Chesterton’s fence and thinking using sayings

“Common sense is a chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions, and one can find there anything that one like.”

-Antonio Gramsci


Chesterton’s fence is the principle that:

“Reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. ”

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

It sounds so very reasonable- simply a more specific statement of “look before you leap”. Like most entrenched bits of wisdom it is not precisely wrong. It is perhaps most plausible to anyone who has started operating in a new context- for example a job- and thought they’d found numerous absurdities and inefficiencies, only to slowly realise that most of them made sense for reasons that were not immediately obvious.

Like other bits of entrenched wisdom, it is an ideological iceberg, encoding far more contestable assumptions than are initially obvious. For example:

  1. Institutions have a reason, and are rarely, if ever, just spandrels.
  2.  We can feasibly discern these reasons, or, at any rate, if we can’t discern them for a particular institution, we have no need to change the institution.
  3. (Implicitly) That the kind of interests that institutions serve are the interests of society as a whole, and not merely particular interests of classes, or even specific individuals.
  4. (Implicitly) Change is an exogenous factor that potentially threatens the well adapted system, and isn’t just another well-adapted product of the well-adapted system.

N.B. The points labelled (implicitly) aren’t strictly implied, but tend to come as a bundle, and be mutually supportive with the overall mindset.

Generally speaking the overall picture is one of adaptationism and functionalism. Adaptationism is a family of views in evolutionary biology that tends to see a broad range of traits as adaptations to their environment, as opposed to contingency, genetic drift, etc. Functionalism is the view in sociology that society is like an organism, and its various institutions like functional organs within it, each serving some purpose of the whole, and not merely the particular interests of classes or other groups.

There’s another subtlety here. Societies like ours have, for a very long time, been changing quite regularly and rapidly compared to many other societies for hundreds of years. Presumably then our society has venerable mechanisms of change and reform. Actions on society are not exogenous to society and its institutions so the image of the agent as pouring chaos from outside on a carefully balanced equilibrium is misleading. To put it slightly differently, if the reasons for institutions can be submerged and not immediately obvious, yet still vital, why not extend the same respect to reformers, who are themselves an institution?


We might counter-pose Chesterton’s fence with various other principles, e.g.:

Marx’s dike: Differences in both power and interests between people, mean that we should expect existing institutions, and the purposes for which they exist, to disproportionately favour the interests of the powerful.

Weber’s walkway: Massive differences between countries in things like legal and institutional structure, as well as social outcomes, indicate contingencies and path dependencies matter a great deal.

Of course one can always say of a proverb that it is simply a tool for thinking, that it was never meant to be slavishly applied, and of course this is true. It is also true that no two people will agree exactly on what sensibly using it as a tool for thinking, and what slavishly applying it is.

One option would be to think without using these sorts of generalised sayings. After all, they frequently contradict each. Here is a list of contradictory proverbs from Liz Pullen on Quora:

  • Look before you leap or All good things come to those who wait / Those who hesitate are lost.
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. /Don’t beat your head against a stone wall.
  • Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. / Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it.
  • Two heads are better than one. / Paddle your own canoe.
  • Haste makes waste. / Time waits for no man.
  • You’re never too old to learn. / You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
  • A word to the wise is sufficient. / Talk is cheap.
  • It’s better to be safe than sorry. / Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. / Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
  • Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. / Nice guys finish last.
  • Hitch your wagon to a star. / Don’t bite off more that you can chew.
  • Many hands make light work. / Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover. / Clothes make the man.
  • The squeaking wheel gets the grease. / Silence is golden.
  • A stitch in time saves nine / If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. / Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • Seek and ye shall find. / Curiosity killed the cat.
  • The best things in life are free. / There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
  • Save for a rainy day. / Tomorrow will take care of itself.
  • Life is what we make it. / What will be, will be.
  • Opposite attracts. / Birds of the same feather flock together.
  • Faint heart never won fair lady. The meek shall inherit the  earth.
  • With age comes wisdom. / Out of the mouths of babes come all  wise sayings.
  • Two is company, three is a crowd. / The more, the merrier.

But whether or not ceasing to think with proverbs would be good or bad, it won’t happen. So what is the most productive way to use them? Contradictory bits of wisdom are disturbing if we think of sayings as things which are meant to be right or wrong. It is best, I think, not to consider them as right or wrong but as having different weights. The weights we place on each proverb will vary, but the saying serves as a kind of marshall for that side of the argument, and as a reminder that we should consider what weight we put on each.

Chesterton’s fence, Marx’s dike and Weber’s Walkway are three different ways of looking at institutions. No one quite believes in one entirely, but the strength we place on them will vary. These weights will change based on our experiences and predispositions. Jointly they define a kind of space of possible views, emphasising respectively wisdom, conflict and contingency for drivers of how things are.

Just don’t go changing your entire political practice for a proverb like Chesterton’s fence without carefully interrogating it. If nothing else, that would be quite ironic.

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