framework for Reading and Writing (www.lexile.com), facilitates systematic comparisons of reading abilities with text reading difficulties, relative to different rates of reading comprehension. Instruction can be individualized, which acknowledges and addresses the fact that any given elementary school classroom typically incorporates at least four different grade levels of reading ability.

Reading is thereby made more enjoyable, both for students who are bored by the easiness of the standard classroom text and for those who find it incomprehensible. Testing is transformed from a pure accountability exercise irrelevant to instruction into a means of determining what a child knows and what can optimally be taught next. Growth in reading can be plotted, not only within school years but across them. Students can move from one school to another, or from grade to grade, without losing track of where they stand on the continuum of reading ability, and without unnecessarily making teachers’ lives more difficult.

In the context of living literacy capital, publishers can better gauge the appropriateness of their books for the intended audiences. Teachers can begin the school year knowing where their students stand relative to the end-of-year proficiency standard, can track progress toward it as time passes, and can better ensure that standards are met. Parents can go online, with their children, to pick out books at appropriate reading levels for birthday and holiday gifts, and for summer reading.

Plainly, what we have achieved with living literacy capital is a capacity to act on the thing itself, literacy, in a manner that adheres to the Golden Rule, justly and fairly treating each reader the way any other reader would want to be treated. In this system of universally uniform and ubiquitously accessible metrics, we can act on literacy itself, instead of confusing it with the reading difficulty of any particular text, the reading ability of any particular student, or any interaction between them. In the same way that titles and deeds make it possible to represent owned property in banks and courts abstractly, so, too, does a properly conceived, calibrated, and distributed literacy metric enable every member of the species of literate humans to thrive in ecological niches requiring an ability to read as a survival skill.

The technical means by which literacy capital has been brought to life should be applied to all forms of human, social, and natural capital. Hospital, employment, community, governance, and environmental quality, and individual numeracy, health, functionality, motivation, etc. are all assessed using rating systems that largely have not yet been calibrated, much less brought together into frameworks of shared uniform metric standards. The body of research presenting instrument calibration studies is growing, but much remains to be done. All of the prior posts in this blog and all of my publications, from the most technical to the most philosophical, bear on the challenging problems we face in becoming stewards of living meaning.

The issues are all of a piece. We have to be the change we want to make happen. It won’t work if we mechanically separate what is organically whole. There’s nothing to do but to keep buzzing those beautiful flowers blooming in the fields, pollinating them and bringing back the bits of nourishment that feed the hive. In this way, this season’s fruit ripens, the seeds of new life take shape, and may yet be planted to grow in fertile fields.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

Modern, Postmodern, or Amodern?

February 17, 2010

A few points of clarification might be in order for those wondering what the fuss is all about in the contrast between the modern and the postmodern (and the amodern, which is really what we ought to be about).

The modern world view takes its perspective from the foundational works of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. One of its characteristic features is often referred to as the Cartesian duality, or subject-object split, in which we (the subjects) enter the previously-existing objective world as blank slates who deal with reality by adapting to the facts of existence (which are God-given in the full Christian version). Many Marxists, feminists, and postmodernists see modernism as a bastion of white males in positions of political and economic superiority oblivious to the way their ideas were shaped by their times, and happy to take full advantage of their positions for their own gain.

Postmodernism takes a variety of forms and has not yet really jelled into any kind of uniform perspective; in fact, it might not ever do so, as one of its few recurrent themes has to do with the fragmentation of thinking and its local dependence on the particular power relations of different times and places. That said, a wide variety of writers trace out the way we are caught up in the play of the language games that inevitably follow from the mutual implication of subject and object. Subject and object each imply the other in the way language focuses attention selectively and filters out 99% of incoming stimuli. Concepts originate in metaphors that take their meaning from the surrounding social and historical context, and so perception and cognition are constrained by the linguistic or theoretical paradigms dominating the thoughts and behaviors of various communities. We cannot help but find ourselves drawn up into the flow of discourses that always already embody the subject-object unities represented in speaking and writing.

