Remembering a prominent ISI alumnus
The Postmodern Conservatism of Peter Lawler
In 2017 the world lost Peter Augustine Lawler, one of the more intriguing conservative thinkers of his time. Lawler was the Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia, and his passing was marked by laudatory obituaries from many former students and luminaries. He was also famous for his books and articles on the topic of postmodern conservatism, as well as a popular blog on the topic with National Review.
“Postmodern conservatism” was of course eminently contentious, given the well-known antipathy of many conservatives toward anything that smacks of postmodernism, whether you’re talking about its association with left-wing identity politics, nihilistic skepticism, or opaque obsession with criticizing the foundations of Western civilization in the most jargon-laden manner possible.
But Lawler was happy to be quirky, and his writings—whether on postmodern conservatism, technological change, or Christian doctrine—are a consistent call to think creatively while avoiding stereotyped presuppositions. He used the term “postmodern conservatism” in a deliberately polemical effort to rethink the nature of modernity itself, and to consider whether we can supersede its moral and spiritual limitations. Lawler also used it to criticize several aspects of conservatism which he saw as deeply embedded in modernism.
I’d like to examine what Lawler meant by postmodern conservatism to try and demonstrate where it overlaps and deviates from the more colloquial use of the term postmodern by critics like Jordan B. Peterson. I do this in the spirit of collegiality, having unwittingly adopted the term postmodern conservatism to describe a different kind of phenomenon.
What Is Postmodern Conservatism?
Lawler defined postmodern conservatism in a quite literal manner. It was a conservatism that aimed to move past the philosophical discourse of modernity and toward a more spiritually rich and humane approach to politics. Lawler argues that with the inception of modernity, there was a striking movement away from “realism” in the sense understood by the Thomistic thinkers inspired by Aristotle. For these Scholastic intellectuals, God had ascribed a unique essence to all particular things that made them what they were and differentiated them from everything else in existence. This included human beings, who were individuated and granted purpose by the gift of an essential soul given to them by God. This of course meant they had certain responsibilities to behave virtuously.
For Lawler, modernity was a movement away from a “realism” that regarded each individual thing as having a unique and knowable essence in itself. Starting with early modern thinkers such as Francis Bacon, and moving through the work of Locke, Kant, and others, deepening epistemological skepticism was combined with ascendant kinds of ontological and moral nominalism. The moderns saw human reason as so fundamentally limited, it had no business talking about “things in themselves” to use Kant’s famous expression, let alone more transcendent figures such as God. All we could apprehend was a mental representation of the world as it appeared to our senses, which may or may not coincide with some real-world external to our mental representations.
This lead to a growing belief that, since we cannot know the world in itself, we are under no obligation to conserve it as we find it. As our senses construct a world of representations from sense data, so too can we construct our moral beliefs and even our very individual “selves” as we wish them to be. For instance, once it is denied that human beings have any core essence such as the soul, we are free to manipulate our nature to bring it more into line with the mental representation of our individual “self.” For Lawler, this nominalism is at the root of many hyper-modern efforts to remake the individual self. If my mental image of myself is not as a man but as a woman, then the imperatives of modernity suggest I should transform myself to bring my material body into line with this image to the extent possible.
To give another example, if I regard “moral virtues” as some kind of constraint on my individualistic self-actualization, then I can simply dismiss the whole concept of virtue as anachronistic and subjective. You may say that it is unvirtuous to live a life dedicated to drug-addled hedonism, but I can always rebut that by simply claiming that your mental conception of what a virtuous person and life look like does not coincide with my own.
An authentic postmodern conservatism would move away from the skepticism and nominalism of modernity and “return to realism.” It would recognize that human beings do have an essential nature, a soul if you will, and are therefore bound by both natural and moral limitations that preclude us from endlessly manipulating our bodies and engaging in many of the behaviors associated with permissive liberal individualism. As Lawler put it in his essay “Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism”:
Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood. Most allegedly postmodern thought emphasizes the arbitrary character of all human authority, the freedom of each human being from all standards but his own will or creativity, and the death not only of God but of nature. These allegedly postmodern characteristics are really hypermodern; they aim to “deconstruct” as incoherent and so incredible any residual modern faith in reason or nature. They shout that everything modern—in fact, everything human—is nothing but a construction. . . . Conservative postmodernism, by acknowledging and affirming as good what we can really know about our natural possibilities and limitations, is radically opposed to liberated postmodernism—and to the modern premises it radicalizes.
The Ambiguities of Postmodern Conservatism
Postmodern conservatism as understood by Lawler is a novel and inspiring attempt to free us from modernity’s binds. He acknowledged that individualistic modern thinkers such as Locke did a great deal to liberate us from the prejudices and superstitions of premodernity, and they should be commended for their efforts.
But Lawler also insisted that the skepticism and nominalism they put in pre-modernity’s place have resulted in an increasingly unmoored and meaningless culture, where many of us have difficulty even knowing who we really are anymore. We are told to create our individual selves without any spiritual guidance on what kind of self it is worth becoming.
This is a powerful argument, and Lawler was a pioneer among conservative intellectuals in developing a substantial critique of Lockean doctrines in a post–Cold War climate where they seemed triumphant. In this respect he anticipated the later critiques of figures like Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen, who recently both developed powerful arguments against Lockean positions.
Of course there are substantial limits to this approach. Lawler’s postmodern conservatism is a sage gesture back to “realism” in its insistence that we have a soul, that it is our duty to tend to it by acting virtuously, and that modernist liberal societies can pose a challenge to these efforts. This may seem to demand a move away from Lockean individualism; pushed radically enough maybe even liberalism itself. And indeed, recent tracts chronicling why liberalism “failed” may suggest that things are moving in the direction of radical postmodern conservatism.
But as Frank Meyer pointed out in his condemnation of the “New Conservative” critics of liberal individualism circa the 1960s, too much focus on virtue can lead one to forget that it must always start with the free individual. And indeed, the consequence of forgetting this has been that many of the contemporary reactions against modernity have been very far from virtuous. Instead they are characterized by the hyper-modern tendencies of using new communication technologies to engage in relentless partisan sniping and relativistic equivocation on behalf of highly polarized groups.
This may serve as a cautionary tale against moving too recklessly in a postmodern direction, something Lawler himself may have appreciated given the troubled times we find ourselves in.
Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies in 2017 and is currently professor of political science and international relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books include Making Human Dignity Central to International Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism.