Comments on “The glory of systems”


What Nineteenth Century?

ecoreader's picture

At the height of systematic culture, in the mid–1800s, religion, philosophy, politics, science, and all the arts were in agreement. Philosophy was not separate from theology, and atheism disqualified you as a philosophy professor. Religion was considered rational; it gave justifications consistent with common sense. Political and economic theory mainly justified the existing social order, drawing reasons from both religion and science. Science discovered the Will of God, as manifest in His Creation. Great art was, by definition, morally improving. Art expressed the highest values of the culture; it was pure, inspiring, and uplifting.

Please review the history of the nineteenth century. This paragraph completely undermined whatever argument you were making. It's careless enough to be utterly baffling.

Systematicity and its discontents

I'm not sure exactly what you are objecting to. Could you be more specific?

Did you read the following paragraph?

With hindsight, this may all sound ridiculous, and even repellent. We know that it failed conclusively a hundred years later...

Also, I don't know whether you read this page in isolation, or in context. The point of the page is not to hold up the 1850s as a golden age that we should attempt to return to. (Later in the book, I will ridicule reactionaries who make claims like this.)

This page is, rather, background for "Systems of meaning all in flames," which explains how the internal contradictions in 1800s systems caused nearly-complete breakdown in the early 1900s. Those were followed by a series of fragmentations, starting in the 1960s, that are still ongoing.

Does that help explain why I wrote the paragraph I did? Maybe this needs to be made more explicit.

Writing a book on the web is difficult, because many readers arrive somewhere in the middle, without context. On the other hand, I can't restate the whole context on every page!

"because" is alive and well

Brian Slesinsky's picture

The "failure" of systems thinking seems a bit exaggerated. We have bigger and more complicated systems than ever before (thanks to computers), and still find them very useful. We have a lot more facts available to us and can more easily look them up. We have more theories about how the world works, and more ways to prove or disprove them. We even have more ways to cooperate (take Wikipedia for example). Science and mathematics finds answers to increasingly difficult questions. In many respects, 19th century enthusiasts of systems would not see failure but rather an astonishing success.

The failure is almost purely on the moral side. We don't take understanding what exists as implying anything specific about what ought to be, or how you should live your life.

Moral questions seem to be your main focus, but there are more to systems than that.

The place where these interact is when people decide whether some course of action is likely to be effective, and how to make it more effective. A moral system can be undermined by new understanding, when we learn that the practices it prescribes don't work very well in practice.

Where systems don't work

Yes; science and technology have of course made great progress since the systematic mode started to break down after WWI.

Have you read the page about that breakdown? It was mainly in systems of meaning, not science. Meaning much more broadly than just ethics, though!

Relatedly, at this point, it seems that it's mostly only STEM people who can use systems (which was not true before pomo hit). I wrote about that in "A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse," which you may find interesting.

It's also worth noting that, despite all the progress, STEM has failed to provide the foundational certainty that the 19th century thought it had. This mostly-unwritten page will cover that. The crisis in the foundations of mathematics is unresolved, and looks unresolvable. And, so far, a unified field theory looks out of reach. And there have been many other nasty surprises, that we've learned to live with, but that came as horrible blows to the systematic worldview at the time: Arrow's Theorem and Bell's Theorem, to name two at random.

I'm not a mathematician but

Brian Slesinsky's picture

I'm not a mathematician but it appears that the foundations of mathematics are in reasonable shape; see [1].

I'm a bit skeptical that philosophical foundations (of meaning or any other kind) are quite as important as you suggest. The metaphor of a "foundation" is not really apt. A building can't stand without its foundation, but practitioners can usually keep doing what they do without worrying about philosophical puzzles.

For example, Arrow's theorem is important to economists, but I doubt it had much effect on politics anywhere, and certainly can't be blamed for the horrors of the 20th century. Economic insights can be useful for building stable markets, but in cases where they are limited, in practice we're no worse than before.

What's true is that there was a collapse of some ideological systems that perhaps gave some people comfort. But remember, those systems were not science. This is better thought of as the collapse of some particularly persistent and pseudo-scientific forms of "woo".


We don't need foundations

I'm a bit skeptical that philosophical foundations (of meaning or any other kind) are quite as important as you suggest. The metaphor of a "foundation" is not really apt. A building can't stand without its foundation, but practitioners can usually keep doing what they do without worrying about philosophical puzzles.

Yes, exactly! That is actually the main point of this whole book!

What's true is that there was a collapse of some ideological systems that perhaps gave some people comfort.

Right. The point of the rest of this history is that this was hugely traumatic at the time, and that the last half-century of the history of meaning consists of working out various inadequate responses to that trauma.


nethy's picture


This poem by Alexander Pope is sometimes used to sum up the intellectual perspective of the early enlightenment period:

"/Nature, and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night.
/ God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was Light."

You emphasised that the ideological systems in question were "persistent and pseudo-scientific," not science. Most of them weren't even true and some were even harmful. But especially at the beginning of this long period, it wasn't clear what was or wasn't rationally inclined subject area. The evidence that science could really figure stuff out rationally was very fresh and exciting.

Constitutionalism, French & American Republicanism, socialism, nationalism, democratic variants of all these, rights charters, fiscal management... These are all "systematic," if I 'm understanding David's terminology correctly. They're ostensibly based on "rational" foundations even is they are pseudo-rational in truth.

From today's perspective it's pretty easy to distinguish one from the other. The science is the stuff that has progressed and seems to be headed someplace. Meanwhile, Ayn Rand has yet to settle her dispute with Emmanuel Kant and we gave up waiting for results a while ago. That's hindsight though.

Tomorrowland Movie

Matt's picture

The themes discussed on this page seem like they were explored to some extent in the 2015 film Tomorrowland.

I'm still digesting your narrative, so I can't say for sure whether the movie had anything interesting to add to the conversation, but (spoiler?) it definitely followed an arc of chasing a rationality-based Utopia and ending in dire failure. But then perhaps trying again with Rationality 2.0, which will succeed if the right, moral people work hard enough? I'm not sure.

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This page is in the section How meaning fell apart,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The next page in this section is Invented traditions and timeworn futures.

The previous page is In praise of choicelessness.

This page’s topics are Eternalism, History of ideas, and Systems.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.