Ideologies and perspectives

by Henry Farrell on August 20, 2009

in Political Theory

Julian Sanchez has an interesting discussion of the benefits of intellectual exchange between people of different ideologies.

The goal would be to formulate a thumbnail sketch of an alien ideology that would be recognized and accepted by someone who holds that ideology—if not as an exact description of their beliefs, then at least as a summary of a view that counts as broadly libertarian/progressive/conservative/whatever view. At the same time, you’d try to present such a view in what you regard as its most compelling form—the version of the doctrine that you could most easily imagine yourself embracing. …So why would someone bother to do all this? Consider the way our views normally evolve. We sort of hunker down in our ideological bunkers trying to fend off various attacks and challenges. Sometimes an especially forceful argument will require a modification in the fortifications—and on rare occasions, we’ll even be forced to abandon a position. Which is to say, we learn from other perspectives largely in a defensive mode, through a kind of Darwinian selection of arguments. But what if instead we tried to use the insights available from our own perspectives, not to defeat or convert the other guy, but to give his argument its best form? … the more intriguing possibility is that a smart progressive’s good-faith reformulation of libertarianism might be something that the libertarian, too, could recognize as an improvement—and vice versa. We shouldn’t expect this to happen if our basic values or pictures of how the world works are as radically at odds as our rhetoric sometimes suggests—but I rather doubt this is the case. Typically, when we’re not at battle stations, we recognize that the other guy’s values are genuine values; we just give priority to different ones. There’s probably more disconnect in people’s beliefs about how the world works, but in at least some cases there, it’s not that we think the other side’s causal story is just totally nuts, but that we think it’s swamped by trends or effects pushing in the other direction. Insofar as ideological modeling trends toward treating the most significant values and causal mechanisms as the only ones worth bothering about, a second pass from an outsider perspective may help find the spots where the framework can be enhanced by adding what was omitted back in.

This reads to me as having something in common with Scott Page’s discussion of the benefits of heuristic diversity in The Difference and his more academic papers. Julian’s take is notably less mathematical and rigorous than Scott’s. But it does begin to at least sketch out some of the stuff that is left implicit or unexplored in Scott’s models. While Scott comes up with some interesting and (to me) persuasive arguments about the benefits of exchange between people from different cognitive perspectives, he says very little about precisely how this exchange might take place, assuming that people can easily combine perspectives to identify new solutions etc without talking about the processes through which they might do so, the problems that they might encounter etc. All of this makes the modeling more tractable, obviously, but it would be nice to have more direct consideration of the processes through which people (whether individually or collectively) actually combine heuristic perspectives, learn from each other how to modify their own perspectives etc etc. Perhaps there’s a thriving literature on this in cognitive psychology or elsewhere (if so, would love to be pointed toward it).

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