Thursday, 11 November 2010

Mill on Comte : clever but absurdly consistent fascist

I'm just finishing up the great J.S. Mill book on August Comte.  In the end Mill spotted Comte's fascist tendencies, which clearly abhorred him, whilst appreciating his great intellectual abilities (especially early in Comte's career).  Mill finishes the book by highlighting the danger of what Emerson would later call a 'foolish consistency of small minds' but what Mill himself would call the absurd consistency of great minds.  Emerson tagged this kind of foolish consistency as indicative of small minds, ironically enough, in an essay encouraging people to be more self-reliant, individualists, non-conformist; this is the non-fascist perspective, precisely the opposite of the Comtian view of how humanity ought to be managed.  Mill labels Comte with Descartes and Leibniz in the same category, saying: 

"they were ... the most consistent, and for that reason often the most absurd, because they shrank from no consequences, however contrary to common sense, to which their premisses appeared to lead.  Accordingly their names have come down to us associated with grand thoughts,..., and also with some of the most extravagantly wild and ludicrously absurd conceptions and theories, which ever were propounded by thoughtful men."  
 I mention this because this argument about how free a model builder is to use input assumptions which differ substantially from reality is a very modern one in economics, just as it was in Ricardo and Malthus's time.  I hope to come back to it in later postings.

To my mind, what most resembles this frenzied French systematiser within the scope of economics is a well-described mathematical model of some aspect or other of economic behaviour, together with a set of (usually unrealistic) assumptions.  I hope to develop this idea further when reading other works on economic methodology.

It is also amusing to me that not only did Comte's life work contain inspiration for what would be the positive approach to economics, but also his life itself provided a model for a model-driven quasi-human not unlike the  Homo Economicus beloved of the neoclassical economist fraternity.  Mehrling, in his wonderful biography of Fisher Black, paints a similar picture of a man driven to change his very own behaviour in a way which made it conform to the CAPM model, an recent mathematical model of Homo economicus.  Mehrling refers often to Black as 'CAPM Man'.  I'm also reminded of John Searle's Chinese room experiment, which captures some aspect of this form of constraint on human behaviour.  When we behave according to the diktats of the model, are we debasing our humanity, or are we bringing light where otherwise there was emotional floundering?  In answering this question, it is worth remembering the conclusions concerning performativity as discussed in "An engine, not a camera".