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Wisdom of the West, September 1991


by Travis Hardin

Continuing last month's development of world views based on epistemological position, let's imagine an epistemology-determining test has been created and administered worldwide. Each individual's score is plotted, and each turns out to be a normal bell curve ranging over one or two knowledge sources. Millions of curves are summed, yielding a wider bell curve centered on authoritarianism. (SEE ILLUSTRATION IN LAST COLUMN.) This conjecture seems reasonable because: (1)The adjacent sources are compatible, suggesting a natural continuum. (2)Biologically, emotionally, and mentally, the imperative of the human animal is subordination to the herd's leader and the leader's circle. Where the currency is power and the milieu is fear, the primal, parsimonious, and often sole epistemological option is to believe the approved authorities without question. Among moderns, "The average man's mind is constructed for power," agrees Bill Moyers' A World of Ideas 10/11/88 guest on MPT, whose name I hope a reader can help me recall. (3)We observe that the religious and conventional world views are predominant.

The two normal curves that society most expects one to be in the center of are epistemology and intellectual ability (I.Q.), with physical appearance, sexuality, humor, rank or birth, education, and hundreds more following.

If person #1 perceives himself to be or wishes to be in the center of several normal curves, a regular person, unremarkable yet solid, and in favor with his society and its leaders, then his identity is attached to society's mean. He tolerates little individual variation, seeing them as deviant. At the center of the pack, his elemental fear is of becoming an outsider. He feels for insiders, but cannot feel for outsiders. His psychology motivates him to follow society's invariable rules. Society is basic, he intellectualizes. But it is his anxiety that is basic. His status anxiety is that he is IN, and he wants to stay IN. The middle wants to preserve itself.

The huge lump in the center of every normal curve is troubling to those of us who are not and can never be in the center of many of them. Our thoughts produce anxiety.

If a person #2 perceives herself or is perceived to be on one of the tails of one or more normal curves, her identity is with the outsider, of which she is one. Her dual elemental fears are of being chained by society's rules and of being turned out of society. She feels sympathy for other outsiders and minorities because she is one. Individual freedom, she intellectualizes. But it is her status anxiety at work--an anxiety that desires and seeks rest in others' understanding and acceptance of her variations. She sees toleration of broad individual variation as essential for the amelioration of her fears.

We just described the most basic origins of conservatism and liberalism, respectively. The stances are psychological, but are usually rationalized.

In any case, I would like to suggest that we now have presented the elements necessary for outlining a good many world views: Five epistemological position and two status anxiety factor.

Encircle the scientific world view with the liberal anxiety factor, and the resulting world view may be called the humanist or psychiatric world view.

Encircle the conventional world view with conservatism and you get a political world view.

Encircle the religious world view with conservatism, and you get Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson, Khomeni: A theocratic world view.

A world view where conservatism encompasses one of the epistemological tails would be rare, for the tails are not conservative territory.

Notes: (1) In describing world views, I have build on ideas I first saw expressed by sociologists Laurence Veysey (The Communal Experience, 1973) and John Lofland (Doomsday Cult, 1966).