I admit to having a certain love of reading lists.   Apart from its obvious referential function, a list allows its compiler the luxury of a degree of paresse: the well-intentioned reader will be enticed into operating within the parameters set by the list and the compiler will thus be  spared the work of explicitly setting the boundaries of the topic the reader is asked to examine.

Not having any expertise in economics and wanting to come to a better understanding of  what happened in the current crisis, I put together a set of readings.   As the collection of books that follows  shows, I understand economics in a broad and multidimensional sense,  probably  inseparable from what some intellectual traditions have termed political economy.

With respect to reading lists themselves, let’s allow ourselves  a completely gratuitous clin d’oeil in the direction of Borges and recall that all of them should be considered open ended.

*Robert KuttnerA Presidency in Peril  (The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Street’s Power and the Struggle to Control Our Economic Future), Chelsea Green, 2010.

Kuttner’s book belongs in first position on this list because it expresses the type of doubt which surfaced about the Obama administration once the euphoria of the departure of  G. W. Bush dissipated.  We quickly were reminded that, in the best of  worlds, the political clout shouldn’t be held by the Rubin/Summers/Geithner clan.

*Kevin Phillips, Bad Money (Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism) Penguin Books, 2009.

Kevin Phillips is an astute analyst of American politics and his books are great reading.  Some of my liberal friends refuse to believe that anyone formerly associated with Richard Nixon would have anything of value to contribute to the discussion of the current situation, but, as is often said in tv cop dramas, I trust this guy’s instincts.

*John Cassidy, How Markets Fail  ( The Logic of Economic Calamities), Farrar, Straus, Giroux,  2009

Cassidy provides a careful  introduction to the variants of economic theory  in play as the recent catastrophe developed.  His concise account of the current crisis is excellent.

*Simon Johnson & James Kwak13 Bankers ( The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial  Meltdown) Pantheon,  2010.

Johnson and Kwak put the relationships involving power, banking and the U.S. government in a historical perspective and proceed to give a detailed account the rise of the present U.S. financial oligarchy.  Their approach to  describing the development of the recent financial crisis nicely complements Cassidy’s book.

*Joseph Stiglitz, Freefall  (America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy) , Norton, 2010.

Stiglitz is an economics heavyweight and his  book reads like a primer on the current crisis.  It blends  policy considerations and theory into  an accessible and comprehensive analysis that can easily  serve as a guide for our attempt to understand what is at stake in the decisions government is now obligated to make.

Noriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, Crisis Economics (A Crash Course in the Future of Finance), Penguin, 2010.

I was very impressed by the rigor of this clearly written book  which appeals to knowledge of the nature and history of economic downturns to put the current crisis in perspective.  The authors demonstrate  that the attempt to  understand what has happened in our economy cannot ignore the lessons  learned from crisis economics.  They also provide a very sobering look at what we can expect in the near future.

*Paul Krugman, The Age of Diminished Expectations ( U.S. Economic Policy in the 1990s, 3rd edition),  MIT Press, 1997.

*Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, Norton, 2009.

Krugman is a very  active commentator and we are all familiar with his work for the New York Times.  Although the first book was written long before the recent crisis,  I include it here because it does provide solid guidance to a better understanding of the fundamentals of  the American economy.  Krugman devotes  brief but informative chapters to unemployment, productivity, trade and budget deficits, income distribution, etc.  Also, understanding how  the author perceived certain key U.S. economic issues of the 90’s helps us better evaluate what is happening presently.

I particularly appreciated Krugman’s book  devoted to the current crisis for its  chapters  detailing  bad judgment, economic hubris and misreadings of the warnings  which previously surfaced in some of the economies of Asia and Latin America.

*James K. Galbraith, The Predator State (How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too) , The Free Press, 2008.

Galbraith’s description of the political economy of the United States is very clear in its explanation of how the changes in the institutions and programs associated with the heritage of the New Deal have structured contemporary American society.  He very carefully deconstructs most of the myths (concerning  free trade, balanced budgets, ”economic freedom”, etc.) which have been the basic tenets of U.S. conservatism.  Free market ideology has in effect led to the establishment of a political and economic oligarchy,  the ”predator state”.  Galbraith shows us how the exercise of political power by this oligarchy (in its attempt to neutralize the New Deal heritage) combines with structural changes in the American economy to create a potentially disastrous situation.

*Judith  Stein, Pivotal Decade (How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies), Yale University Press, 2010.

Stein’s book is an ideal complement to Galbraith’s.  The author shows  some of the ways in which the 70’s can be considered a transitional decade.  She attacks complex  relations between capital, industry, international banking, foreign policy and domestic politics in a way that permits us to better understand the consequences of many ill advised choices.  She succeeds in clearly demonstrating  how economic policy from the Ford administration onward has produced increasing income inequality in the U.S.

*Roger Lowenstein, The End of Wall Street,  The Penguin Press, 2010.

Lowenstein has us  follow the development of the current crisis through the actions of a set of  “characters”  (listed at the beginning of the book) ,  major players in the main financial institutions (Citigroup,  Goldman Sachs,  JP Morgan Chase, etc.)  implicated in the inflating of the credit bubble.  His fluid narrative allows us to witness  the interaction of  key financial institutions,  government and the Federal Reserve. This descriptive approach is  very effective in helping us to better understand  the machinations of the highest levels of American financial power.

