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Think Piece

The challenge of contingency and Leibniz’s cybernetic thinking

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

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Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, painted by Christoph Bernhard Francke

According to the philosopher of science Alexandre Koyré, the early modern period marked the passage ‘from the world of more-or-less to the universe of precision’. Not all thinkers greeted the mathematization of epistemology with the same enthusiasm: for the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, this marked a watershed moment when modern nihilism had taken root in the shape of the reduction of the world to calculation and recently culminated with the emergence of cybernetics. One of the main culprits of this trend was none other than the German mathematician and polymath Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), who in the late seventeenth century invented the calculus and envisaged a binary mathematical system. Crucially, Leibniz had concerned himself with the formalization and the mechanization of the thought process either through the invention of actual calculating machines or the introduction of a universal symbolic language – his so-called ‘Universal characteristic’– which relied purely on logical operations. Ideally, this would form the basis for a general science (mathesis universalis). According to this scheme, all disputes would be ended by the simple imperative ‘Gentlemen, let us calculate!’

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A graphic representation of second-order cybernetics by Mark Côté

For having mechanized reasoning, cyberneticist Norbert Wiener touted Leibniz as a ‘patron saint for cybernetics’ (Wiener 1965, p. 12) in the ‘Introduction’ to his 1948 seminal work Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. In it, he settled on the term ‘kybernetes’, the ‘steersman’ to describe a novel type of automatic and self-correcting reasoning which consisted in the deployment of mathematics, notably via a feedback mechanism, towards the domestication of contingency and unpredictability. Cybernetics does not ‘drive toward the ultimate truth or solution, but is geared toward narrowing the field of approximations for better technical results by minimizing on entropy––but never being able to produce a system that would be at an entropy of zero…. In all of this, [it] is dealing with data as part of its feedback mechanism for increasing the probability of a successful event in the future (or in avoiding unwanted events).’

Cybernetic applications are ubiquitous today from anti-aircraft systems to cryptography; an anti-aircraft system, for instance, receives input data on a moving target and delivers the navigation of bullet to the target as output after a computing process.  Cybernetics’ aim is first and foremost practical and its method probabilistic: through the constant refining of the precision of a prediction, it helps steer action through the selection between probabilities. Under those conditions, a constant process of becoming is subordinated to a weak form of determinism; real infinite complexity is deferred in favour of logical symbolism and ‘disorganization’, that ‘arch-enemy’ endemic to intense mutability as Nobert Wiener put it, gives way to ontological prediction.

In his works The Taming of Chance and The Emergence of Probability Ian Hacking traced the emergence of probabilistic thinking away from deterministic causation. In fact and against commonly-held positivist narratives of the triumph of objective rationality, historians of mathematics generally acknowledge that the seventeenth century witnessed the birth of both probability theory and modern probabilism perhaps most famously epitomized by Pascal’s Wager. With the emergence of contingency, the question of its conceptualization became all the more pressing.

Perhaps no thinker was more aware of this imperative than Leibniz. Leibniz is often portrayed as an arch-rationalist and yet he did not view pure deduction as sufficient for reasoning; the ‘statics’ inherent to his characteristic (Leibniz, 1677) were simply ill-suited to a constantly evolving practical reality. Finite calculation needed to be complemented by probabilistic reasoning (1975, p. 135) which would better embrace the infinite complexity and evolving nature of reality. Although the author of a conjectural history of the world, The Protogaea, Leibniz did not merely conjecture about the past, but also sought to come to grips with the future and the state of mutability of the world. To this end, he pioneered the collection of statistical data and probabilistic reasoning especially with regards to the advancement of the modern state or the public good (Taming of Chance, 18). Leibniz had pored over degrees of probability as early as his 1665 law degree essay De conditionibus and the ability to transmute uncertainty into (approximate) certainty in conditions of constant mutability remained a lifelong preoccupation. More specifically, he set out to meet the challenge of mutability with what appears as a cybernetic solution.

