Experience, Theory and Argument
Experience, Theory and Argument Richard Ostrofsky (February, 1999) O. Henry has a story called The Man Higher Up about t...
Experience, Theory and Argument Richard Ostrofsky (February, 1999) O. Henry has a story called The Man Higher Up about three scoundrels (the author just calls them Labor, Trade and Capital), all down on their luck and flat broke. Labor cracks a safe, and gets them some eating money and a modest stake. Trade uses the money to buy some gimcrack merchandise, and the three friends go on to make a fortune, taking the rubes at country fairs. Then they divide their profits and go their separate ways. Some years later, Trade and Labor run into each other, again in dire straits, having lost their life savings. It turns out that they had both invested in a real estate scheme to purchase and develop some land in Florida that turned out to be underwater. In further comparing notes, they at last figure out that the mastermind behind this venture was (as you will certainly have guessed) their old friend Capital: the man highest up. It may be interesting to compare the powers and limitations of the three cognitive strategies called experience, theory and argument by analogy with this economic parable. Experience, like labor, is at the root of it all – the last resort when you are out of ideas, and the first when you are just getting started. With a stock of experience you can begin to theorize, aiming (like any good merchant) to realize an intellectual profit through parsimony – by explaining much with little. Experience and Theory are mutually dependent, of course, as labor is with trade. The paradigms, concepts and models of theory enrich experience; experience motivates and validates theory. Indeed, without some prior body of theory – if only the theory embodied in the structure of one’s own nervous system, no experience would be possible. The old dream was that this spiral must wind round and round, ascending ever higher toward some grand vision that would embrace absolutely everything. However, for various reasons that need not concern us here, this outcome no longer seems either feasible or desirable to many thinkers. Instead, we have the prospect of endless argument among competing summits: each fully evolved and perfected according to its kind, yet unashamedly different from the others. Is this mere confusion? Or does argument have cognitive content in its own right?
To the extent that argument can be considered knowledge, it clearly subsumes and operates on experience and theory, analogously to the way that capital subsumes and operates on labor and trade. For our analogy to be of interest, what needs be shown is that argument embodies knowledge – or the potential for knowledge – in some way comparable to that in which capital embodies the potential for livelihood. We are thinking of argument now not as a process, but as a kind of structure: a structure of ideas, perceptions, concerns and so forth: an ecology of mind, as Gregory Bateson called it. These are, of course, in conflict and competition with one another, and it is this conflict and competition that we are most aware of, most of the time. Indeed, almost our whole effort as finite human beings must be to play our own side of whatever games we are engaged in, and let the game as a whole take care of itself. And yet, to anyone who lives among books, as I do, it becomes quite evident that the biases and partialities of the various authors are less significant in the long run than the fund of thought and passion left for us to draw upon – to learn from, invoke, and develop further for our own purposes.1 A fund of this kind can indeed be seen as “intellectual capital” – for the owner of a book store, literally so. Whatever they mean to me as a reader, as a small businessman, every book in my store represents an illiquid asset, that is worth almost nothing at all until the day some customer brings it to my desk, buys it, and carries it off to its new home. From a purely mercenary perspective, all books (as distinguished from editions of books) are created equal. A Penguin copy of Plato’s Republic is worth about the same as one of Machiavelli’s The Prince. A work by Bill Buckley sells for about the same as one by John Kenneth Galbraith, a St. Augustine as a Nietzsche, Anaïs Nin as the Marquis de Sade. Yet this ultimate reconciliation of antithetical books and authors is more than just mercenary. You will have to read both Plato and Machiavelli, and Buckley and Galbraith, if you have a serious interest in politics. You will want to read both Augustine and Nietzsche to get a sense of what religion has meant in the human experience, and what it can still mean today. You will have to read Anaïs Nin, the Marquis de Sade and a hundred other writers to get a sense of what sex has meant and means. It is one thing to live and collect experience. It is another to think and theorize. But if you 1 As a previous book of mine, Sharing Realities, discusses at length.
actually want to understand an issue, you have to get your head around the whole argument about it, and then reflect on your own experience in its light. On controversial matters, the argument itself is the highest form of knowledge, because it is in Argument’s pocket that the winnings of Theory and Experience end up.