Whether understood as an adherence to the given, as an appeal to observe traditions, or as the wish to return to some bygone age, conservatism is bedevilled by paradoxes. The present essay attempts to overcome these paradoxes by putting forward a new conception of conservatism, identifying it as a worldview bent on the preservation of the totality of human knowledge with the aim of enhancing the survival chances of future generations. Conservatism thus understood targets the achievement of real knowledge. Hence by necessity it must associate itself with a realist epistemology and ontology. I argue that any realism worthy of the name is common-sense realism, and that common-sense realism takes into account not merely the verbal level of cognition but also its visual and motor dimensions. The paper devotes special attention to Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work has been intensively discussed in recent decades in the context both of conservatism and realism.
Paul Engelmann, the Austrian architect who became a friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s during World War I, writes that although the notion of “a God in the sense of the Bible, the image of God as the creator of the world, hardly ever engaged Wittgenstein’s attention,” the idea of a last judgement “was of profound concern to him. ‘When we meet again at the last judgement’ was a recurrent phrase with him,” Engelmann explains, “which he used in many a conversation at a particularly momentous point. He would pronounce the words with an indescribably inward-gazing look in his eyes, his head bowed.” Wittgenstein “saw life as a task,” looking upon “all the features of life as it is, that is to say upon all facts, as an essential part of the conditions of that task.” Wittgenstein, Engelmann continues, consistently held that if there was a discrepancy between himself and the world, “the reason for the discrepancy lies in himself alone,” thus rejecting “the belief that changes in the external facts may be necessary and called for” (Engelmann 1967, 77, 79).
The stance here described by Engelmann is one of humbleness, a stance I take to be characteristic of the conservative mentality—and there is no doubt that Wittgenstein held conservative views. In what follows I will refer to some further aspects of the conservative mentality, and attempt to explicate the notoriously elusive notion of conservatism, before returning to the issue of what Wittgenstein’s conservatism involves. I will then argue that the alternative, left-wing/liberal, mentality clearly tends to lead to the epistemological and ontological positions of relativism and constructivism. The conservative stance, by contrast, should lead to realism, and ultimately to common-sense realism.
The author whose work first alerted me to the connection between conservatism and realism is the Gestalt psychologist and art theorist Rudolf Arnheim. In his essay “Wertheimer and Gestalt Psychology” written in 1969 Arnheim noted a contrast between, on the one hand, British empiricist philosophy “proudly asserting the dominion of the individual’s views and judgments over the environment,” and, on the other hand, the worldview of the Gestalt psychologists, who showed “respect for the structure of the physical world as it impinges upon the nervous system,” affirming that it is “man’s task to find his own humble place in the world and to take the cues for his conduct and comprehension from the order of that world.” In the social realm, Arnheim went on, Gestalt theory “demanded of the citizen that he derive his rights and duties from the objectively ascertained functions and needs of society” (Arnheim 1969, 34).
I will come back to Arnheim’s conservative views below. For the moment I want merely to point out that Arnheim was a central figure heralding the “iconic turn”—the turn to visual thinking—today gradually gaining ground in the humanities,1 even perhaps in philosophy. Arnheim stressed the primordial and continuing significance of visual thinking, of autonomous pictorial meaning ultimately founded on so-called descriptive gestures, and of the motor dimension inevitably involved in the understanding of images. Now if Arnheim was on the right track in all of this, as I believe he was, then the lesson for philosophy is that ontology cannot remain satisfied with being based merely and entirely on intuitions suggested by the structure of verbal language, and epistemology cannot go on ignoring the fact that our knowledge of the world out there is founded more on immediate visual images than on the mediating capacity of words.
