Reshef Agam-Segal — Comments on Johnson and Long

I will discuss both papers together, and I want to begin with Johnson’s characterization of the disagreement between Brownmiller and her critics. Johnson claims that Brownmiller’s critics ascribe to her a position she doesn’t hold, namely, that male dominance is a product of some conscious decision. Johnson suggests that it would be more charitable, and proper, to ascribe Brownmiller the idea that this social order is rather spontaneous. I am not familiar with the literature myself, but I believe that there might be an additional disagreement between Brownmiller and her critics: namely, a disagreement on whether there is such a social order as Brownmiller describes in the first place: not the reality of male dominance, but the connection she makes between that and the “discovery that genitalia could serve as weapons.” The reason I think that is that when I first read about Brownmiller’s views, my first reaction was an embarrassed titter.1 The world Brownmiller describes just seemed to me like a caricature of the world I know. Much of what I have to say concerns this titter and how to understand it.

I suggest, then, that there is probably more of a distance and misunderstanding between Brownmiller and her critics than Johnson takes there to be. I will try to describe that distance, and I will put alongside it another distance: between adherents and non-adherents of invisible hand explanations. Like the first distance, this second distance is greater and deeper, I believe, than Johnson and Long take it to be. Looking at these two distances together will, I hope, shed light on both.

I want to start with the second distance: between adherents and non-adherents of invisible hand explanations. Johnson takes Brownmiller’s critics to assume erroneously that the social order she describes has to be the product of some planning. They do so, perhaps, because as Long says, “[o]rder is one of the cues whereby we recognise the presence of intention.” More generally, though, there is here in the background an idea about what it is to explain social order in principle. And this idea of Brownmiller’s critics about social order as something planned is competing with Johnson’s and Long’s idea that social order can be the result of spontaneous developments.

Let me say something brief about this competition. Social order is a weird thing: it is a category between the mechanical and the intentional. When I do something intentional, like raise my hand, I can be asked why I did it. But if my hand simply goes up as a result of some electrical manipulation in my muscles, this sort of “why” doesn’t apply. It would be like asking me for my reasons for digesting breakfast. It is nonsense. Now, when it comes to social order, we have, I think, conflicting intuitions. We have these two sets of terms, two languages if you will — of the mechanical and the intentional, and sometimes we want to think about social orders like this, and sometimes like that, sometimes with this set of terms and sometimes with that.2 This is the competition, and I believe we are genuinely conflicted. We are tempted to amalgamate the two languages; but when we start doing that, things get murky, and talking about “combinations” or of “different degrees of intentionality” or of “subconscious mechanisms” is no more than hand waving.3 We cannot make sense if we don’t even decide which language we are talking. This is why, I think, the very idea of invisible hand explanations in this context is so important: it gives us a language. That is, if I understand, to give invisible hand explanations of social phenomena is unlike explaining how a machine works or justifying intentional actions. It is rather to identify patterns of intentions. These patterns are what we call social order.4 Invisible hand explanations at least give us a blueprint for a language, a blueprint which Johnson’s and Long’s arguments are developing in important, necessary, and valuable directions.

Now, if this is true, adherents of invisible hand explanations, adherents of that language, are faced with a complicated problem: how to make people, how to convince them to, learn and use this language. The problem is this: how can one give an argument here, if people don’t yet even have the language to understand the argument? This seems to require Münchausenean bootstrapping.

I will make some suggestions about how to perform this bootstrapping later. For now, I want to say that it seems to me that Johnson and Long are downplaying the depth of the problems they deal with. They seem to think that we can just give the invisible hand description of the emergence of some social order, and that that would instantly make sense to Brownmiller’s critics, to the liberal and the conservative. “Nothing essential is hidden,” Long insists. But this fact — and it is a fact — by itself does not mean that people have to see the same thing, the same pattern. There is, I think, reason to be more pessimistic.

At this point I want to leave aside the distance between the adherents and non-adherents of invisible hand explanations, and go back to the first distance I mentioned, between Brownmiller and her critics. Once more, I think that there is reason to suspect not only that these critics disagree with Brownmiller, but that in a sense they do not even understand her. If my first reaction to her claims is any indication, it may be possible that the problem these critics find with Brownmiller’s argument is that they do not know how to connect what she says to the reality they take themselves to be familiar with; it seems very plausible that for them she is describing something perfectly familiar and ordinary in a very bizarre and extraordinary way.

