Book Talk Next Wednesday Evening

I will be speaking (for about 30 minutes, followed by q&a) in a series sponsored by the National Humanities Center next Wednesday evening, February 17th, from 7 to 8 PM (EST).

Not really a book talk, more a general set of remarks oriented to the theme of “conflict and resolution.”

The talk will also be available for viewing after the event–and I will post that link when it is ready.

For now, here’s the link to the live broadcast.

Fact/Value Divide

It’s been a long hiatus.  But I want to pick up where I left off.  I have three issues on the table:

1. Cognitive versus non-cognitive theories of art.

2. The very distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive appears to motivate a fact/value divide—as shown most dramatically in the emotivist, non-cognitive theories of ethics/morals developed by the logical positivists in the mid-20th century.

3. I am still angling to get eventually to a consideration of the connection of art to meaning—with the corollary of considering if meaning differs substantially from information and/or causal explanation. On this last point, I am courting, it would seem, my own dichotomy.  I, for the most part, have no commitment to proving the arts “distinctive” in some absolute way.  I don’t feel a need to show that the arts do something that other activities we would not consider artistic do not.  But I do suspect that a focus on or concern with meaning leads in different directions than a focus on explanation.  To explain how hydrogen and oxygen combine to create water says little to nothing about the “meaning” that interaction might have. At least, that’s my intuition.

But today’s post focuses in on #2, the fact/value divide.  I think I am stealing my basic insight here from my friend Allen Dunn, but will follow a path derived from Wittgenstein and Dewey to make my case.

Consider the following sentences, all of which (except the last two) use some form of the verb “to be,” and take the form of assertions.

1.  There is a red house. [The speaker points at a yellow house.]

2.  There is a dog.  [The speaker points at a cat.}

3.   Henry is taller than John.

4.  Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States.

5.  Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in American history.

6.  Incest is wrong.

7.  “All men are created equal.”

8.  Hitting your child is wrong.

9.  Moby Dick is the greatest American novel.

10.  Moby Dick is a chaotic mess.

11.  Moby Dick is about a milkman who loses his job.

12.  James has Parkinson’s Disease.

13.  William has prostrate cancer.

The usual, intuitive, reasons for believing in a fact/value distinction are 1. The belief that values are human and are added on top of natural facts and 2. The notion that facts, generally, are verifiable and thus non-controversial, while disagreements over values are rife and irresolvable.  It is easy to agree that this copy of Moby Dick has a red cover, but it is harder to reach agreement over the artistic value of Moby Dick.

On number one: my inclination would be to say facts are as human as values—insofar as facts are fabricated (in the ways Bruno Latour’s work has made familiar to us) and that the mobilization of facts, their use in rhetorics of persuasion that aim to achieve agreement, is a human enterprise.  (Let’s leave speculation about the consciousness of animals and plants to one side for the moment.  I am a complete agnostic on this topic.  We learn more and more every year about animal and plant consciousness.  So I do not deny out of hand that these non-human creatures might have their ways of ascertaining facts and, crucially, bringing apprehended facts to bear in subsequent behavior, and communicating with others.)  For humans, the key for me is that facts are understood as pieces of information that have been produced, and then mobilized in processes of deliberation and the formation of individual and collective intentions. 

In other words, once a fact has been fabricated in the Latourian fashion, it then becomes something that is used in making plans and in trying to persuade others to assist with those plans.  Thus, a hurricane is not a fact until it has been made into one by an assemblage of the symptoms and consequences and causes gathered under the name “hurricane” by meteorologists—and then that name (with all that is associated with it) is used (for example) to justify an evacuation order.  In short, on this account, there is no reason to think the creation of values differs significantly from the creation of facts.  Both facts and values are assemblages that bring together various factors to designate something as the case (i.e. hurricanes cause damage; incest is wrong).

What I take from Allen refers to number two, the idea that facts are non-controversial while values generate endless disagreements.  Allen’s point was that we have many value statements that are almost universally accepted.  Very few people insist that incest is just fine.  Far fewer people call incest OK than believe that alien abduction happens.  We cannot sort things into the fact bin and the value bin on the basis of agreement over the truth of fact assertions as contrasted to value assertions.  The American experience of the past four years has merely brought the idea that facts are incontrovertible to its knees.

At this point, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands and say “anything goes.”  This is where Wittgenstein and Dewey can prove helpful—even though they will not “solve” the problem of disagreement.  But they can help us think about it more clearly. 

The sentences I offer at the top of this post are Wittgenstein-like.  For sentence one, where a speaker calls a yellow house red, we would first ask him to look again.  If he repeated his assertion, we could only conclude that he is color-blind (and would arrange for him to be tested for that condition), or that he doesn’t understand how the word “red” is applied in English (and would proceed to try to teach him the color terms and their application in English.) 

