On mandarins and epistemological fallacies

Reading late Tony Judt’s appraisal of Eric Hobsbawm autobiography, one meets a very interesting remark:

Eric Hobsbawm is decidedly a man of order, a “Tory communist,” as he puts it. Communist intellectuals were never “cultural dissidents”; and Hobsbawm’s scorn for self-indulgent, post-anything “leftism” has a long Leninist pedigree. But in his case there is another tradition at work. When Hobsbawm scornfully dismisses Thatcherism as “the anarchism of the lower middle class,” he is neatly combining two anathemas: the old Marxist abhorrence of disorderly, unregulated self-indulgence; and the even older disdain of the English administrative elite for the uncultivated, socially insecure but economically ambitious service class of clerks and salesmen, formerly Mr. Pooter, now Essex Man. Eric Hobsbawm, in short, is a mandarin—a Communist mandarin—with all the confidence and prejudices of his caste.


Endless meetings and debates at university shaped the beginning of my student career. I vividly recall the disappointment provoked by my words of disdain for the self-indulgence of fellow students, when I remarked that we should commit to serious study first and foremost, then, in the spare time, criticize the contents we were taught – but never 2) without 1). Now I see the correct answer to my remark would have been: “You are a mandarin and you don’t belong here”. But nobody there had the slightest idea of what they were talking, let alone of the mandarin tradition within any given society. This elitism was criticized by Chomsky already in 1968 but it escaped my radar. Popper would remark (“Conjectures and refutations”, Towards a rational theory of Tradition) that there is a tradition at work also amidst the rationalist, Enlightenment-based camp.

My experience lately has been a continuous attempt to be in equilibrium between the two competing requirements of a technocratic elitism and the refreshing humility to see that there are no people or traditions that “know best”. This is an epistemological fallacy  I keep stumbling upon, it seems I cannot help. But as Popper would say, quoting physicist J. Wheeler, “Our whole problem is to make mistakes as fast as possible”.

“Galileo was no idiot” (or “Wir werden wissen”)

What is the exact meaning of Hilbert’s famous remark that:

“Galileo was no idiot. Only an idiot could believe that science requires martyrdom – that may be necessary in religion, but in time a scientific result will establish itself”?

Why Bólyai,Lobachevsky (and later Riemann) got same equations at the same time, as well as Wiener and Kolmogorov, or for that matters, De Giorgi and Nash  as well as countless other figures in the history of mathematics?
One explanation is of course that of the hidden agenda, or superior intelligence, nicely orchestrated in this piece by Shafarevich. This is the route of Pythagoras and via Plato, of some of Western canon’s deepest thinkers. One of its latest champions seems to have been irremovable (see this article by Stanford logician George Kreisel)
This is a route, but of course others exist. Consider this problem, from an introductory numerical analysis book:


Boris Hessen, in “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia” articulated a materialistic epistemology which did not fare very well in the scientific community of his time, but that had its proponents in the Hegelo-marxian camp, especially coming from the Eastern Bloc. Lukács inspired Lakatos and even Popper’s falsificationism may be a restatement of certain ideas of Hegel. (The whole text of Hessen’s work to be found here).

Barrow’s “PI in the Sky” articulates just these ideas in a very cogent way. At the end one is left wondering whether Pythagoras had indeed stumbled upon some serious piece of truth, which humanity has not yet fully uncovered or his was just another optical illusion, because from the distance Kant’s apriori is just frozen path-dependency.

“To enquire and to create”

There used to be an old concept in classical philosophy, the concept of the full and meaningful life, creative and inquisitive. German classical philosophy recovered that from the ancient Greek civilization, in particular from Ⅴ century Athens. Unfortunately, that was a hugely unequal society, where a minority of optimates could freely dispose of most of the other’s time and lives. The modern world put an end to this non-sense, with obvious repercussions (see here). Marx’s “Entfremdung” concept grew out of his acquaintance with Hegel’s reflections on classical Greece, and the perceived cultural inferiority of the modern world against the old polis. Can we recover the lost integrity of classical society in the industrial world which is obviously based on the division of labor? This is Marx starting point. Similar reflections were voiced earlier by Wilhelm von Humboldt


one of the founders of modern higher education, which he based on a concept of humanity closely related to the ancient civilization paradigm (Paideia). The birth of Germany’s Bildung is here. The following excerpt from “Limits of State Action” (1792) is very explicit.

“To inquire and to create, these are the centers around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve.” “But all moral cultures spring solely and immediately from the inner life of the soul and can never be produced by external and artificial contrivances. The cultivation of the understanding, as of any of man’s other faculties, is generally achieved by his own activity, his own ingenuity, or his own methods of using the discoveries of others.[…] Man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does, and the laborer who tends the garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits. And since truly human action is that which flows from inner impulse, it seems as if all peasants and craftsmen might be elevated into artists, that is men who love their labor for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and invented skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character and exult and refine their pleasures, and so humanity would be ennobled by the very things which now, though beautiful in themselves, so often tend to be degraded. Freedom is undoubtedly the indispensable condition without which even the pursuits most congenial to individual human nature can never succeed in producing such salutary influences. Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being but remains alien to his true nature. He does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness. And if a man acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or instruction, rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies and power, we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.” (W. von Humboldt, “Limits of State Action”)

Enter Chomsky now. His wavelength is the same.
In “Government in the Future”, Noam Chomsky outlines the core ideas of a plan which, in his own words, puts the burden of proof on the shoulders of authority.

The problem that Noam does not appear to discuss in his long talk is (of course) the Division of Labor and the specialization that it implies. It is not clear to me whether a technologically advanced society can do without.