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An example of Leibniz’s diagrammatic reasoning

In a series of lesser-known texts Leibniz explored the limits and potentially dangerous ramifications of finite cognition, and the necessity for flexible and recursive reasoning. In 1693 Leibniz penned The Horizon of the Human Doctrine, a thought experiment which he subtitled: ‘Meditation on the number of all possible truths and falsities, enunciable by humanity such as we know it to be; and on the number of feasible books. Wherein it is demonstrated that these numbers are finite, and that it is possible to write, and easy to conceive, a much greater number. To show the limits of the human spirit [l’esprit humain], and to know the extent to these limits’. Building on his enduring fascination with combinatorial logic that had begun as a teenager in 1666 with his De Arte Combinatoria and had culminated ten years later with his famous ‘Universal Characteristic’, he set out to ‘show the limits of the human spirit, and to know the extent to these limits’. Following in the footsteps of Clavius, Mersenne and Guldin, Leibniz reached the conclusion that, through the combination of all 23 letters of the alphabet, it would be possible to calculate the number of all possible truths. Considering their prodigious, albeit ultimately finite number, there would inevitably come a point in time when all possible variations would have been exhausted and the ‘horizon’ of human doctrine would be reached and when nothing could be said or written that had not been expressed before (nihil dici, quod non dictum sit prius) (p. 52). The exhaustion of all possibilities would give way to repetition.

In his two later treatments on the theme of apokatastasis, or ‘universal restitution’, Leibniz took this reasoning one step further by exploring the possible ramifications of the limits of human utterability for reality.  In them, he extended the rule of correspondence between possible words to actual historical events. For instance, since ‘facts supply the matter for discourse’ (p. 57), it would seem, by virtue of this logic, that events themselves must eventually exhaust all possible combinations. Accordingly, all possible public, as well as individual histories, would be exhausted in a number of years, inevitably incurring a recurrence of events, whereby the exact same circumstances would repeat themselves, returning ‘such as it was before.’ (p.65):

‘[S]uppose that one day nothing is said that had not already been said before; then there must also be a time when the same events reoccur and when nothing happens which did not happen before, since events provide the matter for words.’

In a passage he later decided to omit, Leibniz even muses about his own return, writing once again the same letters to the same friends.

Now from this it follows: if the human race endured long enough in its current state, there would be a time when the same life of certain individuals would return in detail through the very same circumstances. I myself, for example, would be living in a city called Hanover situated on the river Leine, occupied with the history of Brunswick, and writing letters to the same friends with the same meaning. [Fi 64]

Leibniz contemplated the doctrine of Eternal Return, but it was incompatible with his metaphysical understanding of the world. Ultimately, he reasserted the primacy of the infinite complexity of the world over finite combinatorics. Beneath the superficial similarity of events – and thus of description- lay a trove of infinite differences which superseded any finite number of combinations: paradoxically, ‘even if a previous century returns with respect to sensible things or which can be described by books, it will not return completely in all respects: since there will always be differences although imperceptible and such that could not be sufficiently described in any book however long it is.’. [Fi 72]’   Any repetition of event was thus only apparent; each part of matter contained the ‘world of an infinity of creatures’ which ensured that truths of fact ‘could be diversified to infinity’ (p. 77).

To this epistemological quandary Leibniz opposed a ‘cybernetic’ solution whereby the analysis of the infinite ‘detail’ of contingent reality would open up a field of constant epistemological renewal which lay beyond finite combinatorial language, raising the prospect of an ‘infinite progress in knowledge’ for those spirits ‘in search of truth.’ (p. 59) The finite number of truths expressible by humans at one particular moment in time would be continuously updated to adapt itself to the mutability and progress of the contingent world. ‘Sensible truths’ could ‘always supply new material and new items of knowledge, i.e. in theorems increasing in length’ in this manner permitting knowledge to approach reality asymptotically. In this manner, the theoretical limits which had been placed upon human knowledge could be indefinitely postponed, in the process allowing for incrementally greater understanding of nature through constant refinement.

Leibniz thus set forth an ingenious solution in the shape of a constantly updated finitude which would espouse the perpetually evolving infinity of concrete reality. By adopting what may be termed a ‘cybernetic’ solution avant la lettre, he offered a model, albeit linear and continuous, which could help reconcile determinism and probabilism, finite computation and infinite reality and freedom and predictability. Probabilism here served to induce and sustain a weak form of determinism, one which, in keeping with the nature of contingency itself as defined by Leibniz, ‘inclined’ rather than ‘necessitated’.

