The Temptation to Improper Reduction

One of the things I have noticed over the short course of my career as a blogger, and before that as a commenter on blogs, is that I often find myself responding to interlocutors with statements of the following general form:

To say that x is y is just not the same thing as saying that x is *nothing but* y.

I sooner or later say something like this in almost every comment thread. Almost every time I say, “x is y,” it generates an irate response from someone or other, sooner or later, to the effect that “x is not entirely y,” or even, “x is not entirely z.” This, despite the fact that I had not said, or implied, anything of the sort to which such responses might be apposite.

It’s a curious thing. I have begun to think that there is a universal temptation to improper reduction – to thinking that x really is nothing but y, so that y totally explains x. Once you have latched on to such a y, you hold onto it for dear life, because it seems to give you so much intellectual leverage. When that happens, you have become an ideologue, and your y has become your obsession – your precious.

I was once a libertarian, and before that I was a Marxist, so I know this temptation to improper reduction from the inside. You learn a new thing, and suddenly it’s your hammer, and all the world a nail. Then at some point you read someone saying something that doesn’t quite fit into the categories you’ve found have worked for you so far, and that you therefore cherish, and so you instantly turn to the notion that he is an enemy, and absurd, irrational, and indeed perverse in his determined foolishness.

It’s a real problem, if only because it halts discourse, separating interlocutors into mutually unintelligible factions, and preventing ideologues of whatever stripe from ever learning.

We really must fight this temptation. When we fall under its spell, then our adversaries cannot but seem to us as insane or deluded, or at least irrational. Then will we likely err in ascribing to them no moral agency, or therefore dignity, as liberals are inveterately prone to do with murderers and thugs of this or that “oppressed” outfit.

The modern mind in general seems to be peculiarly prone to the error of improper reduction, and its corollary in the ascription of improper reduction to others. I blame the latter day lapse in the study of the Scholastics. I can think of no better way to train the mind out of it, than a careful reading of anything by Aquinas. Having understood several hundred of his patient, careful, sympathetic explanations of how x is y in some ways, but not in all, you will be forever cured of the tendency to the error. From then on, you’ll feel comfortable only with proper reduction – the only sort that in any case can hope to furnish explanations that are both true and adequate.

25 thoughts on “The Temptation to Improper Reduction

  1. Pingback: The Temptation to Improper Reduction | Neoreactive

  2. @Kristor – I think that motivation is one reason. The kind of objective discussion you are asking for is not natural to humans, indeed it is quite rare; and it requires motivation from both sides to stick to the rules, and often also the motivation to learn these rules in the first place.

    But there is also an intelligence threshold – the majority of the population (and I think this is a *large* majority – because it is a majority of people even in the university environment I inhabit) are unable to think sufficiently abstractly to have the kind of discussion you are asking for.

    In sum, it isn’t going to happen – except within very small, self-selected, honest and intellectually elite groups – which means it is not going to happen in the modern public domain, and esepcially not in rhetoric and argument within the public domain.

    In the public domain there is no nuance, and all discussion very quickly *will* reduce to ‘us versus them’, goodies versus baddies.

    I think this is something we must accept and work-with – and do our best to make our own position as clear and simple as possible.

    • I grant that for people who fall below a certain threshold of intelligence it can be difficult even to understand abstract reasoning. I would guess that the threshold lies somewhere around IQ 115. But I doubt there are any such involved at all in the Orthosphere, or the wider orthosphere, or the even wider discourse of reaction.

      What I find curious is that even many brilliant writers – men I have to struggle to keep up with – are prone to the same sort of thing. And I used to do it a lot, too. Maybe I still do! It’s bedeviling.

  3. Why should anyone study Aquinas? You don’t understand that ‘everyone is entitled to his opinion’ means just that all opinions are equally valid … so long as my opinion is superior to your opinion when there’s a conflict between them, er, I have the majority on my side? Twit! 🙂

    Yes, emotional investment in one’s position is a huge obstacle in proper, productive discourse. I have said this for a long time now, but have discovered no way around it when an interlocutor is decisively and intentionally unteachable.

