Category Archives: Method

Understanding Conceptual Models Like that of the Social Contract

The Leviathan, Hobbes’s vision of the social contract
  • The value of seminal works like Hobbes’s Leviathan or Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is the explanatory power, scope, and coherence of the conceptual models presented through them.
  • The literal text articulates the conceptual model; in that sense it determines the model.  But the literal text is also understood with reference to the conceptual model; its meaning is tied to the functionality of the conceptual model in at least two ways.  1) If the literal text makes claims not supported by the conceptual model, those claims are superfluous to the model, and more a matter of the subjective perspective of the author than of the coherence of the model.  2) But also, if the model has possibilities that the literal text does not acknowledge, or does not choose to emphasize, once again, the integrity of the model matters more than the intentions of the author.  If the power of the conceptual model to organize phenomena is its selling point, the particular purposes to which the author wants to bend it are secondary.  See the Rules page, Rule III.2.
  • This dramatizes the tension between two ideals of the expert theoretician, the scholarly devotee of the literal text and the dialectical explorer of the conceptual model.

conceptual model

  • The former are dominant in Academia, in part because they represent the conventional wisdom of the discipline, that is, the consensus beliefs of the majority of experts within a community of experts (i.e., an academic discipline or area of knowledge).  The latter are disrupters of the existing order.  They often, but not always, come from the periphery of a discipline, or even outside it.  Another way they arise is by being “woke”, as Kant puts it, from “dogmatic slumber.”
  • Another way to think of this distinction is using Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between normal science and revolutionary science.  During the long periods of normal science, experts adhere to the conventional wisdom.  But in the shorter, more intense, periods of revolutionary science, the discipline schisms, under assault from an outside disruptor, into two opposed camps, insiders — who back the status quo doctrines and adhere to the letter of the reigning paradigms — and outsiders — who attempt to replace the reigning paradigm with an emerging alternative paradigm.
  • This intellectual parallel of a political revolution follows its metaphorical model in that personal characteristics influence how experts react.  Young ones tend to side with the emerging challenger paradigm, hoping to leapfrog up their discipline’s hierarchy as the new paradigm gains traction, while entrenched insiders prefer the reigning paradigm, upon which their careers, reputations and habits of thought depend.
  • Takes Hobbes’s model of the social contract.  It’s really a model of how a group of individuals, each with the power to act independently, come to recognise an authority above them, that is, the sovereign authority required by any functioning government.  Hobbes works out various aspects and consequences of this model, as he sees it.  His version: the independence of each, coupled with conflicting interests (limited resources and conflicting claims upon those resources), produces a dangerous free-for-all, an anxiety-ridden state of nature, in which none can risk trusting another, and each is thus ever prepared for war.
  • Now this model is an abstract structure, and applies wherever that structure matches the distribution of power.  So, it would apply in a hypothetical condition in which pure individuals competed with one another for limited resources.  A more likely historical scenario would be small, family based clans competing for territories and their resources.  But it applies as well to sovereign nations in their relations with one another (in the academic discipline called International Relations, this perspective is called realism).  But it also applies to businesses vying for market share and to tech titans vying for domination of emerging industries.
  • Hobbes applies this to politics, and, coupled with his experience of the English civil war, develops from the social contract model an argument for submission to any sovereign able to establish a lasting peace, and the companion argument that subjects should be willing to give up all their natural rights to an absolute sovereign for the sake of a durable peace.  We in the West view this argument as archaic, but it continues to appeal to people emerging from periods of civil conflict, anarchy, or foreign oppression.
  • Locke, however, takes the same model and rearranges it so as to produce the classic argument for republicanism.  Rousseau, in his turn, rearranges the argument to produce the classic argument for a revolutionary makeover of society under a charismatic leader.
  • My point in this hurried comparison of three original thinkers is that the conceptual model is not a matter of doctrinaire interpretations but rather a set of relations that pose problems and raise possibilities which can be argued and engineered in different ways.  Understanding the model that all three work from is not a matter of memorizing the twists and turns that each initiates, but rather seeing, reviewing, and judging the susceptibility of the model to each of their articulations of it, and of any inherent possibilities as yet undiscovered by any of the three.
  • In sum, to understand the model is to be able to follow and evaluate any argument that can be developed in reference to the model, as well as any criticisms of the model or alternatives to it.  Complete mastery can only mean grasping the whole universe of models and alternatives, and being able to map out the value of any one model in relation to all of its alternatives.

