On the notion of an intellectual coup

In chapter nine of his book Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, Matt Stoller recounts the story of the genesis of the Chicago School of law & economics—the school of thought which has come to dominate virtually every aspect of the Western power structure since the 1970s. In Stoller’s telling, it truly could be considered a moment of epoch in economics, law, political science, and related disciplines, much as the Copernican geocentrism was for physics, or Mendel’s laws were for biology, or Generative Grammar was for psychology. The shift in thinking brought on by the Chicago school was perhaps as drastic and far-reaching as those brought on by these intellectual revolutions. Yet, in reading it, it struck me that it would wrong to describe the founding of the Chicago school as a revolution because it wasn’t one—it was an intellectual coup.

But what makes something an intellectual revolution? What makes it an intellectual coup? To stick with the analogy to political processes, the difference is legitimacy—revolutions are legitimate changes, while coups are illegitimate. Legitimacy, of course, is hard to judge objectively, but still, to call something a revolution is to judge it to be legitimate. The violent 1973 overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile is commonly called a “coup” rather than a revolution. Similarly, Historian Michael J. Klarman refers to the US Constitutional Convention as a coup to indicate that he judges it to have been illegitimate. And importantly, the revolution-coup distinction doesn’t boil down to the simple subjective value judgement of revolutions are good and coups are bad. So, while conservatives the world round, likely agree that the American Revolution was good, many argue that the French and Russian revolutions were bad. Interestingly, though, I don’t know that many people would think that a coup could be good. So, while most Americans would probably say the Constitutional convention is good, they probably wouldn’t describe it as a coup, perhaps because illegitimacy is per se bad.

So what makes a shift of ideas illegitimate—what makes it an intellectual coup? To see this we should look at what a legitimate shift looks like. The stories we’re used to hearing involve a disinterested person (or possibly a group) proposing a new idea in an open forum, while make an honest critical argument that it is superior to a contemporaneously widely-accepted idea. The proposal must be open, so that fair criticisms can be aired. The proposer should be disinterested in the sense that the proposed idea is not a means to some other material end (e.g., money or political influence), but rather an end in itself. The discourse around the idea should acknowledge and address the ideas antecedents and rivals, because it allows the larger community to accurately assess the merits of new idea.

We can see all of these criteria in the great shifts in the history of ideas. Even Galileo and Copernicus, whose work predated any of the modern intellectual institutions—like peer-reviewed journals, conferences, or universal primary education—that we all take for granted, opened their work to criticism—not by their peers primarily, but the Inquisition—and did so, not as a means to an end but for the sake of the ideas themselves—what self-interested person would open themselves to the punishment that a renaissance inquisition could dole out. Finally, it would be hard to credibly suggest that the early heliocentrists could ignore or misrepresent their intellectual competitors, which had been taken as a religious dogma, uncritically believed by their contemporaries. The very story of the Copernican revolution is one of competing ideas.

An illegitimate shift would go against one or more of these criteria. It would develop an idea in a less-than-open way; it would be put forth on behalf of some interest group, or as a means to an end for the proposer; or it would either ignore or caricature its competitor-ideas. And more often than not, the latter infraction will be the most characteristic feature of an intellectual coup. Taking the rise of the Chicago School, and its views on monopoly and antitrust, as Stoller recounts it as our prototype, we can see all of these features in play.

The story starts with wealthy businessman and New Deal enemy Harold Luhnow using his foundation The Volker Fund to finance a right-wing research project at the University of Chicago, starts continues with the project’s leading academic Aaron Director gathering a cadre of acolytes and eventually using private funds to start a journal that would be friendly to their ideas. What really allowed the Chicago School to change from a fringe endeavour to the dominant school of thought in the Western social sciences, in Stoller’s assessment, were a pair of rhetorical misappropriations: Adopting “the language of Jeffersonian democracy” and “the apolitical language of science.”

