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.