Open-ended (Dialectical) Interpretation


  • In order to purge yourself of biases and assumptions, you must exercise eternal vigilance against the twin entrapments of doctrinal jargon and rehearsed orthodox narratives of argumentation, which, though seeming to consider alternatives and counterarguments, assume a linear, closed-end path traced and retraced by devotees of this particular perspective; the former locks you into a context, the latter into something like a chess opening (which triggers a sequence of predictable moves and counter-moves).
  • Any technical terminology, by focusing attention on certain differences and similarities (grouping and dividing things in different ways) illuminates some features while throwing shadows over others.
  • Jargons may be thought of as terminologies that aim less at establishing common terms of discourse than at creating an in-group and an out-group. While any terminology tends to encourage its adherents and wrong-foot its opponents, some terminologies are particularly aggressive and schismatic, among which I would number the more dogmatic versions of Marxism, postmodernism, determinism, and logical atomism; the prevailing attitude of a jargon is that you are either with them or against them.
  • Insistence on using a jargon is like insisting on playing all games on one’s home field — there is a built-in advantage in using a set of terms designed and used to advance a particular theory.
  • To insist on one’s own terminology exclusively is therefore dishonest, for it seeks a one-sided advantage. The terminology may well show the relations between concepts within one’s preferred conceptual framework more clearly; that would not be surprising, since that was what the terminology was designed to do. But, then, if one is honestly comparing one’s preferred conceptual framework against a rival, both parties must try to understand the other framework and look for common ground, bridges, and points of tangency between them, rather than insisting on repulsing attacks while safely ensconced in one’s own fortress.
  • Again, the internal coherency of a theory when examined through the terminology designed to show it to advantage decides nothing if a rival theory can do the same. Dogmatists and their disciples can train themselves in any number of sophisticated protocols vouched for by the somewhat inbred cultural community that grows up around them. But, as Machiavelli says, the real strength of an army is tested when it takes on its opponent in an open field offering both the full scope for maneuvering.
  • Orthodoxies are traditions of argumentation which too readily assume their own correctness. They employ many techniques, among them, papering over junctions, seams, and weak points in the argument, misrepresenting their rivals by selecting the weakest version to attack (attacking a straw man), covering any weakness by reasserting their fundamental assumptions in an unavoidably circular argument, employing jargon, and, when numbers or entrenched authorities are on their side, simply stonewalling the challengers, while indoctrinating the rising cohort within the mainstream institutions which they by definition control.
  • Without detracting from the mental agility employed in behalf of such cloistered traditions, this can reduce to a very sophisticated form of memorization, in effect, the promulgation of a culture as ornate as it is arbitrary.
  • Powerful perspectives, those that reduce a chaotic-seeming world to order are very attractive — they give us a handle on the world, and a sense of our place within it. But the same can be said of towering works of fiction. In order to claim to be a descriptive truth rather than a metaphorical one, a theory must not only have internal consistency, it must also show itself to be a more adequate descriptive truth than its rivals. It must account for a broader range of experience, show greater internal consistency, or fit better whatever there are in the way of demonstrable facts.
  • So, what can one do?
  • When learning a theory, always try to make parallel formulations, connecting points by which it can be compared to rival theories. Try rephrasing each feature of a theory from the perspective, and in the terminology, of its rival, or in a neutral terminology, if possible.
  • For example, if Locke insists that the state of nature is quite distinct from the state of war (while in Hobbes they are indistinguishable), ask under what conditions a Lockean state of nature dissolves into a Hobbesian one. And then, how prevalent are those conditions, and does that prevalence change as one moves from region to region and from era to era? Once you have posed the question, some things Locke says will jump out at you, like the parenthetical admission in Section 21, at the end of his chapter on the state of war (Chapter III, of the Second Treatise) that “every the least difference is apt to end” in a state of war.
  • Why do jargons and orthodoxies still plague us? Because, as Machiavelli explained about a more brutal form of power, “men almost always walk on paths beaten by others and proceed in their actions by imitation”, for nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders” (The Prince, Chapter VI).
  • But that is precisely what seeking truth involves. For to confirm that the old “truths” are indeed truths, one must test them against every new “truth” that can be articulated. Both Popper and Plato would agree, though they would mean somewhat different things by it.