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

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In the Archives Think Piece

Between Conservatism and Fascism in Troubled Times: Der Fall Bernhard

by guest contributor Steven McClellan

The historian Fritz K. Ringer claimed that for one to see the potency of ideas from great thinkers and to properly situate their importance in their particular social and intellectual milieu, the historian had to also read the minor characters, those second and third tier intellectuals, who were barometers and even, at times, agents of historical change nonetheless. One such individual who I have frequently encountered in the course of researching my dissertation, was the economist Ludwig Bernhard. As I learned more about him, the ways in which Bernhard formulated a composite of positions on pressing topics then and today struck me: the mobilization of mass media and public opinion, the role of experts in society, the boundaries of science, academic freedom, free speech, the concentration of wealth and power and the loss of faith in traditional party politics. How did they come together in his work?

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Ludwig Bernhard (1875-1935; Bundesarchiv, Koblenz Nl 3 [Leo Wegener], Nr. 8)
Bernhard grew up in a liberal, middle-class household. His father was a factory owner in Berlin who had converted from Judaism to Protestantism in 1872. As a young man, Bernhard studied both Munich and Berlin under two-heavyweights of the German economic profession: Lujo Brentano and Gustav Schmoller. Bernhard found little common ground with them, however. Bernhard’s friend, Leo Wegener, best captured the tension between the young scholar and his elders. In his Erinnerungen an Professor Ludwig Bernhard (Poznań: 1936, p. 7), Wegener noted that “Schmoller dealt extensively with the past,” while the liberal Brentano, friend of the working class and trade unions, “liked to make demands on the future.” Bernhard, however, “was concerned with the questions of the present.” He came to reject Schmoller and Brentano’s respective social and ethical concerns. Bernhard belonged to a new cohort of economists who were friendly to industry and embraced the “value-free” science sought by the likes of Max Weber. They promoted Betriebswirtschaft (business economics), which had heretofore been outside of traditional political economy as then understood in Germany. Doors remained closed to them at most German universities. As one Swiss economist noted in 1899, “appointments to the vacant academical [sic] chairs are made as a rule at the annual meetings of the ‘Verein für Socialpolitik’,” of which Schmoller was chairman from 1890-1917. Though an exaggeration, this was the view held by many at the time, given the personal relationship between Schmoller and one of the leading civil servants in the Prussian Ministerium der geistlichen, Unterrichts- und Medizinalangelegenheiten (Department of Education, church and medical affairs), Friedrich Althoff.

Part of Bernhard’s early academic interest focused on the Polish question, particularly the “conflict of nationalities” and Poles living in Prussia. Unlike many other contemporary scholars and commentators of the Polish question, including Max Weber, Bernhard knew the Polish language. In 1904 he was appointed to the newly founded Königliche Akademie in Posen (Poznań). In the year of Althoff’s death (1908), the newly appointed Kultusminister Ludwig Holle created a new professorship at the University of Berlin at the behest of regional administrators from Posen and appointed Bernhard to it. However, Bernhard’s placement in Berlin was done without the traditional consultation of the university’s faculty (Berufungsverfahren).

The Berliner Professorenstreit of 1908-1911 ensued with Bernhard’s would-be colleagues, Adolph Wagner, Max Sering and Schmoller protesting his appointment. It escalated to the point that Bernhard challenged Sering to a duel over the course lecture schedule for 1910/1911, the former claiming that his ability to lecture freely had been restricted. The affair received widespread coverage in the press, including attracting commentaries from notables, such as Max Weber. At one point, just before the affair seemed about to conclude, Bernhard published an anonymous letter in support of his own case, which was later revealed that he was in fact the author. This further poisoned the well with his colleagues. The Prussian Abgeordnetenhaus (Chamber of Deputies) would debate the topic: the conservatives supported Bernhard and the liberal parties defended the position of the Philosophical Faculty. Ultimately, Bernhard would keep his Berlin post.

