Context is that which is scarce
Thoughts on Straussianism and Tyler Cowen's new favorite phrase
In his 2021 retrospective, Tyler elaborates a bit more on a phrase he previously introduced with ironically little context:
I think I have a new favorite saying that I didn’t have at the beginning of the year. It’s “Context is that which is scarce.”
If I go to events with people, which I do pretty often, even in COVID times, it used to be, I would go to hear new and daring ideas that I hadn’t heard before. That’s great, but I think, especially with Twitter, it’s very hard to hear new and daring ideas you haven’t heard before. So why are you listening to other people? The way they put things, the way they argue, the way they paint the bigger picture — you’re getting a lot more context for ideas you’re somewhat already familiar with, and that context is important.
Or by studying other cultures, you’re getting context for understanding people or situations or places. That, at the margin, is what I’m trying to get more of, more context rather than new ideas.
On some level, this is a simple idea. More background knowledge makes it easier to understand the full depth of a concept and integrate it into a broader system of thinking about the world. But if that’s all there is to “context is that which is scarce”, why is Tyler’s only prior reference to this concept so obscure? Why does he employ such vague and mysterious phrasing to begin with?
Given these signs of esotericism, it may be fruitful to consider the significance of CITWIS in light of another of Tyler’s favorite concepts.
Reading between the lines
Leo Strauss … argued that, prior to the rise of liberal regimes and freedom of thought in the nineteenth century, almost all great thinkers wrote esoterically: they placed their most important reflections “between the lines” of their writings, hidden behind a veneer of conventional pieties. They did so for one or more of the following reasons: to defend themselves from persecution, to protect society from harm, to promote some positive political scheme, and to increase the effectiveness of their philosophical pedagogy.
Tyler often points readers of his blog to consider the “Straussian reading” by looking beyond the content explicitly communicated to uncover its hidden meanings. This interpretive approach is fundamentally an exercise in contextualization, in which the astute application of relevant background information unveils essential insight.
When Taylor Swift branded Chinese merchandise with “T.S. 1989” just one month removed from the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, she may not have been making any allusion whatsoever to the student pro-democracy protests violently put down by state authorities twenty-six years prior. Her initials are T.S. and 1989 is the title of her album as well as her birth year. But join me (and Tyler) for a moment in interpreting this episode through a Straussian lens.
Suppose Taylor Swift did want to make a political statement, as celebrities often do, without being banned or cancelled, as entertainers who run afoul of the CCP often are. Might she not hint at her support for democracy movements covertly, relying on context to convey subversive content, while remaining unimpeachable on the basis of her explicit communication?
This simple example illustrates plausible motives for evasive communication and the role of context in identifying such messages, while indirectly acknowledging that Straussian interpretations are often speculative and difficult to verify. With this background in Straussian communication established, we are prepared to consider whether Tyler himself might practice it.
Tyler Cowen, Straussian?
A Straussian reading is more likely to unveil a genuine hidden message if its source can be solidly identified as a practitioner. But how does one confidently discern an artist whose craft is circumvention and secrecy?
One possible approach would be to pore over many pages of the author’s writing, analyzing them meticulously for hallmarks of the Straussian toolbox. From there, we could gradually overcome the ambiguity of any isolated instance by establishing a robust pattern of behavior. Given that Tyler literally writes under the guise of his evil twin Tyrone on occasion, I’m sure there would be plenty of examples.1 But there exists a truer and a simpler way, one too tantalizing for this part-time blogger to pass up on.
Arthur Melzer has painstakingly documented compelling testimonial evidence from Homer to Wittgenstein affirming the practice of esoteric writing as a nearly universal feature of pre-Enlightenment philosophy and in the process notes something rather surprising. He writes,
And sometimes, less often to be sure, a philosopher may speak of his own esotericism. . . to explain to those who would dismiss his text as problematic and contradictory that these defects are not accidental, or to positively encourage his readers to pay closer attention and find the secret teaching if they can, or to give them some small guidance regarding how to go about it.
Such an admission is hard to find on Marginal Revolution. In the past, Tyler has even said he was not a Straussian (2003) and that he has never been a Straussian (2006). Despite often hinting toward possible Straussian readings of his own work since, it is not obvious he has converted. If anything, he appears to reemphasize that his fondness for Straussianism as a theory in no way implies his own participation in the practice as recently as 2020 when he writes,
My Straussianism is not a normative theory of my own communication, but rather a positive theory of how the world works, and it has been vindicated once again.
Despite his endless references to Straussianism, it would be totally defensible given this evidence to conclude that Tyler’s interests in the art are purely academic. But perhaps his blog reaches too large an audience to be an entirely favorable setting for full disclosure. Might there be more suggestive datapoints elsewhere?
Why context is scarce
When you meet actual Straussians and ask them about Strauss, Straussianism, you get all these different answers, but the thing they embody is this passionate commitment to always try to read things at a deeper level. And that to me is is very impressive.
Many of Tyler’s trademark ideas seem strange or trivial on the surface. Naturally, this makes it easy to mock them on the internet.
But if there’s one thing we learn from the Straussian reading it’s that there is often a deeper layer beneath the superficially puzzling and nonsensical. Silly phrases can have unknown origins and pressing a little harder on an apparent tension may open up the numinous and profound. Or at least I have often found such to be the case in the vast web of concepts imprinted with the mark of Tyler Cowen.
Though he may reject certain connotations the label carries, Tyler’s worldview is of a piece with that of the actual Straussians in at least this regard: there is much to be gained by digging deeper. In that spirit, I close with a list of Cowenian concepts that seem to be obviously connected to the central idea that context is both scarce and vitally important.
I haven’t fleshed out all of these myself, and to the extent that I have, I’m not sure that spelling them out would be desirable. But by now the process of uncovering profound truths through persistent searching should be self-recommending.
“Among the [Straussian] techniques and devices described are the following: dissembling the true message (sometimes by presenting it as from a disputant, beggar, or buffoon, sometimes by arguing against it in ways that enhance awareness of its truth). . . developing a compelling argument and then taking it back”
One of my favorite examples of this comes from the life of Jesus Christ, who often taught indirectly using parables. Though he never uses the word itself, James E. Talmage offers a Straussian interpretation of this practice in chapter 19 of his book Jesus the Christ:
“To the chosen and devoted followers who came asking the Master why He had changed from direct exposition to parables, He explained that while it was their privilege to receive and understand the deeper truths of the gospel, "the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" as He expressed it, with people in general, who were unreceptive and unprepared, such fulness of understanding was impossible. To the disciples who had already gladly accepted the first principles of the gospel of Christ, more should be given; while from those who had rejected the proffered boon, even what they had theretofore possessed should be taken away. "Therefore," said He, "speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand."