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Empiricism and conservatism: a causal link?

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    I've been thinking recently about the relationship between epistemology and political philosophy, and it's struck me that there is, or seems to be, a pretty strong conceptual link between empiricist views of knowledge and how we acquire it and a conservative approach to politics.

    If all of our knowledge of the external world must derive from sensory experience, we're left essentially with two ways of understanding society and political institutions: scientific experiment and abstraction from past experience. Both obviously rely on induction, but let's not delve into that just now.

    The former method would, I think, be accepted by most people as impossible. It's both totally impractical and completely unethical to experiment on entire nations or societies; even at the level of individual humans, the number of variables that affect our behaviour is so vast, and the problems inherent in trying to control them so many, that scientific study is damn near impossible. Neuroscience, as far, as I'm aware, determines correlations but makes no claim to understand the causal links between brain states and behaviour; sociology has a tendency to degenerate into a left-wing group ****.

    If science can't give us knowledge of the causal links between political institutions and social structures and people's behaviour, we must turn to past experience. Over a lifetime of immersion in, say, the British House of Commons, we might come to have experienced an event in every conceivable, or at least every possible, set of circumstances; such that we can extract a causal link without needing to control the variables. The empirical method thus breeds respect for practical wisdom and, by extension, the political establishment.

    Moreover, over several lifetimes, institutions might come to embody more experience, and thus more understanding, than any single individual or group of individuals could have. Empiricism thus also leads us to revere tradition and trust the judgement of past generations, represented by existing institutions, above our own presumption.

    Contrast this with the rationalist approach. Anyone can make logical inferences; no experience in politics is necessary. And philosophers and intellectuals are generally best at it: we ought to trust their judgement and listen to their schemes and visions; never mind the vested interests and irrational prejudice of hidebound reactionaries. Any institution or tradition, no matter how ancient, that doesn't stand up to the full force of rational scrutiny must be swept aside; no sentimental attachment to the way thing used to be should distract us from our job of destroying exploitation and ignorance with the hammer of innate rational insight.

    Could it be a coincidence that Britain, where the empiricism had dominated for the last four hundred years or so, has been largely socially and politically stable since King James was sent packing and has enjoyed over three hundred years of political stability, constitutional government, and the rule of law; whereas the continent, where rationalism has as a rule been in the ascendant, has seen a cycle of revolution and counter-revolution and spent much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries veering from despotism to anarchy and back again?

    Burke was influenced by Hume; Marx was indebted to Hegel. It would be strange if there were no reason for that but taste and fortune.

    So I have two questions for you:

    Firstly, to what extent do you think my analysis of the conceptual link between empiricism and conservatism is accurate?

    Secondly, to what extent are we therefore entitled to infer a causal link between believing and acting on the two philosophies?
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    Well...yes. It's in the name. Conservative. To conserve that which already exists.

    However, the link is certainly not limited to that stance. Most politics derive ideas from past experiences, it's just the past situations and scope that differ. Liberal mostly expands upon current ideals, for example. There's fairly few situations that haven't been experienced in some form. I guess one would be anarchy, but even that's debatable.
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    (Original post by Aisha~~)
    Well...yes. It's in the name. Conservative. To conserve that which already exists.
    Well, yeah, I got that far. I'm interested in whether you think the disposition to conserve derives from empiricism, and to what extent.
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    (Original post by JacobW)
    Firstly, to what extent do you think my analysis of the conceptual link between empiricism and conservatism is accurate?
    No unless you believe that social democracy is "conservative". There's a link between empiricism and gradual, reformist measures ofc but that's exactly what social democrats and the non-revolutionary left believes in. Your equating piecemeal reforms and gradual change with conservatism is unwarranted.

    Also, a great deal of social democrats are rationalists (for good reasons) so it's not that being a rationalist inevitably leads one to embrace revolutionary measures. But it's an interesting link nevertheless.

    There's much more to be said about whether empiricism and rationalism can be reconciled and I am not an expert on this. But see American pragmatism.
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    (Original post by JacobW)
    If science can't give us knowledge of the causal links between political institutions and social structures and people's behaviour, we must turn to past experience. Over a lifetime of immersion in, say, the British House of Commons, we might come to have experienced an event in every conceivable, or at least every possible, set of circumstances; such that we can extract a causal link without needing to control the variables. The empirical method thus breeds respect for practical wisdom and, by extension, the political establishment.