For sentence two, where the speaker calls a dog a cat, we don’t even have known medical condition to appeal to.  Now it is simply telling him that “we” (the speakers of English) call that animal a “dog” not a “cat.”  This looks like sheer compulsion.  There is no underlying reason or fact that justifies using the word “dog” instead of the word “cat.”  It is just the way we do things in English.  The agreement is motivated (perhaps) by its usefulness in facilitating communication, but nothing else underwrites the convention.  For Wittgenstein, reasons stop at a certain point.  This is where my spade turns, he writes.  Reasons come to an end, and there is just the bald statement: this is what we do, this is how we think and act, this is what we believe. 

What Dewey adds to this Wittgensteinian picture is the notion of “warrants.”  Where there are disagreements over an assertion, there are reasons I mobilize in an effort to convince another that my assertion should be credited.  It is important to recognize that the warrants vary widely depending on the nature of the assertion.  The warrants for sentences one and two are, from a positivist point of view, pretty feeble.  The only “verification” is to show that this use of the words “red” and “dog” is actually what English speakers do.  There is no connection to natural facts involved.

When we get to sentence three, Henry is taller than John, we can stand the two boys next to each other.  Here there appears to be a fact of the matter that can be “shown.”  Agreement still depends on both parties understanding the term “taller” in the same way, but there is also (as the positivist sees it) “direct’ evidence for the assertion.

Sentence four shows how quickly the positivists’ view of facts falls apart.  There is no “direct” proof that Lincoln was the 16th president.  In a very real way, we must take that fact on faith, placing credence in various documents.  We in 2020 can have no first-hand knowledge of Lincoln having been president.  In part, we take that fact on authority.  But we also believe that fact because questioning it would undermine all kinds of other beliefs we have.  Our beliefs “hang together” to establish a holistic picture of our world and our place in it.  To discredit a single assertion can, in many cases, threaten to unravel a whole web of beliefs.  We are, for this reason, “conservatives” in the matter of beliefs, William James says.  We want to conserve, to not upset the apple cart.  We have to have very strong reasons (of interest, or argument) to give up a settled belief.  Saying this, however, indicates the extent to which we believe what it is “comfortable” to believe—and thus points to the ways we can believe things that, to others, seem to patently disregard compelling evidence to the contrary.  On the other hand, “confirmation bias” points to the ways we credit anything that seems to shore up our current beliefs.  We humans can be remarkably resistant to what others will claim are “the plain facts of the matter.”

Dewey’s notion of “warrants” tells us that what will “count” as evidence will vary from case to case.  The evidence brought to back up the assertion that Lincoln was the 16th president is different from the evidence called up to claim he was the greatest American president.  Of the asking for and giving of reasons there is no end.  But the kinds of reasons offered must be deemed pertinent to the matter at hand. 

Thus, when we get to the statements “incest is wrong,” or “all men are created equal,” we might be tempted to argue in terms of consequences.  There are harmful biological consequences for inbreeding, and there might be harmful social consequences (violence, resentment, various other forms of conflict) from treating some as inferior to others.  But incest was considered wrong long before there was any understanding of genetics, and the harmful consequences of inequality are uncertain.  In the case of incest, there is not much (if any) disagreement.  Certain persons might violate the injunction against it, but they recognize the force of the assertion in their keeping its violations secret.  I am tempted to say that the assertion “incest is wrong” is akin to saying “that animal is a dog.”  It is just the way this community does things.  It is foundational to our being a community (we share a language; we share a belief than incest is wrong and that it should be forbidden).  Our spade turns there.

The equality assertion is more debatable (as is the assertion that hitting a child is wrong).  Arguments (reasons) are offered for both sides.  Disagreements over consequences (installing equality breeds mediocrity; sparing the rod spoils the child) will be rife.  Kant, of course, offers a different argumentative strategy, one that depends on seeing the contradiction in making an exception of oneself.  You, Kant says, don’t want to be treated as an inferior.  So why should you think that it is right for another to be so treated?  Kantian arguments have proven no more decisive than consequential ones.  But the point is that these two kinds of reasons are typical of the “warrants” offered in cases of moral assertions.  Where they fail, we can only say “I have nothing more to offer. Here my spade turns.”  The kinds of evidence/reasons offered are different than the kinds I offer against claims of alien abduction or that Donald Trump really won the 2020 election, but there comes a point where what I deem more than sufficient reason to believe something does not work for others.  At that point, there is nothing further to be done.

 The Moby Dick sentences make the point that in debates over aesthetic values different kinds of assertions will call for different “warrants.”  The assertion that the novel is about a milkman is akin to someone calling a dog a cat.  There is no place to go with such a disagreement; the parties to it are literally not speaking the same language.  Wittgenstein’s point is that only where there is a fundamental agreement—we can call it the minimum required to be part of a community—can a disagreement then unfold.  I can’t play a game of tennis if my opponent says balls that go into the net are do-overs.  Unless we both stand within the constitutive rules of the game, the competition of an actual match cannot unfold.  I can’t have a conversation about Moby Dick with someone who thinks it is the story of a milkman.

