[Baseball] is our game: the American game … [it] belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.
—Walt Whitman. April, 1889.
The 2015 Chicago Cubs are now a memory, yet while they lived nearly all of Chicago was enthralled—not least because of the supposed prophesy of a movie starring a noted Canadian. For this White Sox fan, the enterprise reeked of the phony nostalgia baseball has become enveloped by, of the sort sportswriters like to invoke whenever they, for instance, quote Walt Whitman’s remark that baseball “is our game: the American game.” Yet even while, to their fans, this year’s Cubs were a time machine to what many envisioned as a simpler, and perhaps better, America—much as the truck pictured may be such a kind of DeLorean to its driver—in point of fact the team’s success was built upon precisely the kind of hatred of tradition that was the reason why Whitman thought baseball was “America’s game”: baseball, Whitman said, had “the snap, go, fling of the American character.” It’s for that reason, perhaps, that the 2015 Chicago Cubs may yet prove a watershed edition of the Lovable Losers: they might prove not only the return of the Cubs to the elite of the National League, but also the resurgence of a type of thinking that was of the vanguard in Whitman’s time and—like World Series appearances for the North Siders—of rare vintage since. It’s a resurgence that may, in a year of Donald Trump, prove far more important than the victories of baseball teams, no matter how lovable.
That, to say the least, is an ambitious thesis: the rise of the Cubs signifies little but that their new owners possess a lot of money, some might reply. But the Cubs’ return to importance was undoubtedly caused by the team’s adherence, led by former Boston general manager Theo Epstein, to the principles of what’s been called the “analytical revolution.” It’s a distinction that was made clear during the divisional series against the hated St. Louis Cardinals: whereas, for example, St. Louis manager Matt Matheny asserted, regarding how baseball managers ought to handle their pitching staff, that managers “first and foremost have to trust our gut,” the Cubs’ Joe Maddon (as I wrote about in a previous post) spent his entire season doing such things as batting his pitcher eighth, on the grounds that statistical analysis showed that by doing so his team gained a nearly-infinitesimal edge. (Cf. “Why Joe Maddon bats the pitcher eighth” ESPN.com)
Since the Cubs hired former Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, few franchises in baseball have been as devoted to what is known as the “sabermetric” approach. When the Cubs hired him, Epstein was well-known for “using statistical evidence”—as the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath put it a year before Epstein’s previous team, the Boston Red Sox, overcame their own near-century of futility in 2004—rather than relying upon what Epstein’s hero, the storied Bill James, has called “baseball’s Kilimanjaro of repeated legend and legerdemain”—the sort embodied by the Cardinals’ Matheny apparent reliance on seat-of-the-pants judgement.
Yet, while Bill James’ sort of thinking may be astonishingly new to baseball’s old guard, it would have been old hat to Whitman, who had the example of another Bill James directly in front of him. To follow the sabermetric approach after all requires believing (as the American philosopher William James did according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), “that every event is caused and that the world as a whole is rationally intelligible”—an approach that not only would Whitman have understood, but applauded.
Such at least was the argument of the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, whose lifework was devoted to preserving the legacy of late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers like Whitman and James. To Rorty, both of those earlier men subscribed to a kind of belief in America rarely seen today: both implicitly believed in what James’ follower John Dewey would call “the philosophy of democracy,” in which “both pragmatism and America are expressions of a hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind.” It’s in that sense, Rorty argued, that William James’ famous assertion that “the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking” ought to be understood: what James meant by lines like this was that what we call “truth” ought to be tested against reality in the same way that scientists test their ideas about the world via experiments instead of relying upon “guts.”
Such a frame of mind however has been out of fashion in academia since at least the 1940s, Rorty often noted: for example, as early as the 1940s Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago were reviling the philosophy of Dewey and James as “vulgar, ‘relativistic,’ and self-refuting.” To say, as James did say, “that truth is what works” was—according to thinkers like Hutchins and Adler—“to reduce the quest for truth to the quest for power.” To put it another way, Hutchins and Adler provided the Ur Example of what’s become known as Godwin’s Law: the idea that, sooner or later, every debater will eventually claim that the opponent’s position logically ends up at Nazism.
