I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the need for a rhetorical education—that is, an education that doesn’t presume to lay down the law about what’s true and what’s false, but instead teaches each individual how to understand and assess claims about truth and falsehood. That’s a concept many people find challenging these days. We live in the last phases in an era of abstraction, and the notion of truth in most people’s minds these days follows suit: when people talk about truth, they generally mean some set of generalizations dunned into their heads that are supposedly always true in the abstract, even though they may not work all the time (or at all) in the irreducibly grubby and complex world we actually inhabit.
Think about the things that the people around you consider to be truths. (I’d ask you to think about the things that you consider to be truths, but as that guy from Nazareth noted, it’s usually a lot easier to spot the mote in your brother’s eye than the beam in your own.) Unless you run with an unusually philosophically literate crowd, most of these supposed truths can be expressed neatly in sentences of the form “all X are Y”: “all white people are racists,” “all people on welfare are lazy,” and so on. That’s the kind of abstract generalization I’m talking about.
People get very defensive about their favorite abstract generalizations. If you question the logic behind them, you can expect to be told that you’re ignorant, and quite probably that you’re evil as well. For that matter, if you encounter realities that don’t fit the generalization and have the bad taste to mention that in public, you can expect to be told that the plural of anecdote isn’t data. Now this may be so in an abstract sense, but the plural of anecdote is also one of the very few ways you can find out that the abstract generalizations you’ve constructed out of your data are hopelessly out of touch with the real world.
The gold standard along these lines in recent times was set by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. People in her field offices in swing states, who watched Clinton’s attempts to attract voters flop while Trump’s gathered momentum, got airily informed by headquarters, “Our data disproves your anecdotes.” Unfortunately for Clinton’s presidential hopes, the election was not settled by data; it was settled by tens of millions of entirely anecdotal voters who live in a world that’s neither abstract nor generalized, and their votes quite conclusively disproved the Clinton campaign’s data. Ironically enough, Clinton keeps on trying to insist that she won the election in some abstract sense—and while this may be true, a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that she’s still not the one now residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Abstraction is a powerful tool, but like most powerful tools, it has to be used with appropriate caution or you’re probably going to chop your own fingers off. The best way to guarantee that there will soon be bleeding chunks of spare finger all over the floor, in turn, is to insist that your preferred set of abstractions is more real than the messy phenomena in the real world from which those abstractions have been derived.
That’s an insistence that always shows up late in an era of abstraction, and once it puts in an appearance, you know that disasters are near at hand: that bridges that theoretically ought to stay up just fine come crashing down, diets that theoretically ought to make people healthy make them sick, medicines that theoretically ought to be safe and effective fail to cure illnesses and cause a bumper crop of harmful or fatal side effects, governmental policies that theoretically ought to bring peace, security, and prosperity reliably yield the opposite, and so on. If this sounds familiar to you, dear reader, well, let’s just say that’s not accidental.
Yet these aren’t the only symptoms of an era of abstraction that’s passed its pull date. One of the others deserves close attention just now, because it’s become a massive though almost entirely unmentioned presence in modern American life: the way that an embarrasingly large number of people these days are caught up in a frantic quest for unearned authority.
It so happens that as a teacher and erstwhile presiding officer in a small and quirky minority religion, I’ve had a ringside seat at this particular circus. America’s long history of religious eccentricity being what it is, religion is one of the standard venues by which people on the fringes claim authority. Some of the most impressive events in American history, and some of the most improbable, have been kickstarted by a religious leader who took off at right angles to the conventional wisdom and, by sheer force of character and example, took thousands or even millions of Americans along for the ride.
The Joseph Smiths and Martin Luther Kings, the religious leaders who from time to time have stood our history on its head, are on one end of a very broad spectrum. Across the middle are all those countless men and women who’ve taken up leadership roles in religious communities becauser they thought they could make the world a little better, whether or not you and I agree with their idea of what counts as better. Then, all the way on the other end, are the people whose sole interest in religious leadership is that they think it’ll give them the right to tell other people how to think and what to do. Those have always been a dime a dozen in American public life, but these days they’re not even that hard to come by.
Yes, we get them in Druidry, too, and there’s a great deal of irony in that. All the way through its eccentric history, ever since the Druid Revival of the eighteenth century kicked the whole shebang into motion, Druidry has been about as far as you can get from the sort of faith in which obedience to clergy is expected, or even allowed. It’s as close to a central dogma as we have—and we really, truly, seriously don’t do dogma—that your relationship to the spiritual powers you revere is none of my business, and vice versa, even if I have a funny hat and an ornate title. Yet with maniacal regularity, during the twelve years I spent wearing a funny hat as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, people approached me wanting various kinds of ornate titles and funny hats so that they could go around telling other people how to think and what to do, very often about things having nothing at all to do with Druidry.
