Modern thinking and the 1920s

There have been lots of books of late about the Vienna Circle and 1920s philosophy, and I’ve been reading them all. It started with Exact Thinking in Demented Times by Karl Sigmund, which I bought for the title and stayed to enjoy. When lock-down started in March Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (Ramsey was the English translator of Wittgenstein) was a welcome diversion. Lately I finished Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought 1919-1929, which ranges over the lives and thought of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger and – again – Ludwig Wittgenstein. Along the way I read Quinn Slobodian’s economics-inflected Globalists. And now I’ve started David Edmonds’ The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, a cracking read at least so far: Chapter 1 has set me up to read the rest of it over the weekend.

Whether I could give you pithy summaries of the philosophical world views of the protagonists is another matter entirely. Take Time of the Magicians. My undergraduate exposure to Wittgenstein in the late 1970s was an aversion therapy that will last a lifetime – it was impossible for me to understand a word. Heidegger is famously incomprehensible. Walter Benjamin is hardly known for his pellucid prose and after all influenced the Frankfurt School. All three of them, Eilenberger writes, rejected the conventions of academic philosophy and aimed for a “constellation of dramatic tensions that hover around the word ‘cult’.” And of course they succeeded, with three entirely different cults – linguistic philosophy, existentialism and cultural Marxism.

Cassirer is the least well-known of the bunch and yet seemed to me, reading this, the most sympathetic. Perhaps this reflects my being able to grasp what he was on about. Sadly, he represents old-fashioned thought as against the modernists. The Stanford Encyclopedia bills him as a bridge between the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy, between science and the humanities.

I confess to glazing over at paragraphs explaining Dasein, but the tale around the philosophy is compelling stuff – extraordinary characters and lives (except poor old bourgeois Cassirer, at least in the 1920s), intellectual rivalries, and ideas mattering. Perhaps that’s why the intellectual ferment of Vienna, Berlin, Cambridge etc in the 1920s is so compelling – especially knowing what came in the decades afterwards. Or perhaps all these authors are responding to a sense in the air that another hinge in history is upon us. Or perhaps it’s just the centenary effect. In any case, I’ve enjoyed all of these books, Dasein notwithstanding.

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The joy of teaching

I picked up Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document that Changes Everything by William Germano and Kit Nicholls thinking it might be a quirky little history of the course syllabus. after all, I enjoy reading other people’s syllabuses/syllabi. However, it’s really a passionate book about teaching well, using the syllabus as a framework within which to discuss how to embark with students on the joint endeavour of learning. I like its philosophy: “People learn far more by doing things than by watching others do things. If we accept that this is true, then it quickly becomes clear that a syllabus isn’t primarily a shopping list or manifest: it’s a design for student work.”

The chapters cover: how to generate energy and community in the classroom or lecture hall; how to pace the course; what reading lists are for; understanding students’ contexts, abilities and concerns; grading and giving honest feedback; and finally back to how to design the syllabus. Some of the insights and advice will be familiar to lecturers, some not so much – there are some really good ideas. I also like the way they portray designing the syllabus as a way of furthering ones own ideas; certainly in my case Markets, State and People began life as a course syllabus. I’ve always found teaching a great way to learn things myself: how can you explain anything you don’t understand yourself? How else to hear those terrific questions from enthusiastic people who haven’t yet been socialised into how they ‘ought’ to think?

The book is very nicely written too. For example, this made me laugh:

IMG_1298Oh yes.

One for all who value teaching.

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Why competition is good

I would be an even bigger fan of Michelle Meagher’s provocative book if she had stuck with the subtitle – How Big Business is Harming Our Society and What to Do About It – and not gone for the title ‘Competition is Killing Us’. Because it’s the absence of competition that’s killing us – as indeed this very accessible and well-argued book goes on to explain. There is a footnote on page 2 referring to a glossary explaining that ‘competition’ as used here doesn’t mean, well, competition, or rivalry between firms contesting with each other for customers. Here it is used to mean big businesses eating up more and more market share, lobbying to get the rules of the market economy shaped to their own advantage, and generally subtracting value from society rather than adding it.

