Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Truth In Conservatism

The classic conservative critique of liberal and indeed progressive thought more generally is to accuse it of abstraction, of being seduced by the perfect solvent of pure reason, and finding that, under its influence, all that is solid melts into air, including the capacity to apply the solvent in the first place. Burke, whom it is probably sensible to regard as the first proper conservative, unleashed a potent anti-rationalist rhetoric on the common sense of Tom Paine, and the idea that the diligent application of reason to all aspects of our lives might strip the world of meaning, demystify it, leave us alienated, has been a constant trope of conservative and quasi-conservative thought since. Hegel, Weber and Durkheim made use of it in some form or another, as does Arendt, and it reappears in the communitarian critique of Rawlsian liberalism, the focus of which is on the need for particular ethical practices to give shape not only to our personal but also to our political lives, rather than the allegedly universalistic foundations of liberalism. In this particular form, Blimpish responds to my comments on his (?) discussion with Jarndyce at the Sharpener, imputing to liberalism abstraction in a variety of forms, but most notably perhaps individualism and universalism.

I think the communitarian critique generally misses the point: whilst MacIntyre's ethics are convincing, the crude psychological reductionism in his attacks both on Rawls and Nozick does him no credit at all whilst, unfortunately, striking me as not being so far off typical of the tone which communitarians adopted when criticising Rawls and other liberals. However, there is a truth in the conservative critique outlined here: pure reason cannot be applied to everything, at risk of undermining itself. The problem for conservatives, politically at least, is that liberals don't actually do this - which is, perhaps, another debate - but epistemologically, they have a point. At least since the linguistic turn, and perhaps before - Kant, the archetypical abstract analytical philosopher, did write a book called the 'Critique of Pure Reason', after all -Von Neurath's metaphor of rebuilding a boat whilst at sea has been taken very seriously: to apply reason to reason itself, or indeed to any body or practice of knowledge as a whole simultaneously, would be to misunderstand how the critique based on reason proceeds. Unless we have something solid, some yardstick by which to measure our beliefs against as they undergo that critique, it does become a kind of philosopher's stone, since a critique which doubts everything can have no standard of success, and hence will judge all unworthy. It can have no standard of success because anything which aspires to become a standard of success can itself be subjected to the question, in an infinite regress of corrosive doubt. Of course, even the standard of reason itself can fall under suspicion in this way, and once it has, there is little that can be done to save it: the philosopher's stone becomes a black hole which eventually collapses into nothingness. This anti-foundationalist impulse that not everything can be put to the question at once is the truth in conservatism. I'm skeptical of there being any other truth, but open to persuasion.

10 comments:

Rush Murad said...

hi! i really admire your comments and writings. i will keep coming to your blog for more reading.
rush murad

Blimpish said...

Good post Robert - and in some ways, your parting shot might be correct. I guess the riposte might be that, if that is a truth, then it's a fairly decisive argument in favour of conservatism as a political doctrine. In that sense, liberalism or socialism or fascism might be more attractive in theory, but politics is about action.

But, I think your point applies more to conservatism in the Burkean sense than more generally. Burke, after all, is somewhat a historicist - he appeals to the rights of Englishmen, remember. The same for a lot of that generation (Joseph de Maistre springs to mind), I'd say.

The second flowering (ok, weeds, whatever...) of conservative thought in the modern age, in the US in the 1950s, was not simply a continuation of Burke's anti-foundationalism. Russell Kirk was, but Leo Strauss or Eric Voegelin certainly were not - Strauss was scathing about Burke's historicism, in fact. Since that time, many (especially American) conservatives have taken a much more communitarian or civic republican line, with conservatism used primarily as an epistemic wrapper, if you will. Note, for example, the growth of Thomism in varying forms, or the interest in Tocqueville.

Shuggy said...

Interesting post. I was wondering if you'd agree that one of the key weaknesses of conservatism is that it finds the question - what to do if your enemies come to power - difficult to answer because any response pushes them beyond the politics of skepticism and towards the politics of faith, which invariably involves them reaching for the abstractions they criticise in others?

Blimpish said...

Shuggy- more Oakeshott?!

Shuggy said...

Even better spotted...

Rob Jubb said...

Gah! I was going to use my new-found internet access to say sensible things in response to Blimpish and Shuggy's comments, but Blogger has gone and eaten them. F*ckers. Briefly, I have no idea what Strauss said, but I'm sticking to my guns, and just because something's been made into a law, it doesn't mean it's worth conserving.

Blimpish said...

Shuggy: like I said...

