Jonathan Mair

Notes from the frying pan

Post-truth anthropology – published in Anthropology Today

A guest editorial on ‘Post-truth anthropology’ that I wrote for Anthropology Today is out today. It’s paywalled, I’m happy to send the text on request if you can’t access it. Edit: it has now been made open access for a period of 6 months — if it’s paywalled again by the time you read this and you can’t access it but want a copy, comment on this post and I’ll send it to you.

Abstract

Countless commentators have announced the advent of the post-truth era, but while everyone seems to be talking about it, there is little agreement about what it really means. This article argues that anthropology can make an important and distinctive contribution to understanding post-truth by treating it ethnographically. Commonly proposed explanations for post-truth include changes in political culture, in the structure of information in the digital age and universal cognitive weaknesses that limit people’s capacity for critical thought. While all these are likely important factors, they do not account for the role of culture in creating and sustaining post-truth. In fact, it is likely that culture, especially in the form of metacognition, or thought about thought, plays an important role by providing knowledge practices, techniques for allocating attention, and especially competing theories of truth. Ethnographic methods provide anthropologists with a distinctive window on post-truth cultures of metacognition.

Source: Post-truth anthropology – Mair – 2017 – Anthropology Today

Schumacher’s ‘Buddhist economics’

I’ve been talking to a colleague recently about developing a project on religion and economics under the auspices of the Religion and Political Culture Network (RPCN) at the University of Manchester. This has got me thinking about Buddhism, economics and Buddhist economics, and has led me to reread Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s classic essay Buddhist economics, first published in 1966, and available online here:

http://www.centerforneweconomics.org/buddhist-economics

It’s a fascinating piece, and though Schumacher’s arguments have become commonplace among critics of mainstream economics, it’s interesting just how current most of what he has to say sounds. Much of what he has to say about the irrationality of certain assuptions in academic economics is still being said today, for example by students who are demanding changes in the way the subject is taught in universities, tackled in a recent BBC radio documentary: http://bbc.in/1pBBGW9, and in another broadcast last year: http://bbc.in/1y94uHF.

Only one of his claims about economics is arguably anachronistic: the claim that economics considers only price in the use of different natural resources, not whether they are renewable or not. I think that, at least at the level of the economics of nations, the idea of sustainability has gained significant traction since he was writing, though he probably wouldn’t approve of the idea that the impact of production on the environment can be ‘priced in’.

Here is a summary of Schumacher’s main points:

1. Economics is not value-free

He begins by regretting that leaders of Buddhist countries such as Burma simultaneously say they want to retain and develop their Buddhist traditions and ways of life, but seek advice from what he calls ‘modern’ and ‘materialist’ economists.

This might make sense if Buddhism and economics goverened two completely distinct spheres of life. However, he argues that Buddhism, which teaches Right Livelihood as part of the Eightfold Noble Path, must have its own ideas about economics. On the other hand, he claims, economics is not value-neutral, but is based on unacknowledged metaphysical presuppositions that might be–and in fact are–in conflict with the aims and premises of Buddhist teachings.

2. The meaning of labour

Schumacher discusses attitudes to work as an example of the (mostly unspoken) assumptions that distinguish modern economics from Buddhist economics.

For the ‘modern’ economics, labour is an evil. For the worker, its something that destroys leisure and for which compensation in the form of wages is required. For the employer, it is a cost of production. The more production (in the case of the employer) or income (in the case of the worker) can be had for the less work the better. So one central aim of modern economics is to reduce the quantitity of work required for a given amount of production through mechanisation and the division of labour.

For Buddhist economics, in contrast, work is not a necessary evil, but something that leads to a number of good outcomes apart from the product itself, including the opportunity for the development of character, and the opportunity to cooperate with others and in the process overcome ‘ego-centredness’. Labour-saving innovations are not necessarily bad, but their value depends on the extent to which they free people from the heavy work to focus on more creating tasks, or to the contrary, make work meaningless and repetitive.

3. The Middle Way and consumption

Modern economics, Schumacher writes, assumes that wellbeing can be measured by consumption, and therefore that greater annual rates of consumption correspond to increased wellbeing. A Buddhist economist,

‘… would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.’

(This is reminiscent of Southwold’s (1983: 188) opposition between Buddhist ‘sapientalism’, ‘a rational strategy for ameliorating experience by altering the mind rather than the environing world’, and instrumentalism.)

This approach could easily be misunderstood. One might assume that the opposite of materialism is anti-materialism, or the pursuit of poverty. But Schumacher points out that Buddhism is not about the rejection of wealth, but the rejection of excessive attachment to wealth. The Buddha tried and rejected ascetic austerities and then promoted instead the moderation of the Middle Way.

4. Localism, simplicity and non-violence

Schumacher argues that treating consumption as a means not an end in itself means living simply (in order to leave oneself time to do what is really important) and in accordance with non-violence (presumably because consuming in a way that leads to violence would undermine the proper goal of all consumption: liberation).

Using less in the way of resources also minimises the causes of violence as it reduces the competition for resources. Schumacher also claims–perhaps the this is the most debatable claim in the essay–that trading across large distances brings people into potentially hostile contact so that Buddhist economics would advocate local self-sufficience and minimal dependence on international trade:

‘dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale.’

5. Non-renewable resources

Finally, Schumacher argues that Buddhist economics and modern economics take a different view on non-renewable resources. For modern economics, all resources are reduced to a money price, and whatever resource is the cheapest price for each unit of output is preferable. For Buddhist economics, in contrast, using non-renewables is living parasitically off capital.

