Indispensable Visions

“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.”—Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions

As part of my reading group I am devoting some time to Sowell’s study of the ideological origins of political struggles (our last topic was Hobbes’ Leviathan) . I commented on A Conflict of Visions a few years ago and explained his idea of “constrained” and “unconstrained” outlooks. It boils down to what people think of human nature and to what extent people’s activities can (or cannot) be shaped by deliberate policies: can the government eliminate poverty? how should crime be punished? can we disarm in the face of hostile nations? and so on.

Sowell says that visions are necessary but also dangerous. Naturally we may wonder why, if they are so prone to confusion or abuse (Nazism and Communism being but extreme examples), we should have them at all. A vision is defined as “our sense of how the world works.” It is something that precedes logic or empirical testing. This does not necessarily invalidate the usefulness of visions. Without them men would not feel inspired to launch crusades, undertake voyages of discovery, devote themselves to missionary work, and so forth.

All great theories are built on visions. Sowell explains that logic alone does not lead to innovations, although reasoned study is used to test a vision and turn it into a theory. It is a truism, he says, that “facts speak for themselves.” Observation and interpretation are required to make them known. But more than that it takes a desire to want to know what these facts mean in our own lives.

The admission that people cannot live without some “vision” seems almost contrarian, given the author’s empirical approach to politics and economics. Yet it is Sowell’s understanding of man’s limited and often irrational nature that allows him to acknowledge this. “Theories,” he notes paradoxically, “can be devastated by facts but they can never be proved to be correct by facts.”

From this one might deduce that it takes a vision to counter or defeat a vision. There are thinkers who are purely skeptical, like Schopenhauer or Mencken, but they do not hold sway over whole societies in the way that Christ or Marx have. Even if one offers what seems to be irrefutable criticism of a theory like Communism it will not be enough to topple such a system. This why it can be so frustrating to some people when arguing with fair-minded opponents who actually concede weaknesses in their philosophy on isolated points. Because, even if forced to make many such concessions, this will not necessarily result in surrendering their vision unless they can be persuaded that a better vision can take its place.

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