Archive | May 15, 2010

R.I.P. Paul Hoffman

I’m shocked to learn that Paul Hoffman, whom by eerie coincidence I’d just blogged about the other day (after never previously mentioning him in a decade of blogging), has suddenly died on the very same day as my blog post. He was only in his fifties. There’s some more info here and here, but not much.

Paul Hoffman

I was very fond of Paul; he was an excellent philosopher, a wonderful teacher, and a good person. Paul was the undergraduate philosophy advisor when I was at Harvard, as well as my professor for a Descartes-Locke-Leibniz course where he first converted me to his brilliant interpretation of Descartes. I was always amused by the contrast between his extreme interpretive charity toward Descartes’s darker sayings and his impatience with the same from Leibniz!

Paul was very egalitarian with his students and made them feel at ease; and I remember the festive atmosphere he provided when I climbed the stairs at Emerson Hall to turn in my senior thesis. He liked one of the examples I came up with in my honours exams for the major, and used to quote it in his classes. One of my roommates – not a philosophy major – took his modern philosophy course and spoke highly of it.

By another coincidence, Paul transferred to Cornell at the same time that I started my graduate studies there. (He’d also been one of my recommenders.) I took a Spinoza seminar with him that had just three attendees: a faculty member (logician Harold Hodes), a beginning grad student (myself), and an undergrad who’d never had a philosophy course before. Such a diversity of audience must have been a daunting prospect, but Paul amazingly kept all three of us engaged.

I also TA’d for Paul’s moderns course; I still remember two things he would tell the class on the first day. He’d recount Descartes’s theory of birthmarks (the expectant mother sees a cow and so produces a cow-shaped birthmark, etc.) as an example of how really smart people can believe really dumb things; and he’d urge the students to come to his morning class even if they fell asleep, because “it’s amazing how much you can take in when you’re half-asleep.” (I think that this last must have been a noble lie.)

I also vividly remember, from both Harvard and Cornell, the tall blue mug he would always use to demonstrate the relation between form and matter. I’m sure that for many generations of students hylomorphism and Paul Hoffman’s blue mug are indelibly associated.

I can’t remember when I last saw Paul; no doubt a quick handshake in passing at an APA meeting. I’m very sad for his family; but I’m glad that he at least lived to see his major lifework published.

Fall Right, Swing Left

“I don’t try to make you believe something you don’t believe,
but to make you do something you won’t do.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Over and over, you’re falling, and then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time.”
— Laurie Anderson

I’ve written before about the importance of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions for left-libertarians. Here’s another example.


Left-libertarians and right-libertarians – or mainstream libertarians, or “normal” libertarians, or whatever one wants to call them (I’m tempted by the irony of “modal libertarians” myself) – often get frustrated with each other. Left-libertarians pull their hair out when right-libertarians at one moment acknowledge the existence of pervasive government favouritism to big business, and then at the next moment lapse back into treating criticisms of big business as criticisms of the free market. (Here, for example, is Kevin Carson wondering why John Stossel, who in the past has “tipped his hat to the ideas of corporatism and crony capitalism,” suddenly “smile[s] and nod[s]” when Michael Medved “responds to allegations that big business is corrupt and exploitative, in the corporatist economy we live in, by arguing that ‘it can’t happen, because in a free market ….’”) Right-libertarians, for their part, can’t see why left-libertarians keep harping about corporatist intervention when the right-libertarians have already acknowledged its existence and badness.

I think Kuhn’s discussion of the pendulum may help to illuminate what’s going wrong here. Kuhn writes:

Since remote antiquity most people have seen one or another heavy body swinging back and forth on a string or chain until it finally comes to rest. To the Aristotelians, who believed that a heavy body is moved by its own nature from a higher position to a state of natural rest at a lower one, the swinging body was simply falling with difficulty. Constrained by the chain, it could achieve rest at its low point only after a tortuous motion and a considerable time. Galileo, on the other hand, looking at the swinging body, saw a pendulum, a body that almost succeeded in repeating the same motion over and over again ad infinitum. … [W]hen Aristotle and Galileo looked at swinging stones, the first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum …. (Structure, pp. 118-121)

For Kuhn, the change from the Aristotelean to the Galilean interpretation represents a “Gestalt switch” associated with a paradigm shift; and I think the dispute over corporatism among libertarians involves something similar.

