I’ll admit it: I’ve said mean things in the past about Anthony Esolen. Mr. Esolen teaches at Providence College, and his writings often seem like he’s channeling someone from the 18th century: which is to say, he strikes me as affected. His conservatism is of the kind that can barely deign to be political, caught up as it is with higher culture and refinement: which is to say, he strikes me as snobbish and condescending.
I say this by way of emphasizing how surprised I was to find a column by Professor Esolen with which I was in complete agreement. Writing at The Catholic Thing, Esolen expresses his disdain for and distrust of the social sciences and their statistical methods; in “Man, Not Numbers,” he declares that “We can know human things only by human means. That is what poets, statesmen, and philosophers used to be for. I wait for physical science to tell me about magnesium. I do not wait for statisticians to tell me about mankind.”
It may only be because statistics and statistical analysis are beyond my ken, but I am in sympathy here with Mr. Esolen. It’s been said that an economist is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; similarly, Esolen believes that numbers, applied to human beings, can tell us everything about people except what matters. He provides this example:
Suppose you wish to get to know John. How would you go about it? If you turned to “science,” that word to conjure with – if you want to save him to a disk drive, you might amass facts about John that can be stated precisely and numerically. John is 183 centimeters tall. He weighs 81.4 kilograms. His heart rate is 56 beats per minute. His ratio of body fat is 14 percent. He is married and has two children. He earns $71,896 a year, of which he spends so much on his mortgage, so much on the family car, on groceries, on the children’s clothing, on entertainment, on books.
Amass a sufficient body of facts, and you “know” John. That’s like saying that you have seen the Mona Lisa because you have conducted a chemical analysis of the paint. It’s like saying that you know Charles Dickens’ Hard Times because you have enumerated the sentences and paragraphs, computing the average lengths thereof, and amassing a concordance for every word used. A horse is a graminivorous quadruped; now you know horses. 1
You see the problem. Personal knowledge, knowledge of persons and knowledge embodied in persons, is not like that. It cannot be expressed quantitatively; and indeed numbers can easily mislead us. Suppose John spends $500 a year on books, well above the median household expenditure for such. What can we conclude?
Nothing, really. John might be studious – if the books were written by Kierkegaard, Burke, and Tolstoy, and if John actually reads them and mulls them over. But maybe he doesn’t read them. Maybe he buys one or two rare books a year, for their value as artifacts. Maybe he buys faddish junk, which he reads, much to his intellectual decay. Maybe he buys books as ancillary to a hobby – stamp collecting, or Scottish tartans. Maybe he buys them for his precocious son. We don’t know.
Take another fact about John. He attends religious services on Sunday. Given the context of contemporary America, the whole “picture” of our experience, we can make a few half-decent guesses about John, as opposed to the people we know who snore that morning away, or give homage to the cruel god, Golf.
But apart from that picture, what guesses can we venture? If the year is 1910, not many, because everybody is at church on Sunday. Does that mean, then, that his attendance means nothing, because nothing expressible in numbers will distinguish John from his fellows? No, we can’t say that, either. What is he hearing at the service? What hymns does he sing? What neighbors does he meet? What sins does he acknowledge?
I share Anthony Esolen’s skepticism that accumulating and tabulating facts about individuals yields little in the way of useful knowledge. Extrapolating from that, I find statistical generalizations about entire populations (or “demographic segments”) to be even less useful. We live these days under what Rene Guenon2 termed “the reign of quantity”: what is real is what can be quantified and measured, and all else is mere personal detail and irrelevant idiosyncrasies. But it’s the personal details and idiosyncrasies of people that matter, at least to fogies like Anthony Esolen and me.
1 Mr. Esolen should tread lightly here. I will bet you dollars to glazed Krispy Kreme donuts that he considers himself a metaphysical realist, yet he seems perilously close to saying that just because we know the “essence” of “horse-ness” (graminivorous quadraped), we still know nothing about horses: in other words, all knowledge is knowledge of particulars. I’m not disagreeing with that; I’m just pointing out that it’s not the stance one associates with metaphysical realism.
2 Please keep the name “Rene Guenon” in mind; I’ll have some things to say about him in upcoming posts.