When we choose discourse over violence, we do so on the basis of a desire for meaning (Ricoeur, 1974), of an inescapable attraction to the beautiful (Gadamer, 1989, 1998), of a care that characterizes the human mode of being (Heidegger, 1962), of a considerateness for the human vulnerability of others and ourselves (Habermas, 1995), of an enthrallment with the fecund abundance of sexual difference (Irigaray, 1984), of the joy we experience in recognizing ourselves in each other and the universal (Hegel, 2003), of the irresistible allure of things (Harman, 2005), or of the unavoidable metaphysical necessity that propositions must take particular forms (Derrida, 1978).

All violence is ultimately the violence of the premature conclusion (Ricoeur, 1974), in which discourse is cut off by the imposition of one particularity as representative of a potentially infinite whole. This reductionism is an unjustified reduction of a universal that precludes efforts aimed at determining how well what is said might work to represent the whole transparently. Of course, all reductions of abstract ideals to particular expressions in words, numbers, or other signs are, by definition, of a limited length, and so inevitably pose the potential for being nonsensical, biased, prejudiced, and meaningless. Measures experimentally justifying reductions as meaningfully and usefully transparent are created, maintained, and reinvented via a balance of powers. In science, powers are balanced by the interrelations of theories, instruments, and data; in democracy, by the interrelations of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. Just as science is continuously open to the improvements that might be effected by means of new theories, instrumentation, or data, so, too, are democratic governments continuously reshaped by new court decisions, laws, and executive orders.

An essential idea here is that all thinking takes place in signs; this is not an idea that was invented or that is owned by postmodernists. C. S. Pierce developed the implications of semiotics in his version of pragmatism, and the letters exchanged by William James and Helen Keller explored the world projected by the interrelations of signs at length. The focus on signs, signification, and the play of signifiers does not make efforts at thinking futile or invalidate the search for truth. Things come into language by asserting their independent real existence, and by being appropriated in terms of relations with things already represented in the language. For instance, trees in the forest did not arrive on the scene hallmarked “white pine,” “pin oak,” etc. Rather, names for things emerge via the metaphoric process, which frames new experiences in terms of old, and which leads to a kind of conceptual speciation event that distinguishes cultural, historical, and ecological times and places from each other.

Modernists interpret the cultural relativism that emerges here as reducing all value systems to a false equality and an “anything goes” lack of standards. Unfortunately, the rejection of relativism usually entails the adoption of some form of political or religious fundamentalism in efforts aimed at restoring bellwether moral reference points. One of the primary characteristics of the current state of global crisis is our suspension in this unsustainable tension between equally dysfunctional alternatives of completely relaxed or completely rigid guides to behavior.

But the choice between fundamentalism and relativism is a false dichotomy. Science, democracy, and capitalism have succeeded as well as they have not in spite of, but because of, the social, historic, linguistic, and metaphoric factors that influence and constitute the construction of objective meaning. As Latour (1990, 1993) puts it, we have never actually been modern, so the point is not to be modern or postmodern, but amodern. We need to appropriate new, more workable conceptual reductions from the positive results produced by the deconstruction of the history of metaphysics. Though many postmodernists see deconstruction as an end in itself, and though many modernists see reductionism as a necessary exercise of power, there are other viable ways of proceeding through all three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982; Fisher, 2010b) that remain to be explored.

The amodern path informs the trajectory of my own work, from the focus on the creation of meaning in language to meaningful measurement (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b), and from there to the use of measurement and metrological networks in bringing human, social, and natural capital to life as part of the completion of the capitalist and democratic projects (Fisher, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010a). Though this project will also ultimately amount to nothing more than another failed experiment, perhaps sooner than later, it has its openness to continued questioning and ongoing dialogue in its favor.

References

Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In Writing and difference (pp. 278-93). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/WP_Fisher_Jr_2000.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part I. Implications for method in postmodern science. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-90.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherJAM05.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Rev. ed.). New York: Crossroad (Original work published 1960).

Gadamer, H.-G. (1998). Praise of theory: Speeches and essays ( Foreword by Joel Weinsheimer, Ed.) (C. Dawson, Trans.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Harman, G. (2005). Guerrilla metaphysics: Phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court.

Hegel, G. W. F. (2003). Phenomenology of mind (J. B. Baillie, Trans.). New York: Dover (Original work published 1931).

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row (Original work published 1927).

