Rhizo15 – Measure and Mirowski

Dave Cormier’s prompt this week was “Learning Is not a counting noun … so what should we count?”  I believe in the value of numeracy, but my academic training has been in English literature. I am much more comfortable dealing with metaphors than with measures. My initial impulse is to kick over the abacus and write a self-defeating, sesquipedalian defense of my action. In the present age of global warming and elite-driven neoliberalism, that would not be very constructive.

I feel that radicals and progressives have painted ourselves into a kind of rhetorical corner by having simultaneously too high and low a standard for what we do. We can see through the lingustic constructions of the right as a pack of lies or self-serving half-truths.  But we often shy at putting forth our own explanations because the less demagogic among us see the gaps in our constructions. Full of self-consciousness, we characterize them as narratives, as  stories we can pick and choose.

In such an environment, it is helpful to have models of what counts as cogent explanation. Thus I picked up a book I’d read some years back, Philip Mirowski’s More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge: 1991). Although I lack the math to understand Mirowski’s references to Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalisms, fortunately relegated to an appendix,  I find Mirowski more useful than the Foucault of The Order of Things.

For the purpose of Rhizo15, I reread chapter three, “Body, motion, and value,” which deconstructs the concept of energy, not to proclaim that facts do not exist or constrain, but to elucidate how knowledge-making is a socially embedded practice. “Explanation is deemed to be cogent when a primal metaphor of our culture is tamed to conform to the format of a conservation principle and a variational principle.” (p.116)

What follows are some transcriptions from Mirowski.  I feel a bit like John Milton, entering what he reads into his copy book. (Some of the statements about conservation of energy may seem rather bald, but chapter three functions as a precis of a book length exposition.)

Energy can be construed as a three cornered pyramid, “constructed from metaphors: of motion (physics), of the body (anthropomorphics), and of value (economics)… [T]hese constituent metaphors are misconstrued if they are regarded as independent and self-sufficient intellectual influences. In their historical manifestations, each was an inseparable part of the energy metaphor and of each other, with boundaries shading off imperceptibly one into another.” (p. 107)

Over time, the vertexes grow father apart, “the metaphorical distance  between physics and economics also widens, until it becomes common place to assert that they are indeed separate and distinct systems of explanation… Nevertheless … they remain a pyramid.”

“Physicists have in the past displayed a dynamism and flexibility with regard to the meaning of their metaphors for which they can rightfully be proud. But with economics it is another story. Economists have consistently lagged behind physicists in developing and elaborating their metaphors… In effect, the pyramid has one weak strut, particularly in the twentieth century.” (p. 108)

Mirowski finds that the groundwork for a “genetic account of the development of energy concept” — expanded to encompass social and economic history — had already been laid by Witold Kula in his Measures and Man (1986).  Kula’s “metrology” turns out to be “nothing other than an archaeology of the metaphors that preceeded our own seemingly timeless systems of measurement.” (p. 109)

The first stage is the “anthropometric.” Man is the measure of all things. Length is defined by the pace. The “unit” of measure for area is the amount of land a man can plough in a day. There are no fixed conversion factors that relate one measure to another. The medieval “just price” is “intended to be embedded in and a reflection of local social relations, not the reverse.” (p. 110) “The conceptualization of motion is reduced to the sheer animal experience of muscular exertion.” (p. 111)  (I feel the exploration of rhizomatic learning may be mostly at the anthropometric stage at the moment. This does not mean we cannot pursue number further.  But we should be reflective about how the act of measuring can change or even constitute what we measure.)

The second stage is the “lineamentric.” Now, quantitative indices exist. But the unit of measure varies with the scale of what is measured. A piece of cloth has a different unit of measure than a stretch of road.  ‘[S]ystems of grouping and division are of overwhelming concern, while considerations of absolute magnitude are of secondary importance.”  (p. 111)  “In this stage, human qualties are metricized according to the sensuous capacities of the body, but in the process, the body as an entity is threatened with fragmentation and dissolution. Because the reified qualities were perceived as incommensurate, the body could now be at war with itself, as in the mind-body problem or in the realm of sexuality…” (p. 112, a passing reference to Foucault here)  In the economic sphere  there was “a profound suspicion of the commodity as being able to express its value in its own metric, followed by a skepticism over the fitness of money to adequately signify the value metric.” (p. 113)

The third stage is the “syndetic”, the “unification of the metaphors at each vertex of the base of the pyramid … by means of a fourth metaphor rising up above the foundations.”  The French Revolution sweeps away the previous stages by fashioning the cornerstore of the new system, the meter,  “a supposedly supranational and suprasomatic criterion.”  All the various units of measure are now consolidated “under one fixed invariant set of transformations.” (p. 114)

“In the syndetic stage, may [sic] becomes the measure of all things by subterfuge. After the metaphors of body, motion, and value have become dissociated during the era of the quantification of qualities, the ideal of unification is restored by means of a purely abstract, conventional standard.”  (p. 115)  In physics, this would be the invention of the metaphor of energy; in biology, the metaphor of the gene. “With respect to the metaphor of value, this was practically accomplished by the economic actors when the institution of money was cut adrift from any specific ties to any particular commodity, and was instead left to merely serve as the eidolon of pure abstract value. Nevertheless, this does not imply that the syndetic stage has been attained within the discipline of economics.” (p. 115)

Moving closer to the present, Mirowski concludes the plot of the chapter. “[T]he entire structure of physical theory would be unified and consistent if the conservation of energy could be demonstrated to hold identically in each theoretical subfield, but we have seen that it does not. Nevertheless the researchers situated at each vertex of the pyramid persist undaunted. How can that be?

“One answer is to notice that the metaphor that synthesizes the research program at each vertex is essentially the same metaphor. Here is the sense in which we are no longer dealing with prosaic notions of intellectual cross-disciplinary influences, Zeitgeist, or epistemes. The research program situated at each vertex derives legitimacy for its radically unjustifiable conservation principles from the homeomorphisms with the structures of explanation at the other vertexes. This legitimation function is central to the success of each research program, because the central syndetic principle at the heart of each is purely conventional, and thus, from a disinterested and detached point of view, simply false.”


2 thoughts on “Rhizo15 – Measure and Mirowski

  1. Mirowski sounds fascinating and there are so many interesting ideas in here. To my surprise in my own research about social construction and disability I keep ending up with economics but its E.F. Schumacher that I’ve been trying to read. Do you have a sense of where they connect or don’t? Thanks for this interesting take on things – so much to think about.


  2. I am not aware of a connection, although Mirowski is the right age to have been influenced by EFS in the early ’70’s. At the time, my politics would have interfered with engaging with Small is Beautiful. Back then I perceived its popularity as part of the retreat from ’60’s hardcore revolutionary radicalism. I should finally read it, now that I look at the world’s economic metabolism as being premised on unsustainably cheap long-distance shipping. Another book that I should read, which you might be interested in, is Colin A.M. Duncan’s The Centrality of Agriculture: Between Humankind and the Rest of Nature (Montreal 1996). This is part of a Canadian reception of one branch of Japanese economics, the work of Kozo Uno and Yoshiro Tamanoi. It has a chapter, “English Capitalism in its Light-Industrial Prime,” pointing out the beginning of a road to a benign, non-industrial agriculture.


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