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Morteza Hashemi

At the end of 2017, Morteza Hashemi published his book Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age with Palgrave MacMillan. That book has been selected for the Farabi International Prize, the highest prize for original research awarded by the Iranian government, in the Prize’s category for social science researchers under 35. The award will be officially presented at a ceremony in Iran later this year.

Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age maps the development of the contemporary forms of Western atheism. It begins with an exploration of Western atheism’s fundamental concepts as they developed through Duns Scotus’ nominalist metaphysics in Medieval Europe, then charts how Darwinism and the later Dawkins generation gave it its aggressive side. As well, Hashemi explores the existentialist philosophies that inspired the more open, democratic atheism which is growing more prominent today. The book began as Hashemi’s doctoral dissertation at University of Warwick.

SERRC is currently organizing a roundtable review of Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age among our members and contributors. If you’re interested in taking part, contact our Book Reviews Coordinator Eric Kerr and Digital Editor Adam Riggio.

Once again, congratulations to Morteza!

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, UK,

Fuller, Steve. “Against Virtue and For Modernity: Rebooting the Modern Left.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 51-53.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Toby Ziegler’s “The Liberals: 3rd Version.” Photo by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons


My holiday message for the coming year is a call to re-boot the modern left. When I was completing my doctoral studies, just as the Cold War was beginning to wind down, the main threat to the modern left was seen as coming largely from within. ‘Postmodernism’ was the name normally given to that threat, and it fuelled various culture, canon and science wars in the 1980s and 1990s.

Indeed, even I was – and, in some circles, continue to be – seen as just such an ‘enemy of reason’, to recall the name of Richard Dawkins’ television show in which I figured as one of the accused. However, in retrospect, postmodernism was at most a harbinger for a more serious threat, which today comes from both the ‘populist’ supporters of Trump, Brexit et al. and their equally self-righteous academic critics.

Academic commentators on Trump, Brexit and the other populist turns around the world seem unable to avoid passing moral judgement on the voters who brought about these uniformly unexpected outcomes, the vast majority of which the commentators have found unwelcomed. In this context, an unholy alliance of virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists have thrived as diagnosticians of our predicament. I say ‘unholy’ because Aristotle and Darwin suddenly find themselves on the same side of an argument, now pitched against the minds of ‘ordinary’ people. This anti-democratic place is not one in which any self-respecting modern leftist wishes to be.

To be sure, virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists come to the matter from rather different premises – the one metaphysical if not religious and the other naturalistic if not atheistic. Nevertheless, they both regard humanity’s prospects as fundamentally constrained by our mental makeup. This makeup reflects our collective past and may even be rooted in our animal nature. Under the circumstances, so they believe, the best we can hope is to become self-conscious of our biases and limitations in processing information so that we don’t fall prey to the base political appeals that have resulted in the current wave of populism.

These diagnosticians conspicuously offer little of the positive vision or ambition that characterised ‘progressive’ politics of both liberal and socialist persuasions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But truth be told, these learned pessimists already have form. They are best seen as the culmination of a current of thought that has been percolating since the end of the Cold War effectively brought to a halt Marxism as a world-historic project of human emancipation.

In this context, the relatively upbeat message advanced by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man that captivated much of the 1990s was premature. Fukuyama was cautiously celebrating the triumph of liberalism over socialism in the progressivist sweepstakes. But others were plotting a different course, one in which the very terms on which the Cold War had been fought would be superseded altogether. Gone would be the days when liberals and socialists vied over who could design a political economy that would benefit the most people worldwide. In its place would be a much more precarious sense of the world order, in which overweening ambition itself turned out to be humanity’s Achilles Heel, if not Original Sin.

Here the trail of books published by Alasdair MacIntyre and his philosophical and theological admirers in the wake of After Virtue ploughed a parallel field to such avowedly secular and scientifically minded works as Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. These two intellectual streams, both pointing to our species’ inveterate shortcomings, gained increasing plausibility in light of 9/11’s blindsiding on the post-Cold War neo-liberal consensus.

9/11 tore up the Cold War playbook once and for all, side-lining both the liberals and the socialists who had depended on it. Gone was the state-based politics, the strategy of mutual containment, the agreed fields of play epitomized in such phrases as ‘arms race’ and ‘space race’. In short, gone was the game-theoretic rationality of managed global conflict. Thus began the ongoing war on ‘Islamic terror’. Against this backdrop, the Iraq War proved to be colossally ill-judged, though no surprise given that its mastermind was one of the Cold War’s keenest understudies, Donald Rumsfeld.

For the virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists, the Cold War represented as far as human rationality could go in pushing back and channelling our default irrationality, albeit in the hope of lifting humanity to a ‘higher’ level of being. Indeed, once the USSR lost the Cold War to the US on largely financial grounds, the victorious Americans had to contend with the ‘blowback’ from third parties who suffered ‘collateral damage’ at many different levels during the Cold War. After all, the Cold War, for all its success in averting nuclear confrontation, nevertheless turned the world into a playing field for elite powers. ‘First world’, ‘second world’ and ‘third world’ were basically the names of the various teams in contention on the Cold War’s global playing field.

So today we see an ideological struggle whose main players are those resentful (i.e. the ‘populists’) and those regretful (i.e. the ‘anti-populists’) of the entire Cold War dynamic. The only thing that these antagonists appear to agree on is the folly of ‘progressivist’ politics, the calling card of both modern liberalism and socialism. Indeed, both the populists and their critics are fairly characterised as somehow wanting to turn back the clock to a time when we were in closer contact with the proverbial ‘ground of being’, which of course the two sides define in rather different terms. But make no mistake of the underlying metaphysical premise: We are ultimately where we came from.

Notwithstanding the errors of thought and deed committed in their names, liberalism and socialism rightly denied this premise, which placed both of them in the vanguard – and eventually made them world-historic rivals – in modernist politics. Modernity raised humanity’s self-regard and expectations to levels that motivated people to build a literal Heaven on Earth, in which technology would replace theology as the master science of our being. David Noble cast a characteristically informed but jaundiced eye at this proposition in his 1997 book, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Interestingly, John Passmore had covered much the same terrain just as eruditely but with greater equanimity in his 1970 book, The Perfectibility of Man. That the one was written after and the other during the Cold War is probably no accident.

I am mainly interested in resurrecting the modernist project in its spirit, not its letter. Many of modernity’s original terms of engagement are clearly no longer tenable. But I do believe that Silicon Valley is comparable to Manchester two centuries ago, namely, a crucible of a radical liberal sensibility – call it ‘Liberalism 2.0’ or simply ‘Alt-Liberalism’ – that tries to use the ascendant technological wave to leverage a new conception of the human being.

However one judges Marx’s critique of liberalism’s scientific expression (aka classical political economy), the bottom line is that his arguments for socialism would never have got off the ground had liberalism not laid the groundwork for him. As we enter 2018 and seek guidance for launching a new progressivism, we would do well to keep this historical precedent in mind.

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Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-SolvingBecause of its length, we have split his response into two parts. This is the second.

Problem-Solving Dialogue

Benton holds that Popper’s philosophy of science cannot meaningfully lead to a social and political conception of problem-solving given the latter’s difference from experimental activity in a laboratory. Social policy changes cannot be analogous to a critical problem-solving dialogue in science where a conjecture is refuted and a new theory then sought, because what constitutes a refutation and indeed what constitutes a problem are deeply normative and complex matters. Furthermore, in practice, policy-implementation is more like “utopian social engineering” than “piecemeal social engineering” because policies are imposed to fit with party political ideological commitments, with scant regard for their problematic consequences (Benton 2017, 63). Benton then argues that I am caught in a catch-22 when the reforms a more dialogic democracy could bring about require an institutional context which presumes the existence of a dialogic democracy that does not exist. How can dialogic democracy work when the conditions for it do not exist and if the conditions for it existed there would be no need to call for it?

To this, I argue here that there has to be a divergence in politics between mainstream politics and radical politics. Horizontal dialogue between groups of lay agents could entail pressure to limit harm from the state by, for example, mobilising against “austerity”-driven welfare cuts that are killing people, but ultimately people will need to remove the state and capitalism. The conditions for people to this can develop from existing problems concerning poverty and exploitation. Consciousness can be raised by different groups in dialogue with each other realising the problems they face stem from systemic issues and are not discrete anomalies in an otherwise functional and legitimate social order.

This does not map directly onto a falsificationist experimental method. It does though correspond to a dialogue that rejects authoritative sources, including public intellectuals seeking the types of reforms Sassower envisages, and which uses criticism to replace the prevailing justifications of the existing order. Such justifications would appeal to human nature, “pragmatism” (there can be no change) and neoliberal-individualist “justice” for the “hard working individual”, which defines human nature to fit the market which is actually constructed to fit corporate interests, with wealth distribution to the richest 1% being masked from lay knowledge.

Bacevic argues that while she is more sympathetic to the anarchism Chis and I espouse, she would prioritise liberal democracy over epistemic democracy, because of a concern with right-wing populism (2017, 52). Prioritising a plurality of voices is fine unless fascists then use it to spread hate and gain power. The debate has to be policed to fit within a liberal-democratic institutional and normative framework. Bacevic’s concern is well-placed and she is aware that obviously the epistemic-dialogic freedoms according under liberal democracy, despite being less extensive than those proposed for an epistemic democracy, can still facilitate the development of aggressively nationalistic and right-wing views.

Shadows of Max Weber

To suggest a way of dealing with this I will turn to Kemp’s response to the book. Kemp notes how I address Reed’s concern about problem-solving being an attempt to engage in a technocratic endeavour by arguing that for Popper all knowledge is mediated by social conventions and so admitting that problem-solving in social and politics matters is conceptually mediated does not take us far from Popper’s conception of science. Indeed, while some see Popper as a technocrat and positivist others, like Newton-Smith (1981) and Stove (2007 [1998]), see Popper as an “irrationalist”, because he argued that scientific decisions are influenced by social conventions: we decide to accept evidence A as a falsification for theory B because of convention C, rather than because raw reality falsifies theory B.

Kemp (2017, 27-28) also correctly notes a change in what problem-solving can mean when I move from the original article to the rest of the book. Originally I used the term in an interchangeable way with “adaptation”, which could imply that a problem had a definitive and objective solution waiting to be found, but then change to use problem-solving in such as way as to also imply it is as much about ‘problematizing’ as problems, which allows for a more open-ended approach. To see problem-solving in terms of conceptually mediated problematizing means the debate can always focus on the terms of reference used to define and try to solve problems, and the reasons why some definitions are chosen over others.

