Chapter 1

The Role of Visions

One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. Yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too often to be coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different premises – often implicit – are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works.

It would be good to be able to say that we should dispense with visions entirely, and deal only with reality. But that may be the most utopian vision of all. Reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind.

Visions are like maps that guide us through a tangle of bewildering complexities. Like maps, visions have to leave out many concrete features in order to enable us to focus on a few key paths to our goals. Visions are indispensable – but dangerous, precisely to the extent that we confuse them with reality itself. What has been deliberately neglected may not in fact turn out to be negligible in its effect on the results. That has to be tested against evidence.

A vision has been described as a “pre-analytic cognitive act.”1 It is what we sense or feel before we have constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory, much less deduced any specific consequences as hypotheses to be tested against evidence. A vision is our sense of how the world works. For example, primitive man's sense of why leaves move may have been that some spirit moves them, and his sense of why tides rise or volcanoes erupt may have run along similar lines. Newton had a very different vision of how the world works and Einstein still another. For social phenomena, Rousseau had a very different vision of human causation from that of Edmund Burke.

Visions are the foundations on which theories are built. The final structure depends not only on the foundation, but also on how carefully and consistently the framework of theory is constructed and how well buttressed it is with hard facts. Visions are very subjective, but well-constructed theories have clear implications, and facts can test and measure their objective validity. The world learned at Hiroshima that Einstein's vision of physics was not just Einstein's vision.

Logic is an essential ingredient in the process of turning a vision into a theory, just as empirical evidence is then essential for determining the validity of that theory. But it is the initial vision which is crucial for our glimpse of insight into the way the world works. In Pareto's words:

Logic is useful for proof but almost never for making discoveries. A man receives certain impressions; under their influence he states – without being able to say either how or why, and if he attempts to do so he deceives himself – a proposition, which can be verified experimentally...2

Visions are all, to some extent, simplistic – though that is a term usually reserved for other people's visions, not our own. The ever-changing kaleidoscope of raw reality would defeat the human mind by its complexity, except for the mind's ability to abstract, to pick out parts and think of them as the whole. This is nowhere more necessary than in social visions and social theory, dealing with the complex and often subconscious interactions of millions of human beings.

No matter what vision we build on, it will never account for “every sparrow's fall.” Social visions especially must leave many important phenomena unexplained, or explained only in ad hoc fashion, or by inconsistent assumptions that derive from more than one vision. The purest vision may not be the basis of the most impressive theories, much less the most valid ones. Yet purer visions may be more revealing as to unspoken premises than are the more complex theories. For purposes of understanding the role of visions, William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) may tell us more than Marx's Capital. Indeed, we may understand more of Marx's Capital after we have seen how similar premises worked out in the simpler model of William Godwin. Likewise, the vision of social causation underlying the theories of the Physiocrats was in its essentials very much like the vision elaborated in a more complex and sophisticated way by Adam Smith and still later (and still more so) by Milton Friedman.

A vision, as the term is used here, is not a dream, a hope, a prophecy, or a moral imperative, though any of these things may ultimately derive from some particular vision. Here a vision is a sense of causation. It is more like a hunch or a “gut feeling” than it is like an exercise in logic or factual verification. These things come later, and feed on the raw material provided by the vision. If causation proceeds as our vision conceives it to, then certain other consequences follow, and theory is the working out of what those consequences are. Evidence is fact that discriminates between one theory and another. Facts do not “speak for themselves.” They speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theory or visions are mere isolated curiosities.

Theories can be devastated by facts but they can never be proved to be correct by facts. Ultimately there are as many visions as there are human beings, if not more, and more than one vision may be consistent with a given fact. Facts force us to discard some theories – or else to torture our minds trying to reconcile the irreconcilable – but they can never put the final imprimatur of ultimate truth on a given theory. What empirical verification can do is to reveal which of the competing theories currently being considered is more consistent with what is known factually. Some other theory may come along tomorrow that is still more consistent with the facts, or explains those facts with fewer, clearer, or more manageable assumptions – or covers both this and other empirical phenomena hitherto explained by a separate theory.

Social visions are important in a number of ways. The most obvious is that policies based on a certain vision of the world have consequences that spread through society and reverberate across the years, or even across generations or centuries. Visions set the agenda for both thought and action. Visions fill in the necessarily large gaps in individual knowledge. Thus, for example, an individual may act in one way in some area in which he has great knowledge, but in just the opposite way elsewhere, where he is relying on a vision he has never tested empirically. A doctor may be a conservative on medical issues and a liberal on social and political issues, or vice versa.

The political battles of the day are a potpourri of special interests, mass emotions, personality clashes, corruption, and numerous other factors. Yet the enduring historic trends have a certain consistency that reflects certain visions. Often special interests prevail to the extent that they can mobilize support from the general public's responsiveness to visions which can be invoked for or against a given policy. From the standpoint of personal motivation, ideas may be simply the chips with which special interests, demagogues, and opportunists of various sorts play the political game. But from a broader perspective of history, these individuals and organizations can be viewed as simply carriers of ideas, much as bees inadvertently carry pollen – playing a vital role in the grand scheme of nature while pursuing a much narrower individual purpose.

The role of rationally articulated ideas may be quite modest in its effect on a given election, a legislative vote, or an action of a head of state. Yet the atmosphere in which such decisions take place may be dominated by a particular vision – or by a particular conflict of visions. Where intellectuals have played a role in history, it has not been so much by whispering words of advice into the ears of political overlords as by contributing to the vast and powerful currents of conceptions and misconceptions that sweep human action along. The effects of visions do not depend upon their being articulated, or even on decision-makers' being aware of them. “Practical” decision-makers often disdain theories and visions, being too busy to examine the ultimate basis on which they are acting. However, the object here will be precisely to examine the underlying social visions whose conflicts have shaped our times and may well shape times to come.

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