Archive for July, 2015

Immortality by Association

July 30, 2015

From The Omnipresence of Walter Bagehot (1987) by Norman St John-Stevas:

I am happy too that the subject of my lecture should be Walter Bagehot, who has been my revered and, indeed, I feel, intimate companion for over a quarter of a century. The gift he has bestowed on me is what he himself called “immortality by association.” Posterity cannot take up many people, so my advice to those who have such ambitions is this: if you cannot be a genius yourself, attach yourself to one who is, and then you will be drawn onwards into the future like a speck in the tail of Halley’s comet.


Ursula Hirschman

July 30, 2015

From Adelman’s (2013) Wordly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman:

When Ursula once insisted that individual acts of resistance violated the norms of being “useful to the movement,” that it was better to wait for “objective conditions” to be ripe for action, Guia laughed back: “How important your language is for you! There is more value in one who rises and speaks out than in all your wise net of illegals [referring to refugees] who don’t open their mouths but murmur the news into each other’s ears.” Then came a fatal jab. When Ursula explained that the working class was defining the premises of revolutionary actions, he reminded her of the history of passivity wrapped in theory: “To hell with your working class! It seems to me the moment has come to lose a bit of faith…. Twelve million organized Socialists and Communists, the most powerful working class movement in Europe… then comes Hitler and all stand still, nobody moves! Is that your discipline? What is it worth?”

Hirschman on a Life Without Disappointment

July 30, 2015

A passage from Hirschman’s (1982) Shifting Involvements.

Human societies have a peculiarly wide latitude for deterioration because of one of their characteristic achievements: the surplus above subsistence. Once this proposition is extended from the social to the individual level, a fresh meaning can be given to the rather tired saying errare humanum est or “To err is human.” Ordinarily understood as an invitation to forbearance for an occasional mistake, the saying can be totally reinterpreted to mean that mistake-making is an exclusive faculty of humans. In other words, the meaning of the saying is not “to err is only human,” but “only humans err.” In all of creation, only man is empowered to make mistakes and every once in a while he or she does use this power to the fullest. Lichtenberg, the eighteenth-century German scientist and aphorist, pointed to this meaning when he wrote: “To make mistakes is also human in the sense that animals make few mistakes or none at all, with the possible exception of the most intelligent among them.” If it is accepted that mistake-making is the inevitable counterpart of the very rise of man above subsistence and animal existence, then another inevitability follows: that of regret and disappointment resulting from the errors of one’s ways which were surely paved not only with good intentions, but with high expectations not to make mistakes. So much for the possibility of ever conquering disappointment. But supposing even it were possible, would the elimination of disappointment be desirable?

While a life filled with disappointment is a sad affair, a life without any disappointment may not be bearable at all. For disappointment is the natural counterpart of man’s propensity to entertain magnificent vistas and aspirations. Is this propensity unfortunate and irrational? Given the certainty of death (for one thing), what would life be without the ever renewed production of such disappointment-yielding expectations and aspirations? In other words, the “cost” of disappointments may well be less than the “benefit” yielded by man’s ability to entertain over and over again the idea of bliss and happiness, disappointment-bound though it may be. As a friend of Don Quixote exclaims after the Knight of the Mournful Countenance has been cured of his madness, close to the end of his life:

God forgive you for the damage you have caused everyone in wishing to return to sanity this most amusing fool! Don’t you realize, Sir, that the benefit that might accrue from the sanity of Don Quixote will never come up to the pleasure he gives us through his follies?

To Widen the Limits of What is Possible

July 30, 2015

A passage from Hirschman’s A Bias for Hope (1971):

Most social scientists conceive it as their exclusive task to discover and stress regularities, stable relationships, and uniform sequences. This is obviously an essential search, one in which no thinking person can refrain from participating. But in the social sciences there is a special room for the opposite type of endeavor: to underline the multiplicity and creative disorder of the human adventure, to bring out the uniqueness of a certain occurrence, and to perceive an entirely new way of turning a historical corner.

The coexistence as equals of the two types of activities just outlined is characteristic of the social sciences. In the natural sciences the unexplained phenomenon and alertness to it are also of the greatest importance, but only as a means to an end, as the beginning of a new search for an improved general theory which would subsume the odd fact, thus overcoming its recalcitrance and destroying it in its uniqueness. In the social sciences, on the other hand, it is not at all clear which is means and which is end: true, most social scientists behave in this respect as if they were natural scientists; but they would be more surprised than the latter and, above all, considerably distraught if their search for general laws were crowned with total success. Quite possibly, then, all the successive theories and models in the social sciences, and the immense efforts that go into them, are motivated by the noble, if unconscious, desire to demonstrate the irreducibility of the social world to general laws! In no other way would it have been possible to affirm so conclusively the social world as the realm of freedom and creativity. But by now there surely is something to be said for pursuing this theme in a less roundabout fashion.

The importance of granting equal rights of citizenship in social science to the search for general laws and to the search for uniqueness appears particularly in the analysis of social change. One way of dealing with this phenomenon is to look for “laws of change” on the basis of our understanding of past historical sequences. But the possibility of encountering genuine novelty can never be ruled out—this is indeed one of the principal lessons of the past itself. And there is a special justification for the direct search for novelty, creativity, and uniqueness: without these attributes change, at least large-scale social change, may not be possible at all. For, in the first place, the powerful social forces opposed to change will be quite proficient at blocking off those paths of change that have already been trod. Secondly, revolutionaries or radical reformers are unlikely to generate the extraordinary social energy they need to achieve change unless they are exhilaratingly conscious of writing an entirely new page of human history.

I have of course not been disinterested in claiming equal rights for an approach to the social world that would stress the unique rather than the general, the unexpected rather than the expected, and the possible rather than the probable. For the fundamental bent of my writings has been to widen the limits of what is or is perceived to be possible, be it at the cost of lowering our ability, real or imaginary, to discern the probable.