Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

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.


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 [].

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 [].

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. (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.
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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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s becomes apparent

On Leaping to Conclusions: Learning Through Prejudices and Evaluating Them

December 22, 2009

Back at Marianjoy Rehab Hospital in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Richard F. Harvey, MD, the Medical Director, had a sign in his office that’s always stuck in my mind. It had an image of a kangaroo on it, with the words “Some people get their exercise by leaping to conclusions.”

Yes, I am as guilty as anyone of that. And I’m particularly sensitive to the issue because my work involves a lot of thinking and research into how we all inevitably learn through what we already know. We develop physically, cognitively, and morally by filtering incoming data through the screen of what we already are, what we’ve already experienced and learned. As we integrate physical sensations and learn to coordinate our limbs and hands with our eyes, we move from babyhood to childhood. As we learn how to pronounce words and construct sentences, we learn to speak. With the basics of communication in hand, we pick up the alphabet, spelling, grammar, and composition in the course of learning to read and write. Then we use what we’ve read and experienced to think through what is and what ought to be as we try to build a better world.

But we often leap to conclusions when we hear, see, or read something that doesn’t quite make sense to us. I’m becoming increasingly attuned and sensitive to the ways in which I, and others, do this. It happens subtly sometimes, when perhaps we’ve encountered something we don’t really know much about, but which seems obviously wrong for some reason. It is basically an issue of prejudice, but not in the big sense of the word. I’m thinking of the little ways in which we filter experience, in which attention is directed to what we find especially meaningful, and in which matters presumed to be of peripheral concern are pushed to the margins. We must inevitably do these kinds of things; if we didn’t, we’d be overwhelmed with uninterpretable data.

The philosophical issues involved have been an explicit focus of interpretation theory (hermeneutics) for over a century, with roots dating to ancient Greece. Changes in the perception of prejudice as the necessary door through which all new experience and knowledge is processed have led to thorough reconsiderations of what it is and what its place in clear thinking might be. In his landmark work on the creation of meaning in interpretation, Gadamer (1989, p. 490), for instance, remarks that “there is undoubtedly no understanding that is free of all prejudices, however much the will of our knowledge must be directed toward escaping their thrall.”

It happens that some fields of research make investigators more aware of the need to pay attention to prejudices and presuppositions than others. In the preface (pp. xi-xiii) to his classic 1977 book, The Essential Tension, Thomas Kuhn recounts an experience from the summer of 1947 that led to his appreciation for an explicit theory of interpretation. He had been completely perplexed by Aristotle’s account of motion, in which Aristotle writes a great many things that appear blatantly absurd. Kuhn was very puzzled and disturbed by this, as Aristotle made many astute observations in other areas, such as biology and political behavior. He eventually came to see what Aristotle was in fact talking about, and he then came to routinely offer the following maxim to his students:

“When reading the works of an important thinker [or anyone else who usually seems to have a modicum of coherence], look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer, I continue, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.”

As Kuhn goes on to say, if his book was addressed primarily to historians, this point wouldn’t be worth making, as historians are in the business of precisely this kind of interpretive back-and-forth, as are many philosophers, literary critics, writers, social scientists, educators, and artists. But as a physicist, Kuhn says that the discovery of hermeneutics not only made history seem consequential, it changed his view of science. As is well known, his skill in practicing hermeneutics changed a great many people’s views of science.

In my personal experience, however, one does not need to be a physicist to be guilty of dismissing apparent absurdities. In a classic article, Paul Ricoeur (1974) refers to uncontrolled submission to prejudices as “the violence of the premature conclusion.” He (Ricoeur, 1974, p. 96) agrees with Gadamer about the inevitability of prejudice at some level, saying, “There can be no philosophy without presuppositions.”

And agreement with this general attitude is shared even by someone as apparently unlikely as Jacques Derrida, reviled by some (for instance, Bloom, 1987, p. 387, among many others) for appearing to hold that reason is futile, precisely because it is inevitably tied to the interests that shape our presuppositions. Derrida was perplexed by these reactions to his work, strenuously objecting and pointing out 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, 2003, pp. 62-63).

