The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 24, 2019

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Reason and the Future of Conservatism
James Kalb - 12/31/08
industrial wheels

This is part two of a symposium on contemporary conservatism hosted by ISI at Yale in November, 2008. Read part one.

I’ve got 15 minutes to talk about the future of conservatism, so all I can do is present one part of that future in bold strokes.

Conservatism has big problems today. When you’ve got big problems you should look at basics, so I’ll discuss basic issues. That means the discussion may get a bit abstract. I can’t help it, so bear with me.

My argument, which starts with a couple of definitions, will be as follows.

First, political modernity is the application to social life of the modern understanding of reason, which has become technological reason.

Second, conservatism can be understood as opposition to the direction set by political modernity. That opposition is due to attachments to goods political modernity destroys—family; religion; locality; inherited habits, loyalties and moralities; particular communities and culture.

Third, it follows that conservatism is resistance to the modern understanding of reason. That resistance takes one of two forms: either resistance to reason, or acceptance of an understanding of reason that is different from the modern understanding.

Fourth, resistance to reason is defensive and short-term. It can’t stand up to sustained attack. It doesn’t tell us what to do or where to go.

Fifth, the future of conservatism, at the level of basic principle, must therefore lie in the articulation and application of some non-modern understanding of reason. That non-modern understanding, I will claim, must have a religious aspect.

All of which calls for an explanation.

“Reason” is the way we come to reliable conclusions about what is real, what is admirable, and what we should do. That is to say, reason is the way in which we come to conclusions about the true, the beautiful, and the good.

Modern thought likes conclusions that are clear, demonstrable, and to-the-point. So it is drawn toward scientific materialism, which tells us that everything worth thinking about can be understood based on simple concepts and clear demonstrations, and which is closely bound to experience and action. It’s hard to bring principles into public discussion that critically-minded participants are not willing to accept, so scientific materialism now functions as our public orthodoxy.

Scientific materialism, like any general theory of things, tells us what’s real, what we can know, and what we should do. First, it tells us that what is real is atoms and the void, or whatever the current version of that is—wave functions and space-time maybe. Second, it tells us what we can know is what we can observe and describe numerically combined with theories that enable us to make predictions. Third, it tells us that what we should do is use our theories to get what we want.

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