Tag Archives | Praxeology

Suffer A Witch

In 1937, anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (father of the less awkwardly named contemporary journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard) published his famous monograph Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande, in which he claimed that the beliefs of the Azande (a tribe of north central Africa) concerning witchcraft were logically contradictory. Given the Azande’s beliefs about how witchcraft is inherited, together with their beliefs about which members of the tribe actually are witches, it logically follows, Evans-Pritchard assures us, that every member of the tribe is a witch. Yet the Azande do not draw this conclusion, even when it is pointed out to them: “Azande see the sense of the argument but they do not accept its conclusions, and it would involve the whole notion of witchcraft in contradiction were they to do so. … They saw the objection when I raised it but they were not incommoded by it.”

I'm melting under the force of your incisive logic! In the years since, philosophers and social scientists have debated ad nauseam how to interpret these facts (assuming they are facts – one would hope that further anthropological studies have been done to confirm or disconfirm Evans-Pritchard’s claims, but if so I haven’t heard about them). Are the Azande incompetent practitioners of logical inference? Or are they, perhaps, competent practitioners of some alternative logic, perhaps a three-valued logic? Or are their pronouncements about witchcraft best understood as something other than straightforward declarative statements about a language-independent reality, making the application of logic somehow irrelevant? (See Mark Risjord’s Woodcutters and Witchcraft: Rationality and Interpretive Change in the Social Sciences for discussion of the options.)

What I find puzzling about this debate is that it proceeds on the assumption that in (purportedly) manifesting this inconsistency in belief, the Azande are showing themselves to be importantly different from us in some way that requires special explanation. But in fact nothing is more common than for people to see the force of an argument and yet reject the conclusion, on the grounds that the conclusion is so contrary to their basic worldview that they assume there must be something wrong with the argument even if they can’t see what.

Consider how people – especially non-philosophers – react to philosophical paradoxes like the Liar, or the Sorites, or one of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. Or consider how atheists react when confronted with the ontological argument, or how theists react when confronted with the argument from evil. Or, again, how statists react when confronted with the contradictions in statist morality (e.g., taking property without the owner’s permission is wrong, taxation involves taking property without the owner’s permission, yet taxation is not wrong), or as slaveholders formerly reacted when confronted with the analogous contradictions in slaveholding morality, or as Socrates’ interlocutors reacted when he exposed their inconsistent triads. In all these cases, there’s a tendency to assume that the argument is a sophism, that given its unacceptable conclusion it must have some flaw justifying its dismissal, even if this flaw can’t easily be identified or articulated. In Pericles’ words: “At your age we were clever hands at such quibbles ourselves.”

As these examples suggest, this reaction is sometimes justified and sometimes not. In the case of philosophical paradoxes, I agree with Moore’s argument that we are perfectly justified in rejecting the case for a crazy conclusion even when we can’t pinpoint where it goes wrong. We don’t, e.g., have to solve the Liar Paradox before we’re entitled to keep on using the concepts of truth and falsity. (Though I do think lack of curiosity about what’s wrong with the argument is an intellectual vice.) But there are other cases, like the slavery and statism ones, where the reaction was not justified. And that raises the question of how to distinguish propositions that really are fundamental data of common sense from those that merely strike us as fundamental data of common sense.

That’s a thorny philosophical question which I don’t intend to tackle in this post. My present target is smaller game: I merely wish to suggest that if the Azande did in fact a) hold the beliefs Evans-Pritchard describes, b) understand his argument, and c) reject his conclusion, we needn’t ascribe to them anything bizarre or unusual to explain this. Why not instead assume that they, just like us, tend (whether justifiably or unjustifiably) to dismiss, as probably flawed in some yet-to-be-identified way, arguments for conclusions that run against their basic worldview.

As Mises wrote:

Explorers and missionaries report that in Africa and Polynesia primitive man stops short at his earliest perception of things and never reasons if he can in any way avoid it. European and American educators sometimes report the same of their students. With regard to the Mossi on the Niger Levy-Bruhl quotes a missionary’s observation: “Conversation with them turns only upon women, food, and (in the rainy season) the crops.” What other subjects did many contemporaries and neighbors of Newton, Kant, and Levy-Bruhl prefer? … No facts provided by ethnology or history contradict the assertion that the logical structure of mind is uniform with all men of all races, ages, and countries.

