Judgement: A Conceptual Sketch
Abstract and Keywords
Political judgement is placed here in the wider horizon of practical judgement, whereby two problems become relevant: the logical issue that practical judgements cannot be “determinative” in the Kantian sense, but only “reflective”—and the inevitable conjunctural elements of choice situations occurring in historical (irreversible) time. While the first problem shows the importance of “judgement” and the role of common topoi to buttress the persuasiveness of “reflective” judgements, the second issue calls attention to the complexities which arise, when full information is unavailable, the parties strategically interact in the absence of a well-defined game, and when they act not only jointly but also on behalf of others. On the basis of these criticisms, I examine how we make actual choices under non-ideal conditions.
Considering that the problem of judgement is nearly ubiquitous in social life, at first sight it seems odd that it has received relatively little attention. One reason, of course is, that judgements are required from us in a variety of contexts involving choices, and to that extent first impressions might be misleading. We talk about (mis)perceptions, about “tastes” or preferences, about inferences or subsumptions, highlighting different factors, such as cognition, desires, standards of taste, and self-chosen maxims, all of which are aspects of judgement.
Traditionally the problem of judgement has been dealt with in terms of logic, i.e. how the particular and the general relate to each other, with the general provided the justification for the judgement. Here Kant distinguished between a “determinative judgement,” which makes the conclusion necessary and compelling, such as in the inference that Socrates is mortal since all men are mortal, and a “reflective judgement” which is only persuasive, since the “general” is not available (Kant 2009: introduction, sect. 4). But although putting the problem within a logical framework has a certain heuristic value, it creates several conceptual problems for “political judgements,” as I show below. There are three reasons why Kant’s focus on logic and patterns of inference is too narrow.
First, as game theory suggests, there might be several determinative solutions, i.e. multiple equilibria, which are logically equivalent but do not tell us on which equilibrium to settle. Thus, strangely enough, multiple equilibria produce both determinate and indeterminate choices, given Kant’s conception of practical reason, which does not allow for any influence of the “factual” (or, in logical terms, of the particular) to contribute to finding the appropriate universal, which would provide the necessary force for the determinative judgement. Kant examines the logical structure of reflective judgements in his Third Critique, taking aesthetic judgement as his paradigm, which Arendt takes as the ground for claiming that Kant’s political philosophy could be reconstructed on this basis (Arendt 1982). This thesis has spawned the recent interest (p. 576) in an aesthetic approach to politics (Bleiker 2009; Strong 2012). However, I am not convinced that relying on the formal notion of indeterminacy, exemplified by aesthetic appraisals, is fruitful for the analysis of politics, unless some further, more substantive elements—something like Aristotle’s phronesis or Hume’s “common sense”—are introduced.
This leads me to my second point. The particular which practical choices have to address is not only logically part of a larger whole or system, but is situated in a conjunctural sequence of actions set in kairotic time (what is possible today was not possible yesterday and might no longer be possible tomorrow). Consequently action cannot be reduced to an atemporal logical relation. This realization imposes new demands on actors, particularly when collective action is involved. They not only have to deliberate together, but are also driven by the need to act. Individual plans have therefore to mesh, and collective intentions have to be formed. These problems remain largely invisible if we focus only on formal logical relations.
Third, the realization of our freedom—that we can set things in motion and create new causal chains instead of being determined by them—opens up options where we have to take chances, and make decisions for which we individually and collectively bear responsibility. This predicament engenders the possibility of triumph, of showing who we are, but also contains the possibility of (tragic) failure, with all its anxieties. The latter might lead either to indifference and despair, which Hume mentions, or the “weakness/ rashness of will” problem, which Aristotle analysed (Hume 1978; see also Livingston 1998: Aristotle 2014: bk VII, 1–10; see also Davidson 1980). In this way we became alienated from ourselves, but might content ourselves with functioning like “cogs in a machine,” while hanging on to the illusion of being part of “something big.”