Kemp, following Max Weber, then raises the issue that a commitment to a particular definition or framing of a problem which stems from a normative commitment may entail a potentially debate-stopping dogmatism that is beyond reason. For Weber, values where wholly subjective and so beyond rational dialogue, with definitions of problems therefore benign beyond rational dialogue. Kemp argues that such a view need not be adhered to (because people can be open to rational debate about values) but notes it does raise an important question concerning how to find a balance between imposing framings on others (Rortian humiliation) or just submitting to others’ framings (2017, 31). This resonates with Bacevic’s concern about epistemic dialogue entailing the suppression of voices if the far right were able to gain traction in an unpoliced dialogic sphere. To deal with this balancing act, Kemp suggests basing a “non-impositional dialogue” on the search for anomalies, with “solutions” to problems being “coherence-expanding reconstructions” (2017, 32).

One way this could be engaged with, I would argue, is to undermine the claims by neoliberals about increasing individual freedom and neoconservatives about bolstering national power and security by showing how neoliberalism serves corporations and now neoconservatism has a contempt for ordinary people and serves elite interests through war and economic colonialism. In pursuing this, one could explore the funding of the Henry Jackson Society and publicise how members of this, including Michael Gove (a Tory MP) and Gisela Stuart (a former Labour MP), sway politics in a way that is driven by a commitment to a ‘think thank’ most people have not heard of, and which is committed to pursuing elite interests.

To return to Bacevic’s concern, I would say that policing dialogue to accept liberal democracy may be more of a problem than she realises because the terms of reference offered by some elite groups may be designed to smuggle in radically right-wing policies and ideas, without people being aware of this. Brexit, for example, was presented as offering a way to protect the NHS by putting £350 million a week from the EU into the NHS, but not only was this denied immediately after the referendum, but many Brexit supporting politicians want a ‘hard Brexit’, to reduce public services and create a deregulated low (corporate) tax haven for transnational capital. An elitist policy was pursued by populist means.

When it comes to the problem of right wing populism being unregulated with a more unpoliced epistemic democratic approach, the response could be that the supporters of the right could be engaged in slow dialogue to illustrate the anomalies and inconsistencies in their positions and differences in interests between the elite and the lay audience meant to support them. Obviously, that would not be easy but it is not an impossible task. The alternative may be that the neoliberal and neoconservative right shift the terms of reference, or political “common sense”, with increasingly right-wing – including nationalistic and xenophobic – ideas dominating the political mainstream within a liberal democratic framework.

On a related note, I wrote a piece for the SERRC (Cruickshank 2017) which argued that elites were trying to naturalise hierarchy and get people to see others as “things”, with critical pedagogy offering one way to tackle this.

Image by ydant via Flickr / Creative Commons


Conceptions of Deliberative Democracy

Vernon drew a useful contrast between epistemically conceived politics and an interest-based politics (2017, 5-6). Popper developed a “subjectless” epistemology for science, whereby the focus is on ideas being publicly tested, rather than the authority of the idea-holder. The political application of this broadly fits within the ambit of deliberative democracy, where the focus is on competition between ideas and not between interest-driven persons (2017, 5). Rorty, by contrast with Popper, did focus on interests, Vernon argues. Although Rorty recognised some role for cultural and identity politics to increase our sense of “we”’, it ended in the fetishism of theory, when change comes from large scale collective organisation serving an set of interests, such as trades unions (2017, 6). While Vernon thinks Rorty is stronger than Popper in recognising the role of interests in motivating agency and progressive change, he does criticise Rorty for trying to posit what I would term a meta-interest, in the form of patriotism, preferring Popper’s open society, to any notion of a closed “we”.

For while Rorty wants to expand our sense of we, patriotism, even a liberal minded patriotism, defines interests in a zero-sum way ultimately, with “our” interests being different from “theirs”. In the age of Brexit, the Trojan Horse hoax and Trump, I would argue that Rorty’s pragmatic bounding of an inclusive we along the national boundary is dangerous and potentially reactionary. Rorty’s sense of we could exacerbate the problem of a dialogue policed to conform to liberal democratic tenets actually being subverted by elite interests pursuing very right-wing politics with a liberal-democratic veneer. Nationalism is a potent and fictitious sense of identity and one that is very effective in serving elite interests via populist rhetoric.

Vernon also notes that Rorty is stronger on the argument about the need to recognise others as worthy of respect. This means recognising others as “like-us” by increasing our sense of solidarity and doing what we can to decrease socially acceptable sadisms. In a subject-less epistemic democracy there can be no basis for such respect and the only focus is on the best argument defeated and displacing the inferior argument. Assuming there were universally agreed criteria for such assessments to be affected, the problem would still remain that arguments stem from persons and persons as persons deserve respect. A vote may decide an outcome but behind that outcome lie people with views different from the outcome and they will not turn into cognitive and emotional tabula rasa with a vote wiping away previous convictions.

Vernon is correct to argue that we need some notion of interests shaping politics, to recognise that even if some see politics as the “free market of ideas”, such as Popper with his conception of science as perfected liberal democracy and Sassower with his account of public intellectuals as “gadflies” serving a public hungry for better ideas, interests shape the formation of policies and the formation of arguments. One does not have to be a determinist to hold that interests will play a role in argument, deliberation and acceptance of policies and ideas. This was implicit in my arguments about people using horizontal dialogue to reject the elite – the elite pursue their interests which run counter to those of the majority.

Vernon is also correct to argue against the subjectless approach to democratic dialogue. This is why I argued for slow dialogue in place of Popper’s speedy dialogue. To be ethical for Popper is to improve oneself as fast as possible to run away from any hint of dogmatism, but this is a very individualistic and detached ethical position, which is odd coming from someone who advocates a subjectless epistemology – “epistemology without a knowing subject” (Popper, 1972).

In knowledge we are shaped by conventions such that falsifications are mediated by conventions, but ethics unlike knowledge remains a radically individualist endeavour. In contrast to speedy dialogue, slow dialogue allows for the engagement with those who have very different views and, as my position did not see voting as the closure of a dialogue, this can allow for slow but significant change over time. In other words, slow dialogue presumes a level of respect to motivate it in the first place, and political dialogue is not terminated when policy decisions are made, because it concerns lay agents who see their interests are not directly aligned with the state. In talking with others about problems, policies could be discussed, but no policy would be a definitive solution to a technocratic problem.

Before considering Benesch’s criticism of my arguments about the speed of dialogues I will note that while Vernon states that he is not aware of any list of suffering-reduction achievements noted by Popper, unlike Rorty who does furnish such a list, Popper does actually give us a list of suffering-reduction points to address. These are in the essay The History of our Time in Conjectures and Refutations (1963). Popper’s list of points cites: poverty, unemployment, sickness and pain, penal cruelty, religious and racial discrimination, rigid class differences, slavery, war and lack of educational opportunities (1963, 370).

Engaging Collaboration

Benesch takes issue with my criticism of Popper for replacing justificationist speedy dialogues with critical speedy dialogues. He argues that: Popper carefully considered texts before replying; that critical dialogue in science and politics was a slow process of piecemeal change; and that Lakatos’ claims to correct Popper were erroneous because Popper spoke of metaphysical research programmes, which would be slow to change and which pre-empted Lakatos’s argument about research programmes and naïve and sophisticated falsificationism (2017, 50-51).

In response to this I argue the following. The issue for Popper was not so much the “preparation time” but the nature of argument and dialogue itself: how much time one spent preparing an argument was, like the origin of an argument, not relevant for Popper, given what Vernon called the “subjectless” epistemology, which saw ideas, detached from people, in competition with each other. A quick defeat of an idea in an ideational permanent revolution would speed us along with epistemic and ethical progress. The latter is of course problematic, given that ethics pertains to a subject unlike ideas. The impersonal clashing of ideas would improve the subject who let this happen without using dogmatism to corrupt this competition between sui generis abstractions.

On the second point Benesch argues that “[t]he collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often entail the ‘slow piecemeal ideational change’ that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected’ (2017, 51). When discussing with Kuhn, Popper (1970) argued that we are prisoners of the conceptual framework but we can break out of this at any time, albeit into a “bigger and roomier one”. Kuhn was correct to hold that we always see the world via a conceptual scheme but incorrect to hold that this took a long time to change because we could “break out of this at any time” for Popper. In other words, progress turned on critical speedy dialogue with any recognition of ideas having traction taking us towards dogmatism and relativism. However, when Popper discusses political debate he may seem implicitly to endorse a slow conception of dialogue. Popper argues that:

It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine which to understand what he [sic] intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partners’ backgrounds differ. Thus the value of a discussion depends largely upon the variety of the competing views. Had there been no Tower of Babel, we should invent it. The liberal does not dream of a perfect consensus of opinion; he [sic] only hopes for the mutual fertilization of opinions and the consequent growth of ideas. Even where we solve a problem to universal satisfaction, we create, in solve it, many new problems over which we are bound to disagree. This is not to be regretted (1963, 352).

This may entail a critical slow dialogue because it would take time to understand those with different views and understanding would have to be worked at – one would need to work to get towards what Gadamer (2013 [1975]) called a “fusion of horizons”. If this is accepted then I think it points to a tension in Popper’s work between an ethical reaction to dogmatism which linked ethics to speed and a later position which focused more on dialogue being about understanding others’ terms of reference in a condition where there was no universal normative language. This may also lead to a tension between the subjectless epistemology mentioned by Vernon and a more embodied epistemology.

As regards the comment about Lakatos, I would say that Popper’s metaphysical research programmes were removed from scientific experiment unlike the core of the research programme for Lakatos. For Popper, metaphysical research programmes could provide inspiration for testable hypotheses, but were, from a strictly scientific point of view, irrelevant, because the origin of testable ideas was irrelevant; whereas for Lakatos, the core of a research programme would eventually be falsified. Metaphysical research programmes were, in effect, thus removed from critical dialogue, whereas a research programme for Lakatos was subject to slow change through critical dialogue changing the auxiliary hypotheses until the core needed changing eventually.

Benesch also criticises me for incorrectly attributing to what I called “the optimistic Popper” a belief in majoritarianism or “popular sovereignty” as Popper called it, where the majority qua majority are justified politically and ethically (2017, 53). Perhaps I could have been clearer when I discussed this in the book (pp. 109-110), but I did not regard the optimistic Popper as holding to a majoritarian view. I argued that the optimistic Popper, like Dewey, would see democracy as an “ethical way of life” where there was always an on-going dialogue, which was not closed off by any formal process such as voting. The argument about the Towel of Babel indicates such an outlook.

By contrast, the pessimistic Popper wanted to restrict democratic engagement the infrequent formal act of voting and prohibit coalition governments and proportional representation. Falsification was to be applied to politics by a decisive vote on a party’s claim to have succeeded in implementing useful policies. Politics for this Popper was to be a monologic affair.

