I’ve written before about the right-wing heritage of hating sociology. I’ve written about it coming from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and from one of the ur-texts of modern conservatism, Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.
The more I look into the roots of modern conservatism, the more evidence I find of how widespread this contempt, hatred, and fear of the social sciences was even then. It really makes me aware of the pickle that sociology as a discipline finds itself in.
One reason why hardcore conservatives today have a hate on for the social sciences is that these sciences usually uncover facts that are very inconvenient to the right-wing agenda.
I mean evidence like the persistent poverty of many people, despite the certainty that free-market deregulation would improve their lives. Or evidence of how systematic racism and unconscious biases about people actually work. Or how disastrous public health trends result from an inaccessible medical system and environmental destruction.
All that is simple stuff. I’m more interested in the stranger ideas that are rooted in the historical influencers of modern conservatism. One argument came from Leo Strauss, a protozoan progenitor of the movement. He has very different philosophical priorities than my chosen Big Four, and his writing was never embraced by a wider population.
Strauss was a professor for his entire life, and engaged the philosophical tradition alone. He developed ideas that influenced many in the neoconservative movement. According to Wikipedia at least, Paul Wolfowitz attended some of his lectures when he was a student. But at best that’s an indirect effect on the new conservatives.
I’m turning to his work for this part of my Utopias project research because of his philosophical influence on the concept of human rights that inspires much of that movement. Liberty above all.
But you’ll always discover surprises. I didn’t expect to find such harsh remarks about social sciences. It makes my infamous ex-PM seem one prominent sign of a larger trend in the right wing.
Actually, I found a couple of profound and weird ideas among this era of conservative thinking.* Strauss’ is that social science denies the freedom – and so the moral agency – of humanity.
* What should I call this group of thinkers that I’m looping together by my own priorities? I don’t want to give them some generic name like the classical pre-neocons. Too ordinary. Maybe conservatives in the shadow of Stalin and the Holocaust. Haunted conservatism. There’s a desperate terror to their fears. I remember that from reading Hayek.
So that’s a pretty intense idea. But it makes sense. It’s rooted in the popular intellectual conception of science that was pervasive in the 19th century: if science could deal with it, it was a deterministic mechanism.
Statistical and probability science threw all ideas about strict mechanism out the window. But those ideas were so complicated, it’s taken decades to develop a good pop science set of metaphors to explain what they actually mean.
So when Strauss saw a rapidly developing science of using mathematics to describe human behaviour, he thought it was about determining the unthinking mechanisms of humanity. They aimed to measure human thought and action with the same accuracy of falling balls in inertial physics.
It sounds kind of ridiculous today, but outside the disciplines themselves, that was still the mainstream conception of what scientific knowledge was. Strauss was an academic philosopher, an interpreter of the classical works of Western political theory.
He had no idea what was going on in the real world. To Be Continued . . .
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Editor’s Note. A quick thought about composing my Utopias book. I’ll probably include a passage about the roots of hating sociology, since I’ve found such ideas in two early influential Haunted Conservatives. Three fairly disconnected occurrences and it’ll definitely have a spot.