*Michael Lewis, The Big Short (Inside the Doomsday Machine), Norton, 2010.

Michael Lewis is a best selling author these days and here he tells the story of a few exceptional and somewhat eccentric characters in the investment world,  almost all of whom foresaw the coming of the economic crisis.

*Michael Edesess, The Big Investment Lie, (What Your Financial Advisor Doesn’t Want You to Know), Berrett Koehler, 2007.

My graduate school colleague and friend Mike Edesess has drawn on his knowledge and experience to produce an informative book which I enjoyed for two reasons:  1) the author is one of the most perspicacious and amusing people I’ve ever met  2) his intelligence has confirmed the prejudice which I’ve always had against the investment industry (and everyone loves to be right once and a while).

*Barry Eichengreen, Exorbitant Privilege, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Eichengreen presents a short history of the rise of the dollar as international standard currency.  He describes the privileges that the United States obtains from the dollar’s role in international commerce and finance.  Finally, he discusses possible scenarios connected to the decline of the power of  American currency.

*Christian Marazzi, The Violence of Financial Capitalism, Semiotexte  (MIT Press), 2011.

The most important element which I retain from Marazzi’s short book is  its underlining of the role of financialization in the recovery of capital’s profitability.  Combined with “biocapitalism” and cognitive capitalism,  financialization is linked to productive strategies which reduce the labor force and define a new role for the consumer:  producer of goods and services. Industrial capitalism with its Fordist model seems to be running out its course in developed nations.  Profitability of enterprises is now based on a different model which in part replaces the traditional industrial work force by an offloading of  new tasks onto the consumer.

* Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff,  This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, Princeton University Press, 2009.

An empirical and quantitative study of major financial crises , this work includes a primer of basic concepts before embarking on a detailed presentation of crises defined by  quantitative thresholds (inflation, currency crises, currency debasement) and crises defined by events (bank failures, external and domestic debt crises).  Charts, graphs and tables provide information on crises affecting countries on all continents, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. Special treatment is given to the Great Depression and  our Second Grand Contraction. The main thesis of the book is that this time is never different, “we have been here before”.  And the one lesson to be retained is that extreme leverage and wholesale liberalization of rules on capital movement never result in something good.  Reinhart and Rogoff’s book is a must read because of the mass of information it contains, its clear presentation of fundamental concepts and its pertinence in placing the current crisis in historical perspective.

*John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash 1929  (Foreword by James K. Galbraith),  Mariner Books,  2009.

This is a classic, required reading.   The Foreword by James K. is an added bonus.


*Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, W.W. Norton, 2012.

Stiglitz  describes how American society has become characterized by increasing economic polarization and the danger this polarization represents for the functioning of its democratic institutions.  He explains how “deficit fetishism”  neutralizes  action which could repair some of the damage caused by the recent financial fiasco and offers sound economic and political  suggestions for reconstructing a more just society.

*Simon Johnson and James Kwak, White House Burning, Pantheon Books, 2012. 

This is a superior description and analysis of the current budgetary crisis . The authors situate the crisis in historical perspective, describe  how government financing and spending really work and explain the nature of government deficits and debt.  They offer clear suggestions of what can and should be done  to put the country on sounder economic ground.

*Jacques Sapir, La démondialisation, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2011.

Sapir discusses the international dimension of the current crisis. His analysis of the myths surrounding liberalization of  trade and  globalization of finance is solidly grounded.



In the days after the adoption of  la Loi 101, the law which recognized French as the (only) official language of  Québec,  the hardcore anglophone faction in the Montréal region announced the imminent arrival of the Apocalypse.  Repression was sure to be nigh:  the English speaking minority would be marginalized in a geopolitical entity which would itself be marginalized in the North American continent.  Even worse, despite years of British rule, we could not depend on the natives having assimilated the principle of  fair play.

If we were to believe a segment of the anglophone press, one of the nastiest manifestations of this apparent lack of a sense of anglo-saxon fair play was manifested  in the application of the new language law to the domain of  affichage.  A particularly notable example of this putative linguistic repression was thought to be found at the well-known (and now departed) department store Eaton’s.  French language nationalists had long considered  Eaton’s a symbol of anglophone arrogance, since it was widely believed that the company’s flagship establishment  in downtown Montréal deliberately hired unilingual anglophones in order to deny francophones  adequate service en  français.

One of the provisions of la  Loi 101 was the prescribed dominance of  French on commercial signage.   Since the genitive is not indicated by the use of the apostrophe in French, Eaton’s first became Eatons and then eventually Eaton.  The vanishing apostrophe of Eaton’s was subsequently infused with a new symbolic value.  So, in a rebondissement which would rejoice Derrideans among us, a vanishing grammatical mark  became a symbol of French language tyranny.

Camille Laurin,  a psychiatrist who became  minister responsible for cultural development in the first Parti Québécois government, was painted as a “language Nazi ” whose supposed psychological manipulation of the population was considered more diabolical and dangerous than la Terreur de 1793 .  After all, for the hyper sensitive English speaker, the suppression of the Eaton’s apostrophe could only lead to  a serious loss of identity and concomitant decrease of self-esteem.

