The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

September 20, 2018

Scientific Americans
James Poulos - 09/09/09
Yuval Levin cover

A review of Yuval Levin’s Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy (Encounter Books, 2008)

“Philosophers became preoccupied with images of the future,” wrote Richard Rorty, “only after they gave up hope of gaining knowledge of the eternal.” [1] For Rorty, the greatest liberal partisan of bourgeois bohemianism, taking hope and the future seriously means relinquishing philosophy’s claim to do anything more than cultural politics. Thus humbled, our philosophers-cum-politicians will enter into a harmonious, cooperative relationship with our scientists. The pragmatic credo that nothing not useful is good will unite them in imagining an infinitely better future—one in which the tension between keeping the old and creating the new is obliterated by our poetic reinterpretation of ourselves as the beings whose traditions are best because they have produced, and indefinitely will produce, the most useful innovations.

In Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, Yuval Levin challenges this liberal fantasy. Levin agrees with Rorty that “the most essential question of our politics” is “the question of the future” (132). But he denies that our liberal democracy is to be saved by collapsing the philosophical, at the expense of its orientation toward eternity, into the political, with its gaze fixed outward at novelty. Unlike Rorty, Levin presents competing visions of “the most important thing about the future” (132). Not one but “two broad schools of futurism”—the first placing its hope in “future innovations” and the second in “future generations”—set out the terms and the stakes of the debate about the relation between science and politics in American life (56). For the first school, defining the future by our innovations means trusting in the power of science to progressively, cumulatively increase our mastery over life itself. For the second, the natural life cycle grounds our image of the future in our future generations. Unlike knowledge, the wisdom we bequeath demands the opposite of innovation: tradition, perpetually retaught and relearned. Levin succeeds in showing how the innovational image of the future, left unmoderated, will dash the hopes of Americans left and right. But he is unafraid to conclude that taming our innovations to serve our future generations will require a more robust articulation of the human dignity that gives them pride of place in our vision of the future.

Where Rorty concludes that our visions of change and continuity can be unified only by replacing our longing to experience the eternal with a shared experience of the infinite, Levin insists that recognizing human flourishing as our natural purpose leads us to educate the infinite cycle of life into the eternal wisdom of philosophy and religion concerning the truth about who we really are. But since Levin, like Harvey Mansfield and others, understands conservatism to be a friend and educator of liberalism, not its enemy or antithesis, he presents the struggle between politics and science within the conscience of the West as one that can only be moderated through politics itself—neither solved logically nor resolved ideologically. Yet the political task of moderation is endangered by the worldview of the innovationist school, which Levin traces to the whole “modern scientific enterprise” (9). Though Levin is convinced that, “in America, science like everything else is largely domesticated and democratized,” permitting us to “gain from its gifts” while remaining “true to our traditions” (4), now more than ever, in his estimation, the view of human life adopted by modern science threatens to undermine our ability to orient our politics within moral space. In a world where we can no longer “distinguish between good and evil purposes” (22), doing “what can be done” quickly replaces doing what is good as the measure of human purpose (23). In its challenge to moral judgment, the modern scientific project destroys our faith in the very possibility of political judgment. The inclination to conclude that science therefore lies “beyond the reach of politics” Levin judges to be “perhaps the most fundamental threat to self-government in our time, and among the most profound moral challenges posed by the modern scientific project” (14).

