Conservatism and Cultural Reductionism

Recent philosophical readings in the realm of philosophy of science and nature has led me to a series of questions, which I will attempt to investigate in the posting.

1. What is reductionism? Simply put, it is the attempt to intellectually reduce an experiecned reality to some single aspect of that realit.  According to Ian Barbour, there are several types of scientific reductionism. The first type is naturalistic reductionism, also called mechanistic reductionism. Naturalistic thinking reduces all of the world to so-called natural processes, usually thought to operate according to natural laws, which are identifiable in physics and debatable in biology. The next version tries to reduce experienced reality to the smallest possible scale, that is, the quantum scale. This is the line of thinking which says we, and the world around us, are “nothing but x,” with x being whatever they’re reducing us to. Such thinking has been attacked by Michael Polanyi.


2. Is there a political reductionism? Yes, I believe there is. It is found almost entirely among the more doctrinaire libertarians. Libertarian scholars, like Mises and Hayek, favor what they called ‘methodological individualism’ in which they approached questions of economics and social thought through first positing the individual as the originating point of economic and social behavior. Everything follows from this basic starting point. This model has much in common with the approaches of Locke and Hobbes. This is more clearly seen in the commonalities of method between Hobbes Leviathan and Mises Human Action. This reductionism is an advantage in the course of political thought, if the aim is to protect the value and dignity of the individual person. This is where it is an advantage. Yet, like the scientific forms of reductionism, it falters when its practitioners wish to say that society is nothing but individuals.

In light of this, what are we to make of the claim by thinkers like Christopher Dawson and Roger Scruton, who claim that religion is the root of social life? Is not this a form of reductionism? The answer is a modified no. Dawson and Scruton do not hold that society is nothing but religious associations writ large. What they argue is that human social cohesion is best understood as being the outgrowth of a shared vision of the Good, which is embodied in religion. The entirety of social life is not encapsulate in religion, but a significant part is.

Conservatism, respecting what has been called the ‘spice and variety of life’ does not embrace a magic-bullet theory of history. Humanity is best understood through a variety of aspects, each of which is needful for a fuller picture.

C. McDonald

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2 Responses to Conservatism and Cultural Reductionism

  1. jonolan says:

    Actually, humanity is less well understood through a variety of aspects, each of which is needful for a fuller picture, than it is through a variety of aspects that build upon each other. This is a subtle difference, when written so succinctly, but a critical one.

    Mises and Hayek have the correct root of it but, as communities grow, we have to build upon- or grow from those roots – without ever forgetting them – in ways such as Dawson and Scruton wrote of.

    • Mises looked entirely at the individual, Hayek saw the nature of social order as spontaneous, occurring without a preset plan of action. I think we need to keep in mind that we need to different fields of the humanities in order to understand mankind. No one is wholly sufficient all by itself.

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