Those familiar with Canadian politics understand that the sign skirmish was only a short chapter in a linguistic melodrama which is part and parcel of  the history of Québec.  In fact, it took more than 200 years to generate this tepid revenge against the English language.  Having been sheltered by British rule, the Québécois never assimilated the vigor of  republican ideals.  In short, sending the ruling class to the guillotine was never an option here.

Many years have passed since the promulgation of official uniligualism in  Québec.  Signage in the Montréal area has survived, actually improved and become very creative. ( Take, for example,  the name for the warehousing company  Securespace , a particularly felicitous use of surreptitious bilingualism.)  In the spirit of internationalism, the use of pictogrammes has flourished, actually alleviating the burden of having to read anything at all.   Most of the pricklier anglophone population has departed to points west or reluctantly resigned itself to the status quo.  For the rest of us,  it’s life as usual.

I certainly understood the unhappiness of Québec nationalists with the barbaric nature of some of the pre-Parti Québécois bilingual signage.  My friend and thesis advisor , the late  André Belleau,  once commented on the possibility of a francophone growing up thinking that the sign Pont Jacques-Cartier Bridge meant that the structure in question was named after a Monsieur J. C. Bridge.

Of course, it may be that I have always paid abnormal attention to banal commercial signs.  After all, I did live in apartments above family-run grocery stores for the first thirteen years of my life.  But, ironically, one of my favorite commercial signs was not really commercial at all.  A graduate school friend and colleague,  the legendary Michael Edesess, and I sometimes ate breakfast at a diner (in Evanston, Illinois) which had no apparent name.  The diner’s only marking during the business day was a simple cardboard sign on its front door: OPEN.  Of course, we ended naming the diner The Open.  And since it was sometimes closed, we found the name especially amusing.  But even novice topologists understand that the concepts of open and closed are not really mutually exclusive :  so much for math grad students’ humor and appreciation of fine restaurants.

After the language controversy in the 1970’s in Québec,  the spelling, syntax and grammar on signs actually improved.  However, some years later the initial francophone pride in the election of the PQ government abated.  Then  both the language used on signs and the level of  language used in public discourse seemed to decline.  I wondered if this decline in public use of language was simply a local phenomenon, possibly the result of  a French language letdown, a lowering of educational standards, or even the increased cross pollination  of languages in a city as cosmopolitan as  Montréal.  So, when I was in the United States,  I began to examine commercial signs a little more carefully.  To my chagrin, I found my U.S. compatriots were not operating at a much better level.  The geographically closest example was a restaurant in Champlain, New York whose large principal sign proudly  announced Home Made Pie’s. I could have said that the banished Eaton’s apostrophe did not have to travel far to find a home.

Unfortunately, since then I have often encountered the use of the apostrophe in the formation of the plural of a noun: for example, the web site of the Turbo Grips company (a bowling product supplier with which I am familiar) announces Video’s and Events. On the other hand, sometimes genitive constructions  lack the apostrophe:  e.g. the Giants roster.  It may be that there has been a grammatical and orthographical revolution which, in my relative isolation,  I have missed.  It could possibly have  occurred one summer when I was busy listening to the New York Yankee’s on the radio.

Seeing too many spelling, syntactical and  and grammatical mistakes on written material destined for the public is certainly annoying.  It obviously denotes a lack of respect for the minimal standards of communication.  But it also says something about the intelligence, pride and sense of rigor of the authors of that material.  Without entering into the type of cultural critique  found in Susan Jacoby’s  The Age of American Unreason (2008),  I would say that it might be pertinent to question the reason for the decline of certain fundamental skills that we previously  took for granted: elementary language skills that constitute basic literacy, basic mathematical skills that allow us to understand elementary science and participate in simple commercial exchanges, maybe even spatial orientation (i. e. geometrical) skills which permit us to adapt to the basic geography around us.  Should we fully depend on word processing software, the calculator and the GPS?  In a supposedly sophisticated society, it seems unreasonable that we have high school (and even college) graduates  who may not know how to distinguish the grammatical pieces of a sentence, how to calculate averages and percentages,  how to make change in a store, how to find a large and well-known civic building without programming the GPS?

It is possible that mankind has advanced to the point where none of the basic skills mentioned above are necessary for survival or commerce with other humans.  Those whose interests lie in selling  technologically sophisticated “gadgets”   would have us believe that emphasis on the mastery of basic skills is antediluvian.  Yet it may be time to once again insist on the Kantian maxim which reminds us that Aufklärung is the act by which we detach ourselves from the inability to use reason without depending on others.  In exercising intelligence, we would possibly then begin to better understand the complex relations between technology, international capitalism and human freedom.

At any rate,  without expressing an embarrassing type of New Age linguistic holism,  I would like to suggest it may be desirable that the exiled English language apostrophe once again find its appropriate place in its own linguistic milieu.  As far as the language situation in Québec goes,  let’s worry more about the correctness of the French on signs and less about the extraneous consequences of an overdue chapter of historical evolution. And, of course, don’t think about asking the person selling you a GPS about the relativistic principles guaranteeing its correct functioning.

51b5za3qkpl_sl500_aa240_6I recently read the good news that Franz Neumann’s 1944 classic, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944, will finally be reprinted in English (by Ivan R. Dee Publishers).   In a previous blog entry (German Lessons for Americans), I  already commented on the importance of this work whose Harper Torchbook edition dates back to the 1960’s.  Behemoth is required reading for anyone interested in trying to understand the phenomenon of National Socialism and certain of its homologous relations with the current political and economic situation in the Western world.