Contrary to what many of his readers presume, Derrida considered himself true to philosophy (1989b, p. 218), agreeing that mathematically ideal objects are the “absolute model for any object whatsoever” (1989a, p. 66), and that metaphysical presuppositions are unavoidable (Derrida, 1978, pp. 280-281). What we have in this extreme case, then, is an ironic example of becoming subject to prejudices concerning the role of those prejudices in shaping understanding. Bloom (1987), for his part, is also tragically ironic in taking deconstruction to be a closing of the American mind when it actually represents ways of opening further than ever before, as but one moment in cycling through the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330; Fisher, 2010) from (1) reducing experience to words to (2) applying what has been said in practice to (3) creatively destroying our routines to uncover hidden prejudices via deconstruction, which then informs a return to new reductions.

What happened in Derrida’s case gives a good context for considering the smaller everyday ways in which we counter-productively dismiss apparent nonsense, commit small acts of violence against others and ourselves, and fail to appreciate as well as we could the opportunities with which we are presented. There seem to be a lot of ways in which we build up a righteous sense of ourselves over against the madness of the world by projecting inanities on others instead of asking, as Kuhn found he had to ask, how a reasonable person could arrive at such a position.

Of course, it is simply easier to assume other people are not reasonable, or that their methods of reasoning are insufficient, unnecessary, or both. And, of course, it takes a lot of time to try to understand how others might be reasonable in ways that we have not conceived. Anyone who has experienced close but difficult relationships with others knows how much effort can be expended in achieving even small gains in mutual understanding.

So is there really very little or nothing that can be done to find other ways besides leaping to conclusions to get our exercise? We need something more than patience and tolerance, valuable though these are over the long term for allowing new learning to unfold in its own time. But simply allowing others the method of their madness does nothing to advance the general state of things, when we have so many pressing demands to learn from each other.

What we really need is a science that systematically tests our preconceptions and checks them for internal consistency and productive potential, via the checks and balances of mutually mediated theory, data, and instruments (Ackermann, 1985;  Ihde, 1991). In our specialized world, we wind up living in closed micro-societies with others of like mind who do little to challenge the boundaries of new thinking. Though old ethnic prejudices persist to the point of tribal wars in many parts of the world, they are more subtle today those of the past in other places. For instance, in the United States, Poles, Italians, and Irish previously found each other mutually distasteful, and despite ongoing institutional racism, Barack Obama symbolizes a significant shift in focus.

A broader concern with prejudice in general would be an example of the tide that lifts all boats. No one is exempted from culpability, and everyone would benefit from the removal of their own and others’ blinders. Many significant obstacles to social progress are based in unexamined prejudices.

  • Is the conduct of business inherently immoral? Many academics seem to think so, though they themselves participate in the larger economy, though no one has ever proposed a better way of improving the overall quality of life for society at large, and though universities, too, are driven by profits of various kinds.
  • Are soldiers inherently immoral? Though killing is absolutely immoral, and the training of young people to kill and to be insensitive to killing is abhorrent, would it be better to allow malicious evil to run rampant? If not, should we not do a better job of honoring and respecting those willing to give their lives? More fundamentally, are we ever going to own up as a society to the trade-offs in the calculus of lives saved vs those sacrificed? If not, how will we ever effectively oppose unjust wars or unsafe consumer products?
  • Is government inherently obstructionist and wasteful? Or does society require that its will be embodied in independent representation and balanced legislative, judicial, and executive powers? Is not the optimal role of government found in providing the infrastructural media for the fair and just expression of the collective social will? If we want to restrict the role of government in our lives, should we not then be investing our resources in uniform metrics for the efficient and effective management of human, social, and natural capital so that we can take control of education, health care, social services, and environmental quality directly?
  • Does the market need to be controlled by external mechanisms? Few would say any longer that it always knows best, though the extent that its behavior is a function of the information available is still unknown. Could the available information be improved in significant ways, perhaps by creating the highest possible quality information for each significant form of capital?
  • Is science an inherent good? Can we somehow slow or stop it, or, like democracy, can we improve it only by applying it to itself?
  • Is the measurement of human qualities inherently reductionistic, always and everywhere an immoral and meaningless categorization? Is psychosocial measurement mathematically equivalent with physical measurement in quality and in its potential for fostering scientific, humanistic, and economic revolutions impossible? Or might it already be in hand, and only our prejudices are preventing us from seeing it and using it?
  • Is addressing environmental concerns completely at odds with business interests, or are there in fact many business people who recognize that long-term profitability requires close attention to sustainability?
  • Are academics who focus on class oppression, sexism, racism, and the constant play of power as expressions of vested interests necessarily always wrong?
  • Instead of dismissing the excesses of the consumer culture as inherently devoid of any redeeming value, what is the message we need to learn that is being conveyed in this medium?
  • Are unreligious people automatically going to hell? Are those who believe their way is the only way automatically going to heaven? Is it possible to find and build on the elements of forgiveness and redemption found in all religions?