But the other two sentences about the novel require different warrants.  To talk about it being the greatest American novel (just as any talk of Lincoln as the greatest American president) requires some kind of articulation of what makes a novel great and some attempt at comparison with other American novels my interlocutor might consider great.  To say Moby Dick is a chaotic mess need not involve any comparison to other novels, while the criteria for “chaotic mess” will be different from the criteria for “greatness.”  In both cases, I will presumably appeal to features of the novel, perhaps quoting from the text.  In the Latour vision, these appeals to the text are acts of assemblage, of putting together my case, calling into presence various available sources—features of the text, the opinions of prior readers and critics, my own responses to the novel’s shifts of tone and topic etc.—to make my assertion credible.

I have included the last two sentences, which provide a diagnosis of Parkinson’s and prostrate cancer, to indicate how warrants in medical science also differ from one case to another.  In prostrate cancer, we have blood tests and various forms of imaging that establish the “fact of the matter.”  In Parkinson’s there are no such definitive tests.  A patient is judged to have Parkinson’s on the basis of a bundle of symptoms (not all of which will be present in the majority of cases) and on the basis of how they respond to certain drugs or other treatments. 

There are two conclusions to draw, I think.  The first is pluralism.  Our reasons for believing assertions vary; we offer to ourselves and others different arguments/reasons/evidence to undergird (or justify) what we do assert, what we do hold to be true or to be good to believe.  (I recognize that I am going to have to think about the word “true” and the work it does when I take up the questions of meaning.) 

The second is that the kind of reasons offered in different cases do not separate out along lines that coincide with the traditional way of understanding the fact/value divide.  A consequential argument about the damage hurricanes produce takes a similar form to a consequential argument about the damage done by physically punishing a child.  In both cases, we might very well point to previous instances to show what those consequences might be—or we may point to larger-scale studies of multiple instances to show the odds of bad consequences, even while admitting that in some cases not much harm ensues.  And if, in the two cases of the hurricane and of child-rearing, we argue that humans should do all they can to mitigate the possible damage, we are asserting that suffering is a bad thing and to be averted wherever possible—an argument that can probably only be underwritten by some kind of Kantian reasoning about the good (the right) of all beings to avoid unnecessary pain.

Various writers—of the ones I know, Kenneth Burke and Hilary Putnam prominent among them—argue that fact and value are inextricably intertwined.  That the two comes packaged together in our apprehension of the world.  In Burke’s account, we have an “attitude” toward things and situations embedded within our apprehension of them.  But this Burke position still accepts the analytic distinction between fact and value, even if that “analysis” comes after the moment of their combination in actual experience.  The pluralism that Dewey points us toward suggests the distinction between fact and value misleads us altogether by suggesting that some things (Facts) are given and incontrovertible while others (Values) are human contrivances.  Better to look at how both facts and values are “made” (just as William James asks us to consider how “truths” are made), while paying attention to the plurality of ways of making humans (and other creatures) deploy.

Neoliberal Baseball

Taken in one way, the famous book (and then movie) Moneyball is a paean to the benefits of untrammeled competition. Some of the allure of sports is that it seemingly offers pure, uncorrupted competition, unsullied by issues of inherited advantage, racist prejudice, access to information unavailable to other competitors, or an uneven playing field structured by rules/laws that favor some players more than others.  Walk onto the baseball field, where the rules are openly known to all, and the umpires are impartial—and the results will go to the team that plays better.  (The Astros’ sign-stealing violates the equal information requirement.)

In Moneyball, intelligence and innovation succeed by doing what capitalists are supposed to do: find a more productive, cheaper, and better way to meet a need.  In this case, the need was to win more baseball games over a season than the competition.  And to do so while spending less money on payroll.  The trick was to value things the market didn’t value—and thus get productivity at a lower cost.  The stone the other builders rejected would be the Oakland A’s path to success.

Someone in the music business once said that the person who gets rich is the one who does it second.  The market needs to be softened up by the innovator—and then the copy-cat gets the biggest rewards.  Professional baseball embraced the “analytics” that drove the A’s innovative approach over a ten year span (or so). 

But—and here is where neoliberalism comes in—the terms of the embrace ended up reversing the priorities.  It no longer became a question of winning, except insofar as winning increased the bottom line.  Economics triumphed over the ostensible point of the whole pursuit—which is better called “the whole enterprise” at this juncture.