I will argue that not only Arnheim but also Wittgenstein followed the path from conservatism to realism. Wittgenstein in his later philosophy gradually worked out the elements of a novel, sophisticated, common-sense approach to both ontology and epistemology, one of these elements being a rudimentary theory of pictorial meaning.2 Because the mainstream view associates him with relativism rather than with realism, Wittgenstein might seem an unlikely candidate for a conservative exponent of a realist philosophy. Another unlikely candidate, though unlikely from a different perspective, is the emblematic figure of common-sense realism, Thomas Reid. I suggest that Read, too, can be referred to as a “conservative,” even though the term was not yet in use in the eighteenth century. Conservatism, in the view I will be propounding, is a timeless human attitude. Significantly, while Reid obviously played a role in the Scottish Enlightenment, at the same time he insisted upon the perennial function of authority.3 In the twentieth century, I similarly take F.A. Hayek to be a conservative4 holding a realist, even if not an epistemologically direct realist, position.5 And one can of course point to some more recent, very unequivocally conservative-and-realist figures: both David M. Armstrong and his colleague David Stove were blatantly conservative, and also blatantly realist.
2. PARADOXES OF CONSERVATISM
In November 1930 Wittgenstein (1975, 7) composed a foreword to the typescript that came to be published posthumously as Philosophical Remarks. “I would like to say,” he wrote, that “‘This book is written to the glory of God’, but nowadays that would … not be rightly understood.” More than a decade later, he made the following remark in a conversation, to his student and friend M. O’C. Drury: “I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view” (Wittgenstein in Drury 1981 , 94).6 This formula appears to me to be a perfect expression of the vague, diffuse, religiosity which the conservative stance characteristically involves. Such religiosity was certainly not foreign to Arnheim. Recall his reference to man’s “humble place in the world.” Or note this passage from his The Dynamics of Architectural Form:
the very nature of religion and its tasks are now so open to question that their external expression is no longer governed by reliable standards … all the more rewarding [are] those examples of church architecture that succeed in translating dignity and spiritual devotion into twentieth-century idioms. (Arnheim 2009 , 206)
Now although Arnheim displayed an acute sense for modern art, he was nonetheless a conservative. His conservatism had two quite different dimensions, a creative, forward-looking, ontological-epistemological one to which I have already alluded and to which I will return; and the old-fashioned backward-looking one, as when he complained of contemporary “social conditions that atomize the human community into a mere aggregate of individuals or small groups,” “the chaos of our present way of life,” our “individualistic civilization” (Arnheim 2009,  17, 67).7 It is this backward-looking type of conservatism which the Austrian novelist and essayist Robert Musil distanced himself from when writing in 1923:
Having freed himself from all the old bonds, man is recommended to subject himself to them anew: faith, … austerity, … sense of national community, a concept of civic duty, and abandonment of capitalist individualism and all its attitudes… . —The belief is that a decay has to be cured… . I can think of hardly any account which conceives of our present condition as a problem, a new sort of problem, and not as a solution that has miscarried. (Musil 1978 , 1382, quoted from Nyíri 1981, 185)
What Musil here describes is a fundamental paradox of perhaps the most common variety of conservatism. The suggestion that we should give up our current patterns of life and return to those of some earlier age is a revolutionary one, in need of argument. If on the other hand conservatism is taken to mean that we should maintain whatever social conditions we happen to live under, we are once more faced with a paradoxical doctrine which would imply acquiescing to different values according to different times and places. Now yet another cluster of paradoxes emerges when conservatism is equated, as it almost invariably is, with traditionalism. Twentieth-century scholarship has shown beyond any possible doubt that traditions in the rigorous sense of the term are instruments for preserving knowledge in preliteral cultures—that is, instruments for preserving practices, techniques, and knowledge in the form of oral lore. Of course the term “tradition” is quite often used also in a broader, looser sense.8 But it is a blunder to speak of traditionalism where conditions of alphabetic literacy obtain. Hence it is blatantly misleading, too, when Karl Mannheim (1993, 228) defines conservatism as “primarily nothing more than traditionalism become conscious.”9 Mannheim (1993, 280) is not willing to regard conservatism as “a phenomenon universal to all mankind.” When searching for an expression to designate the “general psychological attitude” underlying modern conservatism, he chooses Max Weber’s term “traditionalism” as opposed to Lord Hugh Cecil’s formula “natural conservatism” (1993, 280).