From this starting point, in the next section I examine the problem of what Kant calls the “strange capacity,” Urteilskraft (judgement, or power of judgement). In the third section I broaden the analysis by examining a concept of practical reason that is more indebted to the classical analysis of Aristotle, but also draws on Hume, Wittgenstein, Arendt, and “experimental philosophy”; and in the fourth section I try to bring these considerations to bear on the analysis of political judgement.
The (In)formality of Judgement: Stupidity vs the Ability to “Go On”
Kant dealt first with the problem of judgement in his Critique of Pure Reason, where he considered it to be a necessary ability of people when they use rules in practical contexts. He calls this capacity Urteilskraft (good judgement, often also translated as the “power of judgement”). Although Kant speaks of “subsumption” in this context, his elaborations show that that something else is going on than simply engaging in a syllogistic operation. (p. 577) In a significant footnote he avers: “The lack of judgement [Urteilskraft] is actually what we call stupidity [Dummheit] and such a flaw [Gebrechen] cannot be cured” (Kant 1999: A134, 135; B173, 174). The subsequent discussion makes it also clear this “stupidity” has nothing to do with a lack of reason. Rather, it seems to affect the intelligent and dull alike, academics not excluded. The problem is:
if (logic) wanted to show how one should subsume, or distinguish whether something falls under a rule or not , this could be done only through further rules. But this again would require a new determination by the power of judgement [Urteilskraft] because a rule is involved. Thus it is evident that the understanding [Verstand] is capable of being instructed by supplying it with rules, but that the power of judgement is a special talent [Talent], which cannot be taught, but can be acquired only by practice. For that reason [this faculty] is a specific quality of common sense [Mutterwitz], whose lack no school can cure. Although schooling might be able furnish rules derived from the insights of others and might [even be able] to somehow “implant” them in a limited mind, the capacity to apply them correctly must be in “apprentice” [Lehrling] himself. No rule, which we prescribe to him with this intention, is secure from abuse, if such a talent is missing. Consequently, a physician or judge, or statesman might have in their heads many beautiful rules for pathologies, laws, or politics—so that they could even become competent teachers of them—but they could as easily violate these rules in applying them, because they either lack this power of judgement, even if they possess understanding and can discern the general in abstracto but lack the discrimination of whether a concrete case falls under it, or because their judgement has not been sufficiently exercised by practice and examples. Indeed it is the unique and great advantage of examples that they sharpen the judgement. As to the correctness and precision of the understanding, examples are frequently injurious because they, as casus in terminis, examples seldom meet the conditions of the rule and because they frequently also weaken those efforts of our understanding [Verstand] to apprehend rules in their generality , independent of their particular circumstance of experience, and thus accustom us to use them more as formulae than as principles. Thus examples become the prosthesis [Gaengelwagen] of judgements, which someone who lacks this natural talent can never do without.
(Kant 1999: B172–4, A133–5, trans. FK)
This passage provides much food for thought and is susceptible to different interpretations. On the one hand there is a nearly classical statement resembling Wittgenstein’s argument about “training,” i.e. learning by doing, but on the other, we encounter again a hidden longing for the “general,” i.e. for understanding rule-following “independent of their particular circumstance of experience” (Bloor 1997; 2000). Obviously some unpacking is needed.
First, what is uncontroversial is Kant’s recognition that applying rules is not tantamount to logical subsumption. His distinction of stupidity and common sense is too striking to be put aside. Similarly, his fallback on practice and experience is telling. Only in this way can we circumvent the problem of the semantic openness of rules, which would otherwise prevent us from “going on.” For example, we need not think long and (p. 578) hard why the prohibition “No dogs on the escalator” means dogs in general. I must be a real idiot, i.e. caught up in my own world, if, after having got onto the escalator with my dog Ulysses, I claim that I am being ticketed unjustly, since Ulysses is one dog only. And we also understand why this interpretation can be extended to live animals in general, thus being valid for cats and boa constrictors, while a budgerigar in a cage arguably does not fall under the rule.