I believe that in many respects we have more to learn from German thought of the period between the two World Wars than we have from what passes for philosophy and theory in our present time.   There are certainly  issues, for example those dealing with globalization and environmental concerns, that were less obtrusive in that period.  Yet our understanding of fundamental economic and political concerns in the Occident can only be enhanced by the reading of  Franz Neumann’s impressive study of National Socialism.   (In this sense, there is a kind of parallelism with what I’ve previously written about the sciences.  In a certain way, Neumann plays the same  role here that Husserl played in my blog entry on philosophy and science.)

The euphoria in North America surrounding the election of a new president may very well lead to deception and disappointment.  It is unlikely that the fundamental parameters of economic and political life will undergo radical modification once Western societies have weathered the current economic “correction”.  Memories in North America are short.  We tend to forget how far America has departed from its post World War II liberal capitalist course.  If the Obama presidency succeeds in coming close to reversing some of  the political and economic deviation of the Reagan years, it will have accomplished a major task.  However, even such a reversal is not equivalent to structural change.

It is not my intention to examine Behemoth in detail: not only does the book contain a wealth of details on many aspects of the NS regime, but it also opens up many possible topics for detailed discussion.  It demands a more systematic study.  My intention is rather to make a few simple observations about certain aspects of the book.

The most important service that we obtain from  Franz Neumann is the dissipation of many of the myths concerning the rise and practice of fascism in Germany.  Post-structuralist acolytes have too often fostered the simpleminded dictum that Western rationalism leads directly to Auschwitz.   Behemoth‘s strength lies in its detailed description of  the  situation in which National Socialism seized power and in its painstaking elaboration of the relations between power, politics and economics during its control of the German state.  Neumann’s  careful exegesis of the elements woven together in that complexity is exemplary.

It is possible to shortcut the description of the development of  fascism by borrowing from Adorno/Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment:  in fascism Myth takes its revenge against Enlightenment.  Or, to put this in Neumann’s terms,  a rational state (say in the sense of Hegel) is not compatible with the (racial) movement state espoused by National Socialism.  But Behemoth corrects the abstract character of this type of observation.  Neumann shows that National Socialism had no real theory of society, no real philosophy beyond the promotion of a type of citizen activism that hardly left room for thought.  Non-rational concepts derived from bogus racial theory and questionable geopolitical considerations were useful in hiding the real structure of power and  in manipulating the masses (helped, of course,  by the threat of terror).  German society was structured by the dynamic of  four groups (party, army, industry, bureaucracy),  each organized according to the “leadership principle”.  NS Germany was not really a state in any classical sense:  it was not ruled by law, but rather by a series of technical rules whose foundation rested on a sort of arbitrariness. This is the sense in which Myth takes its revenge.

From my personal ethnic standpoint ( given that I am of Polish descent), it is somewhat chilling to read the details of the structure which was to govern a European continent ruled by National Socialism.  Also, from the standpoint of  someone who has been involved in education, it  is  particularly sad to read the disappointment that Neumann expresses in the “almost complete moral corruption of the German intelligentsia, especially of the academic world”.  Even more damning to the educational system is his  note that statistics showed that 23% of all party political functionaries came from the teaching professions, primarily from the ranks of  elementary school teachers.

This sort of  account echoes the description that Karl Löwith gives of his experience in the German universities of the time (in My Life in Germany Before and After 1933).  Unfortunately, our experience with the character of academics since the Reagan years is not much different.  Following years of flirtation with philosophical tendencies (commonly grouped under rubrics  such as post-modernism or post-structuralism) most compatible with globalism  (in the sense this term is used by Ulrich Beck) and least  conducive to critical examination of the  unfettered reign of transnational corporations, current philosophy has more or less loss its credibility, its moral authority and its critical function.

Finally, it is evident that the most crucial element in understanding the Germany of this period is the role of the cartels and the manner in which the cartellization of the German economy depended on totalitarian political power to help it avoid any perturbation.  Neumann insists on the importance of the profit motive and the creation and maintenance of a political and social climate in which empire builders such as Flick, Wolff, Mannesmann, and Krupp could prosper.  It was the role of National Socialism to provide the power necessary to support this monopolistic system.  The aims of the German cartels could not be carried out in a political democracy.  The accomplishments of the goals of  German monopolistic capitalism demanded the state control of labor.

Imperialism was a product of  this monopolistic capitalism, of  industrial leadership backed by the NS controlled government.  Strict control of  raw materials markets, systematic dumping and currency manipulation were tools  for the subjugation of  foreign economies.  Neumann claims that even the war itself can be partially viewed as  resulting from a set of  internal contradictions in the German economy.

Helmut Dubiel (in Theory and Politics) describes the assessment of the relation between fascism and capitalism as a point of division in the Frankfurt School  of the years 1940-41.  Neumann’s group  ( Neumann, Marcuse, Kirchheimer, Gurland ),  insisted  on the primacy of the economic sphere, on the proposition that fascism is the form of political organization most appropriate to monopoly capitalism.  The group consisting of Pollock, Adorno and Horkheimer, basing themselves on Pollock’s theory of state capitalism, believed that a developed fascist system , such as National Socialism, reversed the classical Marxist view by establishing complete political control over economic processes.  Adorno and Horkheimer ‘s subsequent version of Critical Theory favored the thesis which considers domination in highly developed industrial societies as  founded in more immediate political forms  (see, for example,  the well-known case of Adorno’s  treatment of the  Kulturindustrie).

