Friday, December 3, 2010

What Goes Around Comes Around: Knowledge is Not Cumulative

      This essay is about the reprise of Romantic intellectualism in American culture.  Modernists believed in the idea that knowledge is cumulative.  This is nonsense.  Our culture, including its science, is both additive and subtractive.  We add new ideas and artifacts and abandon others.  We also revisit some abandoned ideas and reuse them—and this is very much in vogue today.

     One of the things I’ve noticed lately is that beyond just looking at the events of late 19th century Romanticism--I already noted Kennedy’s essay--people are also studying the ideas of that era.  The Gilded Age and Progressive Awakening were years of intellectual brilliance with true insights.  And, much of this continued into Romanticism’s hangover into the 1930s.

     Before I point out some obvious connections between today’s Romantic intellectualism and the earlier era, please remember:  Romantic intellectualism emphasizes nonlinear and relational ideas and analyses; social and emotional issues are included because it is right hemisphere High Context intellectual saturation.  Romantic science studies causality, reciprocity, and reflexivity using different methods for each.  Modernism emphasizes formal linear models that exclude emotions because they are believed to be separate from thinking; it is left hemisphere Low Context intellectual saturation.  Modernist science understands causality; its practitioners either ignore reciprocity and reflexivity, or, they try to apply the models of causality everywhere.  Both use qualitative and quantitative methods

     If you are a stock picker or investor you may have heard of wave analysis, especially Elliot Wave analysis.  That model was created by Ralph Nelson Elliott (1871-1948) in the 1930s.  One of its primary insights is that markets move based on social mood which is a net aggregate of people’s fear or greed.    Thus, market movements are thought to be predictable because they are “natural laws and can be measured and forecast using Fibonacci numbers.”  The model languished with few adherents for many years—the years of high modernism--until Robert Prechter began using it successfully in the 1980s.  Today, it is widely used, as are other types of wave models.

     Wave models are cyclical models; if you know where you are within the cycle then you can predict how the rest of the cycle will play out.  If it is summer you can predict what type of clothes are needed in winter.  Basically, you take a nonlinear pattern and project it into the future. 

     This is very different from the modernist Random Walk theory which states that past performance can’t be used to predict future performance.  The caution of the Random Walk Theory is needed because modernists are very likely to project their linear models into the future.  When someone tells you that stocks return, on average, 8 percent in the long term, you may be impressed and use that information as an investment plan.  However, you need to know that the long term that goes with that claim is 100 years.  Realistically, no one has a 100 year time frame for planning (unless they are doing multi-generational wealth planning).  What you really need to know are your investment goals and the duration needed to reach them.  For planning out 5 to 20 years, cyclical ideas are likely useful and you can expect that there will be planned and non-planned episodes of extra spending and saving.

     Continuing with the economics and finance theme--recently, the cyclical ideas of the Austrian school of economics have been getting much attention.  The Monetarists and Keynesians (both versions of Modernism) hate this theory because it doesn’t fit their formal empirical models.  Of course it won’t.  Austrian economics is based in right hemisphere stimulation that addresses the economy as a part of high context culture.  It is as much a relational theory as it is cyclical one.  Linear modeling of it won’t work because straight lines can’t depict multi relational associations.  Does multiple regression really work? No.  You have to do matrix analysis or fractal analysis to understand the relations between multiple variables.  Complexity and chaos theory are being done today of course.  See Steve Keen for recent examples.  Also see this that has a nice eye dazzler cover, and, if you try to read it, have a bottle of whiskey near you because half the papers are about “web theory” as if spiders are crawling all over your economic relations [1].

     One widespread, and useless, comment from modernism is:  “Correlation is not causation.”  Of course it isn’t.  If there is a strong correlation between two variables then there is likely a reciprocal relation in place and trying to study it with linear regression is stupid.  (I know, modernists only have a hammer and everything is a nail).  Reciprocity has to be understood through its own processes not the ones of causality.  The Austrian economists seem to understand these ideas.  Hayek’s Book The Road to Serfdom, 1944 (see an interesting video of it here) is a discussion of reciprocity, reflexivity, and causality (without using those terms).  Hayek was a prolific man and many of his ideas are being reviewed once again today (here).

     Another user of romantic ideas is George Soros.  I know that may sound weird because he is such a neoliberal rationalist with his attempts at creating the Open Society.  However, his theory of making money in the markets is pure romanticism.  His book The Alchemy of Finance, 1988, is just right brained fun. 

     Next we have hedge fund manager Hugh Hendry quoting Walt Whitman.  He even has a picture of the old sot.  He also mentions biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) and the Millerites, an American sect of the 1830s-1840s.  From all this he reminds us that the wealthy are at war with everyone else.  That was commonplace in the 19th century and it is again commonplace today.

     Next we have Mort Zuckerman telling us that Western Civilization may be collapsing.  He knows we have all heard this before—he starts with Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, 1918, and treats us to some bitter comparisons.  Here is one:  “Among Spengler's convictions was that money, instead of serving mankind, would betray the Western civilization as it had others—and money in politics and media especially.  If he could have seen this [2010] election season, he would have been even more downcast! Money is surely the great corrupter of American democracy.”  Well, have we learned anything new?  No, just remembered what was forgotten.

     Turning away from the doom and gloom of our economy let’s look at philosopher Mark Johnson’s recent book on embodied cognition, The Meaning of the Body, 2007.  Johnson summarizes much of the cognitive science and neuroscience research that has been done recently and argues that the arts are the culmination of human attempts to find meaning.  He bases much of his perspective in the work of William James and John Dewey both who were romantic pragmatists.  What goes around comes around.

     Individuals accumulate knowledge as they grow up and age; they may even become wise which suggests that there may be some positive cumulative change.  The quantitative build up of knowledge and meaning in a person may lead to someone being qualitatively different—quantitative changes leads to qualitative change.

     Does this also apply to our culture? I know we have had “progress” in terms of technology.  I know there have been fascinating discoveries in science.  Are we any wiser for all of it?  In my younger days I was naïve enough to simplistically believe that we were.  Today, given the fraud, corruption, and greed surrounding us I suspect that wisdom is not something that cultures achieve, even at their cultural highs.  Old and ancient texts and ideas continue to help some folks toward wisdom.  I guess individuals can have such goals.  Apparently, cultures may or may not have such goals depending on their era.  We are in a secular crisis; our goals are to survive it and rediscover our cultural identity.

Update: here is another example of our current interest in the 19th century.  Once again, we approach it with Dionysian excess.

1.    I about fell out of my chair laughing when I saw that book.  I mean, putting an eye dazzler on a book about complexity theory and the dismal science? Surely these guys knew how funny that was.  If the modernists loved to say “if you can’t blind them with your brilliance then baffle them with your bullshit” I guess the romantics must be using the “just blind or baffle them because you can” theorem.

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