Robert: "just because something's been made into a law, it doesn't mean it's worth conserving."

Indeed - but how many conservatives actually believe that as an unswerving doctrine? Especially in the Anglo-American tradition - Burke was an economic reformist, and famously backed the American Revolution. Even in France, de Maistre was advocating from a particular vision (of a restored and rejuvenated Catholic monarchy).

Any conservative with a brain (and there were a few of them, sometimes, I hear) knows full well to apply the idea to itself as to every other. As Oakeshott once dumped on Hayek's Road to Serfdom: "a plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics." (Shuggy: that would be one of Oakeshott's conservative moments, IMHO.) Conservatism's an invitation to a moderation of reason, not its denial.

As for Strauss - my copy of NR&H is a bit inaccessible right now, but basically he classed Burke as holding to a practice>theory position, that he saw as anathema to philsophy. And for Strauss, philosophy was the highest calling.

Blimpish said...

... that description of Strauss on Burke was crap, sorry. Let me try a less-crap version. He classed Burke as a counterpart to Rousseau (the 'Second Wave' of Modernity), in holding to a historicised notion of natural right. He focused heavily on the opposition between Burke's conservative emphasis on the ancestral and prescriptive as against the radical criticism of philosophy.

Rob Jubb said...

Marginally more patiently, although, again, it's late and I have to go to work tomorrow...

I don't think you have to be a historicist to be a holist. Although you have to take something for granted at any particular point, there's no immediately obvious reason that should be the wisdom of your forefathers. So, not sure about the epistemological theory going with Burkean conservatism particularly. I don't know anything about Strauss at all really, but I think that a particularly bizarre reading of Rousseau, by someone called Masters, was Straussian, and that seemed like the old epistemological complaint (the sum of it: the general will is purely formal, which is obviously mad). Also, if anyone tries to claim De Tocqueville (surely conservatives would think it important to preserve that De - a cheap shot, admittedly, but still) as a conservative, I may get quite upset, and also, by the by, point out that he was a partisan of democracy in the mid-nineteenth century. Not quite conservatism. Finally, about Strauss on Burke, shouldn't conservatives be suspicious of the distinction between theory and action? Isn't it a bit dangerously reformist to appeal to a notion of theory which is not thoroughly embedded in action? Finally finally, what I meant to point to be saying 'just because it's a law it doesn't mean its worth conserving', I think, is precisely the opposite of what you thought I meant. I meant it as an explanation of how conservatives can call for reform - by appealing to the polity/community distinction, basically (as I think Burke did with the Colonists) - not as a critique of conservatism. If conservatives really thought something that that stood as a criticism of, they'd be f*cked, because as soon as their opponents got into power, they'd have to agree with them.

Blimpish said...

I'd guess that Strauss would probably join you in questioning Burke's epistemology - it's not exactly clear. That's not to say that I don't think there are good reasons for treating tradition with some respect - if not all encompassing. (Basically, as the post touches on, associated with the limits of reason - institutions embody knowledge learned over long periods. There's a Hume line that says it better, but I can't remember it...)

On some other points...

Roger Masters is a Straussian, but the group is notoriously diverse, not to mention bitchily fractious. Some Straussians are barely on speaking terms, and opinions range from the quite liberal George Anastaplo to the ultra-nationalist Israeli Paul Eidelberg. (There's a collection of essays on Rousseau edited by two Straussians - Orwin and Tarcov, which I think includes one by Masters, but also lots of others, some of whom wouldn't describe themselves as such.)

Tocqueville (conservatives today shouldn't be too bothered about his nobility, and that's the point)... Most conservative admirers - especially those of Straussian influences (e.g., Harvey Mansfield, Peter Lawler, Pierre Manent) - admire him as a great thinker, and respect him enough within that to not try to label him as 'one of ours'. But equally, not 'one of theirs,' either. He might well have been a partisan of democracy, but hardly an uncritical one - he was conscious of the consequences of the loss of nobility, after all. That would be the position of most conservatives today - not many of us are gagging to suspend democratic rule and return to the ancien regime, you know.

Theory/practice: this is what I meant by conservatism being no more than an epistemic wrapper for a lot of those considered as conservatives in more recent times. Stanley Rosen (another Straussian, although much more philosopher than political theorist) reckoned Strauss was like Nietzsche, obsessed with the unstable divide between theory and practice - but whereas Nietzsche sought a solution through art, Strauss was concerned with prudence and statesmanship as the only way through.

(Probably me being a bit dense, but can you expand on last point - I think I get what you mean, but am not sure.)