The reason why we are able to cut such arguments short is simple: we have been trained by the many instances of “dos” and “don’ts” during our socialization, and understand what “following a rule” means. That those largely implicit understandings do not end all controversies and might even escalate some of them—particularly when seemingly higher-order principles are invoked—is surprising only for those who think that rules work like causes, ensuring uniformity in a more or less mechanical fashion, very much like a cookie-cutter or hole-punch (Kratochwil 2014). However, the capacity to “go on,” acquired through participation in social life, is different even though it is not a technique, precisely because no algorithm for its application exists. As Kant reminds us, even the expertise of rule-handlers (law professors and judges included) is no guarantee that idiocies will be avoided.
The misuse of expertise suggests that Kant’s focus on the formal criteria, i.e. the transcendental presuppositions that endow our judgements with validity, might be too restrictive even within his own remit. This makes it doubtful whether the Critique of Judgement provides an apt analogy for politics, as Arendt suggested, notwithstanding the fact that both aesthetic and political judgements are about particulars (Arendt 1982). Furthermore, both necessitate the free play of imagination more than formal analytic powers. Kant himself is clearly uneasy about political judgements—he often comes close to submerging politics into morality—precisely because he considers moral judgements to be simple when compared to prudential ones that rely on experience. This certainty is based on the imputation of a teleology to nature that plays itself out behind the back of the actors in a universal history that has “mankind” as its subject (Kant 1991). But this construct sits quite uneasily with his own emphasis on the autonomy and responsibility of the subject. In short, while there certainly are some important analogies between politics and aesthetics, the more fitting analogy is with law and reasoning with rules and principles. For that purpose I want to begin in the next section with some remarks on reasoning with rules and higher-order principles, in order to illuminate the role the “particular” plays in this process.
This endeavour leads us back to a conception of practical reason that comes closer to Aristotle’s notion of practical reasoning, but is also indebted to modern conceptions of how we go about making practical choices as suggested by Hume’s conventionalism and Wittgenstein’s notion of “forms of life” (Wittgenstein 1953). One implication of my argument is that philosophy’s task can no longer be foundationalist, universal, and trans-historical, but has to become practical. Its mission is, therefore, the critical examination of the historical “common world” whose reproduction is entrusted to us, as an Aufgabe (charge) which we cannot leave unattended even though we cannot grasp it in terms of a theoretical understanding of what there “is” (Livingston 1984).
(p. 579) Prudence, Cases, and Ordinary Language
Rules safeguarding social utility against idiosyncratic preferences have to be more general than the various cases to which they apply; but they are not more general in the sense of simply being more abstract, as this would empty them of content and impair their capacity to help us. They are more general in the sense of capturing some typical features of recurring situations. Thus, they represent types, which attain meaning from the distinctions; we try to fit them to the “fact pattern” of a case, such as distinguishing fraud from error, or liability from criminal intent. The task consists then in looking for supporting evidence why one typification fits better than the other. So the point is not the generality of the logical form, but rather the recognized interest that both lets us make the distinctions and lump instances together. We also reason often from “case to case”—without using general rules or universal principles. Then analogies, metaphors, hypotheticals, knowing the relevant exceptions and the circumstances which make a rule defeasible, or engaging in counterfactual reasoning are the proper conceptual tools (Tetlock and Belkin 1996). The general scope of a rule serves mostly to distinguish it as a “standing order” (i.e. stating its potential applicability to future situations) rather than a situation-specific command, which positivists considered the defining characteristic of law. But this generality is of little help when the issue arises of how to apply a rule (or which rule to apply) to a case (see Hart 1961).
