Lives Deprived of Flesh, Research Time, 25/07/2017

Yesterday, I wrote about an article I’m working on to be published at the Reply Collective. It’s a rather complex study of what philosophical creativity is. It includes an analysis of Rebecca Tuvel’s article on the possibility of transracial human existence.

I read the article, and I didn’t actually think it was very good. I think Tuvel had the right to write the article, contrary to a lot of the more intense opposition to her work. See, Tuvel’s critics made the mistake of thinking that her goal was ever to write anything at all about real transgender people’s experiences.

Tuvel’s article doesn’t ever discuss real experiences, and if her approach there accurately reflects all her work, she never does. She practices an entirely abstract conceptual analysis.

Would you trust anyone who had a simple, clear answer for everything?
That kind of person is usually a con-man, whether he's wearing a
plaid leisure suit or a televangelist's perfect makeup.
She contrasts and analyzes a series of abstract arguments from principles and claims. These arguments are about what it would take to change genders and races. They have nothing to do with the actual experience of real transgender people – if they did, their ideas would be nowhere so clean, orderly, and simple.

Too much of contemporary philosophy mistakes this simplicity and clarity for a superior way of understanding the world because it’s so simple and clear. But the world isn’t easy – it’s a messy, difficult, painful place, and the truths of lived experience are hard to understand in all their curving, multifaceted dimensions.

Any conclusion that you come to easily, you should suspect. Just as you’d suspect a salesman whose pitch is too slick.

When I read Milton Friedman, I feel the same way.

Hell of a record scratch right there. But I see the same kind of reliance on the ease of abstract arguments, turning away from real complexities that would make your conclusions more difficult to hold. A philosophy informed entirely by the most simple, abstract arguments is completely inadequate to understanding any exceptions.

Here’s an example from Capitalism and Freedom that makes for a wonderful illustration of Friedman’s over-abstraction. It’s part of a larger argument about how education should work, and how people’s preferences for their children’s futures affect educational outcomes.

His writing on monetary policy and the role of
currency in national economies is genuinely
enlightening. When he stays in the boundaries of
his scientific discipline, Milton Friedman is a
remarkably insightful thinker.
Friedman considers why wealthy people have fewer children than poor people. His reasons are – what’s the word? – kind of ridiculous. He says that a central reason why wealthy people have fewer children than poor people is because the advanced education that wealthy people often receive is more expensive and requires greater investment.

Poor people, meanwhile, have more children because their education will be paltry. Poor people, after all, will only ever do simple work like manual labour or front-line service work. Since they don’t need as much education and training as the children of wealthy families who become doctors, engineers, and Ivy League university professors, poor families can produce more children at lower cost.

Yes, this is what he says. Capitalism and Freedom, chapter six, pages 86-7 of my edition. This is seriously Friedman’s argument in one of his most popular books. How on Earth did a man who would put this argument to paper win a Nobel Prize?

He abstracts away from the real, complex situation of actual families to focus specifically on his arguments for how to improve America’s education system. In doing so, he turns away from letting messy reality disprove his most infamous premise – that all people act optimally rational all the time and that all families are precisely planned.

Turning away from real complexity toward the simplicity and ease of an abstract argument makes your thoughts into lies of distortion. The simplicity of Friedman’s abstraction in this example erases the real injustices of education access and family planning capacities across wealth levels.

The simplicity of Tuvel’s abstraction in her paper this Spring erases the real injustice and suffering that transgender people face. Worse, it implicitly equates them with the deranged saviour complex of America’s most famous self-alleged transracial person.

The imperative to “Keep it simple, stupid!” does not always apply.

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