Jeffersonian democracy was in favour of the rights of the individual in opposition to centralized power, a stance that comes from Classical Liberalism and that the Chicago School loudly endorsed. The rhetorical trick, though, is that the Chicago School (and modern right-libertarians) treated authoritarian institutions like corporations as individuals and democratic institutions like labour unions as centralized power. Yet, even a cursory glance at many of the paragons of classical liberalism shows a number of views that we would now associate with a radical left-wing position. Some of Marx’s economic ideas come almost directly from Adam Smith, ideas like the labour theory of value, or the essentially parasitic nature of landlords. Of course, these views of Smith that don’t jibe with the right-wing caricature of him are either ignored or treated as a source of embarrassment. This move, of course, was aided by the fact that, by the time the right-wing Chicago School was appropriating the classical liberal tradition, the American left seemed to be pushing that tradition away. In fact, a recurring theme in Stoller’s is that the left has largely ceded populism to the right and embraced elitism.

Using the rhetoric of “science”, though, has probably been a much more powerful trick, because the general public including much of the elite’s attitude toward it is about as positive as its understanding of the term is murky. Nearly everyone—even flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and climate deniers—thinks science is good, but no one could define it. Sure, some would say something about experimental methods, or falsificationism, or spout some Kuhnian nonsense, and everyone would probably agree that quantum physics is a science, while film criticism is not, but few probably realize that philosophers of science have been consistently unable to pin down what constitutes a science. So, when an economist throws graphs and equations at us and declares scientific a statement that offends common sense, very few people are intellectually equipped to dispute them. In the case of the Chicago School, they were at an advantage because, until they adopted it, the claim that economics (along with politics, law, and history) could be a science like physics was probably only held by strict Marxists. The opposing position was one that worried about notions like power and democracy—hardly the kinds of ideas amenable to scientific analysis. If you think that Google doesn’t really compete in an open market, but uses its market power to crush all competition, then you probably also think the sun revolves around the earth.

While the moneyed interests backing the Chicago School and its insular nature in the early days certainly indicate that it was not likely to lead a legitimate intellectual shift, its rhetorical tricks, I believe, are what makes its success a coup rather than a revolution, and what has made its ideas so stubborn. It fosters the oppressive slogan “There is no alternative.” By co-opting the great thinkers of the enlightenment, the Chicago School can paint any opponents as anti-rational romantics, and by misappropriating the language of science, they can group dissenters with conspiracy theorists and backwards peasants. This makes it seem like a difficult position to argue against, but as many have discovered recently, it’s a surprisingly brittle position.

Take, for instance, the Chicago School position on antitrust laws—that they were intended as a consumer protection. This has been the standard position of antitrust enforcers in the U.S. and it’s based on an article by Robert Bork. It’s how obvious monopolists, like Google and Facebook have escaped enforcement thus far. But, as Stoller’s book documents, the actual legislative intent of U.S. antitrust laws had nothing to do with consumer welfare, and everything to do with power. Bork’s article, then, was a work of fiction, and once you understand that, the entire edifice of modern antitrust thinking begins to crumble.

So, the Chicago School carried out an intellectual coup—one that struck virtually every aspect of our society—but have there been intellectual coups in other fields? Two spring to mind for me—one in physics, and one in my own field of linguistics. Before I describe them, though, a brief word on motivations as an aspect of intellectual coups is in order.

One of the features of an intellectual coup that I described above is that of an ulterior motive driving it. In the case of the Chicago School it was driven by capitalists set on dismantling the New Deal for their own financial interests. Does that mean that everyone who subscribes to the Chicago School does so so that billionaires can make more money? Not at all. There are definitely Chicago Schoolers who are true believers. Indeed, I would wager that most, if not all, of them are. Hell, even political coups have true believers in them. What about the particular ulterior motives? Are all intellectual coups done on behalf of capital? No. Motivations take all sorts of forms, and are often subconscious. Bold claims are often rewarded with minor celebrity or notoriety which might have material benefits like job offers or the like. They are also sometimes correct. So, if a researcher makes a bold claim, are they doing so to stand out among their peers or are doing so because they truly believe the claim? It’s almost never possible to tell. Since intellectual coups are essentially based on intellectual dishonesty and its probably a safe choice to assume that those that enact an intellectual coup are capable and well-meaning people, discussions of motivations are useful to understand how a capable and well-meaning person could get caught up in a coup. As such, I will focus more on the means rather than the motive when diagnosing a coup.

