Saturday, October 29, 2011

Freeman Dyson's Perspective on Marx

Freeman Dyson’s piece in the latest New York Review makes at least a moderately acceptable case against C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” thesis, demonstrating that not only can a physicist read the text of a contemporary philosopher but also he can give it a fair shake.  The text in question is The Beginning of Infinity:  Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch.  What is particularly interesting, however, is the way in which Dyson uses this text to examine other schools of philosophical thought, particularly that of Karl Marx.

The result is a critique of Marx that not only transcends the usual ideological stances that do little to advance understanding but also says something useful about the process of advancing understanding itself.  We may see this by considering two paragraphs from Dyson’s review.  The first amounts to an evaluation and a warrant for the conclusion:

Looking back on Marx’s visions today, we can see that much of what he wrote about capitalism was true and almost everything he wrote about communism was false. So long as he was examining the evidence that he saw around him, he was on firm ground. As soon as he moved from evidence to dogma, his imagination led him wildly astray.

From this position Dyson can then broaden his scope to philosophy in general, while drawing upon what he learned from reading Deutsch’s book:

The gospel according to Karl Marx is a classic example of bad philosophy as defined by Deutsch. Bad philosophers try to improve the human condition by telling the world how to behave. They deceive themselves, imagining that the world will dance to their tune. Good philosophers continue to observe how the world is behaving and try to explain what they observe. Good philosophers improve the human condition by asking questions and correcting errors. The method of good philosophy is to explain and understand how the world behaves, not to prescribe.

There is nothing particularly new about this.  There has always been a tension between description and prescription.  The intellectuals about whom Mark Lilla wrote in his book The Reckless Mind were all victims of the fallacy that the insights of descriptions could be readily converted to prescriptions.  They were tempted to turn away from observation and towards action, and that temptation led them astray.  Ironically, Lilla’s book never really takes on Marx;  but that may be because his own historical scope only begins with Martin Heidegger.  Thus, while I would not say that Dyson reduced all of Lilla’s book to a single paragraph, I have to credit the physicist for formulating such a critique so cogent that it can be readily applied to many other philosophers.

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