how the structure of ideas affects a conversation

According to the “interactionist” theory of Mercier & Sperber 2017 (which I discussed on Monday), human beings evolved to make smart decisions in groups, and that requires us to exchange reasons. We naturally want to express reasons for our intuitions and critically assess other people’s reasons for their beliefs. It matters how well we perform these two tasks.

One familiar kind of person frustrates discussion by constantly linking every belief that he endorses back to one foundational principle, whether it is a constitutional right to individual freedom, God’s will, or equality for all. The problem is not the core belief itself but the way his whole network of beliefs is structured; it prevents reasoning around his core idea if you don’t happen to share it. 

A different familiar figure is the person who offers many ideas but cannot provide a reason for most of them. If we think of a reason as a link between two ideas, then this person’s network has no links. Whereas the first network was too centralized, the second is too disconnected.

We don’t literally possess networks of beliefs; rather, a network graph is a way of representing our reasoning. I conjecture that the formal features of such a network can predict whether the person will deliberate well. To illustrate (but not to prove) that conjecture, I will discuss two Kansas State students who participated in an online discussion as part of the research that led to Levine, Eagan & Shaffer 2022.

Before discussing how socioeconomic factors affect health, all the students in this study wrote short passages describing their personal views. Adèle and Beth are pseudonyms for white undergraduate KSU women, aged 21 and 22, whose mothers had not attended college.

Adèle wrote:

In my opinion, race should not influence the human health and well-being because every person should have an opportunity to succeed no matter what race they are. Social class influences the health because a healthy lifestyle is more expensive, but also a healthy lifestyle means physical activity and that does not depend on the social class, it depends on individual motivation. A social factor would be the people that we surround ourselves with. If we interact with people that live a healthy lifestyle, we can get influenced and borrow some of their habits. But is also true that for the lower class is the hardest to live a healthy lifestyle because they cannot afford one.

I think we could informally diagram her view with the graph below. The nodes are her stated beliefs. The arrows are her causal claims, except where I’ve denoted them as normative implications. This graph does not explain why Adèle formed her intuitions (i.e., why these beliefs formed in her mind) but rather represents the explicit reasons that she offers to explain her beliefs to others.

Beth wrote:

My thoughts on the impact of race, class and social factors on determinants on human health and wellbeing are that no matter what your race or social class is, you should be treated equally because the color of a person’s skin should not affect the way you view them. Both a black and white person can put in the same amount of hard work and effort to be able to reap the benefits of a happy healthy life. However, with that being said, there are some people who do not work as hard and that puts them in a lower social class than others. possibly making their overall health and wellbeing less than someone who is up in a higher social class.

I think we could informally diagram Beth’s view like this:

I propose that Adèle will be a better conversation-partner than Beth, not because her beliefs are superior but because of the structures represented by these two graphs.

Adèle has generated several independent intuitions (moral and empirical) that push in somewhat different directions. They are all connected to the idea of health, because that is the assigned topic, but there is some wiggle room between her beliefs, and she has identified several causes of the same outcomes. Adèle and I could talk about several of her intuitions. I could ask her to offer reasons for each one, and we could turn to another issue if we found that we disagreed on that point.

Meanwhile, Beth only offers reasons for one conclusion: that people should not pay attention to racial differences. I would worry that we couldn’t engage once she had made that point. Her sentence that begins, “However, with that being said,” does not actually present a conflicting point but elaborates on her main argument.

When asked whether “Everyday people from different parties can have civil, respectful conversations about politics,” Adèle agreed, but Beth strongly disagreed. Adèle also rated the online discussion more highly than Beth did as a learning experience. This is suggestive evidence that Adèle was more deliberative (in this context) than Beth.

Beth did participate in the online discussion four times and explicitly referred to previous commenters with openings that look civil, such as: “Although I agree with everything you have said, I think. …” However, all four of her contributions were variations on her basic point that success is due to hard work.

In contrast, when Adèle saw a post in the online discussion that recounted a story about a white woman who had succeeded in life due to her own hard work, she responded deliberatively, trying to connect to the previous writer’s ideas. She began: “I saw you talked about how hard work and effort can help you achieve a better lifestyle and I agree with it.” She had expressed this belief in her personal statement prior to the discussion, and it is represented in the first graph above.

She added, “But we also need to have in mind the people that grow up in less fortunate families and have different aspirations that some people have.” Here she introduced another belief that she had already held. She supported it with reasons: “For some of us, going to college is a thing that we knew it’s going to happen in our lives and we never question if we might go or no. But for some people they do not have this opportunity to afford college. … I believe that some people even if they are willing to put hard work and effort, not all of them are guaranteed to succeed.” She then acknowledged a criticism and addressed it: “Of course, there are people who succeeded but I believe that there are a lot of them who did not. And for a person who is less fortunate is not too easy to live a healthy lifestyle.”

My claim is not that Adèle formed better beliefs by reasoning. She may have developed her beliefs intuitively, as we generally do. Nor is there evidence that she revised her beliefs in response to objections, any more than Beth did. My claim is that Adèle contributed better to the group’s discussion because the structure of her reasons permitted more interaction.

(Two limitations of this post: First, I chose the examples to illustrate my main point. That does not prove the general pattern. Second, my diagrams could be biased. For instance, Beth’s belief that “motivation determines health,” which I depicted above as one node in her network, could be unpacked to look like this:

Adding those four nodes to her map would make her whole graph look almost as complex as Adèle’s. I am still looking for less subjective approaches to mapping text. In a lot of my current work, I elicit network structures by asking people multiple-choice questions, rather than graphing their open-ended statements, because the quantitative data seems more reliable for making interpersonal comparisons.)

Sources: Mercier, Hugo and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2017; Levine, Peter & Eagan, Brendan & Shaffer, David. (2022). Deliberation as an Epistemic Network: A Method for Analyzing Discussion. 10.1007/978-3-030-93859-8_2. See also modeling a political discussion; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; and how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach.

how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach

We might like to think that when we form a belief, it comes after we have reviewed reasons. We canvass all the relevant reasons (pro and con), evaluate each of them, weigh and combine them, and choose the belief that follows best. In that case, our reasons cause our beliefs, whether they are about facts or about about values. We might also like to think that when someone offers a strong critique of our reasons, we will be motivated to change our beliefs.

