April 2004 -- Editor's Note: Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of eight books, including Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (HarperCollins, 2003).
Kelly: Let's begin by talking a little about the method and procedure of Human Accomplishment. You employ a method, which you explain very clearly, of measuring accomplishment through the statistical combination and analysis of the judgments of experts in the twelve fields you cover.
Murray: It is a cousin to citation analysis, where you count the number of times a given work is cited in professional journals. But in the case of historical analyses going back beyond the last century, citation analysis isn't available because we just didn't have that kind of journal. But you can do a similar thing by combining major histories, biographical dictionaries, and encyclopedic sources of various kinds. What you are assuming in this case is that, whereas historians did not go into their project saying “I am going to give 5.5 pages to Beethoven and 3.75 pages to Debussy,” they do have to take different amounts of space to describe the work of individual people. The driving force behind those different amounts of space is sometimes merely their historical importance, which technically could be independent of their excellence. The other reason that they have to take a lot of space is simply to describe the meaning and nature of this work; and the better the work, by and large, the more space you have to spend describing it.
Kelley: Would it be fair to say that there is a rough analogy here with a market, where a stable order emerges spontaneously from the judgments of millions of individuals? Here you are taking a large constellation of individual judgments and tracking a kind of order that emerges from them.
Murray: That's right, and one can test the degree to which order actually does exist. You can look at the statistical reliability of what you are coming up with. And these indexes [ranking the individual achievers on a scale from 1 to 100], drawn from many sources, have a statistical reliability well in excess of .9 in most cases, which by standards of the social sciences is phenomenal. The next question to ask is: Do these results have what we call "face validity"? Which is to say: Are the people who come up near the top the people who, from a qualitative sense, deserve their places? And I would argue that you look at those rankings and they're very face-valid. This doesn't mean they are perfect, and one of the points that I make explicitly when I introduce these indexes is these are fun but don't get too excited about them.
Reputation and Truth
Kelley: Before we move on to some of the specific results you found, I want to ask a foundational question and clarify a couple of things. You are relying on judgments of experts to measure the eminence of people in each domain, but the point of doing so is that eminence in turn reflects an objective standard of merit.
Murray: That's right.
Kelley: So this is an indirect way of getting at something in the world. It is not ultimately about the judgments of experts.
Murray: Yes. I use David Hume's essay, "Of the Standard of Taste," as my point of departure for explaining why we can infer excellence. Hume makes a very useful distinction between what he calls sentiment and what he calls judgment. Sentiment is that thing which leads us to like a particular piece of music enormously, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with its merit. We may remember a song fondly because we were in the backseat of a car in eleventh grade with our girlfriend and we think back to that song with great nostalgia. Amateurs in a field mostly have sentiment. They like certain pieces of work and don't like other pieces, based on intuitive, unsystematic criteria. For those people who know a great deal about a field, judgment comes into it along with sentiment, so that you have all sorts of examples of experts in a field who will rate something highly that is not to their personal taste. I happen to enjoy wine. Well, wine critics routinely rate one wine higher than another, even if they don't happen to love it as much, because the wine they are rating higher is a better realization of its type. You can go to dog shows, or you can look at the appreciation of paintings, and find the same phenomenon, where there is a body of standards that are generally accepted by experts in that field and they apply those standards with some degree of disinterest, relative to their sentiment. Hume makes another good point here: Any given expert can be wrong on any given issue, whether it is because of his sentiments or because of a bout of dyspepsia the night before. But when you take many experts, and you see that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey endure across the centuries regardless of changing fashions, then you are probably dealing with something that is excellent in an objective sense.
Kelley: As I remember, Hume was speaking here specifically of art and aesthetic judgment. How does that same point apply to science and invention?
Murray: Well, there is an interesting contrast between the unit of analysis in science and the unit of analysis in the arts that I discovered only as I was going into the book. If you are talking about the arts, the best unit of analysis—the one that yields the most reliable measures—is the artist, because a given artist will manifest his genius in a variety of works; whereas in the sciences, the unit of analysis is the event (the particular discovery), because quite often the nature of a scientific accomplishment does not represent genius. It does not represent a sustained effort. It can very easily represent a stroke of luck.
Alexander Fleming is the prime example: He left his petri dish out and penicillin grew in it. He deserves credit for recognizing that something weird was going on, but he never did isolate penicillin himself; that was left to other people. He was basically very, very lucky—he was in the right place at the right time—and that has happened often, with a number of important scientific events. So, from an analytic perspective, it is possible to identify the most important scientific event using the same methodology that I apply. But the categorization of scientists, the people, is in some ways less reliable because of the element of luck; whereas in the arts, generally speaking, the body of work that someone has produced is the most reliable indicator of his excellence.
Kelley: In the case of scientific work, truth is one of the obvious standards for assessing excellence. In the section of the book where you talk about the issue of objectivity, you endorse William James's pragmatic definition of truth. True ideas, James says in the passage you quote, "are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, verify." I want to clarify something here. Your reference to James and pragmatism will surprise some readers, because James is usually interpreted here as saying the truth is nothing more than the passing of our test of inquiry, our methods of inquiry—that there is literally nothing more than that to the idea of agreement with reality. So, truth is a relationship among our ideas, rather than between our ideas and reality.
