In Memoriam: Kenneth E. Boulding, 1910-1993

I first met Ken at the newly founded Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBAH, as we affectionately called it).

… In many ways our world outlooks were very different, at first thought hardly compatible. Ken was a devout Christian. I had the impression that he believed in the Resurrection and the miracles in the New Testament. I am an atheist. Ken was an economist. I am dismally ignorant of mathematics, but to the extent that I understand him, Ken thinks along classical lines with an admixture of Keynesianism, while I have been a convinced socialist since the age of fifteen. The core of our

affinity was an appreciation of the poetic aspects of science and a deep hatred of war. Neither Kenneth nor I saw science and poetry as opposites. To our way of thinking both reflect an appreciation of unity in diversity: science through structural analogies; poetry through metaphor.

… Closely related to his knack for metaphor, which makes Kenneth Boulding’s poetry so deliciously witty, was his masterful encapsulation of profound ideas, especially insights that shatter conventional wisdom. One of my favourites is “Things are as they are because they got that way”. Sounds at first like an inanity, but one does a double take and sees the profundity. For conventional wisdom has it that things are as they are because that’s the way they are. Ken juxtaposes the dynamic view to the static. The whole immensely rich concept of evolution is encapsulated in that homely homily.

… It was in the cause of peace that our collaboration was closest and most intense. One would expect a devout Christian, especially a member of the Society of Friends, to eschew all forms of aggression. And indeed I couldn’t conceive of Ken hating any human being. But hating violence and hating an institution dedicated to organized violence has nothing to do with hating human beings. Ken and I shared a burning hatred of the institution of war, not only its superbly organized murderous activity but also its pompous, arrogant rhetoric.

… Yes, Ken came close to being a genuine Christian (in the First Century sense), and yet he was an angry man as much as a gentle soul. A quality that fitted Ken most was exuberance, and it fitted his stormy anger as well as his enthusiasms. No one who made a mockery of fundamental tenets of morality (Ken’s faith was manifest in the belief that such existed) escaped his wrath. He had admired America as a haven of freedom and egalitarianism. On the night of the teach-in [At the University of Michigan, March 24 – 25, 1965] I heard him say “I see a sneer on the face of America, and I don’t like it”. He was referring to the dozen or so supporters of the war picketing the packed halls and carrying placards with “LBJ all the way!” and “Drop the bomb!” And he also lashed out against the teach-in activists when they flouted decency. The movement spread all over North America and to England. Both Ken and I were in London when a giant teach-in was held somewhere in the Westminster complex. We were recognized and hustled off to sit on the stage. They introduced us as “the American masters of the teach-ins”. We were to follow a scheduled speaker, who was “from the other side”. He was defending the government position supporting U.S. policy. He tried to make himself heard over the din in the hall that was drowning him out. I was trying desperately to think what to say about this ugly demonstration. Ken beat me to it. He asked for the floor and in the silence that immediately filled the hall he told the crowd that they were a disgrace to the peace movement. Tact was not Ken’s forte, and he had practically no sense of decorum.

Just as Ken recognized the “hard” and “soft” sides of general system theory, he emphasized both the “soft” and “hard” sides of the peace movement. He saw the “soft” side through his religiosity. He appreciated the “hard” side, because he knew what the scientific adventure was about. Soon after he returned to Michigan from CASBAH he became a key figure in organizing the Centre for Research on Conflict Resolution. The Centre did not survive.., but the Journal Of Conflict Resolution flourishes as the leading journal in the field.

Twenty-one years after the Journal of Conflict Resolution was founded Ken published an article in it entitled “Future Directions in Conflict and Peace Studies”. In it he asserts that the peace research movement has produced a discipline. In his usual bull’s eye hit manner he states three tests of a discipline: “does it have a bibliography? can you give course in it? can you give an examination in it? A fourth criterion should perhaps be added: does it have any specialized journals?” The answer, he asserts, is yes to all four questions.

To me the most significant area to which Ken called attention in that article is the study of institutions. This insight was doubtless inspired by the general system paradigm, which singles out institutions as kinds of organisms. Ken agreed with me that war should be properly seen as an institution rather than a recurring event. This way of looking at war puts the struggle for peace in an altogether new light. It pictures it as an analogue of the abolitionist movement in the decades preceding the abolition of slavery in the U.S. Altogether the article reveals Ken’s uncanny talent for blending ideas together. He somehow succeeded in bringing tremendous intellectual realms under a single conceptual roof.

I last saw Ken in Ann Arbor, where we became close thirty-six years previously … We talked about our lives. We wondered what was in store for humanity. We confessed that the events since 1989 left us in the dark. Ken had faith. I don’t, but I have hope, which, I keep insisting, is not the same thing, but sometimes I am not sure.