7 August 2010

Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm?

I've had a bee in my bonnet for a while now about the need for a paradigm shift. This began when I came up with the title for a paper: 'Let's Twist Again: Time for a Real Copernican Revolution'. Don't worry, this is the sort of party game academics get up to - yes really! My own favourite is 'Haydn Sikh: The Adaptation of the Classical Form in Britain's Minority Religious Communities', or something like that.

The idea of a paradigm shift comes from a hugely influential paper written by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 and called 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions'. Kuhn's conclusions were intended specifically for the hard sciences. Amongst the scientific community this was taken as a harsh blow by some, implying that there was not a single, objective and irrefutable system of knowledge discovery, but that what counted as true and how it could be developed and communicated changed through time.

People now tend to use the phrase 'paradigm shift' in a more New Agey sense, of a questioning and overthrow of the most basic assumptions of our worldview. It is in this sense that I have become increasingly convinced that we need such as shift. What we are seeking is a new system, not just a change in some of the parameters of the existing system. This explains why it is so difficult to explain green ideas to the mainstream, because you cannot explain, say, why you need a Citizens' Income to somebody who doesn't understand the problems with global capitalism, or the need for a bioregional, provisioning-focused economy. All these concepts make sense as part of a wholly different paradigm of economic life; individually they appear marginal, if not absurd.

But how deep should our questioning of the paradigm go? Paul Feyerabend, scourge of the methodological community and child of the 1960s, takes the phrase 'accept nothing; question everything' to its logical conclusion. In the unpublished manuscript called The Conquest of Abundance that was left unfinished at his death, he suggested that it may be our habit for analysing the world that has reduced our ability to show reverence and wonder. It has thus in a fundamental way limited our perception of the abundance of nature.

'Variety disappears when subjected to scholarly analysis. This is not the fault of scholars. Anyone who tries to make sense of a puzzling sequence of events, her or his own actions included, is forced to introduce ideas that are not in the events themselves, but put them in perspective. . . There is no escape: understanding a subject means transforming it, lifting it out of a natural habitat and inserting it into a model or a theory or a poetic account of it. But one transformation may be better than another in the sense that it permits or even explains what for the other transformation remains an unsolvable puzzle' (p. 12)

Feyerabend develops his theme by exploring the point at which Greek culture underwent a shift from the mysterious, poetic understandings of Homeric times to the intellectually impressive mind-games of logic, evidence and proof. You might argue that this is the first step along the road that has led us to evidence-based policy-making and the impossibility of making anything change unless you can show that position B is better in terms of something measurable (and probably in money terms) than position A. In this world we cannot save hummingbirds unless they have a finanacial value, and hence they, and a thousand other species, are doomed.

The legalistic, taxonomising worldview has labelled us as Homo sapiens. This tells us a lot about how we think of ourselves as a species, and perhaps some of the assumptions we need to challenge if we are to be a species with a flourishing future to match our glorious past. To what extent being a species that focuses so exclusively on one gender may be a problem is a question that intrigues others. I am more interested in the 'sapiens' part of this formulation. Such a characterisation accords with our exaltation of the intellect, since 'sapiens' is usually translated as knowing. However, the online dictionary tells me that the derivation is actually from 'sapere', to be wise or to taste. To think of ourselves as a species that tastes the richness of life and does so with true appreciation seems to offer us a better hope than any amount of numerical analyses.


  1. I appreciate the sentiment, but it seems to me you haven't come close to proving your main point, which is your claim that rationality is the exclusive property of the existing order.

    The existing order says things like "the automobile is the best (most rational and efficient) form of transportation." Is the response to that absurd claim to dump reason overboard, or turn reason on the irrationality and inefficiency of things like automobiles?

    Perhaps the existing order wins people's minds not because of the rottenness of reason, but because of sheer power and ideology and institutional dominance.

    Personally, wonderful and important as feelings certainly are, I am extremely nervous about suggesting that a politics of emotions is the way out of our crisis.

  2. Hi Molly,

    How about this a paradigm shift? Chuck economics out of the window!!!

    Replace it with ecology and ethology.

    Just to hint at why, imagine being tasked with undertaking the study of a community of chimpanzees where, say, a new regular supply of food was made available to them but the restriction on the researcher was they could only use the tools available from economic theory to explain the consequences. I conjecture they would be struggling.

    Or a similiar task that probably is more amenable to describing in economic terms but still probably not straight-forward - the invasion of baboons into parts of urban South Africa.

    I think the bottom line of my thinking is that economics is really a branch of psychology and will address much foolish behaviour by humans, like an individual acquiring more gold in a life-time than he could possibly use or spend 'sensibly' but does little to give us any insight into how to deal with the imminent collapse of the world's major ecosytems - the oceans, rivers and forests.

    We have ample evidence that 'economic man' is crazy, many of the most 'successful' being effectively psychopaths and it is mankind's collective behaviour that is bringing on eco-doom, but surely it must be self-evident that 'tweeking' or 'nudging' the psychopathic traits has no chance of bringing about the required drastic changes in how we conduct ourselves.

    Or, to make a blunt assertion, we can't tax and subsidise ourselves into a level of economic activity that is consistent with a healthy planet.