The Copenhagen Quantum Coup

If you’re at all interested in the history of science, you may have heard of the Bohr-Einstein debate. The narrative that you likely heard was that in the early 20th century, the world community of physicists had accepted quantum mechanics with a single holdout, Albert Einstein, who engaged Niels Bohr in a debate at the 5th Solvay Conference in 1927. Einstein made a valiant argument, capping it with the declaration that “God does not play dice!” When it was Bohr’s turn, he wiped the floor with Einstein, showing that the old man was past his prime and out of step with the new physics. He even used Einstein’s own theory of relativity against him! And with that, Quantum mechanics reigned supreme, relegating all critics to the dustbin of history.

It’s a good story and even has a good moral about the fallibility of even a genius like Einstein. The trouble, though, at least according to Adam Becker in his excellent book What is Real?, is that the debate didn’t go down like that. For starters, Einstein wasn’t skeptical about quantum mechanics, but rather had questions about how we are to interpret it. Bohr was advocating for what’s misleadingly called “the Copenhagen Interpretation” which basically says that there is no way to give quantum theory a realist interpretation, all we can do is solve the equations and compare the solutions to experimental results. Furthermore, as Becker recounts, Einstein’s arguments weren’t out of step with contemporary physics. In fact, they were brilliantly simple thought experiments that struck at the very core of quantum mechanics. Their simplicity, however, meant that they sailed over the heads of Bohr and his cadre. It was Bohr’s response that missed the point. And finally, that famous quote from Einstein was in a letter to his friend Max Born, not at the conference in question.

This certainly has the hallmarks of an intellectual coup—it depends on a rhetorical trick of manipulating a narrative to favour one outcome, it shuts down debate by lumping dissenters in with the anti-rationalists, and it’s rather brittle—but it’s not quite as bald-faced as the Chicago School coup. Even as Becker tells it, the scientists in Bohr’s camp probably believed that Einstein was losing it and that he’s missed the point entirely. What’s more, the Copenhagen perspective, which the popularized telling of the debate supports, is not a pack of falsehoods like the Chicago School, but rather an overly narrow conception on the nature of scientific inquiry—a conception called “instrumentalism” which tends to banish humanistic questions of truth, reality, and interpretation to the realm of philosophy and views “philosophy” as a term of abuse.

But where is the dishonesty that I said every coup was based on? It seems to have come in the form of laziness—Bohr and his compatriots should have made a better effort to understand Einstein’s critique. This laziness, I believe, rises to the level of dishonesty, because it ended up benefiting the Copenhagen perspective in a predictable way. As Becker describes, Bohr, for various reasons, wanted to show that Quantum Mechanics as formulated in the 1920s was complete and closed—a perfect theory. Paradoxes and interpretive issues, such as the ones that Einstein was raising, revealed imperfections, which had to be ignored. Whether Bohr had all of this in his mind at the Solvay Conference is beside the point. His, and his followers’, was a sin of omission.

The Formal Semantics Coup

The standard theoretical framework of contemporary semantics, at least within the generativist sphere, is known as formal semantics. Few semanticists would likely agree that there is such thing as a standard theory, but those same semanticists probably agree on the following:

  1. The meaning of a word or a phrase is the thing or set of things that that word or phrase refers to.
  2. The meaning of a sentence is its truth conditions.
  3. Linguistic meanings can be expressed by translating expressions of a Natural Language into formulas of formal logic.
  4. Any aspect of language that doesn’t meet the requirements of 1-3 is outside the domain of semantics.

The origins of these standard tenets of formal semantics, though, are not some empirical discovery, or the results of some reasoned debate, but rather the declarations of a handful of influential logicians and philosophers. The ascendency of formal semantics, then, is due not to a revolution, but a coup. Since linguistic theory doesn’t get the same amount of press as economics and physics, the historical contours of the shift to formal semantics are at best murky. As such, I’ll explain my coup diagnosis through a series of personal anecdotes—not the ideal method, but the best I can do right now.