This is a shame. It means the book adds to the general confusion on this point, as I think quite a lot of people hear ‘business’ when they see ‘competition’. When economists talk about competition, though, this does not mean arranging things in the interests of business. Far from it. Economists love competition (on my definition) while businesses hate it. I particularly love competition, having spend 8 years as a member of the Competition Commission and recently having been a member of the Furman Review panel.

Other than this – quite a major point, and one which I failed to persuade Michelle about before the book was published – this is a great book and well worth  a read. It’s of the moment too. Our own Competition and Markets Authority is gearing up to tackle the market power of the digital giants, as is the European Commission with its greater impact, and even – perhaps – the US with the publication of a pretty fierce House Judiciary committee report this week. It does feel like we are seeing the tide turning away from big companies and in favour of fewer mergers, tighter corporate governance rules, and a far, far greater emphasis on the need for business to serve society rather than profiting at society’s expense.

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Burning platforms

In 2011 the CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop sent a memo to staff comparing the business to a burning platform from which it was essential to jump in order to change course. He was referring to the disruption of Nokia’s revenues and profitability by Apple and Android smartphones, and he was right. Rebecca Henderson’s Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire is essentially arguing that most of the world’s businesses are on burning platforms, if only they knew it. Either the disruption of climate change consequences, or of social insurrection due to inequality – or, as it turns out, the effect of a global pandemic, though the book predates this – will destroy capitalism. Unless businesses across the board change their ways.

I got the book as it was one of the FT Business Book award shortlist titles I hadn’t yet read (I don’t fancy the ones on Netflix or Instagram, but have read & enjoyed all of Deaths of Despair, If/Then and The World Without Work). Henderson clearly has vast experience of engaging with businesses of different kinds, and much of the book is about the success stories – those that have re-engineered themselves to become oriented toward purpose rather than profit. The examples include Unilever and Aetna, described in some detail, as well as old chestnuts like the worker-owned John Lewis and Mondragon, and a range of smaller companies, and industry initiatives like the move to purchase sustainable palm oil.

The book has a good term for what’s needed to make the kinds of changes described in these examples: architectural disruption. As Henderson acknowledges, many more businesses are still oriented toward short term profit and share price rather than long-term social purpose – even though the purpose-driven businesses ultimately do far better in conventional terms. She identifies some key barriers, among them the necessary big internal re-organisation and culture change. Becoming a purpose-driven and high productivity business requires a high level of trust within the firm, and many managers are unwilling and able to embark on this programme.

There are external barriers too: the short-termism of some investors, the difficulties of getting co-operation among businesses, and the political and regulatory context. So reforms to corporate governance and finance (including proper risk-measurement and accounting), and to the political climate of ideas will be needed in addition. List all that’s needed and it can seem daunting. But we’re all on a burning platform. My guess is that several forces will converge to bring about change – millenial employees demanding better, political upheaval given the state of the world, and un-ignorable consequences of the damage to nature. Whether the change will happen fast enough is another matter.

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From book burning to memory guardians

Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack is really interesting. The author is the librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which was the first big, scholarly library I used after my local lending library in the Lancashire mill town of my girlhood. I love libraries and have alsways loved the joke that humans are the means by which libraries reproduce.

Burning the Books is fundamentally a warning about present vulnerabilities to the loss of knowledge. It is roughly historical, from the ancient loss of the Library of Alexandria to the fate of the archives in Iraq and Sudan recently. On the way, of course, the Reformation, other wars, and the Nazi book burning. Record keeping started as an administrative matter of course, and the requirements of states to measure, assess and record grew over the centuries; but over time too came the idea of records as a public good and vehicle for accountability. There are stories of loss but also of rescues, painting a picture of the importance of archives and libraries as vehicles of historical memory and cultural identity.

The book ends with a sober chapter about the difficulty of archiving in these digital times, both because of the volume and the ephemeral nature of digital records. And also, importantly, because the historical record has been privatised and outsourced to the big tech companies. So the author ends with two excellent proposals: that tech companies should be required to ensure public bodies charged with the responsibility have access to all the data records – this shouldn’t be a matter of serendipitous web scraping; and that a tax on the tech giants should pay for these important memory guardians.

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