A wealth of empirical evidence suggests that this process is exceedingly rare. Much more often, each of us forms our beliefs intuitively, in the specific sense that we are not conscious of reasons. It feels as if we just have the beliefs. Then, if someone asks why we formed a given belief, we come up with reasons that justify our intuition. We may even ask ourselves for reasons when we wonder why we had a thought.

This process is retrospective. We did not already have reasons. We find them to justify or rationalize our intuitions to ourselves or to other people (Graham, Nosek, Haidt, Iyer, Koleva, & Ditto 2011, p. 368; Haidt 2012, pp. 27-51; Swidler 2001, pp. 147-8; Thiele 2006).

This theory is concerning. For one thing, if you are already sure of any belief, then you can probably find a plausible reason to justify it and a plausible rebuttal to any critique. We don’t sound like very rational or reasonable creatures, ones who are good at assessing and combining reasons and drawing appropriate conclusions. We sound like lawyers in our own defense, finding grounds to justify what we merely assumed even when the evidence is weak.

Further, all the explicit discourse that we observe around us–all those meetings and articles and legal briefs and speeches and sermons–begins to seem like a foolish waste of effort. It’s the noise of people rationalizing what they already thought.

Some would add that intuitions about moral and political matters often seem to reflect self-interest. The rich are intuitively favorable to markets; men are biased for patriarchy; Americans, for the USA. In that case, reasoning is moot. The causal pathway runs from interests to intuitions and from there to justifications, and the justifications accomplish very little.

This highly skeptical view of reason results from focusing on individual human beings at the moment (or within a short timeframe) when they form beliefs. When we look outward from such moments, we find human beings meaningfully exchanging reasons that matter.

First, let’s look before the moment of intuition. Where did it come from? Let’s consider, for example, a person who hears about a proposed new federal program and has a strong intuition against it. This person may not explicitly consider reasons for and against federal intervention; the intuition may arise automatically. But before the moment of intuition, this person had probably heard many explicit critiques of government. Maybe a parent made a memorable complaint about the government when this person was still a child, and that attitude was reinforced by speeches, articles, stories, and other forms of intentional discourse. This individual may also have had direct, personal experiences, such as facing a burdensome regulation or having an unpleasant encounter with a bureaucrat. However, we must interpret such experiences using larger categories (such as “regulation” and “bureaucrat”) that we get from other people.

This process of forming an attitude that then generates an intuition may be more or less reasonable. The attitude might be wise and well-substantiated or else a mere prejudice. My point is not that people reason well but that discourse is often prior to intuition (cf. Cushman 2020). People’s intuitions about matters like government programs are influenced by the prevailing discourses of their communities. It matters whether you came of age in a neoliberal market economy, under collapsing state communism, in a stable social democracy, or in a Shiite theocracy. In this sense, reasons influence intuitions, but they may not be reasons that an individual explicitly considers before forming a belief. Rather, reasons circulate in the discourse of a community.

Now let’s look after the moment of intuition, to the time when a person answers the question: Why? For instance, why are you–or why am I–against this government program? The individual begins to generate reasons for the original intuition: Government never works well. Taxes are already too high. It’s not fair that lazy people should get a free ride — etc. These reasons were not in the person’s head prior to the intuition, and they did not cause it, yet they matter in several ways.

First, as intensely social creatures, we use reasons to establish our value to groups. People who can offer reasons that sound plausible, consistent, or even insightful emerge as respected and have influence. Sometimes, glib sophists gain respect with reasons that shouldn’t impress others, but to a significant extent, we judge other people’s reasons well (Mercier & Sperber 2017). We did not evolve to be magnificently rational thinkers who reach our individual judgments solely on the basis of evidence, but we did evolve to be remarkably perceptive social mammals who are pretty good at judging each other.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber write:

Whereas reason is commonly viewed as a superior means to think better on one’s own, we argue that it is mainly used in our interactions with others. We produce reasons in order to justify our thoughts and actions to others and to produce arguments to convince others to think and act as we suggest. We also use reason to evaluate not so much our own thought as the reasons others produce to justify themselves or to convince us (Mercier & Sperber 2017, pp. 7-8).

Because we want to be respected for our judgments, we will go to considerable effort to rationalize our intuitions. That effort can take the form of skillful defense-lawyering: cleverly finding tendentious grounds for our positions. But it can also lead us to revise our beliefs because we do not want to be caught with inconsistencies, selfish biases, or blatant factual errors. Revision is less common than we would assume if people were ideally rational, but it occurs because we care about our reputations (Mercier & Sperber 2017, p. 146).

We are also motivated to find and express good reasons because doing so affords influence. For one thing, we can shape other people’s intuitions later on. The parent who told her child not to trust the government was trying to influence that child’s intuitions, as were other people who spoke on both sides of the issue later in the same person’s life.

Human beings can assess the cogency of other people’s explicit reasons, not with perfect reliability, but often pretty well. That means that if you have an intuition that you want other people to share, a good strategy is to come up with coherent reasons that support it. Good reasons may not overcome bias against you or favoritism for others. They may not overcome raw power, money, or lies. But they raise one’s odds of being influential, which is a source of power. Whether valid reasons persuade depends on how well our institutions are designed, and properly deliberative institutions are ones that reward the giving of good reasons (Habermas 1962, 1973).

Finally, when reasons are widely expressed and rarely opposed, they become norms, and norms are crucial for cooperation. For instance, in large swaths of an advanced liberal society, there are now explicit norms against gender discrimination. These norms are compatible with: 1) privately held explicit sexist opinions, 2) unrecognized or implicit sexist biases, 3) blatantly sexist subcultures, and 4) bad reasoning, such as neglecting to consider gender when reaching a conclusion about a policy. Nevertheless, the norm against gender discrimination exists and matters. Official policies are measured against it, and bodies like courts and school systems are affected by it. In turn their policies affect people’s mentalities over time.

Norms have the additional advantage that they do not have to be stated. This is crucial because we are not able to express all the premises of our arguments. In justifying what we believe, every point we can make depends on other points, which depend on others, pretty much ad infinitum; and we cannot address that whole web. Instead, we must assume agreement about most of the context. In Paul Grice’s terminology, we “implicate” beliefs that we assume others share (Grice 1967).

You can recognize the power of implicature when it goes wrong because the speaker’s belief is not working as a norm. For example, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” implicates the (true) premise that black lives have not been valued and that black people face pervasive discrimination and violence. Surveys show that a majority of white Americans do not believe this and even think the opposite, that whites face more discrimination. I suspect that at least some of them really don’t hear the implicature. They take “Black Lives Matter” to mean that only black lives should matter.

