Pragmatic conservatism: a defense.

Author:Vannatta, Seth

In the "Conclusion" to the fiftieth anniversary issue of Modern Age, "The Decline of American Intellectual Conservatism," Claes Ryn offers a view of conservatism that, in a sense, is inclusive of liberalism and individualism and also a criticism of conservatism's distortion and hijacking by powerful figures in think tanks, foundations, and the media. The conservatism Ryn defends recognizes the possibility of a synthesis of universality and historical particularity, which allows conservatism to distinguish between two types of individualism and liberalism: one atomistic and one "integral to Burkean conservatism." (1) Ryn criticizes neoconservatives for having consciously or unconsciously turned conservatism into a sort of neo-Jacobinism, viewing America as an exceptional model of transcendent, ahistorical, and universal truths--democracy and liberty--which should be exported to far lands in an effort to reconstruct foreign states and peoples. (2) In a discomforting irony, these putative conservatives resemble the original Jacobins in their attempt to remake the world on the model of equality, liberty, and fraternity. The French revolutionary idea that society and the state should be wholly remade in the image of these principles was the chief target of Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France. The neoconservative commandeering of American intellectual conservatism has also, Ryn argues, reflected a "misguided" "pseudo"-pragmatism, which has let a turn to practical matters--to public policy, business, and economics--trump the need for a philosophically rich and serious defense of conservatism, not least in its moral, aesthetical, and political iterations. (3)

Sixty years ago, another prominent American intellectual conservative, Russell Kirk, wrote, "[Edmund] Burke was a liberal because he was a conservative." (4) Perhaps today American readers of Ryn's account of conservatism's relation to liberalism and of Kirk's description of Burke's liberalism find these comments confusing or internally inconsistent. The patient reader of Ryn, however, will find that these attempts to change the terms of current political discourse point to the possibility of a more truly pragmatic conservative political methodology and of giving it a voice in our current political climate, a voice not dominated by neoconservatives.

Crucial to such an attempt is to demonstrate how conservatism and pragmatism intersect methodologically, which is my present task. Such an undertaking must confront the popular associations and colloquial uses of the term "conservatism"--those which might cause confusion in contemporary readers of Ryn's or Kirk's assertions about conservatism and liberalism--and must also assess whether the customary academic resources on conservatism are all what they should be. Research into the latter question may help undermine the force of the popular and colloquial understandings of conservatism; the two mentioned tasks converge when significant strands of scholarship on conservatism reinforce uncritical associations and usages. By correcting academic misinterpretations of conservatism, one can undermine colloquial usage and make way for new thinking on conservatism as a political methodology.

In popular and journalistic political discourse and even among intellectuals, conservatism and pragmatism are seen as tending to repel one another as if both were positively charged magnets. Pragmatism means about the same as relativism and utilitarianism, while conservatism means adherence to undying principles inherited from the past or divined from religious authority or revelation. Caricatures of two important figures often register as uncontroversial: Edmund Burke was a reactionary defender of the British aristocracy and state religion, and John Dewey was a mere apologist for New Deal Liberalism.

One of the most influential scholarly books on conservatism reinforces the second of these oversimplified characterizations. In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk argues that conservatism runs in strict contradistinction to pragmatism. My intention here is to determine how, in Kirk's opinion, classical British conservatism and classical American pragmatism contradict each other and to assess the validity of Kirk's view. I will begin by summarizing Kirk's rather cursory account of John Dewey's pragmatism. Next, I will show that Kirk offers an erroneous caricature of pragmatism. Then I will indicate how the difference between Kirk's interpretation of Burke and mine explains Kirk's at once sweeping and misleading claims regarding pragmatism. I will finally show that Burke's philosophy contains seminal elements of pragmatism and illustrate enticing points of intersection between classical British conservatism and classical American pragmatism. I will present a defense of what I call pragmatic conservatism.