It is certainly incontestable that the painstakingly rigorous and richly detailed analysis of NS in Behemoth is exemplary.  It is a necessary task for philosophers and social theorists today to carefully analyze the homologies of our current situation with what prevailed in Germany in that epoch.  As much as I was taken with Adorno and Horheimer’s elaboration of  the dialectic between Reason and Myth and the realization that the very act of writing that text allows Reason to dialectically reposition itself against Myth, I am even more convinced that we now need to rely on philosophically guided analyses  such as  Behemoth to counteract the complacent and cynical position which substitutes narrative and cultural artifices  for politics.  By denigrating politics and refusing it a legitimate  place in public life,  by acquiescing in the control that economic power has accumulated, certain contemporary philosophical tendencies  facilitate the return of fascism.  The new appearance of Behemoth should remind us of what is at stake in today’s politics and remind theorists that it is time to revisit some basic questions about the relation of man, society and economy.                                                            karl-mannheim-3-sized4

Maybe my next question should be:  who also remembers Karl Mannheim?

Mathematics and Culture

March 6, 2009

This post  is actually a slightly revised version of a short article written years ago.  It originally appeared on the Vanier College  Mathematics Department website.  Its purpose was polemical. I include it here because it is, in some sense, complementary to the previous post.

A somewhat prevalent image of mathematics relates it to calculation and situates it against a purely empirical background. There is a certain orthodoxy dominant in some academic circles,  an orthodoxy which insists that mathematical conceptualization must be linked uniquely to modeling  and problem solving.  But this orthodoxy, by placing maximum value on performance with respect to technology and economics, itself confirms the hypothesis that mathematics is deeply linked to culture  and that this link cannot be considered in isolation from the factors which determine the evolution of thought in general.

It is undoubtedly possible to anchor the point of view which places prime importance on the integration of mathematics into general culture by going back to Pythagoras to demonstrate how mathematics was once long ago a vibrant part of an inclusive world view.  It is also commonplace to underline the importance of Descartes in the articulation of  the fundamental relation between mathematics and the rationalism which many see as the defining property of Western civilization.  Philosophers also understand how Leibniz’s thought was integrated into a complex philosophical system which has a significance rarely captured by cute biographical notes found in collegiate level mathematical textbooks.  These three well-known examples indicate that it is possible to believe that mathematics could be related to world view and not simply confined (as it often is now) to a narrowly defined realm of  “mathematical science”.

There is also a relation between mathematics and certain types of  literature.  The mathematical appropriation of Pascal often ignores that he is equally the author of Les Pensées. Yet writers such as Borges and M. Serres have led us to re-think Pascal in a way that emphasizes the practice of metaphorization based on mathematics.  For example, Pascal resurrected the ancient metaphor of God as a sphere whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.  M. Serres has shown the exact manner in which this metaphor is incorporated into the logical structure of Pascal’s writings.  Borges, whose literary universe is in part structured around a constellation of these kinds of  “metaphors”, conjectures that universal history may perhaps be conceived as a juxtaposition of metaphors whose natures  resemble that of the “frightful sphere of Pascal”.   In a more contemporary example , the reading of  Gravity’s Rainbow demands a certain familiarity with a number of mathematical concepts which are integrated into the text as metaphors and assumed to be recognized as common culture by the reader.  Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon is even more demanding in terms of  what it assumes in terms of the knowledge of mathematical ideas.

Post-modernism has also incorporated (sometimes poorly as in the case of Jean-François Lyotard) mathematical conceptualization in its preferred topoi. Catastrophe theory and fractal geometry have already been interpreted as fundamental structural models with the same reverence  that older generations of scholars reserved for the supposed purity of Euclidean geometry.  Post-modernism has also led us to re-think mathematics in terms of the relation of logic and rhetoric, thus causing a certain unhappiness among practitioners of mathematics who feel uncomfortable with the idea that their “science” could have a strong rhetorical component.

It would then be futile to ignore the complex relations that mathematics has with “non-scientific” disciplines.  To do so would not only deny the evolution of general culture, but also reduce mathematical thought to a commodity status in which knowledge of techniques and algorithms would be brokered like any other consumer good.  The foundation for the authentic reception and appropriation of mathematics obviously begins with those of us who teach the basics of the discipline.

“… quizzin’ me what it was like before everybody tried to be like Mike”  (The Pride, Chuck D)


A minor annoyance in Lisa Randall’s excellent book on contemporary theoretical physics, Warped Passages, is the choice of song lyrics used as epigraphs for each chapter.  But her use of those lyrics, apart from once again confirming that physicists often have a strange sense of aesthetics,   gives me a dispensation to engage in a writing practice that usually bodes no good:  hence the  poorly and shamefully paraphrased title of this blog entry and reference to an outstanding old school hiphop album, Mistachuck (1996).

It would be tempting to say that this entry is about a sort of deontology:  how philosophers and social theorists should deal with science.  Randall refers to a well-known example:

“Radical as the fundamentals of quantum mechanics were, it’s easy to overreach when applying them to nonscientific contexts.  I find the most bothersome example to be the frequently abused uncertainty principle…”(Warped Passages, p.117).

