Quinian Political Science, Davidsonian Politics

Why is it that politics is as it is?

According to the Quine-Duhem thesis, theory is always underdetermined by data, that is, for any finite set of empirical data, there will always be more than one possible theory compatible with it. Even if we are good Viennese and eschew theories which do not entail observational consequences, no set of observational consequences ever entail a unique theory. At most they can conflict with some theories. Quine also noted that even in the face of anomalous observation reports, we may choose reasonably to hang on to the theory and discard the observation. Consider in this light the status of miracle reports, ESP reports, alien abduction reports, etc.

If all this is true even about domains which are quite orderly and susceptible to controlled experiment, how much more must it be the case with attempts to understand political reality? And yet political judgment is often made on the basis of large-scale hypotheses about how the social world works. The data will be at most suggestive, contrary data will be available but dismissible (yes, I am analogizing your political opponents to alien abductees), and controlled experiment in any serious sense impossible.

There is nothing wrong with interpreting the political world in terms of supportable, plausible hypotheses, even hypotheses that operate in a sweeping way. I doubt that we can avoid doing this: human beings need orientation beyond that which is strictly necessary for finding their way around their immediate environment. But in light of the preceding epistemic reflections, humility is in order. Indeed, humility will always be in order.

However, in the case of politics, how we interpret the world affects how we divide up resources, power and prestige. This opens the door to both wishful thinking and dishonesty. In principle, and happily, the inevitable existence of a multiplicity of views due to the above should keep one honest. But this is only true if we take what the other says seriously as a genuinely possible version of political reality. But now underdetermination of theory by data imposes a second burden on us: we must form “theories” about what the other is saying and why. Quine and Davidson pointed out that when we do this, in certain kinds of cases, the evidence that the other is uttering a falsehood may be equally good evidence that the listener has a false theory of the meaning of what the other is saying. One of the central constraints on effective interpretation, then, is to start from the assumption that what the other is saying, whatever it may be, is true. This, of course, will inevitably mean “true by my lights.” In short, we must be charitable in interpreting if we are to understand.

But in politics, to assume that what the opponent says is true is the last thing you want to do. It is tantamount to conceding defeat, or even, of changing sides. There is very little to be gained by trying to understand the opponent in a way that can be seen in public (though of course something to be gained by understanding the opponent well enough to outmaneuver him or her). So enlightened self-interest conflicts with the needs of communication.

Much of Continental philosophy is inspired by, or grapples with, what has been called “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” the exemplars here being Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. In all three cases, the distinction between surface and depth is the difference between apparently clear meaning and hidden interests embedded in conflicts. Our politics has become a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion. Yet it is worth noting that the prospects of getting even at surface meaning will be daunting enough–getting at what the “real” meaning is may be close to impossible, and insisting on engaging only with it runs the risk of engaging in a fantasy. At some limit, this is madness, quite literal madness. Its name is paranoia.

When an individual believes that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, he is being victimized by forces beyond his control, constructs an elaborate and difficult to prove false interpretation of social reality  that is consistent with that belief and some but not all of the available evidence, and regards those who suggest alternative hypotheses as either naive fools or secretly complicit villains, we call that “illness.” When 30% of the population eggs him on and tells him he’s essentially correct, we call it “Tea Party” or “Daily Kos.”


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