Murray: I use James for a quite specific reason. I had a choice of either defending at great length the idea that an objective truth exists, apart from our appreciation of it, and using a much more workaday, pragmatic definition. I chose the latter, because it seemed to me that this book was not the place for an extended disquisition on the nature of truth. So I say, "Look, we can go on about this for a long time; the fact is we all live every day as if we are in possession of truth." I have a sentence in the book to the effect that when the pilot pulls back the stick as the plane is going down the runway, if he is not in possession of the truth, what shall we call it? And that is a pragmatic definition that I think is appropriate to this context. I'm happy, by the way, with the idea of objective truth—I am a devoted advocate for the existence of objective truth.
Kelley: Well, from everything else in the book I would have thought so. It's just that James and the other pragmatists have been picked up by many postmoderns as their guys.
Murray: The problem with the postmodernists is that they often don't do justice to the original presenters of those arguments. That is true not just of James. It is also true of a lot of the people who originally were talking about excellence in the arts and were giving rise to ideas which the postmodernists have since taken over. But those early writers—I am thinking of people such as John Dewey and I.A. Richards—were often quite nuanced in their treatment of these issues and were not throwing the baby out with the bath water. They were not saying there is no such thing as beauty and we can dispense with that concept altogether. But, subsequently, their arguments were radically simplified and in fact made cartoons of.
Thinking About the Surprises
Kelley: I want to ask you about some of the results that surprised me, particularly in the philosophy rankings because that is a field that I know better than the other areas. In philosophy you rank the Chinese, the Indian, and the Western thinkers separately. In the Western case, Aristotle, Plato, and Kant come out at the top of the list—no surprises there. But the Western grouping includes Islamic and Jewish philosophers of the Near East along with the Europeans, and I have a question here about the face validity of your results. It's a question that also relates to the general concern about Eurocentrism that you address in the book. The highest-ranked Islamic philosopher was Avicenna [a Persian thinker of the early eleventh century]. Most scholars would agree that he is among the greatest—perhaps the greatest—philosopher in the Islamic tradition. But he was pretty far down the list, behind European philosophers like Gottfried Liebnitz and Bishop Berkeley, whom I would have considered much lower in stature than Avicenna. So I wondered: Were you confident that your sources were adequate to both domains, equally knowledgeable and fair-minded about European and Islamic?
Murray: Well, the answer regarding the sources is yes, but I am also not competent to say much about Avicenna. My impression is that an awful lot of Avicenna's work was derivative, that in fact he was an Aristotelian of sorts. Is that a fair statement?
Kelley: Yes, he wrote commentaries on Aristotle, as many of the other thinkers in that period did, but I believe that he was quite original in his effort to combine and reconcile an essentially Greek perspective with a monotheistic one, as Thomas Aquinas would try to do centuries later. And some scholars attribute to him ideas that then became core to the Christian thinkers a couple hundred years later.
Murray: Maybe he should have been higher, but the rankings are useful to give you a peg to hang your disagreement on, to ask: Why is this? I have been fascinated by the way these disagreements have come up and the dialogues have played out. I will say that I was very unhappy myself about Rousseau being as high as he was.
Kelley: Well, I was too.
Murray: On the other hand, I was talking to a French literature professor and saying how unhappy I was about Rousseau, and he stated that I was probably underestimating Rousseau's literary qualities, that they were better than I thought. Similarly, Wagner's fourth place in the music index seemed to me awfully high, but I have talked to professional musicians and they say fourth place is pretty accurate. So, it is interesting the extent to which sometimes this mechanical process came up with results that I didn't agree with, based on my own knowledge. But as I talked with people who are experts in the field, they would tell me why this guy was so hot and the rankings are valid.
Greatness and Influence
Kelley: Another issue raised by your findings is the distinction between a thinker's philosophic merit—in terms of depth, originality, and all the other standards that we prize in philosophy—and the thinker's historical impact and influence. For example, I would say that Bishop Berkeley, to use that example again, was a very shrewd philosopher but really didn't have a lot of impact.
Murray: And who is lower on the list that you think should be above him?
Kelley: I could mention Avicenna again. There's also William of Ockham, who was a key figure in the transition from the humanist Christianity of Aquinas to the more scientific, completely secular approach that led to Galileo and the birth of modern science. We could argue back and forth about particular examples like this. But my question is a general one: Did you find a principled way of teasing apart what I am calling the intrinsic merit of the accomplishment versus its historical impact?
Murray: I was worried about precisely the problem that you are talking about—people who were important in some way, but not because of their intrinsic merit. But it turned out to be much less of a problem than I expected. Literature is a partial exception, but in music and the visual arts, technical excellence and importance in the history of the field seem to be closely conjoined. Bach and Beethoven were really, really good as composers; they were also really, really important. Maybe Schoenberg would be a case of somebody who is more important in terms of the history of music than he will be as a composer whose music endures. But there are not too many cases like that.