    If I had the IQ of a Bertonneau, a Roebuck, a Charlton or a Lawson, et al, this would likely drive me completely bonkers.

    • I have no notion what my IQ is and no desire to find out, but whether I’m dull or sharp the stupidissimo character of our public discourse does indeed drive me crazy. I assume that that’s why God invented Scotch.

      • If resorting to drink occasionally to momentarily dull the senses to the stupidity of public discourse is any indication of intelligence, then I must be smarter than I thought. Ha, ha.

  4. Konrad Lorenz wrote exactly this. He called it nothing-buttery. Saying that humans are nothing but animals or that life is nothing but a chemical process hides the fact that humans are a very special kind of animals and life is a very special kind of chemical process. So it is hiding precisely their most interesting features, i.e. how they differ from other animals or other chemical processes. Yes, one can say that plutonium is nothing but a metal, literally speaking there is nothing in it that would not be metallic, but such a sentence would entirely mispredict what is interesting or important about it.
    I think Lorenz is not very well known in the Anglosphere. The Germanosphere considers him not only an excellent scientist, but also something sort of a philosopher or wise man. I recommend looking up a few of his works, such as The Waning of Humaneness (Der Abbau des Menschlichen).

  5. “Nothing-buttery,” I like that.

    There’s an amusing game leftists play where they try to scandalize you by discussing the things you love most only in terms of their most base and superficial constituents or characteristics, e.g., the Eucharist is just a piece of bread, the priest is just a guy in funny-looking robes, marriage is just a contract between consensual parties, etc. I say it’s amusing because the absurdity of it is made manifest by turning it back round against them. May someone call your wife a whore since, after all, “whore” is just a vibration produced by one of several face-holes (who are you to take offense at my vibrating face-hole? Would you sock me if you disliked the sound of my sneeze?)? May one urinate on your mother’s grave since it is, after all, just a slab of concrete stuck in the ground above a box full of moldy bones? May one savagely beat your favored homosexual TV star since, after all, he’s just a noisy blob of meat?

    It’s all the same thing with the same sordid origin. Cynical, autistic modern is disillusioned with the state of things but too proud to admit he’s part of the problem and doesn’t deserve better, so he resolves to cut through the BS and get at the basic, underlying reality of things. He gets it wrong because the underlying reality of all things is found, not by looking down, but by looking up.

    • Why is it, Proph, that when I practice the argument from retortion, it comes off as ruthless and bloody minded, but when you do it, it’s funny?

      … the underlying reality of all things is found, not by looking down, but by looking up.

      Great line.

    • You guys need to find a better class of leftist to have your imaginary conversations with. Or at least some more up-to-date ones. Reductionism of any sort is so pre-post-modern.

      Lorenz was a Nazi, which doesn’t automatically invalidate his science or anything else he wrote, but probably not the best choice for Wise Man.

      Yes, Konrad Lorenz, student of “Darwin’s Bulldog” Julian Huxley – Lorenz, with Woodrow Wilson, Kurt Waldheim, Yasser Arafat, Barack Obama, and numerous other bigots, a Nobel-Peace-Prize recipient. There is no better class of Leftists. (TFB)

      • That’s the funny thing, a.morphous: while it is endemic among leftists and modernists, I don’t encounter this error only in them.

      • Probably why you said in the O.P. that you’ve begun to think it’s a universal temptation. I theorize that we’re universally disposed to Communism, but it’s just a pet theory of mine.

      • I never even thought of this while I was composing the OP, but it links back quite tightly to my recent post on ecognology, wherein I discuss the strange attraction of our minds to theories that seem to work, thus indicating their approximation to Truth. So, yes, there is a universal temptation to improper reduction – and Communism is one of the most common of those alluring dead ends that seem to deliver the questing mind to its goal in the understanding of Truth, but do not.

      • Lorenz won the Nobel in Medicine, not Peace. Try to sputter more accurately.

