One thought on “You Cannot Fathom Russia with Your Mind

  1. Noah Dunn

    I agree with about 75 percent of what Dalrymple writes, but this piece struck me as relatively thoughtless. He makes a false dichotomy between knowledge and instinct, suggesting that an instinct for a particular cultural activity is some sort of innate entity – existing prior to the acquisition of knowledge – and that no amount of knowledge can make up for the lack of such an instinct. Now, I am not doubting the existence of instinctual traits – such as fear or lust – but I am doubting whether one can sensibly talk about “an instinct for politics” or an “instinct for chess.” These activities are too complex, too high-order, too dependent on long-term development.

    (Even instincts people take as fundamentally innate can be, through the magic of brain plasticity, directed towards bizarre objects; how can evolution (the only mechanism which could justify the existence of instinct) explain a person’s fear of clowns? Or the fact that some people are sexually attracted to feet?)

    There is no evidence for the existence of genes which endow people with innate-ability (the same thing as instinct, when it comes down to it). On the other hand, psychologists have collected heaps of evidence suggesting that experts rely on developed skills and knowledge; further, thinking is impossible without knowledge. Or, to put it another way: an “instinct” for a cultural activity – such as predicting the political future of Russian – is not inborn, but acquired through an ongoing process of development. Huge Stuart could have, theoretically, predicted the rise of communism if he had had access to all of the information which existed about the subject prior to WW1.

    Further, I don’t think anybody is fully capable of accurately predicting the future, given that it’s improbable you could ever track down all of the relevant information. Yes, some people come close, but this is very likely due to the laws of chance. Over the last two hundreds years alone, thousands of people have tried to predict future cultural / political conditions. Some people were bound to get some things right. Even for those few who were eerily prescient (like Anthony Burgess or Aldous Huxley), there is no evidence they relied on instinct to make their predictions.

    When it comes down to it, Dalymple’s thought about instinct is near superstitious. The proposition “his political instinct existed prior to his knowledge and experience, and this instinct was necessary for his prescience” is an unfalsifiable proposition. The formulation “instinct + knowledge = ability” cannot be verified empirically. You would need a person who has never read history or political philosophy – or such things – to predict political futures accurately.

    I don’t know why Dalymple’s thoughts bothered me. It might be because he usually emphasizes the role of culture to such a high degree, and avoids invoking the word instinct to explain social or psychological phenomenon. For instance: He doesn’t attribute the rise of single mothers, for instance, to anything instinctual; he emphasizes that things were different once; you change the culture, you change the attitudes.

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