(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?