        So now he’s a good guy, eh? Mirabile dictu! He was, by your terms, a goose-stepper. Socialists – that is, Leftists – whether of the national or international variety are really, really good at goose-stepping, and even better at gander-following. Consider, Simon, how you have imprinted on The Orthosphere. Leftists being classless, there can be no “better class” of Leftists. (TFB)

      • TFB: for an academic, you have an awfully simplistic view of the world (which you are trying to project one on me — good luck with that). Lorenz was a great scientist and a Nazi, “good guy” is a category suitable for five-year-olds.

        Niko Tinbergen forgave him his Nazi affiliations which is good enough for me; still, any alleged wisdom in his writings has to be evaluated in light of his history.

      • “Good guy is a category suitable for five-year-olds”.

        Precisely. And for those among us who have a bent for acting like juveniles in adult conversations. By the way, good luck with that, Timmy.

  6. Kristor is writing about a distinction you probably would study in a college course about critical thinking. During a course about it, another student wouldn’t or couldn’t see that, in logic, the word “valid” is jargon. However hard the professor tried to explain its technical meaning, the confused student still used that word to mean “acceptable.”

    Since I’m a Catholic Thomist, I think a lot about essences. A theologian friend of mine, another Thomist, would remind you that the essence of something tells you what that thing is. He’s right. But his answer can confuse me because the word “is” has more than one sense. In “God is,” it means “exists.” When you say that the Venus flytrap is red, you’re talking about a property it has. Other times “is” signifies class membership, e.g., when you say that a whale is a mammal. The trouble is that too often, it’s easy mistake the “is” of class membership with the “is” you use to attribute a property to someone or to something. Then there’s the “is” of identity, the one you mean when you mention that Cicero is Tully, that Cicero and Tully are exactly the same person.

    You know there’s a difference between using a word and mentioning it. I’m using Kristor’s name when I write, “Kristor is an excellent blogger.” I’m mentioning it when I type, “‘Kristor’ is a seven-letter name. Remember the difference between a word’s meaning and its extension when its extension is the set of things it signifies. For example, the extension of the word “elephant” is the set of all elephants.

    I could go on, but if I did, someone probably would think I was splitting semantic hairs. I doubt that I’m splitting them. Still, nowadays I can seem to do that because too few people think analytically enough.

  7. I once took a few sociology courses – this was when I had returned to college to finish up my baccalaureate and was toying with the idea that I might apply to graduate school – and I was repelled by them. Why, someone helpfully asks? Precisely because what the UCLA professors offered under the sociology label was a litany of reductions of X to Y. Stories and poems, on the other hand, which I was also studying formally, and in which I was voluntarily immersed in my non-academic life, seemed resolutely to refuse to reduce X to Y. Anyway, the really good ones refused to do that.

    Notice that Plato, who understands syllogism quite well, and who likes convincing definitions of things, often leaves syllogism and definition behind for the sake of stories and metaphors.

    Jesus often avoided directly answering questions to speak in parabolas.

    I remember very well an eyebrow-arching remark made to me – from on high to down below, no doubt – by a history professor, as it happened to be on the occasion, who, when he saw me outside of class reading Spengler, uttered a judgment out loud to the effect that, “Harrumph – that fellow never explains anything.” I was insufficiently educated at the time to say, “Yes, doc, exactly.

    PS: The reductive “X-is-Y” gambit, implying its own eternal reversion, resembles that shuffling game with cups that con-men use to extract a voluntary tax from rubes. What the rube pays for is the shuffle – and that’s it.

  8. If “temptation” is the ultimate selection pressure and desire is the general counter measure then genuine free will is final metric.

  9. Deconstruction may be a subset of improper reduction. Deconstruction literally takes things apart. It was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who said “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

    • Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
      Our meddling intellect
      Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
      We murder to dissect.

      (Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”)

    • Yet both reductionism and deconstructionism are really the anti-white Supremacist grasping at Truth with either disingenuous or just plain deceptive intent.

  10. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/07/12) | The Reactivity Place

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