"Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture" - Iris Murdoch

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Hopeless feelings

Landscape painting (Fort Tryon Park, New York City, with grey underpainting) by Christopher Willard visual artist and author, via Wikimedia Commons
Yesterday afternoon I was trying to write. When I'm facing a deadline I often find myself thinking of the last person I was in love with. There are various possible reasons for this—some less complimentary to me—but one theory I have is prompted by this piece by Darren Allen. Perhaps there is something about writing that brings up the fear of death: out of all the possibilities that have been swirling inside myself, I am putting something together which is small and imperfect. This perhaps awakens a desire to, well let's not be too narrow, to co-create something that can take up those possibilities. Perhaps falling in love is finding someone you can trust to be a co-creator. Since this March my response to this mood has been to put on some Ben Howard, but though I'll never get tired of his playing or lyrics, I'm beginning to worry that this is locking me into a kind of madness.

Sunday 25 February 2018

The meaning of meaning

Path among Pines by Emily Carr, c. 1930
Path among Pines, c.1930, by Emily Carr (Vancouver Art Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I once had to write an essay about the meaning of meaning. More precisely, we were asked whether the meaning of a sentence was the same as the conditions in which it would be true. But I thought of it as the meaning of meaning, and decided that I had had just about enough of philosophy, and of studying in general. This "philosophy of language" nonsense was the last straw. I don't think this any more—in fact, I think all social scientists should know some, just as they should know some maths. But that isn't what this post is about. Not yet anyway.

I'm going to write instead about the other meaning of "meaning"—the wishy-washy one we apply to events, actions, situations etc. when we ask whether they are meaningful to us, and how. I'm going to be summarising part of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's 1971 article "Interpretation and the Sciences of Man". Taylor is explaining why we need the right-hand column in the matrix I included in my last post:

interested in causes)
interested in meanings)
e.g. classical and Marxian political economy
e.g. Wittgensteinian language games
e.g. rational choice theory, game theory
e.g. dramaturgical models

That matrix was philosopher of science Martin Hollis' window, a set of four approaches in social science he sees as jointly needed to understand society, but difficult to put together.

I hope it's fairly intuitive why the left-hand column matters: one thing we'd like from social scientists is good explanations of what makes things happen the way they do. But it might not be clear what exactly the right-hand column is about, and why it should be roughly equal in importance (or even more fundamental, as Hollis suggests). I think Taylor offers a good starting-point for thinking about this, and I'd be keen to hear from readers whether what I'm presenting here makes sense, what might be missing, and where might be a good place to find it.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Some Thoughts About Thinking About Political Economy

Ancient Agora of Athens 5
By DerHexer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via

I am a couple of chapters into Dimitris Milonakis and Ben Fine's From Political Economy to Economics.  So far, it has been a clear introduction to the history of economic thought and the change of methods which, as the title suggests, led to the disappearance of the political economy tradition.  (If you're not so keen to dive straight into discussion of inductive vs. deductive reasoning, abstract vs. historical enquiry, etc, then an engaging starting-point is Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, telling the story of thinkers from Adam Smith to Joseph Schumpeter.)

I thought this would be a good time for me to note down what I'm after in thinking about political economy.  So far, I've been writing blogposts without giving an overall framework for how the different strands tie together.  One way of framing my reading and writing is as an effort to think about how ethics, social thought and politics should be merged into a political economy approach: a wider perspective on how we shape and maintain "the economy".

From what I've absorbed so far, it seems that "political economy" should be characterised by a number of aspects.  Firstly, it should pull together what are usually thought of as different social sciences, for instance economics, anthropology, sociology and geography (and, importantly, a borderline humanity, history).  Secondly, it should recognise that this kind of enquiry has a moral dimension.  Thirdly, it should recognise that this kind of enquiry has a political dimension.

Thursday 22 December 2016

Beauteous Markets That Have Such Morals In Them

By William Hogarth - 1. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.2., Public Domain, Link
The crash of 2007-8 strengthened an old critique about the troubled relationship between markets and morals.  This critique found its way into the discussion during the Bank of England's Open Session a year ago, which is (indirectly) how I came across the paper I am going to write about, Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy's "Moral Views of Market Society".  You can find it here.

Fourcade and Healy guide us through economic sociologists' (and others') investigation of this question, and point us to one approach in particular, which I will focus on.  But my interest in their review goes wider than the question of markets.  My initial post about Owen Flanagan's recent book noted that he brings together cross-cultural philosophy, anthropology and psychology, but doesn't have the space to add consideration of "macro-structures" which might affect ethics, through disciplines like sociology, political science and macroeconomics.  So I wanted to pause my blogging of The Geography of Morals, and get at least part of this picture in view.