    Moreover, over several lifetimes, institutions might come to embody more experience, and thus more understanding, than any single individual or group of individuals could have. Empiricism thus also leads us to revere tradition and trust the judgement of past generations, represented by existing institutions, above our own presumption.
    One problem with this argument is that empiricist philosophers have also been critical of past wisdom which has been taken as axiomatic. David Hume was fiercely critical of the claims of religion, for example, which are rooted in "tradition and trust[ing] the judgement of past generations", and was also critical of traditional moralistic views of social issues such as suicide. Hume's empiricist epistemology tends more towards moral relativism than traditional moral realism, although he personally was quite conservative on several issues, himself putting moral judgment down to emotion rather than reason.

    Bertrand Russell (another famous empiricist) was also critical of many traditional values, such as the Christian views on sexuality, and spoke out against the Church for stifling moral progress.

    On the Continent, Kant (himself in the rationalist school, though also influenced by Hume's empiricism and attempting to give a response to it) used his rationalistic principles to try and defend many traditional values, such as faith in God being a virtue and masturbation being a sin.

    While the methods of the physical sciences are not really suitable for studying human behaviour, empiricism also fosters a critical attitude towards much received wisdom, which may be the result of cultural prejudice rather than pure knowledge gained through experience.

    In short, I would argue that empiricism fosters scepticism towards both conservative and revolutionary politics; the former due to the real possibility of cultural prejudice discussed earlier, the latter due to other (perhaps rationalistic) forms of dogma. Empiricism is anathema to dogma, and politics is swimming in dogma (bovine excrement?), thus I don't really see a connection between empiricism and conservatism besides sharing a common suspicion of revolutionary idealism. Empiricists could just as much share a common suspicion of unquestioned cultural bias with revolutionaries, although that is not really a connection either.

    As Hume put it, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." I'm sure Hume would put conservatism more down to custom and habit than any actual conclusions drawn from an empiricist method. There are also the social sciences to give an empirical view of human society, together with a critical reflection on their methodologies. But as far as I see it, trusting tradition is not a necessary corollary of an empiricist approach.
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    (Original post by JacobW)
    I've been thinking recently about the relationship between epistemology and political philosophy, and it's struck me that there is, or seems to be, a pretty strong conceptual link between empiricist views of knowledge and how we acquire it and a conservative approach to politics.

    If all of our knowledge of the external world must derive from sensory experience, we're left essentially with two ways of understanding society and political institutions: scientific experiment and abstraction from past experience. Both obviously rely on induction, but let's not delve into that just now.

    The former method would, I think, be accepted by most people as impossible. It's both totally impractical and completely unethical to experiment on entire nations or societies; even at the level of individual humans, the number of variables that affect our behaviour is so vast, and the problems inherent in trying to control them so many, that scientific study is damn near impossible. Neuroscience, as far, as I'm aware, determines correlations but makes no claim to understand the causal links between brain states and behaviour; sociology has a tendency to degenerate into a left-wing group ****.

    If science can't give us knowledge of the causal links between political institutions and social structures and people's behaviour, we must turn to past experience. Over a lifetime of immersion in, say, the British House of Commons, we might come to have experienced an event in every conceivable, or at least every possible, set of circumstances; such that we can extract a causal link without needing to control the variables. The empirical method thus breeds respect for practical wisdom and, by extension, the political establishment.

    Moreover, over several lifetimes, institutions might come to embody more experience, and thus more understanding, than any single individual or group of individuals could have. Empiricism thus also leads us to revere tradition and trust the judgement of past generations, represented by existing institutions, above our own presumption.

    Contrast this with the rationalist approach. Anyone can make logical inferences; no experience in politics is necessary. And philosophers and intellectuals are generally best at it: we ought to trust their judgement and listen to their schemes and visions; never mind the vested interests and irrational prejudice of hidebound reactionaries. Any institution or tradition, no matter how ancient, that doesn't stand up to the full force of rational scrutiny must be swept aside; no sentimental attachment to the way thing used to be should distract us from our job of destroying exploitation and ignorance with the hammer of innate rational insight.

