Education and Circular Causation: Everything Causes Everything Else

The student will have seen in these educational essays the notion of “Husserl’s rhomboid”:

The great philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who died in 1938, would bring a matchbox to class and show his students they see parts and some surface area of the matchbox (a kind of rhomboid, hence the name “Husserl’s rhomboid”) but never all of it at the same time. Students can walk around the matchbox and see facets. They can twirl the matchbox but whatever they do, the students cannot “espy” or glimpse all of it except in their imaginations, once they have been exposed to all of it, side by side, facet by facet.

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, has something a bit analogous when he speaks of “circular cumulative causation”:

Circular cumulative causation is a theory developed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1956. It is a multi-causal approach where the core variables and their linkages are delineated. The idea behind it is that a change in one form of an institution will lead to successive changes in other institutions. These changes are circular in that they continue in a cycle, many times in a negative way, in which there is no end, and cumulative in that they persist in each round. The change does not occur all at once, which would lead to chaos, rather the changes occur gradually.

Gunnar Myrdal developed the concept from Knut Wicksell and developed it with Nicholas Kaldor when they worked together at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In the characteristics relevant to an economy’s development process, Myrdal mentioned the availability of natural resources, the historical traditions of production activity, national cohesion, religions and ideologies, and economic, social and political leadership.

He writes:

“The notion of stable equilibrium is normally a false analogy to choose when constructing a theory to explain the changes in a social system.

What is wrong with the stable equilibrium assumption as applied to social reality is the very idea that a social process follows a direction—though it might move towards it in a circuitous way—towards a position which in some sense or other can be described as a state of equilibrium between forces. Behind this idea is another and still more basic assumption, namely that a change will regularly call forth a reaction in the system in the form of changes which on the whole go in the opposite direction to the first change. The idea I want to expound in this book is that, on the contrary, in the normal case there is no such a tendency towards automatic self-stabilisation in the social system. The system is by itself not moving towards any sort of balance between forces, but is constantly on the move away from such a situation. In the normal case a change does not call forth countervailing changes but, instead, supporting changes, which move the system in the same direction as the first change but much further. Because of such circular causation as a social process tends to become cumulative and often gather speed at an accelerating rate…”

(Gunnar Myrdal, Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions, Gerald Duckworth, 1957, pp. 12–13)

Myrdal developed further the circular cumulative causation concept and stated that it makes different assumptions from that of stable equilibrium on what can be considered the most important forces guiding the evolution of social processes. These forces characterize the dynamics of these processes in two diverse ways.

These essays that you are reading here are examples encouraging students to put causes in a kind of circle: history exists because economics exists because psychology exists because society exists because history exists. Everything is causing everything else. There isn’t a simple “linear parade.”

By way of contrast, in a person’s private life, he/she went to the dentist before buying the batteries and after having lunch. There’s a timeline of events.

In history, there are such linear timelines also: John Kennedy was assassinated before Donald Trump became president. You had breakfast before dinner. You slept before you got up in the morning.

However, processes (industrialism, migration, urbanization, inflation, etc.) are not analyzable as events like meals and one-time occurrences but are more like getting old or learning a language.

Multi-causal interpretations and circular causes get the student out of simple, “this happened and that happened” in favor of “this and that caused each other, going both ways and interacting with other pressures too.” Everything is causing and altering everything else in all directions.

Essay 34: Arguments Without End: Are They Good or Bad?

The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (died in 1966) coined the phrase “argument without end” to get at the constant reappearance of old arguments or viewpoints. One gets the impression that arguments are either persistent or perhaps permanent. One simplistic example could be argument about socialism: Sweden is “good,” but Venezuela (or Cuba) is bad. This book takes the view that “arguments without end” are not the end of knowledge but rather a potential beginning: it could be that some issues cannot be captured by one school of thought: the awarding of the 1974 Nobel Prize to both Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) is an example of this need for hybridity. Both Hayek and Myrdal are each seeing something valid and it’s a “fool’s errand” to decide who is “eternally” correct.

Let’s apply this thinking to a deep “argument without end” within and about history.

Michel Foucault (died in 1984) following Nietzsche, argues that history seems “linear” but is more random and non-linear than the “linear” historians see or admit.

There’s an aphorism in Nietzsche, (from his The Dawn) which Foucault uses…history is made by the “iron-hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance.”

