Reactionary

Thursday November 25, 2021

I’ve been finding the label “reactionary” useful recently, but I use it in a somewhat idiosyncratic way. People typically use the word reactionary to describe a specific set of right-wing, conservative“conservative” is another word that’s interesting in the same way “reactionary” is — it’s sometimes used as almost a synonym for “republican,” but environmentalists, for instance, are literally “conservative” in that they want to conserve something that exists. It’s useful to realize this distinction, so that you have the ability talk about ideas being conservative separately from their moral valance. politics, but it can be much more broad than that. I would define an idea as “reactionary” if, rather than being constructed from a set of abstract principles, it’s constructed primarily in opposition to some other idea. An idea being reactionary has no fundamental relationship to being good, but realizing that an idea is reactionary (and identifying the thing that it exists in reaction to) can help you better understand it.

The standard way that people use the term “reactionary” is to describe a political philosophy that is in reaction to things like civil rights, social justice, etc. In this case, it’s pretty clear that the ideas being reacted to (racism is bad, women deserve equal rights, etc) are good ideas, and thus this version of reactionary philosophy is bad.

There are less clear-cut cases, though. For instance, I recently launched a project that is essentially a reactionary anti-twitter, anti-socialmedia website. I mostly didn’t make the design decisions that I did because I thought that they were fundamentally philosophically correct, I made them because I wanted to demonstrate what a place that attempts to be the opposite of twitter along a particular axis looked like.

I was reminded this again when thinking aboutThis link will only work for members of the Recurse Center community, sorry. The relevant section of the linked post reads:

“hmmm, i think one property that i think about when people say something is “from first principles” is that it goes into a level of detail about fundamental abstractions that is uncharacteristic of traditional ways of teaching the subject. so, what “first principles” are sort of depends on what the typical way of teaching the subject is.”
the idea of explaining things “from first principles” — describing something as being “from first principles” is typically in contrast to a traditional way that subject is taught, and is thus a fundamentally reactionary idea. This can be good in some cases (when the traditional way of teaching is insufficient or leads to confusion), but bad in others (when the traditional way of teaching is actually pedagogically sound).

It’s also probably useful to take a look at examples of ideas that aren’t reactionaryOr at least, are less reactionary — ideas are never created in a vacuum, and every idea exists in a tangled web of literature. “Reactionary,” like almost every label, is not actually a binary, but complex multivariate spectrum. — for instance, one thing that is pleasing to me about anarchist political philosophyIf you want an intro to anarchist political philosophy, I’d probably recommend Two Cheers for Anarchism by James C. Scott. Here’s my brief description/review. is that despite seeming at first glance like it’s reactionary, in that it’s anti-government,Perhaps, “anti-state” would be more accurate, but that’s maybe more subtle than is useful. it’s actually generally grounded in positive philosophical ideas about agency, autonomy, and consent, and thus is a relatively non-reactionary philosophy.

I’ve talked about this idea in passing in the past, and use it a lot when evaluating new ideas and ideologies, so it seems useful to write a general overview of the idea, so that I can more easily point people to a description of my idiosyncratic definition. That’s this post :)