Posts tagged Aristotle

Column on a Prominent Pair of False Alternatives

A prominent Pair of False Alternatives

Tibor R. Machan

Jon Gertner, author of the forthcoming “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,”* writes for The New York Times (in an excerpt from his book), about innovation in America. I spotted the piece and immediately suspected there was a hidden motive behind it, not, indeed, one that was aiming at “understanding,” the purposes Gertner purports to find behind what “our innovative forbears” had in mind, as opposed to profit! So he writes, for example:

“The conflation of … different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries….”

This kind of writing, referring to some alleged belief that “we” are lead to–who “we”?–isn’t about enlightenment but about promoting a not so hidden agenda. It is that most of the talk among those who try to understand American culture, including science and technology–especially talk by economists who defend the free market, is misguided–the profit motive isn’t what advances knowledge, it is the goal of understanding that does this.

Well, why is the goal of understanding juxtaposed with profit? Isn’t, in fact, one of the elements of profit to gain understanding? Places like Bell Labs, where Mr. Gertner did much of his research for his book and for the article in The Times, were established throughout the globe so as to promote greater and greater understanding which, in turn, is supposed to give support to the pursuit of all kinds of progress, including making a profit.

So called pure science is often contrasted with so called applied science but the contrast is artificial, just as are so called theoretical and practical knowledge. Such a contrast is the outgrowth of bad philosophy, of an artificial division of human knowledge into two kinds. In philosophy it is the contrast between analytical versus synthetic knowledge, the former dealing with the relationship between ideas and the latter with the application of ideas for some “practical” purpose (suggesting that ideas on their own aren’t practical).

Of course, in philosophy, especially the philosophy of science, such a contrast has always met with strong criticism. One critic, the late Harvard philosopher Willard van Orman Quine, wrote a seminal and very influential paper on this very issue, one that, sadly, Jon Gertner appears to be unfamiliar with. It was written in 1951 and titled Two Dogmas of Empiricism.

Empiricism is a very prominent and promising school of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of human knowledge. The dogmas in question are that there exists factual (empirical) and theoretical (conceptual), knowledge, which are very different. From a long time ago these two dogmas have been very widely embraced but also rejected by many. Plato in his way embraced them while Aristotle didn’t, to put the matter a bit simply. As Quine’s paper suggests, all human knowledge is, well, knowledge of the world, not knowledge of two realms, such as that of facts and that of ideas. The only sense in which these two are actually distinguishable is that there is the world, the realm of facts, and there is our understanding of the world, the realm of ideas. But the latter is always in some way about the former.

Now back to Mr. Gertner’s supposedly innovative idea, namely, that people do not engage in scientific and technological research to gain profit but to gain understanding. In fact the better way to put it is that as people seek to understand the world, they achieve knowledge that enables them to address problems in the world, some of which indeed advance their well being. Which is to say that some of what understanding promotes is prosperity or profit. Some of it is of course, placed on the back burner, for possible future practical use. Some such understanding is used to play with, as it were–for experiment, speculation, etc.

But if one wishes to undermine an element of the case for a free society, including a free market place, one might like to show that understanding is a higher goal than profit and that the two aren’t actually very closely related. Pure science, which is supposed to promote understanding, can be pursued but not in contrast to the pursuit of practical goals.

So there is nothing in what Mr. Gertner argues that undermines one main reason for having a free society, namely, to secure human freedom, with government mainly out of the way other than in its limited role as the cop on the beat who keeps the peace.


Column on Warren’s Non-Sequitor

Warren’s Non-Sequitor

Tibor R. Machan

So Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts candidate for the US Senate, says “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” And so she is said to reject that it is possible for Americans to become wealthy “in isolation.” (As if someone defended that silly idea!)

So she sounds off about this, with evident righteousness, as follows: “You built a factory out there? Good for you,… But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.” And she goes on to declare, “Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

First of all, nothing at all follows from any of this about how Ms. Warrant has any authority at all to rearrange the world her way. My nose and ears and kidneys and eyes weren’t created on my own but none of that implies for a second that Elizabeth Warren is entitled to start invading my body and decide how its parts ought to be used. Nor even that my parents actually own me!

Of course, property rights start simple enough and then become complex. But that is just why a free country has a law of property instead of Ms. Warren as a tyrant who orders us all to do as she wishes.

It is necessary to be careful about how property is properly allocated, with close attention to original and subsequent creation, with what has been voluntarily shared, given away, earned through work and exchange, etc. Why?

Well, from the time of Aristotle it has been clear to quite a few political theorists and economists that common ownership sucks. As the ancient Greek sage put the point:

“That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.” (Politics, 1262a30-37).

Then there was Thucydides on the commons, noting that “[T]hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays.” (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).

So John Locke came along who didn’t even deny that to start with property is commonly owned but that it is best to create a system of private property so that property will be taken good care off and because those who work hard to improve it are justified in benefiting from it and make use of it as they see fit.

