Old / New




New                         -                     Old
Top Down                -                     Bottom Up
Nurture                    -                      Nature
Constructivist           -                     Essentialist




The left is characterized by a preference for change and reform, a commitment to liberty and equality, an orientation toward progress and the future, while the right is the party of order and tradition, hierarchy, and a disposition to valorize the past.

Whether described as left vs. right, blue vs. red, or liberal vs. conservative, this basic division seems to capture a permanent divide between two fundamental human dispositions, as well as two worldviews that are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of political options.

[Patrick Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.43

 

The modern political divide of the past three centuries has essentially boiled down to these two camps: whether the past is a source of wisdom or an era of horrors; whether culture and tradition were fortifications against decline or barriers to progress; whether politics was the means to preservation of imperfect decencies and virtues, or a tool of human perfectibility.

[Patrick J. Deneen]




Things that have worked for a long time are preferable - they are more likely to have reached their ergodic states. At the worst we don't know how long they'll last.

Remember that the burden of proof lies on someone disturbing a complex system, not on the person protecting the status quo.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 371




We have polluted for years, causing much damage to the environment, while the scientists currently making these complicated forecasting models were not sticking their necks out and trying to stop us from building these risks […] - these are the scientists trying to impose the solutions on us.

But the skepticism about models that I propose does not lead to the conclusions endorsed by anti-environmentalists and pro-market fundamentalists. Quite the contrary: we need to be hyper-conservationists ecologically, since we do not know what we are harming with now.

That’s the sound policy under conditions of ignorance and epistemic opacity. 

To those who say “We have no proof that we are harming nature,”  a sound response is “We have no proof that we are not harming nature, either”; the burden of proof is not on the ecological conservationist, but on someone disrupting an old system.

Furthermore we should not “try to correct” the harm done, as we may be creating another problem we do not know much about currently.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 316




So the reader can see how the ancients saw naive rationalism: by impoverishing - rather than enhancing - thought, it introduces fragility. They knew that incompleteness - half knowledge - is always dangerous.

Many other people than the ancients have been involved in defending - and inviting us to respect - this different type of knowledge. First Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and political philosopher, who also countered the French Revolution for disrupting the “collected reasons of the ages.” He believed that large social variations can expose us to unseen effects and thus advocated the notion of small trial-and-error experiments (in effect, context tinkering) in social systems, coupled with respect for the complex heuristics of tradition.

Also Michael Oakeshot, the twentieth-century conservative political philosopher and philosopher of history who believed that traditions provide an aggregate of filtered collective knowledge. 

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 257-8




In Greek legend, there were two Titan brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus means “fore-thinker” while Epimetheus means “after-thinker,” equivalent to someone who falls for the retrospective distortion of fitting theories to past events in an ex post narrative manner.

Optionality is Promethean, narratives are Epimethean - one has reversible and benign mistakes, the other symbolises the gravity and irreversibility of the consequences of opening Pandora’s box.

You make forays into the future by opportunism and optionality […] It is a way - the only way - to domesticate uncertainty, to work rationally without understanding the future, while reliance on narratives is the exact opposite: one is domesticated by uncertainty, and ironically set back. You cannot look at the future by naive projection of the past.

All this does not mean that tinkering and trial and error are devoid of narrative: they are just not overly dependent on the narrative being true - the narrative is not epistemological but instrumental. For instance, religious stories might have no value as narratives, but they may get you to do something convex and antifragile you otherwise would not do, like mitigate risks.

English parents controlled children with the false narrative that if they didn’t behave or eat their dinner, Boney (Napoleon Bonaparte) or some wild animal might come and take them away. Religions often use the equivalent method to help adults get out of trouble, or avoid debt. But intellectuals tend to believe their own b***t and take their ideas too literally, and that is vastly dangerous.

Consider the role of the heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations - what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology.

Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 211-13, 215




It isn't always the future that people want; they are often, as it were rather ambivalent about the Promised Land. Indeed, it isn't the future they most want, it is the past.

Psychoanalysis, like education [...] is an attempt to lure people into the future, to tempt them to grow up.

What the analyst and the teacher and the political revolutionary come up against is people's refusal to sacrifice an apparently known pleasure for an apparently unknown one. Better the devil you know, because if you know him he can't be the devil.

