Category Archives: philosophy

six types of claim: descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative

Any serious (non-fiction) thinker makes claims, supports them with warrants, expects each claim to be challenged, and will withdraw a claim if the challenge proves valid.

However, people make many types of claims, with many kinds of warrant.

Here is a chart that suggests six different kinds of claim (descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative) with examples of how a humanist, a social or behavioral scientist, and a natural scientist might make each of them.

humanitiesSocial/Behavioral SciencesNatural Sciences
descriptive claimKing Lear was written soon after Oct. 12, 1605. (Warrant: it refers to “these late eclipses in the sun and moon.”)44% fewer people dined in a restaurant this year than last year.2019 was the second-warmest year on record.
causal claim(s)Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Machiavelli influenced Shakespeare (which may mean: Shakespeare chose Machiavelli as an influence).Mass concern about COVID-19 has reduced demand for restaurants.Increased burning of carbon causes the climate to warm.
classificatory claimKing Lear is a renaissance tragedy.Restaurant meals are a form of consumer purchasing.Carbon dioxide is an example of a greenhouse gas.
conceptual claimThe renaissance was the rebirth of classical culture, which included such classical ideas as Stoicism. The price of a commodity is a function of supply and demand.The carbon cycle includes photosynthesis, respiration, burial, extraction, exchange, and combustion.
interpretive claimKing Lear reflects a fundamental pessimism that is incompatible with Christianity. A restaurant meal can be a status symbol or else a mere convenience. n/a (?)
normative claim(s)King Lear is a great play. King Lear displays the moral perils of avoiding love.People should stay out of restaurants to combat COVID-19.We should cut carbon consumption.

Every one of these claims (including the normative ones) is testable and falsifiable. Each one requires some kind of reason–but not the same kind of reason.

Each kind of researcher or scholar makes more than one kind of claim. It is not true that natural scientists rely exclusively on experiments and are only interested in causal claims. They also describe, classify, and build conceptual models.

It is not clear, however, that natural scientists truly make interpretive claims. They certainly interpret data, but I think their interpretations are actually descriptive, causal, conceptual, or classificatory claims. In the humanities, “interpretation” means understanding the subjective meaning of an action for the actors, and that is not possible for most of the natural world–excepting people and perhaps some other animals. In a phrase like “the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics,” I don’t think that the word “interpretation” means what it does for a scholar of human beings. It’s more like a model.

It is also not clear that science–natural or social–provides reasons for normative claims. It is true that we should cut carbon consumption, but not directly because of what science finds. Science describes and explains the situation; to decide that we should do something requires a different kind of reason.

People can provide good normative reasons (or bad ones, which can be rejected), but these reasons do not arise from science. That is why scientists often claim to be value-neutral. In contrast, humanists’ claims often have strong normative implications. To explain, classify, describe, conceptualize, or interpret a human action often provides the grounds for judging it.

See also: navigating the disciplines; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists); what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin

Both the Mishna (Sanhedrin, 4) and the Quran (5:32) advise that to kill one person is like killing all human beings.* The Mishna says that God created humanity in the form of one original person to remind us of that fact. It means that when Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell’s head chopped off on July 28, 1540, Henry destroyed a whole world.

Hilary Mantel proves this fundamental moral truth by richly imagining the inner life of the Tudor politician in the three volumes of her Wolf Hall trilogy. The main character (almost always called “he,” without a name), progresses through time and interacts with other people like an ordinary fictional protagonist, but often the narration traces his mind as it jumps to the past or envisions possible futures. Much of the trilogy is devoted to daydreams.

Cromwell is an unlikely candidate to be liked–a shrewd and sometimes ruthless political actor, a Protestant fundamentalist (in our terms), and a royalist. He’s also poorly documented. Most people have seen him as the villain or–at best–the cipher who killed Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. His portrait by Hans Holbein makes him seem private and distant. He is literally set further away than Holbein’s other subjects.

I’m guessing that is why Mantel chose him: to exercise her genius for sympathetic imagination. She must invent most of his past and his inner life, presenting a whole subjective world that would otherwise be opaque. We care for Cromwell not because we agree with him or have behaved like him, but because we can see a whole world through his eyes.