This is a troubling example at several levels, but it does not suggest that we lack norms entirely. On the contrary, our discourse is pervaded with shared assumptions, many of which developed over time as a result of intentional argumentation and persuasion. We can now implicate that violence is undesirable or that nature is precious even though both beliefs were widely rejected a century ago. Again, the norm that violence is bad can coexist with much implicit and hypocritical support for violence and with subcultures that openly promote violence. But it still has power as a belief that most people in many contexts can assume most other people publicly endorse, i.e., as a norm.

In turn, forming and shaping norms is a matter of grave significance, and reasons are tools for influencing norms. The paradigmatic case of reasoning is not an individual who identifies reasons and reaches an appropriate conclusion, but a community that shifts its norms when they are explicitly contested in public speech.

As Mercier and Sperber write:

Invocations and evaluations of reasons are contributions to a negotiated record of individuals’ ideas, actions, responsibilities, and commitments. This partly consensual, partly contested social record of who thinks what and who did what for which reasons plays a central role in guiding cooperative or antagonistic interactions, in influencing reputations, and in stabilizing social norms. Reasons are primarily for social consumption (Mercier & Sperber 2017, p. 127).

This is basically an empirical account of what the species homo sapiens does when we offer what we call “reasons.” It does not tell us how good this process is, in other words, whether it is a procedure that generates sound or valid results. Assessing human reasoning feels increasingly urgent now that we also have machines that generate sentences that convey reasons by using different procedures from ours.

Assessing our activity of reasoning requires epistemology, not empirical psychology alone. Fortunately, we have a sophisticated philosophical account of reasoning that is broadly consistent with the empirical account of Mercier and Sperber (Fenton 2019).

Robert Brandom argues that any claim (any thought that can be expressed in a sentence) has both antecedents and consequences: “upstream” and “downstream” links “in a network of inferences.” For instance, if you say, “It is morning,” you must have reasons for that claim (e.g., the alarm bell rang or the sun is low in the eastern sky) and you can draw inferences from it, such as, “It is time for breakfast.” (This is my example, not Brandom’s.) Reasoning is a matter of making these connections explicit. When making a claim, we propose that others can also use it “as a premise in their reasoning.” That means that we implicitly promise to divulge our own reasons and implications. “Thus one essential aspect of this model of discursive practice is communication: the interpersonal, intra-content inheritance of entitlement to commitments.” In sum, “The game of giving and asking for reasons is an essentially social practice.”

For Brandom, the same logic applies to “ought” claims and other normative sentences as to factual claims: whenever we make a statement, including a value-judgment, we owe a discussion of its reasons and implications. Brandom suggests that communication can be inward: we can reason in a “hypothetically” social way by thinking in our heads. But I would add—based on a safe empirical generalization about human beings—that we are quite bad at seeing the reasons for and the implications of our judgments about ethical and political matters that affect other people. Therefore, we badly need actual social reasoning: giving reasons and listening to the real reactions from other people (Brandom 2000, Kindle locs. 1733, 1746-7, 1767-9, 2060, 1799).    

See also opinion is dynamic and relational; in defense of (some) implicit bias. Sources: Cushman, Fiery. “Rationalization is rational.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 43 (2020); Graham, Jesse, Nosek, Brian A., Haidt, Jonathan, Iyer, Ravi, Koleva. Spassena, & Ditto, Peter H. 2011. Mapping the Moral Domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101; Fenton, William (2019), “On the Philosophy and Psychology of Reasoning and Rationality,” Kent State MA thesis; Grice, Paul, “Logic and Conversation” (1967), in Grice, Studies in the Ways of Words (Harvard, 1989), pp. 22-44; Habermas, Jürgen. (1962) 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Habermas, Jürgen. (1973) 1975. Legitimation Crisis. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press; Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage; Mercier, Hugo and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2017; Swidler, Ann. 2001. Talk of Love: How Culture Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Thiele, Leslie Paul. 2006. The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative Cambridge University Press.

KY’s Potential for Leadership in Educational Ethics: Calling for an End to Corporal Punishment in American Schools

2023 Commonwealth Ethics Lecture at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

In the spring of 2023, the Ethics and Social Justice Center at Bellarmine University issued a call for proposals for their yearly Commonwealth Ethics Lecture. They invited scholars from around the state to propose a talk to be delivered for their 2023 lecture, considering approaches from all disciplines and with special interest in interdisciplinary dialogue and topics, encouraging “critical reflection, dialogue, and constructive action on contemporary ethical issues in society.” They also welcomed proposals “related to politics, societal well-being, and individual happiness,” as well as that “intersect these themes with regional issues.”

I pitched my proposal in relation to the fact that Kentucky is a state that continues to permit and make use of corporal punishment in public schools. I have long thought about corporal punishment especially as an example of a practice long outmoded and for which evidence has become increasingly clear that better alternatives are available and that long-term effects of the practice are psychologically and medically discouraged. Given this opportunity, it was a great chance for me to focus on corporal punishment directly, so I jumped at the chance finally to focus extensively on this topic.

Kentucky has decreased the use of the form of discipline in public schools to nearly negligible levels, with 17 recorded instances of corporal punishment in the 2020-2021 school year, which suggests that the practice would not be difficult to end at the state level. Given that, Kentucky could serve as a leader among states that presently permit and engage in the practice, to show how others can follow the lead of the Commonwealth state of Kentucky, to end the practice around the country. The video here above is 1hr and 1 min long, concluding at the end of my talk, not including the question and answer session, though that was fun and rewarding for me also.

I am especially grateful to Dr. Kate Johnson for being a welcoming and great host at Bellarmine University for the talk. The attendance and recording of the talk were great and much appreciated.

The PowerPoint slides for my talk are available online here.

The post KY’s Potential for Leadership in Educational Ethics: Calling for an End to Corporal Punishment in American Schools first appeared on Eric Thomas Weber.

the post-9/11 wars and Trump

The image that accompanies this post is my graph of US counties.* The y-axis is Trump’s share of the vote in 2016. The x-axis is the percentage of each county’s population that consisted of veterans under the age of 45 in 2020. I chose that statistic as a rough proxy for direct involvement with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The correlation is modestly positive and statistically significant.

When I ran a regression to predict Trump’s 2016 vote in each county based on 1) the proportion of young veterans, 2) the degree to which the county is rural, 3) the proportion of the county that is non-Hispanic white, and 4) the proportion of the population that was born overseas, all of those variables except the last one were statistically significant and positive. That means that, after controlling for race and community type, the proportion of young veterans still predicts the Trump vote.

