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The Fourth Way by Donald Wilhelm
Robert Taylor ponders the politics of the information age with Donald Wilhelm.
Except as the name of a degree course at Oxford the words Philosophy, Politics and Economics don’t go together very often these days. A recent book by Professor Donald Wilhelm argues that this is a big mistake.
The book punningly takes its title from The Third Way by Tony Giddens, a work that has become the bible of modern political theory, venerated by both Tony Blair and President Clinton. Wilhelm points out that Giddens’ book does not contain a single reference to philosophy, yet his ideas dominate contemporary politics. The result in Wilhelm’s view is an incoherent and implausible alliance of opposites that produce now familiar policies such as free market socialism and ‘caring conservatism’. The Fourth Way argues that the only thing holding these theories together is a naïve and unfocused reliance on pragmatism. Professor Wilhelm believes that the world requires more than this to sort out its problems.
Perhaps this is the time for philosophy to be promoted and establish the efficacy of rigorous analysis on woolly thinking and proving as he puts it “the utter practicality of theory”. Prof Wilhelm starts by examining our information age.
In man’s progress from Stone Age to Space Age, his means of communication have also progressed In particular the last hundred and fifty years have seen meteoric rises in the speed and volume of information sent across communication systems. Even after the invention of the telegraph (the first effective way of transmitting information quickly over long distances) the amount of information that could be sent was still extremely limited. Then came the telephone, which allowed real voices to be transmitted across wires, and then radio and television dramatically increased the amount of information available instantaneously. Today many of us have immediate access to the eleven billion words of information stored on the Internet.
The problem that Wilhelm highlights is that information needs to be processed so that we can make decisions based upon it. To make even rudimentary decisions these days one must absorb an enormous amount of detail. Even relatively trivial things such as buying a tube of toothpaste can require a series of carefully considered decisions (Do I want fluoride? Are my teeth sensitive? Do I want gum protection formula? Freshmint? Mildmint? Spearmint? What about tartar control?). It seems that the increase in the amount of information communicated has led to a corresponding decrease in efficiency – we are learning more and more about less and less.
What does toothpaste have to do with political theory or philosophy? Professor Wilhelm argues that as the small decisions take up more time the big decisions take up less time. Swamped with decisions about which of our 200 TV channels to watch the big picture or the grand vision disappears altogether.
As Wilhelm points out, three hundred years ago it was possible to have a strong grasp of many different subjects. Isaac Newton’s work covered fundamental discoveries in spectroscopy and optics as well as the concept of universal gravitation and differential calculus. Newton was also an MP, master of the Royal Mint and a writer on theology. Professor Wilhelm goes on to describe the multidisciplinary prowess of Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday and Louis Pasteur. These men were not afraid to cross subject boundaries. Today, however, subjects are so large it is barely possible to master a tiny corner of one subject. What’s missing is any emphasis on a bigger picture – on what he calls ideology. According to Wilhelm it is this lack of ideology, the lack of any big idea, that makes the work of Giddens so vacuous and unsatisfying.
In a chapter entitled ‘The Great Experiment’ Professor Wilhelm discusses the legacy of Marx and argues that while Marx’s analysis of the forces driving the economic production of industrial Britain was correct he failed to recognise that the forces themselves would be constantly changing. In particular he failed to see that technological changes would revolutionise the means of production and man’s relationship with the world. This mistake is still being made today.
Wilhelm continues to argue that philosophical analysis and methods are required to engender communication between subject areas. He diagnoses the problem with modern political and economic theories as being their lack of any coherent theory.
I believe that we need philosophy not just in politics and economics but also in science courses. Why is it so difficult to study science and philosophy together? Developments in quantum physics have meant that physicists often seem to be doing metaphysics – rather clumsily. Witness the impenetrable conceptual complexities of string theory.
The Fourth Way is a small book packed with big and often surprising ideas. Over a mere 142 pages it ranges extremely widely, connecting a cosmopolitan medley of thought-provoking areas. From communications technology to scientific advances; from the social aspects of Islam to modes of dress in eighteenth century England; from analysis of the Americans’ mistakes in Vietnam to Gorbachev’s mistakes in Russia the author shows himself to be a fine interdisciplinarian. Having studied Philosophy of Science at Yale and Economics at Harvard, Professor Wilhelm subsequently lectured on government and politics in Burma and Iran and then worked on aid and development programmes all over the world. He still travels regularly to Russia and his book was published in both English and Russian editions. Donald Wilhelm’s book is ultimately a plea to every person to think clearly and to all thinkers to think creatively.
© Robert Taylor 2001
Robert Taylor is a freelance writer and lives in Bloomsbury, London. He holds a BA in Philosophy and an MSc in Scientific Methods.
The Fourth Way is published by Shepheard- Walwyn price d at £11.95 for the paperback. ISBN 085683 1859. A web site is devoted to the book: http://www.thefourthway.org.uk