A sociology of personal beliefs

In this post I shall consider the prospect of providing a sociological or humanised account of explaining beliefs in terms of background factors. In considering this humanised account which is essentially an ad hominem appeal, I would like to elicit how this is not a harmful kind of appeal, and how it should contrast with the commonly depicted ad hominem fallacy. In a sense, this is a more charitable address to what the ‘appeal to one’s character’ may have epistemically and perhaps morally.

Preamble: the question at hand

I recall during a lecture series on the theory of utopian social theories, that there was an empirical study that aspired to to understand why some people are politically conservative (general sense), I suspect that it was a study by Mannheim. Conservative (in the British party political sense) membership does normally have a following that often surprises me. For me, a default assumption that I was brought up with was that Conservative party membership typically composed of people interested in their personal wealth. I still think this is the case but in my mind that consisted in people who were upper-middle class; middle class; or major business figures. I came across a BBC programme where incumbent London mayor Johnson addressed one of his favourite historical figures; the great man of letters Dr. Johnson (a person who, incidently, has a significant number of roads, buildings and artefacts named after him in my local area – I should find out why).

The insight that I had recieved from Johnson (Boris) about the man of letters Johnson (Dr. Samuel), was that he was a politically conservative figure. What conservatism (small c) repersents for Dr. Johnson were the interests of the ‘little guy’ (Boris’ words not mine), such as the small business owner or the labourer interested in keeping some sense of wealth away from government control. Being brought up in a broadly left-wing environment, I nomrally considered Conservatism (big C) as anathema. The small c conservatism, however, challenges my more unfavourable notions of the conservative person. The question I arise is this: can we map on personal characteristics to political or ideological beliefs?


It is often said by many lecturers that ‘relativism’ is often portrayed by students as a default (and I add, lazy) point of view. Why should we listen to the results of one study or theory when we may grant that everything in some respect is
subjective? or we are only presented with one point of view among many?

This seems a lazy point of view in the sense that it seems to be a conversation stopper for them, and in a significant respect, the uneducated person, or even the learned individual, may find it difficult to find a good answer. It is here that we appeal to some rational precepts: perhaps we may address epistemic factors such as: the power of convincingness of any granted proposition; or the things that ground such convincing factors such as ceteris paribus clauses, inductive reasoning or the success of having certain beliefs. It seems lazy because it is an a priori rejection of any kind of point of view, one could address certain arguments with such a general objection without really engaging with the argument at hand, or epistemic norms. What are the conditions of a good answer?

There is a sense in which we may address the beliefs or ideologies that people may argue for in a largely rational sense, that is to say, in terms of the material that they present before us and how cogent they are as pieces of logical reasoning. As a philosopher, this would mean that I would consider a claim in terms of other empirical studies that may be relevant, or epistemological and logical precepts.

There is another sense, which is often adopted by sociologists and continental philosophers, that people may argue with a case like say, relativism, or perhaps, the validity of homeopathy; in a historicised, or humanised, way. In other words, an ad hominem appeal is made. Often it is said that the appeal of ad hominem (an appeal to the character of the agent) is seen as a non-rational and rhetorical address of an issue and is the tool of foolish journalism and not of rational argument. When one addresses the the issue of the sociology of personal beliefs; we may not need to take a position on whether the belief or ideology one holds is true or not, but rather, if it is fruitful to question if there are background factors to why they may beleive something that takes place outside the domain of being convinced by argument.

Ad hominem appeals to explaining beliefs

Consider the case of say, supporting football teams; if we were to understand the background factors of firstly why one individual ceteris paribus, may be a football support compared to another who is not; as well as mutatis mutandis, why one football supporter is a Gunner contrasted to a supporter of Spurs. There is nothing fallacious, I assert, in the want to appeal to explaining a person’s beliefs in terms of social background in such terms.

It would certainly be insightful to map the disposition to believe with the beliefs themselves. It would give us a sympathetic understanding of the moral background of others and the conditions which mutatis mutandis encourage them toward certain beliefs. This does not show that we are all too entirely different, but conversely, we are uniform granted that what is different in our background factors are indeed significant enough to differ our resulting beliefs. My reading on Kant’s moral anthropology points out a view that is suggestive of the significance of empirical knowledge of other people as to why we may understand things like (in Kant’s apprehension): why the British are so different to the French.

The fallacy of historicisingthe caveat to ad hominem appeals

What makes an ad hominem argument as normally construed fallacious is its form.

P1. Agent X believes y
P2. Background factors <a,b,c…> determines ‘X believes y’
P3. If X believes y because of background factors <a,b,c…>, then X is wrong
P3′. Because X believes y and background factors <a,b,c…>, then X is wrong

To sociologise personal beliefs concedes P1 and P2; but makes no assumption concerning the truth of any granted proposition y. There is nothing fallacious in the interest of understanding why one is different from others; but it is a pretention to hold that mutatis mutandis conditions do not apply and we have a strict uniformity of character; in contrast to the former conception of human moral uniformity that appeals to the capacity for beliefs and variables that determine beliefs. This is a subtle distinction that should not be ignored.