by Mark English
It’s easier to see – and say – what’s not the case than to say what is the case; to see – and say – what’s wrong with other people’s views than to outline one’s own in a coherent and convincing way.
In fact, I have doubts that it is possible to achieve the latter at all except within very narrow and constrained areas. And even then… Have you noticed how academic teachers (in fields I am familiar with anyway) can never stick with a text book? (Unless, of course, they wrote it themselves. And even then…)
Some people don’t mind this situation, even positively relish it. Certainly, it gives those so inclined limitless opportunities to show off their dialectical skills. Others (like myself) become rapidly tired of this sort of game: what’s the point, we ask, if there is no at least hypothetical end-point, no safe harbor of truth in the general direction of which we are ultimately heading (even if we know we will never actually arrive)?
You could think of this in terms of a mathematical series tending to a limit. But perhaps a better metaphor is one promulgated by the 19th-century French philologist and intellectual historian Ernest Renan.
Not long before Renan’s death, a very young Romain Rolland wrote him a fan letter and was invited to visit the great man who talked to him about la route en lacets, the zig-zag path up the mountain.  It may not always feel like we are going onward and upward but, according to Renan, taking a wider view, we are. Renan saw this progress as applying not only to scientific knowledge and understanding but also more broadly, to human progress in a deeper and more general sense. Though he had renounced his early belief in the doctrines of Christianity, he remained in his heart a religious man. He told the young Rolland that life was fundamentally good and the universe was the work of a beneficent demiurge. (He was, in effect, a Stoic or a neo-Platonist.)
Of course, for all sorts of reasons, intellectuals no longer command the sort of widespread respect that they did in the past. But there is still a demand for general and explanatory ideas, and no shortage of intellectuals who are confident enough in their views to actively promote them.
Unfortunately this wide selection of competing (and usually incompatible) views does not inspire confidence. A certain amount of rule-of-thumb winnowing must be done by all of us; and generally we will gravitate towards thinkers whose views on general ideological and/or religious questions are closest to our own.
I have a particular problem here which may merely indicate some flaw in my own thinking which I am blind to; or, on the other hand, it may indicate something of more general interest.
At least since about the age of 20, I have been looking for intellectual guides or mentors – without much success, I have to say. Sure, there are experts whom I trust in various scientific fields. But I have seldom come across anybody who shares, even in a general sense, my apparently peculiar mix of beliefs and attitudes.
For a start, I have a natural tendency to favor classical liberal or conservative approaches to social and political questions. I know such views are out of favor in academic and media circles, but just bear with me on this. I am not pushing or promoting (or even endorsing, really) some kind of set ideology. 
Secondly, I can’t accept either religious or natural law-based ideas. Again, bear with me on this: such views are at least intellectually respectable and I think defensible.
Of course, there was a time when strongly anti-religious views were the norm in left-wing circles and they still find a place there. My problem is that conservatives and classical liberals are – and pretty much always have been – sympathetic to religious traditions or at least to notions of natural law, free will and human liberty.
I have already mentioned Renan (whose social and political views were generally conservative). And I could give many more examples.
Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia  is an intellectual tour de force. But the whole argument is predicated on the existence of individual rights, as the first two sentences of the first chapter make abundantly clear: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do.”
So not only is Nozick assuming that an individual has natural rights which he can specify; he is insisting that these putative rights are “strong and far-reaching” enough to form the basis of a complete political philosophy.
As it happens I share some of Nozick’s political intuitions, but I don’t share many of his philosophical intuitions, and certainly not his philosophical orientation (the focus on Locke, for example, on whose ultimately theologically-based notions of natural law Nozick draws). And I certainly don’t share the more explicitly religious intuitions which manifest themselves in Nozick’s later works.
Over the years I have examined the ideas and (particularly the metaphysical or religious) assumptions of countless classical liberal and/or conservative thinkers, from the famous to the totally unknown and forgotten and – take my word for it – the overwhelming majority are fatally (from my perspective) committed to what I see as religious or rights-based approaches.
Ludwig von Mises, saw an essential truth behind religious traditions. F.A. Hayek was committed to elements of Kantian thought. Michael Oakeshott was a fully-fledged Idealist. Both Wilhelm Röpke and Alexander Rüstow were strong Christians.
Karl Popper had (as I see it) some very sound political intuitions, but metaphysically he was a Cartesian dualist and, though he distanced himself from organized religion, was certainly not an atheist. Like Mises, he saw a kernel of truth in religious myths.