Perhaps the common law and its use of precedents provides a better model for reasoning with rules and making judgements of applicability. Consider the case of Donaghue v. Stevenson, which changed the general rule of Caveat emptor in English law, opening the door for product liability. In this case a woman had bought some ginger beer that turned out to contain a dead snail. She became violently sick and suffered serious after-effects. She sued the manufacturer and the latter asked for dismissal, based on the precedent of “Buyer beware” in common law.1 The court, however, held the defendant liable for compensation. But despite the clear decision of the court, it did not settle whether the ratio decidendi establishing a new precedent was valid only for juices in opaque bottles or for all juices, or for food in general (because of its special importance to health) without changing the Caveat emptor rule in other areas (which ones?). Or was the change intended for all products? Although the facts and the rule are obviously related, the relationship cannot be one of simple entailment, since both are equally subject to contestation: the generality of the rule is as problematic as are the facts.
Aristotle, therefore, argues that it is not the truth (aletheia) but only some form of fit or correct ascription (orthothes) that can be achieved (Aristotle 2014: 1140 a10, VI 3,103: 1144b 18–31). The distinction between the factual assertions in the minor premise and the general norm of the major one (which provides the normative pull) breaks down. This is why Aristotle thinks that young people, although not lacking in intelligence and formal reasoning, are unlikely to have the necessary experience for making (p. 580) well-considered practical choices, all things considered (Aristotle 2014: bk I, iii, 5 (1095 a1–10). This way of putting the problem differs significantly from holding that the rule or principle, in virtue of its generality and having received the imprimatur of reason, solves the problem by subsuming the relevant facts under principle. That the latter interpretation of the role of norms is rather misleading is evidenced by the fact that the problem of judgement arises on both levels: on the major premise (which facts are relevant in the light of a norm?) and on the level of the relevant facts for selecting the appropriate rule or principle or making exceptions.
It seems that when we reason about practical problems, general rules, and transcendental principles actually do very little, “ideal theory” (see Chapter 50) notwithstanding. This is what Aristotle suggested in criticizing Plato’s “idea of the good.” Since “good” is predicated across various categories,
there cannot a common Idea corresponding to the absolutely good and the relative good. Again the word “good” is used in as many senses as the word “is” [ . . . ] So clearly “good” cannot be a single and universal notion; if it were it would not be predicable in all Categories, but only in one. Again things that come under a single Idea must be objects of a single science, hence there ought to be a single science dealing with all good things. But [ . . . ] there are a number of sciences that deal with the “good” (in time), i.e. the opportunity [kairos], which in war comes under the science of strategy, in disease under that of medicine [ . . . ] in bodily exercise under gymnastics.
(Aristotle 2014: 1096a 24–35)
How much the fact pattern and its variation contributes to the “discovery” of the applicable general principle can also be gathered from the “trolley problem” in philosophy. This hypothetical concerns a trolley, which is running out of control towards, five people tied to or working on the track. Fortunately, you stand at a switching point and could throw the switch and divert it to a side-track where there is only one person who is in jeopardy. Should you move the switch and save the five persons, knowing that the person on the side-track will be killed due to your action? Should, or even “could” you stay out of it and do nothing? Is this omission reprehensible since on consequentialist grounds you should chose the lesser evil? As you can do something about it, you should pull the switch. But can you prescribe this as a general maxim for action? It might be true that “ought implies can,” but does can imply “ought”? What if stopping the trolley could also be accomplished by pushing a “fat man” standing next to you onto the tracks, which might derail the trolley, thereby saving then six people on both tracks, while sacrificing only one? Have you done better in that case?
Unfortunately, then you might be charged with homicide, while in the case of no action you go free (and the only penalty you pay is perhaps your bad conscience). But could you get off simply by invoking the principle of maximizing overall utility and saving more lives? What other principles become relevant? After all, why do we condemn a surgeon who kills the victim of an accident with slim chances of survival in order to transplant the intact organs to his other patients, thereby saving their lives? While rights cut short any overall utility calculations and we intuitively feel that the two cases (p. 581) are different, this “intuition” is not that of an universal order of things, or of ultimate values, but probably more like a gut reaction to the threats if such actions were to be allowed. Or is this hypothetical the proof for the superiority of a Kantian deontology and of universal principles? Here again, I am not sure whether the answer is as clear-cut as it appears.