Benesch makes a number of highly critical points about the chapter by Sassower and Jensen. I will not presume to speak on their behalf.

Shearmur, and Bacevic, both note that the notion of a unified public sphere has been criticised, with Nancy Fraser, for example taking Habermas to task on this. I agree with these points. The public sphere is not a sphere of abstract individuals seeking purely cognitive epistemic engagement, but is rather a sphere where different groups have different interests.

Shearmur also makes the important point that Popper’s friendship with Hayek did not translate into political agreement, given Popper’s “social democratic” leanings. Shearmur proceeds to criticise Popper’s concept of piecemeal social engineering by arguing that there is more role for the authority of specialist knowledge than Popper permits (2017, 11-12). Given the usual critical reading of Popper as an elitist technocratic (see the chapter by Reed in the book, and Benton’s review), it is strange to see an argument for what is in effect a shift from a more engaged democratic position to a more elitist one. Shearmur mentions the ghost of Plato (2017, 12), but given his critical appreciation of Hayek it may well be the ghost of Walter Lippmann that is at work here, with lay agents being seen a priori as too fickle and ignorant to engage in meaningful political debate. That is surely an essentialist dogmatism we can use Popper to reject.

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Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: Part Two:

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-Solving. Because of its length, we have split his article in two parts. This is the first.

From Bhaskar’s Neo-Marxist Critical Realism to Popper’s Problem-Solving

In contrast with Benesch, who argued in The Viennese Socrates that Popper’s work supported a progressive politics, Benton seems to adhere to a popular reading of Popper as a Cold War ideologue who championed a technocratic approach to maintaining the status quo in contrast to any progressive democratic politics. Although Benton does not refer to Popper as a positivist, what comes across as his reading of Popper as a dogmatic liberal espousing a technocratic politics broadly fits the reading of Popper as a positivist, if one uses the contemporary definition of positivism which sees it as more encompassing than logical positivism.

For Benton, Popper, if he did not fetishise science, did at least have a naïve conception of it as an objective fact-grinding tool that could also be applied to politics, with there being no recognition of the systemic problems within liberal capitalism. Structural criticism would be prohibited and in its place reforms to make the social order function more efficiently would be sought. Popper, as Reed (2017) as well as Benton, feared, would see change in terms of an engineer tinkering with a machine whose purpose was not to be questioned and whose problems could not be recognised. Benton thus finds it odd that Sassower (in some chapters) sought a radical reformist politics based on Popper and that I (/ Chis and I) argued for an anarchist politics based on Popper.

It will be useful to make four points here. The first is that Hacohen’s (2000) book ‘Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902-1945. Politics And Philosophy In Interwar Vienna’ undermines the case that Popper was a dogmatic Cold War liberal, at least in his early and mid-writing career (later I think he clearly did become more socially conservative). Hacohen’s case is that the Popper who wrote The Poverty of Historicism presented it post hoc as a critique of ‘totalitarianism’, in the form of Stalinist Communism and fascism, but it was written as an engagement with interwar socialist debates and it rejected the liberal belief in a defining human essence, in the form of a competitive human nature. Indeed, the Open Society also rejected the liberal capitalist idea that capitalism is ‘justified’ by being in accord with human nature.

The second is that in the book I made a point about the reception context and how a received reading of Popper became established due to the social and political context, which failed to recognise all the potential in his work. This led me to distinguish a critical and more optimistic Popper from a more pessimistic Popper. Benton does not engage with the arguments about the possibilities offered by the critical Popper and uses the received reading of Popper to reject him and be incredulous at his use by myself (and possibly others too) to support a radical political position. The position I (/ Chis and I) develop goes well beyond what Popper’s intentions were but the case was not to excavate the essence of the real author but to see what potential there was in some of his work to develop ideas in a particular way.

Part of this meant drawing on Popper’s rejection of appeals to authority in knowledge and Benton charges me with treating Popper as an authority. That is odd given that the approach to Popper is critical and that positions are not cut to fit a constructed Popper ‘essence’. Thus, after recognising how readings can gain traction, and how dialogue has to engage with affective and normative commitments, I criticise Popper for conceptualising dialogue in a speedy way and draw upon Gadamer to suggest the need to see dialogue as a slow process. There was not the space to develop the work on Gadamer but only to suggest it.

The reason for this, which brings me to the third point, and which I think Benton may lose sight of, is that the book was not written as a normal monograph planned to move through steps to reach a conclusion, but was an open-ended dialogue which developed initially in the SERRC. The chapters were then re-written to add more sources and more detailed argument (with the Brexit chapter being written especially for the book because that happened after the SERRC exchanges), which may give the impression of a more ‘traditional’ book, but it was still following the lines of the original SERRC debate. I wrote the article on Popper and Rorty because I was interested in challenging conventional readings of their work and then the SERRC debate lead to the argument for open dialogue being extended to a range of political matters. Popper’s argument against authority in knowledge always remained important, as did the focus on disrupting a narrow and often incorrect received wisdom about Popper, but had it been written as a traditional book, it other sources would have complemented Popper.

Fourth, the argument sought to develop a framework for open dialogue, which could include a wide variety of positions, including, for me, Marxist positions. The case was not to use a Cold War liberal technocrat to ban Marxism and espouse anarchism. Rather, it was to use Popper’s work on authority and criticism to develop a position on open dialogue that could include many voices. The anarchist position (influenced by Peter Kropotkin and Colin Ward) would be that traditions of mutual aid are important (with traditions thus not necessarily being regressive blocks on progress – a point Gadamer can be used to develop). These traditions ought not to be hermetic but rather they ought to motivate large scale collective pressure for major progressive change and this would come from, to use one of Rorty’s favourite terms, a ‘horizontal’ dialogue, between different communities of people facing different and similar problems.

Examples of problems here, mentioned in the book, would be the housing crisis in the UK, the insecurity caused by the gig economy creating a middle-class precariat as well as a working class precariat, and the ethno-nationalist racism legitimised by the Brexit campaign and the Trojan Horse hoax. If one appeals to sources of authoritative knowledge then there can be no horizontal dialogue because one group would seek to legislate on what others’ ought to think and no intellectually progressive dialogue because events and data would be cut to fit a pre-existing epistemic, ontological, methodological, etc., commitment. The problem with Popper was though that he ended up fetishizing change and seeing ethics as a process of constantly negating one’s beliefs, which would actually entail philosophical scepticism and political apathy.

Thoughts on Critical Realism

As may be clear from Benton’s reply, he is a realist, so part of his discussion at least is motivated by a concern to defend realism and specifically, the neo-Marxist “critical realism” developed by Roy Bhaskar. I will now outline critical realism and say why I moved from this to Popper, using Popper to reject critical realism as a form of debate-stopping methodological essentialism, in articles in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

Bhaskar (1997 [1975], 1998 [1979]) argued for an anti-positivist naturalism, meaning he argued for the unity of the natural and social sciences, in terms of methodology, in a way that differed from positivist naturalism. Bhaskar argued that positivism committed the “epistemic fallacy” of reducing ontological questions about being into epistemological questions about how we know being. To overcome this we needed, he argued, to see science as developing knowledge in accord with ontological assumptions that in some way correspond to reality.

Whereas positivism, for him, was based on implicitly assuming that reality was a “closed system” constituted by invariant empirical regularities, given its commitment to an empiricist theory of knowledge which stressed the role of direct observation, science was successful because it recognised that there are no such invariant regularities and presumed instead that reality is a “stratified open system”. This means assuming that causal laws that are unobservable in themselves interact in contingent ways to produce the changing empirical effects we can see. When it came to the social sciences, the problem was that there were no shared ontological assumptions about what social reality is. Therefore, Bhaskar had to legislate on what this may be and did this by rejecting structuralist determinism and methodological individualism which he held could not account for the social context conditioning agency, to link structure and agency. Social reality was constituted by structural emergent properties that conditioned but did not determine agency.

Bhaskar (1998) noted that social structures were different from natural structures insofar as the former could be changed by human agency but went on to draw upon the ‘structuration theory’ developed by Giddens (1995 [1984]) which ended up “solving”’ the structure-agency problem by redefining it as a problem of agency. For Giddens, and by extension, Bhaskar, structures were “virtual” because they only existed in agents’ heads as ‘memory traces’ until agents chose to act upon them – or “instantiate” them. Margaret Archer (1995) then sought to rescue Bhaskar from himself by rejecting Giddens and saying that Bhaskar’s argument could be saved by saying that structures were emergent properties that were dependent on agency in the past tense. That is, structures emerged from agents’ actions in the past and then become emergent properties that could condition agency and which were thus irreducible to agency.

For Archer, individualism was an ontological position influenced by empiricism (because we can only see individuals) and this raises the awkward problem that Bhaskar would seem to be influenced by a philosophy he sought to reject. Archer tries to avoid this by defining the problem in terms of Giddens’ theory not being a form of individualism but a position that committed what she called “central conflation”, meaning the mutual conflation of structure into agency and agency into structure. This does not seem a tenable or meaningful definition of the problem though, given that structures have no existence separate from agents, and so it more accurate to say Bhaskar’s use of Giddens committed him to a form of individualism, as Benton (1981) actually argued.

Critical realism has proved increasingly popular in social science, with social scientists keen to avoid positivism (often defined very broadly to include any quantitative research), interpretivistic and post-structuralist relativism, and individualism in the form of rational choice theory, using critical realism to explain events in terms of structure and agency. Critical realism became an orthodoxy for those unsatisfied with the extant orthodoxies.

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To Be Fallible

The problem I had with critical realism was that it was not critical but a type of dogmatic formalism (Cruickshank 2007, 2010). Despite holding that knowledge was fallible, the ontology was removed from critical revision based on empirical research and empirical research was cut to fit the concepts of structure and agency. The concepts of structure and agency were read into the data and then the data was taken to support the ontology used to explain it. Critical realism, I argued, thus begged the question. I found Popper useful here because while I did not agree with his treatment of Marxism, his critique of “methodological essentialism” and the search for justification via authoritative sources of knowledge was relevant here. The ontological commitment was treated as an authoritative source with the essence of social reality (namely structure and agency) being taken as justified with all observed events then being regarded as “verifications” of the prior ontological / essentialist commitment.

Although Bhaskar hoped his work would offer a scientific Marxism based on realism, able to link structure and agency, unlike Althusser’s claim that structuralist Marxism was scientific and unlike the positivist conception of science, his work received significant criticism from Marxists (see for instance Gunn 1988 and Magill 1994). A major concern was the undialectical nature of Bhaskar’s ontology, which separated the categories of structure and agency from each other and from substantive-empirical processes, to create a meta-theory developed in abstraction from the processes it sought to explain. Rather than develop categories from the complexity of reality, seeing their interpenetration, two generic abstractions were developed and then imposed on reality, in an undialectical – or even undialogic – way.

