Conventional Thinking is reasoning within the bounds of some Conventional Wisdom.
It was J.K. Galbraith in his 1958 book The Affluent Society1 who first popularised the phrase “The Conventional Wisdom”. He was seeking a clear view of the relation between the facts and events of reality and the human thoughts and ideas which interpret them, because they may diverge for long periods. I have paraphrased his definition of the Conventional Wisdom, followed by my definition of Conventional Thinking.
Facts and events in Reality do not conform to a simple and coherent pattern. They often seem inchoate and hard to understand. And yet we must have an explanation and interpretation of events in the world. There are few hard tests of what exists and what does not, therefore we have the luxury of choosing an explanation for facts and events which suits us, and within a considerable range we may choose to believe whatever view of this world we find most agreeable.
As a consequence there is a continuing competition between what is right and what is merely acceptable. Of course in the long run what is right must be, well, right; so the strategic advantage lies with what exists.
But all tactical advantage lies with the acceptable. Audiences of all kinds most applaud what they find acceptable, therefore the test of audience approval comes to influence comment far more that the test of truth.
Reality exists independently of our beliefs – it simply is, and will be whatever you or I choose to believe2. Just as truth ultimately creates consensus, so in the short run does acceptability. When ideas come to be organised around what is found acceptable rather than what is real then these ideas will fail against the test of reality in the end – whereas failure occurs here and now in the world of ideas.
Facts about the world are hard to perceive and understand so people approve most of what they best understand. Because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, acceptable ideas have great stability. They are predictable.
“It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term which emphasises this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as The Conventional Wisdom”.
The test of what is acceptable is independent of ideology – the main test is familiarity. Vigorous debate within the Conventional Wisdom is allowed, even rewarded, but this is a substitute for originality. One must be adequately predictable and familiar — deviation in the form of originality is condemned; as a result there is no serious striving toward it.
Vigorous advocacy of originality is a substitute for originality itself, minor heresies are cherished and considerable store set in the device of putting an old truth in a new form. As the conventional wisdom comes to be made more or less identical to sound practice its position is made impregnable and defenders are able to say that challengers have not yet mastered their art.
Articulating the conventional wisdom is well-regarded and leads to personal success; the more sophisticated and eloquent the exposition, the better the success.
The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas, but the march of events. Conventional Wisdom accommodates itself not to the world it is meant to interpret, but to the audience’s view of the world, as the world moves on the conventional wisdom is always in danger of obsolescence. The fatal blow to the Conventional Wisdom comes when conventional ideas fail to deal properly with some contingency to which obsolescence has made them inapplicable. The Conventional Wisdom starts to die – it does not surrender.
Conventional Wisdom is not unuseful – every society must be protected from too facile a flow of thought. If a great stream of intellectual novelties were all taken seriously it would be a disaster, but the Conventional Wisdom informally enforces stability.
Nor is the exponent of the Conventional Wisdom an object of pity. His3 ideas are accorded the applause for which they were designed to evoke. He is well armed against the annoyance of dissent. His bargain is to exchange a strong and lofty position in the present for a weak one in the future. In the present, he is questioned with respect, walks near the head of processions, appears at conferences and is hailed in the press. All this will be devastated by hostile events.
But there are dangers in a system of thought which by its very nature is designed to avoid accommodation to reality until change is forced upon it. It is much more pleasant and profitable to articulate the Conventional Wisdom, but the rule of ideas is only powerful in a world which does not change.
This then, is the Conventional Wisdom. The Affluent Society is a great book, and I have summarised part of Galbraith’s text to get the main points across. Once you accept that such a thing exists, there is the question of what to do about it.
There is a Conventional Wisdom and proud exponents of it in any domain of thought you care to mention. In society, law, politics and business there are conventional modes of thought and people who are successful within these domains for articulating the Conventional Wisdom at the proper level. There are sub-domains within domains; so that in business there are domains for banking, retail, manufacturing and distribution.