Maybe my intuitions about religion are wrong. I am genuinely open to this possibility. In fact there is nothing I would like more than to find some way to embrace a view of the world in which human values draw on some greater-than-human reality. Mystical elements in Western and Eastern thought appealed to me once and could do so again.
Likewise, maybe my views on political and social questions are somehow mean-spirited, or just confused. 
But I am not (here) seeking to convince anyone of anything. I am just expressing puzzlement – and dismay, actually – at the apparent unusualness of my personal position. The vast majority of people with conservative tendencies in social, political and economic matters have (or have had) religious or metaphysical commitments which are just not live options for me.
Many progressives and leftists, of course, also have religious and religio-metaphysical commitments, especially these days when ‘rights’ talk is so dominant and the mainstream churches have become quite closely aligned with progressive causes and the political left. But, historically at any rate, the left always had a lot of space for people who energetically rejected religious commitments.
So what am I missing here? Why is it that all the thinkers I feel closest to socially and politically have such diametrically opposed views to mine on religion, etc.?
One last example: Leszek Kołakowski was a Polish communist intellectual who gradually came to see Stalinism not as some kind of aberration but as a natural outgrowth of Marxist thinking. His encyclopedic Main Currents of Marxism  is informed but not obsessed by this idea. It is a lucid and remarkably generous work: masterful, perceptive and profoundly human. I came to love its author.
But – you guessed it – Kołakowski had religious commitments (which are not evident in Main Currents of Marxism, by the way) and, rightly or wrongly, this fact casts a cloud of doubt over my love for his work. He had powerful motivations which I do not have. Perhaps we are not in the same ideological place after all…
- Rolland, Romain. Compagnons de voyage. Albin Michel, 1961, pp. 175-6.
- I do think that there is a lot that can be said in favor of conservative and/or classical liberal or neoliberal approaches to political and economic questions and a lot that can be said against various flavors of socialism. But, as I suggested in the opening paragraphs of this essay, I have serious doubts that one can deal with ideological questions in a purely rational way or, from a ‘standing start’ as it were, elaborate an ideology which is objectively grounded. Inevitably we are at least to some extent engaged in the world, and the cross currents of facts and values manifest themselves to different people in different ways.
- Basic Books, 1974.
- Some may see them as confused because I am not clearly distinguishing between conservatism and classical liberalism; I realize the scope for confusion here, but the European neoliberal tradition (of which I have some knowledge and which influenced my thinking quite deeply) is shot through with conservative elements.
17 responses to “Mixing but Not Matching”
Mark, great stuff as usual.
Having been a “movement” conservative myself for almost 20 years, I know my way around that world pretty well. Reading your essay, I wonder if you were aware of these folks:
I have found that among the more intellectual magazines, City Journal — the magazine of the Manhattan Institute — represents the least religious brand of conservative thought I’ve seen out there. I would say something similar about the New Criterion — Hilton Kramer’s mag — though perhaps, less so than CJ.
“In fact, I have doubts that it is possible to achieve the latter at all except within very narrow and constrained areas. And even then… Have you noticed how academic teachers (in fields I am familiar with anyway) can never stick with a text book? (Unless, of course, they wrote it themselves. And even then…)”
-My favorite physics prof. at Santa Clara rarely lectured. He said he was not going to regurgitate the book for us when we could read it ourselves.
What he did was more a Socratic method. He had us work problems as a group on the chalk board (no white boards in those days). He interfered only when we got stuck.
He would occasionally give lectures when he thought the book particularly unclear, but basically he asked questions. He had not written the book (The Berkeley series on mechanics, electromagnetism and thermodynamics)
At the end of class he would ask “Are you confused?” If we answered ‘Yes’ he would reply “Good! That means you’re learning”
And we were!
His method would not, of course, worked at larger schools with 100s of students in the courses. I used it for my sections when I was a TA at University of Illinois. Most TAs repeated what the Prof had said in class which they could have just a well have read in the book. I’m not how well it worked. A section at UofI could be larger than my entire class at Santa Clara.
Regarding Secular Right… I’ve had some dealings with them. Not long after I set up Conservative Tendency (my personal site), Razib Kahn (who set up and ran SR and still occasionally writes there as ‘David Hume’) did a post on one of my posts and subsequently set up a new site called Skeptical Conservatives which aggregated material from his site and my site and Jillian Becker’s Atheist Conservative and one or two other sites. The idea was to expand Skeptical Conservatives but for various reasons it didn’t really work and the plug was pulled.
You will see Conservative Tendency listed on Secular Right’s rather brief blogroll, right next to City Journal (which you also mentioned).
