The Conceit of Ideas

Professor John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy of Education, ACU
Advisor to the Ethics Hub

The currency of moral, political and social philosophy is ideas, and this is true of other kinds of abstract theorising. They deal not with reality as such but with representations and explanations of it, and in some cases with recommendations about how it should be arranged. Cultural commentators across the various media also work with ideas, be it in somewhat looser and less careful ways, generally with a view to getting notice for their opinions.

Not so long ago, and well into the twentieth century, the commentators were few and the theorists were fewer still, and the gap between them and the general population was large; but now, thanks to the expansion of higher education and the rapid growth of the internet and social networking, commentary and opinion are everywhere.  One consequence of this is that the fora in which ideas are voiced have become crowded, noisy and antagonistic.

This is in part because of the natural division of opinions but also because of the desire of opiners to win, not so much the reasoned argument as the partisan fight. A second effect is increasing superficiality and unthinking sloganising. A third, is the widespread assumption that those who do not agree with the views of oneself and one’s ideological group are either stupid or wicked. A fourth and related effect is the intimidation of the rest of the population to accept and think in line with prevailing views or else be condemned.

There is much that needs to be said about this but for now I want to focus on just one issue which I will call the ‘conceit of ideas’. This is a conceit in three respects: first, it involves pride in one’s own cleverness or insight as an ‘ideas’ person; second, it assumes that ideas are superior to the ordinariness of everyday life; third, it presupposes that action is secondary to thought, or put another way, that ideas are the drivers of life. One currently ubiquitous example of this conceit is the use of the term ‘progressive’. 

In the seventeenth century the Scottish philosopher and Presbyterian minister Hugh Binning wrote in a sermon that “The life as well as the light of the righteous is progressive” meaning that those who followed the teachings and commands of Christ advanced morally and spiritually. The present day use of the term, however, might more suitably be expressed by saying that “the life as well as the light of the progressive is righteous”. For it is part of the current meaning or immediate association of the word that anything ‘progressive’ is good: ‘progressive ideas’, ‘progressive values’, ‘progressive visions’, ‘progressive policies’, ‘progressive practices’, ‘progressive …’ – put in whatever you like and the implication is that whatever is ‘progressive’ is rational, right, and righteous.

The former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said “I have studied history and I know that the future of our country is a progressive alliance between progressive political parties”. He might as well have congratulated himself by saying “I know that the future of eating is a progressive alliance between progressive food producers” or “the future of waste disposal is a progressive alliance between progressive waste managers”. Indeed, it is a mark of this pervasive vacuity of thought and slavishness to fashion in various areas that one can easily imagine that these things have already been said by food producers or waste managers.

My point is not to criticise certain ideas, values, visions, policies or practices but to question the process of canonising them by use of the adjective ‘progressive’. They have to be assessed on their own terms, and describing them as ‘progressive’ seeks to evade such assessment by presuming their righteousness and building it into the very title of them. This is an example of ‘approbative definition’ – inserting one’s approval into what seems a mere description, thereby gaining as Bertrand Russell said in another connection, “the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil”.

That ties together two features of the conceit of ideas: pride in being a ‘progressive’ thinker, and superiority in being ‘progressive’ rather than ordinary or stuck in the existing everyday. There remains the third feature: the assumption that ideas are the drivers of life. ‘Progressives’ in whatever field are generally unknowingly subscribers to what a century ago the British historian Herbert Butterfield termed  ‘whig history’: the view that the present is better than the past because it is further along a trajectory out of darkness into light, out of vice into virtue, out of nastiness into niceness. An echo of this idea is to be heard in the phrase ‘the right side of history’ which like ‘progressive’ itself simply begs and seeks to suppress the ethical questions what is right? and what is better?

A common if not universal element in the idea of ‘progressivism’ is that as well as there being a right direction to history, (the side on which the ‘progressive’ stands) it is ‘progressive’ ideas that drive that history. Again, my concern is not with the content of specific cultural, ethical or political ideas or theories, which have to be evaluated on their own terms apart from any approving or disapproving titles, but with an unquestioned assumption, in this case that ideas drive history rather than being the effects of it. If, however, one looks to the origins of such ethical ideas as those of ‘natural rights’, ‘the inviolability of the innocent’, ‘the just wage’, ‘universal suffrage’, and ‘the equality of the sexes’ it emerges that these were as much the consequence of events and social changes as the engines of them.

Marx thought that ideas were the by-products of material processes, specifically conflicts of power. That was too restrictive and too deterministic, but it worth considering that what we think may be the result of how we live as much as, and perhaps more than how we live being the implementation of what we think. Moral, political and social ideas have developed over the centuries but usually in response to lived experience, particularly as that has been challenged and disrupted by events such as famine, war and natural disasters. It has been the experience of these that has given rise to new ways of thinking but that process is neither linear nor cumulative.

Events may induce one to give up previously favoured ideas or to embrace them more closely. Writing of Charles Dickens over a century ago G.K. Chesteron observed that “He did not dislike this or that argument for oppression: he disliked oppression. He disliked a certain look on the face of a man when he looks down on another man. And the look on that face is the only thing in the world that we really have to fight between here and the fires of hell. … He cared nothing for the fugitive explanations of [various political theories] … He saw that under many forms was one fact, the tyranny of man over man; and he struck at it when he saw it, whether it was old or new”.

Ethics is about acting well, about acquiring and exercising virtues in response to situations that call for them, and curbing vices that would lead us to act badly. Ethical theories may be built out of these responses, but they come after the facts, and the facts in question are events and our emotional and considered reactions to them. Of course, ideas matter but as appropriate or inappropriate ways of thinking about experience. Asserting pre-existing theories may be obstacles to seeing what is really good or bad, and the tendency to such assertion may be a mark of the conceit I have spoken of: pride, presumed superiority, and blind intellectualism that puts abstract ideas and theories ahead of common experience. As the Coronavirus pandemic continues it becomes increasingly likely that it will give rise to further cultural, ethical and political thinking but that could lead us back to previously discarded ideas as much as forward to new ones. Indeed the very use of the terms ‘back’ and ‘forward’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘progressive’ is part of what I am urging we give up the better to think freely and authentically.

 

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