On “America’s Hidden Philosophy” by John McCumber

John McCumber recently posted an article in aeon about rational choice theory as “America’s Hidden Philosophy,” describing how it grew up in the Cold War and has created any number of perverse effects on American society. While I agree with some of his basic premises, I think that he misconstrues the significance of rational choice theory, and also misrepresents its genesis.

Quite reasonably, McCumber represents American pragmatism as a philosophical rival that rational choice theory and its ally logical positivism defeated in the American academy following World War II. Describing the crest of pragmatist influence, he writes:

…as the country emerged from the Second World War, things were different. John Dewey and other pragmatists were still central figures in US intellectual life, attempting to summon the better angels of American nature in the service, as one of Dewey’s most influential titles had it, of democracy and education’. In this they were continuing one of US philosophy’s oldest traditions, that of educating students and the general public to appreciate their place in a larger order of values. But they had reconceived the nature of that order: where previous generations of US philosophers had understood it as divinely ordained, the pragmatists had come to see it as a social order.

All this is true. Dewey was widely respected, even if his leftism rendered him suspect in the eyes of many, and he was certainly committed to a philosophy of education and democratic social purpose. It is also the case that American pragmatism was the path by which American academia escaped its intimate ties to religion. Dewey was a trained Hegelian in his younger years, when Hegel was the philosopher used by many academics (particularly in the UK and the US) to secularize their disciplines while maintaining the basic value orientation that they had when tied to Christianity. Taking up the causes of Darwinism and socialism, Dewey continued this move away from religion while continuing a focus on the good society. As McCumber notes: “This attracted suspicion from conservative religious groups, who kept sharp eyes on philosophy departments on the grounds that they were the only place in the universities where atheism might be taught…” Dewey and the pragmatists’ battle with the Neo-Thomists had to do with this conflict, and it was part of the reason why Dewey had to leave the University of Chicago to teach in New York.

The next issue McCumber raises is that of the battle over Communism in the American academy. He writes that in the face of the rise of Marxism’s popularity first during the Great Depression, and then in the Global South an as anti-colonial ideology, the conservative American establishment believed that: “A new philosophy was needed, one that provided what the nuanced approaches of pragmatism could not: an uncompromising vindication of free markets and contested elections.” There is a good deal of truth to this. The threat of Marxism as a coherent oppositional worldview was acutely felt at this time. Looking back on the period, Walt Rostow, the father of the American answer to the Marxist theory of history wrote: “I decided as an undergraduate I would work on two problems. One was economic history and the other was Karl Marx. Marx raised some interesting questions but gave some bloody bad answers. I would do an answer one day to Marx’s theory of history.” The Cold War response to Communism in every area of intellectual life was a real trend at this time, and it did extend to philosophy.

McCumber argues that the philosophical response to Marxism was pioneered by Raymond Allen in his efforts to freeze out the hiring of Marxists into Californian universities as part of the McCarthyist political purges. He claims that Allen advanced a philosophical claim that the arguments of Marxist intellectuals were not censored when they were blacklisted because they had lost their reason and were merely parroting the line of Moscow. In having lost their reason these intellectuals were deemed unfit to teach philosophy, whose business was, after all, reasoning. They were in this sense “incompetent.” This contribution to Cold War “anti-totalitarian” ideology was, according to McCumber, given a philosophical foundation by identification with the “scientific” concerns of logical positivism:

Like the logical positivists of his day, Allen identified reason with science, which he defined in terms of a narrow version of the ‘scientific method’, according to which it consists in formulating and testing hypotheses. This applied, he claimed in a 1953 interview with The Daily Bruin, even in ‘the realm of the moral and spiritual life’: Buddha under the banyan tree, Moses on Sinai, and Jesus in the desert were all, it appears, formulating hypotheses and designing experiments to test them.

This obsession with scientific objectivity dovetailed with the desire of senior academics to avoid political conflict, and pass the responsibility for intellectual purges over to government officials. Thus was born the California Plan, that involved the cooperation of Californian universities with the state senate’s committee on un-American activities to bar “unscientific” researchers from teaching positions. This extended not only to Communists and other Marxists, but also to pragmatists, existentialists, and phenomenologists, and was emulated in other states to varying degrees.

The intellectual side of this reactionary movement was found in Rational Choice Theory:

It holds that people make (or should make) choices rationally by ranking the alternatives presented to them with regard to the mathematical properties of transitivity and completeness. They then choose the alternative that maximises their utility, advancing their relevant goals at minimal cost. Each individual is solely responsible for her preferences and goals, so rational choice theory takes a strongly individualistic view of human life. The ‘iron laws of history’ have no place here, and large-scale historical forces, such as social classes and revolutions, do not really exist except as shorthand for lots of people making up their minds. To patriotic US intellectuals, rational choice theory thus held great promise as a weapon in the Cold War of ideas.

From its origins in “empirical contexts of market choice and voting behaviour” RCT was elevated into an all-encompassing ideology through its identification with scientific method:

Facts always underdetermine theories, and this requires scientists to choose from an array of alternative theories, under a preference for highest probability. Science thus becomes a series of rational choices. Which meant that by 1951 there was a unified intellectual response to the two pressures: appeals to science fought the domestic subversives, and when science was integrated with rational choice theory it entered the global conflict.