This is merely a cross-sectional relationship, and it would be worth introducing a temporal dimension by investigating whether and how votes changed as the post-9/11 wars unfolded.

The pattern that I show here is compatible with several hypotheses. For example, maybe some communities’ cultures and demographics inclined them both to military service and to supporting Trump, or maybe deep disillusionment with the wars turned some people toward Trump in 2016 because he purported that he had opposed US involvement.

I will not claim that the basic relationship shown here is very strong, and I share it mainly for full disclosure rather than to support an argumentative position. (I wouldn’t try to use the regression as the basis of a professional article.) Yet I continue to suspect that blowback from two protracted military disasters is one cause of our current political discontents.

Americans’ assessments of these wars are filtered through ideology and probably fall into at least three categories:

  1. The invasion of Iraq was imperialistic and intended to favor multinational corporations; thus it was unjust from the start.
  2. The invasions were altruistic, aimed at exporting human rights and democracy; and as such, they wasted US lives and resources. OR
  3. The defeats represent corruption or decadence that must be addressed by making the USA “stronger.”

Any of those views is compatible with deep distrust of US elites, and perhaps above all of Democratic Party leaders who supported the wars. Meanwhile, MAGA Republicans benefit from both 2 and 3.

*The graph doesn’t display about a dozen outlier counties that have very high veteran populations. See also the 2020 election in the shadow of the Iraq War; the impact of post 9/11 war on our politics, etc.

people in poor communities are just as active in local community work

The Equity in America website is an experiment in data-visualization and public education. We have assembled a dataset with detailed information about the social conditions of thousands of Americans that we use for interdisciplinary academic research. We have also created a homepage where people who need no background at all in statistics can explore selected variables to help understand and debate equity in America. By clicking any pair of variables, you generate a graphic with a pie chart, a plain-language sentence, and a map.

We have just posted the latest wave of data, from 2022. I used it to check the percentage of people who live in America’s poorest ZIP codes who say they are involved in working with other people to address community problems.

This definition of civic engagement sets a fairly high bar, and only 9% report community problem-solving. However, our website also shows that the rate is 10% among all Americans and 10% in ZIP codes with incomes above the national median. In short, there is no significant relationship between community income and problem-solving. And 10 percent of American adults is about 25 million people–enough to get a lot done.

I illustrate this post with a slightly different graphic. It shows that the percentage of community problem-solvers in the household-income range of $25,000-$50,000 is relatively high, at 12%.

According to our data, the national rate of community problem-solving is down 3 points compared to 2021 (and the decline is outside the margin of error), but I’d want to look at a longer time-series than ours to get a sense of whether this rate fluctuates regularly or shows a meaningful trend.

Anyway, my main invitation is to explore the data with our user-friendly tool. You don’t have to be interested in civic engagement. It also presents data on pet-ownership, diabetes, COVID vaccination, and a diverse selection of other topics.

First Annual Workshop on Methods for Teaching Ethics in Data Science

This is conference is open and free. It will take place on May 2nd, 2023 at Tufts University or on Zoom. Much of the time will be spent discussing short, fictional case studies about dilemmas relevant to data science. The in-person location: Joyce Cumming Center 177 College Ave, Medford, MA 02155


Morning Session: Rooms 260 and 265 Joyce Cumming Center 8:30 am-9:00 am: Registration and Breakfast

8:30 am-9:00 am: Registration and Breakfast

9:00 am – 9:15 am: Welcome greetings

9:15 am – 9:45 am: Beyond case studies: Teaching data science critique and ethics through sociotechnical surveillance studies (Nicholas Rabb and Desen Ozkan)

9:45 am – 10:15 am: Discussion (Chair: Peter Levine)

Coffee Break: 10:15 am – 10:30 am

10:30 am – 11:00 am: Data Science Ethos: A tool for operationalizing ethics in Data Science (Micaela Parker)

11:00 am-11:30 am: Discussion (Chair: Benedetta Giovanola)

11:30 am – 12:00 pm: “What’s next for MTEDS24” (Chair: Sarah Hladikova)

Lunch break: 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm

Afternoon Session: Rooms 260 (Track 1/in person) and 265 (Track 2/hybrid) Joyce Cumming Center

Track 1 (in person):

1:30 pm – 2:00 pm: Case Study: The Lakeview Times (Lenore Cowen)

2:00 pm – 2:30 pm: Chatbots: A Case Study (Karin Knudson)

2:30 pm – 3:00 pm: Who owns our data? Indigenous data sovereignty (Kyle Monahan and Joseph Robertson)

Track 2 (zoom):
1:30 pm – 2:00 pm: Irena at HelpMe! (Robin Tharakan)
2:00 pm – 2:30 pm: Case Study: Artful Ventures (Sarah Hladikova)

2:30 pm – 3:00 pm: Towards Ethics of Materiality in Data Science (Madeline Tachibana )

Coffee and cookies: 3:00 pm – 3:30 pm

Please register (lunch count for in-person participants & zoom:

Password: (provided upon registration)

Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain

Living in Andalusia for three months, I read Pagan Spain, a book that the great Black American writer Richard Wright published in 1957. From 1947 until the end of his life, Wright lived mostly in Paris. Gertrude Stein encouraged him to cross the border to Spain. During three weeks of 1954, he drove about 4,000 km of Spanish roads, rode trains in the south, and talked with people of diverse backgrounds, demonstrating empathy for all but the most annoying of them. His book demonstrates particular compassion for women, whose structural oppression Wright analyzes at length and in a way that surely qualifies him as a feminist in an advanced 1950s mode.

Overall, he portrays Spain as deeply backward, profoundly poor, and utterly static. He sees no prospects for change. To be sure, Franco’s fascist dictatorship suppressed progress, and 1955 was just under halfway through that long and dark chapter. However, Wright analyzes Franco as more of a symptom than a cause. The problem, in his view, is spiritual: the Spanish people are deeply irrational, hierarchical, communalistic, and superstitious, in contrast to the rational individualism of what Wright calls “the Western world”–and with which he explicitly identifies.

He acknowledges a bias for Protestantism (despite not being religious any more), but he needs an explanation for Spain’s backwardness compared to other Catholic countries, including France. He suggests that Spain is actually immured in an older, deeper–and therefore more profoundly static–form of religion, which he labels paganism. The rituals of Spanish Catholicism are pre-Christian fertility rites in superficial disguise. For instance, he reads the Black Virgin of Monserrat as a pagan fertility figure that is meaningfully placed among phallic rock formations.