[Adam Phillips]
Side Effects ('Learning to Live'), p.152, 154




Societies, like animals, evolve.

The ones that survive spawn memetic descendants – for example, the success of Britan allowed it to spin off Canada, Australia, the US, et cetera. Thus, we expect societies that exist to be somewhat optimized for stability and prosperity. I think this is one of the strongest conservative arguments.

Just as a random change to a letter in the human genome will probably be deleterious rather than beneficial since humans are a complicated fine-tuned system whose genome has been pre-optimized for survival – so most changes to our cultural DNA will disrupt some institution that evolved to help Anglo-American (or whatever) society outcompete its real and hypothetical rivals.

[Scott Alexander]
'Meditations on Moloch'




Changes in the formula, if they are not to destroy the society, must be gradual, not abrupt. The formula is indispensable for holding the social structure together. A widespread skepticism about the formula will in time corrode and disintegrate the social order. 

It is perhaps for this reason, half-consciously understood, that all strong and long-lived societies have cherished their “traditions,” even when, as is usually the case, these traditions have little relation to fact, and even after they can hardly be believed literally by educated men. 

Rome, Japan, Venice, all such long-enduring states, have been very slow to change the old formulas, the time-honored ways and stories and rituals; and they have been harsh against rationalists who debunk them. 

This, after all, was the crime for which Athens put Socrates to death. From the point of view of survival, she was probably right in doing so.

[James Burnham]
The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, p. 90




In all these writings, what interests us is not the routine polemics, the case against the abomination of mob rule and Jacobin slogans, but rather the counterrevolutionary argument in principle. This is invariably the rejection of the idea that law and the state could result from the methodical activity of individual human beings.

All important state institutions, and especially the constitutions that were altered so frequently during the French Revolution, are said to result automatically and in the course of time from prevailing circumstances and the nature of things. These institutions are the rational expression of such circumstances, and not their creator. Therefore, it would be absurd to propose to force things to conform to an abstract scheme.

The nation and society are not overnight products of doctrinaire "fabrication.” On the contrary, they are formed over long periods of time, in such a way that the individual persons involved could not survey them or even make an estimate of them.

On this point, Burke – in general phrases that are often powerfully rhetorical and emotional – stresses the growth of the national community that spans generations. De Maistre still sees the individual entirely from the perspective of the theological ideas of the classical age: in his insignificance in the presence of the transcendent providential power that governs us and in whose hands the active heroes of the Revolution appear to de Maistre as automatons.

Finally, as early as 1797, Bonald, a great systematic thinker, explains what is at stake with splendid precision: the opposition between liberal individualism and social solidarity. According to Bonald, the bearer of historical activity is not the individual person or the mass of individuals. It is instead society, which lives in history and constitutes itself according to definite laws, and which really constitutes the individual person as such.

All three - in a vehement rejection of the metaphysicians and the philosophers, Rousseau in particular - agree that the activity of the individual, based on rationalistic maxims, can create nothing. It can only delay, destroy, and abrogate the natural course of things; but it cannot produce anything of permanence.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p. 110
 



The historical situations in which romanticism and romantics can arise are epochs in which an antiquated culture confronts a new one […] At such watersheds of world history, persons in whom feeling and imagination outweigh clear thinking, spirits of more warmth than light, always turn backward, to what is old.

From the unbelief and prose that they see gaining ground around them, they will long for the world of the old faith and ancestral customs, a world that is agreeable and rich in forms; and they will attempt to restore this world for its own sake and, wherever possible, beyond itself as well.

But as children of their time, they too are dominated more than they know by the new principle that is repugnant to them. 

That is why the old ways as they are reproduced in and through them are no longer the pure and primordial old ways. On the contrary, they are blended in many respects with what is new, and in this way they reveal the new in advance.

[David Friedrich Strauss]
Julian the Apostate: The Romantic on the Throne of the Caesars




Social facts, then, are entirely continuous with biological facts. They are part of life. This shows how misleading the metaphor of 'social construction' is if it is taken in its strong sense as meaning that we are omnipotent in inventing social practices.