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Satire of the Professorenstreit (click for larger image)

The affair partly touched upon the threat of the political power and the freedom of the Prussian universities to govern themselves—a topic that Bernhard himself extensively addressed in the coming years. It also concerned the rise of the new discipline of “business economics” gaining a beachhead at German secondary institutions. Finally, the Professorenstreit focused on Bernhard himself, an opponent of much of what Schmoller and his colleagues in the Verein für Socialpolitik stood for. He proved pro-business and an advocate of the entrepreneur. Bernhard also showed himself a social Darwinist, deploying biological and psychological language, such as in his analysis of the German pension system in 1912. He decried what he termed believed the “dreaded bureaucratization of social politics.” Bureaucracy in the form of Bismarck’s social insurance program, Bernhard argued, diminished the individual and blocked innovation, allowing the workers to become dependent on the state. Men like Schmoller, though critical at times of the current state of Prussian bureaucracy, still believed in its potential as an enlightened steward that stood above party-interests and acted for the general good.

Bernhard could never accept this view. Neither could a man who became Bernhard’s close associate, the former director at Friedrich Krupp AG, Alfred Hugenberg. Hugenberg was himself a former doctoral student of another key member of the Verein für Socialpolitik , Georg Friedrich Knapp. Bernhard was proud to be a part of Hugenberg’s circle, as he saw them as men of action and practice. In his short study of the circle, he praised their mutual friend Leo Wegener for not being a Fachmann or expert. Like Bernhard, Hugenberg disliked Germany’s social policy, the welfare state, democracy, and—most importantly—socialism. Hugenberg concluded that rather than appeal directly to policy makers and state bureaucrats through academic research and debate, as Schmoller’s Verein für Socialpolitik had done, greater opportunities lay in the ability to mobilize public opinion through propaganda and the control of mass media. The ‘Hugenberg-Konzern’ would buy up controlling interests in newspapers, press agencies, advertising firms and film studios (including the famed Universum Film AG, or UfA).

In 1928, to combat the “hate” and “lies” of the “democratic press” (Wegener), Bernhard penned a pamphlet meant to set the record straight on the Hugenberg-Konzern. He presented Hugenberg as a dutiful, stern overlord who cared deeply for his nation and did not simply grow rich off it. Indeed, the Hugenberg-Konzern marked the modern equivalent to the famous Raiffeisen-Genossenschaften (cooperatives) for Bernhard, providing opportunities for investment and national renewal. Furthermore, Bernhard claimed the Hugenberg-Konzern had saved German public opinion from the clutches of Jewish publishing houses like Mosse and Ullstein.

Both Bernhard and Hugenberg pushed the “stab-in-the-back” myth as the reason for Germany’s defeat in the First World War. The two also shared a strong belief in fierce individualism and nationalism tinged with authoritarian tendencies. These views all coalesced in their advocacy of the increasing need of an economic dictator to take hold of the reins of the German economy during the tumultuous years of the late Weimar Republic. Bernhard penned studies of Mussolini and fascism. “While an absolute dictatorship is the negation of democracy,” he writes, “a limited, constitutional dictatorship, especially economic dictatorship is an organ of democracy.” (Ludwig Bernhard: Der Diktator und die Wirtschaft. Zurich: 1930, pg. 10).

Hugenberg came to see himself as the man to be that economic dictator. In a similar critique mounted by Carl Schmitt, Bernhard argued that the parliamentary system had failed Germany. Not only could anything decisive be completed, but the fact that there existed interest-driven parties whose existence was to merely antagonize the other parties, stifle action and even throw a wrench in the parliamentary system itself, there could be nothing but political disunion. For Bernhard, the socialists and communists were the clear violators here.