Mantel’s imagination is extraordinary, whether she is conjuring ordinary physical things like plums and footstools or spinning stories around the documented facts. Just for example, Elizabeth Seymour is sure she has been chosen to marry Thomas Cromwell. But he has invited her to marry his son. They talk at cross-purposes for a whole conversation until the awkward misunderstanding dawns on both of them. Who but Mantel would have thought to insert that twist?

In his essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin explores a distinction between a story and a novel. A story is succinct, vivid, subject to many interpretations, meant to be remembered in full and retold to others. It is a communal object, recited orally to a group of people who enjoy each other’s company as they listen and speak in turn.

In contrast, a novel is profoundly individual, a silent communication from one author to one reader at a time. It provides so much detail and interpretation that the reader’s creativity is constrained by the author’s intentions; and it’s too long and carefully constructed to be paraphrased, let alone memorized and retold. Although novels have diverse subjects, the classic topic is one person’s inner life as he or she progresses toward a conclusion; and the clearest conclusion is death. Don Quixote is the “first great book of the genre.”

The novel arises once words can be mass produced for private consumption. It is a capitalist object, meant for a market. It also arises when people become truly afraid of death–not just of dying, but of observing and talking about death. “Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one.” But in the bourgeois 19th century, “the general consciousness the thought of death … declined in omnipresence and vividness.” The novel fills a gap by allowing us to imagine the death of an individual who is safely fictional as a way of contemplating our own mortality.

In a story, the hero is admirable beyond realism but hard to imagine from the inside. In a novel, the protagonist is flawed, and the more you read, the more flaws you see. Don Quixote “teaches how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the noblest of men, Don Quixote, are completely devoid of counsel and do not contain the slightest scintilla of wisdom.” Yet we identify with the protagonist because her or his life functions like ours. Any life is a vast array of experiences, memories, and hopes, banal in their totality but unique in their details. A novel consoles us by implying that our life, too, is worthy. Benjamin says:

To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.

A life is coherent because the present person has memories of her or his own past. Each of us has a unique collection of memories, and we are sufficiently attached to it that we are sad to think it will vanish with our deaths. We vainly counter that fate with monuments and memoirs and by boring children with our recollections. But a novel allows us to see someone else’s memories as a permanent object:

“No one,” Pascal once said, “dies so poor that he does not leave something behind.” Surely it is the same with memories too—although these do not always find an heir. The novelist takes charge of this bequest, and seldom without profound melancholy. …

The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

Benjamin means to criticize the novel and lament the decline of the story. But his real target is capitalism, and the novel gets caught in the crossfire. Certainly, he understands what an achievement a novel is. And none seems to fit his theory better than Mantel’s trilogy.

Particularly as Cromwell approaches his end, he seems obsessive about cataloging his past, as if he could leave it as a coherent legacy. He thinks:

All your life you tramp the empty road with the wind at your back. You are hungry and your spirit is perturbed as you journey on into the gloom. But when you get to your destination the doorkeeper knows you. A torch goes before you as you cross the court. Inside there is a fire and a flask of wine, there is a candle and beside the candle your book. You pick it up and find your place is marked. You sit down by the fire, open it, and begin your story. You read on, into the night.

This scene of reading is exactly how Benjamin understands the novel, in general. It is a private experience of taking stock of a life to persuade oneself that it has meaning, even though each of us is but one among billions and fated to vanish.

Benjamin would probably emphasize that Thomas Cromwell was an early bourgeois, building a commercial commonwealth at the expense of the aristocracy and the clergy. Mantel describes foreign and court politics more than domestic policy, but the novel probably conveys–and it is plausibly true–that Cromwell revolutionized English society along bourgeois lines. That would make him a perfect choice for the protagonist of a Benjamin-style novel.

Benjamin doesn’t mention that Quixote is about two men, not one. So is the Wolf Hall trilogy. Cromwell tells Henry:

“What would I want with the Emperor, were he the emperor of all the world? Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.”

Henry repeats the phrase, as if cherishing it: the mirror and the light. He says, “You know, Crumb, I may from time to time reprove you. I may belittle you. I may even speak roughly.”

He bows.

“It is for show,” Henry says. “So they think we are divided.”

As this passage suggests, Cromwell and Henry are mirror and light to each other. We can see their relationship either way, Cromwell reflecting the royal will or Henry shining because of Cromwell’s brilliance. Cromwell can also see himself as a combination of the mirror and the light. “The silver plate, reflecting himself to himself: the mirror and the light of all councillors that are in Christendom.”