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Irigaray, L. (1984). An ethics of sexual difference (C. Burke & G. C. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. (1990). Postmodern? no, simply amodern: Steps towards an anthropology of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 21(1), 145-71.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Violence and language. In D. Stewart & J. Bien (Eds.), Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

How to Trade “Global Mush” for Beauty, Meaning, and Value: Reflections on Lanier’s New Book

January 15, 2010

Implicit in many of my recent posts here is the idea that we must learn how to follow through on the appropriation of meaning to proper ownership of the properties characteristic of our own proprietary capital resources: the creativities, abilities, skills, talents, health, motivations, trust, etc.  that make us each reliable citizens and neighbors, and economically viable in being hireable, promotable, productive, and retainable. Individual control of investment in, income from, and returns on our own shares of human, social, and natural capital ought to be a fundamental constitutional human right.

But, just as property rights are constitutionally guaranteed by nations around the world that don’t take the trouble to enforce them or even to provide their necessary infrastructural capacities, so, too, are human rights to equal opportunities widely guaranteed without being properly provided for or enforced. And now in the Internet age, we have succeeded in innovating ever more fluid media for the expression of our individual capacities for making original cultural, technical, and human contributions, but we have yet to figure out how to exert effective control over the returns and income generated by these contributions.

Jaron Lanier’s new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” is taking up this theme in interesting ways. In his recent Wall Street Journal article, Lanier says:

“There’s a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn’t proven to be true. The most sophisticated, influential and lucrative examples of computer code—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or Adobe’s Flash— always turn out to be the results of proprietary development. Indeed, the adored iPhone came out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth.

Actually, Silicon Valley is remarkably good at not making collectivization mistakes when our own fortunes are at stake. On the one hand we want to avoid physical work and instead benefit from intellectual property. On the other hand, we’re undermining intellectual property so that information can roam around for nothing, or more precisely as bait for advertisements. That’s a formula that leaves no way for our nation to earn a living in the long term.
The “open” paradigm rests on the assumption that the way to get ahead is to give away your brain’s work—your music, writing, computer code and so on—and earn kudos instead of money. You are then supposedly compensated because your occasional dollop of online recognition will help you get some kind of less cerebral work that can earn money. For instance, maybe you can sell custom branded T-shirts.
We’re well over a decade into this utopia of demonetized sharing and almost everyone who does the kind of work that has been collectivized online is getting poorer. There are only a tiny handful of writers or musicians who actually make a living in the new utopia, for instance. Almost everyone else is becoming more like a peasant every day.”
Lanier’s suggestions of revised software structures and micropayment systems in an extension of intellectual property rights correctly recognizes the scope of the challenges we face. He also describes the motivations driving the ongoing collectivization process, saying that “youthful fascination with collectivism is in part simply a way to address perceived ‘unfairness’.” This radical way of enforcing a very low lowest common denominator points straight at the essential problem, and that problem is apparent in the repeated use of the key word, collective.

It was not so long ago that it was impossible to use that word without immediately evoking images of Soviet central planning and committees. The “global mush” of mediocrity Lanier complains about as a direct result of collective thinking is a very good way of describing the failures of socialism that brought down the Soviet Union by undercutting its economic viability. Lanier speaks of growing up and enthusiastically participating various forms of collective life, like food co-ops and shared housing. I, too, have shared those experiences. I saw, as Lanier sees and as the members of communes in the U.S. during the 1960s saw, that nothing gets done when no one owns the process and stands to reap the rewards: when housekeeping is everyone’s responsibility, no one does it.

Further and more to the point, nothing goes right when supply and demand are dictated by a central committee driven by ideological assumptions concerning exactly what does and does not constitute the greater good.  On the contrary, innovation is stifled, inefficiencies are rampant, and no one takes the initiative to do better because there are no incentives for doing so. Though considerable pain is experienced in allowing the invisible hand to coordinate the flux and flows of markets, no better path to prosperity has yet been found. The current struggle is less one of figuring out how to do without markets than it is one of figuring out how to organize them for greater long term stability. As previous posts in this blog endeavor to show, we ought to be looking more toward bringing all forms of capital into the market instead of toward regulating some to death while others ravage the economy, scot-free.