Islands of Chaos

Won't the size and complexity of the database make it impossible to know what's really happening? This Dilbert strip irresistibly reminded me of Kevin Carson’s series of posts on why Mises’ and Hayek’s arguments against the possibility of rational economic calculation under state-socialist central planning apply also to the size of the firm (see here, here, here, here, and here). The obvious corollary is that firms in a genuine free market are likely to be a good deal smaller than those in the kind of governmentally subsidised and artificially cartelised market context that prevails today.

Kevin may be seen as extending and radicalising Rothbard’s “One Big Cartel” analysis here. The strip’s final panels are also relevant to my post on wage gaps here.

Anarchy Among the Austrians

As aforementioned, I spent last weekend at the Austrian Scholars Conference. Here’s a list of some of the presentations most likely to be of interest to readers of this blog:

  • Irish anarchy Irish philosopher Gerard Casey argued that recent historical research has largely confirmed Joseph Peden’s theses (see here and here) concerning the stateless or near-stateless character of ancient and medieval Ireland.
  • Those who admit that stateless legal mechanisms might work for small tribes often deny that they could be effective in an advanced economy; Ed Stringham countered this objection by explaining how various sophisticated financial transactions in 17th-century Amsterdam received no protection from the state but nevertheless secured compliance via reputation effects.
  • Vedran Vuk presented a paper detailing how a free-market military defense might operate, and in particular how it could avoid the free-rider problem.
  • Gil Guillory presented a plausible and attractive business model for a private security agency.
  • Gerrit Smith Geoff Plauché defended Aristotelean liberalism, whatever that is.
  • Laurence Vance lectured on the libertarian ideas of Gerrit Smith, the 19th-century abolitionist, feminist, free-trader, and land reformer. (Laurence has also reprinted one of Smith’s books, The True Office of Civil Government; go to this page and scroll down to no. 123.)
  • Tom Woods lectured on the significance for Austro-libertarians of the work of Seymour Melman, New Left critic of the military-industrial complex.
  • Tom also described a forthcoming posthumous book by Murray Rothbard, Betrayal of the American Right, which apparently is as much an autobiography as it is a critique of the increased sidelining of libertarian ideas in the 20th century conservative movement.
  • Joe Salerno argued that Lionel Robbins’ classic quasi-praxeological 1932 Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (1st edition here; 2nd edition here) was not only influenced by Ludwig von Mises but, more controversially, was also an influence on Mises.

A few of these talks are online as audio files here.

Anscombe in Alabama

At the end of this week I’m off (if traveling a few blocks from my office counts as “off”) to the Austrian Scholars Conference, where I’ll be giving a paper on Austro-libertarian themes in the work of Elizabeth Anscombe. Here’s the first paragraph:

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (1919-2001) – better known as Elizabeth Anscombe, Liz Anscombe, or G. E. M. Anscombe – was one of the foremost figures of 20th-century Anglophone philosophy, making important Elizabeth Anscombecontributions to philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and moral philosophy. Yet this monocle-wearing, cigar-smoking, multilingual Cambridge don and mother of seven, a Catholic social conservative who ate out of tuna cans while lecturing and once intimidated a mugger into leaving her alone, who shocked the right with her antiwar activism and the left with her anti-abortion, anti-contraception activism, and who coined the term “consequentialism” (she was against it), is far less well known among Austro-libertarians than among professional philosophers. The aim of this paper is to show why Anscombe deserves the attention of Austro-libertarians.

Read the rest here.

Amazonian Anarchy

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy is not 700 pages long, I’m happy to say; but it is now at long last available through Amazon.

Angry Amazon While I don’t always agree with all the details of Carson’s updated version of Tuckerite anarchism (the two main points of contention are the labour theory of value and the opposition to absentee land ownership – though given Tucker’s subjectivised spin on the labour theory and his acceptance of competing property regimes under anarchy, these differences are less sharp than they might seem), his book is an absolutely essential text for the cause of left/libertarian reunification, and I’m delighted to see it in a position to reach a wider audience. For more on Carson, see here. (For what it’s worth, I suspect Carson makes the best gateway author for libertarian-curious lefties, and that Konkin and 60s-Rothbard make the best gateway authors for left-curious libertarians; so give your lefty friends Carson first, and then Konkin and 60s-Rothbard, and give your libertarian friends Konkin and 60s-Rothbard first, and then Carson. Maybe – I’m not wedded to this hypothesis.)

Speaking of left/libertarian reunification, Brad Spangler’s website, blog, and Agorism page seem to be back to normal. The Center for a Stateless Society site is only half back (the front page loads but not much else does), but I expect this’ll be corrected shortly.

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