Such thinking is by no means extinct in academia: indeed, in many ways Rorty’s work at the end of his life was involved in demonstrating how the sorts of arguments Hutchins and Adler enlisted for their conservative politics had become the very lifeblood of those supposedly opposed to the conservative position. That’s why, to those whom Rorty called the “Unpatriotic Academy,” the above picture—taken at a gas station just over the Ohio River in southern Indiana—will be confirmation of the view of the United States held by those who “find pride in American citizenship impossible,” and “associate American patriotism with an endorsement of atrocities”: to such people, America and science are more or less the same thing as the kind of nearly-explicit racism demonstrated in the photograph of the truck.
The problem with those sorts of arguments, Rorty wanted to claim in return, was that it is all-too willing to take the views of some conservative Americans at face value: the view that, for instance, “America is a Christian country.” That sentence is remarkable precisely because it is not taken from the rantings of some Southern fundamentalist preacher or Republican candidate, but rather is the opening sentence of an article by the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson in, of all places, the New York Review of Books. That it could appear so, I think Rorty would have said, shows just how much today’s academia really shares the views of its supposed opponents.
Yet, as Rorty was always arguing, the ideas held by the pragmatists are not so easily characterized as mere American jingoism as the many critics of Dewey and James and the rest would like to portray them as—nor is “America” so easily conflated with simple racism. That is because the arguments of the American pragmatists were (arguably) simply a restatement of a set of ideas held by a man who lived long before North America was even added to the world’s geography: a man known to history as Ibn Khaldun, who was born in Tunis on Africa’s Mediterranean coastline in the year 1332 of the Western calendar.
Khaldun’s views of history, as set out by his book Muqaddimah (“Introduction,” often known by its Greek title, Prolegemena), can be seen as the forerunners of the ideas of John Dewey and William James, as well as the ideas of Bill James and the front office of the Chicago Cubs. According to a short one-page biography of the Arab thinker by one “Dr. A. Zahoor,” for example, Khaldun believed that writing history required such things as “relating events to each other through cause and effect”—much as both men named William James believe[d] that baseball events are not inexplicable. As Khaldun himself wrote:
The rule for distinguishing what is true from what is false in history is based on its possibility or impossibility: That is to say, we must examine human society and discriminate between the characteristics which are essential and inherent in its nature and those which are accidental and need not be taken into account, recognizing further those which cannot possibly belong to it. If we do this, we have a rule for separating historical truth from error by means of demonstrative methods that admits of no doubt.
This statement is, I think, hardly distinguishable from what the pragmatists or the sabermetricians are after: the discovery of what Khaldun calls “those phenomena [that] were not the outcome of chance, but were controlled by laws of their own.” In just the same way that Bill James and his followers wish to discover things like when, if ever, it is permissible or even advisable to attempt to steal a base, or lay down a bunt (both, he says, are more often inadvisable strategies, precisely on the grounds that employing them leaves too much to chance), Khaldun wishes to discover ways to identify ideal strategies in a wider realm.
Assuming then that we could say that Dewey and James were right to claim that such ideas ought to be one and the same as the idea of “America,” then we could say that Ibn Khaldun, if not the first, was certainly one of the first Americans—that is, one of the first to believe in those ideas we would later come to call “America.” That Khaldun was entirely ignorant of such places as southern Indiana should, by these lights, no more count against his Americanness than Donald Trump’s ignorance of more than geography ought to count against his. Indeed, conducted according to this scale, it should be no contest as to which—between Donald Trump, Marilynn Robinson, and Ibn Khaldun—is the the more likely to be a baseball fan. Nor, need it be added, which the better American.