First, while rights certainly trump the act-utilitarian “eager beavers” parading their felicific calculus, similar problems can also arise at the level of rights, when conflicting duties have to be assessed, such as when doctors have to decide whom to save and give the scarce medicines to. Should they reserve them for those who are most likely to survive, distribute them fairly to all, or according to need, or dispense them on the “first come first served” basis? How are we to evaluate Churchill’s decision to set up an intelligence operation letting the Germans believe that their V2s were hitting northwest London rather than the centre, which he knew would lead them to reduce fuel and hit poor neighbourhoods to the southeast of the city (Edmonds 2015)?
Whatever we think about these hypotheticals, they contain a few important messages. One is that the dichotomy between duty and its opposite is too indiscriminate to allow conclusions in any half-way complicated case. But that implies that the question whether the throwing of the switch was demanded (on utilitarian grounds), or forbidden (arguably on Kantian grounds), or permissible (thus being neither a duty nor a fault), or it represented an exception (excuse) or only a mitigating circumstance (to be taken into consideration only in the punishment), cannot be determined by the norms themselves, since a slight variation of the facts makes different norms relevant and puts them in different relations vis-à-vis each other.
Judgement and Politics
The above discussion has made several points. One is that the practical problems an agent faces are not simple optimization problems, since the evaluation of choice also extends over time and the relevant time horizon is an entire life—and a “fulfilled or happy life” has dimensions other than simply “getting” a pre-existing good. This fact not only defeats a simple maximization strategy, it also alerts us that the problem is not simply one of distribution where, perhaps, the “smart” get more of a pre-existing good than others. Happiness is not only multi-dimensional, encompassing various spheres; it is also episodic, rather than representing a continuum in which one “lumpy good,” measurable in terms of just one medium, can be accumulated.
A second important point is that happiness is gained by acting well through deliberation and choice. But choices are always embedded in particular conjunctures in which diagnosing the relevant points and drawing on analogies presupposes familiarity with a concrete society and its conventions. Thus characterizing an action as base, such as a fraud (rather than an error), or as a trespass (rather than an observable jump across a fence), presupposes that we are familiar with the norms and with how to use them.
(p. 582) This does not mean that our ascriptions have to be “determinate” in a Kantian sense. Rather, they involve us in a hermeneutic circle. The facts have to fit the adduced norm, and the latter gains relevance in the light of the “facts,” so that the vetting of a case is characterized by going back and forth between norms and facts and not by simple generalization or deductive subsumption. Rather, the “fit,” which can claim assent, relies, (as Gadamer 1976 suggested) on the shared understandings of a particular audience to which such an appraisal is directed.
Third, as in the case of the individual actions, which have to be placed and appraised in the context of an entire “life,” political choices must be vetted in terms of the community as a whole and its projects and place in the world. Here, conceptual problems abound. Without a clearly bounded community and functioning institutions having the competence to decide which goods in what magnitude and priority are to be provided, an appraisal of the “common good” seems impossible. It is unrealizable not because it is an ideal, and ideals are always hard to match up with reality, but because it is incoherent.
It raises the same conceptual difficulties that Aristotle mentioned in the individual case, when the family and friends are “counted in,” establishing the self-sufficiency of eudaimonia as the overarching “end” of all action.
The term “self-sufficient,” however, we employ with reference not to oneself alone, living a life in isolation, but also one’s parents, children and wife, and one’s friend and fellow citizen in general, since man is by nature a political animal. On the other hand a limit has to be assumed [ . . . ] for the list to be extended to one’s ancestors and descendant and to the friend of one’s friends; it will go ad infinitum.
(Aristotle 2014: bk I, vii 7, 1097b 8–15)
Furthermore, since communities are trans-generational associations, matters are complicated not only by the question of who belongs in and who is not part of it, but also by the time-frame within which these problems have to be placed. It is now easy to see why these aporias engender certain conceptual short cuts that seem to provide solutions.
