Conservative pragmatism, pragmatic conservatism.

Author:Byrne, William F.
Position:Book review

Conservatism and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics, by Seth Vannatta. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 217 pp. $95 hardcover, $39.99 softcover.

The proper moral and epistemological grounding for politics, once a topic of considerable interest, has seen relatively little serious study in recent years. Seth Vannatta's Conservatism and Pragmatism is a partial corrective to this neglect. As the title suggests, this broad study explores various aspects of the relationship between conservatism and philosophical pragmatism. Though both a comparative and a synthetic work, it is predominantly a re-thinking of pragmatism that "argues that the pragmatic method is guided by conservative norms" (4). It is when it holds to this focus that the book is at its best. More broadly, "one goal throughout this work ... is to show that while the conservative tradition is not one that treats past custom as the only norm operative in social and political conflict, the pragmatist tradition is not one which treats future ends as the only operative norm. Both are transactive with the past and the imagined future" (120).

The relationship between pragmatism and conservatism has been a rocky one. Obvious affinities exist between elements of the work of, for example, Michael Oakeshott, and philosophical pragmatists like John Dewey. Claes Ryn's early mentor, the Swedish philosopher Folke Leander, did notable work on Dewey's thought, and Ryn has included favorable treatment of aspects of Dewey in some of his own work. (1) Nevertheless, to the extent that there has been anything resembling dialog between conservatives and pragmatists, it has generally not been warm. In fact, when conservatives pay any attention at all to philosophical pragmatism, it is usually with hostility. This may be attributed in part (though only in part) to the fact that some of the most prominent pragmatists have been progressives, while most self-identified conservatives are, well, conservative. Vannatta's new study serves as a valuable alternative to this mixture of antipathy and neglect. Though it comes much more from a pragmatist perspective than from a conservative one, it offers an opportunity for conservatives to re-engage, or perhaps to engage for the first time, with philosophical pragmatism.

Both pragmatism and conservatism represent alternatives to typical Enlightenment rationalism, as well as to some classical thought. Vannatta's treatment of pragmatism draws on a variety of thinkers including Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Jane Addams. Pragmatism, like much conservative thought, recognizes that "philosophy always emerges in a cultural situation for some purpose whose origins are not entirely free from the historically inherited social and political values of time and place" (117). From this perspective, pragmatism rejects the use of a priori truths and instead adopts an experimental, essentially nominalist approach to morality and the good order. Vannatta quotes Dewey: "The hypothesis that works is the true one; and truth is an abstract noun applied to the collection of cases, actual, foreseen and desired, that receive confirmation in their works and consequences" (120). Dewey and Vannatta are correct that it is through observation of how ideas play out in the world that we get a handle on truth. A common error of ideologues of all sorts is their tendency to warp their perceptions of reality in order to keep 'facts' in line with preferred a priori concepts and theories.

Vannatta notes appropriately that...

To continue reading