To be sure, Popper sought to police dialogue, erroneously in my view, but his argument that the recognition of fallibilism had to entail the use of criticism to change views dialogically, with there being no appeal to authoritative sources of knowledge (such as the authority of the senses with empiricism or methodological essentialist commitments with critical realism), was of key importance. When social science fetishizes the origins of knowledge to justify a claim or delegitimise it with ideology-critique or post-structuralist critique of discourse, it becomes a form of clericalism that detaches knowledge from substantive problems. Critical realism exemplified this far more than Popper, despite his (unPopperian) attempts to police dialogue, as, ironically, the Marxist critique of Bhaskar illustrated.

Popper sought to police dialogue using problematic dualisms and Benton I think does the same. He offers us just realism and irrealism (2017, 61), with latter being problematic because it lacked “a robust recognition of the autonomy and independent causal powers of other people, institutions, material objects, organic beings and so on” and because it erroneously, for him, took any reference to reality to entail anti-democratic and authoritarian views. Benton does not clearly distinguish between Bhaskar’s critical realism and metaphysical realism. Popper argued for metaphysical realism but Bhaskar shied away from it.

Metaphysical realism is just the claim that reality exists independently of us. It seems a common-sense position but it entails a sceptical rejoinder because reality is defined as that which always exceeds our knowledge of it. Benton holds that my position, in accepting this criticism of metaphysical realism, is irrationalist as well as irrealist because someone else can confirm the existence of objects once someone else leaves a room (2017, 61). Here Benton is following what Popper called the Winston Churchill argument for realism (1972, 42-44) but, as Popper, who was himself a metaphysical realism argued, this “does not prove realism” (1972, 43-44. Emphasis on original).

The problem with the Churchill-Benton argument for realism is that as reality is defined, for metaphysical realists, as that which is independent of us, there can be no appeal to shared experiential knowledge to prove the existence of a reality that is separate from our (shared or lone) ideas of it. Moreover, Benton is guilty here of what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy, because he is defining reality in terms of others’ accounts of their knowledge of it (and knowledge arrived at from experience). Now critical realism is defined by Bhaskar as a form of “conceptual science” because instead of speculating on the nature of ultimate reality it arrives at its ontological assumptions for natural science at least, by deriving them from the implicit assumptions within the “transitive domain” of scientific knowledge. In other words, ontological questions about what reality is are answered by turning to a body of knowledge about reality.

The realist ontology of natural reality thus commits what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy. By contrast the ontological claims about social reality are taken to be justified because they overcome structuralist determinism and the inability of agency to account for the context conditioning agency, with the avoidance of these problems then being taken to be the sufficient as well as necessary condition for justification. Such justification obviously rests on a non sequitur. Once the ontological categories are taken to be justified commitments they are then read into empirical events with the latter being taken as verifications of the commitments, which then commits the fallacy of begging the question.

In addition to the problem of begging the question and being an undialectical form of Marxism, critical realism led to formulaic “applications”. Just as must research influenced by post-structuralism “found” all events to be expressions of discourse (with research verifying the prior commitment to the ontology of discourse determinism), so empirical research influenced by critical realism ended up redescribing events in terms of the categories of structure and agency. A rebranding of events using the favoured words (structure and agency) of the new stale orthodoxy was taken to be an explanation.

A Heritage From Gramsci

Benton argued that I had a tendency to caricature the views of my opponents, and then defended Sassower’s arguments on public intellectuals by defending Gramsci, who Sassower cites briefly (2017, 64). I would agree that for Gramsci organic working-class intellectuals are engaged in substantive issues and that they are a wide group because it includes all those engaged in class struggle in their daily lives potentially. I would though raise the question about the term “intellectual” being redundant if it is applied to everyone. One can talk of people having an insight into their conditions and seeking change, but invoking the notion of intellectuals means invoking the notion of an intellectually privileged group. But the argument is not really a semantic one. If Benton wants, following Gramsci, to call everyone an intellectual, then I am happy to talk of a democratic dialogue between academic-intellectuals and lay-intellectuals, rather than academics and lay agents.

The important issue is that a dialogic relationship has to eschew the conception that progress needs an epistemically privileged class, because that ultimately is monologic. And here both Popper and Rorty are correct to note the problems that arise when self-defining intellectual elites seek to legislate for others. It is interesting that Benton avoids engaging with the problems they raise concerning those deemed to be intellectuals, for there are real problems concerning intellectual fashions, dogmatism, elitism and secular-clerical mentality, not to mention the problems with those deemed to be intellects often coming from privileged groups. bell hooks (1981) argued black female intellectuals tended to be marginalised by black male activists and white feminists, meaning that the elitism of the concept is complemented in practice with an elitism of selection concerning who is recognised as an intellectual with a voice permitted to speak in the public sphere.

However, using Gramscian terminology, it is the case that Sassower actually defended the use of “traditional” and not organic intellectuals. Sassower did have an expansive definition to include rappers etc. but did end up narrowing it down to academics with the task of academics as public intellectuals being that of acting as “responsible gadflies”. Academic public intellectuals should be paid for by the US government and US media outlets ought to host them because they would shift the focus, in their printspace and airtime, from celebrity gossip and mud-slinging between politicians to a more intellectual debate about social and political matters. Academic public intellectuals would be better placed to define problems and offer solutions by thinking in a deeper way by being freed from commercial pressure and normative commitments. The pursuit of the truth would guide them and they would float above sectional interests to arrive at the best / objective definition of problems and the best proposal for their solutions.

But as Gramsci argued, no-one, including those positioned as “intellectuals”, can float about social and normative interests. Furthermore, Sassower implicitly treats the state as a neutral body open to the “best argument”, which is reminiscent of the classical pluralist model of the state, and the technocratic notion that problems are objective entities separated from normative commitments and the influence of class etc. This replicated the notion that while there can be a philosophy of knowledge there can only be a sociology of error, for it sees all social and normative influences as corrupting on the pursuit of truth.

Now, in considering why Benton defended Sassower by defending Gramsci, we can note that Benton recorded Sassower’s definition of himself as a Marxist, despite Sassower also calling Marxists ‘rabid’ (and engaging in other polemic against “radicals”). The real issue here though is that while Sassower did envisage, briefly, a post-capitalist society, it was not a post-liberal society and nor was it a society that was based on a redistribution of wealth or a society that abolished class. It was not a socialist or communist society that he had in mind. Sassower drew on Rifkin (2014) to argue that technology may result in the cost of commodities becoming negligible and that with increased use of ICT younger people may prefer access to items over ownership of items.

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Sassower also held at one point that neoliberalism was not necessarily negative and that it needed to be assessed on its performance. In other words, the Marxism motivated no commitment to socialism or communism, or changing prior property distribution, but was an (undialectical) form of technological determinism which focused on consumption and not production contra Marxism. His “Marxism” also existed alongside the technocratic view that neoliberalism can be assessed as a potentially positive form of capitalism, in a fashion analogous to a (positivist value-free) experiment. Later Sassower argued against neoliberalism and this commitment to heterogenous positions may be intelligible in terms of a technocratic approach, whereby the search is for the best “objective” solution entails a move from a neutral approach to neoliberalism to a critical approach, and from considering neoliberalism, which claims to liberate the citizen as consumer (not producer-worker) to considering a consumer-focused post-capitalism to liberate the post-capitalist citizen-consumer.

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Continued Here.


Archer, Margaret. Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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Benesch, Philip. “What’s Left of Popper?”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 50-61.

Benton, Ted. “Realism and Social Science: Some Comments on Roy Bhaskar’s ‘The Possibility of Naturalism’”, Radical Philosophy 27 (1981): 13-21.

Benton, Ted. “Some Comments on Cruickshank’s and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 10 (2017): 60-65.

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Cruickshank, Justin. “The Usefulness of Fallibilism: A Popperian Critique of Critical Realism”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 37 (3) (2007): 263–288

Cruickshank, Justin. “Knowing Social Reality: A Critique of Bhaskar and Archer’s attempt to derive a Social Ontology from Lay Knowledge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 40 (4) (2010): 579-602.

Cruickshank, Justin. “Meritocracy and Reification”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 5 (2017): 4-19.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Bloomsbury, 2013 (1975).

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hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto, 1981.

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Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador,

Wills, Bernard. “Conservatism: The End of An Idea.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 7-16.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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I recently noticed that conservatism as a political stance is definitively dead. Truth is it has been on life support for decades. This has not stopped all sorts of people from using the term both positively and negatively. All sorts of people proudly proclaim themselves to be conservatives while others angrily denounce people as conservatives. The death of conservatism means, for starters, that neither group fully grasps of the term they are using. The word has become utterly detached from the thing. Another thing it means is that an individual may have conservative opinions but only in the sense that an individual may worship the goddess Artemis in her back yard or live like a 17th Century Puritan. It is a private eccentricity with no public institutional reality. The death of conservatism is then something like the death of God.

A New Classification of Politics: Three Ideologies

There is no significance to taking any public stand as a conservative. This is for one basic reason. This reason is that the victory of ideology in contemporary politics is now total and that conservatism is not an ideology.[1] Our political discourse is now divided between three ideological stances: the progressive, the neo-liberal and ethno-nationalist stances. So called social conservatives used to exist but they have utterly disappeared into the third stance as is plain with the rise of Trump in the United States and the rise of similar populists elsewhere.[2] There are now no social conservatives of any note who are not also ethno-nationalists and indeed primarily ethno-nationalists.

This is absolutely evident from their obsession with a purported clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. By and large Muslims share the values of social conservatives when it comes to things like family, modesty, the centrality of religion and so on. Yet social conservatives despise and fear Muslims all the same making it plain that by family values they mean white Anglo-Saxon family values and by piety they mean white Anglo-Saxon piety. That is the core of the ethno-nationalist position: that western Christian values are cherished not for their supposed universality but as the foundation of a tribal identity. From time to time the neo-Liberal stance is classified as ‘conservative’ though for no reason I can fathom: as Marx pointed out predatory capitalism rips the veil form all traditional pieties by reducing everything to a cash value. The proposition that limitless accumulation is the aim of life and indeed the primary duty of a citizen is consistent with no ancient wisdom I know of religious or otherwise.

Conservatism then is no more. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is hardly my place to say: conservatism itself advises us that like all human constructions it is finite and imperfect. However, at this point the reader may well be waiting, impatiently, for a definition of conservatism. What is it that I say has died?