Friedrich von Hayek (1988, 1994) is an economist and philosopher often noted for his on-target evaluations of the errors of socialism. He tellingly focused on the difference between the laborious micromanagement of socialism’s thought police and the wealth-creating liberation of capital’s capacity for self-organization. It is interesting that Lanier describes the effects of demonetized online sharing as driving most of us toward peasant status, as Hayek (1994) describes socialism as a “road to serfdom.” Of course, capitalism itself is far from perfect, since private property, and manufactured and liquid capital, have enjoyed a freedom of movement that too often recklessly tramples human rights, community life, and the natural environment. But as is described in a previous blog I posted on re-inventing capitalism, we can go a long way toward rectifying the errors of capitalism by setting up the rules of law that will lubricate and improve the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets.

Now, I’ve always been fascinated with the Latin root shared in words like property, propriety, proprietary, appropriation, proper, and the French propre (which means both clean and one’s own, or belonging to oneself, depending on whether it comes before or after the noun; une maison propre = a clean house and sa propre maison = his/her own house). I was then happy to encounter in graduate school Ricoeur’s (1981) theory of text interpretation, which focuses on the way we create meaning by appropriating it. Real understanding requires that we must make a text our own if we are to be able to give proper evidence of understanding it by restating or summarizing it in our own words.

Such restating is, of course, also the criterion for demonstrating that a scientific theory of the properties of a phenomenon is adequate to the task of reproducing its effects on demand. As Ricoeur (1981, p. 210) says, situating science in a sphere of signs puts the human and natural sciences together on the same footing in the context of linguistically-mediated social relations. This unification of the sciences has profound consequences, not just for philosophy, the social sciences, or economics, but for the practical task of transforming the current “global mush” into a beautiful, meaningful, and effective living creativity system. So, there is real practical significance in realizing what appropriation is and how its processes feed into our conceptualizations of property, propriety, and ownership.

When we can devise a new instrument or measuring method that gives the same results as an existing instrument or method, we have demonstrated theoretical control over the properties of the phenomenon (Heelan, 1983, 2001; Ihde, 1991; Ihde & Selinger, 2003; Fisher, 2004, 2006, 2010b). The more precisely the effects are reproduced, the purer they become, the clearer their representation, and the greater their independence from the local contingencies of sample, instrument, observer, method, etc. When we can package a technique for reproducing the desired effects (radio or tv broadcast/reception, vibrating toothbrushes, or what have you), we can export the phenomenon from the laboratory via networks of distribution, supply, sales, marketing, manufacture, repair, etc. (Latour, 1987). Proprietary methods, instruments, and effects can then be patented and ownership secured.

What we have in the current “global mush” of collective aggregations are nothing at all of this kind. There are specific criteria for information quality and network configuration (Akkerman, et al., 2007; Latour, 1987, pp. 247-257; Latour, 1995; Magnus, 2007; Mandel, 1978; Wise, 1995) that have to be met for collective cognition to realize its potential in the manner described by Surowiecki (2004) or Brafman and Beckstrom (2006), for instance.  The difference is the difference between living and dead capital, between capitalism and socialism, and between scientific measurement and funny numbers that don’t stand for the repetitive additivity of a constant unit (Fisher, 2002, 2009, 2010a). As Lanier notes, Silicon Valley understands very well the nature of this difference, and protects its own interests by vigilantly ensuring that its collective cognitions are based in properly constructed information and networks.

And here we find the crux of the lesson to be learned. We need to focus very carefully on the details of how we create meaningful relationships, of how things come into words, of how instruments are calibrated and linked together in shared systems of signification, and of how economies thrive on the productive efficiencies of well-lubricated markets. Everything we need to turn things around is available, though seeing things for what they are is one of the most daunting and difficult tasks we can undertake.

The postmodern implications of the way appropriation is more a letting-go than a possessing (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 191) will be taken up another time, in the context of the playful flow of signification we are always already caught up within. For now, it is enough to point the way toward the issues raised and examined in other posts in this blog as to how capital is brought to life. We are well on the way toward a convergence of efforts that may well result in exactly the kind of fierce individuals and competing teams able to reap their just due, as Lanier envisions.

