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.

[image source]

No comments:

Post a Comment