I admire Wright, appreciate his sensitive portraits of Spanish acquaintances, and share his abhorrence of Franco. But his book offers a testable hypothesis: Spain will never change (and certainly not soon). One character who emerges as basically a fool is an American businessman who predicts economic development.

In fact, Spanish GDP grew at an average rate of 6.5% from 1959 to 1974, the period known as “the Spanish miracle.” Per-capita GDP was five times higher in 1990 than it had been in 1950. That growth accompanied a vast migration of people to cities and the transformation of work and daily lives, for better and for worse. Other countries experienced similar trajectories. El milagro español resembled il miracolo economico italiano, les trente glorieuses in France and the German Wirtschaftswunder. This convergence diminishes Franco’s credit for the growth. But Wright explicitly denies any possibility of similar change.

Once fascism ended, Spain was poised for further, rapid convergence with the EU countries, not only economically but socially, culturally, and politically. The country that Wright perceived as permanently stifled by reactionary patriarchy was early to legalize same-sex marriage and now has a cabinet with a female majority. Wright believed that piety dominated the Spanish psyche, but today just 18.5% of Spanish citizens identify as practicing Catholics (and of those, more than one third never attend mass).

Wright ends the book with a portrait of Holy Week in Seville, complete with delirious penitents with “bruised and bleeding flesh,” soldiers whose faces are “hard and stern”–“their gleaming bayonets … a forest of steel”–workmen with “bleak and pinched” faces bearing floats, and other mass expressions of subjugation and piety. “A feeling of helplessness, of desperation, of wild sorrow, of a grief too deep to be appeased clogged the senses.” All of this is Catholic on the surface but follows “some ancient pattern of behavior” based on a male/female binary.

We recently observed Holy Week in Granada. The floats sound similar to the ones Wright watched, and the number of participants remains extraordinary. But the whole event is highly informal, with fun roles for children, guys coming out from under the floats to check their phones or buy drinks, light security, and bands that sound like homecoming day in a US college town. Although I am sure that piety persists in some quarters, overall, one has a sense of traditional forms being transformed for radically new purposes.

Demetrio E. Brisset (2019) describes scattered efforts to organize light and even satirical Easter festivals under Franco, which were increasingly successful. “The foundations for the modern-day festivals were thereby laid. The successful shift from festivities in honour of Catholic saints to a type of celebration related to non-religious carnivals simply required a change of attitude, that was encouraged by another social and political context, i.e. disintegration of the system of moral norms after the death of Franco. The social effervescence of the fascinating period between 1976 and 1978 liberated the festivities from the tight control to which they had previously been subjected.” Brisset traces several influences on 21st century festivals in Spain, including tourism, political critique and satire, scholarly efforts to revive folkloric traditions, demands for women’s leadership, and even self-conscious neopaganism, which seems to owe more to the global New Age movement than to anything indigenously Spanish.

Perhaps we can say Wright’s view was interesting enough to prove flatly wrong. Although his values were benign, he dramatically underestimated the agency of the people he observed, which might be a lesson for all of us.

I think of a young woman Wright meets in Barcelona, whose role in life is to be a virgin. She never leaves her family’s funereal apartment because premarital contact with the outside world would open her honor to question. Meanwhile, her fiance, who is too poor to afford a wedding, regularly purchases sex from women he holds in contempt. Today, this woman could be alive and in her 70s. If she has survived–and I hope she has–she has seen extraordinary change.

Source: Brisset, Demetrio E., Novas festas profanas em Espanha, Revista Lusófona de Estudos Culturais, December 2019

opinion is dynamic and relational

“Sixty percent of Americans approve of the indictment of former President Donald Trump, according to a new CNN Poll.” This statistic results from randomly selecting more than 1,000 Americans and asking them to express their opinions in response to a multiple-choice survey question. Every respondent provided an answer. One might therefore presume that (almost) all Americans hold private opinions about the indictment, and they are able to disclose those views–truthfully or not–when the phone rings with a pollster on the line.

Is that what the survey results really mean? Here are 13 hypothetical scenarios in which someone opines in favor of the indictment:

  • A reads online about the indictment and forms a private opinion in favor of it. A pollster randomly calls A (out of the blue) to ask about the indictment. A recalls and shares his opinion, because he wants to be sincere in a conversation with a courteous stranger.
  • A pollster randomly selects B, who is a Democrat. Despite privately believing that the indictment is a stretch, B says that it is fair. She feels fine about this deception because Trump is a threat to democracy, and a poll is a means to influence public opinion.
  • A pollster randomly selects C, who thinks: “The 34 disclosed charges are only valid if they relate to an undisclosed additional felony, but I assume that this felony is serious or else Mr. Bragg would not have sought the indictment, so I will say it is justified.”
  • When randomly contacted for the same survey, D thinks, “Trump: bad. Indictment: bad for Trump. Therefore, Trump’s indictment: good.”
  • A family member asks E what she thinks about the indictment, so she forms an opinion in favor of it and casually states her view, without much emotion.
  • F’s friend says, “About time, Trump got arrested.” F generally admires this friend and takes her opinions seriously. F hasn’t thought about this news otherwise. She expresses agreement.
  • G’s colleague says, “I can’t believe those radicals are persecuting Trump.” G is generally annoyed by this colleague but has not otherwise thought about the indictment. G forms a private view in favor of it.
  • H serves on the New York grand jury and is required to vote whether to indict on each of 34 charges. Based on extensive evidence and deliberation, but with decidedly mixed and sober feelings, H votes to indict.
  • I paints a sign that says “Lock him up,” drives to New York City, and waves the sign in front of the national media while Trump is being arraigned. This person sincerely believes that Trump is guilty of the disclosed charges and thinks it is important to persuade the public of his guilt.
  • J joins I, also holding a similar sign, but isn’t especially interested in the hush money case and actually believes it is weak. J mainly wants to be on TV.
  • K is a Democratic senator and former prosecutor who feels that the New York State case is legally weak, politically detrimental to Democrats, and polarizing. However, K faces a potential primary challenger from the left. K issues a press release defending the indictment and calling for calm while the legal process plays out.
  • L is a liberal pundit who interviews six legal experts about the case, recognizes significant challenges to a successful prosecution, but carefully develops the strongest possible argument in favor of indictment in order to counter editorials that seem biased against Alvin Bragg.
  • M is a reporter who wants to write an objective and balanced news account of the indictment. A reads the quotes attributed to Alvin Bragg in M’s article and forms the opinion that the indictment is justified.