As in the original master-slave dialectic, Henry needs Cromwell as much as vice-versa. Both are appealing in their respective ways, mixing needs and interests with a strong sense of responsibility. Each embodies his proper role–much like Archbishop Cranmer, who “does what is in him. It is all any man can do.”

It’s important that the trilogy is historical fiction. Mantel gives us access to an unfamiliar objective world along with an unfamiliar subjectivity. The implication is that a lifeworld can survive for five hundred years after the observer dies; maybe the same can happen to you or me. Yet the result feels fragile and precious, dependent on Cromwell’s survival as a character and Mantel’s art. That fragility charges the novel with suspense even though most readers will have a pretty good sense of how things must end. (Well, it’s how all things must end.)

Mantel has invented a diction to summon the world of her novel: 21st-century English that closely describes 16th-century England, with a dose of free indirect discourse (third-person narration that adopts some of the tone of the character being described). Clear anachronisms are rare and may be mistakes. “Why do we not, as the tennis players say, cut to the chase?” asks Ambassador Chapuys, using a phrase that originated in early Hollywood. Several characters refer wittily to the sentence, “Et in Arcadia ego,” which was coined ca. 1618. And Cromwell’s thought, “Florence made me … London unmade me,” suggests a reference to Purgatorio, V. 133, which only became famous after 1800. If these are flaws, they are tiny, and perhaps it’s best to think of the book as a loose translation of 16th century speech into modern English.

In sum, Mantel seeks to build something that is a terrible shame to end. That is exactly what we should say about any human life: even the life of a renaissance courtier who had many other people’s deaths on his conscience. In this sense, the novel is a moral achievement as well as a creative one.

*I ignore knotty questions about these two texts and how they relate. Most of the online commentary about them is sectarian and uncharitable toward other people’s faiths. Let’s assume that many Jews and many Moslems have read these passages in the way I am suggesting here.

See also: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall; Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies; history and fiction in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety; Calvino’s free hyper-indirect discourse; and Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life (with a digression on Benjamin and the importance of death in the novel). My own effort at a Tudor novel is The Anachronist. Finally, Clair Wills offers a much less favorable review in The New York Review. I don’t share her verdict, but she makes significant points.

spirituality and science

Following Foucault, let’s use the word “spirituality” for this cluster of ideas: What is true (i.e., most actually real) is the same as what is most right and most beautiful. To know this truth requires being a better person; truth comes to one whose mind or soul is in an appropriate condition. In turn, perceiving the truth improves the perceiver.

Several modes of spirituality have been taught (and sometimes combined). In the ecstatic mode, the seeker loves truth, longs for it, and expects ecstasy from its attainment. In the ascetic mode, the seeker renounces ordinary desires and comforts to merit truth. In the diligent mode, the seeker labors for years at ritual or memorization–or literal labor–until rewarded with truth. In the mode of faith, the seeker ignores the evidence of senses and the pull of desires to believe in what is not directly known.

Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652)

Seekers may be solitary or may benefit from community, but the spiritual seeker’s encounter with the truth is ultimately private and direct.

Although spirituality encompasses–and sometimes encourages–tensions, struggles, and paradoxes, the whole package is neat. Truth, goodness, and beauty cohere; improving the soul yields knowledge, which further improves the soul.

Now consider science, viewed as this cluster of ideas: There is a real world, and it is strictly a domain of causes and effects (“nature”) which is not moral or beautiful in itself. Goodness and beauty are our subjective categories. In seeking to know nature, we are hampered by biases. However, we can use impersonal techniques and tools, such as careful quantitative measurement, to counter our biases. Moral and aesthetic preferences are among the many biases that interfere with our grasp of nature if we don’t control for them.

The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) at CERN 

Since the truth is replicable, it will be known just the same by a bad person and a good one. Instead of putting ourselves in maximally direct contact with the truth in order to improve or save ourselves, we should generally put instruments in direct contact with nature and review the data that they yield. (Instruments may be as simple as rulers or as elaborate as particle accelerators). The data should then be made available to as many people–and for as many uses–as possible. Whether these uses are good is not a scientific question, and possibly not an answerable one.

Are hybrids possible? Some famous scientists have testified to their own spiritual inclinations. Einstein is the most obvious example: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” Such combinations shouldn’t surprise us, since both the spiritual and the scientific traditions are prominent and influential. The same person can be affected by both. Having a spiritual side may help some scientists to be happy and may motivate them to be devoted scientists.