Here by contrast I will defend an interpretation of conservatism as a timeless, perennial attitude and worldview. As a first step, let me quote from a recent paper by political scientists Hatemi and McDermott:
Political attitudes in modern human society encompass fundamentally the same issues of reproduction and survival that confronted group life in ancient humans because they involve the same interpersonal traits… . The labels and meanings of issues, groups, and policies might change across time and cultures, but the underlying connection between the core issues that are important to humans, including survival, reproduction, and defense, will remain. Indeed, genetic influences on attitude differences may be a remnant of ancient behavioral adaptation pre-dating modern human society. (Hatemi and McDermott, 2012, 528)10
The fundamental political attitudes Hatemi and McDermott discuss are conservatism and liberalism in a broad sense of these terms. And what their paper suggests is that in this broad sense not only conservatism, but also liberalism—the striving for ever more freedom, if you like—is a perennial attitude. As a second step, let us take a look again at the passage I quoted from Arnheim on humility and on the epistemological stance of the Gestalt school of which he is a representative. What this passage implies is that one can identify a constant task that conservatism has to face at all times, namely to understand the world as given, and to gain objective knowledge. Drawing together the Hatemi-McDermott and the Arnheim threads, I suggest that what conservatism in any historical age primarily strives to conserve is in fact knowledge, specifically the knowledge required to preserve the survival chances of future generations. This formula I am putting forward as an explication, which means: a reasoned redefinition, of the concept of conservatism. I will henceforth refer to conservatism explicated in this way as “knowledge-conservatism.”
Now the knowledge required to preserve the survival chances of future generations varies greatly depending on the dominant information and communication technology of the age. Knowledge-conservatism will thus appear in a variety of guises in the course of cultural history. In preverbal cultures, we can assume that images—think of cave paintings and the like—served not just ritual purposes; they came into being as an answer to the felt need of storing and communicating knowledge.11 In cultures that have developed a verbal language12 but are still preliterate, knowledge is carried predominantly by words. However, because in a preliterate culture words cannot be written down, knowledge is memorized through repetition of formulas the truth of which is accepted as unquestionable due to the fiction that they are handed down unchanged from generation to generation all the way back to some ultimately divine source. This is the age of traditions. The adherence to traditions characterizes the whole of premodernity. Premodern conservatism strives to preserve the life of generations to come by seeking to ensure the survival of the mores and beliefs of former generations. Modern conservatism by contrast, that is, conservatism in the age of the printed word, is forced to recognize that change is inevitable. It attempts to slow down change in order to reduce the destruction that it causes. It defends the idea of evolutionary social growth and thus attempts to halt the devastating influence of speculative theories. Beginning with Burke, modern conservatism emphasizes that genuine knowledge is embedded in the institutions and practices of society. And now in the age of online networked communication, postmodern—that is, post-typographic, post-mid-twentieth-century—conservatism has to cope with the very phenomenon of incessant change, indeed with change that is rapid and bringing mostly unforeseeable consequences. Bedevilled by the paradox of having to prepare for a future that it cannot predict, postmodern conservatism—knowledge-conservatism coming of age—faces the daunting task of preserving and keeping in readiness as it were the entirety of human knowledge. To that end, it has to have a solid philosophy of the nature of knowledge. And it is precisely an adequate view of knowledge that, seen from the conservative perspective I propose, left-wing liberalism is lacking.