Each of these scenarios involves a person opining in favor of the indictment, yet their meanings are quite different. In several cases, the opinion is clearly dependent on context and could easily shift.

In all these scenarios, the opinion is relational–that is, formed during a purposive interaction with other people. Only a few of the scenarios involve thoughts that remain private. The rest are statements expressed to someone else for a reason, and sometimes at a cost.

Even the private thoughts are responses to others’ previous statements. For instance, A could not form an opinion about the indictment directly, as you might form an opinion of cold rain falling on your head. He must have heard or read one or more descriptions of the indictment that were written by people with intentions–even if, like the reporter labeled M, these writers would deny any bias. A may have chosen to read a description of Trump’s indictment for some specific reason, or the news might have assailed A’s consciousness without being sought, e.g., in the form of a headline.

A common implicit model of public opinion assumes that many people individually form authentic opinions of issues and store them in memory. On this model, well-known problems, such as the influence of the precise wording or ordering of questions or the refusal of many people to answer specific items, should have technical solutions. For instance, CNN should have offered a “not sure” option to reveal how many people lack opinions.

Some of the technical problems might result from a mismatch between the formulation of questions and the ways that people store their opinions. For example, I might have a strong, negative view of Donald Trump but no specific thoughts about the indictment. Then, when asked about the indictment, I could state a positive answer based on my hostility to Trump, a non-answer because I haven’t considered the indictment, or a negative response because (remembering a different stored opinion), I don’t trust the legal system. I would hold private opinions in my memory; the technical challenge is to describe them accurately using a standardized instrument.

Zaller & Feldman (1992, p. 586) argue that people generate potentially conflicting opinions on the same topic over time and store them all in their memory, retrieving a literally random one when asked about the topic. Then my real view is my whole set of relevant opinions, and the task is to depict that whole collection accurately. For instance, hard-core Democrats probably hold 95% anti-Trump opinions in their memories, but swing voters may be 50/50.

This model is fundamentally flawed if “opining” is an activity that people undertake in relationship with others for a purpose. In that case, an interview with a survey researcher is an odd kind of interaction that may not yield knowledge that generalizes to other contexts. Perrin and McFarland 2011 (p. 101) argue that “well-documented anomalies [in survey research,] such as question wording, question order, nonresponse, and even fictional questions on surveys … raise the possibility that responses are produced, not just evoked, by the artificial interaction between interviewer and respondent. Public opinion should be understood as collective, not just aggregated; dynamic, not static; and reactive, not unidirectional.”

Similarly, Paul Sniderman (2107, around p. 28) analyzes a survey respondent as a person in a conversation, and he applies the “maxims” that the philosopher H. P. (Paul) Grice found operative in ordinary conversations.

According to Grice (1967), when a regular conversation goes reasonably well, the speakers try to give relevant, sincere, and concise answers to questions and expect the same from one another. Thus, when a pollster suddenly calls you and asks what you think about the Trump indictment, you may try to give that person what they want: a concise and clear answer that is consistent with your real views. If you have no opinions, you may generate one to be helpful. You will also try to glean what you can from the interviewer, including any reasons that Trump may be guilty or innocent.

Rather than being manipulated by the question’s wording or holding soft and malleable opinions, you may instead be striving to agree–if possible–with your interlocutor, as you normally would with a friend. If the way a question is posed makes you think that Trump deserves to be indicted (even if that was not the pollster’s intention), you may agreeably opine in favor of the indictment. This behavior is not unreasonable; it reflects an effort to learn from the conversation. However, you might have reasons to distrust the pollster. You might believe that the media violates Grice’s maxims, in which case it may be attractive to give them an insincere response in return.

Again, an interaction with a pollster is a strange one, with no clear benefits for the respondent and minimal cues about the interviewer’s trustworthiness. Indeed, interviewers, who are paid phone-bank employees, are instructed not to disclose their own views, as normal people would. As Nina Eliasoph writes:

Research on inner beliefs, ideologies, and values is usually based on surveys, which ask people questions about which they may never have thought, and most likely have never discussed. … The researcher analyzing survey responses must then read political motives and understandings back into the responses, trying to reconstruct the private mental processes the interviewee ‘must have’ undergone to reach a response. That type of research would more aptly be called private opinion research, since it attempts to bypass the social nature of opinions, and tries to wrench the personally embodied, sociable display of opinions away from the opinions themselves. But in everyday life, opinions always come in a form: flippant, ironic, anxious, determined, abstractly distant, earnest, engaged, effortful. And they always come in a context–a bar, a charity group, a family, a picket–that implicitly invites or discourages debate (Eliasoph 1998 p. 18)

I agree with this line of argument, which suggests skepticism about survey research (even though I conduct and use such research).

I would add that each of our opinions also stands in relationships with some of our other opinions. As we opine during conversations with other human beings, we are more or less conscious that the various things we say (or privately believe) should fit together. Not only should each proposition that we endorse be logically consistent with the others, but they should tend to explain or entail each other.

Testing our own consistency is challenging because we do not have access to a database of all our stored opinions that we can audit for contradictions and gaps. On the contrary, a few of our own opinions are salient for us at a given time because of the situation we’re in, including what other people have recently said or asked. We lack the cognitive capacity to retrieve all the other things we have ever felt or said, some of which could easily be contradictory. Most of our own opinions lie beyond the illumination of the present.

It would be easier to achieve consistency if that were the only criterion for adopting a new view. We might then be able to retrieve our closely related existing opinions and reject any new idea if it conflicts with them. For example, I might hold a positive or negative view of Trump, and anytime anyone asks me anything relevant to him, I would decide whether it was good or bad for Trump and opine accordingly.

But that is the foolish consistency of a closed mind. Real people, confronted with the complexity and nuance of real issues, often endorse views that do not cohere so neatly, even in close succession. For instance, Jennifer Hochschild (1981, p. 252) describes a subject who is ambivalent about welfare policy because he believes in ideas of hard-work and independence but also that the rich are mostly un-deserving and that poor people need help. The various views that he shares with Hochschild may all be valid; it is only from the perspective of someone who wants this person to make a decision about welfare policy that they are even in tension. But this interviewee is not a legislator or referendum-voter who confronts a decision. The individual is describing many aspects of a complex situation.