I will proceed to offer if not a definition then an account of what conservatism is in the root sense of the word: an attitude to the world which seeks to conserve or protect those principles, values or institutions on which genuine human flourishing has always and will always rest. It will then be evident that people who use the term most loudly haven’t the faintest interest in conservatism or conservative values and perhaps never have. Of course, I run the risk of baffling people (both boosters and knockers) who will not recognize their version of conservatism in anything I say. I ask such people to be patient until I finish my exposition.

How Were We Able to Drink Up the Sea?

I said above that conservatism is not an ideology: from writers labelled ‘conservative’ it would be difficult to cull a doctrinal statement. This means that it has no definition in the sense of a core statement of doctrine or set of prescriptive demands: it is, if like, the position which is not a position but rather an attitude and a practice. However, I can give you a living example of it from a much despised source.

I find an excellent description of conservatism as a life stance expressed in the five pillars of the Islamic faith.[3] Soi-disant ‘conservatives’ who are shocked and angered by this should ask themselves why as these values seem to me core to any conservative stance towards the world. The first of these pillars is the shahada or profession of faith: There is no god but god and Mohammed is his prophet. Now conservatism does not inherently care about the latter part of this assertion: it is happy to recognize a multitude of other prophets who have taught in other parts of the world such as Siddartha, Jesus, or Confucius.

The first however is essential: conservatism is theocratic in orientation. Humans are first and foremost unconditionally responsible to a divine order: to the standards which are ultimate because they are founded in the unchanging nature of God. No human being is to place any finite value, such as family, clan, party in the place of God. The regard the finite as infinite in value and as an absolute end is to commit the arch-error of shirk. On this basis conservatism attaches only a qualified value to the goods of this world: it does not absolutize the relative. No movement, no passion, no interest which is merely human or temporary can trump our duty to god and his sovereign will. Order is prior absolutely to freedom and in fact it is true freedom to recognize this.

Of course this whole position is pointless if we do not know God’s will. Fortunately, it is of the nature of god to reveal himself in scriptures, historical events, the exemplary deeds of prophets and saints and so on. God is present and active in the world. His will is manifest in the sacred teachings and philosophies (the philosophia perennialis) of the world as in the depths of our own conscience.[4] Indeed, his will is present even in those conscious non-believers who nonetheless enshrine the eternal verities (the good, the beautiful and the true) within their hearts.

For this reason, the second pillar enjoins us to prayer. Humans must remember and acknowledge both internally and externally the absoluteness of God. This is important because it cuts against the grain. Our tendency is to lose focus in the midst of the world’s distractions. We wander away from our final end and our ultimate good. We put wealth, or lust, or power or anger at the center of our lives instead of the union with god we all intrinsically long for. We miss our happiness by seeking it in things that cannot, of their very metaphysical nature, supply it.

This is why prayer, both personal and liturgical is central to a well lived life for in prayer we re-collect our ultimate aim, the peace that comes of divine union. This peace is the aim of all prayer even when expressed in its lowest manifestation which is petitionary prayer. Conservatism calls us to recollect those spiritual values that make for true fulfillment against everything faddish and temporary. It calls to put the eternal always before the merely modish and to this extent prayer is one of its liveliest manifestations as it a call to remember god in the midst of this world.

A Union of Materialism and Faith

Yet our lives are in this world too. Conservatism rejects the pessimism of the millenarian and gnostic. It does not long for an immanent millennium to destroy the present world order but waits patiently for the fulfillment of things in the fullness of time. Thus, when faced with the worldly Gnosticism of the secular revolutionary or the religious despair of those who simply wish to be raptured into eternity as the world burns it counsels skepticism. Thus, as our status in the next world is determined by how we live in this one our duty to god is also our duty to community. Almsgiving is then a conservative value. Wealth exists to be shared. It is not an idol and not an end. It is a means to community and those who are blessed with it in turn bless others. Wealth selfishly hoarded is not wealth at all and thus zakat is enjoined on all believers.

This is especially important as we tend to the selfish and misguided view that our wealth is the deserved result of our special virtue whereas in truth all good things come from god and god alone. As it comes from god it is given back to god as god is present in the neediness of our neighbors and the needs of our community. How vulgar then is the so called ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by certain Christians who claim to have Jesus in their hearts when they do not even have Mohammed! There are many displays of vulgar wealth in the Islamic world as in ours. People in the East and the West need constant reminding that the needs of the community outweigh the wants of the individual.

This is part of our human fallibility, our tendency to forget our ultimate end for merely proximate ones. The principle of almsgiving is, however, particularly salutary for those of us living in the Christian west as our societies have made the endless accumulation of personal wealth their over-riding principle even at the expense of the very soil we live on and the air we breathe. I should note though entirely in line with conservatism zakat assumes that differences between people entail differences in wealth and that this will not be abolished but equalized through giving.

The fourth pillar counsels fasting on the sound conservative principle that we do not live for the gratification of the senses but for the fulfillment of the spirit. Fasting reminds us that the primary struggle in life is with ourselves and that the demands of the moral and communal life are at odds (often) with the gratification of the senses. Indeed, there is no substitute for the feeling of hunger as those who never feel it have no conception of the suffering of those who do. This is why great wealth so often goes with poverty of the spirit and why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Yet fasting is only one letter away from feasting. As there is a time to curb the senses there is a time to release them particularly in the context of communal celebration. As Aristotle said long ago, proper self-control involves not just self-denial, knowing when to say no to our desires, but also knowing when to indulge them: one does not gorge at a funeral or fast at a wedding. Still, as giving free rein to our desires must be choice and not compulsion our moral training will tend to focus on self-denial so that our indulgence may be unconstrained by evil habit.

Finally, the fifth pillar enjoins on us pilgrimage to Mecca and why not as life itself is a pilgrimage? T. S. Eliot prays: “help us to care and not to care” and this is the core of the notion that we are pilgrims in this world. The world of time and space we inhabit is both affirmed and transcended. We give ourselves over to finite ends yet leave the fruit of our action in the hands of providence. The finite passes over to the infinite as we give over our worldly projects and passions, releasing them into the eternal will of God.

On practical level this is a powerful inoculation against despair as the world does not bear all the weight of our expectations (which of its creaturely nature it can never bear). Consider as an example the old expression “better dead than red”. Those who uttered this expression meant that the Western Bourgeois form of freedom was freedom absolute and that its potential loss justified the nuclear annihilation of the planet. Of course, Western Bourgeois freedom (though admirable in many ways) is a provincial form of freedom. It does not exhaust every possibility of human good. Only a whig-history-on-steroids view of western institutions as the inevitable and only culmination of human history could justify such nihilism.

Conservatism will have no truck with this sentiment. History is an arena of struggle subject to advances and retreats. Yet possibilities for good remain in the darkest of times and the insanity of history can never destroy or even affect in the slightest the eternal essence of God source and ground of all good. In a godless universe, where this world is the only locus of good, history becomes a battleground in which the stakes are absolute and compromise unthinkable: hence the vicious ideological battles of those who think they have solved the riddle of history and claim to be bringing about the final human good.

When Opposition to the Radical Falls Away

Of course it can be objected that conservatism as I have described it here has no more been tried than Christianity or communism. Conservativism, one might say, has never really existed outside the elegant, wistful prose of conservatives. There is much truth to this charge yet it is, of course, true of all moral stances that their instantiations are very far indeed from their archetypal forms. Hence we get the characteristic vice of the conservative: the tendency to forget fundamental values for external privileges and the inability to identify what it is that ought, in fact, to be conserved.

Still, on the plus side of the ledger, the conservative might well ask whether his or her own view is comprehensive of all its rivals. Conservatives share with progressives a concern for justice and equity especially for the poor and marginalized. Conservatives share with ethno-nationalism a concern for the particularities of language and culture over against the homogenizing tendencies of globalism and technocracy. Conservatives even share with neo-liberals a suspicion of totalitarian power, planning and control.

However, conservatism, in the west at least, may well be dead for a more fundamental reason. This is because there is a powerful alternative to the conservative tradition and that is the radical tradition. All three of our contemporary ideologies have their roots in radicalism and are closer to each other than they can readily imagine given their current conflict. For the radical tradition the constraints imposed by tradition are in almost all cases artificial. What the conservative tradition would constrain the radical tradition would release. Radicalism envisages a flowering of human diversity, a host of new avenues in which self-hood can be explored beyond the stale platitudes of convention. This radical principle has routed conservatism (much of which expressed itself as cheap nostalgia anyway) and is the default position of all North Americans.[5]

This spirit can express itself as radical egalitarianism or its opposite. For instance, among ethno-nationalists it is assumed that the will of the demos embodies the wisdom and good sense of the people. This wisdom would readily express itself were it not for the constraints imposed by various ‘elites’ whose abstract intellectualism has lost touch with the community and indeed with reality. These elites constantly invoke the authority of science, or education or expertise or data against what ‘simple folk’ can see with their own eyes. When the demos seeks to express its will this is declared ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘against the rule of law’ by lawyers or advocacy groups or other ‘elite’ institutions.

The demos however, holds all such institutions in contempt and seeks to impose its will through a ‘great leader’ who is willing to flout them and indeed is willing to flout moral convention altogether (even moral conventions like marital fidelity to which the demos remain sentimentally attached). Thus, we have a kind of direct democracy outside of constitutional and legal constraints such as conservatism has forever warned against. That these radicals sometimes espouse ‘conservative’ seeming policies or points of view is irrelevant as they espouse them lawlessly and in a manner contemptuous of the very traditions they claim to value.

Why, for instance, is it conservative to despise the opinions of the educated and even pour contempt on the intellect itself? Such things are an expression of a rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit. The demos trusts only in its collective judgment and not only rejects but actively despises any other principle. That this attitude is over-determined by socio-economic factors is plain but that does not make it any easier to deal with on a day to day basis especially as the scapegoating of immigrants, prisoners and others is high on the populist wish-list and the populace resents institutional constraints on its will to revenge especially.[6]

There is of course the other side of this coin and that is the populism of progressive movements such as the occupy movement, black-bloc radicals and so on.[7] These movements, it must be said, have aims that seem overall nobler and better than the beefs and resentments of populists. However, this is a weakness as much as a strength: as I said above every stance struggles with its shadow. Noble ideals are a proven danger when not accompanied by political and moral pragmatism and relentless self-examination. Moral crusaders have a distressing tendency to fumble badly when actually called upon to run things: this is because sweeping moral denunciations are a form of cheap grace while actual governance (self-governance included) is slow, patient work.