Conventional Wisdoms evolve over time. They are created when a theory to explain events gains widespread traction, or when a special interest group deliberately defines a Conventional Wisdom to serve its purposes – often this will address a fear, such as immigration, drug use or terrorism, but may also serve to create market demand for some product. A Conventional Wisdom then becomes dominant and crowds out alternate views; there is no longer a need to understand or interpret underlying facts, just the Conventional Wisdom. Opportunities for advancement open to those who express and articulate current thinking at the most sophisticated level. In business, this leads to such errors as believing that “perception is reality”. In time, however, the Conventional Wisdom no longer adequately explains facts and a new Conventional Wisdom forms to fill the vacuum.
Conventional Thinking is reasoning within the bounds of some Conventional Wisdom. This is a problem. First, the Conventional Wisdom is designed to address ideas about reality, not reality itself, and it will work only so long as reality does not change. Secondly, a Conventional Wisdom proscribes what can be acceptably original, limiting originality and squashing good ideas before they can grow.
Conventional Thinking dismisses genuinely original ideas as useless, “theoretical”, irrelevant toys or a waste of time. Sometimes new ideas are considered so far out as to be deranged or dangerous.
The risk here is obvious: homogeneity is encouraged and groupthink prevails. The only reasoning permitted is either entirely within the bounds of the Conventional Wisdom or those minor heresies which substitute for genuine originality.
Worse, thinking becomes susceptible to the deliberate creation of a Conventional Wisdom. The language used to describe facts and events is altered, allowing for previously unthinkable thoughts to be entertained. The terms of debate are captured by a special interest group to serve its own purpose.
For any domain there exists a Conventional Wisdom to govern thought within it. The challenge is to understand it, and determine what its boundaries are. Then we have a choice: whether to adhere to it, or to be sceptical of it.
One tool to identify the boundaries is to look for what can’t be said4. Do you have opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of your peers? What do others get in trouble for saying? What used to be acceptable and is now unthinkable? Which groups or individuals are currently on top, and what are they saying that gets them such applause and reward?
We may choose to adhere to the Conventional Wisdom, become practiced in its exposition, and hope for success thereby. Learning the vocabulary and becoming adept in the use and form of words to win arguments and debates; make bold predictions by describing the present; stress the importance of originality, and only be truly original in small heresies.
Or we may choose to be sceptical of the Conventional Wisdom. We may either wait and be right in the end, but gain no future credit when the saviours are welcomed in. Or, we may enter a minority and refuse to allow reasoning to be circumscribed by the Conventional Wisdom. If expressed, ideas will be squashed very early on, perhaps being dismissed as frivolous, or worse, far-out and dangerous. We may gain a reputation for wasteful thought, and may be penalised for wasting time. But if we have been vocal, we may stand ready to claim the mantle when the old Conventional Wisdom eventually gives way to the new.
Why would you choose to be a sceptic?
To avoid error. Sooner or later the current thinking will give way to a new wisdom when facts and events overtake the ability of the Conventional Wisdom to explain them. Ideas that currently appear impregnable will come to be seen as ridiculous – sceptics will have avoided believing them.
More importantly, in my view: To do good work. Good ideas will look like bad ideas within the boundary, and good work tends to come from ideas that others have not considered.
The sceptic can innovate by seeing things others will not. For example, banks fret about why their customers seem to hold them in so little regard. Yet the answer is obvious: banks give bad service, are short-term in their thinking, and don’t appear to give a damn about their customers. Innovations to improve customer service in a way that means something to actual customers are hard to imagine when thinking conventionally.
Being sceptical of the Conventional Wisdom has advantages beyond exercising the mind. New ideas may grow and flourish.
1 J.K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society, 1958.
2 I’m not concerned about existential arguments here. For now, reality is, and what we perceive is individual to each of us.
3 The impersonal pronoun. Please don’t see sexism where none exists.
4 Paul Graham, What You Can’t Say.