References

Akkerman, S., Van den Bossche, P., Admiraal, W., Gijselaers, W., Segers, M., Simons, R.-J., Kirschnerd, P. (2007, February). Reconsidering group cognition: From conceptual confusion to a boundary area between cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives? Educational Research Review, 2, 39-63.
Brafman, O., & Beckstrom, R. A. (2006). The starfish and the spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations. New York: Portfolio (Penguin Group).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2006). Meaningfulness, sufficiency, invariance, and conjoint additivity. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 20(1), 1053 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt201.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/BringingHSN_FisherARMII.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010)b. Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

von Hayek, F. A. (1988). The fatal conceit: The errors of socialism (W. W. Bartley, III, Ed.) (Vol. I). The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

von Hayek, F. A. (1994/1944). The road to serfdom (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition; Introduction by Milton Friedman). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heelan, P. A. (1983, June). Natural science as a hermeneutic of instrumentation. Philosophy of Science, 50, 181-204.

Heelan, P. A. (2001). The lifeworld and scientific interpretation. In S. K. Toombs (Ed.), Handbook of phenomenology and medicine (pp. 47-66). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ihde, D., & Selinger, E. (Eds.). (2003). Chasing technoscience: Matrix for materiality. (Indiana Series in Philosophy of Technology). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, B. (1995). Cogito ergo sumus! Or psychology swept inside out by the fresh air of the upper deck: Review of Hutchins’ Cognition in the Wild, MIT Press, 1995. Mind, Culture, and Activity: An International Journal, 3(192), 54-63.

Magnus, P. D. (2007). Distributed cognition and the task of science. Social Studies of Science, 37(2), 297-310.

Mandel, J. (1978, December). Interlaboratory testing. ASTM Standardization News, 6, 11-12.

Ricoeur, P. (1981). Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action and interpretation (J. B. Thompson, Ed. & Trans). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations. New York: Doubleday.
Creative Commons License
LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

A Summary End-of-Year Philosophical Overview

December 25, 2009

So the end of the year and the start of a new one makes a good time to reflect a bit on just what the situation in the world looks like, philosophically speaking.

As is so often the case, we hold the keys to our own liberation, but don’t know it, can’t see them, or refuse out of pure contrariness to fit them in the locks. Here, then, is a list of locks and keys for those who might want to match them up and see new ways of doing things.