First, while, of course, the term “community” can be stretched to include all humanity, which we encounter in the Stoic cosmopolis and in Kant’s notion of “mankind” as the subject of a universal history, those imperial visions based on the logical extension of the concept of community run foul of practical experience. Empires rise and decay, and the anticipation of a teleology of nature depends more on “prophecy” (even if communicated in the argot of a secular philosophy of history) than on the experience of building an actual historical common world (Kratochwil 2014).
Second, if we want to be more realistic and accept the plurality of polities, then one short cut consists in postulating their “survival” as such an overarching or “self-sufficient end.” But, as the discussion among realists has shown, even “survival” is an ambiguous symbol, and the survival of the members of such an association raises different issues from the survival of the form of life itself. People do not always choose “bare life” over the good life, as attested by the persistence of wars and violent conflict.
Third, overarching goals are hardly apt for settling concrete practical questions. They represent rather the horizon within which a variety of goals can be meaningfully (p. 583) pursued—as the notion of a fulfilled life suggested. Precisely because the social world is not there but is being “made,” two further conceptual gambits arise. One reduces the problem of praxis to techne, i.e. understands action in terms of the production of an object in order to provide clear end–means chains. Postulating this end can then be justified either by a special type of knowledge or by mere “authority,” such as commissioning the Hobbesian sovereign to make such choices “for us all” (see Chapter 2). Ideally, we could distinguish a discursive and a technical way of deciding, the former relying largely on “common sense,” the latter on expert knowledge, as prefigured in the Platonic/Aristotelian controversy. While Plato invokes the technical knowledge of the captain as a template for steering the ship of state, Aristotle wants broader participation in order to ensure that an issue is considered from a variety of angles and those who interests are affected get a hearing, thus allowing the informed public (euboulia) to make a choice (Aristotle 2014: bk VI, 10, 2; 1143 a 5–10).
Here new difficulties arise, as these choices have to be made in irreversible time, and we can neither wait until all information is in nor afford to continue our discussions ad infinitum. Thus, things cannot be so neatly separated, as e.g. the communicative action paradigm seems to suggest. In actual arguments, instrumental and discursive strategies interact and a prudent choice cannot be blind to experiential evidence; and reductionist attempts to simplify matters, such as arguing about “functional” necessities, or welfare gains, nust be subject to critical appraisal.
The temptation to see the practical world in terms of an ends/means scheme is highly problematic; hence the clockwork imagery in which all wheels and springs work in tandem and according to the design is essentially misleading. We know that even in determinate systems small variations can lead to vastly different results. Equifinality and multiple realizability have complicated our “causal” understanding considerably, and should have made us suspicious of the “predictability” of complex systems. Similarly, the discussion of intelligence failures shows that most of them are not simply the outcome of bad luck, or of having assigned a low probability to a usually rare event, but have more systematic roots (Betts 1978; Jervis 2006). If we erred on the other side and reacted every time, we would be frazzled by false alarms and would possibly bring about the situation we wish to avoid.
Thus knowing in which “case” we are cannot be simply read off from past events and their distribution, as risk assessments presuppose clear classification schemes and using them raises the issue of judgement again at the level of attributing a “case” to a given type. Whether something should be counted as a “case of” successful deterrence, or an inadvertent act by the alleged challenger is not easily decidable, as the debate between Russett and Lebow and Stein showed (Russett 1984; Lebow and Stein 1990).
Actually, the problem is even more serious. Even with hindsight, we are hardly ever able to be clear about the actual actions and events which brought about the outcome. Did the Cold War end because the US “outspent” the Soviet Union on weaponry? Or was it because the actual sequences of choices made by the US and Soviet leadership finally meshed so that de-escalation and a more constructive engagement could be envisaged by both (Lebow and Risse-Kappen 1995)? Although we have a considerable amount of evidence, an agreement on “what happened” remains elusive, and seems unlikely to (p. 584) emerge, even if all remaining secrets were made public. To that extent we cannot simply rely on risk assessments, because our choices often involve not only risks but genuine uncertainty; in any event, the law of large numbers usually does not apply in politics, particularly not in international politics.