So — imagine a discussion between Brownmiller and a critic. Imagine her saying all those things about genitalia-weapons, and imagine the critic listening, and being astounded. He wants to laugh. That’s his first reaction, but then he looks at her, and he notices she is not joking. What should he do now?

Now, this conversation may have never taken place. And it is possible that this is partly why those critics went on to write the sort of criticisms they wrote. They did not see her stern, pained, face. It is possible that if they did see it, their second reaction would have been different. They would have made an attempt to see things in the light of Brownmiller’s descriptions: to take them to be realistic descriptions, and not fantastic or caricaturistic ones.

I say it is possible, but not that it is necessary. A stern pained face is not a knockdown argument. Possibly, there aren’t any knockdown arguments to give. Possibly, the best thing that could be done in such cases is to tempt people, somehow, to see things in a certain light, and identify certain patterns. But tempting people to do such things is not an easy task, for prima facie, there is nothing appealing in seeing all that pain. It is much easier to be blind to it. Like in the case of Kafka’s hunger artist: the tragedy is that what is really a cry of pain can sound to the unfamiliar crowd like a joke. And there may not be any calm reasoned organized way of convincing them otherwise.5

There is a similarity between the two distances I discussed: the one between Brownmiller and her critics, and the one between the adherent and the non-adherent of invisible hand explanations: In both cases, arguments are not enough. Or better: in both cases arguments do not have the necessary kind of force. Having said this, I should also say that it is not impossible to convince people to start using a different language, identify patterns, or to see things in a different light. It takes some sort of temptation-work, as it were. It takes creating the motivation in them to try and see things in a new light. I suspect this is not how Johnson and Long conceive of their own papers, but still, the value of their papers, for me, is mainly that they help me do just that: Namely, they take me at least part of the way towards finding the motivation within myself to look at things in a different light. And this is not a trivial achievement.

I said Long’s and Johnson’s papers help me to a certain extent. The rest of this commentary is about the help that I still need, and do not receive, from them.

Both Long and Johnson support, in principle, spontaneous social orders, but they make two claims that make me worried about such orders in general and anarchy in particular:

1. According to Johnson, some dispersed, polycentric, acts are acts of wrongful violence.

2. According to Long, state power itself depends on spontaneous order mechanisms.

If Johnson is right, the anarchist seems to have no reason to reject the state, for the mere rejection of an archē, a sovereign, does not guarantee a good social order. In other words, the evil we should be concerned with is not necessarily the evil of the state. If Long is right, the anarchist seems to have no reason to be an adherent of spontaneous order, for it may lead to the creation of a state.

Johnson and Long do not make their claims in order to question spontaneous social order, but to support it. However, since they made these claims available to me, I will take the opportunity and urge them to clarify what they have in mind.

I suggested above that invisible hand explanations supply us with a conceptual scheme we need in the social sciences. If one takes explanation of social-order to require a conceptual scheme different from the intentional and the mechanical,6 and if one takes invisible hand explanations to supply us with such a conceptual scheme, then it should not be altogether surprising that — as Johnson and Long claim — the male dominant-society and the state, which are after all kinds of social orders, will also have to be explained in those terms.

Now, since all sorts of forms of social order can be explained using invisible hand explanations — including male dominance and the state — it follows that it is not the definition of anarchy that it is given rise to by spontaneous mechanisms, and it is not the definition of the rape-free society that it is spontaneously formed. So now we need to ask: what exactly is anarchy? What exactly is the rape-free society? In particular, about anarchy, my unclarity is not just about what anarchists are for, but also about what they are against. What exactly makes the state a bad social order? Why think—if that’s what anarchists think—that it is inherently evil, or inescapably, or very probably so?7

My unclarity is really about the image, the gestalt, put forward by anarchists. I take Johnson’s image of the grassroots networks of voluntarily-coordinated, polycentric, but consciously organized political forms of organization — I take this image to be representative. But if Johnson is right and such forms of organization may be evil, and if Long is right, and they may naturally lead to the creation of a state, then I’m confused.

