Epistemic Closure, Revisited

The “epistemic closure” trope seems to be making the rounds among all the really cool bloggers, for reasons that continue to mystify me.  The concept of ideological  “epistemic closure” — promulgated most publicly by blogger Julian Sanchez — is an elegant if circular system: Those affected by it are incapable of accepting any truth or reality sourced outside of a narrowly defined field of their own choosing, and their unwillingness to accept the arguments from outside of the system is thereby proof of its closure.  I applaud Sanchez’s willingness to provide additional refinements (in the linked post, published yesterday) to his original statement; its rare to find bloggers who are willing to revise and extend their own comments in light of the criticism of others.  Nevertheless, there is an “feel” to this whole enterprise that is somewhat disconcerting.

Marc Ambinder, in a piece published today at The Atlantic, seems to accept as a given that conservatives, as a movement, have retreated to an intellectually vacuous space wherein they listen only to each other and refuse to engage any idea that isn’t spoon-fed to them by Rush Limbaugh or FoxNews commentators.  A sample of Ambinder’s thesis:

I want to find Republicans to take seriously, but it is hard. Not because they don’t exist — serious Republicans — but because, as Sanchez and others seem to recognize, they are marginalized, even self-marginalizing, and the base itself seems to have developed a notion that bromides are equivalent to policy-thinking, and that therapy is a substitute for thinking.

This, from the chief political consultant to CBS News.  The journalist inside my soul shudders at the thought that a reporter of Ambinder’s stature can believe this sort of thing.

OK, so what’s the issue here?

As I mentioned, briefly, in my previous post, I think it’s trivially true that some red-meat conservatives will reject anything that doesn’t come from within, just like some evangelical Christians refuse to accept any truth that lacks a Biblical basis or just like some progressive leftists refuse to believe that the science behind anthropogenic global warming is subject to reasonable debate.  It’s human nature to identify with those with whom we feel kinship, whether this relationship is familial or racial or religious or ideological.  I prefer Rush Limbaugh to Al Franken because Rush’s politics don’t jar my sensibilities nearly as much as Franken’s does, so I enjoy Rush’s humor more.  This does not imply, however, that I am a mind-numbed robot who believes only what I hear amplified from the golden EIB microphone, or that I think Franken is “a big fat idiot.”

The fundamental problem with sweeping generalities about “conservatives” or “liberals” or “centrists” is that the whole exercise is little more than the erection of straw men. To speak, as Ambinder does, of “mainstream conservative voices” willfully choosing to accept ideas that are “‘untethered’ to the real world,” is to make such a broad demonization of half the electorate that the very discourse he purports to desire is eclipsed right from the gate. When you presuppose that those with whom you disagree are some sort of inbred tribe, you are guilty not only of a surprising degree of intellectual incoherence, but you are also creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; after all, who wishes to engage with those who have already slandered you?

Although I get the “epistemic closure” argument that Sanchez makes, I’m not all that sure he’s saying anything new or even anything unique to conservatives. What does surprise me is the way that some public commentators have seized on the concept as a way of mocking the opposition — there is a dirty feel to this, as if the chess club divided about whether Kasparov or Deep Blue is superior, and after a while, they resort to ad hominems cleverly disguised as dispassionate philosophical debate in order to score cheap rhetorical points.

The reality is this: Yes, some conservatives are inbred hicks (ideologically speaking).  So what?  So are some progressives.  So are some libertarians.  So are some holier-than-thou centrists.  This phenomenon is utterly unremarkable.

What is depressing, though, is the discounting of any intellectual vibrancy from the Right. Sanchez, Ambinder and others seem to look at the ongoing, fierce debates within the conservative movement as a sign that the jackboots of orthodoxy are on the march. In fact, I think recent debates within the conservative movement are a necessary and even salutary development — over the last decade, conservatism has moved from the Contract with America to K-Street indolence to “compassionate conservatism.” The Right frequently discusses immigration, sexual politics, drug legalization, homosexuality, war, and economics. There are more touch points of disagreement, I daresay, on the Right than on the Left, and the progressive movement today seems to be more intellectually monolithic with adherents who differ only in intensity, not in objective.  So, yes, conservatives argue and sometimes some conservatives lose (sorry, Messrs. Brooks and Frum).  Some issues see a consensus position develop among the base.  This is natural.  In fact, one could argue that the lack of this process among the Left is the really noteworthy story.

In the end, I think the “epistemic closure” issue is much ado about the utterly pedestrian, an example of armchair philosophizing by polemicists more interested in trouncing their enemies than in genuinely engaging their interlocutors with an open mind.

An OPEN mind. Not a closed one, Mr. Ambinder.

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1 comment

  1. Just to challenge you a little bit, but the current convervative movement has become monolithic to the degree that “mainstream conservatives” (i.e. congressmen and party leaders) are repeating paranoid tropes from the fringe: that Obama is a muslim, and a non-citizen, that Acorn was a fantastically powerful and corrupt organization that probably tilted the leadership of this country through voter fraud, or that the House Health Care bill mandated “death panels” to determine when Grandma has lived long enough.

    In a healthy movement, stuff like this would be quickly marginalized. But because mainstream media is dismissed, and non-movement critics are dismissed or ignored, the base of the conservative movement is becoming a completely ideologically autarkic island, to the detriment of the conservative movement itself (because it’s losing the power to persuade) and to the larger political culture (because there is no responsible counter-partner with whom to engage).

    Reject the thesis if you feel you must, but you won’t be doing conservatism any favors…

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