Why do people believe what they believe?

I’ve always been fascinated by the question of why people hold the political beliefs they do. In part this is because of how badly most people handle this question. From across the political spectrum, there is a pervasive tendency to explain away the beliefs of others: idiocy, ignorance, naivete, self-interest etc. In a recent Twitter conversation, someone invoked psychoanalysis to explain why neoliberals are committed to their project. Why are we so bad at dealing with the beliefs of others? To a certain extent it’s because we don’t approach them in a vacuum, we too have our beliefs and these stand in relations of contradiction or compatibility to those of others. It’s also perhaps, as Chantal Mouffe might suggest, a reflection of political incivility within the unhealthy democracies of late capitalism: seeing the other as an enemy to be defeated, rather than an adversary to debate with.

However I think a much more important factor is the sheer complexity of the question. Why do people believe what they believe? Our beliefs are caused and yet somehow transcend those causes. Our political worldview is marked by our natal context and yet escapes it. If we treat the question too abstractly we risk subsuming the messy complexity of the political worldview of thinking, feeling and fearing embodied agents into the conceptual abstraction entailed when we talk about things like ‘socialism’, ‘liberalism’, ‘libertarianism’ etc. This can seem justified by the fact there are people who consciously embrace the systematicity of these positions but this blinds us to (a) their normative commitments are always more complex than their stated beliefs make apparent (b) such people are, in this strict sense of having made an agential commitment to a position, surely a minority. An alternative approach is to treat the question in an empiricist manner, risking that we collapse a subject’s political worldview into the chain of events which led them to their present position and beliefs.

To get beyond these two approaches, I think what Ruth Levitas talks about as an archaeological approach to understanding political thinking is extremely useful. My understanding of this is based on a talk I saw her give two years ago  (see below) so what follows is more a summary of the line of thought this sparked off in myself, rather than an accurate summary of her thinking on the issue.

The archaeology of political thought involves making explicit the idea of a good society that is embedded in particular political positions. These may be, to varying extents, inchoate. Alternatively there may be a contradiction between what an individual expressly endorses as a good society and that which is implied by their substantive politics. But there is nonetheless a deep structure to political position taking. When we make normative claims about social and political arrangements, our statements carry further normative entailments which frequently outstrip our discursive awareness of them. This is why dialogue and debate help us elaborate our worldview i.e. arguing about politics helps expand our awareness of the unacknowledged entailments which stems from our acknowledged commitments, as well as offering us the opportunity to review and revise them.

If we consider this in biographical terms then the picture becomes, superficially at least, rather complex. The coherency of a political world view is something which is real (a logical structure holds between normative propositions) but unavoidably partial at the level of the actual (the cognitive tracing through and drawing out of these connections by a subject) and the empirical (the observable political commitments made by a subject). However we can make this complexity manageable if we focus on the actual: what brings about this ‘tracing out’ of the further commitments entailed by our existing beliefs? 

I think it’s inevitably sparked by the necessity of making sense of our experience. We read new things, we encounter new people, we discuss new ideas and we see things happen in the world. In doing so we are confronted with novelty which stands in a contradictory or complimentary relationship to our existing commitments. In doing so, assuming we don’t engage in what are arguably extremely common avoidance strategics to evade the moment, we are compelled to trace out entailments of our commitments.

To put it more directly, I’m saying that deliberation is central to this everyday experience of being a normative being. There is a rationalistic moment to this deliberation given that it is driven by things we experience as contradicting or complementing our existing beliefs. But it is not in any meaningful sense a rationalistic process. What can be reconstructed in rationalistic terms represents the possible contours of normative commitment but what leads us to make choices is the fact that things matter to us. To bring this back to the original question: adequately making sense of the political beliefs of our opponents involves recognising:

  1. They are also beings to whom these things matter
  2. Their current beliefs are part of a biographical unfolding driven by a perpetual struggle to make sense of what they encounter
  3. Their backgrounds have shaped their beliefs, in so far as it has patterned the novelty they’ve confronted and the cultural resources available to them in making sense of this novelty
  4. Their unfolding set of normative commitments have also been shaped ‘internally’ by the sort of deep structure, most easily identifiable in what we term ideology but by no means exhausted by this.
  5. While this deep structure exercises causal power via logical relations of contradiction and complementarity, normativity itself is a causal force. Ideas of the good life and the good society (encoded in mental images and cultural products) can ‘pull’ us towards them. We can be driven to systematise our thinking because of our desire to get ‘closer’ to the notion of the good life and/or good society embedded within it.

For an actual case study of this approach, this post discusses common attitudes towards asexual people.


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