3. RADICALISM: LIBERATED FROM REALITY
In his book The Social Construction of What? Ian Hacking (1999, 95) complains that the “traditional right/left spectrum of politics and alliances has run into problems.” Hacking confesses to having difficulties in taking a stand on how constructivism—today’s dominant form of relativism—hangs together with leftism. Now radical leftism in fact tends to embrace antirealism in the form of relativism, but before coming back to Hacking I want to point out that the right/left spectrum is not one on which it is invariably possible to find a place for conservatism.13 Conservatism is not necessarily right-wing, and especially contemporary conservatism, though opposed to the antirealism of the left, should definitely not be seen as belonging to the political right. Worldviews do not fit into any simple one-dimensional space.14
Hacking finds that “[s]ocial construction has in many contexts been a truly liberating idea,” and that even though the most influential decades of the trend have passed, it “can still be liberating suddenly to realize that something is constructed and is not part of the nature of things, of people, or human society.” However, Hacking senses a dilemma. “In terms of the unmasking of established order,” he writes, “constructionists are properly put on the left. Their political attitude is nevertheless very much not in harmony with those scientists who see themselves as allies of the oppressed, but also feel like the special guardians of the most important truths about the world, the true bastions of objectivity” (Hacking 1999, vii, 35, 95). In section 6.2 below I will adopt the position that there are indeed scientific theories that have a merely instrumental function—that is, they are not actually true descriptions of the world. But not even such merely instrumental theories are constructions in the sense social constructivists attach to this term. For the theories in question are not arbitrary, they can be refuted by empirical data, they aim at having a hold on some objective reality.
Antirealism is not necessarily left-wing, but radical leftism—say in the sense given to this term by Lenin—is necessarily antirealist. Two interesting early examples instantiating this connection are the Russian revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov and the young Georg Lukács. In the 1962 foreword to his Theory of the Novel (1916) the aging Lukács—having long ceased to be a radical leftist—chided himself for having combined his youthful left-wing ethics with a right-wing epistemology. His position now was that the combination had been a theoretically unsound one. When we compare this position with the 1967 foreword to his seminal History and Class Consciousness (1923), it emerges that what had been missing in his early work, according to Lukács in retrospect, was realism. It is obviously the case that the young Lukács did not hold a realist epistemology. By contrast, Lenin—a Communist dictator—was realist through and through, and he criticized Bogdanov for not being one. Bogdanov, Lenin wrote, was left-wing, and his epistemology was a Machian anarchism. Similarly, I suggest, the young Lukács’s notion in History and Class Consciousness of the proletariat as the “identical subject-object”—as the subject which, by coming to know itself in the course of its revolutionary practice, comes also to know its object, namely society—is an anarchist, left-wing idea.15
A more recent example of such anarchism is that of Feyerabend. Feyerabend’s attempts to differentiate between his “epistemological anarchism” and anarchisms of the more familiar “political” kind have however been generally found unconvincing. Only when “universal ideas” such as “truth” and “reason” are rejected, will man, according to Feyerabend, “cease to be a slave and gain a dignity that is more than an exercise in cautious conformism” (Feyerabend 1982, 187ff. and 191). Feyerabend’s ideas should of course be seen in the context of the history of social constructivism. Think of Mannheim and Ludwik Fleck in the 1920s and 1930s (cf. esp. Pels 1996, 37). Or think of the Putnam of the 1970s and 1980s (see esp. Haack 1998 , 153). Think of Rorty. Think of feminism.16 Constructivism holds that there is no objective knowledge. Conservatism—most conspicuously in its form of knowledge-conservatism—has no choice but to come to grips with reality. It necessarily maintains that objective knowledge is attainable.
