Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Spontaneous Order of Canon Formation

I have previously suggested that spontaneous order theory might tell us something about how the literary canon formed. Insofar as Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies is a theory of spontaneous order applied to intellectuals in general (and, thus, the gift economy), and to philosophers in particular, what he says about canon formation would therefore be a spontaneous order theory of canon formation. He deserves to be cited at length on this. He is talking about "thinkers," but this is equally applicable to artists, poets, etc.
Canons are historically situated; but let us grasp the full implications. We cannot invoke as a foil a reservoir of "deserving" but unknown thinkers in the shadows throughout history, just as "creative" as the ones whose names were trumpeted, as if there were some trans-historical realm in which their achievement is measured. Ideas are creative because they hold the interest of other people. The very concept of creativity implies the judgment of one generation upon another. Shall we say that we are studying not creativity but reputation? The distinction arises from our tendency to heroize, to reify the individual apart from the context. Although it seems to violate our sense that causes ought to be antecedent to what we are explaining, the "creativity" of a particular philosopher is not established until several generations have passed, because it literally is a matter of how sharp a focus that individual's ideas become in the long-term structure of the networks which transmit ideas. (58)

Intellectual greatness is precisely one's effect on the course of intellectual history, influencing generations downstream from one's own.

In my rankings, greatness is based on the degree to which a philosopher remains of interest to other thinkers across long periods of time. Canons do change, but only among those figures who have entered into the long-term chain of reputation in the first place. The first threshold is reputation that carries down beyond one or two generations. For this reason, the level of structural creativity is not easy to discern among one's own contemporaries. (59)

The dose of realism provided by the long-term view is a salutary (if unwelcome) antidote to our personal egotism, and to that projected egotism which we attach to our hero-ideals, the rare "genius" of generations past whom we pattern ourselves upon in our inner imagination. Intellectuals make their breakthroughs, changing the course of the flow of ideas, because of what they do with the cultural capital and emotional energy flowing down to them from their own pasts, restructured by the network of tensions among their contemporaries. The merit of their contributions, its "intrinsic worth" as well as "social impact," is a mater of how the structure develops after our own deaths. We intellectuals are true eddies in the river of time---perhaps more so than other humans, because it is our business to attend to this connectedness across the generations. (60)
He points out that the "minimal unit of intellectual change is a generation, approximately 33 years" (60), and another generation for that change to have its impact. We cannot judge our own generation because we are too close, and things are still shaking out. And we may be in an epoch of little real change. Still, there are some parlor games we can play with this idea.

If we exclude the current generation -- meaning anyone who created their major work(s) since, say, 1980 -- and take as given Collins' calculations of 1 major intellectual per generation, 2 secondary intellectuals per generation, and 7 minor intellectuals per generation within a given field (he is writing about philosophy, but is applies to all intellectual networks), we would have 3 generations of intellectuals between 1880-1980.

What are the major, secondary, and minor economists of that period?

What are the major, secondary, and minor poets of that period?

What are the major, secondary, and minor novelists of that period?

What are the major, secondary, and minor playwrights of that period?

And, to really cause trouble: who in each category are on the radar now?

 Let the comments war begin!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Spontaneous Order of Philosophies

I am reading Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. It's a massive tome, but I think well worth reading, particularly for spontaneous orders theorists. Given he is also the author of Max Weber: A Skeleton Key, the fact that spontaneous orders theorists (and other Austrian economists) should find his work of interest perhaps should not be that much of a surprise.

Collins is quite critical of both Marxism and postmodernism in sociology. He particularly objects to the reduction of everything to politics (as postmodernism does, in its reduction of everything to power):

The personal is political, but the politics of intellectual practice, within the inwardly focused network of specialists, is not the same thing as the politics of gaining power in the state, or the politics of men and women in their homes or sexual encounters. Winning the focus of attention within the contests among philosophers is done with specifically intellectual resources, which are social resources specific to intellectual networks. There is abundant historical evidence that when players in this arena try to win their way solely with the weapons of external politics, they win the battle at the cost of their intellectual reputations in the long-term historical community. These are not the same game; and at those times in history when one game reduces to another, the intellectual game does not so much give in as disappear, to reappear only when an inner space becomes available for it again. Without an internal structure of intellectual networks generating their own matrix of arguments, there are no ideological effects on philosophy; we find only lay ideologies, crude and simple." (12-13)

If the last statement does not sum up the current situation in philosophy -- and increasingly in the arts, literature, and even the sciences -- I don't know what does. Indeed, we can consider not just philosophy, but the intellectual networks of the arts and literature and of the sciences as well. Postmodernism reduces everything to power; power, in the master-slave interaction, is the social interaction of politics; therefore, postmodernism reduces everything to politics. Thus are we dominated by crude, simple lay ideologies.

Has philosophy disappeared from the scene, waiting for postmodernist reductionism to finally be replaced by a more complex world view that can include philosophy? Can we ask the same question of the arts? of literature? of some areas in science?

While The Sociology of Philosophies is on the spontaneous orders of the world's philosophies, a similar book on, say, literature could just as easily be written, with much the same structure as this book. He explains the canons of world philosophy; one on literature would explain those canons. One could probably do the same work on the sciences. I think doing so would really shore up spontaneous order theory as a sociological theory, and draw a connection between sociology and free market economics that desperately needs to be drawn.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Winton Bates on Progress and the Arts

Winton Bates, an Australian economists, discusses Frederick Turner's book The Culture of Hope. He discusses Turner's idea that the arts can be a force for progress. This in turn prompted him to discuss Alfred North Whitehead's book Adventures of Ideas, discussing it in light of Hayek's quote that "In one sense, civilization is progress and progress is civilization."

If Turner is right that the arts are (or an be) a force for progress, then he is arguing that the arts are (or can be) civilizing. This civilizing aspect is beauty. Bates wonders if art is but a way of keeping communication flows open (using Bejan's idea of the constructal law). However, this would relate directly to the issue of beauty, as beauty may be the way artistic communication flows are kept most open and best flowing. In fact, Turner argues that tree-like branchiness is important to understand beauty, time, and the arts. The golden mean emerges out of the constructal law -- and the golden mean is central to our experience of beauty. The same with fractal geometry.

Perhaps our experience of beauty is the brain rewarding itself for recognizing the constructal law in nature.

And perhaps anything that is allowed to evolve according to the constructal law of nature is beautiful.