Monday, April 5, 2010

The "taste" of political and economic ideas

I love this passage, from an old book review in The New Republic, about which I'm deliberately omitting the key details:

It will not do to dismiss [this book] as a farrago of nonsense. Its very quality of not making sense is exactly what gives it effectiveness. We must rid ourselves of the view that only logical ideas can be political weapons. Ideas in politics are much like poetry: they need no inner logical structure to be effective. Edward Lear's nonsense verse merely extends a principle inherent in poetry as a whole. And _____ is, in a sense, the Edward Lear of political thinking. He has taught us that, just as a limerick drives Shakespeare out of our minds, . . . illogical political ideas drive out the logical. And whether or not he makes sense, his book has become the profoundly evocative philosophy of millions of people.
I left out the specific book and author in question because I think the point is worth considering in the abstract before being distracted by the specifics. If you click the link, you'll immediately see who it's about.

Will Wilkinson and Tyler Cowen have a similar insight in this portion of a Bloggingheads diavlog. (I want to be clear that I'm not at all trying to put down their thoughts by connecting them with the above passage.)

A transcript:
Wilkinson: My own view of intellectual life was influenced by it.* When I consider questions about difficult intellectual issues, I think of them as somehow having to do with taste . . . . There are certain arguments that 'taste' wrong. Because you don't necessarily explicitly see the logical structure of an argument. But you're like, "There's something wrong with this." And a lot of what you do when you're trained in a discipline, whether it's philosophy or economics, is that you're cultivating a kind of epistemic taste. You're not implementing an algorithm to tell whether a certain policy argument violates a fundamental principle of economics. You have to develop what people call economic intuition. But what is that? And it feels like what you have when you can taste the elements in a good Merlot. "Oh, there's a little bit of blackberry in there."

Cowen: Economics and politics are much more about taste and aesthetics, I think, than often we have realized. And there are thinkers that see that, when you go back in the history of ideas. They're not always the most salubrious thinkers, but there's a lot to it.
* This segment explains what Wilkinson means at the beginning of the clip when he says his view of intellectual life was "influenced by it" -- the "it" is Hume's essay "Of the Standard of Taste" (which I've blogged before).

By the way, that whole diavlog is excellent and worth listening to. (You might want to download it as a podcast.) It's structured as an interview with Cowen about his book Create Your Own Economy (which is oddly titled since it's not mainly about business or economics). But the diavlog transcends the promotional interview format and turns out to be an enlightening conversation about the value of outside-the-mainstream thinking styles.