Return to Innocence Lost (or Imagined)

There is also a false innocence that can maintained simply by never facing the temptations of power. William Blake (a far deeper radical) was a persistent critic of any form of abstract moralism. For him no political or theological order could be the basis of freedom that did not overcome the problem of self-righteousness: our tendency to identify ourselves with an abstract principle of goodness and others (inevitably) with an abstract principle of evil. In a powerful image he tells us that blood sacrifice and war are the culmination of the moral law, the categories of good and evil unrelieved by charity, solidarity, or forgiveness.[8]

Moralism is for Blake a form of violence. (see for instance plates 47-51 of Jerusalem) Our care must embrace the ‘minute particulars’ of humanity: no ‘humanism’ can be liberating that puts an abstraction like ‘Humanity’ before flesh and blood human beings. We all have encountered people who virtue signal on every conceivable ‘issue’ but have little but venom in their hearts: one danger of the progressive stance lies, then, in the monsters of self-righteous zeal that it breeds.

At any rate, such people envisage (after some difficult to specify revolutionary event) a world in which a host of sexualities, ethnicities, personalities and identities flourish without constraint and (though this is surely impossible) without mutual contradiction.[9] As the economic discipline of Capitalism lies behind all other forms of oppression the current economic order must be overthrown. The suggested alternative is often some form of anarchism.

Like the populists, anarchists distrust and despise constitutionalism which after all only serves to protect the oppressors. Indeed, the anarchists despise traditional civil liberties as a form of constraint and mock those who espouse them as ‘liberals’. In particular, they resent the fact that such liberties prevent them from waging all-out war against their eternal adversary the populists. The populists heartily agree. Both sides fantasize about epic street confrontations or cyber battles that will issue in a final rout of the forces of evil. In other words, they are secular (and indeed religious) millenarians.

Each believes in a great battle, an apocalyptic convulsion that will only happen if liberals and other idiots get out of the way. A significant minority of each group considers this not just as a ‘culture war’ but as a ‘war’ war with brickbats, fires and vandalism of property. At any rate both agree on the Manichean position: the world and everything in it is hopelessly vitiated and corrupt and must be purged by fire whether this be the literal fire of Armageddon or the flames of secular revolution.

Finally, we have the technological dreamers. They do not dream of an unconstrained populist will or an unconstrained flowering of genders and sexualities but of the unconstrained power of technical and economic innovation. The enemy is, again the state and its institutions. Regulation of industry and common sense controls over heedless technological advancement are as bizarre and repellent to them as constraints on abortion or sexuality are to progressives. They, after all, represent the creative energy behind all forms of human advancement, all growth and prosperity. Technological or business imperatives cannot be questioned without questioning prosperity and progress themselves: the two things which for this ideology are non-negotiable. Such people see nothing ironic or odd in the fact the demands of progress and the spread of prosperity never conflict with their own self-interest.

The self- interest of the entrepreneur or innovator is the interest of the community. In a seeming parody of the Marxist utopia where the freedom of each is the freedom of all the neo-liberals and libertarians do not see the economic freedom of the individual as ever conflicting with the good of the community. This is, of course, the dream of anarchists as well: that individual wills can exist in immediate and natural harmony once the power of the state is gone. The technophiles go even further however: for them this harmony can be achieved and maintained in the midst of unrestrained competition.

The magic of the market will smooth out all inequities and bring prosperity and balance to all (or, if the libertarian leans also to vengeful populism, to the deserving). At any rate the neo-liberals have one ace in the hole that it is difficult to imagine anyone overcoming: this is the fact that almost all acts of rebellion can be appropriated and monetized. This is particularly true of physical vandalism. Capitalism does not fetishize physical property the way some anarchists think it does: burn a bank to the ground and you will find only that stock in private security companies has gone up.

Liberation as Consuming Fire

For all three groups the enemy is clear as is the goal: the repressed must be liberated. The demos must be free to enact its vengeful fantasies on immigrants, prisoners or gays. The libertarian must be free to innovate and make more money than anyone can find a use for. Sexual and ethnic minorities must be free to express their forms of life to whatever limit logic implies. All must be free and all must be free especially of the enemy of freedom, the state and its laws and institutions.[10] This is the core of each position quite apart from the fact that within each there may be many demands reasonable in themselves.

This indicates that the radical stance is the stance where our politics is concerned. Everything must be liberated though conservatives may warn again and again that liberation may mean the freedom of everything awful as easily as the freedom of everything good. Lamentation however is pointless (with apologies to Canada’s lamenter-in-chief George Parkin Grant!). This is because the radical principle is our principle and is, indeed, along with conservatism, a fundamental human option. Moreover, it has great achievements to its credit even as conservatism has many disgraces.

At the same time radicalism imposes its own constraints: most of us would rejoice if anti-vaxxers stopped being such fools yet they are acting on an impeccable radical principle, that of personal autonomy, as well as a suspicion of institutionalized medicine that many of us share. In fact, this example raises a vexing problem: vaccination can only be carried out on a population, all must buy into it for it to work. How would an anarchist society founded on a principle of radical freedom (whether anarcho-communist or right wing patriot) handle a question of this sort? Will radical stances license such appalling disorder that conservatism will become a living option? Are Clinton and Trudeau after all the best we can hope for?

Blake certainly painted a dark vision of the hellish cycle of rebellion and reaction: the perpetual alteration between sanguinary radicalism and stultifying conservatism. Is this our future? Philosophy, alas, does not deal with the future. It counsels only that we temper hope as well as fear and judge all things sub-specie-aeternitatis. It is with this stoic sentiment, as boring as it is true, that I will conclude. We seem at an impasse though the author would certainly be happy to learn from others that he is unduly pessimistic about the world.

Contact details:


Aristophanes. The Clouds trans. C.D.C. Reeve, from The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002)

Blake, William. Complete Poems ed. Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Classics, 1978.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning trans. J.G. Williams. (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. trans. J.B. Baillie. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967.

Reno, Robert “Why I Am anti-anti-TrumpFirst Things. Retrieved from

Smith, John Huston. The World’s Religions New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

[1] A fundamental problem with conservatism is that as soon as it defines itself vis a vis its ideological rivals it itself becomes an ideological construct rather than an assumed form of life. At that point conservatism turns into reaction. This problem was noted as long ago as Aristophanes the Clouds. One ace in the hole of the radical tradition is that as soon as traditional norms are questioned and have to be self-consciously defended the conservative standpoint is lost. At that point conservatism becomes a position duking it out with the other positions scoring the odd victory here and suffering the odd reverse there.

[2] The fatal weakness of social conservatism as a political movement was that it never articulated a positive vision of society leaving this work first to neo-liberals and now to ethno-nationalists. Its politics was simply oppositional: devoted to blocking actions against abortion or homosexuality or other things deemed decadent, conflicts that were and are unwinnable. On this basis it forged its foolish alliance first with corporate kleptocracy and then with strident populism culminating in ludicrous defenses of Trumpism from previously reputable conservative publications like First Things. (e.g Robert Reno  

[3] For a rich introduction to Islam and indeed to other major faiths see The World’s Religions by John Huston Smith.

[4] This notion of a ‘perennial philosophy’ is central to writers we might place on the conservative spectrum from traditionalist writers like Rene Guenon to more eclectic figures like Aldous Huxley or Simone Weil who, while influential in some conservative circles, defy easy categorization. These metaphysically inclined thinkers contrast with the more pragmatic strain of conservatism stemming from the tradition of Burke and Swift. The American Russel Kirk may be taken as one of the last influential exponents of this view. One can add to this list the disciples of Leo Strauss (a far deeper thinker than Kirk), Canadians like George Grant as well as pure reactionaries in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre. What any of these figures would have thought of Donald J. Trump, a wealthy vulgarian straight from the pages of the Satyricon, one can only guess. Ironies abound here however: Guenon, a western convert to Islam, seems to have influenced the volcanic anti-Islamic rage of Steve Bannon. The paleo-conservatism of the genteel Russel Kirk also spawned the nativism of Pat Buchanan. Every stance has its shadow, the embodiment of its darker tendencies and ethno-nationalism seems to stand in this relation to conservatism.

[5] Any defense of a conservative principle in politics and society in the west can only be a highly qualified one for the reason that there are (in my view at least) a plurality of moral languages with claims on our attention and one of these is indeed that of the radical tradition. For Westerners this problem is acute for, as far as I able to determine, the roots of radicalism are in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul. These are not Conservative documents in my reading of them precisely for their doctrine of radical solidarity with the poor which undermines the binaries on which traditional human societies are built (and sometimes subverts those texts themselves). It was not for nothing that the Emperors of Rome thought Christianity a fundamental threat to civilized standards. In the West, then, the radical principle is already present in its primary theological constitution (however much it tries to ignore or forget that fact).

[6] Indeed, conservative Christianity is, with some honorable exceptions, becoming a pharisaical revenge cult. Behind all the rhetoric around ‘security’ (Canada remains one of the securest societies on planet Earth where terrorism is concerned) and the ‘Muslim threat’ one will find the simple will to retaliate in kind against anyone who represents the hated ‘other’ no matter how guilty or how innocent.

[7] I have before me the online Anarchist Library compiled by the Green Mountain Collective. ( These sources give the inescapable impression of an abstract ideological rage consuming itself in an intellectual and historical vacuum: pretty much as Hegel saw the French revolutionaries. (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604) Talking to proponents of these views online (if talking is quite the word for it) only deepens this impression. Perhaps I am being harsh however: if the reader is curious, she may peruse Hegel’s chapter ‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’ and judge for herself if the comparison is apt. Those curious as to why the revolution always eats itself and why revolutionaries must at last turn on themselves may find Hegel’s analysis helpful.

[8] That ‘progressives’ will verbally disembowel each other over ideological differences barely discernible to outsiders shows that they are far from immune to the mimetic violence described by René Girard (2001; 24-31) Just as Blake said, moral abstraction enacts ritual violence. Progressivism is far from alone in this of course and indeed the ethno-nationalist stance is even more Manichean and violent. Still, the fact that it is over all the most humane of the current stances only makes the trap deeper: without what theologians once called a sense of sin it is difficult to imagine any politics escaping the scapegoating impulse and the self-righteous violence it manifests. Considering the ridicule and anger one provokes from many progressives by defending a stance of non-violence things do not seem hopeful.