They’re far from alone, of course. These days America’s thronged with evangelical Christians who sincerely believe that God wants them to bully everyone else into following a set of moral rules they generally don’t follow themselves. Right next to them are the evangelical atheists who are just as convinced that the supposedly self-evident truth of their ideology gives them the right to shove it down everyone else’s throats. From the political correctness of the left to the patriotic correctness of the right, people across the cratered no-man’s-land of American politics like to insist that they have the right to tell everyone how to think and what to do. Why? Because they’re right, of course—but don’t ask them to justify that claim, unless you really like getting shouted down by a crowd of enraged true believers.
That’s also standard in the twilight years of an era of abstraction, and it’s probably worth taking a moment to understand why. An age of abstraction dawns when a handful of well-chosen abstract generalizations offer a sudden, startlingly clear glimpse at the shape of some corner of the cosmos. The first great triumphs of modern science played that role in kickstarting the era of abstraction now winding to its end, just as geometry did in ancient Greek times and scholastic logic did in the Middle Ages. The cultural impact of these achievements is substantial enough that they become the paradigm on which every other kind of knowledge is modeled.
That’s a very effective approach early on, because whatever tools of abstraction were used in those first startling achievements very often turn out to be just as handy when applied to some other fields of knowledge. Thus the methods of thinking that made Greek geometry a triumph of abstract understanding turned out to be just as useful when applied to logic, and the methods of thinking that showed Newton how the planets moved also showed Dalton how chemicals combined and Darwin how species evolved. Well and good—but not every field of knowledge is amenable to any one set of tools of abstraction, or to abstraction in any sense at all.
That’s the rock on which eras of abstraction finally shatter. In particular, those fields of knowledge that have the most dramatic impact on human life—yes, we’re talking about politics and economics—are relentlessly resistant to abstraction. In political and economic life, you’re never dealing with abstractions; you’re always dealing with human beings, in all their innate complexity and cussedness. Approach them as abstractions and you fail. Approach them with abstractions, rather than with policies and proposals that address the things that matter to them in their daily lives, and you fail at least as badly.
The difficulty, of course, is that people who grow up in an era of abstraction are used to thinking that they know what the truth is. If they belong to one of their society’s privileged classes—for example, the educated intelligentsia—they’re also used to telling other people what the truth is, and expecting anybody less privileged than they are to shut up and listen. As an era of abstraction comes unglued, in turn, people who think this way face the shattering discovery that the people below them on the pyramid aren’t willing to shut up and listen to them any more. Thus they inevitably start looking for something that they think will make people shut up and listen—and at the same time, people in the less privileged classes who aspire to the status as dispensers of truth are just as busy looking for something that will make everyone listen to them.
It’s a cold and scary place for would-be dispensers of truth, there at the end of an era of abstraction. It’s not just that nobody’s willing to shut up and listen to them, either. Tolerably often, they themselves begin to notice that the abstract generalizations they’ve been peddling as truth don’t actually work so well. Human nature being what it is, their usual response is to double down and get shrill about it, and to add as much physical violence to the equation as local custom permits.
Sooner or later, though, the last futile attempts to maintain the dominance of abstraction wind down or, far more often than not, get dismissed as useless by a rising generation, and end up on the wrong side of the grass with the generation that defended them. What follows is the opening stages of an era of reflection, in which the achievements of the departed era of abstraction get sorted through and assessed, the good bits kept, the useless bits chucked, and the habit of letting some pompous windbag with credentials tell the rest of the world what the absolute truth is this week gets a well-deserved rest.
We’re approaching that latter point in the cycle, but we’re not there yet. It’s telling, and not in a good way, that the most popular response from the political establishment to the rise of Donald Trump was an orgy of doubling down on favored abstractions, in which Trump and the people who voted for him got shoehorned into a vast array of competing “all X is Y” abstractions. As I noted repeatedly during and after the campaign, though, it’s not at all hard to understand why so many working class Americans voted for Trump in 2016, if you simply notice what’s happened to working class Americans over the last forty years.
In 1976 an American family with one working class paycheck could generally afford a home, a car, three square meals a day, and all the other amenities of daily life, with maybe a little left over for a luxury now and then. In 2016 an American family with one working class paycheck was probably living on the street. That didn’t happen by accident, either; it happened as the direct result of specific policies enthusiastically supported by both mainstream parties and by all the officially approved economic experts; but that result, with all the human misery it entailed, was excluded from the world of abstract generalizations that guided US goverment policy from Reagan straight through to Obama, banished to the realm of anecdote by those who didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from.