How might we find the germ of truth that gives life to each perspective? How might we reconcile and heal our own internal differences so that we can do more to accept the differences between us, and build on them in ways that brings out the real value of e pluribus unum, “out of many one”?

Far from being locked by these questions into a permanent analysis paralysis, there are concrete things that can be done to examine, test, and overcome our prejudices. I’m looking forward to engaging in this work with any and all willing to take it on. There just has to be a better way for us to get our exercise!


Ackermann, J. R. (1985). Data, instruments, and theory: A dialectical approach to understanding science. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University 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.

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.

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. (2010). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, p. in press.

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

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).

Ihde, D. (1991). Instrumental realism: The interface between philosophy of science and philosophy of technology. The Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Technology). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1977). The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and change. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago 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.

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Contesting the Claim, Part I: Are Rasch Measures Really as Objective as Physical Measures?

July 21, 2009

Psychometricians, statisticians, metrologists, and measurement theoreticians tend to be pretty unassuming kinds of people. They’re unobtrusive and retiring, by and large. But there is one thing some of them are prone to say that will raise the ire of others in a flash, and the poor innocent geek will suddenly be subjected to previously unknown forms and degrees of social exclusion.

What is that one thing? “Instruments calibrated by fitting data to a Rasch model measure with the same kind of objectivity as is obtained with physical measures.” That’s one version. Another could be along these lines: “When data fit a Rasch model, we’ve discovered a pattern in human attitudes or behaviors so regular that it is conceptually equivalent to a law of nature.”

Maybe it is the implication of objectivity as something that must be politically incorrect that causes the looks of horror and recoiling retreats in the nonmetrically inclined when they hear things like this. Maybe it is the ingrained cultural predisposition to thinking such claims outrageously preposterous that makes those unfamiliar with 80 years of developments and applications so dismissive. Maybe it’s just fear of the unknown, or a desire not to have to be responsible for knowing something important that hardly anyone else knows.

Of course, it could just be a simple misunderstanding. When people hear the word “objective” do most of them have an image of an object in mind? Does objectivity connote physical concreteness to most people? That doesn’t hold up well for me, since we can be objective about events and things people do without any confusions involving being able to touch and feel what’s at issue.

No, I think something else is going on. I think it has to do with the persistent idea that objectivity requires a disconnected, alienated point of view, one that ignores the mutual implication of subject and object in favor of analytically tractable formulations of problems that, though solvable, are irrelevant to anything important or real. But that is hardly the only available meaning of objectivity, and it isn’t anywhere near the best. It certainly is not what is meant in the world of measurement theory and practice.

It’s better to think of objectivity as something having to do with things like the object of a conversation, or an object of linguistic reference: “chair” as referring to the entire class of all forms of seating technology, for instance. In these cases, we know right away that we’re dealing with what might be considered a heuristic ideal, an abstraction. It also helps to think of objectivity in terms of fairness and justice. After all, don’t we want our educational, health care, and social services systems to respect the equality of all individuals and their rights?

That is not, of course, how measurement theoreticians in psychology have always thought about objectivity. In fact, it was only 70-80 years ago that most psychologists gave up on objective measurement because they couldn’t find enough evidence of concrete phenomena to support the claims to objectivity they wanted to make (Michell, 1999). The focus on the reflex arc led a lot of psychologists into psychophysics, and the effects of operant conditioning led others to behaviorism. But a lot of the problems studied in these fields, though solvable, turned out to be uninteresting and unrelated to the larger issues of life demanding attention.