  • The way we define a problem sets up a class of solutions as a restricted range of ways that things can be done. Historians and philosophers of science have shown that, contrary to the way we usually think of things, solutions come first. As the old expression goes, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Science is so dependent on the available technology for the way it defines problems that this point has led to the emergence of the term “technoscience” as an explicit marker of the difference between this new point of view and the old one (among many works in this area, see Ihde, 1983; Latour, 1987).
  • One of the most ancient human technologies is language itself; the word “text” has the same root in the Sanskrit TEK and Greek techne as technique and textile. Just as is the case with technoscience, before we have the  slightest chance to do anything about it, language prethinks the world for us. In the same way that the Grateful Dead sings about the music playing the band, the words and grammar we use are using us much more than vice versa. We have rightly become more sensitive to the way words restrict our expectations, so that “man” is no longer taken to refer to all people. But the problem is far more complex than this example might lead us to believe. The very way in which words represent things is itself the paradigmatic model for science, as becomes apparent as we think this through.
  • One very important way that language sets us up to think in a particular way stems from the subject-verb-object structure of Western European languages. We habitually define problems in terms of what is sometimes called the Cartesian duality or subject-object split. Our language has led to the perception that thinking subjects are completely separate from and independent of the objects they encounter and act on. The limited framework in which this split can be reasonably entertained has been enormously productive, but has led to equally enormous undesired consequences in terms of human, social, and environmental waste.
  • Descartes himself recognized the limits of separating the thinking subject from the world of objects, but took a pragmatic attitude toward simplifying things. If Descartes hadn’t existed, we would have had to invent him, and to some extent, we probably already have. Descartes (1971, pp. 183-4) understood the situation very well, saying: “I have often observed that philosophers make the mistake of trying to explain by logical definitions those things which are most simple and self-evident; they thus only make them more obscure. When I said that the proposition I experience (cogito) therefore I am is the first and most certain of those we come across when we philosophize in an orderly way, I was not denying that we must first know what is meant by experience, existence, certainty; again, we must know such things as that it is impossible for that which is experiencing to be non-existent; but I thought it needless to enumerate these notions, for they are of the greatest simplicity, and by themselves they can give us no knowledge that anything exists.”
  • Descartes then did not use the phrase ‘cogito, ergo sum’ in the rigid and over-simplified way which is often attributed to him.  Heidegger (1967, p. 104) explains that
    “The formula which the proposition sometimes has, ‘cogito, ergo sum,’ suggests the misunderstanding that it is here a question of inference.  That is not the case and cannot be so, because this conclusion would have to have as its major premise: Id quod cogitat, est; and the minor premise: cogito; conclusion: ergo sum.  However, the major premise would only be a formal generalization of what lies in the proposition: ‘cogito-sum.’ Descartes himself emphasizes that no inference is present.  The sum is not a consequence of the thinking, but vice versa; it is the ground of thinking, the fundamentum.”
  • Today, though, the matters that were too simple for Descartes to concern himself with have become problems of huge proportion.  In a note to Heidegger’s discussion of this passage from Descartes, the editor suggests that the greatest part of Heidegger’s philosophical work has been devoted to enumerating and putting on record what Descartes left out as too simple to be concerned with (Krell in Heidegger 1982b, p. 125).
  • No doubt a great many thinkers and scholars have an intellectual grasp of these issues. Putting those thoughts in action is proving difficult, to say the least. Institutionalized habits of mind seem nearly impossible to overcome. In one of those great ironies of history, we now have a situation in which we are trying to solve a new class of problems (nonCartesian ones) using the approaches that are the cause of the class of problems (Cartesian ones). Of course, as long we insist on operating this way, all we can do is make things worse. (For more on this, see a previous blog describing how the problem is the problem.)
  • We can see our way out of this, and moreover find the motivation to act, by considering how we got into it. Descartes (1961, p. 8) held that “…in seeking the correct path to truth we should be concerned with nothing about which we cannot have a certainty equal to that of the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry.” In saying this, Descartes identifies himself as a student of Plato, as someone experienced enough in mathematics to have met the requirements for admission to the Academy. Plato wanted students familiar with arithmetic and geometry because they know that numeric and geometric figures plainly are not the mathematical objects they stand for. Geometrical analyses of squares, circles, and triangles always come out the same, no matter which particular figure of a type is involved. Understanding this distinction was fundamental to taking up the study of philosophy, which actually involves nothing but the independence of figure from meaning, of word from concept. The Cartesian duality is a natural extension of Plato into the distinction between mind and body, subject and object.
  • So we look right through the particular words, numbers, and geometrical figures representing things and see the things themselves in terms of abstract ideals that are basically mathematical. But even in naming abstract ideals as such we do not come any closer to grasping or apprehending the complete truth of being. All we have are words, but this does not mean that we are trapped forever in a linguistic cage. The situation is quite the contrary, in fact. Science is poetry in motion. Science is a systematic way of simultaneously inventing and discovering things brought into words via dialogues with life. Science is the way we let the metaphoric process do its thing (among many works in this area, see especially Gerhart & Russell, 1984, and Kuhn, 1993; for an example of recent work, see Colburn & Shute, 2008).
  • Far from controlling and dominating the world, what science enables us to do via metaphor is to subject ourselves systematically to very specific aspects of the world.  Our problem today is not one of overcoming the way we have subdued nature, each other, and ourselves so much as it is one of subjecting ourselves to a more comprehensive range of things about which we can “have a certainty equal to that of the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry,” as Descartes put it. In other words, how do we extend the power of nonCartesian scientific metaphor-making into the human, social, and environmental sciences? This project has been the focus of my work from the beginning of my professional career to the present, and is elaborated in detail in a number of works (Fisher, 1988, 1992, 2004, 2010b).