Fourcade and Healy frame the paper as a revisiting of Albert Hirschman's classic 1982 paper "Rival Interpretations of Market Society".  They use Hirschman's history of interpretations—the doux-commerce thesis that markets soften and civilise morals, the self-destruction thesis that they undermine them, and a combination of the "feudal shackles" and "feudal blessings" thesis that existing moral customs either help or hinder the market—as a map of the more recent work they review.  They label their categories the "liberal dream", the "commodified nightmare", and the "feeble markets" views (the last being dominant in economic sociology).  But they then look at a fourth emerging literature which sees markets and morals as more closely intertwined, the "moralized markets" view.

The paper is a wonderful and clear guide to the literature.  If I try to review a review paper like this one, I'll end up having to reproduce most of it.  Instead, at the end of this post I will include a quick signposting of what happens in those first three sections.  I will use the rest of my post to talk about the moralized markets view, which struck me (as it does the authors) as particularly creative and promising.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Escape Route

This is the second in a series of 12 posts going through the chapters of Owen Flanagan's book The Geography of Morals.

In my last post, I wrote about the first chapter of Flanagan's book, where he argued that moral philosophers should break out of standard ways of thinking by engaging with anthropology and cross-cultural philosophy.  In his second introductory chapter, "Moral Psychologies and Moral Ecologies", he lays out a few foundations for the path ahead.

Flanagan does three things in this chapter.  He sets out a general framework for fitting psychology, anthropology and ethics together in a scientific picture.  He then describes and assesses a few stages in the history of moral psychology, which clarifies how it will help set our direction.  Finally, he discusses whether science leaves anything left for ethics to do: once we have explained actual moral thought and practice, is that it, is there any space for "oughts", or have we reached a dead end?

Flanagan is a committed naturalist: humans are animals, and our account of human nature must be consistent with evolutionary theory.  There should be two sides to the account.  On the one side, there is the human being, an organism with an evolutionary lineage, a long natural history.  On the other, there is the ecology, the setting in which the organism lives.

An important feature of this picture is that there is variation on both sides.  Strictly speaking, no two individuals share an exact ecology.  The circumstances faced by individuals will vary, within a country, because they live in different towns; within a town, because they live on different streets; within a family, because at each stage of its life, each child faces differently aged parents and a different set of sibling interactions to the ones its siblings did; and so on.  (Flanagan talks of ecologies, microecologies, and micro-microecologies.)  As is hopefully clear, there is a social dimension to ecologies.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Prison Break

This is the first in a series of 12 posts going through the chapters of Owen Flanagan's book The Geography of Morals, published in late November.  The first chapter is available to read here.

There have been some exciting moves recently to bring the resources of moral philosophy to bear on some of the shared challenges we face as a society and planet.  In its 2014 Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included a chapter on ethical, social and economic concepts and methods, with two moral philosophers amongst the authors.  2014 also saw the publication of this book edited by Nicholas Morris and David Vines, bringing together academics from different disciplines (including philosophy) to discuss how to restore an ethic of responsibilty and trust in financial services.

Both of these are very important pieces of work and I'm not going to do them any justice here—they deserve full discussion in their own right.  But I wanted to mention an uneasiness they both brought up, a sense that the full potential of moral philosophy—the potential to help reshape our institutions and customs and the way we think, see and imagine—was being undersold.  We are being held back in bringing philosophy, social science and policy together by certain worn out ways of phrasing the problems and questions—maximising good outcomes, how to perform right actions, what it is to be a virtuous agent.

To steal a phrase from Elizabeth Anscombe in a slightly different context, "the teeth don't come together in a proper bite": if the intellectual energy of moral philosophy had set in a slightly different shape, then it would line up better with what the social scientists and policymakers are trying to do.  But I don't know how much to blame the philosophers for this.  Sometimes we can be trapped by the teeth we have.

Owen Flanagan, a philosopher of ethics and psychology, does want to blame the philosophers—or to put it more positively, to show that we are not trapped.  The opening chapter of his new book takes its title, "On Being 'Imprisoned By One's Upbringing'", from a criticism by Alasdair MacIntyre of the direction in which moral philosophers channel that intellectual energy.  Why, asks MacIntyre, are philosophers of physics expected to learn some physics, and philosophers of law some law, but moral philosophers are not expected to study actual moralities, the practices of morality (and their variety) we find out there in the world, using the work done by empirical disciplines such as social and cultural anthropology, history, sociology and psychology, as well as literature?