    Could it be a coincidence that Britain, where the empiricism had dominated for the last four hundred years or so, has been largely socially and politically stable since King James was sent packing and has enjoyed over three hundred years of political stability, constitutional government, and the rule of law; whereas the continent, where rationalism has as a rule been in the ascendant, has seen a cycle of revolution and counter-revolution and spent much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries veering from despotism to anarchy and back again?

    Burke was influenced by Hume; Marx was indebted to Hegel. It would be strange if there were no reason for that but taste and fortune.

    So I have two questions for you:

    Firstly, to what extent do you think my analysis of the conceptual link between empiricism and conservatism is accurate?

    Secondly, to what extent are we therefore entitled to infer a causal link between believing and acting on the two philosophies?
    Interesting question

    1. In my opinion, I'm not so sure if your question can be answered. There used to be a time when social scientists would line up ideologies with groups and then make up some story about how they came to share the same bed, but it seems too vast a question.

    2. I don't think that these philosophies are all that important really. It seems to me that what's important is the social structure of a society, its geography, population and level of development etc. These kinds of things seem to determine which ideologies will be adopted more I think. So, in other words, is it because we have this ideology of empiricism that we have such high regard for our centuries old institutions? No on the contrary, it's because we have centuries old institutions that we have the ideology of empiricism.
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    As Mequa points out, we can't really combine the two if we're lead to conserving anti-empirical policies (like those privileging religion).

    I'm not exactly sure what your objections are to trials and tests of new policies.
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    (Original post by TheIronist)
    No unless you believe that social democracy is "conservative". There's a link between empiricism and gradual, reformist measures ofc but that's exactly what social democrats and the non-revolutionary left believes in. Your equating piecemeal reforms and gradual change with conservatism is unwarranted.
    Sure, you can be a social democrat and believe in gradual reform; the difference between social democracy and conservatism is that the former sees piecemeal change as a means of attaining a collectivist society and the latter has no such goal. Even if all social democrats believe in gradual reform, it doesn't follow that everyone who believes in gradual reform is a social democrat, so empiricism could lead you to adopt conservatism without making you a social democrat and my claim is perfectly consistent with social democracy not being conservative. Nobody would claim that supporting gradual change is a sufficient condition of being a conservative, necessary as it may be.

    (Original post by TheIronist)
    Also, a great deal of social democrats are rationalists (for good reasons) so it's not that being a rationalist inevitably leads one to embrace revolutionary measures. But it's an interesting link nevertheless.
    No, I don't expect it's inevitable.

    (Original post by TheIronist)
    There's much more to be said about whether empiricism and rationalism can be reconciled and I am not an expert on this. But see American pragmatism.
    Interesting. I shall have to look into it.
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    (Original post by Kolya)
    As Mequa points out, we can't really combine the two if we're lead to conserving anti-empirical policies (like those privileging religion).

    I'm not exactly sure what your objections are to trials and tests of new policies.
    There are too many variables affecting their outcomes and they're too hard to control. We can't derive a causal link and thus can't attain any certainty about a policy's consequences through trials and tests.
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    (Original post by Post)
    Interesting question

    2. I don't think that these philosophies are all that important really. It seems to me that what's important is the social structure of a society, its geography, population and level of development etc. These kinds of things seem to determine which ideologies will be adopted more I think. So, in other words, is it because we have this ideology of empiricism that we have such high regard for our centuries old institutions? No on the contrary, it's because we have centuries old institutions that we have the ideology of empiricism.
    Perhaps you're right, but posessing centuries old institutions clearly can't be a sufficient condition of the dominance of empiricism: look at France or Prussia before the revolutions.
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    (Original post by Mequa)
    One problem with this argument is that empiricist philosophers have also been critical of past wisdom which has been taken as axiomatic. David Hume was fiercely critical of the claims of religion, for example, which are rooted in "tradition and trust[ing] the judgement of past generations", and was also critical of traditional moralistic views of social issues such as suicide. Hume's empiricist epistemology tends more towards moral relativism than traditional moral realism, although he personally was quite conservative on several issues, himself putting moral judgment down to emotion rather than reason.