So not only is Ms. Warren way off with her idea that the state gets to decide what happens to property and that there is some kind of unwritten–i.e., not consented to–social contract that obligates us all to give to the state. But it is a wasteful and bad idea, as the Soviets and other socialists who disallow private property in their realm, have found out to everyone’s despair.

But of course it is not going to be easy to get agreement to statist redistribution policies if all this is admitted. So Warren needs to attempt the impossible and show that she, not you and I, get to say what happens to what we own because how we obtained it involved other people! Again, it doesn’t follow!

Column on A Brief on Time

A Brief on Time

Tibor R. Machan

I consider much of common sense to be correct about the world, not always muddled or, let alone, wrong. This is a position associated with the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reed and, also, with Aristotle. So I wish to briefly defend the view that time is real.

By “time” I mean, among other aspects of the world, what we record for departure and arrival of planes and trains, what we learn from our clocks and watches, etc., etc, what we aim to save as we go about doing our various tasks, what we complain that we have so little of while others have too much of it on hand. Time is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries and millennia. And the motion of things in the world, including even the speed of light, is, in turn, measured in periods or spans of time.

Some, however, would have it that time is not real but it is unclear to me what this could mean. Others are “looking into the notion that time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past….” But that concept “might” is very slippery—it could mean nothing more than that there is no explicit formal, logical contradiction in thinking that time flows backward, which is very far from its being possible. Nor is it clear what “flow” means here, since what is supposed to be flowing isn’t at all like the water in a river, the paradigm flowing thing.

As to the idea that time is not real, this also poses puzzles and isn’t at all very clear. The claim being made is itself usually written down in a computer or on a piece of paper, either of which takes time or involves duration, starting at T1, proceeding to T2, and on to Tn. Then there is usually a deadline at the publication to which scientific or scholarly papers that advance these sorts of arguments are submitted, and that, too, involves very real time.

Time then appears ubiquitous in our lives, at least at the level at which one considers it in a discussion such as ours. The very length of writing or one’s entire life is measured in time. Then again the idea that “time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past,” to quote Discover magazine writer Zeeya Merali, seems to suppose that time is some kind of object or entity instead, as more naturally supposed, a kind of measurement of the duration of something.

Paradoxically, even in the act of denying the reality of time that same reality is clearly manifest—it takes a bit of time to deny that time exists, whatever time is exactly. It doesn’t seem to be unreal or fictional—that appears to be evident all over. Why some think time isn’t real has to do with how often theorists will fail to appreciate the different contexts within which their theories hold or apply. It’s possible that at the subatomic or astrophysical levels what time is ordinarily—on the earth human beings need to deal with—is not recognizable because the context is so different. But this doesn’t support the denial of the reality of time.

Take as an analogy the claim that the earth’s entire surface is curved, so “plane surfaces aren’t real”. And then consider the tables on which the games of pool and billiards are played which, to all rational appearances, are flat. Does the former claim contradict the latter? Not necessarily since the contexts are markedly different. Yes, the earth is mostly curved but, also, the pool table is normally flat. No contradiction here, only a change of context.

The same holds with denials of time: in certain spheres of inquiry or observation time is real but in some circumstances, say at the subatomic or, going in the opposite direction the cosmic level, perhaps time, in the sense in which it is familiar to us and very real indeed in our daily lives, is entirely absent. The view that because in some contexts time could be dispensed with it can be dispensed with entirely in all contexts seems to be false.

Column on Individualism Isn’t Rediculous

Individualism Isn’t Ridiculous

Tibor R. Machan*

Some critics of individualism propose an alternative social philosophy and defend it so it is then possible to compare their case to the individualist position. But more often than not what critics do is caricature individualism, suggesting that individualist believe that people are autonomous, meaning, exist all on their own with no need for anyone else. Or they claim individualism means that no one has any moral responsibilities toward anyone else. Or that everyone is basically self-sufficient or should be.

Now clearly very young people have to have the support of their parents, at least, and their intimates so as to get on in life. As they grow up the support they enjoy can gradually be made optional–some support will be rejected by them, as when they refuse to follow their parents’ religious or political guidance. Yet, how would one acquire something as important as one’s language and other skills if there were no teachers about to lend a hand?

Our obvious connections to many, many other people certainly cannot reasonably be denied; so by alleging that individualism requires one to believe in people’s radical independence the critics have their victory via distortion, without actually having to make out a better case. Moreover they leave the impression that their preferred alternative, whereby we all belong to society and owe everything to it, is the only one and is trouble free.

But the kind of individualism that sensible individualists champion isn’t some ridiculous notion that people can grow up and live as hermits. Even if in some very rare cases this were possible, it is surely not the sort of individualism that is promoted in social political philosophy (e.g., by the likes of John Locke, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand). Such individualism focuses on the moral and intellectual sovereignty of people; they need to make choices, and be free to do so, about how to act in much of their lives which they are normally equipped to do. And they need to be able to assess ideas propounded to them by others, make sure these are sound ones and not have them shoved down their throats as is done in more or less Draconian tyrannies.