Kirk misconstrues and places undue weight on a belief in transcendent moral order in Burke's philosophy, and he flattens Dewey's pragmatism into utilitarianism. (5) Although Kirk's book on conservatism is in most ways an exemplary piece of scholarship, his way of treating the element of transcendence in Burke's philosophy even runs the risk of turning Burke into something similar to his opponents, those Enlightenment political thinkers and enthusiasts for revolution who espouse a priori natural rights. (6)

Only those whose conception of universality is both static and transcendent and whose conception of the human person is atomistic and abstract could argue as Burke's opponents, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine among them, do. They demand radical change. Those, on the other hand, who embrace the flux as an integral feature of our existence the way John Dewey does can accept Burke's warnings against hasty innovation based on a putative rational certitude. Dewey is an opponent of such social engineering. In fact, interpreting Dewey's pragmatism with reference to the set of his lectures that would be most charitable to Kirk's view of Dewey will allow me to show how misguided Kirk is on this matter. By understanding Dewey's pragmatism much too thinly, Kirk fails to see that Burke and Dewey have common philosophical opponents and that Burke's conservatism can even be read as a harbinger of classical American pragmatism.

Kirk's book, which focuses solely on British and American conservative thought, begins with the premise that Burke's conservatism is the "true school of conservative principle" and that conservatism did not fully manifest itself until 1790 with the publication of the Reflections on the Revolution in France. (7) I do not disagree with the majority of Kirk's treatment of Burke's disposition, his method, or the central tenets of his political and moral thought. However, Kirk's assertion that Burke refutes once and for all an American pragmatism yet to come and his reading of that pragmatism strike me as mistaken. It is in these missteps that I find the crux of my disagreement with Kirk's interpretation of Burke's philosophy. Having analyzed Kirk in an area where he is less than discerning--in his discussion of pragmatism--I may return to his more admirable discussion of Burke as I offer a more general commentary.

Kirk's first allusion to pragmatism comes early in The Conservative Mind, when he writes that Burke's "system is an anticipatory refutation of ... pragmatism." Kirk, however, withholds his explanation of what that pragmatism is until hundreds of pages later. (8) Next Kirk writes that "Burke has been mistaken for a precursor of empiricists and pragmatists, chiefly because he expressed his determination to deal with circumstances, not with abstractions." Leaving Burke's relationship to the empiricists aside, I think this sentence should have read, "Burke is a precursor of pragmatism because he chose to deal with circumstances rather than abstractions." Pragmatism is a mode and method which turns away from abstractions and toward the complex situations and circumstances of our inquiries. Pragmatism warns against treating the abstract outcomes of inquiries as if they anteceded the inquiry. It is a "fallacy of unlimited universalization" to ignore the context and hastily import conclusions of inquiries into situations foreign to those which produced the need for the inquiry. (9) For instance, if France's political arrangement, more autocratic, feudal, and less republican than England's in the eighteenth century, gave rise to inquiry that produced the pernicious abstractions of "liberty, equality, and fraternity," it was all the more misguided, according to Burke, as it would have been for Dewey, to import those abstractions into England and use them to advocate revolution there in complete neglect of the circumstances of England.

Kirk states: "Twentieth-century political and juridical 'realism' and pragmatism ... are derived from Bentham." (10) Though wrong, especially with regard to pragmatism, this statement gives us insight into what pragmatism means for Kirk. Legal realism in the United States consciously derived from the legal theory of Oliver Wendell Holmes's later writings, principally his 1897 lecture "The Path of the Law." (11) By the time Holmes gave that address, he had completed his break with the most prominent legal theorist of the nineteenth century, John Austin. Austin, a student of Bentham, defined law as a command from a political superior to a political inferior imposing a duty backed by a sanction. (12) Austin, following Bentham, wanted to shift the primacy of law from the common law courts to parliament because doing so would shift the temporal valence of the law from the past, in its reliance on precedent and inherited customary practice, to the future, to the purpose of statutory law, namely, achieving a future social advantage--the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The American legal realists relied instead on two Holmesian principles. First, law is just a prediction...

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