And so, with no physical entity that could be laid end-to-end and concatenated in the way weights are in a balance scale, psychologists just redefined measurement to suit what they perceived to be the inherent limits of their subject matter. Measurement didn’t have to be just ratio or interval, it could also be ordinal and even nominal. The important thing was to get numbers that could be statistically manipulated. That would provide more than enough credibility, or obfuscation, to create the appearance of legitimate science.

But while mainstream psychology was focused on hunting for statistically significant p-values, there were others trying to figure out if attitudes, abilities, and behaviors could be measured in a rigorously meaningful way.

Louis Thurstone, a former electrical engineer turned psychologist, was among the first to formulate the problem. Writing in 1928, Thurstone rightly focused on the instrument as the focus of attention:

The scale must transcend the group measured.–One crucial experimental test must be applied to our method of measuring attitudes before it can be accepted as valid. A measuring instrument must not be seriously affected in its measuring function by the object of measurement. To the extent that its measuring function is so affected, the validity of the instrument is impaired or limited. If a yardstick measured differently because of the fact that it was a rug, a picture, or a piece of paper that was being measured, then to that extent the trustworthiness of that yardstick as a measuring device would be impaired. Within the range of objects for which the measuring instrument is intended, its function must be independent of the object of measurement”  (Thurstone, 1959, p. 228).

Thurstone aptly captures what is meant when it is said that attitudes, abilities, or behaviors can be measured with the same kind of objectivity as is obtained in the natural sciences. Objectivity is realized when a test, survey, or assessment functions the same way no matter who is being measured, and, conversely (Thurstone took this up, too), an attitude, ability, or behavior exhibits the same amount of what is measured no matter which instrument is used.

This claim, too, may seem to some to be so outrageously improbable as to be worthy of rejecting out of hand. After all, hasn’t everyone learned how the fact of being measured changes the measure? Thing is, this is just as true in physics and ecology as it is in psychiatry or sociology, and the natural sciences haven’t abandoned their claims to objectivity. So what’s up?

What’s up is that all sciences now have participant observers. The old Cartesian duality of the subject-object split still resides in various rhetorical choices and affects our choices and behaviors, but, in actual practice, scientific methods have always had to deal with the way questions imply particular answers.

And there’s more. Qualitative methods have grown out of some of the deep philosophical introspections of the twentieth century, such as phenomenology, hermeneutics, deconstruction, postmodernism, etc. But most researchers who are adopting qualitative methods over quantitative ones don’t know that the philosophers legitimating the new focuses on narrative, interpretation, and the construction of meaning did quite a lot of very good thinking about mathematics and quantitative reasoning. Much of my own published work engages with these philosophers to find new ways of thinking about measurement (Fisher, 2004, for instance). And there are some very interesting connections to be made that show quantification does not necessarily have to involve a positivist, subject-object split.

So where does that leave us? Well, with probability. Not in the sense of statistical hypothesis testing, but in the sense of calibrating instruments with known probabilistic characteristics. If the social sciences are ever to be scientific, null hypothesis significance tests are going to have to be replaced with universally uniform metrics embodying and deploying the regularities of natural laws, as is the case in the physical sciences. Various arguments on this issue have been offered for decades (Cohen, 1994; Meehl, 1967, 1978; Goodman, 1999; Guttman, 1985; Rozeboom, 1960). The point is not to proscribe allowable statistics based on scale type  (Velleman & Wilkinson, 1993). Rather, we need to shift and simplify the focus of inference from the statistical analysis of data to the calibration and distribution of instruments that support distributed cognition, unify networks, lubricate markets, and coordinate collective thinking and acting (Fisher, 2000, 2009). Persuasion will likely matter far less in resolving the matter than an ability to create new value, efficiencies, and profits.

