Of Conservatism and Radicalism

Living in Toronto as I do, being born to left-leaning parents as I was, and being embedded in the Academy as I am, I think my relatives assume that I’m inclined to reject conservative values. While it’s true that I have socially liberal tendencies, and tend to see the value of cooperative activity, I would argue that against the common image of the Academy being populated by ‘liberal-elitists’. For example, anglo-american philosophy is a deeply conservative activity.

I hesitate to call what I do Analytic philosophy, ¬†because that has very specific connotations for some people: I do not, for example, want to exclude metaphysics from the sphere of legitimate knowledge. But the kind of philosophy I do is of the rigid, technical, logic-chopping variety that usually goes by that name. Categorical reasoning predominates (e.g. x is a y, all y’s are z, therefore x is z), and clarity is put at a premium. But this most characteristic feature of contemporary anglo-american philosophy is, I would say, its tendency to conservatism. That is, conservatism in a fairly literal, non-political sense – the desire to conserve, to retain structures whenever possible.

This conservative streak is sometimes couched in terms of ‘parsimony’. We say that the answer to a given problem is more parsimonious when it is simpler or more elegant – but without some prior notion of ‘simplicity’, this can be nothing but a smokescreen. The actual motivation behind arguments from parsimony is almost always that the ‘simpler’ account preserves more of what came before it. If you can solve a philosophical problem without contradicting established doctrine, that is always preferred over solutions that require deep changes to the way we’ve framed the world. This tendency leads immediately to the kind of micro-philosophy that populates most journals – problems for or exceptions to a given account of, say, causation or realism or whatever, are dealt with under the principle of least-change. Minor tweaks are introduced, small changes to large frameworks which are meant to deal with exceptions to our nice neat categories. When exceptions are found to those tweaks, micro-tweaks are developed to deal with them, and so on.

This style of philosophy stands in stark contrast with what is usually called the Continental tradition, where radicalization is the imperative. Since Heidegger, this kind of philosopher has fallen over each other trying to unearth ever more fundamental assumptions about being (or Being) and challenge them. One can see how this makes sense given the history of 20th century radicalism – the Russian revolution not only failed to uproot authoritarianism, it created even more severe forms of it. The conclusion of radicals was that it simply had not been radical enough – Foucault showed us ways in which authoritarianism had underground roots, in institutions, schools, prisons and hospitals, and even in the mundane interactions between people. The field of Semiotics sprung up and took this style of insight into every speech-act, every movement that people make. The hope seems to be that if we can only produce a radical enough analysis, we can finally break through to some kind of freedom.

But what pure radicalism results in, mostly, is cultural mush.

I’ve bet my life (or at least my professional life) against this view. I’ve decided to work in a more or less conservative mode. I guess the reason is that I expect the world to provide enough radical change to go around. If there is one thing I’m confident about, it’s that the next few decades will be very interesting. Things will change, have to change. I see the rational response to that kind of inevitable deep change as being to look for continuities within that change. As we go forward, what can be preserved, or even revived from our traditions? What can be a stable space within change? I feel strongly the need for reasonable, sensitive and selective conservation of what is good in our world.

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7 thoughts on “Of Conservatism and Radicalism

  1. Many interesting thoughts, but I disagree strongly about parsimony. Not only is it more than a smokescreen for “preserves more of what came before it”, it’s actually a primary (I would argue, technically indispensable) means for revising and iconoclasticising our pre-existing beliefs. Parsimony says “you know that thing you believe in? Is it possible at all to not believe in it, or does denying its existence give you a completely incoherent or self-evidently false theory? No? Denying it’s existence is possible? Then it probably doesn’t exist.”

    • But Luke, I notice that the role you suggest for parsimony doesn’t work at all for any fact which is even slightly contingent. Anything which could have been otherwise (history, psychology, ethics(?), physics(?)) should not just be questioned, but actually eliminated from our ontology as probably non-existent.

      So that surely can’t be right, and it is obviously not how people actually use parsimony considerations. But then how do we decide when to apply them or not? When we are sure that a thing exists necessarily? Depending on your theory of language and reasoning, that could leave an extremely small area for parsimony to be relevant in. If anything like Quine’s picture of a shading between analytic and synthetic truths is correct, for example, parsimony is left with nothing at all to operate on. And further, I would argue, parsimony is asked to do a lot more than that in actual practice. It’s used in debates in the physical sciences all the time, for instance.

      • I’m not talking about claims which, if true, would hold contingently or necessarily, I mean ones which are necessary or unnecessary to explain the ‘data’ (in some suitably broad sense of that term appropriate to fields like ethics etc). Things should be posited when no more parsimonious way to do justice to the data is possible.

        • But now we’re back to the problem I originally identified, which is demarcating what is necessary to explain the data from what is not. Surely you’d concede that ‘doing justice to the data’ is not understood in the same way by all parties. I put it to you that the aesthetic preferences of individuals (simplicity is often described as an aesthetic notion) get smuggled in under that flag. Kevin K. (whom I think you know) put it nicely – parsimony is doing as much as possible with what your advisor already thinks is true.

          Ok, I admit, I’m being overly cynical. There is clearly some sense in which philosophers prefer doing more with less, and there are some obvious cases in which we can all agree. Positing magical consciousness gnomes to save your favourite theory of mind won’t fly with anyone. But I still see that as a species of conservativism – gnomes are out, and it would be a big upheaval to bring them back. We reject them even if they are simpler in one sense, because we’d have to change too much.

          • “the problem [of] demarcating what is necessary to explain the data from what is not”
            People will disagree about that, of course, but people disagree about more-or-less anything, without that implying that what they disagree about is really just a smokescreen. ‘Reflective equilibrium’, ‘phenomenology’, ‘intuitions’, ‘self-evidence’, and ‘the deliverances of our best scientific theories’ are all equally disputable. What method does philosophy ever employ which isn’t used to ‘smuggle in’ personal preferences?

            (I am perhaps a little biased by my belief that parsimony considerations (and related elegance/simplicity considerations, if distinct) are a central part of the case for panpsychism, which is not at all ‘conservative’ in the current climate)

            • I bet you have a hell of a time convincing people that panpsychism can be considered parsimonous, precisely because it isn’t conservative. But If I’m wrong about that, I do think it would tell (inductively) against my position.

              I’m curious, what do you argue is made simpler by accepting panpsychism? What metric of parsimony do you use?

  2. I actually think there are at least two metrics on which it’s more parsimonious, perhaps three.

    Firstly, it posits only a single type of entity, a physical-mental entity, rather than two as physicalism does (the physical-not-mental, for which we have no evidence, and the physical-mental, for which we have very good evidence in our cases).

    Of course, work is required to show that this is the right way to individuate types of entity, and that’s what the ‘intrinsic nature’ argument is usually employed to do.

    Secondly, (and here I depart in some ways from most contemporary panpsychists as well) it enables idealism (the reduction of physical predicates to mental predicates) without being anti-realistic about inanimate objects. Idealism is parsimonious with types of property.

    Thirdly, it avoids the need for ’emergence laws’ to specify where and when mentality appears, which would require highly complex and inelegant laws (I think sometimes this is called ‘elegance’ and contrasted with ‘parsimony’, which deals with ontology). Given the premise that consciousness is a fundamental thing, and fundamental things cannot admit of vagueness, these laws would need to specify a precise point in the various continua between consciousness and supposed non-consciousness, even though any such point will seem arbitrary.

    (The third one is admittedly the least clear)

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