Monday, June 20, 2011

More Bullshit from The Stone...

Just the kind of illiteracy we've come to expect....
"After World War II, a third variant gained momentum in America. It defined individualism as the making of choices so as to maximize one’s preferences."
Maximizing preferences??? What an idiot.


Anonymous said...

How is it that a person who is ostensibly not even a philosopher -- he is a professor of Germanic Languages -- can write not one but two books about philosophy, get asked to contribute to The Stone (well perhaps this aspect is not so surprising given its track record!), and still give us pearls like that? If nothing else, at least reserve The Stone for the embarrassment of professional philosophers!

Anonymous said...

It looks to me like the author used the language of preference in the The Stone article because that's the language the literature on Egoism uses. (e.g. here:

Further, the author's PhD is in philosophy and his work is philosophical, or at least philosophy of a certain sort. C.f.

I agree that The Stone's content has been mixed, and that the sentence in which the author introduces the language of preferences isn't as clear as it might be. But the sentence in question does not render the entire article bullshit or idiotic.

Anonymous said...

Maybe he was thinking of Callicles -- "...the man who'll live correctly ought to allow his own appetites to get as large as possible and not restrain them."

Anonymous said...

You could blame the editors: "the satisfaction of preferences" might have taken it over the word limit and one of our nation's elite news professionals XXXXXXXXXX it out.

Fuck it, just blame everyone.

Anonymous said...

Now I know that epistemic foundationalism was invented by RAND in the 1950s as a supplement to the axioms of rational choice theory, everything makes so much sense all of a sudden!

Spiros said...

Anon 2:11,

The objection is not to the "language of preferences," but rather to the idea that rational choice views hold that preferences should be "maximized." So far as I can tell, no view (Egoism included) recommends that we maximize our preferences. In fact, if "maximize your preferences" means something like "have as many preferences as possible," it's clear that it would be irrational to maximize one's preferences, since more preferences are harder to satisfy than fewer. The author probably means to say something quite different, namely, that certain views tell us to maximize the number of preferences that get satisfied, or, different still, to maximize satisfaction.

The problem isn't that the "sentence in which the author introduces the language of preferences isn't as clear as it might be." It's that the author doesn't know what he's talking about.

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:23: Ostensibly there can be philosophers in departments other than philosophy, and perhaps even outside the academy.

Anonymous said...

McCumber (the author of the piece) was tenured in Philosophy at Northwestern for many years before moving to the German dept. at UCLA. That doesn't make either this piece or his similar bad book (_Time in the Ditch_) not crap. (Even George A. Reisch's much more reasonable book that makes similar claims founders on the fact that there are banal reasons for the changes in philosophy he discusses that pretty much completely explain them without having to invoke the more sinister ideas about how McCarthy caused the rise of a-political logical positivism.)

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 12:23

How is it that a philosopher (Hegel) who was not a mathematician (and wasn't even a competent amateur) could pontificate on the nature of mathematics, logic, and mathematical physics?
Well, the Stone fellow seems to think that Hegel saw the "nature of things" more clearly than Euler, Gauss or Newton and Laplace. And that pretty much says it all... at least to me.

Anonymous said...

The negative reactions to The Stone articles are often patently absurd not in content but in tone. They usually correctly identify that an article is poor or a claim is problematic or silly. But they do so in an hysterical tone that undermines the usefulness of the content. The letter of the charge is correct, but the sweeping charge implied of the tone (greatest crime against philosophy ever!) betrays that the criticism, though correct, is rather mild.

I don't know if the author is correct to identify a uniquely American cultural conception of
individualism with the specific philosophical content of rational choice theory.

But he's surely correct that the American notion of individualism is, in the rough, general sense intended in the article, about the maximation of preferences, not their satisfaction. In fact, so obviously so that the criticism should be that he's saying something trivial, not something ridiculous. Isn't it a relatively common opinion that the American notion of freedom as choice is, in practice, primarily about having a wider set of commodities to choose from and producing a wider set of consumer needs/desires/preferences in order to advance markets?

Yes, as Spiros points out, it's irrational to try to maximize preferences, since this hurts your chances of satisfying them. But who on earth said the American conceptions of individualism, choice, or freedom were rational?

Anonymous said...

10:38, are you conflating the objects of preferences with the preferences themselves? If not, I can't figure out what you mean.