In 1964, Luce and Tukey gave us another way of stating what Thurstone was getting at:

“The axioms of conjoint measurement apply naturally to problems of classical physics and permit the measurement of conventional physical quantities on ratio scales…. In the various fields, including the behavioral and biological sciences, where factors producing orderable effects and responses deserve both more useful and more fundamental measurement, the moral seems clear: when no natural concatenation operation exists, one should try to discover a way to measure factors and responses such that the ‘effects’ of different factors are additive.”

In other words, if we cannot find some physical thing that we can make add up the way numbers do, as we did with length, weight, volts, temperature, time, etc., then we ought to ask questions in a way that allows the answers to reveal the kind of patterns we expect to see when things do concatenate. What Thurstone and others working in his wake have done is to see that we could possibly do some things virtually in terms of abstract relations that we cannot do actually in terms of concrete relations.

The concept is no more difficult to comprehend than understanding the difference between playing solitaire with actual cards and writing a computer program to play solitaire with virtual cards. Either way, the same relationships hold.

A Danish mathematician, Georg Rasch, understood this. Working in the 1950s with data from psychological and reading tests, Rasch worked from his training in the natural sciences and mathematics to arrive at a conception of measurement that would apply in the natural and human sciences equally well. He realized that

“…the acceleration of a body cannot be determined; the observation of it is admittedly liable to … ‘errors of measurement’, but … this admittance is paramount to defining the acceleration per se as a parameter in a probability distribution — e.g., the mean value of a Gaussian distribution — and it is such parameters, not the observed estimates, which are assumed to follow the multiplicative law [acceleration = force / mass, or mass * acceleration = force].

“Thus, in any case an actual observation can be taken as nothing more than an accidental response, as it were, of an object — a person, a solid body, etc. — to a stimulus — a test, an item, a push, etc. — taking place in accordance with a potential distribution of responses — the qualification ‘potential’ referring to experimental situations which cannot possibly be [exactly] reproduced.

“In the cases considered [earlier in the book] this distribution depended on one relevant parameter only, which could be chosen such as to follow the multiplicative law.

“Where this law can be applied it provides a principle of measurement on a ratio scale of both stimulus parameters and object parameters, the conceptual status of which is comparable to that of measuring mass and force. Thus, … the reading accuracy of a child … can be measured with the same kind of objectivity as we may tell its weight …” (Rasch, 1960, p. 115).

Rasch’s model not only sets the parameters for data sufficient to the task of measurement, it lays out the relationships that must be found in data for objective results to be possible. Rasch studied with Ronald Fisher in London in 1935, expanded his understanding of statistical sufficiency with him, and then applied it in his measurement work, but not in the way that most statisticians understand it. Yes, in the context of group-level statistics, sufficiency concerns the reproducibility of a normal distribution when all that is known are the mean and the standard deviation. But sufficiency is something quite different in the context of individual-level measurement. Here, counts of correct answers or sums of ratings serve as sufficient statistics  for any statistical model’s parameters when they contain all of the information needed to establish that the parameters are independent of one another, and are not interacting in ways that keep them tied together. So despite his respect for Ronald Fisher and the concept of sufficiency, Rasch’s work with models and methods that worked equally well with many different kinds of distributions led him to jokingly suggest (Andersen, 1995, p. 385) that all textbooks mentioning the normal distribution should be burned!

In plain English, all that we’re talking about here is what Thurstone said: the ruler has to work the same way no matter what or who it is measuring, and we have to get the same results for what or who we are measuring no matter which ruler we use. When parameters are not separable, when they stick together because some measures change depending on which questions are asked or because some calibrations change depending on who answers them, we have encountered a “failure of invariance” that tells us something is wrong. If we are to persist in our efforts to determine if something objective exists and can be measured, we need to investigate these interactions and explain them. Maybe there was a data entry error. Maybe a form was misprinted. Maybe a question was poorly phrased. Maybe we have questions that address different constructs all mixed together. Maybe math word problems work like reading test items for students who can’t read the language they’re written in.  Standard statistical modeling ignores these potential violations of construct validity in favor of adding more parameters to the model.

But that’s another story for another time. Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at sufficiency, in both conceptual and practical terms. Cited references are always available on request, but I’ll post them in a couple of days.