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Ludwig Bernhard, »Freiheit der Wissenschaft« (Der Tag, April 1933; BA Koblenz, Nl 3 [Leo Wegener)], Nr. 8, blatt 91; click for larger image)
The Nazis proved another story. Hitler himself would be hoisted in power by Hugenberg. Standing alongside him was Bernhard. In April 1933, Bernhard published a brief op-ed entitled “Freiheit der Wissenschaft,” which summarized much of his intellectual career. He began by stating, “Rarely has a revolution endured the freedom of science.” Science is free because it is based on doubt. Revolution, Bernhard writes, depends on eliminating doubt. It must therefore control science. According to Bernhard, this is what the French revolutionaries in 1789 attempted. In his earlier work on this topic, Bernhard made a similar argument, stating that Meinungsfreiheit (free speech) had been taken away by the revolutionary state just as it had been taken away by democratic Lügenpresse. Thankfully, he argued, Germany after 1918 preserved one place where the “guardians” of science and the “national tradition” remained—the universities, which had “resisted” the “criminal” organization of the Socialist Party’s Prussian administration. Bernhard, known for his energetic lectures, noted with pride in private letters the growth of the Nazi student movement. In 1926, after having supported the failed Pan-German plan to launch a Putsch (coup d’état) to eliminated the social democratic regime in Prussia, Bernhard spoke to his students, calling on the youth to save the nation. Now, it was time for the “national power” of the “national movement” to be mobilized. And in this task, Bernhard concluded, Adolf Hitler, the “artist,” could make his great “masterpiece.”

Ludwig Bernhard died in 1935 and therefore never saw Hitler’s completed picture of a ruined Germany. An economic nationalist, individualist, and advocate of authoritarian solutions, who both rebelled against experts and defended the freedom of science, Bernhard remains a telling example of how personal history, institutional contexts and the perception of a heightened sense of cultural and political crisis can collude together in dangerous ways, not least at the second-tier of intellectual and institutional life.

Steven McClellan is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. He is currently writing his dissertation, a history of the rise and fall, then rebirth of the Verein für Sozialpolitik between 1872 and 1955.

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Book reviews

Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris

by guest contributor Jacob Hamburger

When asked about his political orientation, for many years Axel Honneth would reply almost automatically, “I think I’m a socialist.” Yet as he recounted recently at Columbia University’s global center in Paris, each time he gave this answer, the less he knew precisely what he was saying. This dissatisfaction with his own political identification was part of what motivated his newest book The Idea of Socialism (Die Idee des Sozialismus) which appears in French later this year. As Honneth also explained, the book also furnishes a response to the widespread belief in recent decades that socialism is dead. Though Margaret Thatcher had already captured this belief in the 1980s with her remark that “there is no alternative,” the fall of the Soviet Union has made it more and more tempting to give up on socialism over the last two decades. Though he could not be sure precisely what socialism stood for, Honneth knew that this was a hasty pronouncement. His book therefore attempts to look within the tradition of socialist thought in order to sort the living from the dead, to find something in this tradition that we can take seriously as a political goal in 2017.

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Axel Honneth

Honneth’s answer is to separate the “normative idea” of socialism from its outmoded theoretical framework. The original founders of socialism—from Owen, Fourier, and other utopian thinkers of the 1820s and ‘30s, up to Karl Marx—believed that capitalism prevented the realization of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Capitalism’s understanding of liberty proved overly individualistic and antagonistic, establishing a personal sphere in which others are barred from intervening. The normative thread that Honneth sees running through all of great socialist thought is the idea of a “social freedom” accomplished through cooperation rather than competition. Social freedom is based on an idea of mutual recognition (the subject of much of Honneth’s work), in which one person’s freedom depends on that of the other. As a result, social freedom would allow the ideals of equality and fraternity to fully flourish. Since capitalism has imposed its idea of freedom through the institutions of the economy, socialists have sought to reshape the economy in order to make social freedom a reality.

Though social freedom is an old idea, forged in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it is no less applicable today as a normative concept than it was two hundred years ago. As Honneth sees it, however, socialism’s greatest weakness is an outdated understanding of social relations. He identifies three main flaws with this nineteenth-century theoretical outlook: economism, the belief that the economy is the sphere that determines a society’s basic character; “ouvrierism,” the fixation on the industrial working class as the agent of social change; and determinism, the assumption that history follows general law-like tendencies. Economism, ouvrierism, and determinism have not only blinded socialist thinkers to new possibilities in a changing social world, but also led them to dismiss the value of political liberties and erect a cult of the proletariat and the planned economy. While there may have been good reasons to hold these beliefs in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Honneth urges scrapping socialism’s theoretical framework in favor of a more sociologically nuanced view of the modern world, along with a Deweyan “experimentalist” approach to social change.

