Sunday, January 08, 2006

Das Glasperlenspiel

When I made my little sojourn to New York last week I took along Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment (Perennial, 2003) to read on the plane. Some folks may remember Murray as one of the co-authors, with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve, a book whose thesis would appear to be one of the most misbegotten ideas of all time. This book is rather different. But not much. It is, in the words of its own subtitle, an examination of "the pursuit of excellence in the arts and sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950." One of its virtues is that it is jammed with all sorts of historical tidbits for the delectation of the amateur historian. Most of it has been cribbed from 40- or 50-year old history textbooks, however, and there is an overpowering sense of positivist triumphalism about the wide-eyed summaries of uncritical inventories of the achievements of various civilizations and cultural centers.

The thesis of the book is going to be controversial--perhaps not as controversial as The Bell Curve, but not designed to put to rest the worries about Murray's Weltanschauung that were raised by that book. On the one hand, the thesis is quite simple: excellence in human accomplishment is something real (indeed, it is quantifiable!), and it is high time we started acknowledging the place of genius in the human endeavor. On the other hand, the assumptions built into Murray's notion of what excellence actually is are so questionable that it is difficult to take much of what he has to say all that seriously.

Add to this some rather disturbing errors of interpretation. For example, he says of Parmenides that he "had suggested that matter can be neither created nor destroyed." There is a sense, of course, in which this is vaguely true. But Murray cites it as an instance in which the Greeks could be cited as having "made some progress" in the natural sciences. Parmenides' postulate about change, of course, was a metaphysical, not a physical, proposal, and it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the principle of equilibrium of matter and energy. Murray also notes that "Leucippus and Democritus had enunciated theories of atomism" as further evidence of "progress" by the Greeks. Again, ancient atomism is only superficially similar to modern atomism, and is ultimately a metaphysical doctrine fully independent of empirical investigation, which surely must count as one of the most fundamental aspects in which contemporary science has "progressed" in any sense. But the real howler is this one: "Anaximander had proposed something resembling an evolutionary hypothesis." It is safe to say that there is absolutely nothing about Anaximander's views that are even remotely similar to any evolutionary hypothesis as we know such hypotheses.

The book is not without its virtues, however. In spite of its positivistic hubris and vague conceptions of excellence, it is a fascinating collection of statistics. The trouble is not so much the data, the but conclusions that he tries to squeeze from them. Certainly an average reader can learn much from this book in the form of brute facts. It would be a mistake, however, to share his inferences about the importance of the West--and in particular, the importance of Christianity--in underwriting the possiblity for true human excellence. His method--a collation of a number of reference works followed by a thorough counting up of names named--shows only what accomplishments have been most widely discussed in the scholarly literature of the West, not what concepts are genuinely of first importance or reflective of human excellence. Indeed, when it comes to actually articulating what excellence is the book is thoroughly question begging.

It is curious that he draws the chronological boundary for his survey at 1950. Up until the 1950s history and historiography were themselves still largely positivistic disciplines, and it is only from the 1960s onward that one begins to find critical methods being applied in history that would slowly erode the Eurocentrist view that Murray defends. By excluding scholarly works that adopt a very different attitude from his own, Murray poisons his own well. I suppose that it's possible that his numbers would not change a great deal by the inclusion of more recent work, but the selection of reference works listed in the bibliography looks rather hopeless to me--the books listed for philosophy, for example, are almost universally out of date, superceded by much more recent--and much better--work. I'm not an expert in the other areas he covers, but it seems to me that it's unlikely that the history of philosophy is the only place where he drops the scholarly ball in this regard. Who knows who his advisors were or how they chose their samples.

Well, Aristotle comes out all right in the book though. On a scale of 0-100, with 0 being worthless and 100 being, well, bodacious, Aristotle is the only Western philosopher to score 100. Murray is fond of Aristotle, and cites approvingly the Stagirite's conception of excellence from the Nicomachean Ethics. I guess I can't argue with that.

On a similar scale for Western Literature, however, Hesse only scored a 9. Given the nature of Murray's work, that has got the be the feel-good irony of the year.

Of course, the year is yet young.


Apollodorus said...

"Up until the 1950s history and historiography were themselves still largely positivistic disciplines, and it is only from the 1960s onward that one begins to find critical methods being applied in history that would slowly erode the Eurocentrist view that Murray defends."

Careful now, you're starting to sound like a post-something-or-other-ist with all that "-centric" talk.

Honestly, I'm astounded that you spent any time with Murray, but at least now I've had my suspicions confirmed. I wonder, though, whether he might not like Aristotle for all the wrong reasons -- The Bell Curve wasn't too far from being a theory of natural slavery, though Aristotle's theory might have had more truth to it.

Paul Niederer said...

Enjoyed your post.

Liked your mention of Human Excellence.

A guy whose blog I follow, Shane Ellis, also writes about "Human Excellence" and he has written recently about it in at least four posts of his. One in particular, Manyanna Magic, is a personal story from Fiji that dosent need a background in NLP to understand about Manyanna time!

You can find the Manyanna article here.

Manyanna Magic