4. THE CONSERVATIVE VIEW OF KNOWLEDGE
4.1 Back to Hayek?
It was Burke’s late-eighteenth-century description of knowledge as embedded in the institutions and practices of society that Hayek took up and elaborated in the twentieth century. What Hayek appears to have shown is that the knowledge needed by society in order to uphold its economy emerges from, and fundamentally consists in, the practical experience society’s individual members acquire in local conditions. Whether in a premodern small-scale or in a modern large-scale economy, such knowledge is distributed among individual market actors and is mediated by the dynamics of prices. It is, as Hayek again and again stressed, impossible to centralize. But now what is true of knowledge in the world of production and commerce, seems to be true of knowledge in general, too. John Gray famously referred to Hayek’s insight that
all our theoretical, propositional or explicit knowledge presupposes a vast background of tacit, practical and inarticulate knowledge. Hayek’s insight here parallels those of Oakeshott, Ryle, Heidegger, and Polanyi; like them he perceives that the kind of knowledge that can be embodied in theories is not only distinct from, but also at every point dependent upon, another sort of knowledge, embodied in habits and dispositions to act. Some of this practical knowledge is found in rules of action and perception imprinted in the nervous system and transmitted by genetic inheritance. But much of the significant part of the practical knowledge expressed in our dealings with each other is passed on mimetically, in the cultural transmission of traditions or practices… . (Gray 1993 , 34)
Let me note, first, that in the list of names Gray here provides, Wittgenstein should certainly have been included. The idea of practical knowledge has a central place in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (Nyíri 1988, 18f.). Secondly, it is clear that when Gray uses the word “mimetic” he does not thereby allude to visual imitation. The issue of visuality did not play a role in the history of conservative thought from Burke to Hayek. By contrast Wittgenstein, as I have indicated above, indeed attempted to elaborate a theory of visual images. This is important in a number of ways from the point of view of the argument I am striving to construct in the present paper. First, though, I want to call attention to the way in which Hayek’s emphasis on knowledge as being merely local threatens to lead to yet another paradox of conservatism. For knowledge that is merely local is relative knowledge—and, from a broader social perspective, fragmented knowledge. In order to meet the challenges of the modern and postmodern ages, we need also to grasp the possibility of some kind of unified knowledge. Here visuality comes into play because pictures are not only radically better at conveying practical knowledge than texts, but they can also much more efficiently mediate across disciplinary borders.17
4.2 Conservatism and the visual image
Images can, it is true, be radically subversive. But they have been much more often used throughout history as instruments for preserving the status quo. In his book Augustus and the Power of Images, Paul Zanker (1987) provides a fascinating description of the way the penetration of Roman society by Greek art, from the second century bc onward, played a part in dissolving traditional conditions; but he shows also how the new visual world that emerged at the time of Octavian’s rule contributed to the permanent peace of the empire.
Second, images are conservative also in another way, in that they preserve in unchanging form pictorial knowledge. And with the advent of the mechanical image—the photograph, the film—innumerable details become stored the recording of which had not even been purposely intended. Third, as I suggested above, when citing Arnheim’s “Wertheimer and Gestalt Psychology” essay, the pictorial is conservative in the sense that it tends to represent the invariant, given, structured elements in the world around us.
5.1 Wittgenstein’s conservatism
The idea that Wittgenstein was a conservative thinker was first proposed by Ernest Gellner in his Words and Things (1959), whose suggestion was then taken up by Herbert Marcuse in his One-Dimensional Man (1964). Gellner saw §124 of the Philosophical Investigations (“Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language… It leaves everything as it is”) as exuding a conservative spirit, a spirit Gellner was unhappy with.18
I myself have published from 1976 onwards a series of papers arguing, first, that one way to understand Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is to see it in the context of German conservative social-political thinking as it blossomed in the 1920s and 30s; and secondly, that Wittgenstein actually worked out philosophical arguments that were suited to underpin the conservative case (see esp. Nyíri 1976; 1982; 1986). These papers have elicited many negative, but also some positive, comments. Let me here just refer to the recent discussions (offering also summaries of some of the earlier polemical papers) in the volumes The New Wittgenstein (Crary and Read 2000) and The Grammar of Politics: Wittgenstein and Political Philosophy (Heyes 2003). The commentators have correctly pointed out that I had exploited a “relativist” (a term, I must remark, I did not actually use) interpretation of the later Wittgenstein in order to give his arguments a conservative flavour. Today I believe that towards the end of his life Wittgenstein became critical of relativism; and that it is actually his criticism of relativism that should be seen as a natural and logical implication of his conservatism. However, in the present subsection all I want to point out is that, on any description, Wittgenstein indeed had a conservative mentality and held conservative social views.