  • Though explanations and logic can be compelling to some readers, the real power of ideas is exhibited in practice. Living the change we want to see happen has, for me, involved acting on yet another aspect of the way science poetically extends language’s prethinking of the world. The identity and coherence of a culture or an historical epoch is largely a matter of the way particular metaphors inform a worldview and the paradigmatic objects of the conversations of the time. Individual thoughts and behaviors are coordinated and harmonized via conversations that take place in terms, of course, of the words and concepts in circulation. And so we see that language is the original network that makes collective cognition and action possible. Language is the model for the not-always-so-wise wisdom of crowds effect that synchronizes everything from markets to laboratories to rush hours.
  • Seen from this angle, then, the problem is one of seeing how mathematical clarity can be embodied in the instruments of a technoscience distributed across the nodes of networks. How can we think and act together on the problems of the human, social, and environmental sciences with the same kind of coordination we experience in time via clocks or in the sequencing of the SARS virus via laboratories sharing metrological standards (to cite an example given by Surowiecki (2004), with (Latour, 1987, 2005) in the background)? The answer to this question lies in the calibration of instruments that are linked together and are so traceable to reference standards in a kind of metric system for each major construct of interest, such as the abilities, health, attitudes, trust, and environmental qualities essential to human, social, and natural capital (Fisher, 1996, 2000a, 2000b, 2002, 2005, 2009a, 2009b, 2010a).
  • Instruments are being calibrated on a broad scale across a great many applied and research contexts in business and academic contexts (among thousands of publications, see Bezruczko, 2005; Drehmer, Belohlav, & Coye, 2000; Masters, 2007; Salzberger & Sinkovics, 2006). Though local or proprietary implementations work to coordinate thought and behavior within restricted communities, systematic approaches to creating universally uniform metric systems for human, social, and natural capital are as yet nonexistent (Fisher, 2009a, 2009b).
  • Finally, in accord with our acceptance of the way we are always already caught up in the play and flow of language, what does a nonCartesian approach to facilitating networked harmonizations look like? There are four main features to be aware of. First off, we want to be acutely aware of and vigilantly sensitive to the role of metaphor. In abstracting from individuals to universals, we generalize from particulars in ways that must be justified (Ballard, 1978, pp. 186-190; Ricoeur, 1974; Gadamer, 1991, pp. 7-8).  All generalization involves telling a story that is largely true of everyone and everything that has a part in it, but which simultaneously is not perfectly or exactly true of any of them. As Rasch (1960, p. 115) points out, if force, mass, and acceleration are measured with enough precision we see that the actual measures do not accord exactly with Newton’s laws; rather, their parameters in probability distributions do. Respect and attention to the potential for what Ricoeur (1974) called the violence of the premature conclusion must be brought to bear in systematic ways to aid in “recalling the uniqueness of the person measured” (Ballard, 1978, p. 189). It will be essential to incorporate the ontological method’s (Fisher, 2010b; Heidegger, 1982a, pp. 21-23, 32-330) deconstructive moment as a judicial element in a balance of powers with the legislative moment’s experimentally justified reductions and the executive moment’s constructive applications.
  • Second, attuned to those instances in which the philosophical thesis of the independence of figure and meaning, or the separation of signifier and signified, is difficult to satisfy (Derrida, 1982, p. 229; Wood & Bernasconi, 1988, 88-89), a nonCartesian approach to facilitating network harmonizations requires that we focus on identifying where, when, and what signifier-signified separations can be obtained. Because the universality and objectivity of mathematical objects make them “the absolute model for any object whatsoever” (Derrida, 1989, p. 66, also see p. 27), and because it is number and not word that is the real paradigm of the domain of things that can be understood in language (Gadamer, 1989, p. 412), we now strive to test the limits of the mathematical as “the fundamental presupposition of all ‘academic’ work” and “of the knowledge of things” (Heidegger, 1967, pp. 75-76).  This is the same thing as attending to the calibration of the instruments that are ultimately to be linked to reference standards. This is the domain of Rasch measurement (Andrich, 1988, 2004; Bond & Fox, 2007; Rasch, 1960; Wilson, 2005; Wright, 1997), which takes the assessment of data consistency, unidimensionality, reliability, and construct validity as essential.
  • Third, with calibrated instruments in hand, attention turns to linking and equating them systematically in networks tracing connections to and from metrological reference standards, adapting the methods for maintaining the existing metric system (Fisher, 1996, 2000a, 2000b, 2005, 2009a, 2009b, 2010a). The goal here will be one of coordinating and synchronizing the self-organizing structures of each distinct construct, much as was done for the measurement of literacy (Stenner, et al., 2006).
  • Fourth, though we have to this point completely respected our inescapable immersion in the play of language, there still remains the question of how such a massive transformation from the modern Cartesian dualist point of view to a postmodern nonCartesian one will be brought about. Like any paradigm shift, the new way of doing things emerges as a function of the returns–economic, political, social, and psychological–that can be expected from the investments made. And in accord with the broad qualitative sense of the mathematical as learning through what we already know (Heidegger, 1967; Kisiel, 1973), the new will emerge as an amplification of something old. A great deal of attention and investment is currently being focused on creating whole new sources of sustainable, socially responsible, and long-term profits from closer management of human, social, and natural capital. In the same way that the metric system is an essential component of global trade, and in the same way that origins of the metric system coincide with the scientific, industrial, and political revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so, too, will a new metric system for human, social, and natural capital provide a foundation for new efficiencies and degrees of effectiveness across multiple domains. The profit motive is an engine of great energy and resources. We need to learn how to harness it as a driver of growth in realized human potential, social cohesion, and environmental quality. What other way of giving ourselves over to the nonCartesian and playful creation of meaning is there, in fact, except to extend the rule of law and the invisible hand’s matching of supply and demand into all of the areas essential to human being?

