Why a Conservative Sense of History Is Essential to Progress - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Why a Conservative Sense of History Is Essential to Progress

During this pandemic crisis, we were told to listen to “science.”

The scientific experts, we were told, know what the “answer” is and the rest of us should follow their pronouncements.

Many rejected that idea, pointing to the nature of scientific research itself, which needs to be debated and often corrected. Others said they would “decide for themselves” whether to listen to the scientific experts at any one point in time.

The debate this sparked about the nature of scientific authority is just one good illustration of why conservatism is suited to what some call the “postliberal” or “postmodern” age.

Conservatives have the diagnosis for the modern problem: both the left and the right are too often simply different expressions of the “enlightenment mind,” which renders them unable to see enduring moral truths outside a rationalist straitjacket.

We are sandwiched between a false “objective” rationalism on the one side and an endlessly subjective, meaningless “postmodernism” on the other.

But do conservatives have a remedy?

Yes. In fact, conservatism offers a way out of the “enlightenment mind.”

Let me explain what I mean.

The Enduring Attraction of Enlightenment

The story that conservatives like to tell about themselves goes something like this.

Conservatives oppose “ideology,” which for them generally means a narrow view of human reason that provides absolute “answers” based on some artificial view of human reason and what it can do. Russell Kirk liked to say that conservatism was the “negation” of ideology, not merely its opposite.

As the editors of the recent collection Critics of Enlightenment Rationalism phrase it, the conservative intellectual tradition has “a skeptical disposition toward the notion, common among modern thinkers, that there is only one standard of rationality or reasonableness, and that that one standard is or ought to be taken from the presuppositions, methods, and logic of the natural sciences.”

Unfortunately, rationalism is attractive to the Western intellectual classes on both the left and the right. Most of these intellectuals live in a world largely separated from connections to history, community, family, religion, and tradition—any obligation they did not willingly choose. It’s too often believed that humans can simply be “rebooted,” à la the new Soviet man. Libertarian techno-futurists and human resource officers alike apply metrics, surveillance, and other scientific methods to shape our behavior and make us “better” persons.

At the same time, however, these intellectuals reject the notion of moral or social norms. Each must live one’s “own truth.” The contradiction quickly becomes apparent.

An Alternative to the “Enlightenment Mind”

Against this intellectual “Enlightenment mind,” conservatism offers the “historical mind.”

What is a “historical mind”? Let’s begin with Yale sociologist Philip Gorski’s argument that we all swim in a tradition. Tradition is how we think; there is no easy way to escape from the intellectual, social, economic, and political context into which you are born, and certainly escape is not found through some abstract reasoning.

The only way to critique your own tradition is to understand it deeply, and even then you are never truly “outside” it. Both criticism and development of tradition must always begin within that tradition.

The historian John Lukacs liked to distinguish between a “fact” and an “event.” A fact is what happened; an event is what that fact means. Lukacs called this our “historical consciousness.”

Drawing on the work of Claes Ryn, one of the preeminent conservative thinkers on this topic, Justin Garrison and Ryan Holston write that “the more we develop a sense of the past . . . the more we understand a seemingly contradictory truth: the universal manifests itself and is known to human beings in the diverse particulars to which it is inextricably linked.” 

That is, our individual experiences, which vary across time and space and culture, nevertheless give insight to universal truths of our common nature,

True Progress

Conservatism’s history of anti-Enlightenment thought is important because it sets the stage for where we are now.

As John Courtney Murray, S.J., wrote in the 1960s, we have now entered a “post-modern” age that has shown the limits of rationalism. The “modern image of political man” is largely an illusion. That modern image rested on a vision of the autonomous person, weighing abstract costs and benefits in making public decisions. Public authority would have no role in shaping public “morals,” and as much freedom as possible should be left to the individual rational power of the person to decide. Even earlier in 1926, Bernard Iddings Bell, in a book called Postmodernism and Other Essays, called for an end to the dominance of scientism, instead arguing that “we are ready for some sort of Postmodernism.”  

Of course, this is not the whole story. Liberalism is the political and economic structure associated with the heritage of Enlightenment rationalism, and it will continue to limp along.

But something fundamental has changed.

One way to think about the postmodern age is as one of extreme subjectivism. Taking one part of the liberal tradition, the individual is evermore deified. The state and other institutions (such as religion) exist only to further that individual’s choices, which cannot be questioned or formed by any authority.

At the same time, new religious-like faiths (think “woke” progressivism) arise to fill the vacuum left by a rejected Christianity, but without Christianity’s spiritual, intellectual, or political traditions.

But just as conservatives opposed the false absolutism and “objectivity” of rationalism, so too they oppose the bottomless subjectivity of one sense of the postmodern.

Kirk once wrote that he thought the postmodern age would be well suited for the conservative imagination. But to cultivate that imagination, one must think historically, to look within the vagaries of human existence for eternal truths, what Kirk called the Permanent Things.

In this emerging world, forgotten realities will reemerge, including the insight that a “person’s judgment and perception of the world contributing to that judgment is profoundly shaped by his or her imagination and will. ‘Reason’ does not propel one to a higher plane, above the flux,” in the words of William Byrne.

That’s why the historical mind of conservatism is so important. Lukacs explains that simply because our knowledge is fundamentally personal does not mean it is “subjective,” much less “relativistic.” To think this way is to render politics—in which we speak with one another to identify and further the common good—becomes impossible. 

Rather, historical knowledge is qualitative, not the quantitative accumulation of scientific knowledge or strings of facts. Accordingly, history has an irreducible moral dimension meant to generate understanding between and among other individual persons. For Lukacs, historical understanding is participatory. We are not enclosed beings, wrapped up in reflection on our own subjective desires. To understand is to understand others, as they are.

Of course, to demonstrate how different historical thinking is from the dominant tradition of intellectual rationalism is the conservative task for our times.

The question is: Are we up to that task?

About the Author

Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman.

Image by Artem Maltsev via Unsplash.

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