Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Philosophical Overton Window?

It seems like I've been hearing a lot recently about the "Overton Window" in politics. The idea is that there's a range of normal policy positions (within the window), which a politician can be adopt without being regarded as radical or extreme; and then there are radical or extreme positions, outside of the window. Over time, what is within the window can change. Gay marriage, for example, was outside of the window in U.S. politics in the 1980s, then entered the window in the 1990s or early 2000s.

A common thought is that one way to move the window is to prominently voice a position so extreme that a somewhat less extreme position seems moderate in comparison, and perhaps enters the window. After Bernie Sanders starts saying "free college education for everyone!", maybe "only" offering $10,000 toward every student's tuition no longer seems extreme.

Before going further, a big heaping caveat. I figured I'd go back to the original Overton article to confirm that the picture in the popular press conforms to the scholarship. (Reports of the Dunning-Kruger effect, for example, which is also recently hot in blogs and op-eds, often do not.)

And... whoops. There is no Overton article! There is no scholarship. Not unless you count Glenn Beck. This Joseph P. Overton was a not-very-well-known libertarian think-tank guy who died in a plane crash before writing the idea up. As far as I can tell, this is as close as we get to the root scholarly source. (See also Laura Marsh's discussion.)

Still, the idea has some theoretical appeal. Might it capture some of the dynamics in philosophy?

For it to work, first we'd need some sense of what positions qualify as extreme and what positions qualify as moderate in a philosophical cultural context. Then we'd need some way of measuring (through citations?) the increasing visibility of an extreme position and see if that opens up "moderate" philosophers to positions that they might previously have regarded as too extreme.

Here's one possibility: Panpsychism is the view that everything in the universe is conscious, even elementary particles. Generally, it's regarded as an extreme position. However, it has recently been gaining visibility. If the Overton Window idea is correct, then we might expect some formerly "extreme" positions in that direction, but not as extreme as panpsychism, to come to seem less extreme or maybe even moderate.

Hmmmmm. I'm not sure it's so. A couple of obvious candidates are group consciousness and plant cognition. These would seem to be less extreme positions in the same direction as panpsychism, since instead of ascribing mind or consciousness to everything, they extend it to a only limited range of things that aren't usually regarded as having mental lives. If the Overton Window idea is right, then, given the increasing visibility of radical panpsychism, group consciousness and plant cognition will come to seem less extreme than they previously were.

Hard to tell if that's true. Both positions are probably more popular now than they were 15 years ago (in academic Anglophone philosophy), but they'd still probably be considered extreme.

Eh. You know what? My heart isn't in it. I'm too bummed about the Glenn Beck thing. I wanted this to be an idea with a more solid scholarly foundation.

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P.D. Magnus said...

The lay of the land in philosophy is often the opposite of a window in the middle. Instead, the extreme positions are the most readily available ones. For example, in mereology it seems like univeralism and nihilism are the natural positions. Saying that some fusions exist but others don't sounds like peculiar special pleading.

Howie said...

Can the idea of regression to the mean be helpful? Perhaps there is a dialectic between extreme ideas which trends toward the mean?

kathleenbot said...

This is interesting! One thought - I wonder if the more moderate version of "Everything is conscious" isn't "Some things are conscious" but, rather, "Everything is sort of conscious." I think Magnus is right that in some philosophical contexts we can't respond to claims like "Everything is P!" by saying "No, no, that's too extreme: as a moderate, I'll now maintain that only some things are P," because it sounds like special pleading. But we could maybe respond by instead saying, "No, no, that's too extreme: as a moderate, I'll maintain that everything is P', which I once would have thought was dangerously close to saying 'Everything is P,' but - now that a full-throated defense of 'Everything is P' is on the table - seems nice and safe." In other words, as panpsychism gains visibility, we should expect more people to espouse views like - I don't know - panprotopsychism; views that ascribe sort-of-consciousness-but-not-quite to everything, rather than views that ascribe consciousness to sort-of-everything-but-not-quite. Having said this, I have no idea whether any view like this is getting more popular in metaphysics, so it might be a moot point.

George Gantz said...

Two thoughts. 1 - Even though there is no scholarship to the Overton theory, it is basic common sense and I'm sure has been used in human negotiating tactics since the human race was 2 years old. You state the extreme in the hopes of compromising to something close to what you want. The problem in politics and philosophical discourse is the tendency to identify with the extreme position you postulate and then forget that you were supposed to compromise! That's pretty much where we are today in both spheres? 2 - The speculation about a possible drift due to the extreme views of pan-psychism ignores the subtle trends in the scientific discourse around quantum physics (and complexity theory). Physics cannot escape the "observer problem" which implies a fundamental role for consciousness of some sort, and people like David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order 1980) and even David Chalmers (the hard problem of consciousness) have made previously extreme views seem less outrageous and more credible. Perhaps, just perhaps, some version of panpsychism is actually true.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks!

P.D.: Yes, there's some plausibility in that. But also see George's comment.

George: Yes, there's some plausibility in that -- especially in price negotiation (I think of the economics/psych literature on "anchoring" effects, for example, but I'm sure that's not all there is to it). But see also P.D.'s comment about whether this might not apply so well to philosophy in particular. Also, I don't dismiss panpsychism. In my "crazy" disjunction of metaphysical possibilities about the mind (e.g., Schwitzgebel 2014), it would occupy a non-trivial but small portion of my credence space.

Howard: I could imagine a trend of deviation toward mean positions, across philosophical epochs, after movements toward extreme positions. Makes me think of Randy Collins on the sociology of philosophies.

Kathleenbot: Yes, I could see panprotopsychism being another type of intermediate position. So there are probably at least two dimensions of extremity, either of which could be independently moderated.

Itai Bar-Natan said...

I don't understand why you're so disappointed by the lack of scholarly origin to the Overton Window idea. Shouldn't the idea be judged by its own merits, rather than where it came from?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Itai -- Of course it should be judged by its merits. But what I'd been hoping for is systematic scholarly evidence that the phenomenon is real, based in some sort of empirical analysis of the phenomenon of interest. That's what I didn't find. Of course, it might still be real. It seems plausible enough.