Nicholas Gruen

Interested in

Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley

Academic, Enthusiast


I'm an independent scholar and economics and public policy consultant. I find myself endlessly drawn to philosophical questions as I ponder the inadequacies of economics and political thinking. I'm also enraged at the ways in which intellectual discourse values the performance of cleverness more than the search for useful insight. I'm drawn to the four women as I see them as kindred spirits in this regard.

I've written on the scourge of this cult of cleverness and its fellow traveller intellectual authoritarianism on a few occasions. I discuss it regarding economics in this essay "Was Adam Smith a feminist economist: Care, the essay, regarding philosophy in this essay "Intellectual authoritarianism: The Golden Age of Female Philosophy Edition" (which picks up on a podcast I heard before the publication of Metaphysical Animals, and regarding evolutionary biology in this essay "The poverty of intellectual correctness – Neo-Darwinism".

Naturally I was delighted to read Metaphysical Animals' description of the way our four women ran into the problem of intellectual authoritarianism. 
I love the book’s expression “aggressive incomprehension”:
As the trickle of Jewish-German refugees appearing on the pavements of Oxford became a steady stream, Ayer’s battle-cry began to be heard in the junior common rooms and the classrooms. Mary and Iris arrived at Somerville’s gates, to find themselves among ‘a whole generation of undergraduates … excited to find that all they needed to do if they wanted to refute some inconvenient doctrine was to say loudly and firmly “I simply don’t understand that” or “But what could that possibly mean?”.’ The kind of curiosity and bewilderment that had led Mary, Iris and Elizabeth to philosophy had been decreed a sign of embarrassing naivety. ‘I don’t understand that’ was no longer the beginning of a philosophical conversation but the end of one. …Thousands of years of human endeavour to contemplate the significance of human life and ethics was a long episode of meaningless chatter. That this declaration had been made at a moment in world history when serious thinking about ethical life was so evidently needed, made it all the more distressing to the old men whom Ayer had declared extinct.


"Orwell that ends well" is a long essay about government social programs being immune from learning largely because of the institutional equivalent of what Iris Murdoch calls the "fat relentless ego". Intriguingly I'd not self-consciously identified her and the women as offering an alternative when I lighted on the quote I use as an epigram for the essay. I just thought it put its finger on the problem I was discussing.

As someone working in those humanities that are justified by their usefulness (they're often called 'social sciences') I think it's very important to hew pretty closely to life as it's experienced and to go in search of insights that are useful. (If they're clever, well and good, but that's not the point). If one can get a clear vision of something in a fresh way, there are often riches of both insight and usefulness available as I think I showed with regard to an old chestnut of economics — private and public goods — in this essay which proposes public private digital partnerships. "Government as Impresario: Emergent Public Goods and Public Private Partnerships 2.0". I do something similar in this essay: 
"Trust and the competition delusion: A new frontier for political and economic reform". Note that while I wouldn’t say that virtue ethics was what led to the insights I set out in the latter essay, I do offer a practical and, I think, powerful application of Alasdair MacIntyre's ideas of internal and external goods. In this sense it's an example of 'applied virtue ethics'. I'd be interested to know if people can steer me towards any kindred spirits in this regard. 


Port Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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