However, other scientists are successful without being happy or are happily motivated by non-spiritual factors, such as fame, power, competitiveness, or even wealth. If spirituality correlates with scientific acumen, that is an empirical generalization, not a law–and it may not even be a valid generalization. Claims that science and spirituality are intrinsically or logically related are romantic and naive. Their logics (as described above) are incompatible. Some individual scientists manage to hold them together, but some individuals also combine kindness to family with cruelty on the battlefield, or love of country with love of money. We can contain multitudes.

Still, it is important to avoid the Hobson’s Choice of either science or spirituality. We need a robust discussion of what is right, both for individuals and for institutions and societies. That discussion is not helped by the widespread scientific premise that answers to the question “What is right?” are merely subjective.

This premise doesn’t damage the conversation as much as you’d expect. Plenty of people claim that moral beliefs are subjective and relative yet strongly endorse actual moral principles and exchange reasons about them. A student last semester wrote an impassioned paper in favor of affordable housing, and ended it: “Overall, what makes a policy ‘good’ is completely subjective–in this paper, however, I have argued that in my view, …” No harm done; again, we contain multitudes. But there is harm at a more institutional level, where we fail to invest in the normative disciplines and in public deliberation while we pour resources into applied science.

Science does have an ethic of its own, including the obligation to make findings public, the principle of blindness to scientists’ personal identities, and cosmopolitanism. The fact that actual science violates these principles does not invalidate them; it just means there is important work to be done.

But the ethics of science is insufficient. Even if science worked exactly as advertised, it would still have little to say about what makes a good life or a good society, particularly for non-scientists.

Here’s where spirituality offers resources. Especially important is its insistence that you probably won’t be good just because you know what is good, intellectually. Since people are habitual and reflective creatures, we need methods for self-improvement–things like rituals.

The problem, for me, is spirituality’s premise that truth and goodness cohere. I see no reason to assume that, and therefore no reason to presume that what is good is also true. If that premise is false, then the tools of science are likely more reliable than those of spirituality–if our goal is to understand nature. But understanding nature should not be our only goal.

See also: adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science; is all truth scientific truth?; Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Foucault’s spiritual exercises; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds; and science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind.

Foucault’s spiritual exercises

Here is Michel Foucault’s definition of “spirituality”:

… I think we could call “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. We will call “spirituality” then the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth. Let’s say that spirituality, as it appears in the West at least, has three characteristics.

[1] Spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject by right. … It postulates that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself. … It follows that from this point of view there can be no truth without a conversion or a transformation of the subject.

[2] Eros [the subject’s attraction to the truth, or the truth’s movement to the subject] and askesis [labor] are, I think, the two major forms in Western spirituality for conceptualizing the modalities by which the subject must be transformed in order finally to become capable of truth.

[3] The truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquility of the soul. In short, in the truth and in access to the truth, there is something that fulfills the subject himself, which fulfills or transfigures his very being.

Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-2, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave, 2005), pp. 15-16

Foucault distinguishes spirituality from philosophy: “the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth” (p. 15).

Although philosophy and spirituality are different, all the Greek and Roman philosophers–except (Foucault thinks) Aristotle–believed that a person could not have access to the truth without first being transformed into a better self. Therefore, all the classical philosophers argued for spirituality, as defined above. More than that, they combined their philosophical arguments with spiritual instruction, because they saw the two as inseparable.

One of the main topics that a self was supposed to understand was justice. To understand justice required improving oneself. In turn, learning about justice made a person better. “Consequently, taking care of oneself and being concerned with justice amount to the same thing” (p. 72, here interpreting Plato).

These presuppositions of ancient philosophy and spirituality contrast with two prevalent modern traditions. First:

  • Science is that set of methods and institutions (such as labs, PhD programs, and peer-review) that allow us to know nature without having to improve the self first. A scientist “can recognize the truth and have access to it in himself and solely through his activity of knowing, without anything else being demanded of him and without him having to change or alter his being as subject” (p. 17). In turn, science generates knowledge that may not improve anyone spiritually. Nature is precisely the realm that is independent of our spiritual condition. If some scientists prepare themselves mentally to do their jobs or gain tranquility from what they discover about nature, those are incidental facts about them as people. Spiritual preparation may not be necessary, and it certainly isn’t sufficient. Science is about methods, techniques, instruments, rules, and norms that prevent the self from influencing knowledge. And science pursues truth without flinching even when the results are morally problematic.