René Thom, most commonly identified with his work on Catastrophe Theory,  provides us with another example.  In Stop Chance! Silence Noise!, which appeared in the journal SubStance in 1983, Thom discusses many contemporary epistemologists’ misuse of the mathematical notion of  randomness.  He attributes this practice to “deliberate mental confusion” and condemns the culture of  “artistic fuzziness”.

In the third chapter of my doctoral thesis (Les Antinomies de la critique, Université de Montréal, 1991), I examine the misuse of mathematical metaphors in Jean-François Lyotard’s description of post-modernity.  In particular, I show how Lyotard exercised a serious lack of caution in dealing with Kurt Gödel’s work on completeness.

So here we have a triad of concepts popularly used by philosophy to describe our contemporary (post-modern) situation:  uncertainty, randomness, undecidability.  Each of these concepts is in fact metaphorically borrowed from mathematics or the physical sciences.  I would suggest that the questionable use of this type of metaphorical appropriation of complex scientific ideas is surely the result of  a combination of poor science education and deliberate attempts at obfuscation.  Yet these two elements are not completely sufficient to explain this sort of intellectual shoddiness.

Of course, as banal as it seems to say this, poor science education is indeed part of the problem.  Former Caltech president (and Nobel Prize winner) David Baltimore has convincingly spoken and written about (the lack of) science education in the United States.  In a time when familiarity with basic scientific concepts seems increasingly necessary, it appears that North American society has actually taken a step backwards.  Although they should know better, professional academics in the humanities and social sciences can actually exacerbate the problem.  Most often they  either avoid confronting complex problems (because of  a mistrust of scientific logic) or apply comic book style simplification to difficult ideas.  Of course, it is true  that the complexity of  many scientific concepts (say in 20th century theoretical physics) makes these concepts difficult to popularize.  For example,  a person with no experience of  elementary  physics could find the reading of even the best popularizing authors, such as  Lisa Randall or  Brian Greene, a challenge.  (It’s not that good material which can help educated individuals understand trends in contemporary science doesn’t exist; in this regard,  I have to mention my favorite science series , Berkeley Groks, available on the internet at U Cal Berkeley.)  However, not even poor science education can excuse what Thom referred to as deliberate obfuscation.  Lack of understanding does not have to translate into lack of respect of ideas.  Some of this type of disrespect can simply be attributed to certain very poor choices.

A possible precursor to these “poor choices” may be found in  the famous Davos conference of 1929, which cultural historians tend to interpret as a  sign of the beginning of  Heideggerean ascendancy in Western philosophy.  While we can perhaps understand the attraction that the developing thought of  Heidegger  may have exercised in segments of the German academic milieu of the period, it is difficult to sustain the idea that his understanding of philosophy and culture was superior to Cassirer’s.  For example, although they somehow fell out of fashion in the Saussurean  inspired  structuralist and semiological boom of the the 60’s and 70’s , Cassirer’s three volumes on symbolic forms must be judged  an outstanding contribution to Western thought.  And, in the context of our discussion here, I would point out that  Cassirer’s section  dealing with mathematics in volume 3 of that series is an exemplary treatment of that subject and is truly a standard by which we can judge subsequent philosophical writing on mathematical thought.  When we think of the advances in the sciences at the time of the Davos meeting (e.g. the work then being done on Quantum Theory), it is somewhat surprising that a style of thought which fails to confront scientific logic could be preferred over the sophisticated thought of Ernst Cassirer.

We could also measure Heidegger against his mentor Husserl.  With respect to our problematic here, does not Husserl’s The Crisis of  European Sciences (1935) contain certain exemplary texts (such as his essay on the origins of geometry)?  We can certainly retain two very fundamental ideas from Husserl.  First, to understand and practice a science, we need to somehow get back to the problems, logic and spirit out of which it developed.  (Here science is understood as a theoretical endeavor based on mathematical logic and not a practice of simple collection and classification of data).  Secondly, we have to critically examine the relation of science and technology (applied science) in order to prevent the denaturing of science by its reduction (and transformation) to simply a source of technological advancement.  In the understanding of these types of questions,  Heidegger (the pupil) was certainly not up to the standards of Husserl (the teacher).  Given the current consensus that the amazing development of the sciences was probably the determining factor in the evolution of Western civilization in the last century, it is difficult to understand how so many philosophy departments have preferred to give special status to trends of thought which derive from the linguistic and ontological based thinking of Heidegger.  The consequence of this is not only the subsequent formation of a contingent of academics unable to properly deal with scientific thinking, but also the abandoning of a whole range of philosophical domains to scientists  and “analytical experts” who are now the only academics adequately prepared to deal with questions that were traditionally also the domain of philosophers.  For example, although Derrida wrote an excellent thesis on Husserl’s The Origins of Geometry, it would be difficult to build on his writings (or the writings of a once popular lesser thinker like Lyotard) to construct a position from which we could hope to adequately confront the type of questions that contemporary scientific thinking poses.  This is not to ignore  a certain merit in (especially) the early writings of  Derrida or to naïvely underestimate the contributions of Heidegger to the “science” of the lifeworld  which Husserl wished to develop, but rather to affirm the inadequate nature of those lines of thinking in the context of the problematic discussed here.