In other words the world we know, traveling somehow from the assassination of Kennedy (November 2, 1963) to the impeachment hearings of Trump in October 2019, must be thought of as a kind of “random walk” behind which are trends, cycles, so that one gets a fusion of structure and surprise. If you emphasize surprise you’re closer to Foucault than to those narrative historians who think they can show you the exact threads which connect “then and now.”

Here’s an example of such a historian, the celebrated G.R. Elton of England, whose classic The Tudor Revolution in Government is a masterpiece of orthodox analysis. The book centers on the administrative revolution in the 1530s in England which implied, says Elton, “As regards political and social structure, the sixteenth century produced something quite new in England—the self-contained sovereign state in which no power on earth could challenge the supremacy of statute made by the crown in parliament.”

“In this revolution, in this making of a new kind of state productive of a new kind of society, administrative reforms played their part. It is against this background of controlled upheaval that they must be seen and understood.”

(Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government, Cambridge University press, 1966, page 426/427)

Orthodox historians see history as a “nail-down-able” system of storylines and the controlled upheavals have a direction (teleology) which allows you to use—in this case the 1530s in England—as a beginning, an origin, a “datum line,” and once you have this clear starting point you can follow the story to now and include comparative developments in France or Germany or China.

The orthodox “explain strategy” starts with an origin, a “starting gate” like a horse-race.

The FoucaultNietzsche view is that these starting points are not entirely useless but in the end don’t help you because history is in the end governed by “the dice-box of chance” even if it is held by “the iron-hand of necessity.” History is more “upheaval” than “control” more surprise than structure. “Determinism” such as perhaps based by pinning down a starting point from which one can “build out,” is a wish-dream since history is nonlinear and nondeterministic. Even Elton’s phrase “controlled upheaval” is full of questions and problems.

Modern “complexity theory” in mathematics tries to get at these differences analytically. A “meta-intelligent” student would go from this historians’ “argument without end” to the analysis of complexity in math as a way of rounding out the exploration.

An “argument without end” can thus be useful if the student does not insist on some final “apodictic” or certain-forever answer.

Essay 30: Magic or Sacred Geography as a Kind of Silent Education

Magic and its clone, sacred geography, are all around us and are crucial organizing principles for the way people think. Such emotions are an overlay over all formal education.

For Communists, the grave of Marx in Highgate Cemetery in England is sacred ground.  For some German soldiers after WWII who committed suicide on the steps in Feldherrnhalle (“Field Marshall’s Hall”—a display in Munich in Odeonsplatz of large statues of famous military leaders in German history), these statues and their place in Munich “means” something magical or sacred to them. North Koreans have Paektu Mountain which Kim recently ascended in a ritual addressed to the North Koreans. Think of Camelot or Lourdes.  Think of sites such as the Lincoln Memorial or Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris or “holy sites” in Jerusalem or Mecca.

Think of magical and sacred things like the three imperial regalia in Japan which Emperor Hirohito fixated on at the end of WWII.

How does this kind of thinking permeate our lives in a way that nobody quite sees clearly:

The left in American politics (Bernie Sanders, Jeffrey Sachs, et al) explicitly or implicitly, think of Scandinavian social and economic systems as a kind of “magic geography” (i.e., defects and problems are not “welcomed” in their idealized visions). On the right, there’s a Singapore paradise of the imagination (what magic geography is) whereas Boris Johnson of England sees a “high wage, low tax” investment utopia which serve as a marvelous locale for the founding of both new businesses and new families. In this vision, men found businesses and women found or establish families, so everybody’s happy.

These competing visions can be traced back as far as you like, but we point to 1974 when Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) shared the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Professor Niall Ferguson, the conservative Harvard (now Stanford) financial historian (you may have seen his The Ascent of Money PBS mini-series), had a program years ago on educational TV where he walked around places in Chile that he presented as a pension “heaven.” Chile is now kind of falling apart with street riots convulsing Santiago. (Ferguson’s ideal Milton Friedman of Chicago was the main advisor of General Pinochet after the 1973 Chilean coup.

What none of these people see is that social reality is complex and highly changeable and that “magicalizing” one place or system (Sweden, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile) won’t work because successes that look solid or eternal are often caused by all kinds of “conjunctural” (i.e., of the moment) factors which don’t last “forever.”

Thus, much less “dogmatism” is called for so that one is not “swept along” by “ideological foolishness.” embedded in “magical geography” or its clone “sacred geography.”