Customs are not just an arbitrary product of our whim. Searle's central target is indeed the sense of artificiality and exaggerated power that this excessive constructivism suggests - the impression that it gives of human decisions taking place in a vacuum and dictating terms at will to the rest of the cosmos. He points out that human beings are not a separate entity detached from the natural world.

Different academic disciplines, therefore, should not behave as if they each owned their own private universe. Physics, literary criticism, political theory, geology and ethics should all notice that they share a world.

‘The traditional opposition that we tend to make between biology and culture is as misguided as the traditional opposition between body and mind … Culture is the form that biology takes.’

[Mary Midgley]
Science and Poetry, p.192-3
 



Echoing Giambattista Vico, an early critic of the deracinated rationalism of Descartes and Hobbes, [Wendell] Berry defends what Vico named the sensus communis.

Such “common knowledge” is the result of the practice and experience, the accumulated store of wisdom born of trials and corrections of people who have lived, suffered, and flourished in local settings. Rules and practices based on a preconceived notion of right cannot be imposed absent prudential consideration and respect toward common sense.

This is not to suggest that traditions cannot be changed or altered, but, as Burke argued, they must be given the presumptive allowance to change internally, with the understanding and assent of people who have developed lives and communities based upon those practices.

[Patrick Deneen]
Why Liberalism Failed, p.81




For that reason a real knowledge of the past, in Brandt's words, “requires something more than knowing how people used to make candles or what kind of bed they slept in. It requires a sense of the persistence of the past: the manifold ways in which it penetrates our lives.”

This persistence, of course, is what the nostalgic attitude denies.

Nostalgia evokes the past only to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history's hold over the present. Those who mourn the death of the past and those who acclaim it both take for granted that our age has outgrown its childhood. Both find it difficult to believe that history still haunts our enlightened, disillusioned maturity.

Both are governed, in their attitude toward the past, by the prevailing disbelief in ghosts.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.118




In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we (English) are generally men of untaught feelings: that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree; and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.

Instead of “exploding general prejudices,” philosophers would "better employ their sagacity,” Burke thought, “to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them.” Prejudices guided conduct more reliably than reason, by making a "man's virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.129




In the conservative sociological tradition, the tenacity of custom was seen as a useful check against innovation.

For Lynd, "folkways" meant "cultural lag." Habits and "values" failed to keep pace with economic and technological change. Americans retained the mental habits of pioneers even though their habits were now governed by elaborate organisations and complicated technologies.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.427




For this reason, Brownson opposed any theory of progress that implied a rejection of past. 

Having sided in his early writings with "efforts for progress," he proceeded to take his readers "aback by telling them they must not run away from the past." The future could no more be dissociated from the past than the spirit could be dissociated from the body.

"It is idle to war against the past. No man can be a reformer who has no tradition. Divest us of all tradition, of all that we have derived from the past... and we were mere naked savages." Brownson's unwillingness to choose between reform and conservatism or to equate political radicalism with a repudiation of the past was typical of the populist tradition.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.194




History has to have a happy ending.

“Are there no calamities in history?" Brownson asked in 1843. "Nothing tragic? May we never weep over the defeated? ... Must we always desert the cause as soon as fortune forsakes it, and bind ourselves to the cause which is in the ascendant, and hurrah in the crowd that throw up their caps in honor of the conqueror?"

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.221




The relationship of a plant or animal to the general ecology of its region is incredibly complicated.

It may be possible to make a computer model of, say, the introduction of a new bean hybrid upon a particular environment. But, as mathematicians would say, models are highly nonlinear, containing many feedback loops. Predictable behavior can suddenly change in abrupt ways, from gradual trends to wild oscillations or even chaos. It is beyond Western science to fully understand the impact that various aspects of genetic engineering could have upon the environment and our future.

Indigenous science, if we are to believe its metaphysics and its claims, moves in a slower way. 

It is based upon generations of painstaking observations and upon a perception that looks into the heart of things, upon knowledge that is given by the plants and animals to the two-legged. Thus, when changes take place they do so from within an acknowledged web of relationship.

Moreover, the power of the trickster is always acknowledged, for the People know that all human plans are subject to the forces of chance and transformation.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.183



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