As I said above, this final point of criticism does sound rather anachronistic now.

References

Schumacher, E. F. 1966. “Buddhist Economics”. In Asia: A Handbook, edited by Guy Wint. London: Anthony Blond Ltd.

Southwold, M. 1983. Buddhism in Life. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Needham’s review of Paul Veyne’s ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths?’

This post is a continuation of my thoughts in my previous post

Now to Needham’s review of Veyne’s book. The review is short, and much is taken up with flattering comments on Veyne’s style, but overall the conclusion is negative—he characterises the argument as ‘erratic and inconsistent’. On my reading, Needham makes three substantive points, which I shall deal with one by one here in order of importance.

  1. The only criticism that really has bite is that Veyne is vague about what the key terms in his analysis—belief and truth—mean to him. Partly on the basis of Veyne’s previous work, Needham reads Did the Greeks…? as an exercise in epistemological relativism, and makes a version of the usual objection to the paradoxes of relativism: if truth is always to be defined in local terms, in relation to historically specific programmes of truth, as Veyne would have it, then what exactly does Veyne mean when he says, absolutely, and not qualified by any context, that truth is plural?

Needham writes:

As it turns out, Veyne actually concentrates not on belief but on truth, but only to place himself in a further difficulty. He concedes that ‘truth’ too means so many things, yet he passes over the variety of theories of truth and, in the end, commits himself consistently to none. The nearest he gets to a steady acceptance is to say that truths and interests, which are both limited and arbitrary, are ‘two different terms for the same thing’.

Needham is right to call Veyne out for not clarifying his terms, and attributing this weakness to strong epistemological relativism is not an unreasonable interpretation. However, I believe another reading is possible.

Veyne details the variety of ‘regimes of belief’ in terms of different truth conditions and specific practices, such as the use of footnotes in academic writing, with which they are associated. These things are the specific form that believing has, historically taken. But it is still possible to speak of believing in the abstract, as the category to which all these concrete modes of belief belong. What is it that makes the ordinary ancient Greek’s vague and lethargic belief in gods and heroes an instance of the same class of phenomenon as the mediaeval lawyer’s insistence on footnotes, and the modern newspaper reader’s suspicion of bias? They are all specifications of the practical and social relationship between thinker and what the thinker accepts as truth. To put it more pithily, belief is about a relationship to a body of truth.

I admit, it’s not clear from Veyne’s text that this is what he means by belief and truth, but it’s a reading that makes sense of his concrete claims, and saves his general conclusions from Needham’s anti-relativist criticism. Needham is right that Veyne is unclear on this score, and clarifying the meaning of the general category of belief, and of the general category of truth on which it depends will be an important task for any ethnographic approach to belief.

  1. He complains that Veyne, in seeking to understand belief, did not take into account the attempts of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Hume, Kant, and so on to do the same thing.

These writers were engaged in what Veyne describes as an exercise of ‘the constitutive imagination’. Like the ancient and modern historians whom Veyne describes, they were engaged in shaping programmes of truth, legitimising some ‘regimes of belief’ and delegitimising others. They were not in the business of describing the plural programmes of truth of others, and they would only have had a place in the book alongside the mediaeval jurists and modern journalists that Veyne—as case studies of the kind of second-order belief theory and practice that Veyne is interested in describing.

In other words, Veyne is writing at a higher level of generalisation or abstraction than Kant et al., and for a different purpose. The philosophers’ question would not have been ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths’, but the logically posterior question, ‘Were the Greeks right to (dis)believe in their myths?’, which is only meaningful once it is established whether or not (or to what extent, in what senses) they did, in fact, believe.

  1. Finally, Needham chides Veyne for not taking account of ‘sceptical anthropology’. He argues that ethnographers have succeeded in explaining the kinds god-language that Veyne’s question raises, but without resorting to the notion of belief. He concludes that these writers,

confirm that it is not ‘pointless’, as Veyne proposes, to try to determine the true thought of other peoples, but that we shall not do so if we attribute our thoughts to them.

No page references are given in the review, but thanks to Google, it is possible to trace the passage in Veyne’s book to which Needham refers. Needham suggests that Veyne says it’s pointless ‘…to determine the true thought of other peoples thought’. The ‘pointless’ here is taken out of context and is quite misleading. In fact, Veyne was not saying it was hopeless to try to understand ‘other people’s’ thought, but that when faced with contradictory forms of thought, one must recognise the plurality rather than trying to explain it away. The full passage reads as follows:

Struggling to determine ‘the’ true thought of these people is pointless, and it is equally unproductive to attempt to resolve these contradictory thoughts by attributing one to popular religion and the other to the beliefs of the privileged social classes. (Veyne 1988:89)

The sceptical approach that Needham recommends begins by setting aside the question of belief. It may have found other explanations for religious language, and they may be illuminating, but this approach cannot even recognise the plurality of modes of belief that Veyne draws our attention to and makes it his business to describe and understand.

In summary, then, Needham’s critical review does not persuade me that Veyne’s way of understanding belief is not a really critical piece in understanding human thought, though Needham is right to say that Veyne is vague about his key terms. They’re still arguing in my head and Veyne is still winning.

References

Needham, Rodney. ‘Reviewed Work: Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination. by Paul Veyne, transl. Paula Wissing’. Man (New Series), Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 157-158.

Veyne, Paul. Did the Greeks believe in their myths?: An essay on the constitutive imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.