a pendulum

Aristotle and Galileo both noticed the same two facts about the swinging stone: a) it keeps swinging back and forth for a long time, and b) it eventually stops and hangs straight down. The difference, I would say, lies in what they saw as fundamental or essential. For Aristotle, hanging straight down (or getting as close as possible to doing so) was what the stone is essentially doing, while the period of swinging back and forth is an accidental imperfection – noise in the signal. For Galileo, by contrast, swinging perpetually back and forth in the same arc (or getting as close as possible to doing so) is what the stone is essentially doing, and it’s the gradual shortening of the arc until it hangs straight down that’s the accidental imperfection or “noise.”

One can imagine the Galileans shouting “But the stone keeps swinging back and forth in almost the same arc! Why do you ignore that?” and the Aristoteleans answering “I’ve already acknowledged the forces that constrain the stone in its fall! Why do you act as though I haven’t?”

Ludwig von Mises tells of a similar dispute with his mentor Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, when the Cantillon effects that Böhm-Bawerk dismissed as mere “friction” were for Mises an essential explanatory phenomenon in monetary analysis.

Just as Aristotle and Galileo saw different things when they looked at a swinging stone, and just as Böhm-Bawerk and Mises saw different things when they looked at the expansion of the money supply, so right-libertarians and left-libertarians see different things when they look at the existing economy.

Of course, like Aristotle and Galileo, they both notice (at some level of abstraction) the same facts: there’s a lot of more or less corporatist policies and there’s a lot of more or less free exchange. But for the right-libertarian, free exchange is what essentially characterises the existing economy, while the corporatist policies are so much friction; and just as you don’t constantly mention friction when talking about how a mechanism works, right-libertarians don’t constantly mention corporatism when talking about how the economy works. For the left-libertarian, by contrast, corporatism is a far more essential feature of the existing economy. (Though for most left-libertarians the free exchange is probably essential too, which may be part of what distinguishes us from some mainstream anarchists. So the analogy isn’t perfect. But never mind.)

Thus left-libertarians and right-libertarians are frustrated with each other because they’re arguing from opposite sides of a Gestalt shift, where what looks essential to one side looks accidental to the other; and persuading our opponents may be less a matter of getting them to assent to some specific list of propositions and more a matter of getting them to look at the world through the lens of those propositions. (One reason I find this explanation plausible is that I used to be more of a right-libertarian than I am now, and it rings true to my recollection of my own self-understanding.)

Now Kuhn often gives the impression of thinking that in cases like this neither side is more right than the other – that the Aristotelean and Galilean interpretations of the swinging stone are equally valid, and the choice between the two is a matter of nonrational commitent. It’s controversial whether at the end of the day that is precisely what Kuhn thinks, but let’s leave questions of Kuhn interpretation aside. Whether or not that’s Kuhn’s view, it’s not my view, and I don’t think that anything Kuhn has pointed out forces us to such a relativist position.


So I don’t want to suggest that this disagreement between left-libertarians and right-libertarians is a matter of a merely optional difference in perspective, like the Duck-Rabbit or the Necker Cube. Unlike Kuhn (perhaps), in such disputes I think both sides don’t recognise all the same facts, or at any rate don’t equally fully register the significance of those facts. Just as I regard Galileo’s interpretation of the swinging stone as explanatorily superior to Aristotle’s (explaining a broader range of facts, for example), and likewise Mises’ interpretation of monetary expansion as explanatorily superior to Böhm-Bawerk’s, so I think that the interpretation of the existing economy that sees corporatism as systematic and all-pervasive is explanatorily superior to the view that sees it as mere friction in an essentially free-market mechanism.

Right-libertarians could, of course, agree with the analysis I’ve just given of the disagreement, but insist that they’re the Galileo/Mises and we’re the Aristotle/Böhm-Bawerk. That would be a fair enough response; nothing I’ve said in this post supports the left-libertarian view of what’s essential over the right-libertarian view of what is so.

I do think, of course, that there’s a lot of important left-libertarian work out there that does make the case for the explanatory superiority of seeing corporatism as essential – including, obviously, Kevin Carson’ two books. (See also Charles Johnson’s recent summary of the nine ways in which corporatism operates.) But that goes beyond the aim of this post, which is simply to offer a way to think about this dispute of ours.

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