Profitless Discourse

25 August 2012

Yester-day or this morning, I encountered yet another instance of argumentation over what Keynes really meant in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. I don't plan to labor here what I believe that Keynes intended to say; rather I want to draw attention to something about many of these arguments over the meaning or intention of some works.

When I consider the meaning or intention of the works of people who in turn attempt to interpret something else, I regard my interpretation of their interpretation as concerned with thought as such; I am thinking about how someone is or was thinking; my interpretation might be informed by my own understanding of the subject about which they thought, but the interpretation is of their thought.

It's good to know what any one of these people intended to say; it's good to know what they actually did say (whether intended or not); but it's almost always more desirable to have best approximations of the truth about which they ostensibly spoke than to have best approximations of the claims that they intended to make. It is a fortunate error when someone gets closer to the truth about the underlying subject by misinterpretting the work of someone who was mistaken about that subject. And, if one simply doesn't know which interpretation to make, but finds the truth amongst the possibilities, then there isn't even a positive misinterpretation.

It's different when one is attempting to interpret words which themselves impose rules, as in the cases of legislation, of formalized games, or of works of fiction. In those cases, the words creäte the relevant reälity.

Some people believe in prophets. By prophet I do not mean simply a forecaster, but a person through whom G_d (or something like G_d) speaks (perhaps about the future, but perhaps not). Amongst ostensible prophets I would count those believed to have a direct knowledge of external reälity, unmediated by the senses. Unsurprisingly, I do not believe in prophecy.

But, if one does believe in prophecy, then it makes sense to concern oneself with its meaning as-if resolving its meaning were the same thing as getting a best approximation of the underlying subject — because, indeed, prophecy would be just that best approximation. Of course, I take exception to the presumption that this-or-that work were holy scripture; but I take rather greater exception to an unacknowledged presumption to such effect.

And that brings me to what is so wrong with so many of the arguments about what Keynes really meant: Too many of the participants are perfectly sure that, whatever he really intended, it must have been right, and that it is for this reason that we must discover what he intended. One sees even more of this sort of thinking in debates about what Marx really meant. And I've seen basically the same thing in discussions about what Ayn Rand really meant. These three (and various others) are unacknowledgedly being treated as prophets. As far as I'm concerned, in such cases discussion has run off the rails.

Now, there are those who would insist that Marx, by way of dialectical reasoning, or Rand, by way of thorough-going objectivist epistemology, could apprehend things so very clearly that we should just take for granted that, indeed, whatever they said must be right. But those propositions each would strike me as highly dubious even if I didn't already possess what I regard as counter-proofs. (Certainly there would seem to be a claim of personal infallibility or a fallible claim on the part of whomever were testifying to the infallibility of Marx or of Rand.) And I've not encountered even that much of an argument for treating Keynes as if he were a prophet. (I have seen his economic intuïtion championed by reference to his having made a fortune investing in stocks, but I wasn't much persuaded by this argument even before I learned that, earlier, he had faced financial ruin through such investments, and been rescued by his father.)

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2 Responses to Profitless Discourse

  • Gaal says:

    Appeal to authority sucks.

    Words like "really" and "true" are used by perverters all the time. Religion has a long tradition in esoteric writing, where messages are obfuscated and encoded so that inner circles are expected to extract the real meaning of some remark that's too dangerous to let the unwashed masses recognize. So people are trained to look for this.

    These words are also used by marketers to insinuate superiority. Ah, yes, other companies claim to Froznicate your car, but only FroCo 9000 uses our patented(*) TrueFro process for a real Frozz that will leave you satisfied.

    (*) another authoritative word. When you think of it, the original inventor of a technological process sure deserves credit, but often it's latter improvements that may have been made by others that make the original invention affordable, dependable, or safe. This is not to say we have to buy imitations, but to point out that patents are not a base for consumer decision.

    • Daniel says:

      I can agree that appeal to authority sucks, but I hope and expect that you'll agree that sometimes that sucky sort of argument is the best to follow, simply as a result of our limitations.

      Your point about words such as really is well taken. For this and for other reasons, one ought to question any use — including one's own — of terms that seem to distinguish a true X from an X. (I fret about this issue in my own writing.)

      I see patent claims (patented, patent pending, patent applied for) used as selling points, so I guess that they must have some positive effect, but I'd probably laugh if someone tried to use one with me. Under US law, an invention must bring a practical benefit in order to be subject to patenting, but the judgment on that score is rendered by bureaucrats and by judges. The patent might apply to an aspect of production that brings practical benefit to the producer at the cost of benefit to the consumer. And there is only a primitive accounting for marginal costs; perhaps the consumer reaps new benefits, but the new costs may be even greater.

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