I would add another tradition as a contrast with ancient spirituality, although I am not sure Foucault would agree:

  • Liberalism is the political tradition that seeks to base good government on well-designed institutions (rights, checks-and-balances, elections and other mechanisms of accountability) so that good government need not depend on the moral excellence of either leaders or the people. Good institutional design is a more secure basis for justice than human excellence. Further, in a well-designed polity, we can leave people alone in their private lives instead of badgering them to transform themselves. Thus liberalism is compatible with freedom as autonomy and with diverse understandings of the good life.

According to Foucault, classical spiritual traditions lived on in Christianity. Spirituality ran into trouble with the rise of scholasticism, which made the study of God into a kind of science. Drawing on Aristotle, medieval scholastics provided methods for understanding God and nature that did not depend upon spiritual self-improvement. They left methods of self-improvement to non-scholars, a division that continues today.

I struggle to decide where Foucault stands himself. Does he give detailed lectures about Greco-Roman spiritual traditions because he believes that modern science and governance are bad and he wants us to return to a better way? Does he describe these Hellenistic traditions dispassionately, as a contribution to truth that may not improve us or himself? (In other words, is he a scientist of the past?) Or does he seek to liberate us from spirituality and science by demonstrating the historical contingency of both? If we shed spirituality and science, what are we left with?

I don’t know, but I enjoy the moments in the lectures when Foucault interacts with his audience. For instance, here he demonstrates concern:

[Is there] another room you can use? Yes? And are those people there because they cannot get into the other room or because they prefer to be there? I am sorry that the conditions are so bad, I can do nothing about it and as far as possible I would like to avoid you suffering too much. Okay, earlier, while talking about these techniques of the self and their existence prior to Platonic reflection on the epimeleia heautou [care of oneself], it came to mind, and I forgot to mention it to you, that there is a text … (p. 65)

And here he is playing with his audience:

I was saying that it seemed to me that at a certain moment … the link was broken, definitively I think, between access to the truth, which becomes the autonomous development of knowledge (connaissance), and the requirement of the subject’s trans- formation of himself and of his being. When I say “I think it was definitively broken,” I don’t need to tell you that I don’t believe any such thing, and that what is interesting is precisely that the links were not broken abruptly as if by the slice of a knife (pp. 25-6).

Foucault respected and learned from his colleague Pierre Hadot, a great scholar of Hellenistic thought. Hadot emphasized that the Hellenistic thinkers did not write systematic treatises. They were teachers who worked with students or other audiences in concrete circumstances.

Philosophy in antiquity was a spiritual exercise. … Whether we have to do with dialogues as in the case of Plato, class notes as in the case of Aristotle, treatises like those of Plotinus, or commentaries like those of Proclus, a philosopher’s works cannot be interpreted without taking into consideration the concrete situation which gave birth to them. They are the products of a philosophical school, in the most concrete sense of the term, in which a master forms his disciples, trying to guide them to self-transformation and -realization. Thus, the written work is a reflection of pedagogical, pyschagogic, and methodological preoccupations.

Although every written work is a monologue, the philosophical work is always implicitly a dialogue. The dimension of the possible interlocutor is always present within it. This explains the incoherencies and contradictions which modern historians discover with astonishment in the works of ancient philosophers.

Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell 1995), pp. 104-5

Foucault’s concrete situation was rather unusual. As a holder of a chair in the College de France, he was required only to conduct his own research and report the results annually in a series of lectures–free, public, and uncredited. Because he was an academic superstar, he gave these lectures to a packed lecture hall and overflow areas, with ranks of tape-recorders piled on the desk before him. The audience could not literally discuss with him, but he could address them in a dialogic way.