My qualms with this account do not so much have to do with the particulars it does state, as what it leaves out and to what ends the argument is turned. McCumber claims that the failings of the SAT, the prevalence of “Greed is Good” thinking, the dominance of science, law, business, and medicine over the humanities in the university, and the ethical bankruptcy of American politics can all be traced to RCT. While RCT is certainly implicated in all areas of American intellectual life, and taught to everyone from lawyers, to economists, to biologists, to psychologists, McCumber’s claim that the problems he lists have to do with an abandonment of identity and a loss of “wider horizons of value” ring hollow to me. There are two main points where I think that McCumber’s analysis goes wide of the mark. First, it claims that:

…Cold War philosophy has some obvious problems. Its ‘ethics’, for example, is not a traditional philosophical ethics at all. From Plato to the pragmatists, philosophical ethics has concerned the integration of the individual into a wider moral universe, whether divine (as in Platonic ethics) or social (as in the pragmatists). This is explicitly rejected by Cold War philosophy’s individualism and moral neutrality as regards to ends. Where Adam Smith had all sorts of arguments as to why greed was socially beneficial, Cold War ethics dispenses with them in favour of Gordon Gekko’s simple ‘Greed is good.’

As a one-time scholar of economics, this argument is utterly laughable. As I have discussed in other posts, the absolute bedrock of neoclassical economics (The postwar bedfellow of RCT) is an argument “as to why greed [is] socially beneficial” and the defense of capitalism on the basis of this argument for social welfare is the entire raison d’être of the economics profession in its contemporary form. In a sometimes discreet, sometimes blatant way, the arguments of Rational Choice Theory are tied to into a broader value structure, and the opportunistic deployment of its “objectivity” is used precisely to defend this value structure of class supremacy, white supremacy, male supremacy, and any number of other reactionary bigotries. We do not live in an age that has been deprived of values, nor should we assume that having a “wider horizon of value” is necessarily laudable!

Second, McCumber attempts to maintain a distinction where pragmatism exists on the side of the humanities, while logical positivism exists on the side of science. This is certainly how things shook out in the aftermath of the McCarthyist purges and concurrent institutionalization of science as a part of the military-industrial complex, but to appeal to Dewey as a champion of good old fashioned humanism is a fool’s errand. This is the same Dewey who wrote in his Theory of Valuation:

The breach will disappear, the gap be filled, and science be manifest as an operating unity in fact and not merely in idea when the conclusions of impersonal non-humanistic science are employed in guiding the course of distinctively human behavior…In this integration not only is science itself a value…it is the supreme means of the valid determination of all valuations in all aspects of human and social life.

In fact, Dewey wrote the Theory of Valuation for the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, a publication edited by the logical positivists Otto Neurath and Rudolph Carnap. To emphasize the point, let me underline the fact that Dewey wrote his definitive statement on valuation itself in a science publication arguing that “science…is the supreme means of the valid determination of all valuations in all aspects of human and social life”!

Certainly, there are documented disagreements between Neurath and Dewey about whether the use of the term value is overly “metaphysical,” but it nevertheless remains the case that a leading logical positivist happily published Dewey’s essay and that both were very much in agreement that the maintenance of a separate preserve of values apart from science was an outmoded way of thinking. The pragmatists and the logical positivists made common cause in the years leading up to and during World War II because they had common enemies in the fascists, and conservatives represented by Neo-Thomism. The pro-science rhetoric and methods of logical positivism developed in the charged political atmosphere of Interwar Vienna, where it was used to combat the rhetoric of the various fascisms that were on the ascendancy at that time. At the time it was not “apolitical,” but like American pragmatism was associated with the socialist cause. McCumber notes the association of pragmatism with science at one point in his article:

Many pragmatists did not even believe that there was a single scientific method: true to their name, they believed that scientific enquiry should be free to apply whatever procedures worked. Moreover, whether a method ‘worked’ or not in a given case should be a matter of its social benefit, a dangerously collectivist standard in those difficult days.

But fails to note that this was also the position of at least some of the logical positivists at the time. This commonality is an inconvenient truth that has been largely forgotten in the bitter aftermath of the McCarthy era.

Like McCumber states, logical positivism did become associated with both the American establishment and, in the form of analytic philosophy, with Rational Choice Theory. It also was the decisive winner in the war over philosophy departments in the United States during the Cold War and it did displace pragmatism, which was pushed to ally with other peripheral schools like phenomenology, existentialism, Hegelianism, and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics. However the present moment of heightened political tensions, establishment destabilization, rising fascism, environmental crisis, and alienation of at least portions of the scientific profession from power raise the possibility of revisiting earlier pragmatist formulations that were not about reviving “wider horizons of value” in contradistinction to a “disidentifying” and valueless science¸ so much as they were about advancing a value-laden science in opposition to bigoted and reactionary identitarian movements. This was the cause that brought Dewey in contact with Marxists like Trotsky, and it should not be forgotten in times like these.


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