Imagine that people can only recall and think about a few ideas at a time, and those ideas are completely relative to the context—for instance, dependent on how the interviewer has phrased the question. Then we are all blundering around in the dark. But that model does not fit familiar examples. Many people use a few closely related opinions as frequent reference points when they evaluate current events and issues. Some such opinions are invidious, such as racial bias against Alvin Bragg. But some are defensible and based in prior arguments and experiences. For instance, maybe the main flaw of current American politics is partisan polarization, and the Trump indictment will exacerbate the problem. Or perhaps Trump is a 21st-century populist authoritarian, and anything that checks his impunity is valuable.

General doctrines like these can operate as biases. Individuals who always return to a few premises make poor discussion-partners and may have trouble learning from others. Yet people with general views do not randomly select opinions from their stores of prior ideas. They hold organized bodies of thought that may have merit. And other cases reflect more responsiveness. For example:

  • A person is asked about the indictment of Trump, retrieves several previously formed opinions about the defendant, the US legal system, the relationship between prosecutions and elections, and the witness Michael Cohen and tries to construct a view that makes sense of these propositions.
  • A person (like G, above) reacts negatively to an annoying pro-Trump interlocutor and adopts a positive opinion of the indictment, but then she recalls that she generally opposes criminal prosecutions in comparable cases and decides to withdraw her view.
  • A person is not sure what to make of the indictment, reads several arguments on both sides, and remains uncertain but now holds a more complex view of the issues.

Speaking for myself … I recently encountered an argument that was new to me: the Sixth Amendment requires charges to be publicly disclosed at the time of arrest, which the New York prosecutors failed to do with Trump. That argument challenged my prior view of the case. I worked to incorporate it into my thinking. I struggled between: 1) “Good point; this case really is flawed,” and 2) “Since Trump can file a petition to get all charges disclosed, his constitutional rights are protected.” Whether my ultimate conclusion is wise or not, I was trying to reason based on inputs from other people.

I would not claim that any of these responses is typical. They involve the labor of forming and recalling one’s own views, absorbing others’ opinions, and trying to harmonize them, which requires some civic concern and some intellectual rigor and humility. We all often fail on those counts.

I would only claim that these forms of reasoning occur. Their very possibility implies that we may hold ideas that relate to each other, even as we interact with other people who have ideas of their own. This implies quite a different model of public opinion than the now-standard one, which envisions that individuals store lists of views in their private memories and reveal them–more or less honestly–when asked.

See also:  individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuonMapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas; against the idea of viewpoint diversity. Sources: Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland, “Social Theory and Public Opinion,” Annual Review of Sociology 2011. 37:87–107; Zaller, J. & Feldman, S. (1992), A simple theory of the survey response: answering questions versus revealing preferences, American Journal of Political Science, 36:3: 579-616; Sniderman, Paul M.. The Democratic Faith: Essays on Democratic Citizenship (Yale University Press, 2017); Grice, Paul, “Logic and Conversation” (1967), in Grice, Studies in the Ways of Words (Harvard, 1989), pp. 22-44; Eliasoph, Nina, Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press, 1998); Hochschild, Jennifer. 1981. What’s Fair? American’s Attitudes Toward Distributive Justice. Harvard University Press

Machado: Glory is never what I’ve sought

Antonio Machado begins the 53 short “Proverbs and Songs” from Fields of Castille (1912) with one that announces his intentions:

Nunca perseguí la gloria 
ni dejar en la memoria 
de los hombres mi canción; 
yo amo los mundos sutiles, 
ingrávidos y gentiles 
como pompas de jabón. 
Me gusta verlos pintarse 
de sol y grana, volar 
bajo el cielo azul, temblar 
súbitamente y quebrarse.

I’ve tried an English version that is a little loose to allow unforced near-rhymes that might honor Machado’s form:

Glory is never what I've sought,
not to print my song in others' thought.
I love delicate worlds, subtle
and weightless as a soap bubble.
I like to watch them decorate
themselves with sun and scarlet,
float below the sky's blue,
tremble, and--pop--they're through.

See also: “a poem should.”

against the idea of viewpoint diversity

In “People deserve safety on college campuses, ideas don’t,” Andrew J. Perrin and Christian Lundberg make an important argument against the idea of viewpoint diversity. They write:

Emphasizing viewpoint teaches students to not bother separating ideas from the people who hold them. Viewpoint is a visual metaphor that attaches what a person believes to where they sit: Viewpoints are properties people own and express, not ideas to be evaluated. It’s a classic ad hominem fallacy that renders argument fruitless.

We all draw on experience, and our experiences are influenced by our social positions. That is why demographic diversity is intellectually valuable. If, for example, men monopolize the conversation, then issues and solutions that are more obvious to other genders will probably be overlooked, or, at best, underplayed. The fact that some individuals demonstrate exceptional insight into others’ experiences does not negate this point. (See “Dear Mrs Amartya Sen, men will never understand us.”)

However, the metaphor of a viewpoint makes people’s ideas look like automatic functions of their social positions. It overlooks the diversity and freedom of individuals in any given social group; it makes reasoning and argument look fruitless; it implies that incorporating individuals with additional viewpoints will automatically improve a group and should be the main goal; and it suggests that a critical assessment of an idea is an attack on the person who holds it. As Perrin and Lundberg conclude:

Settling for exposure to viewpoints — as if they were infections to which one might develop antibodies — places them outside the realm of argument and reason. We fail those on the political left by ignoring conservative arguments instead of engaging them. Meanwhile, conservative students learn that their ideas are something others should be exposed to rather than meaningfully engaged.

I believe that the metaphor of a viewpoint is deeply rooted, and that challenging it could be quite fruitful. Put more generally, the image of a point in space is remarkably widely used to define people and ideas.

The most familiar example is the left-to-right political spectrum, which allows a person, an opinion or position, or a party or movement to be located at one point on a straight line. People or ideas can easily be visualized as points in two-dimensional space if they are located along two axes at once. For instance, Americans have often been described as liberal versus conservative on economics and on race, as two separate dimensions. Three dimensions are harder to depict on paper or a flat screen, although a three-dimensional model can be rotated and presented meaningfully on a plane. In any case, mathematics allows adding more than three dimensions, even though we can’t picture them visually, by simply tagging a given person, idea, or party or movement with many variables at once. Prevailing statistical methods, such as factor analysis, treat people, ideas, or groups as points in many-dimensional space and envision differences as the distance between positions. Many models try to explain why a person occupies a given point based on other known information about the same individual, such as party identification or race.