Look, it really is obvious that the author means to say "the satisfaction of preferences" rather than just "preferences". I thought Spiros' point was that only someone who had a very shallow understanding of the subject matter would make a mistake like that.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to invent a new ethical theory that calls for preference maximization. The idea is that the more preferences you have, the more preferences you can satisfy, speaking in terms of gross numbers, of course, not proportionally. All I need now is a rationale for thinking that unsatisfied or frustrated preferences don't matter.

Also, you should have lots of children in order to maximize the total number of preferences in the world.

Anonymous said...


You may be right that this was the author's intent, but I don't think it's obviously so, as you suggest. On the one hand, it would be an easy slip. On the other hand, it's a weird one, and he makes it twice--yet it's the only such glaring, repeated oddity in the article. Moreover, the article emphasizes the priority of choice as a set of available options, which seems to support my view that that he meant to say there is a distinctive conception of freedom that is strange precisely because it values options for their own sake over satisfaction alone, maximizing the number of possible preferences over objects preferred.

"10:38, are you conflating the objects of preferences with the preferences themselves? If not, I can't figure out what you mean."

I think the fact that I was making that distinction is obvious here: "having a wider set of commodities to choose from and producing a wider set of consumer needs/desires/preferences in order to advance markets?"

Rather than conflating objects preferred with preferences, I distinguished those objects (commodities) from the preferences (needs/desires), and suggested that the American conception of freedom of choice is one that irrationally measures freedom as the maximization of needs over that of objects of need. (It is an illusion that our economic system functions to maximally fulfill needs: it produces objects in order to create new needs and markets, not satisfy old ones.)

So, although obviously needs are distinct from objects of need, it's still consistent with the claim that one cultural conception of freedom evaluates the quantity of needs more highly than the degree of their satisfaction.

(This is closely connected to Americans' ability to be both extraordinarily miserable and thoroughly convinced that they are happy and well off. Their real needs are not satisfied, because they pursue new forms of privation over satisfaction. They mistake the manufactured need for ever new desires for their true desire, confusing constant frustration with constant fulfillment.)

I realize I might be reading too much into the article, but I got the impression the author was suggesting that rational choice theory and freemarket ideaology are irrational precisely because they make the mistake the author has been accused of: mistaking having more choices with having more satisfactions, conflating preferences with objects preferred.

some people call me maurice said...


Wait, so *you* are claiming that according to rational choice theory, individualism is defined as maximizing the number of preferences one has? I'm confused now. Or do you mean to say that this was John McCumber's interpretation of rational choice theory?

I would like to see a citation for a rational choice theorist who held this view "After World War II". The most obvious philosopher here would be Leonard Savage, but (I hope it doesn't have to be said) Savage held a version of what is now the standard account, expected utility theory, which is about the maximization of preference satisfaction, as I was saying earlier. (I'm 11:12.)

You say that mistaking the maximization of preference satisfaction for the maximization of preferences is an easy slip, and a weird one. I agree, it is an easy slip for somebody who does not understand the theory at all.
Which, I think, is the whole point here.

Anonymous said...

"Wait, so *you* are claiming that according to rational choice theory, individualism is defined as maximizing the number of preferences one has?"

No, I thought McCumber was claiming that. I admitted he might be wrong about rational choice theory, but I defend his claim about the American conception of individualism.

"I agree, it is an easy slip for somebody who does not understand the theory at all."

I think it's an easy slip in a purely grammatical sense: it's not obviously grammatically wrong to replace "preferred object" with "preference." For example, in answer to the question, do you want vanilla or chocolate? these two sentence could conceivably be identical or close in meaning:
1) My preferred ice cream is chocolate.
2) My preference is chocolate.

So, while referring to maximizing preferences may be an unusual phrasing in the literature, it may not be grammatical different in meaning than the other phrasings, and so an easy slip to make.

Moreover, if that's the intended meaning: "preferences" = "objects preferred" then it's not technically incorrect and doesn't justify the claim that the author doesn't understand the theory. (Maybe he doesn't, but it's not demonstrated by this trivial grammar/clarity error.)

I think much of the hysteria about the Stone articles (and all exaggerated, not necessarily mistaken, blog smackdowns, e.g. Dworkin and Dreyfus) come from a kind of intentional obtuseness: an unwillingness to charitably interpret where we are unsympathetic with the views, language, or approach of the author.

We pretend not to understand or understand in a way that willfully reduce the views to evident absurdity when we could, with only minor effort and imagination, recognize a reasonable, discussion-worthy intended meaning (even if it is incorrect and less than perfectly expressed).