    Bertrand Russell (another famous empiricist) was also critical of many traditional values, such as the Christian views on sexuality, and spoke out against the Church for stifling moral progress.

    On the Continent, Kant (himself in the rationalist school, though also influenced by Hume's empiricism and attempting to give a response to it) used his rationalistic principles to try and defend many traditional values, such as faith in God being a virtue and masturbation being a sin.

    While the methods of the physical sciences are not really suitable for studying human behaviour, empiricism also fosters a critical attitude towards much received wisdom, which may be the result of cultural prejudice rather than pure knowledge gained through experience.

    In short, I would argue that empiricism fosters scepticism towards both conservative and revolutionary politics; the former due to the real possibility of cultural prejudice discussed earlier, the latter due to other (perhaps rationalistic) forms of dogma. Empiricism is anathema to dogma, and politics is swimming in dogma (bovine excrement?), thus I don't really see a connection between empiricism and conservatism besides sharing a common suspicion of revolutionary idealism. Empiricists could just as much share a common suspicion of unquestioned cultural bias with revolutionaries, although that is not really a connection either.

    As Hume put it, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." I'm sure Hume would put conservatism more down to custom and habit than any actual conclusions drawn from an empiricist method. There are also the social sciences to give an empirical view of human society, together with a critical reflection on their methodologies. But as far as I see it, trusting tradition is not a necessary corollary of an empiricist approach.
    You certainly have a point, and I suppose the extent to which empiricism makes you conservative, if at all, will depend on your view of human nature. If we believe past generations to have been rational and well-intentioned we'll be more inclined to trust their judgements than if we believe the opposite.
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    (Original post by JacobW)
    Perhaps you're right, but posessing centuries old institutions clearly can't be a sufficient condition of the dominance of empiricism: look at France or Prussia before the revolutions.
    I think you know what I mean, but I'll say it differently just to be clear. It's not just the institutions, but also the population, political situation, geography, economy etc. So in Russia, sure they had a lot of powerful institutions before the revolution, but they weren't meeting a lot of the demands people were asking for, and the military was away fighting a war so were unable to really protect the traditional institutions. A situation ripe for a more radical ideology to take hold as it fit very nicely into the interests of a lot of other groups in the Russian society.
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    Conservatism rejects idealistic rationalism, and so it would make sense to bed it with empiricism, but I think, as has already been said, the closest theory of truth/knowledge to conservatism is pragmatism, the idea that what is best is what works. Utility is truth.

    That said, if the pragmatist saw that a wide scale restructure of social institutes would work, and be more useful for society, there is nothing to stop him going through with it, so maybe the link is one-way, conservatives are pragmatists, but pragmatists are not necessarily conservatives.
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    (Original post by JacobW)
    I suppose the extent to which empiricism makes you conservative, if at all, will depend on your view of human nature. If we believe past generations to have been rational and well-intentioned we'll be more inclined to trust their judgements than if we believe the opposite.
    I can't personally see many empirical grounds for associating tradition with rationality. Tradition often comes into conflict with reason, and the question still exists as to which members of those past generations have a more trustworthy judgment. Shall we go with a traditional 1950s view of sexuality, or earlier critiques of similar attitudes? The fact that a view was popular in the past (e.g. homophobia and racism) doesn't seem to imply it is trustworthy. If people didn't dare to question traditional values of society, many of us more wealthy Westerners could still be owning slaves today along with iPads.

    As for being well-intentioned, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so that is hardly sufficient. Communism was pretty well-intentioned and was a disaster, but in more conservative terms the same can be said of the medieval Christian church stifling scientific progress, and many other traditions.

    Also, what worked in the past may no longer be suitable in a rapidly changing and high-tech world. Many people in the Middle East no doubt consider the judgments of their past generations to be rational and trustworthy as they continue to stone people to death for adultery and the crime of being raped. Only today the carnage is captured on smartphones. Tradition is a powerful spell over the mind and often stays entrenched because people refuse to question, the antithesis of empirical enquiry as to what is best for a society.
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    I think there is a close link between Epistemology and Political Philosophy, as what you have experienced and have come to learn influences your political beliefs.As political philosophy is a social science it can also be used to affect all areas of society, so it can be easy to see ideaologies and party policy as deriving from individuals experiences and knowledge.

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