The literary theorist  Wlad Godzich, one of whose doctoral seminars I was fortunate to have attended,  once remarked that philosophical theorists  must essentially start by privileging one principal element;  History, Logic, Language  are three of the obvious choices.  Has not the priority given to Heideggerean based philosophy (especially his writings after die Kehre) not led us to badly relate to science , a domain where logic is the prime element?

Do we not find a similar type of difficulty in Adorno, probably the most important philosopher since the Weimar years?  Dialectic of Enlightenment was the centerpiece of my doctoral thesis and it would be on the short list of the most important philosophical texts of the last century.  Its logic is implacable and its power is unquestionable. Yet, is it not possible that Adorno also jumped too quickly to characterizing science’s essence as immediately defined by manipulation, domination and exploitation  of Nature (here understanding Nature as a Subject)?  Does mathematical logic necessarily subordinate life to the concept of equivalence?  In Adorno and Horkheimer’s construction of the dialectic of  Myth and Reason, science gets assimilated  by technology and capitalism in Myth’s revenge against Enlightenment.  There can be none of the classical “disinterested” pleasure in science or mathematical logic.

Of course, given their Marxian perspective, Adorno and Horkheimer’s writings operate on a more comprehensive level than that occupied by the other philosophers mentioned here.  They refer back to the meaning of  “bein’ like Mike”, being assimilated in the world capitalist system and, of course, the concomitant Kulturindustrie.  Science certainly operates in ignorance of economic determinism at its own peril.  Like  Michael Jordan, it can leave itself open to critique on how it relates to society.  But when we look at how we ourselves deal with science, Heidegger and Adorno, probably the dominant thinkers of the last century, leave us no room to adequately confront the question.  Heidegger is not up to task;  Adorno leaves us no room to do it.  We do get more from Adorno because he does not ignore the relation between science and capitalism.  However, it is undoubtedly time to return to the the problematic of the epoch that parented these thinkers and take another, longer and less naïve look at how, from our “post-modern” perspective, we can avoid the current unacceptable situation.  But we must not forget that it is necessary to have a modicum of understanding of how science works before trying to place it in an appropriate philosophical context.





Quantum Hoops (2)

January 19, 2009

beaversmiling405What about the Quantum Hoops video?  The documentary is very ably put together.  It combines a bit of the history of Caltech and its athletic programs with the story of the amazing conference record of the basketball Beavers over the last few years.  Not only do they lose a lot, they most often lose badly.  Yet the documentary succeeds in finding the right tone and integrating the viewer into the problematic of a not very good team representing a high power academic institution in a fairly weak basketball environment.  We are far from epic hoop battles in the Big East or the PAC-10, but we want this group to fulfill its specific hoop dream.  Caltech will  not play in front of a large crowd or on national television.

Although the institution once fielded competitive teams in some of the major sports, Caltech does not give  priority to recruiting accomplished athletes.  In fact, the documentary is careful to underline the role that basketball plays in the lives of the students who make up the team.  Caltech is a Division 3 team and basketball is essentially a diversion:  for the players, it’s a complement to an arduous program of study, not a potential ticket to a professional sports contract.  Here we see  basketball at the collegiate level as pure sport.  The players are certainly serious about learning the game and improving their performance.  They want to win, to be competitive, but  most of them have neither the talent nor the experience to excel at even the D3  level.  As the promo for Quantum Hoops proclaims:  the team has more high school valedictorians than players with extensive high school basketball experience.

To adequately treat its subject, it is important that the documentary  not moralize.  We cannot help  seeing the humor in the ineptness of the team and the severity of its conference losing streak, but at the same time we must admire the academic accomplishments of the players, their real dedication to gradual athletic  improvement and their enjoyment of participation in sport.  So the errant passes and occasional airballs make us laugh, but that laugh never turns into derision.  We learn to admire their tenacity and appreciate the pedagogy of their excellent coach.  The commentary by director Rick  Greenwald  not only adds to our appreciation of certain details of the film, but also shows how careful he was to give the video the right tone.

But I have no intentions of being a film critic.  Quantum Hoops can attain cult status simply on the basis of its title.  Having gone through a few years of a joint math/physics major before deciding to definitively opt for mathematics, I have a modicum of appreciation of the difficulty of doing theoretical physics.  Attending a conference given by Paul Dirac at Syracuse University early in my undergraduate years was one great moment in my early academic life.  (Again my friend Dante Giarrusso was responsible for motivating this trip to our neighboring campus.)  The presenter at that conference was the head of the Physics Department at Syracuse during that epoch, the great Peter Bergmann, a one time associate of Albert Einstein.  I still remember the pleasure that he took in introducing Dirac that day.   So anyone who teaches and does research in theoretical physics has my admiration.  In fact, even for the profane, the history of the development of theoretical physics in the last century is fascinating.  (If there were footnotes in this blog, I would  here make reference to the very enjoyable, recently published book by Sheilla Jones,  The Quantum Ten,  Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, 2008.)

Of course, I have been a basketball fan for a long time.  My personal basketball career was less than illustrious, but I always understood attendance at our high school games as an implicit obligation.  The Syracuse Parochial League of that epoch consisted of teams from virtually all the parish high schools in the city.  Its caliber was not as good as the county league which featured larger schools and better players, but competition was fierce between certain rival schools.  In the same way, when I was a student at LeMoyne College I attended many home games, but the caliber at LeMoyne was far below that of  the neighboring  D1 powerhouse Orange.  So I would hardly look down on Caltech basketball because it is D3.  Success is, of course, relative.  We must remember that not every college or university possesses the institutional culture which demands quasi-professional athletic achievement.