Charity is part of good reading. First, because often the lack of charity is due to superficial differences in style or language misinterpreted as serious flaws. Second, because even truly bad work must be read well, if only to accurately determine its true weaknesses. Good reading is not required only of good writing.

some people call me maurice said...

Ah, good. Sorry. I was pretty sure you were not making the claim in your own voice, but I just wanted to check.

I don't understand your point about grammar. Obviously, nobody is saying the sentence is ungrammatical. But it would never be written by someone who understands the theory. That's for semantic reasons, not grammatical reasons.

I'm not pretending that I don't understand McCumber, by the way. Maybe you've misread me. I believe I do understand him. It's just that what he wrote is completely wrong, and it's not a mistake that could be made by someone who understood rational choice theory.

On more thing:

Moreover, if that's the intended meaning: "preferences" = "objects preferred" then it's not technically incorrect...

Actually, it is technically incorrect. Maximizing the objects of preference is one thing, and maximizing the satisfaction of preference is another. (Think of the difference between maximizing expected utility in financial transactions and maximizing expected dollar value.) But that is a more subtle point.

Your interpretation of McCumber is not this one, though, as you have said. Your interpretation is that he thinks rational choice theory defines individualism as the making of choices to maximize the number of preferences the person has. This is completely wrong. No rational choice theorist says anything like this. (I have no view about whether Americans do in fact attempt to have more preferences -- I know almost nothing about that subject.)

The stuff he says about causation is also hogwash. I bet nobody will defend that.

729 said...

Just an FYI. The very unfortunate phrasing about "maximizing preferences" could be charitably interpreted as a Hegelian Slip. Hegel had an unusual position about how the self is universalized through patterned systems of desires. General human needs/drives become determinate in desires for concrete things. As an instructor of mine once tried to explain this,for Hegel, a cultivated society is one that maximizes preferences quite literally--more preferences are available in terms of number. I don't recall much more than this--there's lots more Hegelese involved. And, yes, I know, I know... : )

729 said...

PS: I just realized that folks are probably more familiar with something akin to the Hegelian position with respect to the Republic II, the shift from the Healthy City ("City of Pigs") to the Feverish City. The difference is that the purification of the feverish city is advanced dialectically in Hegel. Desires are not merely repressed, but operate in history itself. Anyway...

Glaucon said...

If you're puzzled by the references
to maximizing preferences
and the bad Hegelian excrescences,
Leave the Stone unturned!
You never know what schlock
lives beneath that rock.

Jon Cogburn said...

I like a lot of McCumber's work, think he's an admirable writer and editor, but I think the biggest problem with the time in a ditch book is that it's dreadfully misleading about the reasons Hegelianism had reached such low ebb in Europe and the United States. It is this that created the opening for analytic philosophy.

I mean even phenomenology came out of the Southwest school (Windelband, Rickert) version of the back-to-Kant anti-Hegelian movement. So McCumber's own tradition comes out of much earlier anti-Hegelianism. And Analytic anti-Hegelianism came from Marburg School (Cohen) back-to-Kantism combined with Russell and Moore's critique of the British idealists.

Actually not quite the critiques (Russell's anti-Bradleyan logical atomism is a complete dead letter); it's just that the tradition was played out and these anti-Hegelians were doing work that offered a lot more.

Note that all three movements were going strong over thirty years before McCarthy was elected. And if you read really old journals in the United States you see some analogous back-to-Kant things against the Hegelian influences in American Pragmatism long before McCarthy as well.

I think part of the problem is that continental philosophy can breed an unhealthy kind of ghetto mentality where certain kinds of criticism of other members of the ghetto is illicit. But if you don't realize how overwhelmingly anti-Hegelian German philosophy was during the birth of continental philosophy, you don't really understand what's going on in your own tradition.

McCumber's not alone, nor nearly the worst offender here. His book is more misleading by omission, I think from wanting to think of the main insights from German Idealism and phenomenology as not being so inconsistent with each other; in contrast to this a lot of really horrible Heidegger scholarship in analytic and continental philosophy only gets off the ground by ignoring the relationship between Heidegger and the neo-Kantians Windelband and Rickert (one of whom was his habilitation advisor!).

anonymouse said...

Like a friar's filthy frock,
You'd best leave the article spurned.

I need symmetry, Glaucon.

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