[9] This is a deeper problem than many realize. The total liberation of one standpoint is the suppression of another: unconditional solidarity with ALL standpoints at once seems a chimerical notion. This is why in practice progressives (for instance) must always favor some oppressed people over others: aboriginal people in Guatemala, say, over outlandish folk like the Copts in Egypt. This why the radical stance may, for all protestations to the contrary, be implicitly totalitarian. Consider the following problem: A adopts the deep narrative about himself that he is the one true prophet of God. A desires not only the liberty to adopt this self-description but demands the universal recognition of this deep description by others. It is, to him, a fundamental denial of his personhood should anyone question his foundational narrative as, in his mind, he IS this narrative. However, trouble arises if B also adopts the deep story that SHE is the one true prophet of God as others cannot offer unconditional affirmation of both narratives. Here is where the currently much maligned standpoint of liberalism steps in. The liberal defers the eschaton by imposing articles of peace on A and B while each prosecutes their claim to be the one true prophet. With this peace imposed A and B come to the realization that, whatever differences divide them, they share a common nature as rational agents. They can now differ on each other’s deep story, neither one need be forced to accept the other because neither party is reducible to their narrative. With that they can go about their affairs. The alternative is playing the zero sum game of establishing my narrative as the dominant one through the suppression of the other contrary narrative. A simply destroys B. This is the totalitarian stance. Its dangers are evident yet the liberal stance costs as well. By entering that stance, we forgo universal recognition for the sake of peace and subordinate our deep story to the common good, at which point we cease to be simply our story, we assume a common public narrative as our own somewhat as we give up our private religious perceptions to join a church. I tend to think that is a cost worth paying though others may differ.

[10] This is why the most embattled principle of all is the centrism espoused by the Democratic party in the U.S. and the Liberal Party in Canada. As in the thirties it seems “the center cannot hold” (to quote W.B. Yeats). The basic problem seems to me that no centrist government can impose discipline on the fossil fuel-industry. Nor can it impose any discipline on the speculators and financiers who hoard badly needed funds offshore: a miserly activity contrary to the very nature of the capitalism they are said to espouse. That said, if there is anything which can be said to be ‘conservative’ in the current context it is belief in a social democratic state with traditional civil liberties protected by a strong constitutional framework. This, if I would hazard a guess, would be the best polity currently on offer. I have given short shrift to the phenomenon of political centrism in this piece, a deficiency I hope to make up in a subsequent essay.

Vice Ontology, Quassim Cassam

SERRC —  November 16, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Quassim Cassam, University of Warwick, UK,

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Ontology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 20-27.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by Francois Meehan via Flickr / Creative Commons


One of the frustrations of trying to make headway with the rapidly expanding literature on epistemic vices is the absence of an agreed list of such vices. Vice epistemologists are more than happy to say what makes a character trait, attitude of way of thinking epistemically vicious and most provide examples of epistemic vices or lists of the kind of thing that have in mind. But these lists tend to be a hotchpotch. Different philosophers provide different lists and while there is some overlap there are also some significant variations. Closed-mindedness is a popular favourite but some vices that appear on some lists fail to appear on others. Here, for example, is Linda Zagzebksi’s list:

intellectual pride, negligence, idleness, cowardice, conformity, carelessness, rigidity, prejudice, wishful thinking, closed-mindedness, insensitivity to detail, obtuseness, and lack of thoroughness (1996: 152).

Confronted by a list like this several questions suggest themselves: why do these items make it onto the list and not others? Why not dogmatism or gullibility? Is idleness really an epistemic vice or a vice in a more general sense? Are all the items on the list equally important or are some more important than others? What is the relationship between the listed vices? It isn’t necessarily a criticism of vice epistemologists that they rarely tackle such questions. They are mainly concerned to develop a theoretical account of the notion of an epistemic vice, and individual vices are more often than not only mentioned for illustrative purposes.

An Order for Vice

But as vice epistemologists get down to listing epistemic vices they need to make it clear on what basis included items have been included and excluded items have been excluded. If some epistemic vices are deemed to be subservient to others it needs to be explained why. As Ian James Kidd notes in his valuable contribution, an important but neglected issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy, and this means having a story to tell about the basis on which epistemic vices can reasonably be grouped and ordered.[1]

Kidd rises to this challenge by drawing on the historically influential notion of a capital vice.[2] Capital vices are ‘source vices’ that give rise to other vices. Kidd asks whether there are capital epistemic vices and gives closed-mindedness as a possible example. According to Heather Battaly, whose view Kidd discusses, closed-mindedness is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options.[3] One way to be closed-minded is to be dogmatic but Battaly suggests that closed-mindedness is the broader notion: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic.

For Battaly, closed-mindedness does not require one already to have made up one’s mind since one can also be closed-minded in how one arrives at one’s beliefs. The upshot is that closed-mindedness is the ‘source of dogmatism’ (Kidd 2017: 14). This doesn’t settle the question whether closed-mindedness is a capital epistemic vice if genuine capital vices have more than one sub-vice.

Still, Kidd reads Battaly’s view of the link between closed-mindedness and dogmatism as providing at least some support for viewing the former as a capital epistemic vice. Furthermore, it looks as though the capitality relation is in this case a conceptual relation. It might be a psychological fact that being closed-minded tends to make a person dogmatic but the postulated connection between closed-mindedness and dogmatism looks conceptual: it is built into the concepts of closed-mindedness and dogmatism that being dogmatic is a way of being closed-minded.

To what are analyses of concepts of specific epistemic vices answerable? One might think: to the nature of those vices themselves but then it needs to be explained how talk of the ‘nature’ of epistemic vices is to be understood. In what sense do such vices have a ‘nature’ that analyses of them capture or fail to capture?

Going Back to Locke

This way of formulating the methodological question should resonate with readers of Locke, not least because it represents the question as turning on the ontology of vice. In Locke’s ontology there is a fundamental distinction between substances and modes. Substances, for Locke, are the ultimate subjects of predication and exist independently of us. Gold and horses are Lockean substances, and our complex ideas of substances aren’t just combinations of simple ideas or observable properties.

They are ideas of ‘distinct particular things subsisting by themselves’ with their own underlying nature that explains why they have the observable properties they have (II.xii.6).[4] Since our ideas of substances are ‘intended to be Representations of Substances, as they really are’ they are answerable to the nature of substances as they really are and aren’t guaranteed to be adequate, that is, to do justice to the actual nature of what they are intended to represent (

In contrast, our ideas of modes are ideas of qualities or attributes that can only exist as the qualities or attributes of a substance. Modes are dependent existences. Simple modes are combinations of the same simple idea whereas mixed modes combine ideas of several different kinds.[5] So, for example, theft is a mixed mode since the idea of theft is the idea of the concealed change of possession of something without the consent of the proprietor. Locke’s key claim about ideas of modes is that they are ‘voluntary Collections of simple Ideas, which the Mind puts together, without any reference to any real Archetypes’ (II.xxxi.3). It follows that these ideas can’t fail to be adequate since, as Michael Ayers puts it on Locke’s behalf, we form these ideas ‘without the need to refer to reality’ (1991: 57).[6] Take the idea of courage, which Locke regards as a mixed mode:

He that at first put together the Idea of Danger perceived, absence of disorder from Fear, sedate consideration of what was justly to be done, and executing it without that disturbance, or being deterred by the danger of it, had certainly in his Mind that complex Idea made up of that Combination: and intending it to be nothing else, but what it is; nor to have any other simple Ideas, but what it hath, it could not also be but an adequate idea: and laying this up in his Memory, with the name Courage annexed to it, to signifie it to others, and denominate from thence any Action he should observe to agree with it, had thereby a Standard to measure and dominate Actions by, as they agreed to it’ (II.xxxi.3).

When it comes to our ideas of substances it is reality that sets the standard for our ideas. With mixed modes, it is our ideas that set the standard for reality, so that an action is courageous just if it has the features that our idea of courage brings together. Locke doesn’t deny that ideas of mixed modes can be formed by experience and observation. For example, seeing two men wrestle can give one the idea of wrestling. For the most part, however, ideas of modes are the products of invention, of the ‘voluntary putting together of several simple Ideas in our own minds’ (II.xxii.9), without prior observation.

An interesting consequence of what might be described as Locke’s conceptualism about modes is that there is in a sense no external standard by reference to which disputes about what is and is not part of the idea of mixed modes can be settled.[7] Again Locke uses the example of courage to make his point.

Suppose that one person X’s idea of a courageous act includes the idea of ‘sedate consideration’ of ‘what is fittest to be done’ ( This is the idea of ‘an Action which may exist’ (ibid.) but another person Y has a different idea according to which a courageous action is one that is performed ‘without using one’s Reason or Industry’ (ibid.). Such actions are also possible, and Y’s idea is as ‘real’ as X’s. An action that displays courage by X’s lights might fail to do so by Y’s lights and vice versa but it seems that the only respect in which Y’s idea might count as ‘wrong, imperfect, or inadequate’ (II.xxxi.5) is if Y intends his idea of courage to be the same as X’s. Apart from that, both ideas are equally legitimate and can both be used in the classification of actions.

In fact, this isn’t quite Locke’s view since it omits one important qualification. At one point he argues that:

Mixed Modes and Relations, having no other reality, but what they have in the Minds of Men, there is nothing more required to those kinds of Ideas to make them real, but that they be so framed, that there be the possibility of existing comformable to them. These Ideas being themselves Archetypes, cannot differ from their Archetypes, and so cannot be chimerical, unless any one of them will jumble together in them inconsistent Ideas (

On reflection, however, consistency isn’t enough for our complex ideas of mixed modes to be ‘real’. For these ideas not to be ‘fantastical’ they must also ‘have a Conformity to the ordinary signification of the Name’ ( So it would count against Y’s (or X’s) conception of courage that it doesn’t accord with the ordinary meaning of common usage of words like ‘courage’ or ‘courageous’.

Return to the Present

What is the relevance of Locke’s discussion for the issues that Kidd is concerned with? A natural thought is that epistemic vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatism are, like the idea of courage, mixed modes. As noted previously, there is room for debate about how these epistemic vices are to be understood and how they are related. Starting with dogmatism, here is one account by Roberts and Wood:

A doctrine is a belief about the general character of the world, or some generally important aspect of the world, which bears the weight of many other beliefs. Thus a mother who refuses, in the face of what should be compelling evidence, to give up her belief that her son is innocent of a certain crime, is perhaps stubborn, obstinate, or blinded by her attachment, but she is not on that account dogmatic. By contrast, someone who holds irrationally to some fundamental doctrine, such as the tenets of Marxism or capitalism or Christianity, or some broad historical thesis such as that the Holocaust did not occur, is dogmatic (2007: 194-5).

Battaly sees things slightly differently. On her view, it is possible for a person to be dogmatic even in relation to relatively trivial beliefs or beliefs that aren’t representative of ideologies or doctrines. One can be dogmatic about whether one’s pet is well-behaved or whether one’s son is innocent of a crime. Roberts and Woods’ conception of dogmatism is narrow whereas Battaly’s conception is broad. Who is right?