Think of the oft-quoted passage in the foreword to his Philosophical Remarks (Wittgenstein 1975, 7) where he wrote that the spirit of his book “is different from the one which informs the vast stream of European and American civilization in which all of us stand.” Or recall what Fania Pascal, who taught Wittgenstein Russian at Cambridge in the mid-1930s, wrote about him: “At a time when intellectual Cambridge was turning Left, [Wittgenstein] was still an old-time conservative of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire” (Pascal 1973, 31). Or consider this remark, written by Wittgenstein in 1948:
I think the way people are educated nowadays tends to diminish their capacity for suffering. At present a school is reckoned good if the children have a good time. And that used not to be the criterion. Parents moreover want their children to grow up like themselves (only more so), but nevertheless subject them to an education quite different from their own.—Endurance of suffering isn’t rated highly because there is supposed not to be any suffering—really it’s out of date.19
And a second remark, written some months later: “Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he can pick up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his ancestors.—Someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love.”20
5.2 Wittgenstein as a common-sense realist
There is another highly interesting remark, jotted down by Wittgenstein in 1946, in which the term “tradition” occurs. Hypothesizing about some possible ways a tribe imagined by him might think, he wrote: “To this people certain gestures, certain images, & so also certain words, are natural. And some of this is tradition, some are / original / reactions which were not (or at least not directly) given rise to / caused / by the influencing of the child on the part of the adults.”21 Gestures and images are primary natural carriers of meaning, some of our core vocabulary derives from them, but handed-down conventions still do have a bearing on how we use those gestures and images. Wittgenstein was a common-sense realist,22 and his realism is a unique combination of, first, a stress on ordinary language, the deviations from which are taken as the source of (bad) philosophy; secondly, his awareness of the significance of the pictorial and the motor; thirdly, his emphasis on established use, that is, on traditions.
The work in which Wittgenstein explicitly dealt with the issue of common-sense philosophy is The Blue Book (Wittgenstein 1964 ). It is on p. 45 that Wittgenstein formulates his crucial argument. He offers
a kind of parable illustrating the difficulty we are in, and also showing the way out of this sort of difficulty: We have been told by popular scientists that the floor on which we stand is not solid, as it appears to common sense, as it has been discovered that the wood consists of particles filling space so thinly that it can almost be called empty. This is liable to perplex us… .
It need not do so however, since to say that the floor is not solid is simply “to misuse language.” The popular scientist, just like the philosopher, is misled by the surface grammar of ordinary language. I understand Wittgenstein as striving to make “the coarse views of the man in the street” (Wittgenstein 1964 , 59) compatible with the seemingly contradictory views of the scientist. The task of (good) philosophy, as Wittgenstein saw it, was to enable common sense to integrate the ever-evolving discoveries of the sciences (cf. Coliva 2010, 190ff.).
In the Philosophical Investigations it is references to ordinary language that assume the role of references to common sense. Remarks suggesting a tendency towards philosophical realism are occasional, but significant. For instance: “if things were quite different from what they actually are…; if rule became exception and exception rule … our normal language–games would thereby lose their point” (Wittgenstein 1953, Part I §142, source: TS 227a, 1944–45).23 Wittgenstein here inserts: “What we have to mention in order to explain the significance, I mean the importance, of a concept are often extremely general facts of nature: such facts as are hardly ever mentioned because of their great generality.”24 This insertion clearly foreshadows the first paragraph in Part II, section xii, of the Philosophical Investigations. Earlier in Part II, in section xi, Wittgenstein makes us realize that it is an obvious philosophical error when someone “tries to explain the concept of a physical object in terms of ‘what is really seen’.” Wittgenstein’s common-sense realist point is that people learn, necessarily, to handle, and to refer to, physical objects first, and only later come to talk about things like visual impressions. One should therefore, or so Wittgenstein implies, not pretend that seeming is as it were prior to being.