Any form of order can strike people as coercive. In fact, there is a tendency — we have this natural all-too-human tendency — to see order as restraining rather than enabling, to see order in terms of something to overcome, rather than as a stable, fixed, ground that gives us a foothold. We tend to dislike the fact that we need friction in order to move. If I’m right about that, then once more: what is the distinguishing mark of anarchic forms of order that makes them different from statist forms of order, and why are the former any better?

The source of my unclarity, I think, is an unclarity about what Long and Johnson take invisible hand to be: a program for implementation or a scheme for explanation. I suggested it was the latter: invisible-hand explanations give us a language in which to investigate social orders in general, and this is why they are important. The question about the good of social order, discussions in politics, cannot even get off the ground without it, for to discuss something, one at least needs to have a language for discussion. If I may take the two papers presented today as representative, it seems that this is not how adherents of invisible hand explanations understand things. They do indeed use spontaneous order explanations as such a fundamental conceptual scheme, but at the same time they put it forward as an agenda — a suggested platform for social improvement. In other words, they advocate spontaneity (within limits), but at the same time take any social reality complicated enough to be spontaneous anyway. What is the point, however, in fighting for the creation of what necessarily exists, namely spontaneous order? Or, what is the point of fighting against what cannot exist, namely non-spontaneous order?8 The suggestion that invisible hand might, and should, be thought of exclusively as a conceptual scheme for the investigation of social order is one of my contributions to the discussion today.

The other contribution I hope to have made connects with Long’s claim that what may seem to be a phantasmagoric landscape radically disconnected from the underlying reality for one may seem to be the reality for another. It doesn’t seem to me farfetched to connect Long’s vision of the conservative and liberal fantasies, with Brownmiller’s vision of our society as a rape society. Long’s claim applies in both cases: what is a fantasy for one may be a painful reality for another. And nothing crucial may be hidden, and no fancy transubstantiation must take place. But this fact does not necessarily mean that one of them is wrong or insincere or self-deceived. It means that they have a long way to go until they are capable of sharing the same reality. For my part, I take this to be a main task of political philosophy. If invisible hand explanations can indeed give us a common language, than we have made our first step towards that shared reality. Only, let us not downplay the difficulties.

Some questions about Johnson’s three dichotomies

Johnson makes a distinction between three meanings of the term “spontaneous order”:

A few unclarities about the three dichotomies:

1. There is a possible equivocation with the last one: are the emergent patterns discussed those that are the focus of the investigation (the use of cigarettes as currency) or are they patterns that are caused by these (which seems to be implied from in the paragraph beginning “Of course they can”)?

2. Also, it would be useful to spell out the question that each dichotomy answers, and I’ve made some suggestions. It would clarify the differences between the categories. (I’m not sure, but it might also help to overcome the equivocation in 1.)

3. If the questions I formulated are the right ones, there seem to be a weird result: a pattern cannot be both consensual and emergent — or at least this is questionable. For the reasoning behind an emergent pattern cannot be consensual, if an emergent pattern has no reasoning behind it in the first place. (Although this result maybe welcome in the present context, where Johnson defends the idea that male dominance is emergent but non-consensual.)

4. One way to think about this latter problem is to introduce a distinction between pre- and post-factum consensus. I’m not sure if it solves the whole problem.

5. Is there an example of a non-polycentric, and yet spontaneous social pattern? If not, does it mean that this element — polycentrism — is stable over most (all?) cases of spontaneous social order?

6. If this is the case, then it might be that the following is the distinction that we ought really to care about, between:

a. Emergent polycentric order
b. Consensual polycentric order

The difference, in that case, might reflect the idea that good social orders either have no planning and reasoning behind them at all (emergent), or at the most have only a certain kind of diffuse reasoning behind it (consensual).

7. If I understand, the three dichotomies are meant, among other things, as a general scheme of classification, or at least a part of one, that would allow us to classify different kinds of cases of spontaneous order. But, someone may claim, social structures are (to be treated as) structures of meaning; and if this is granted, than this means that nothing guarantees that the meaning of ‘consensus,’ ‘participation,’ and ‘cooperation’ means the same thing in different cases. More probably, this will be determined not a priori, but from one case to the next (from one social structure to the next). And if this is the case, then do we still have a scheme of classification?

