I have no idea how to argue abstractly

Photo by Renate Venaga on Unsplash

One part of the academic skillset I have always thought made you a real academic is the ability to argue in wholly abstract terms. I have no idea how to do that and I never shall. I can talk about specific cases but debating scientific progress as characterised by Kuhnian paradgims vs Popperian falsifiability – no clue really. It works in this context, it does not work in that one, is about as far as I get. Actually I do have an answer to the Kuhn v Popper debate and it is that both are wrong.

I am saying this because I usually say that everything comes down to specifics. Every question I can think of is at its heart about morality: what we value and why, and espeically what lives we value and how they can be lived. Questions about allocating health care resources at the end of life, developing genetic modification techniques, the viabilty of cryptomining,  and about a billion others, none can be successfully answered without invoking morality. It is always there no matter how much we like to pretend there is a rational, value neutral way of approaching the topic.

Whenever I pose an abstract question the only way I can work with it in my mind is to immediately connect it to what it means in relation to a specific, available choice. Accoring to finitism, all that any conceptual distinctions can refer to are finite sets of positions. The question of is it legal or not, becomes is it in the category a specific crime or not, becomes in what way is this particular act particularly illegal, which then becomes part of the whole set being referred to. See also any other distinction you care to mention. It is hilarious that anyone imagines that they can train a machine to spot disinformation. Every claim about disinformation comes down to something contingent: it’s correct but wrong to say it in that way, or it’s wrong but we were right to say it. Then again, no boundary is quite as well drawn as one that involves jail time for someone.

There is a way through which is to constantly move between the specific and the abstract in practice and pay attention to critical decisions which make sense for participants. Mackenzie (2022) outlines this when discussing the criminalisation of spoofing and the problems distinguishing it in the minds of traders from ordinary trading practice. Spoofing is the act of bidding up a trade without intent to buy. Mackenzie argued that this previously normalised activity was criminalised with little effect initially. It was felt to be impossible to prosecute outwith a case referring to broader market maniuplation. It became actively criminlised following the financial crash, and after the first jailing markets suddenly became very good at spotting and punishing an activity they had previously claimed was impossible to identify. Presumably traders also managed to toe this line effectively when they saw what was on the other side of it. Arnoldi (2016) suggests a shift in the technical materiality of markets was critical to the sudden spate of spoof-shaming. Algorithms had to be protected in the name of the intergrity of the whole market. Today’s tip is to pay attention to each decision being taken as one of a chain of decisions that is always addressing that central question: what matters in life, and how can it be lived.

Arnoldi, J. (2016). Computer algorithms, market manipulation and the institutionalization of high frequency trading. Theory, Culture & Society, 33(1), 29–52.
MacKenzie, Donald. 2022. ‘Spoofing: Law, Materiality and Boundary Work in Futures Trading’. Economy and Society51(1):1–22. doi: 10.1080/03085147.2022.1987753.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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