Wittgenstein returns to the problem of seeming and being in notes he has written during the last two years of his life, published under the title Remarks on Colour (Wittgenstein 1977). Let me quote from these notes three consecutive paragraphs:
Don’t we just call brown the table which under certain circumstances appears brown to the normal-sighted? We could certainly conceive of someone to whom things seemed sometimes this colour and sometimes that, independently of the colour they are.—That it seems so to men is their criterion for its being so.—Being and seeming may, of course, be independent of one another in exceptional cases, but that doesn’t make them logically independent; the language-game does not reside in the exception. (Wittgenstein 1977, Part III §§97–99)25
When Wittgenstein here writes that men take seeming as the criterion for being, he does not at all suggest that people are as it were making a mistake. On the contrary, he assumes the stance of the common-sense realist: the world, generally, is what it seems, and if scientists tell us that it is different from what it seems, philosophy should explain in what way they, the scientists, deviate from ordinary linguistic use.
6. THE VISUAL ROAD TO REALISM
6.1 Visual thinking
In his seminal book Visual Thinking, Rudolf Arnheim wrote: “What makes language so valuable for thinking … cannot be thinking in words. It must be the help that words lend to thinking while it operates in a more appropriate medium, such as visual imagery.” The visual medium, Arnheim adds, “is so enormously superior because it offers structural equivalents to all characteristics of objects, events, relations” (Arnheim 1969, 231f.). Some pages earlier Arnheim had related mental images to descriptive gestures, suggesting that what a descriptive gesture pictures is primarily the motor experience underlying a corresponding mental image. As Arnheim puts it:
Gestures enact pushing and pulling, penetration and obstacle … the perceptual qualities of shape and motion are present in the very acts of thinking depicted by the gestures and are in fact the medium in which the thinking itself takes place. These perceptual qualities are not necessarily visual or only visual. In gestures, the kinesthetic experiences of pushing, pulling, advancing, obstructing, are likely to play an important part. (Arnheim 1969, 117f.)
What Arnheim here says is, I believe, of great significance, since it implies not only that our verbal constructs—direct designations, idioms, metaphors—are meaningful because they convey mental images, but also that it is our bodily, physical experiences, our physical contact with reality, that gives rise to these images. Arnheim adhered to the Gestalt school’s founding view that one cannot experience images without experiencing the patterns of forces they embody and convey. He was aware of the pioneering role of the German philosopher-psychologist Theodor Lipps here;26 while on the broader topic of visual thinking he essentially drew on the work of Galton, Ribot, Binet, and Titchener.27
Neither the view that thinking is primarily a matter of images rather than words, nor Arnheim’s position on descriptive gestures, are feasible without a broader gestural theory of the origins of language (Nyíri 2014b). This theory has had a continuous history ever since Plato’s Cratylus, with Reid giving a good summary of the main argument in his Inquiry into the Human Mind. As he wrote,
if mankind had not a natural language, they could never have invented an artificial one … For all artificial language supposes some compact or agreement to affix a certain meaning to certain signs … but there can be no compact or agreement without signs, nor without language; and therefore there must be a natural language before any artificial language can be invented. (Reid 1769 , 73)
The elements of the “natural language of mankind,” Reid continued, are “modulations of the voice, gestures, and features,” adding: “Where speech is natural, it will be an exercise, not of the voice and lungs only, but of all the muscles of the body; like that of dumb people and savages” (Reid 1769 , 74–75). In Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Reid recalls the art of pantomime in ancient Rome, noting that “it required neither study nor practice in the spectators to understand [pantomimes]. It was a natural language, and therefore understood by all men, whether Romans, Greeks, or Barbarians, by the learned and the unlearned” (Reid 2002 , 487).