I also note that Heather Mac Donald, who is one of the writers at Secular Right, has a recent piece in City Journal.
My point is that ‘secular conservatism’ constitutes a very small world.
Thanks for the links. I was not really aware of the New Criterion, though I vaguely remember seeing it around in the past. (There is an excellent article there on the dire state that France is in – socially and culturally and politically – by Dominic Green.)
One more thing: I am not much interested in talk about organized religion – which a number of secular and atheistic sites seem positively obsessed with. For example, Andrew Stuttaford, who almost single-handedly kept Secular Right going for a while there, has a strange obsession with Catholicism and the Pope!
Yes, there are always those chapters that aren’t clear – or which are seen to get things wrong.
But of course it’s all a bit less confused and contested in physics than in the humanities where there is so much more scope for personal perspectives.
Even in linguistics there is plenty of scope for quite fundamental disagreements at a relatively basic level.
Such a relatable view. I was exposed to lutheran christianity as a young’un, but, supposedly through my appetite for accurate truths within a reference frame, I outgrew such views. My disappointment came with repeated failures to find a viable replacement. In the end, it comes down to what degree of accuracy one requires/ will settle for.
Accuracy within a frame of reference is one way of looking at it. As you suggest, for many the ‘inaccuracies’ will eventually invalidate the framework entirely.
Most often, I would have thought, it’s a holistic thing and the whole perspective is (gradually or quite suddenly) revealed to be not just mistaken here and there but completely fanciful or ill-conceived.
There are just some of us who piece together our personal, social, and political beliefs out of experience, deep and wide reading, analysis and, in the end, judgments concerning the viability or consistency of differing positions, in a way that is not common practice. (It is so much easier to swallow an ideology whole and run with the pack.) As for the whole religion thing…. Well, I’m a secular Buddhist, which means that there are many Buddhists I can’t hang with without listening to unnecessary quackery. I’m an atheist so I won’t tolerate efforts to convert me to theism. But I’ve grown weary of New Atheist proselytizing as well.
I’m on the left, but I don’t hang around lefties, because there’s so much idiot spew there (the whole SJW stuff, etc.) But it’s not just a matter of politics – or religion for that matter. It true about favored authors, music I listen to, movies I enjoy…. I’m never quite with it. (I generally have avoided watching any movie that’s in vogue; I’ve never seen Forrest Gump, )
Although I pay attention to what others say, I do so only if it seems to have some weight to it. In response, I say what I think I must, then let the chips fall where they may.
I think some of this is a personal trait – I have no taste for crowds, no time for small talk, and won’t agree to anything without considerable thought. Fads pass me by, and I have no interest in celebrity. Whatever’s ‘hot’ leaves me cold.
I won’t project myself onto your own experience. Yet I read some similar issues behind this essay. So, what I guess I’m saying is, this is just the path some of us find ourselves on. What’s the alternative? posting for ‘friends’ on Facebook?
I think it’s a very strong part of our biological nature to define ourselves very largely by what we don’t like, or we’re not those people, or that kind of people.
If we’re not in a pressure cooker and in fear for our survival, this may take the form of very conspicuous fandom, or clicques, or being nerdy or cool, or one of the choices going around at the moment.
Boundaries are such a major part of how we parse the world, without which all would seem murky and confused.
With other people’s views, we make a caricature of them and feel quite satisfied. Our negative construction of what “they” are stops our further looking. We know too many details about the things we lean towards and how they work or are problematic, well that tends to be the case with thoughtful people
Many (of the more thoughtful) people arrive at something like “I can’t quite make out what capitalism really should be like, but I know socialism is really bad” — or vice versa.
I think the only really honest way to improve the world is with very transparent standing for something culturally. If people don’t care about transparency, if they say we know what we want to get to, and we just need somebody who’s a big enough bastard, and will stop at nothing to make it happen — things turn out to be not what they seem to be. War is never about transparency, but about tactics and appearing strong when your weak and weak when you’re strong, and ideological struggle is often not far behind in this regard.
I may be somewhat Thomas Nagle-ish when I say the “view from nowhere” and the passive voice often serve as the mask of a manipulator. “It is well known that” (as Mma Ramatzwe of #1 Lady’s Detective Agency says) or “What is to be done?” as Lenin asked, can be dangerous phrases to which we’re often attracted. OK Illich, but what do you intend to do (A: strike in unexpected ways?) and what do you recommend we do, and just who is included in “we”?
I’d claim much of what is/was wrong with Marx, Lenin, (and Lenin said it of Stalin), and Ayn Rand, and Von Mises, and Newt Gingrich, and GW Bush, and Donald Trump … is more or less bad manners perhaps more than their ideologies.