There were other issues that helped swing the election—Hillary Clinton’s chickenhawk fondness for military adventurism, which didn’t go over too well among the people who could expect family members to come back in body bags; the soaring financial burden imposed on working families by the Obamacare fiasco; and the Democratic Party’s hamfisted rigging of the primary process in Clinton’s favor, which convinced a great many Democratic voters to stay home on election day, among others—and all of them were variations on the same theme. The political establishment promoted a series of abstract generalizations—“the global economy,“ “standing up for democracy,” “health care for all,” “our first woman president”—while ignoring the way these abstractions worked out in the realm of anecdote, where we all actually live. The people who had to put up with the anecdotal reality, in turn, had finally had enough. While one can certainly object to their choice of candidate, it’s not as though the political establishment offered them anyone else who was willing to stop talking in airy abstractions and address the harsh realities of their lives.
That the immediate response to Trump’s election was a frantic effort to drag the discussion back to abstract generalizations, and an even more frantic attempt to erase the painful if anecdotal realities that made the event happen, was utterly predictable. It was also useless. The thing that brings an age of abstraction to its end is the inevitable failure of policies based on abstractions that stray too far from reality; the end can come by way of elections, or it can come by much harsher means, but one way or another, it’s going to come—because reality, after all, is always anecdotal, and if your abstract generalizations ignore reality, it’s not reality that’s going to lose.
While we watch the shredding of the tissue of dysfunctional abstractions that passes for political and economic thought in today’s America, it’s certainly timely to begin discussing what comes after. I’m framing that discussion in this sequence of posts in terms of education, and there’s good reason for that. After all, one highly useful thing each of us can do to get ready for the final collapse of the era of abstraction is to educate ourselves, so that we know how to get by in a world in which nobody can claim privileged access to truth any more.
There are skills that make it much easier to navigate through a world that’s supplied with claims of truth rather than truths as such—a world in which all such claims remain open to doubt, subject to constant revision and reassessment. Fortunately, those skills have been worked out in quite a bit of detail already, courtesy of previous ages in which abstraction collapsed of its own misplaced certainties and reflection had to pick up the pieces. Over the months to come, we’ll be talking about some of those skills, and also discussing such crashingly unfashionable things as the importance of the humanities—those humaniores litterae, “more human studies,” that helped the thinkers of the Renaissance dig themselves out from under the wreckage of medieval scholasticism and launch one of the great ages of human culture.
Before we get to those themes, though, one point probably deserves making here above all. One skill that I won’t be discussing is how to find the right authority, so you can believe in whatever he or she says without having to think about it. That way lies ruin. No authority can tell you how to think or what to do, because no authority can know your life as anything but an abstraction, freighted with all the burdens of the era of abstraction now waning around us. Only you can encounter your own life in the realm of anecdote, where (again) we all actually live.
This principle applies to me, of course, just as much as it does to anyone else. In the posts ahead I’ll be presenting a range of tools and practices and things to do, and encouraging my readers to try them out. If you decide to do something else instead, go ye forth and do that thing. If you decide that, despite what I said above, you’re going to go looking for an authority to do your thinking for you, and embrace whatever abstractions he or she doles out as the one and only truth, you have the right to do that, too. If you’re ready to confront the twilight of authority in our time, though—why, in that case, welcome to the adventure.
One further comment. One of the seemingly unbridgeable divisions in recent intellectual life lies between believers in a range of traditional religions, on the one hand, and atheists on the other. That division is almost entirely a matter of abstractions, which may help to explain why it’s been fought out so savagely in the era of abstraction that’s waning around us just now. In an era of reflection, the gap between the believer and the atheist becomes considerably narrower, and it becomes tolerably easy to set up camp in the space between, or even to settle down there for the long term. The tools and practices and things to do that I’ll be suggesting in the posts to come thus will be useful for believers as well as for atheists, and also for those in that middle ground—inconceivable in an age of abstraction—where religion is not a matter of belief in a doctrine but of orientation toward a quest. We’ll talk about that, too, as the journey proceeds.
On a different note, as many of my readers know, there’ll be a potluck for fans of this blog in Providence, RI on June 23 of this year. As with any sensible potluck, there’s a signup sheet so that everyone doesn’t bring potato salad; you can find it online here. I’ll look forward to seeing some of you there!