186 – When theory goes muddling through

Posted on November 4, 2012 by

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Twenty years ago “good governance” became the buzz-word among theoreticians of economic development. Once in place, “good government” would spearhead the drive toward development. Mick MOORE[1] has recently made rather skeptical assessment of the success of this latest of “development theories”.

“Better governance would follow when states became more democratic, more accountable, more transparent, and more bound by the rule of law”, it was argued at the time. Differences developed about the “core content” of good governance; the list grew expansive. Queries about timing and sequence were met with the answer: “the faster the better” (shock and awe style). And little thought was paid to the likely reaction of local elites (including bureaucracies[2]), who may have different agendas, or may cleverly divert the onslaught of the structural reform program to buttress their own partisan aims[3].

On the way to meet reality the theory lost some of its spots (and relevance). One began to speak of “good enough governance[4]”, of “political settlements[5]”, and “working with the grain[6]”. These less ambitious goals made perfect sense as “second best solutions”. The main problem from the point of view of theory is that “good enough” and equivalent terms describe unique and incommensurable compromises – they do not mark linear and stately progress toward the eutopia of good governance. In my youth one called it disparagingly “muddle through”. So what’s the point of wasting time on theory – unless it is to focus attention on the obvious (at the expense of context)?

Why our Western passion for “theory”? I find theory all over the place and creeping into the analysis of social reality. I’m reading a biography of Richard RORTY[7] at the moment. This work is wrapped around a “theory of self-affirmation”, which purports to explain the philosopher’s emergence. The conclusion identifies twelve “theoretical propositions” that have emerged from the study. One homely sentence would have sufficed: RORTY was an ambitious young man.

In the introduction the author writes: “I believe the social-scientific research enterprise must encompass two interrelated but distinct phases: a phase of theory building, in which the goal is to develop theories about the mechanisms generative of particular outcomes, and a phase of systematic empirical investigation, in which an attempt is made to assess the causal significance of the theorized mechanisms across a large number of cases.” (pg. xiii). This apes the differentiation between theoretical and experimental physics and ignores the (to me self-evident) fact that cause-effect relationships in the physical world are intrinsically different from those prevailing in social reality.

I’ve emphasized the term “mechanism” to show what is for me a baffling view of the social world as akin to a Copernican system. This position is predicated on the view that necessary conditions – rather than enablers – drive the social world. Once these conditions are in place, the rest can be derived – so the topos.

Here a quote from an unimpeachable philosopher, Friedrich HAYEK[8]: “There is an essential distinction … between a permanent legal framework so devised as to provide all the necessary incentives to private initiative to bring about the adaptations required by any change and a system where such adaptations are brought about by central direction.” The necessary legal framework drives private initiative, which is sufficient albeit subordinate cause, once the necessary conditions are in place[9]. Structure drives function. Note the abstract character of the cause and effect relationship – and I would also add – its emotional barrennes. Also structure signifies separation and subordination.

Beyond truth and usefulness: it this the only way forward?

Compare the West’s obsession with theory with the concept of “family reverence (xiao)” that underlies Confucian (social) thought: “It is family reverence (xiao) that is the root of excellence, and whence education (jiao) is born.” “Your physical person with its hair and skin are received from your parents. Vigilance in not allowing anything to do injury to your person is where family reverence begins; distinguishing yourself and walking the proper way (dao) in the world; raising your name high for posterity and thereby bringing esteem to your father and mother – it is in these things that family reverence finds its consummation.”[10]

“Of old when enlightened (ming) kings used family reverence to bring proper order to the empire, they would not presume to neglect the ministers of the smallest state, how much less so the dukes, earls, and other members of the high nobility. Thus all of the different vassal states participated wholeheartedly in their service to these former kings. Those who would bring proper order to the vassal states would not presume to ignore the most dispossessed, how much less so the lower officials and common people. Thus the various families all participated wholeheartedly in their service to these former lords. Those who would bring proper order to the various families would not presume to overlook their servants and concubines, how much less so their wives and children. Thus all the people participated wholeheartedly in their service to the parents. In such a world, the parents while living enjoyed the comforts that parents deserve, and as spirits after death took pleasure in the sacrificial offerings made to them.

Hence the empire was peaceful (he) and free of strife, natural disasters did not occur, and man-made calamities were averted. In this way the enlightened kings used family reverence to bring about order to the empire.”[11]

I’ve quoted Confucius at length so as to drive home his disdain of structures and his focus on emotional enablers: key terms are reverence, wholehearted participation, and attention for those in the care of the actor. Relationships, rather than structures, are at the center of Confucius’ thought, and these positively charged relationships bridge the hierarchical aspects of the relation. And also note the wholehearted emphasis on practice, rather than the separation between theory and practice.

I’ve written this simply to show that it is possible to conceive a world where function weakens the rigidity of structure – a worldview that is both rational and emotional, and where everything resonates.

Let me offer two tentative conclusions.

The West’ concern with theory (underpinning its drive for “truth”) is not self-evident necessity. Theory ought illuminate, not constrain or even encumber understanding reality. Its role is pragmatic. More dangerously, theory drives action by eliding context (and in particular our emotional dimensions) – and personal responsibility by relying on necessity rather inner agency.

Sinic civilization focuses on sufficient conditions, on intentions and emotions. Intent is tied to personal responsibility (action has to be “wholehearted”).

Either approach is flawed, neither is superior – that’s the fate of the “crooked timber of humanity”. We better be aware of both stances, and use them in complementary ways. Whether such insights get lost in translation is anyone’s guess: Western and Sinic cultures differ at deep and fundamental levels[12]. Becoming aware of the differences, and taking a step back from asserting culturally based “self-evident truths” may be the first step to being able to converse and to learn from each other.


[1]          http://bit.ly/TAjYyJ

[2]          See e.g. Daniel P. CARPENTER (2001): The forging of bureaucratic autonomy: reputations, networks, and policy innovation in executive agencies 1862 – 1928. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[3]          For a meta-analysis of the issues of timing see: Paul PIERSON (2004): Politics in time. History, institutions, and social analysis. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[4]          http://bit.ly/TAmQvr

[5]          http://bit.ly/WhNBsf

[6]          http://bit.ly/RCg9F2

[7]          Neil GROSS (2008): Richard Rorty. The making of an American philosopher.Chicago University Press, Chicago.

[8]          Friedrich Hayek (Individualism & Economic Order, 1948, http://bit.ly/aZ36i7, p. 135

[9]          Just for the record. In his Philosophical Investigations Ludwig WITTGENSTEIN put paid to this separation, but his insgiths do not seem to have percolated far.

[10]           Classic of Family Reverence (Xiaojing), Chapter 8 (Governing through family reverence). Henry ROSEMONT Jr. – Roger T. AMES (2009): The Chinese classic of family reverence. A philosophical translation of the Xiaojing. University of Hawaï Press, Honolulu. (pg. 105)

[11]         Classic of Family Reverence (Xiaojing), Chapter 8 (Governing through family reverence). Henry ROSEMONT Jr. – Roger T. AMES (2009): op. cit. (op. cit pg. 109).

[12]         See e.g. Richard E. NISBETT (2003): Geography of thought. How Asians and Westerners think differently – and why. Breadley, London.

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