Here is Foucault’s description of Epictetus:

unlike Seneca, [Epictetus] is a teacher by profession [and] he really does have a school. He opens a school which is called “school” and in which he has students. And, of course, among his students there are a number, no doubt a considerable number, of young people who come to be trained. … It should not be thought that the care of the self, as principal axis of the art of life, was reserved for adults. But alongside this, intertwined with this training of young people, we can say that in Epictetus’s school there is also what could be called, employing an unjust metaphor no doubt, an open shop: an open shop for adults. And in fact adults come to his school to hear his teaching for one day, for a few days or for some time. Here also, in the social world evoked in the Discourses, you see, for example, a town inspector passing through, a sort of tax procurer if you like. He is an Epicurean who comes to consult Epictetus and ask him questions. There is a man sent to Rome by his town who, passing through Asia Minor to Rome, stops to ask Epictetus questions and get advice on how he can best accomplish his mission. Moreover, Epictetus by no means disregards this clientele, or these adult interlocutors, since he advises his own students, young people therefore, to find prominent people in their town and to shake them up a bit by saying: Tell me then, how do you live? Do you really take proper care of yourselves? (p. 90)

I think Foucault’s own role is similar. And that makes him–not a scientist of history–but a practitioner and provider of spiritual exercises.

See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?;  Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; science, UFOs, and the diminishment of humankind; notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

the pivotal significance of reparations for the American left

About one in four Americans supports reparations for slavery. There is a racial split on that question, with up to three in four African Americans–but only 15% of whites–in favor.

If you think that justice demands reparations, you should support them. You might not make reparations your main criterion for choosing candidates in a given political contest, because you might vote on other grounds, but you should endorse proposals that you believe are just.

Here I want to address a different issue. I’ll offer an explanation (not a justification or a critique) of the importance of reparations in the mentality of left-leaning Americans.

I think that many Americans on the left are torn between two political positions, each coherent on its own but in tension with the other:

1. A strong version of New Deal/Great Society liberalism and/or social democracy, in which the nation-state intervenes assertively in the economy to promote equity and environmental sustainability. This stance is compatible with enthusiastic support for voting and democratic processes. It requires a lot of trust in the state and a willingness to entrust state actors with the ability to, for example, investigate how much wealth (not just annual income) you have, which schools your kids will attend, and which health treatments will be paid for, given data about your body.

Martin Luther King, Jr., provides a classic statement of this view when he recalls the launch of the Great Society: “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.”

2. A deep suspicion of the United States government as white-supremacist, patriarchal, and colonialist: as a continuous entity that has played a leading role in genocide, enslavement, and apartheid, in part because those policies have sometimes been popular among the white majority of the country.

It’s debatable what positive program follows from the second position, but in practice, it can mean support for local initiatives, nonprofits, women- and minority-owned businesses, and autonomy at the neighborhood level. Malcolm X provides a classic text for this view:

The white man, the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community. But you will let anybody come in and control the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. 

… we haven’t had sense enough to set up stores and control the businesses of our community. … But the political and economic philosophy of black nationalism…the economic philosophy of black nationalism shows our people the importance of setting up these little stores, and developing them and expanding them into larger operations. Woolworth didn’t start out big like they are today; they started out with a dime store, and expanded, and expanded, and expanded until today they are all over the country and all over the world and they getting some of everybody’s money. …

So our people not only have to be reeducated to the importance of supporting black business, but the black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. 

Note that this position is compatible with certain forms of libertarian thought but not with social democracy.

It is not embarrassing to be drawn to two incompatible views. The social world is complicated, and there are good reasons in favor of many positions. However, when you feel the pull of two incompatible ideas, a deciding factor becomes very important.

Reparations play that role for the American left. If the United States government were to pay reparations, that would tilt many left-leaning people from the second position to the first: from Malcolm to Martin, if those labels are helpful. The impact would be especially strong if Congress and the president decided to pay reparations of their own volition–not by grudgingly negotiating with a social movement–and if the payment were substantial.

The underlying theory here is similar to Homer-Dixon et al (2020). An ideology is a complex system that consists of numerous ideas with logical links among them. It cannot be described adequately by placing it on one left/right spectrum, nor even several such continua at once. It is not a point in logical space but a structure of ideas.

In complex systems, we frequently see multiple equilibria, and specific nodes have surprisingly large impact because of their location. A single node can tilt the system from one equilibrium to another.

My conjecture is that reparations plays such a role in the system of the ideology of the American left. Left-leaning people may not rate it as the most important issue. They may not even endorse it whole-heartedly. But it (perhaps uniquely) can tilt them from a libertarian equilibrium to a social-democratic equilibrium.

This is an empirical conjecture for which I do not have data. To test it, we would have to explore the epistemic network of left-leaning Americans, either by analyzing large bodies of text or by surveying individuals about their ideas and perceived connections among their ideas.

See also: on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter; ideologies and complex systems; and unveiling a systems map for k-12 civic education (for a methodological analog).