Sunday, September 4, 2011

Avoiding the big questions for fifty years

I'm discussing Martin Seligman's book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, starting here.

One thing he talks about is how psychology came to be so reductive.

Originally, I went in to psychology to relieve human suffering and to increase human well-being. I thought I was well-prepared to do this, but I was actually miseducated to tis task. It took me decades to recover and to work my way out of solving puzzles and into solving problems...Indeed this is the story of my entire intellectual and professional development.

He blames the influence of Wittgenstein on philosophy and psychology.

At the heart of both incarnations of the Wittgenstein movement is analysis. The job of philosophy is to analyze in rigorous and minute detail the basic underpinnings of reality and of language. The larger issues that concern philosophy - freewill, God, ethics - cannot be tackled (if ever) until this preliminary analysis concludes.'Of what we cannot speak, we must be silent,,", the Tractatus famously concludes.

But he and others were assuredly not taught about Popper's views, including the famous encounter where Wittgenstein waved a poker at Popper and then stormed out of the room.
Popper accused Wittgenstein of suborning an entire generation of philosophers by setting them to work on puzzles - the preliminary to the preliminaries. Philosophy, Popper argued, should not be about puzzles but about problems: morality, science, politics, religion and law.

How I wish I had suspected in my college years that Wittgenstein was not the Socrates but the Darth Vader of modern philosophy.

Of course, I think this general orientation spread to economics as well, a kind of logical positivism-lite.

Fast forward to 1995, when Seligman wants to hire an applied psychologist to his department. He asked an older psychologist "why the entire faculties of the great universities work only on basic processes and not on the real world."

It happened at a moment in time, Marty," said Jerry. "and I was there. It was at a 1946 meeting of the Society of Experimental Psychologists. ..the chairmen of Harvard, Princeton and Penn met at lunch and agreed that psychology should be more like physics and chemistry - doing basic research only - and that they would hire no applied psychologists. All the rest of academia immediately fell into line. (p59-60)

That might be a little close to conspiracy to be the whole story. But nonetheless Seligman says that basic and applied science depend on each other.
Physics was proceeded by an ancient science of engineering, which actually solved problems, before it grafted on abstract, basic research...Good science requires the interplay of analysis and synthesis.

Why am I so interested in this? Because I think most if not all of the social sciences, including economics, went off track in the 1930s and 1940s, and for over fifty years all the institutional forces - for a variety of reasons - militated against asking deeper questions about what people want and need, and purpose. Psychology is waking up with Seligman's work. Psychology also (separately) started to tip over into economics in the 1990s with Kahneman and Tversky's work on prospect theory, now the increasingly flourising field of behavioral economics.

For fifty years the academy by design avoided the questions we most need to answer when we approach a condition of material abundance. That helps explain why the essay I've used as a benchmark for my questions in this blog - Keynes' Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, starting here - dates back to 1930, before big questions became unfashionable.

I felt the same when studying economics, where I grew impatient with parsimonious mathematical models. "Research" seemed to consist in many cases of just finding more ways to torture econometrically the same narrow set of national accounts data - thin and unconvincing.

No wonder we flounder when trying to see our way forward as a society.

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