If a model employs many dimensions, it can incorporate any amount of quantitative data about the people and ideas being studied. Since each person or idea has a good chance of occupying a unique position in multidimensional space, there is relatively little danger that individuals will be casually lumped together in large groups.

However, some kinds of information must be lost in a model based on points in space. First, this metaphor conceals the way that ideas may connect to each other. If respondents are asked many questions on a survey, standard statistical methods capture correlations among their answers but cannot detect logical relationships among any individual’s ideas. Does a person believe one thing because of another belief, or despite it, or as two disconnected ideas? The structure of individuals’ thinking—if there is any—is lost. In contrast, when we read an impressive political argument or speech, we are primarily interested in its structure: in why (or whether) each point implies the next, or qualifies it, or contradicts it. A metaphor of points in space makes everyone look much more simple-minded than any careful speaker or writer.

To be sure, some of us probably fail to connect our separate ideas in reasonable ways, but we cannot know how many from standard survey research. The metaphor of points in space is biased against detecting complexity of thought, if there is any (Levine 2022).

Importantly, large bodies of research based on this model find that people are not responsive to arguments, that their beliefs are either incoherent or driven by indefensible biases, that they supply reasons after the fact to rationalize what they already desire—in short, that anything remotely resembling a deliberative democracy is psychologically naïve. Paul Sniderman—who dissents in interesting ways from what he calls “the textbook view of citizens’ capacity to reason about politics”—summarizes the consensus of his fellow political scientists as follows. “Average citizens’ knowledge about politics and public affairs is threadbare; their political beliefs minimally coherent, indeed, often self-contradictory; their support for core democratic values all too likely to crumble in the face of a threat, real or imaginary” (Sniderman 2017, pp. 42, 107).

Factor analysis is a statistical technique. It is often described as scientific, where “science” means a cumulative, empirical research project of testing hypotheses with data. Famous contributors to the statistical study of political opinions and behavior who have used a point-in-space model are English-speaking social and behavioral scientists like Charles Spearman, who invented factor analysis, and Philip Converse and his colleagues, who pioneered academic political survey research with the American National Election Studies.

A strangely similar metaphor is also influential in a very different tradition: Continental European political philosophy. Until the late 1800s, the words “culture” and “religion” had made sense only in the singular. People either had culture or not; they were either religious or not. But Romantic-Era thinkers began to see deep plurality. There were many cultures, religions, and nations (or peoples), understood as distinct in fundamental ways. These thinkers imagined that individuals saw the world from the perspective of their respective cultures or religions. Two people from different cultures would behold a different reality, although people who shared a culture would share a common worldview. A word for everything that can be seen from a given point is “horizon.” Perspective, viewpoint, and/or horizon were keywords in the thought of Herder, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and many other highly abstract European philosophers.

Again, a person with a perspective occupies a point in space. This metaphor generates insights—there may be a French, or a modern, or a bourgeois perspective on certain topics—but it also obscures and creates conundrums. If people hold all their beliefs because of their fundamental perspectives or viewpoints, then a critique of any of their beliefs can be taken as an objection to the person and their right to speak. In that case, arguments about ideas can seem uncivil and even threatening.

Furthermore, if human beings are assigned to cultures on a “one-to-a-customer basis,” (Wolcott 1991, p. 247), and if each culture fundamentally shapes how all its members understand the world, then how can anyone know anything objectively, including the nature of other people’s cultures? Surely everything we think is relative to our perspective. Deep cultural relativism leads to basic skepticism or even nihilism, as Nietzsche most famously argued.

One way out is to argue that a fair institution is one that treats all cultures and religions equally and neutrally. For instance, the great American political philosopher John Rawls assumes “that a modern democratic society is characterized … by a plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines” (Rawls 1993, pp. xvi, 59). Each of these doctrines determines each person’s values. Rawls concludes that a fair government must be neutral among these doctrines; indeed, he sees justice as fairness. Demands for “viewpoint diversity” on college campuses have a similar logic. However, critics have argued that neutrality is impossible (liberal institutions inevitably reflect specific values) and mere fairness among perspectives is an unsatisfactory account of justice.

Whether it is invoked in a statistical model or a work of political philosophy, a point in space from which one sees the world is a metaphor. It should not be taken too literally. We have other ways of describing the complexity of human interactions. We can model conversations as games with players and moves. We can envision ideas flowing through society on a hydraulic model, with pressure and viscosity (Allen 2015). Caroline Levine shows that literary writing often makes use of four forms—wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks—to represent social phenomena (C. Levine 2015).

Indeed, we live in a period of fascination with networks: electronic, neural, social, semantic, and many other kinds. This means that we have powerful new techniques for analyzing networks, and many recent studies apply these techniques to people and ideas in ways that offer insights about politics.

This is why I have been working with colleagues to replace the metaphor of points in space with one of networks. I have introduced the technical term idiodictuon for the network of ideas that each individual holds, where the connections among ideas are reasons.

In this model, when people discuss issues, they are sharing ideas and connections that others may choose to incorporate into their respective idiodictuons. Whether we encounter another person’s ideas depends on whether we are connected to that person in some kind of social network. Human beings who discuss within a network of relationships form a phylodictuon (a shared network of ideas, including ones that conflict).

It is generally good for a phylodictuon to encompass diverse ideas and ideas from diverse people (which are different matters), yet the job of a wise community is to improve its collection of ideas and how they are organized, not merely to ensure that all available ideas are included. As Perrin and Lundberg write, “Confronting serious ideas means that while every person deserves safety on campus, no idea does; all ideas deserve the respect that a real stress test brings.”

See also: individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas; a mistaken view of culture; Teaching Honest History: a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain; etc.

Sources: Perrin, Andrew J. and Christian Lundberg, “People deserve safety on college campuses. Ideas don’t,” The Boston Globe, March 29; Paul M. Sniderman, The Democratic Faith: Essays on Democratic Citizenship (Yale University Press); Peter Levine, “Mapping ideologies as networks of ideas,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 2022, DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2022.2138293; Harry F. Wolcott, “Propriospect and the acquisition of culture., Anthropology & Education Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1991): 251-273; John Rawls (Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Danielle Allen, “Reconceiving Public Spheres: The Flow Dynamics Model,” in Allen and Jennifer S. Light, From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp. 178-207; Caroline Levine, Caroline, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton University Press, 2015).