I was first exposed to formal semantics in my graduate coursework. The four numbered statements above were what I took for granted for a while. I was aware that there were other ways of looking at meaning, and that formal semantics was a relatively recent addition to the generative grammar family of theories, and I guess I assumed that the advent of formal semantics was an intellectual revolution and there must’ve been a great debate between the formalists and the non-formalists and the formalists came out on top. Of course, no one ever talked about that debate—I knew about the ongoing debates between behaviourists and generativists, and the “wars” between Generative Semantics and interpretive semantics, but no one told the tales of the Great Formal Semantics Debates. This should have been my first red flag—academics aren’t shy about their revolutionary arguments.

I first began to have qualms about formal semantics, when I heard Noam Chomsky’s lucid critiques of referentialism (tenet #1 above) in the Michel Gondry documentary Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy. Here was the man who founded Generative Syntax, who’s often considered a genius, and whose publications are usually major events in the field arguing that we’ve been doing semantics all wrong. As I better familiarized myself with his arguments, it became clear that he was holding a reasonable position. If I ever brought it up to a working semanticist, though, they would first brush it off saying basically “Chomsky needs to stay in his lane,” but when I put the arguments to them, they would acknowledge that they might be sound arguments, but that formal semantics was the only game in town (i.e., There is no alternative). One even told me straight out that, sure I could go against formal semantics, but if I did, I’d never get hired by any linguistics department (Of course, given the prevailing political and economic environment surrounding academic institutions, the odds of me getting hired regardless of my stance on formal semantics are pretty long anyway). This was when I first started to suspect something was amiss—the only defense that could be mustered for formal semantics was that everyone else was doing it and we can’t imagine an alternative.

I had to admit, though, that, despite my misgivings, I had no alternative to formal semantics and, being a syntactician, I didn’t really have the inclination to spend a lot of time coming up with one. As luck would have it, though, I happened upon exactly the sort of alternative that wasn’t supposed to exist: Jerrold Katz’ Semantic Theory. Published in 1972, the theory Katz proposed was explicitly non-referentialist, formal (in the sense of having a formalism), and opposed to what we now call formal linguistics. It was quite a surprise because I had heard of Katz—I read a paper he co-authored with Jerry Fodor for a syntax course—but strangely, he was always associated with the Generative Semantics crew—strangely, because he explicitly argues against them in his book. So, contrary to what I’d been told, there was an alternative, but why was I just finding out about it now? Unfortunately, Jerrold Katz died a few years before I ever picked up his book, as had his occasional co-author Jerry Fodor, so I couldn’t get their accounts of why his work had fallen out of favour. I asked the semanticists I knew about him and they recognized the name but had no idea about his work. The best explanation I got was from Chomsky, who said that he did good work, but semanticists were no longer interested in the questions he was asking. No stories of an LSA where Katz squared off against the new upstarts and was soundly beaten, no debates in the pages of Language or Linguistic Inquiry, Katz was just brushed aside and never spoken of again. Instead, the very fiats of philosophers and logicians (Carnap, Lewis, Quine, etc.) that Katz had argued against became the unexamined cornerstones of the field.

So, while the givenness of formal semantics was probably not the result of the schemes of a cabal of moneyed academics, like the Chicago School was, it doesn’t seem to have been the result of an open debate based on ideas and evidence, and it’s held in place, not by reason, but basically by sociopolitical forces. Thus I feel comfortable suggesting that it was the result of an intellectual coup.

Summing up: There’s always an alternative

I’ve offered a few potential features of an intellectual coup here, but nothing like an exhaustive diagnostic checklist. One important feature, though, is the “there is no alternative” attitude that they seem to foster. Any progress that we’ve made as a species, be it political, social, intellectual, or otherwise, stems from our ability to imagine a different way of doing things. So, for an intellectual community to be open to progress, it has to accept that there other ways of thinking about the world. Some of those alternatives are worse, some are better, but the only sure-fire way not to make progress is to declare that there is no alternative.

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