When Gorbachev was on the stage, many Americans were too fixated on the fact that, well, he’s not renouncing communalism. Well, he was trying not to attack things that he couldn’t possibly attack and remain capable of changing things, but if you paid attention he was clearly saying that the USSR had gotten too mean spirited, and that whatever the economic system, we need to be choosing our leaders, and to be able to set up independent presses and criticize whatever.
This feels a bit like a rant. Does this seem at all coherent?
Anyway, Mark I like your article. You’re honest and modest and have spent a lot of time looking for something.
I feel like adding something which is speaking from my gut and not quite sure what it means, but Mark, I think you’re fearlessly modest, and it’s a rare and good quality.
Mark, well done and very interesting! Perhaps there is no coherent and convincing explanation of our intuition that there is an answer and our inability to find it – not convincing to you nor to me.
“It’s easier to see – and say – what’s not the case than to say what is the case; to see – and say – what’s wrong with other people’s views than to outline one’s own in a coherent and convincing way.”
It is easier to see what is not the case because it is almost always regarding Other People’s Views – an objective relationship. OPVs are never fully understood – that would be impossible given the way we perceive OPVs: the sights and sounds are broken down into electrical signals and then reconstituted in our networks of billions of neurons. So, while it is easy to see and hear OPVs, the channels of communication are very impoverished, and so disagreement with such OPV is therefore almost guaranteed. Our own views, by contrast, are based on an extraordinary rich and unique input of emotions, memories and attitudes; this would make it rather difficult, probably impossible, to come up with a coherent and convincing narrative of our own that integrated view of everything that we are aware of. There is, in addition, much going on upstairs that we are not aware of!
HOWEVER, such a self-narrative is likely to be far more coherent and convincing than OPVs, given the fact that it is based on a maximally rich input. A self-narrative is rich, nuanced and almost inevitably will make sense to the self. We are rarely fundamentally contradicted by others because only we know the content upon which our self-narrative is based. So, when we see the inconsistencies in OPVs, these may be due to real inconsistencies in their views, or may be due to our misinterpretation of what they are saying .. or various combinations of these possibilities. So, while it may be easy for us it does not mean that it is accurate or reliable.
A sensitive and critical observer, such as you, would be more conscious of and concerned by the incompleteness of their own narrative. It would be nice if our search for a convincing and coherent narrative were not such a lonely pursuit. The closer one comes to one’s own truth, the lonelier it gets. However, everyone suffers from this condition, it is just that most people are not aware of it. It definitely does not mean, however, that this intellectual isolation also implies social isolation – I would suggest that the intellectual and the social may have little to do with each other in large parts. But we are mostly social animals and so religion is likely going to be around for an infinitely long time. For most people it is part of their truth, and they are encouraged in this by many others.
The heart is a lonely hunter (McCullers). The Kingdom of the Lord is within You (Luke).
Elaboration on my
Then when the heat gets turned up, this rather nice way for keeping sorted out in clubs or tribes (lets you hang out with people who speak your own language) intensifies to full-out in-group worship and demonization of the other.
This is akin to a philosophy of teaching advanced mathematics (or beginning advanced mathematics) that I was exposed to, called the Moore Method and/or the Texas Method. I had drifted around rather comically in college from would-be linguistics major in a school too unsophisticated to have such a thing, and deciding that learning a lot of languages and declaring myself a history major made sense to becoming a psychology major to taking a course in Math just for the prerequisite – maybe it was business calculus, and then here is what happened:
The professor was particularly gifted, and made it interesting, but as he was demonstrating something on the blackboard one day, someone raised his hand to say he’d made a mistake, and the very calm and sincere way he thanked the student, corrected the error, and went on was maybe the key moment that made me plunge headlong into math for a while.
So this was at Marshall University, my hometown state college (as I’d had a totally f.u. attitude to high school). It was quite a generic state “university” with no distinguishing programs as far as I know, and these two professors from Va Tech started generating some excitement. After the “gateway drug” of real (not business) calculus had gotten into me, I went into a “Texas Method” course on point set topology taught by that same professor.
There was no text book, just a note book containing statements of theorems of graduated difficulty, and it was the student’s job to furnish the proofs. The students were at the blackboard all the time. The teacher spoke maybe 5-10% of the time.