If being ‘right’ is a matter of conceiving of dogmatism is a way that does justice to its real or true nature then the Lockean conceptualist says that there is no such thing. As a mixed mode, dogmatism is a voluntary collection of simple ideas. Roberts and Wood are free to stipulate that dogmatism has to do with doctrine and Battaly is free to reject this stipulation. Relative to Roberts and Woods’ complex idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s pet is well-behaved is too trivial to be dogmatic. Relative to Battaly’s idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s son is innocent of a certain crime might be dogmatic.

However, the disagreement between the broad and narrow accounts of dogmatism is, on a Lockean reading, a not very deep disagreement between two policies about the use of the term ‘dogmatic’. The most one can say is that the narrow account is closer to ordinary usage, and this might be a case for preferring that account. Beyond that, it’s not clear what is really at issue.

Turning to the relationship between dogmatism and closed-mindedness, Kidd bases his proposal that closed-mindedness is a capital vice of which dogmatism is an offspring on the idea that dogmatism is a sub-class of closed-mindedness: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but closed-mindedness doesn’t require one already to have made up one’s mind. Suppose, to borrow Battaly’s example, that P is the proposition that there was no Native American genocide. Even if a person starts out with no prior belief about the truth or falsity of P, their inquiry into its truth or falsity can still be closed-minded. They might, for example, systematically ignore evidence that P and look for evidence against P.

But if this is a how the inquirer behaves then a natural question would be: why is their inquiry into the truth or falsity of P closed-minded in just this way? And the answer that suggests itself is that they are closed-minded in just this way because they already really believe that P. So we do not have here a compelling case of closed-mindedness without the subject already having made up their mind about the topic at hand. The belief that P is implicit in their epistemic conduct and this means that their dogmatism can’t be distinguished from closed-mindedness in quite the way that Kidd recommends. Ordinarily, dogmatism and closed-mindedness aren’t clearly distinguished and there is bound to be an element of stipulation in any proposed way of carving up the territory.

Be Natural – Is There Anything Else?

This is not necessarily an objection to the notion of a capital vice. It is permissible for a vice epistemologist to try to bring some order to the chaos of ordinary thinking and represent one vice as an offshoot of another. It is important to recognize, however, that such proposed regimentations are just that: an attempt to introduce a degree of systematicity into a domain that lacks it. It’s helpful to compare the classification of epistemic vices with the classification of so-called ‘natural modes’. A criticism of Locke’s theory of mixed modes is that it ignores natural modes.[8] Examples of non-natural modes are the ideas of a lie, democracy and property. Lies are lies regardless of their underlying causes.[9]

In contrast, although diseases are modes, ‘the name of a disease will normally be introduced, and then be generally applied, on the basis of repeated experience of a set of symptoms, and on the assumption that on each occurrence they have the same common cause, whether a microbe or an underlying physiological condition’ (Ayers 1991: 91). However, there is a still a sense in which the individuality and boundary conditions of diseases are imposed by us. So, for example, diseases can be classified by bodily region, by organ, by effect, by the nature of the disease process, by aetiology, or on several other bases.[10] There is nothing that compels us to adopt one of these systems of classification rather than another and there is no absolute sense in which one particular system of classification is the ‘right’ one. With diseases and other such modes there is still the relativity to human interests and concerns that marks them out as modes rather than substances.

To make things even more complicated there are some modes that fall somewhere in between the natural and the non-natural. For example, one might take the view that perception and memory are such ‘intermediate’ modes. Perception is mechanism-dependent in the sense that it isn’t really perception unless some underlying physiological mechanism is involved. Plainly, however, no specific mechanism need be involved in all cases of perception. Human perception and dolphin perception both involve and require the operation of physiological mechanisms but the precise mechanisms will no doubt be very different in the two cases. The necessity of some mechanism is a respect in which intermediate modes are ‘natural’. The fact that no particular mechanism is required is a respect in which intermediate modes are akin to non-natural modes.[11]

In these terms, are epistemic vices natural, non-natural or intermediate modes? The discussion so far, with its emphasis on choice and stipulation in the classification of epistemic vices, might be thought to imply that such vices are non-natural but there is room for debate about this. Just as all manifestations of a particular disease are assumed to have a common cause at the level of physiology so it might be argued that the identification and attribution of epistemic vices is based on the assumption of a common psychological cause or mechanism. Epistemic vices are in this respect, and perhaps others too, like diseases.

Closed-mindedness is a case in point. There is the view that being closed-minded isn’t just a matter of being unwilling or unable to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options. A closed-minded person also has to have what Kruglanski calls a high need for ‘closure’, that is a low tolerance for confusion and ambiguity.[12] It might be argued that this is the distinctive psychological component of closed-mindedness that causally explains the various cognitive dispositions with which the trait is closely associated. In this case the psychological component is a motive. Would this justify the classification of closed-mindedness as a natural mode, an epistemic vice whose attribution in different cases is based on the assumption of a common motivational core that functions as a common psychological cause?

If so, then dogmatism is different from closed-mindedness in precisely this respect. What motivates a dogmatic commitment to a political doctrine might be a psychological need for closure but other motives are also possible. For example, a person’s dogmatism about a particular political doctrine might be a reflection of the ways in which a commitment to it is part of their identity, their sense of who they are.

Whether or not this is the right account of dogmatism it is doubtful that the motivational account applies epistemic vices generally. There are epistemic vices like stupidity, understood as foolishness rather than lack of intelligence, which lack an obvious motivational component. People aren’t motivated to be stupid in the way that they are supposedly motivated to be closed-minded. And even in the latter case one might wonder whether the desire for closure is strictly necessary or, even if it is, whether it is an independently identifiable component of closed-mindedness. One might count as having a high need for closure because one is closed-minded. Here, the attribution of the motive follows rather than underpins the attribution of the trait.

What Is a Vice of Knowledge?

So one should be careful about representing epistemic vices as natural modes. There is still the option of representing them as intermediate modes but it’s not clear whether epistemic vices are mechanism-dependent in anything like the way that perception is mechanism-dependent. This issue merits further discussion. In the meantime, the one thing that seems reasonably clear is that epistemic vices are epistemically harmful and blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible.[13] The sense in which they are epistemically harmful is that they systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. However, there is considerable room for maneuver when it comes to defining the individual character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that are epistemically harmful.

Where does this leave the notion of a capital vice and the project of identifying some epistemic vices as capital vices and others as offspring vices? To the extent that ordinary ways of talking about vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatic are imprecise there is a lot to be said for the project of establishing clear lines of demarcation and relations of priority between different epistemic vices.

However, any such project needs to be informed by a proper conception of what epistemic vices are, ontologically speaking, and a well-founded view as to whether the project consists in the discovery of real distinctions that are there anyway or rather in the imposition of boundaries that only exist in virtue of our recognition of them. To think of epistemic vices as modes is to be committed to an ‘impositionist’ reading of the capital vices project. The point at which this project starts to look suspect is the point at which it is conceived of as fundamentally a project of discovery.[14] The discovery in this domain is that there is, in a certain sense, nothing to discover.[15]

Contact details:


Ayers, M. R. Locke, Volume 2: Ontology. London: Routledge, 1991.

Battaly, H. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice,” Keynote Address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July 2017.

Cassam, Q. “Parfit on Persons.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 93 (1993): 17-37.

Cassam, Q. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist, 88 (2016): 159-80.

Kidd, I., “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6 (2017): 11-17.

Kruglanski, A. W. The Psychology of Closed-Mindedness. New York: Psychology Press, 2004.

Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Perry, D. L. “Locke on Mixed Modes, Relations, and Knowledge.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 5 (1967): 219-35.

Robbins, S. L, Robbins, J. H. & Scarpelli, D. G. “Classification of Diseases.” Retrieved from, 2017.

Roberts, R. C. & Wood, W. J. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Zagzebski, L. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[1] ‘Vice epistemology’, as I understand it, is the philosophical study of the nature, identity and significance of epistemic vices. See Cassam 2016. ‘Vice epistemologists’ are philosophers who work on, or in, vice epistemology. Notable vice epistemologists include Heather Battaly, Ian Kidd and Alessandra Tanesini.

[2] Kidd 2017.

[3] Battaly 2017.

[4] All references in this form are to a book, chapter and section of Locke 1975, which was originally published in 1689.

[5] Locke’s examples of mixed modes include beauty, theft, obligation, drunkenness, a lie, hypocrisy, sacrilege, murder, appeal, triumph, wrestling, fencing, boldness, habit, testiness, running, speaking, revenge, gratitude, polygamy, justice, liberality, and courage. This list is from Perry 1967.

[6] Locke illustrates the arbitrariness of mixed modes by noting that we have the complex idea of patricide but no special idea for the killing of a son or a sheep.

[7] There is more on ‘conceptualism’ in Cassam 1993.

[8] For a helpful discussion of this issue see Ayers 1991, chapter 8. My understanding of Locke is heavily indebted to Ayers’ commentary.

[9] See Ayers 1991: 97.

[10] For more on the classification of diseases see Robbins, Robbins and Scarpelli 2017.

[11] This paragraph is a summary of the discussion of intermediate modes in Ayers 1991: 96-7.

[12] Kruglanski 2004: 6-7.

[13] This is the essence of what I call ‘obstructivism’ about epistemic vice, the view that epistemic vices are blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. For obstructivism, epistemic vices aren’t delineated by their motives.

[14] I’m not suggesting that this is how Kidd conceives of the project. His approach is more in keeping with impositionism.

[15] Thanks to Heather Battaly and Ian James Kidd for helpful comments.

Author Information: Gregory Jones-Katz, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Jones-Katz, Gregory. 2011. “On How (Not) to Turn the Senses into Food for Thought; or, When Context is King.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (1): 5-13.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History
Mark M. Smith, University of California Press, 192 pp.

There is yet another ‘turn’ in US History departments: sensory history. Touted by historians in The American Historical Review, with prospective scholarship to ‘examine hitherto ignored phenomena,’ thereby ‘opening unexplored territories of the past,’ the history of the senses has a promising future.[1] Mark Smith, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and president of The Historical Society, has been a prominent contributor to the field for almost a decade. Smith makes his case for sensory history in Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History, published a few years before the current interest. In Sensing, Smith traces the importance of the senses for chief cultural developments from antiquity to the pre-Enlightenment era, focusing on how the senses informed the modern emergence of ‘social classes, race and gender conventions, industrialization, urbanization, colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, [and] ideas concerning selfhood and the “other”’ (1). This review essay concentrates on and challenges Smith’s views of how the historian should produce, assess, and validate histories of the senses. Rather than offer a new understanding of how to write sensory history, Smith’s approach is disappointedly status quo. Continue Reading…