This leads to the paradoxical realization that not only is the future shrouded in mystery, but the past remains an “unknown country,” as controversies concerning hindsight and its “lessons” suggest, The reasons for this paradox are not difficult to fathom: both future and past are part of our political projects. They are not written from an Archimedian point outside of praxis, but from within. Thus a particular problem experienced in the present throws light on the past, which thereby gets “searched” (historizein, “to search”), and linked to a project in the future (which is however a “present-future” and not what will actually occur). Thus neither the past, which seems to be settled and done with, nor the future, which relies on past distributions and likely trends, is actually “there.” Rather, they both result from a specific selection. The implications for this dialectic of “problems, projects, and time” cannot be explored here further—save to note, in the words of a cognitive scientist:
The root of the problem is not just the variety of viewpoints. It is the difficulty that advocates have in pinning each other down. When partisans disagree over free trade or arms control, or foreign aid, the disagreements hinge on more than easily ascertained claims about trade deficits, or missile counts, or leaky transfer buckets. The disputes also hinge on hard to refute counterfactual claims about what would have happened if we had taken different policy paths and on impossible to refute moral claims about the types of people we should aspire to be—all claims that partisans can use to fortify their positions against falsification.
One problem is of course that only judgements concerning impossibility or inevitability are strictly falsifiable; political predictions are usually couched with various caveats (“may lead to . . .,” “tends to suggest . . .,” etc.). Besides, we usually do not revise our beliefs when confronted with counterevidence. Pacifists are not convinced that the frequency of war is evidence for the unviability of their project, while realists or Marxists are always right “in the end” . . . .
From all this, two disconcerting conclusions and one more hopeful message seem to follow. The first conclusion is that evaluations of political judgements cannot be obtained by uncontroversial objective criteria, akin to the notion of “scientific objectivity.” But that does not mean, as strong “relativists” often claim, that expertise can only be evaluated within its own framework, which would only follow if we held that strong incommensurability obtains between different modes of analysis. Even if various expert prognostics do rather poorly when compared to the “guesses” of lay persons, or other heuristic devices, such as tossing coins or employing a chimpanzee throwing darts, that does not mean that this second disconcerting conclusion should be take at face value.
Somehow we are, however, aware that accepting this as the final word would lead to the “despair” Hume warned us about, when exalted expectations raised by “false (p. 585) philosophy” are disappointed. Thus, having fewer expectations and doing the best we can lets us “go on.” The fact that we never know what the meaning of life is does not entail that there cannot be meaning in life, even if mistakes and disappointments are inevitable.
This brings me to the more hopeful point. As Tetlock suggests in his recent critical evaluation of expertise, the crude comparison of human and other heuristics, masks important differences in cognitive styles among experts. Having identified two different ways of thinking by utilizing Isiah Berlin’s parable of foxes vs hedgehogs (Berlin 1997). Tetlock found that in experiments evaluating the heuristics of experts,
foxes consistently edge out the hedgehogs but enjoy their most decisive victories in the long-term exercises inside their domains of expertise. Analysis of explanations for their predictions sheds light on how foxes pulled off this cognitive-stylistic coup. The foxes’ self-critical point counter-point style of thinking prevented them from building up the sorts of excessive enthusiasm for their predictions that hedgehogs, especially well informed ones, displayed for theirs [ . . . ]They [the foxes] recognized the precariousness of many equilibria and hedged their bets by rarely ruling out anything as “impossible.”
(Tetlock 2006: 21)
Thus there might be a place for prudence after all, and for the creative thinker or Hume’s “true philosopher,” who is rooted in a common world, thinks critically without submitting to the temptations of a “grand theory,” but does not despair because practical knowledge—when subjected to theoretical standards—usually fails this test. It does not follow that no standards exist; it is just that the ones we usually apply are more problematic than assumed.
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