©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Reply to David Wootton
(on his review of The Bourgeois Virtues in the Times Literary Supplement, October 2006

Filed under academic interests [bourgeois virtues]

October 22, 2006
Prof. David Wootton
Department of History
University of York
York, England

Dear David,

I looked at your photo on the History Dept website and said to myself, "Hmm. This fellow looks very familiar. Didn't I meet him over tea at the SCR during those two summer terms in the 1980s I taught in Economics at York?" If not, please excuse my clumsy American presumption in address. I am working on a Volume 2 of the work you attacked in the TLS, a volume which will be more historical, about change in England 1600-1848 in the ideological environment for capitalism, and will use your work, of which I hear as I get into the field.

Your review was mean spirited, which I hope will be apparent to its readers. Surely it was silly of you, signaling your mean spirit early on, to go off on your riff about my gender change. Your point was . . . ? But there are many other signs of vexation. And after all you flat out say it.

But in a contrary spirit of collegial reflection let me offer a notion about why you---and a couple of other reviewers, with an amazing exception of Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal for 22 July, and now another of Alan Ryan in the New York Review of Books for December 21---are so very vexed. I'd be interested in whether you think it has anything in it. Set aside politics, though it's hard for anyone to do so, really. Again, you say so, apparently proud to declare that you are hard to persuade on the merits of the market.

My notion is that people, especially people following Modernism, want writers to specialize. They want it so that the writers can be catalogued and, if necessary (the necessity being very great under the rising tsunami of books), summarily dismissed. It is one of Modernism's great defects that it insisted with (quite mistaken) philosophical fervor on just this: that economists are economists, philosophers, and so forth. You will know much better than I do how much of the attitude can be traced back to Lord Bacon, and whether or not T. S. Eliot was onto something when he spoke of the "dissociation of sensibilities" following his beloved early 17th century in English poetry.

Thus, for example, a historian, as we both are certified to be, as long as she sticks to her Modernist last, will not be criticized for writing a long book on the History of Venice (I read half of a wretched one of this sort last year), regardless of how much she throws in matter irrelevant to answering her historical questions, if indeed she troubles to have any. On the contrary, she will be commended, as David Landes was for his unhappy history of Europe some time ago, for richness. In some circles there will be mutterings of "antiquarianism." But no one will be indignant, as you so evidently are about my effort. Bored, yes. Indignant, no.

What you found vexing about my book is not that it had no novel argument. Whether or not the central argument is true, anyone who reads the table of contents can see what the argument is and how each chapter relates to it. Nor was it even that the very numerous sub-arguments offered are mostly mistaken. As far as I can see your main objection to, say, using Aquinas (which I would venture to guess you have not read with much care or sympathy; I recommend it) and also using Rorty (ditto) is that it is "inconsistent" to be as you put it a "scholastic post-modern." But you do not tell why. Aquinas had insights, which he imagined were "founded" on a belief in God. Rorty has insights, which he in turn, though rejecting foundationalism, imagines are at least justified by a belief in Community. Where's the "contradiction"? I'm not a scholastic, as is obvious in the book---though a Christian, which seemed also to irritate you. And my version of post-modernism, which I outline in the book, is not the relativist hell you foundationalists are always accusing harmless postmoderns like me of inhabiting. So what exactly is the force of this "contradiction"?

You are its seems to me adopting a distinctly Modernist credo that says that everything must be axiomatized and checked for consistency, or else it is meaningless, since in first-order predicate logic any contradiction implies the truth of any proposition whatever, e.g. that the moon is green cheese. This is nonsense on stilts, though philosophers have been peddling it vigorously now for 2500 centuries. Consistency is not the master intellectual virtue. Serious persuasiveness is, and axiomatic consistency is very, very unpersuasive---since as we discovered in non-Euclidian geometry and have discovered repeatedly in economic theory, if you change your axioms---poof!---the propositions allegedly justified change. Imagine that.

Tell me, then, am I right that what you actually found vexing was that the book had too many and especially too varied arguments? You would for a page or two be reading an economist or statistician, when I calculate the prevalence of lethal dueling, say; but then suddenly in would stride a professor of English offering to show how some early cowboy yarns worked rhetorically as criticisms of capitalism, and then an intellectual historian arguing that taciturnity became a cultural ideal after Elizabethan times, and then a gender critic on anti-bourgeois aristocracy and taciturnity in The Magic Flute, and then a movie critic, and then, and then (I speak of pp. 221-225).

Would it seem wrong to you to estimate that I make in the book, say, 300 separate arguments in favor of capitalism (or against its critics) taken from perhaps 30 different Modernist-demarcated fields of the intellect? And would you agree that the book is seldom boring in its copia?

All right. Then what I want to know is why you find such a thing objectionable. Isn't our task to reply to arguments, not to whine about their great number? My book is long---you do not seem to realize that my other work is often very brief indeed (witness a pamphlet, The Secret Sins of Economics of a few years ago). But I do not know your work, to my shame, and so I cannot complain that you do not know mine. But I suppose you don't actually believe that to mega biblion ison to megala kako. I suppose you have written now and then a long work of history, yes? Why then complain about a long attempt to answer the numerous and often pretty silly arguments against capitalism, accumulated especially since 1848?

So tell me: am I right in my notion here? It would be helpful in future work. I could warn off readers who get angry at intellectual trespassing, so they would not, as you declare, waste their substance on an attempt to bring the strands of our culture back into conversation.

Sincerely or Regards, as the case requires,

Deirdre McCloskey