This is the kind of individualism that’s advanced by reasonable individualists and if it is a good idea, it implies that a decent human community, a just one, needs to be so conceived that people can indeed enjoy sovereignty, that when they join others in various endeavors they do this of their own free will, voluntarily and not be treated like military conscripts (or termites or ants whose identity consists entirely of being tied to others of their species).

A very important point to keep in mind is that individualism isn’t at all the same as forswearing the company of others. What individualism implies is that everyone needs to be free to select those with whom one will associate, be this in adult family life, in friendship, in professional life, in sports and in recreation. Unlike the associations typical of a place like North Korea–and the military of many Western countries–as the individualist sees it adult human beings ought to exercise discretion when they join up with others. Some of this, of course, can misfire–e.g., when one let’s oneself be guided by irrational prejudices such as race or national background (although at times these are mere easy options for some folks, with no malice involved). Or when one chooses to join criminal gangs.

The central point is that individualism prizes more than other social philosophies the personal, private input of all those who take part in adult human associations. These must all be voluntary, in large part because they amount to vital moral decisions on everyone’s part which one would be deprived of making if one were herded into groups one hasn’t chosen to join. True, there will always be some gray areas, as when one is “pressured” by one’s peers or family to be part of some assembly of people one would ideally wish to be free of. There must be an exit option for free men and women but it may take some doing to make use of it.

As with most matters in human life, we aren’t dealing here with geometrical exactitude, just as Aristotle observed over 2500 years ago. But all in all the individualist alternative is far more accommodating of human nature and social life than are the collectivist alternatives that get a lot of support from social philosophers–communitarians, socialists, or social democrats–these days.

*Machan is the author of Classical Individualism (Routledge, 1998). He teaches at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He blogs at

Column on Pitfalls of Shared Responsibilities

Pitfalls of Shared Responsibility

Tibor R. Machan

President Barrack Obama asserted in a recent speech dealing with the country’s enormous debt that what the country needs is to live by an ancient principle, namely, “the principle of shared responsibility.” He invoked this in his defense of his championing of the increased extortion of the resources of the wealthy, those who earn $250K or more per year. Why this “principle” should be invoked he didn’t say–he seemed to think it’s obvious.

Frankly the details are not what’s important her–what is is that extortion from rich and poor alike is evil and destructive of the country’s economy. In addition, the idea of unassumed share responsibility for economic mismanagement (either by individuals who ought to care for their household finances or by public officials who ought to care for the country’s economic affairs) is a very harmful one. Shared responsibility applies only where those who are to share have freely volunteered to do so. I am not morally and should not be legally authorized to conscript my neighbors to share the household debts I have assumed for myself in, say, my repeated refinancing of my mortgage.

It is interesting that a good many policy wonks complain when companies dump their waste into the public sphere–the air mass, rivers, lakes, or oceans. And they are right–such dumping is intrusive, a violation of the property rights of those whose sphere has been used without their consent. The idea of sharing the responsibilities assumed by various public officials in the name of the citizenry is no different. Some, very few, public expenses are, of course, the responsibility of all citizens–national defense, maintaining the legal infrastructure of the country, etc. But when public officials spend resources on what they deem to be important projects, such as a bridge in their district or a dam or a school, these are no shared responsibilities by any stretch of the imagination. These are the responsibilities of those individuals who elected to assume them. The rest of us, who have assumed different responsibilities, are not to be imposed upon by making us all share the burdens of fulfilling such responsibilities.

There is an ancient principle that President Obama ought to consider before he imposes responsibilities on those who didn’t consent to assuming them. It is “the tragedy of the commons.” Perhaps the best statement of this principles comes from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who pointed out that

“[T]hat which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.” (Politics, 1262a30-37)

This principle is widely embraced by environmentalists who realize that when spheres are commonly owned, they fall into neglect. The same holds for shared responsibilities–people tend to assume that others will fulfill them and they do not need to worry. Even more importantly, it is nearly impossible to determine for a huge population in a country such as the USA just what is to be shared and what is not. Is one to share the responsibility for another citizen’s crimes, debts, children, etc.? Why, if you decided not to have any children, must you shoulder the responsibility of supporting them? Why share the debt that others have assumed unless you are a close friend or associate?

No, the idea President Obama floated in his discussion of how to handle the enormous national debt is a nonstarter. And the idea of coercing those making $250K or more to shoulder most of it is obscene. No one is going to pay attention to balancing his or her budget if others will be forced to pay one’s debts. It is also a terrible practice to support by the leader of a supposedly free country in which citizens may not be punished unless they have been shown to have committed a crime.

In fact, all this sharing of responsibility amounts to letting off the hook all those who acted irresponsibly in their finances, private or public.