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Polity (2016)

This critique of the left’s insufficient understanding of the social is a thread that stretches throughout Honneth’s philosophical career. In the doctoral dissertation that became his landmark 1985 work Kritik der Macht, he was inspired by the new approaches of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault to account for this dimension of human reality that he believed had been lost on, for example, the founders of the Frankfurt School. Their accounts of “communicative rationality” and “micropower,” respectively, provided a more convincing philosophical account of the sphere of social conflict and cooperation than Honneth found in the Marxist tradition.

A young scholar in 1970s Berlin, as Honneth recounted in another recent talk in Paris on the occasion of the first French translation of Kritik der Macht, he still found that the left was stuck between two unattractive theories of power. The first was that of Theodor Adorno, who saw power as something so totalizing and fearsome that no resistance could hope to stand against it; the other was captured by Foucault, for whom power and resistance were equally intertwined in every aspect of social life, no matter how minute. Despite his admiration for both thinkers, it was clear to Honneth that neither’s approach corresponded to the complexity of social reality. At the same time as he began to absorb the insights of empirical sociology, he was also drawn to return to Hegel and the notion that each society in history has its own guiding spirit. Honneth’s take on this historical relativism was the opposite of that of some followers of Foucault. He saw the way that concrete societies initiate individuals into their ways of life not as a form of domination, but rather as a positive affirmation, and following Habermas, he insisted on the indispensability of normative discourse.

Any socialism arising out of this philosophical perspective—with its deep empirical and normative streaks and its refusal of dualistic categories—invites the label of “reformism.” For some on the far left, Honneth’s program may not look like socialism at all (as he tells it, his critics have long branded him the Eduard Bernstein of the Frankfurt School). The alternative between reform and revolution is another dichotomy that Honneth rejects as a vestige of socialism’s outdated past. Analytically speaking, he is right to do so. But as with all of the conceptual errors Honneth skillfully dismisses, one indeed begins to wonder to what extent socialism can rid itself of the categories that have historically defined it, no matter how erroneous these have often been.

The current troubles of the French Parti socialiste are a case in point. The party has moved away from an outmoded fixation on the working class and a planned economy, perhaps necessary moves, only to find that it has lost its base of committed socialist voters. Perhaps the greatest weakness of Honneth’s attempt to revitalize socialism is that, precisely as a result of its open-mindedness and conceptual soundness, it risks cutting itself off from actually existing traditions of socialist thought. Honneth might do well to begrudgingly accept to fit his socialism into the “reformist” heritage.

The French sociologist Bruno Karsenti responded to Honneth’s presentation with the following question: do we need socialism in order to combat the neoliberalism and neo-nationalism of today’s politics, or is it rather an obstacle towards fighting these trends? Honneth’s answer was characteristically clearheaded, pointing out the ways in which neoliberal globalization and anti-global nationalism have worked together. As the market has expanded across the globe, those who suffer from the new economic order have transferred their frustrations onto liberal cosmopolitanism, which is a political and moral ideal rather than economic. Honneth sees potential for socialism, rightly understood, to cut between these two tendencies. Freed of its economism, it can address material inequality while both taking seriously the cultural specificity of each community, and articulating the various responsibilities between peoples. Specifically, he calls for a “European socialism,” and hopes one day to see various forms of “Asian” or “African” socialism emerge. Honneth presents an attractive balance between socialism as a universal idea of justice—à la John Rawls—and an understanding of how freedom emerges from cooperation within a concrete society. Hearing his presentation of its prospects for the future, a thoughtful person open to the nuances and complexity of society is tempted to say with Honneth, “I think I’m a socialist.” On reflection, however, Honneth’s attempt to justify socialism’s living reality may have only made more apparent the uncertainty built into this thought. His is a philosopher’s socialism, which will live on at the very least in the project of self-critique.

Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student in political philosophy and intellectual history at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He has written on the history of neoconservative thought in the United States, and is currently writing a masters thesis on the idea of the “end of ideology.” He is an editor of the Journal of Politics, Religion, and Ideology, and his writing and translations have appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Tocqueville Review, and Charlie Hebdo.