So Quantum Hoops can also be used as a point of reference for a reflection on NCAA sports.  It is hard to combine stellar basketball talent and stellar academic achievement.  We recall  Bill Bradley and David Robinson, both of whom were exceptional NBA players.  They were outstanding athletes  by professional basketball standards and equally exemplary individuals  in both academics and social commitment.  Yet neither passed through a program of study as demanding as theoretical physics before landing in the NBA.

Bradley and Robinson both contradict the popular view that athletic stardom and a modicum of intellectual achievement are inversely proportional.  Using the Quantum Hoops video as background, we can appeal to them to bring the perennial topic of the relation between academics and sport to the forefront.  Weekend television in the Fall and the Winter is inundated with collegiate  football and basketball;  in many areas of the country, collegiate sports are more popular than the corresponding professional leagues.  American male athletes in the major sports (basketball, football, baseball) often grow up with the dream of one day playing professional ball.  That dream can quickly turn to illusion relatively early in their lives.  Playing NCAA sports is already an accomplishment, especially at the D1 level.  But even then, only a relatively few NCAA players will subsequently play professional sports in the major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB).

The dynamic that characterizes participation in sport at that level is sometimes not appreciated by the public.  The sports structure is like a pyramid.  To make it to the top normally demands talent, work and a certain measure of luck.  Playing at a high level on that pyramid is already exceptional.  For example, we can easily name many great collegiate basketball players who either never got a chance to play in the NBA or were not quite able to make a career in that league.  A similar thing can be said for other sports.  I was extremely pleased that my son was able to pitch in D1 baseball, but more pleased that he combined a reasonable athletic career with graduation in 4 years,  a degree magna cum laude and  induction into Phi Beta Kappa.  At the same time, I saw others who misinterpreted their situation, ending up with neither a professional career nor a diploma.  I have no sympathy with the purist’s version of academia which would seek to ban organized sports from campus.  But there is a point of view from which  the Caltech Beavers can be considered successful and, if there is a lesson to be reiterated from Quantum Hoops, it may be the banal reminder that enjoyment of sport and personal success do not always have to be evaluated from the perspective of a culture mesmerized by professional sport.


Quantum Hoops (1)

January 3, 2009


I probably first heard about Caltech in late high school or early college.  My friend Dante Giarrusso, currently a mathematics professor at Saint Lawrence University, was excited by his discovery of  the popular Caltech physicist Richard Feynman.  Dante’s usual practice was to invite me to his house for a pot of coffee and then give me a mini-course on his latest discovery.  There were a few times when the experience was a little arduous, but I will always be grateful to him as much for the enthusiasm as  for the knowledge.  Intellectual curiosity was not all that common in our neighborhood.

Much later, in the early 2000’s when my son was preparing for the SAT,  I looked at typical entrance  scores for various universities and was surprised (probably due to the Easterner’s typical regional bias) to see Caltech at the top of  the list I was perusing.  Since my son was a baseball player, out of curiosity I took a look at the Caltech baseball program:  to describe it as dismal would be an exercise in understatement.  Basketball results were as bad, if not worse.

In subsequent years, I checked on Caltech basketball from time to time.  The only connection I had with that university was my use of  articles on scientific education, written by its former president ( Nobel Prize winner) David Baltimore, as texts in an obligatory science integration component for my math students who were envisaging careers in the Health Sciences. Then I discovered the video Quantum Hoops:  great title, great logo.  By chance, a friend and former colleague, lawyer and political scientist C.F. Levine, had a contact at Caltech.  Through her he obtained a t-shirt with the Quantum Hoops logo from the university bookstore.  So I had a Quantum Hoops shirt to wear even if I hadn’t yet seen the video.

Chance events are a common occurrence in fiction, but as the consecrated saying implies, reality is more random than fiction.  At the end of  September, my wife Barbara and I were spending a week in the Bay Area, visiting California for the first time.  We had purchased tickets to a Giants game at AT&T Park and the afternoon of the game we were wandering in the city, leisurely making our way to McCovey Cove.   The Martin Luther King Memorial  was on our way to the ballpark.  There had been a large event of some kind in Yerba Buena Gardens the previous day:  clean up in the area was winding down.  I was wearing my Quantum Hoops shirt, a decision based on not wearing a Giants logo to the game against LA: not that I like the Dodgers, but their catcher Russell Martin had once played ball with my son and we are still friends with some of his family.  Out of feelings of solidarity with the Martin family, it was probably best to avoid exaggerated partisan commitment to the Giants that day.

I was surprised to be approached by a young lady who was helping with the clean up, even more surprised when I realized that the  shirt drew her attention.  She had in fact worked on the video and was impressed by seeing someone in SF wearing the shirt.  Of course, meeting  someone who was actually connected to Quantum Hoops was totally unexpected.  I probably don’t know more than three people who even suspect that Caltech has a basketball team.  It turns out that Laurie was credited as Executive Producer of the video. I  promised her to actually purchase the video, so I now have to both acknowledge our meeting and confirm that I have kept my promise.

With Laurie Langford in San Francisco

With Laurie Langford in San Francisco