Philosophically speaking, then, it would seem that all of the elements are in place for a positive answer to Zimmerman’s (1990, p. 274) question, “can we develop the non-absolutist, non-foundational categories necessary to assess, to confront, and to transform the technological and economic mobilization of humanity and the earth at the beginning of the twenty-first century?” Zimmerman might not agree with my sense that we can, since, reflecting on Heidegger’s efforts to put his political philosophy in action, he (1990, p. 257) remarks that “Heidegger’s political engagement in 1933-34 led him to conclude that all merely human ‘revolutions’ and ‘decisions’ would simply reinforce the system already in play. The question for us is: Is that conclusion tenable?” Zimmerman (pp. 245-246) apparently hopes it is not, and looks to love, compassion, and respect as alternatives to Heidegger’s hope for divine intervention.

But let’s consider what is “merely human.” The nonhuman is not necessarily divine, even if that is what Heidegger might have meant. And has not Heidegger (1962) himself already identified care as the defining characteristic of human being, with Habermas (1995) underscoring “considerateness” for our shared vulnerability, Ricoeur (1974) focusing on the desire for meaning and the choice in favor of discourse over violence, and Gadamer (1991, p. 61) also holding that “the first concern of all dialogical and dialectical inquiry is a care for the unity and sameness of the thing under discussion”? Beyond these are shifts of focus away from death as our common end, and toward our common birth from women as our shared beginning (Fielding, 2003; Schues, 1997; Schutz, 1962, 1966; Tymieniecka 1998, 2000; Zaner, 2002). And even in this, we must inevitably draw from Plato, now in Socrates’ stress on his role as a midwife of ideas, and from Aristotle, who provides the model for how to take possession of the value of living meaning in theory (Gadamer, 1980, p. 200).

Further, the conception, gestation, midwifery, and nurturing of ideas that takes place via considerateness and the desire for meaning were never the product of “merely human” intentions or designs, any more than biological reproduction was. Rather, we submit to the demands of the ways meaning is created to the same extent that we submit to the ways that life is recreated; in both cases, there is such Hegelian joy in the ways we find ourselves in each other that we can hardly complain (though whole cultures have figured out ways of doing so).

And we can indeed fault Heidegger, as Zimmerman (1990, p. 244, 258) does, for having “refused to take seriously the organic dimension of human existence,” and for somehow managing “to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”  We arrive at an entirely different, democratic, sphere of political implications (Ihde, 1990; Latour, 2004; Latour & Weibel, 2005), when we extend the deconstruction of metaphysics into examinations of the actual material practices of science, as Latour (1987, 2005) and others have done (Ihde, 1991, 1998; Ihde & Selinger, 2003). The dialogue with nonhuman others (Latour, 1994) is conceived as explicitly nonCartesian and nondualist, such that it is literally impossible to conceive of anything that does not incorporate social relations, or of any social relations that do not incorporate nonhuman others.

The self-organized unfolding of such dialogues play out the self-representative activity of the things themselves, with method defined as their movement in thought (Gadamer, 1989; Fisher, 2004). Reinforcing some aspect or aspects of the system already in play is indeed inevitable, as Heidegger concluded. But no important “revolutions” or “decisions” have ever been based in “merely human” inputs (Latour, 1993), as becomes apparent if we pay close attention to the concrete behaviors and communications through which meaning is created and shared. The “non-absolutist, non-foundational categories necessary to assess, to confront, and to transform the technological and economic mobilization of humanity and the earth at the beginning of the twenty-first century” referred to by Zimmerman are indeed in hand. Though many unfamiliar with the evidence, theory, and instruments may doubt this is true, a contemporary Galileo might be heard to mutter, “E pur si muove!”

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