6.2 Pictorial truth
In his book What Is This Thing Called Science? Alan Chalmers (1999, 9) programmatically accepts and presupposes that “a single, unique, physical world exists independently of observers.” However, he depicts it as a mistake to believe that our knowledge of the external world is based on what our senses, in particular our eyes, tell us. He refers to ambiguous drawings and to children’s puzzles, stressing that as we look at them what we see will, in a few moments’ time, change, while the corresponding retinal images remain the same (Chalmers 1999, 4ff.). Neurophysiologists and cognitive scientists usually make an even stronger case, pointing out that what we see is always and entirely underdetermined by retinal images. Donald Hoffman, towards the end of his influential book with the telling title Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See, draws the consequence: the hope of “scientific realism,” he writes, is “as yet unrealized,” and “cannot be proved true” (Hoffman 1998, 199).
However, these arguments are spurious. Our eyes mostly do not err; and we do mostly agree with each other on what we see. The world our eyes and brains build up tends to be the very world in fact surrounding us. As Devitt (1997 , 74) puts it: “Why does the world seem the way it does? The obvious answer is that the world seems that way because it is that way.”28 Of course we are aware, because scientists tell us so, that some animal species see the world differently from the way we see it. This does not pose a challenge to common-sense realism. As Stephen Boulter points out: “The fact that an organism’s perceptual systems do not pick up or respond to all of reality does not imply that what they do pick up are not objective features of an extralinguistic reality” (Boulter 2007, 103).
Now common-sense realism assumes not only that the world we see is, in its visual aspects, identical with the world as it actually is, but also that we can draw and paint veridical pictures of bits of the world, make photographs of them, film them. Here we must admit that pictures can be ambiguous, fuzzy, and distorting. But distortion can be a mode of emphasis, fuzziness a way of representing the generic, and disambiguation is achieved both by captions and by creating a sequence of images, as obviously happens when making movies. Of course the contrary views of Nelson Goodman still cast a long shadow. His extreme constructivism and his conviction that pictures have no autonomous meaning go happily together. However, I find Goodman entirely unconvincing. I see no reason to attenuate what—drawing on an extensive body of literature critical of him—I wrote some fifteen years ago: “It lies in the nature of Goodman’s arguments that they typically invite, not careful refutation, but polite rejection” (Nyíri 2001).29
Common-sense realism has a delicate relationship to scientific realism. The common-sense world is one of observable objects. Modern science is positing unobservable entities in order to explain the observable world. Scientific realism holds that the unobservable entities posited by science are real. Some or all of the entities of the common–sense world might then turn out to be mere appearances. In a profound analysis Wilfrid Sellars (1963 , cf. esp. 19, 27, 31 f., 36–39) comes close to concluding that the scientific image of the world will ultimately supplant the common-sense (the “manifest”) one. By contrast, Devitt (1997 , 5, cf. 81 f.) argues that “scientific realism does not undermine common-sense realism.” He believes that common-sense realism does not need to defend itself by having recourse to operationalism or instrumentalism—to positions maintaining that “unobservables are simply ‘useful fictions’.” These positions, in Devitt’s (1997 , 127) view, require observability to have “an epistemic significance which it cannot have.” Now I can agree neither with the main drift of the argument Sellars puts forward, nor with the particular point Devitt makes about instrumentalism. Common sense should integrate scientific discoveries, but it should not, and cannot, give up its primacy over science. I suggest that we are indeed justified in taking many scientific theories to be purely instrumental; however, here our guiding criterion should be not observability, but rather imaginability. We cannot imagine what we cannot visualize. The limits of scientific realism should be drawn at the point where the possibility of visualization ends.30
In this paper I have argued that if conservatism wants to come to grips with the contemporary world, it must overcome the paradoxes it faces as a backward-looking or status-quo-preserving ideology. I have introduced the notion of knowledge-conservatism to capture what I believe is the essence of conservatism unobscured. Conservatism should reinvent itself as a program that is not so much political as ontological and epistemological—a program of common-sense realism, aiming at real knowledge and the preservation of real knowledge with the aim of enhancing the survival chances of future generations.