Recently (2009), there’s been a book The Moore Method: A Pathway to Learner-Centered Instruction, and there is also a 1970 article (from the time when this befell me) The Texas Method and the Small Group Discovery Method Jerome Dancis and Neil Davidson, found online at http://legacyrlmoore.org/reference/dancis_davidson.html
One coauthor wrote in the acknowledgement section of The Moore Method “What struck me most as a child growing up around this group of devoted mathematicians (his father being part of the ‘Texas Method’ movement) and graduate students was how in one sentence they would be debating the properties of indecomposable continua while in the next they would be bragging proudly about how an elementary education major had proved that the square root of two was an irrational number in some particularly interesting way.”
Up til right now I had no idea of the background story behind that course — I only had the remembered phrase “Texas Method”. I was a graduate teaching assistant for one year at Marshall (they introduced the first graduate degree, an M.A. only after I left). Then I went to a Ph.D. program at Ohio State, which had a pretty strong program, where math pedagogy was also treated very seriously.
I appreciate the recent comments which I am currently mulling over. Will post again later.
Also, having mentioned him in my reply to Dan I’ve been following up on what Razib Khan (not Kahn!) has been doing. About this time last year he was signed up as a regular opinion piece writer for the NYT and then dumped virtually the next day because some people were making a fuss about it. He writes a lot about genetics but is also interested in ideological questions. Very open-minded (I think) and very science-oriented. Googling his name takes you to the The Unz Review (www.unz.com) – blogging platform founded in 2013 by Ron Unz which features a lot of his work. (Don’t like the look of some of the other contributors…)
I agree that we seem to see many things similarly, and that much of this is a personality thing (and also cultural). Not running with the pack isn’t really based on a decision, is it?
I still think there are decisions to be made, however, and also that there are facts of the matter concerning the nature of human psychology and the scope and limits of social behaviour (even if these facts are difficult to describe or apply directly to political or social thinking). Like you, I don’t see this knowledge as necessarily being scientifically-derived in a strict or even a general sense. It can be intuitive to an extent and/or based on historical knowledge.
As you put it, “we piece together our personal, social, and political beliefs out of experience, deep and wide reading, analysis and, in the end, judgments concerning the viability or consistency of differing positions…”
I rather like the epithet “fearlessly modest”. Not quite oxymoronic.
That pressure cooker. It is heating up.
You talk about transparency. It’s an ideal, but I think the manipulative elements are more basic than I think you think they are.
I get what you’re saying however about non-ideological factors being crucial and I think there’s a lot to it.
“… Our own views, by contrast, are based on an extraordinary rich and unique input of emotions, memories and attitudes; this would make it rather difficult, probably impossible, to come up with a coherent and convincing narrative of our own that integrated view of everything that we are aware of. There is, in addition, much going on upstairs that we are not aware of!”
I’m with you so far.
“HOWEVER, such a self-narrative is likely to be far more coherent and convincing than OPVs, given the fact that it is based on a maximally rich input. A self-narrative is rich, nuanced and almost inevitably will make sense to the self.”
So far so good.
“We are rarely fundamentally contradicted by others because only we know the content upon which our self-narrative is based. So, when we see the inconsistencies in OPVs, these may be due to real inconsistencies in their views, or may be due to our misinterpretation of what they are saying .. or various combinations of these possibilities. So, while it may be easy for us it does not mean that it is accurate or reliable.”
No, but I see our self-narratives as being less ‘true’ than you seem to. We are, as Nietzsche said, strangers to ourselves.
Your final point about intellectual isolation not necessarily being associated with social isolation I entirely agree with. The two are separate and gregarious people can be quite as reflective and self-critical as loners. In fact, loners don’t have a great track record, do they? Not just in all those psychological thrillers, but real-world cases as well.
I meant to say that we rarely FEEL fundamentally contradicted by others. I say this because we tend to agree with ourselves when fundamental disagreements arise with others. This is for an obvious reason: our ontologies are private. A state of true agreement between two individuals on complex issues is therefore impossible. We can fairly easily agree that there are houses and trees and people outside, but once we get into an evaluation of these structures, disagreements intrude from all directions.
An explanation for this that appeals to me is that language has two components, a public and a private domain. The public domain is ruled by logic and definitions that are fairly stable. The private domain is ruled by feelings, intuitions and other more mysterious forces. Hence we might seem very strange to ourselves. Words and thoughts are but anemic representations of what we feel (Nietzsche).
So you and I probably agree overall in general terms, which means that we both must be correct. 🙂
I admire your resistance to the temptation of invoking god or ‘nature’ when analyzing reality. This is an impossible dream because the harder we work, the more irreducible uncertainty becomes. Many people manage by simply dumping all that into the god metaphor.