Tag: Charles Frankel

Can History Tell the Truth?

“I know it is the fashion to say,” George Orwell once wrote, “that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.”

Charles Frankel in The Case For the Modern Man

An exciting Japanese movie of a few years ago, Rashomon, offers a peculiarly apt illustration of (Karl) Mannheim’s central thesis (that all social thinking is inevitably determined by unconscious assumptions and unacknowledged commitments – that is, everyone views events through a limited point of view.) The movie is in the form of a story told by a woodsman, who is in despair at what he has seen and heard, and has lost all of his faith in man. He reports that a Japanese lady and her husband have been set upon in the woods by a highwayman. The lady has been raped, the husband killed. And then he repeats in turn the accounts he has overheard at the police station, where the highway man, the lady, and the dead husband, speaking through a medium, have had to tell the events that transpired. Each participant tells a different story, each subtly arranges the events in a pattern that will put his own position in the best light. As each of these stories is re-enacted before our eyes, our tension mounts. We are not sure whether what really happened was murder and rape, whether the lady was treacherous or loyal, the husband cowardly or heroic, the highwayman an aggressor or a victim. Each time we move to the next story we hope to get closer to the truth, and each time we are put off. But suddenly we seem to see an opening. For it turns our that the woodsman, who has claimed to be merely repeating the stories he overheard at the police station, has been an eyewitness to the actual scene in the forest. So the woodsman tells his story. But, once more, we hear a story which has something subtly off-center about it. A dagger is unaccounted for. And then it turns out that the woodsman has stolen it. He has not been a neutral bystander; he too is a participant.

This notation that we are all participants in what happens in human history, and that there can therefore be no such thing as objectivity about history, is the central theme, and the central problem, in Mannheim’s philosophy of history. We never see what “really” happens, and in fact it makes no sense even to ask. The affairs of men take place in a hall of mirrors, each with its own angle of distortion; and all we can report is what we see in the mirrors, for there is nothing else to see. All social thinking is inevitably the thinking of men who have a role in events, feelings about them, and a limited perspective upon them. Every belief comes labeled with the date, place, and social pedigree of the man who holders it. And the idea that there is an objective truth about human affairs, independently of who asserts it, is only one element in the special perspective of liberalism.

Frankel continues

There can be no disengaged intelligence seeking a universal truth. Intelligence is inevitably earth-bound, practical and biased. The questions men ask about social affairs are always selected questions that are suggested by some particular point of view and serve some special interest. The answers men accept as satisfactory are always partial answers with an inescapable element of arbitrariness in them. And even the standards of truth that men employ are limited by the social perspectives in which they are framed.

Mannheim’s argument that we cannot objectively observe social affairs is based on two main lines of argument. “The first of these rests on a sharp distinction between the study of nature and the study of human affairs. The second rests on an assumption about the meaning of terms like “partiality” and “bias.” Frankel goes on to look at each of those.

We are putting the cart before the horse when we think that a science of politics must be different from other sciences because political behavior is random and haphazard. It is not because political behavior is random and haphazard that we do not have much objective knowledge about it. It is because we do not have much objective knowledge about it that it is random and haphazard.

Ultimately Frankel comes to doubt Mannheim.

There are obvious differences between the behavior of human beings and the behavior of physical things; but they do not justify setting these two in separate worlds, or suggesting that the ideals of truth and reason we apply to the physical sciences do not apply to the study of human history. The natural sciences after all, have also had social origins and social consequences.

In 2012, I spent over 1,000 hours bringing you Farnam Street. If you find any value in reading Farnam Street, I’d greatly appreciate your support with a modest donation.

An Ancient Lesson on Taking Responsibility For Decisions

“A decision is responsible,” wrote Charles Frankel, “when the man or group that makes it has to answer for it to those who are directly or indirectly affected by it.”

Think about that for a second.

How often does that happen today? Not very often.

In most organizations people don’t make decisions — committees do. Responsibility is diffused to a group, not the individual. Everyone is insulated from their mistakes. Everyone takes credit for success.

The ancients had a way around this. Consider Hammurabi’s Code:

If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.

While extreme, that is the best risk-management rule ever. If you have the upside, you have to keep the downside.

The Roman System

The Romans had a similar system.

The guy who created the arch stood under it as the scaffolding was removed. And to some extent, we do the same thing today. No one packs your parachute for you.

Charlie Munger, the partner of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, puts it another way:

Another thing that is never discussed any more is my idea of one of the great philosophers of America who was Charlie Frankel. He was mugged to death in due course because, after all, he lived in Manhattan in a different time. Before he was mugged to death, he created this philosophy of responsibility. He said the system is responsible in proportion to the degree that the people who make the decisions bear the consequences.

So to Charlie Frankel, you don’t create a loan system where all the people who make the loans promptly dump them on somebody else through lies and twaddle, and they don’t bear the responsibility when the loans are good or bad. To Frankel, that is amoral, that is an irresponsible system. That is like selling an automobile with bad brakes and you know the brakes are bad. You shouldn’t do it.

We’ve gotten away from responsibility for our decisions, which allows people to get all the upside and none of the downside. Is it any wonder why things go wrong?

How can we implement better decisions in organizations? Make people stand under their own arches. One effective way to implement this is to make the person responsible for a decision sign their name to the decision. Simple and effective but not easy to implement.

Charles Frankel: What We Suffer from Today

“What we suffer from today,” GK Chesterton once wrote, “is humility in the wrong place. … A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. … The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”

Charles Frankel, in The Case for Modern Man, writes:

In a modern culture everything is relative and nothing is absolute. We have no first principles, no ultimate values, no unshakable commitments, no conviction that there is any final meaning to life. In the end, on any moral issue, we have no alternative but merely to shrug our shoulders and express a preference—for freedom or toleration if we happen to feel differently. As a result, our homes are without discipline, our schools without clear purposes, our foreign policy weak and spineless. There is a cynicism in our personal moralities, opportunism in our politics, and a general sense of aimlessness and drift in our daily lives. And worst of all, we have succumbed to this case of galloping skepticism as a matter of principles. For we live under the spell of a philosophy which has turned disrespect for authority into a virtue, and made us all fearful about believing in anything.

… It begins with the obvious point that any human society is a structure of “authority.” It contains, that is to say, a certain hierarchical structure. Some people command, others obey; or, if it is a completely egalitarian society, there are, at any rate, certain general rules to which everyone is expected to submit. However, submission to these rules, as Professor Maritain points out, can obviously take place for different reasons. It can be coerced or it can be something to which people consent. A society can be tyrannical or it can rest on the willing and voluntary agreement of its members. But if it is the latter, then those who submit have to believe that it is for some good purpose. And so they have to have values, and they have to believe in those values.

… If men have to believe in values … then they have to be convinced that is it not just their own individual interests, or the temporary fashions of their community, that are involved. They have to be convinced that the values which justify the exercise of social authority, and their own submission to it, rest on something outside themselves, something that is eternal and unchanging.