Two notes about Wittgenstein:

Long writes: “Wittgenstein famously pointed out that when otherwise sensible people say crazy, obviously false things — such as that only part of me exists at this instant, or that we can’t directly perceive tables and chairs — it’s because they are in the grip of a picture.”

I don’t think Wittgenstein actually ever said such a thing. On Certainty, §217 reads:

If someone supposed that all our calculations were uncertain and that we could rely on none of them (justifying himself by saying that mistakes are always possible) perhaps we would say he was crazy. But can we say he is in error? Does he not just react differently? We rely on calculations, he doesn’t; we are sure, he isn’t.

Wittgenstein only says here that this person is different than us. He doesn’t say: a) that this person is wrong, or b) that there is anything obvious about the case. He also does not say: c) that we are not in the grip of a picture when we take our calculation to be on the whole fine, nor d) that there is something necessarily bad about being in the grip of a picture.

What I think should be said about such cases (and I tend to think Wittgenstein would say something like this) is that such huge intellectual gaps are not distances between different opinions. Rather, in Wittgenstein’s words: “We should feel ourselves intellectually very distant from someone who said this.” And the intellectual distance is such that there is not even a common ground for disagreement in opinions. What I take Wittgenstein to be interested in is in the logic of different kinds of disagreements. And he is interested in that partly because understanding this might help us understand what type of argument — what type of strategy of conversation — we need to apply in different cases.

The second place where Long is using Wittgenstein is to claim that “A constitution is not some impersonal, miraculously self-enforcing robot. It’s an ongoing pattern of behavior, and it persists only so long as human agents continue to conform to that pattern in their action.”

It may be useful to separate here two claims:

1. A rule has any obligatory force, just if people normally obey it.

2. A rule is something that is obeyed or disobeyed, explained in certain ways, misunderstood in certain ways, and in general woven into the lives of people in certain ways.

I tend to think the second is indeed Wittgenstein’s; I’m not sure about the first. Yet, it seems Long is more interested in the first.

Reshef Agam-Segal teaches philosophy at the Virginia Military Institute. He has a D.Phil degree from the University of Oxford. His research interests include the philosophy of Wittgenstein, moral philosophy, and the relations between philosophy and literature.

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1     Something similar happened to me when I first opened a Catherine MacKinnon book.

2     Unlike the organization of an anthill, social order is not a biological phenomenon. We can reason about it — criticize, plan, recommend, etc., and this reasoning assumes that we are have (some sort of) control over it, for example, that we are responsible. Facts like this pull us in the direction of the language of intentions. However, society does not have a mind, and for example is not unified in the way a mind is. To the extent that we talk about society as if it has a mind — say such things as “our community is learning,”” or “our nation is embarrassed” — we do it figuratively, or at least not in the same way we do that in the case of individual people. This fact pulls us in the direction of the mechanical.

3     This is not to say that such talk is necessarily nonsensical, but only that no sense has yet been made of it. Talking like this as if this language obviously makes non-problematical sense is not seeing the difficulty.

4     The patterns themselves are not intentional, but they are made of intentions, and this allows us to reason about them in the relevant ways.

5     One may even be able to see a pattern only when it concerns others, but not herself, or vice versa. It is not, for instance, necessary that if one sees a pattern in one place, she — on pain of logical inconsistency — has to (be able to) see it elsewhere. To give several examples, recognizing vanity in another’s behavior is one thing, and recognizing it in one’s own is quite another. Similarly, one’s feminism is not logically enough to compel one to also be pro gay rights or pro animal rights. And perhaps more strikingly, being a carnivore is not logically enough to compel one that one can eat human limbs that were amputated for medical reasons. Likewise, one’s libertarianism is not logically enough to compel one to turn into a Brownmillerean feminist (as might be implied by Johnson’s claim at the end of the paragraph beginning “Another natural consequence”).

6     (that may work for the explanation of the behavior of individuals who can deliberate and reason, and for natural-scientific phenomena correspondingly)

7     Or why think that it necessarily prevents some goods, or is incapable of doing any good, or is capable of only very little? Or is the claim just that it is not as efficient as could be?

8     Or to the extent that claim is one about means: what is the point of advocating the use of spontaneous means, if these are the only kind of means in existence (for, if Long is right, the means of the state are also in the last account spontaneous)? And what is the use of condemning use of non-existing, non-spontaneous, means?