Kelley: In the final section of the book, you deal with four cultural factors that you think foster individual accomplishment: the belief that life has purpose, the belief that individuals can act autonomously, the presence of organizing structures for creative work, and the belief in what you call the transcendental goods—the ideals of truth, beauty, and the good…
Murray: With the transcendental goods being the one that I said, "Hmm, I wonder what my Objectivist friends will have to say about that."
Kelley: Well, actually, you took the term from Aristotle, according to a note in the book. In his sense, "transcendental" simply means that a concept applies across all categories. These are terms that apply in any domain…
Murray: That's right.
Kelley: …and so they are perfectly this-worldly, so to speak. They have no otherworldly implications.
Murray: They refer to something transcendental in the sense of beyond the day-to-day reality we see. So they could be ideals of beauty, for example, which are perfectly consistent with a non-religious view of the world.
Kelley: It's just that these ideals have some basis in reality, that they are not subjective constructs—or tools for a hegemonic class to exploit a victim class.
Murray: That is right.
Kelley: First, a methodological point: In this part of the book I took it that here you are basing your conclusions, not on the statistical analysis of the judgments of other experts—as in compiling the indexes of individual achievers—but rather on your own judgment here as a scholar, as an expert yourself about intellectual and cultural history.
Murray: That's right. I have a set of chapters earlier which use statistical analyses, deeply grounded in the data, to talk about the role of economics, political systems, and so forth in affecting the scale of accomplishment. But as you suggest, in these last chapters I am saying, "OK, I have lived with these data now for a number of years; this is my own best judgment about these other cultural factors." I think they can be subjected to systematic and quantitative analysis, but I didn't want to try to take that step in this book. I wanted to put these out more in the form of hypotheses that need to be explored.
Kelley: Well, you just answered one of my questions—whether you thought there was a systematic, statistical way of disconfirming or confirming your hypotheses.
Murray: I think the hypotheses I present should be subjected to rigorous tests, and I think they can be. They are not in this book.
Kelley: In the next step of your analysis, you look at different cultures at different points in time and assess how well they do or don't supply these four cultural factors—and why they do or do not. The field of philosophy has a special importance here because you appeal to philosophical ideas, and to historical philosophers, when you talk about why certain cultures, like Europe, have fostered so much achievement. And of course, the key thing we need to talk about is the role that you attribute to Christianity in the West.
Murray: Yes, this is another thing that I didn't expect to come up with when I started.
Kelley: Was that a surprise?
Murray: Well, Michael Novak told me I would come up with it, but at the time he said that to me, I quietly thought to myself that the Greeks had done pretty well without Christianity. I didn't think that Christianity, per se, was going to be that important. But I eventually became convinced of the importance of Thomas Aquinas in combining Aristotelian thought with the Christian message and creating an extremely powerful creative impulse. To put it very quickly: What Aquinas did was to say that creating beauty is pleasing to God, that discovering the workings of his universe is pleasing to God and glorifies God, and that by doing these things you are fulfilling your role as a Christian. When you combine that with rediscovery of the Greek legacy at about that same time, you just got a huge explosion of creativity. And the Roman Catholic Church, I think, deserves a lot of credit for that. It backslid later, became much more conservative, but for the Renaissance it was a big deal.
Kelley: That is certainly a reading of the historical narrative that is plausible and has some basis in the historical facts you mention. But there is another reading, one I consider more plausible, which is that Aquinas did attempt to integrate Christianity with the secular, rational worldview that Aristotle provided, as you said; but that the effect was to create breathing room for reason, and a secular outlook, and a love of this world—breathing space so that they could shake free from religion, which is what we see gradually happening over a slow process through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Murray: That is a fascinating issue.
Kelley: It's a historical question, and it ought to be answered objectively by historical evidence. But I know that my interpretation makes more sense to me because of my Objectivist standpoint on the philosophical issues involved. I don't see how reason and faith can be combined in any coherent way; and I don't see how you can combine this-worldly and other-worldly perspectives on your life. So I am predisposed to think that trying to combine these things will not give you a stable culture.
Murray: Let's face it—we all bring to our readings of it a variety of predispositions that it's very hard to escape from, and so I should lay on the table my own predisposition. For some time, independently of this book, I have found empiricism and reason, not to be contradictory, but to be different. One of the things about empiricism and looking at the world as you find it is that a lot of times it forces you to go back and look again at the reasons that you have for believing things. I have a very strong sense of the limitations of reason in understanding a variety of phenomena. By "reason" here I am partially referring to strict logic, but I am also referring to my own sense that the world is not only stranger than we know but stranger than we can imagine. This is not an appeal to know-nothingism, it is not an appeal to mysticism. It is an appeal to openness. So, I am open to the idea of religiosity as not just an empirically useful or un-useful factor in history but as something which may be trying to get at truths that are out there, truths that we do not yet understand. The Enlightenment went overboard—that is what I am trying to say. Their faith in reason became almost religious, and I think it ultimately proved inadequate.
Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of eight books, including Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (HarperCollins, 2003).
This article was originally published in the April 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.