When I was studying physics at the University of Cambridge (U.K.), I discovered that students of social and political science there are required to read a book that prima facie has nothing to do with politics at all.
It is called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), and it is by Thomas Kuhn, a historian of science.
Our paradigms govern how we perceive the world, not just how we interpret it.Following its publication, the book was immediately recognized as a seminal work in the history and philosophy of science, but the importance of its fundamental idea to all fields of human knowledge is evident, for in it, Kuhn elucidates the idea of the Paradigm.
A paradigm can be thought of as the set of concepts, and relationships among concepts, through which one understands the world. A paradigm is typically associated with its own language or vocabulary.
That our concepts determine how we interpret the world is obvious, but Kuhn said much more than that. He explained that our paradigms, or preconceptions in the broadest and deepest sense, govern how we perceive the world, not just how we interpret it. In other words, they determine how we see the world before our conscious mind can even work out what we are seeing.
In other words, Goethe’s line, “We see only what we know,” is literally true. Most importantly, it is in the nature of paradigms for us to be unaware when they are “operating,” and any paradigm will govern our perceptions in a way that reinforces that paradigm.
We Ignore Incongruities
One of the most famous examples of this power of paradigms was an experiment conducted at Harvard University in 1949, called the Perceptions of Incongruity experiment.
In this experiment, subjects were shown normal playing cards and asked to call out what they saw. This is easy to do and subjects would invariably identify the cards correctly. After a while, however, the experimenters would slip in “incongruous cards” in which the colors red and black were switched, so the subjects would be shown black hearts and diamonds and red clubs and spades.
What did the subjects see when shown those incongruous cards? According to what they called out, they did not see the incongruous cards, but normal playing cards – the cards they were expecting to see, without noticing the incongruity.
For example, when they were shown a black six of hearts, they might call out simply “six of hearts” or “six of spades” – neither of which was correct. The important point is that the subjects didn’t misunderstand or misinterpret anything – they actually misperceived something according to the paradigm in which they were operating; in this case, “the playing card paradigm,” comprising everything they already know about playing cards.
Subjects would continue to fail to notice the incongruous cards, until they were displayed for longer and longer times. After a while, subjects would show a physiological reaction as they became uncomfortable, knowing somehow that something was wrong, but not being conscious of what. Only later, when they had been forced to look at a number of incongruous cards for a very long time did they “get” what was going on and see what they were looking at.
The inability to translate between paradigms would be incidental if it were not the sine qua non of political distrust and conflict.Paradigms exist in all areas of human life – cultural, religious, political, scientific, and even linguistic. Words represent the basic concepts through which we see the world. For example, English-speakers use the notion "home" without a thought, but it is a particularly Anglo notion, which does not quite mean residence, house, domicile etc., and which cannot be translated exactly into another language.
This inability to translate between paradigms is called incommensurability, to use Kuhn’s word. This fact would be incidental and abstract if we did not live in a world in which incommensurability, which more prosaically might be called a mismatch among different people’s preconceptions, is the sine qua non of political distrust and conflict.
Our Political Paradigms
Many (but thankfully a declining number of) Americans broadly operate in one of the two mainstream political paradigms of Democratic or Republican, Liberal or Conservative. To be sure, the literal meanings of the words “liberal” and “conservative” do not accurately describe the policies supported by those who self-identify with those labels, but these nevertheless indicate a certain set of assumptions and beliefs through which Americans see the world.
In our two-party system, such people see political victory in beating “the other side.” Electoral victory – and the ability to shift the course of the nation, at least on a few issues – consists largely of getting those who are not trapped in either paradigm to vote with those who operate in one rather than the other. That swinging vote is usually not more than 6% of the population.
But those two paradigms are really subsets of the overarching paradigm of “mainstream American politics.” One unstated assumption of this paradigm is that politics is a zero-sum game, in which one groups wins (for a while) when it gets its hands on the apparatus of political power to make the world more like it wants it to be, by making it less like its opponents want it to be.
Selling someone something is not the hard bit; getting someone out of their current paradigm is.Although, for example, Democrats and Republicans have different views of the culpability of business and the State when it comes to our social and economic problems, neither questions the overarching paradigmatic assumption that money should be created out of nothing by banks under special license of the government. Neither sees the causes of the problems for which they wish to attach blame and offer solutions; although Democrats and Republicans are concerned with their favored rights, they fail to see the fundamental issue of the existence of state institutions with power to take any those rights away in the first place. The causes do not get treated and the harm inevitably continues; and so on.
Some of us stand not only outside one of the two political paradigms of Democratic and Conservative, but outside of that overarching paradigm of mainstream politics. We might flatter ourselves that we see more of what is so. Yet many of us are no more sophisticated when it comes to helping others out of their faulty paradigms (the playing card paradigm of establishment politics) in the hope of enabling them to see what’s so (the color-switched cards of reality).
And for us liberty-minded folks who see that the problem is not the Republican paradigm or the Democratic paradigm but the Republicrat paradigm, this is the point: selling liberty is not the hard bit; rather, getting someone out of their current paradigm is the hard bit. Once you unsell someone on what they already know is wrong, what’s right needs very little selling at all – especially if what’s right is the fundamental human instinct to liberty.
As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Replace “you” with “America” and a truth about personal knowledge becomes a truth on which – as we watch the muppet show that is our current presidential race – our national survival may just depend.