One key move was the conversion of WAR (Wins above Replacement; the key general numerical summary of a player’s contribution to his team) into money.  One WAR is deemed to be worth $8 million (that’s a 2018 figure; perhaps it has crept up a bit.)  In game terms, one WAR means a player will over a season of 162 games contribute to the team winning one more game than an “average player” would.  Added to the calculation of WAR is the ZIPS forecast system, which uses a player’s own history and a series of historical comparisons to predict the player’s likely future WAR over a given span of time.  In short, analytics produced a “scientific” measurement of any player’s “value.”  So much for market processes setting the price.  Now there was an “objective” measure of price. 

One more fact about baseball as a business needs to be added.  Players in baseball require a longer period of development than in basketball and football, the two other major money making sports in the United States.  Players can come straight from college (or even high school in the case of basketball) into the two other sports; there is usually two or three years (sometimes more, fewer times less) in the “minor” leagues before a baseball player is ready for the big time.  To compensate teams for subsiding these development years, those teams get to employ (the term used is “control”) players for the first six years of their major league careers.  In other words, players cannot participate in an open market competition for their services until they have worked for six years—often at a very significant discount from what they could earn if all teams could bid for their services.  There is no free market for the vast majority of players—since less than 30% of players even last six full years in the majors.

What has been the effect of this collision of analytics with the player control system?

Basically, teams now covet the younger, cheaper players as the way to keep operating costs down, while being willing to pay large contracts to “super-stars” (Mookie Betts, Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout).  The ones left holding the bag are the players who have been good enough to last six years in the majors, but who are in the one to two WAR a year range.  Few teams are now willing to pay (for example) $12 million a season for a player who is one to two games above the younger player who can be had for about $1 million for the season.  (Yes, it is possible to have a negative WAR; those are the players who don’t last.  As would be expected, a very large group of players clusters around the mean of 0 WAR; after all the whole system is built around identifying what is “average.”)

Let us now count the ways that this all resembles neoliberalism (admittedly an inexact term; but one taken in this instance not to refer to increasing privatization of once public functions, but to the current brand of capitalism that combines loud praise of free markets with various practices that, in fact, stifle competition; places economic return over all other considerations; and has a set of by now familiar strategies and consequences.)

1.  The evisceration of the middle class.  Baseball teams are trending toward having a top 10% (the superstars) on the big contracts and a set of disposable younger players cycling through during the “control” years.  The same growth of economic inequality we have been experiencing in the general economy.

2.  Taking advantage of the way the market is structured as the key to making money.  It is not through innovation, increased productivity, or a better product (see # 3 below on this point) that making money most depends.  Rather, the real key to financial success is working the system in your favor.  Competition is anathema to the neoliberal capitalist—as is risk.  The goal is to grab market share that is immune to competition and ensures little to no risk.  In baseball’s case, market share is secured by the control system and privileged access to the teams’ regional market.

3.  Branding is more important than the quality of the product.  It turns out that if you can maintain a loyal fan base, placate them with a superstar or two, then it doesn’t matter if you have a faceless supporting cast.  (College basketball has taken this to its ultimate logical absurdity, cycling in a new cast of characters every single year.)  The loyalty is to the team, not to the players.  Surprisingly, even winning and losing don’t matter than much given the bars to actual competition.  Yes, winning puts fans’ butts in the seats.  But it doesn’t much impact TV revenues so long as teams get to carve out their regional market—and keep other teams out of that market (as league wide rules enable.)  In short, a shoddy product is no bar to economic success.  Sound familiar?

4.  That the downsides of selling something mediocre are so low is because the real profits come from financialization, not from sales of a product.  Baseball teams are speculative investments—and like California real estate only seem to go up in value.  When the Kansas City Royals are sold for over $1 billion dollars in 2019 by someone who bought them for $96 million in 2000, even losing money on day-to-day operations over that 19 year period is a winning move.  In neoliberalism, it is the company’s overall valuation that is the source of wealth, not what it actually does or delivers for consumers. 

5.  Finally, it is worth noting that neoliberalism is usually associated with aggressive privatization.  But (as Christopher Newfield has demonstrated beyond doubt in his analyses of the “corporatization” of American public universities), the actual practice of neoliberalism (pharmaceutical companies are a great example) is to push certain costs of doing business (basic research for the pharmaceuticals, health care for its workers for Walmarts and McDonalds, transportation infrastructure for just about everyone) on to the public ledger in order to maximize its profits.  There is no more egregious example than the way professional sports teams get municipalities to build hugely expensive stadiums—ones that have a shorter and shorter life span. 

Moneyball may seem a charming story about how the wits of little Jack triumph over the Giant.  But we need to see how the Giant, although a little slow on the uptake, becomes the one who recovers to restructure the field once again to his advantage.  And how the Giant in the process repeats that classic move of economic activity: substituting the desire to accumulate wealth for the actual activity that was the original pursuit.