Correctly understanding the identity of that project, then—its origins and aims—is essential. In a necessarily brief retelling, Levin refers us to some familiar figures. Inaugurating modern science, Bacon and Descartes reject the teleological superstructure of Aristotelian thought that kept science and politics in a stable relationship by subjecting both contemplation and action to the good of human flourishing. Not flourishing but mere survival—relief and preservation “from disease and pain, from misery and necessity”—redefined the “ends of human action, and therefore of human societies” (10). At the same time, a new political project sought to detach politics from any “understanding of things” drawn from “their ultimate purpose” (11). Machiavelli and Hobbes sought to derive the truth about human nature from the way we behave at the extremes—at the fearful (but, to an Aristotelian, actually imaginary) point at which political life completely breaks down. Unable to reground social order upon the natural order—for nature, on Machiavelli’s account, is dominated by fortune or chance—the moderns found that the freedom to create order derived from our freedom from any preexisting order. And since modern science permits anyone following its methods to achieve the same predictable results, in a naturally disordered cosmos it is both more reliable and “less demanding” than an order built on “courage” or manly virtue (12). Initially hostile to liberal democracy in its privileging of instrumentalism over egalitarianism and rationalism over liberty, the modern scientific project is yet made safe for us in accordance with the “less morbid” Lockean view, that the state legitimizes the inequalities which arise from individuals’ differing abilities to efficiently and profitably instrumentalize the natural world (11).

Levin acknowledges that the modern “lowering of aims” seems “as much a result of political as of scientific ideas.” But, he notes, “it is no coincidence that Hobbes and Locke were not only great philosophers of modern politics but also great enthusiasts of the new science, just as Aristotle was not only the great ancient philosopher but also the preeminent scientific mind of the Greek world” (11). Yet this analogy, like the insinuation it accompanies, obscures some important differences that bear directly on the future survival of self-government. To be sure, on Locke’s account, man’s relation to man derives from man’s prior relation to the natural world (though nature, as it is given, affords not a model of order but a lump of raw material). Yet Hobbes in no way grounds our social relations in our relation to the natural world. In vividly portraying human life at its extreme antisocial nadir, Hobbes appears to “lower his aims,” but not because he refuses to look upward or forward. Hobbes is at pains to show that the Lutheran vision of political authority, in which the New Covenant of Christ radically breaks from and replaces the Old Covenant of Moses, is actually apt to destroy all political authority. For Hobbes, the enduring authority of Mosaic rule in the wake of the Reformation is central to his claim that only the awesome spiritual and temporal reign of the Leviathan can save us from falling into the terminal disorder of the Jews who broke the Mosaic covenant.

This Biblical vision of the fundamental weakness of our human sociality is at odds with the Aristotelian perspective, in which the human species naturally orders its political life socially. In light of this tension, the “break” from the ancients in early modern political thought appears less a function of some enchantment with the modern scientific project than of the advent of Christianity and the Reformation. Despite some superficial similarities, putting Machiavelli with Hobbes and Locke into a first “wave” of modern thought conceals more than it reveals. Hobbes and Locke—and, afterward, the American founders who politically reconciled Calvinism and Deism—are concerned above all to achieve precisely what Levin advocates as our best hope for the future: a way of life fully open to human flourishing which remains fully cognizant of the limits beyond which our exercise of power becomes destructive to that end.

But in adopting the Straussian narrative of modernity that he does, Levin disposes us to view the early moderns as not just technophilic but technocratic—even while averting our gaze from the way in which a new Hobbesianism threatens to divest us of self-government for reasons conceptually prior to our whole attitude toward science. Hobbes teaches that individuals, including liberal democratic ones, may truly flourish only if they surrender their prideful claims of self-governance to the legal—not scientific—rule of a “mortal god.” If this argument retains any force in an age when individuals increasingly long for the apolitical comforts of Rorty’s bourgeois bohemian, content to outsource rule to legal experts, then Levin—and anyone sympathetic to his incisive portrayal of the current temptation to outsource rule to scientific experts—must be prepared to reach deeper than the traditional critical history of the “modern scientific project” can reach. Perhaps the threat science poses to self-government is so profound only because it supplements and reinforces a prior, more primal longing to be ruled.

Although he does not press the point as far, Levin recognizes the possibility that even liberal, democratic individuals secretly imagine the surrender of political liberty to be the path to human flourishing—not just to the second-best option, promoted by science, of merely avoiding illness and harm. At its heart, he shows, the liberal fantasy voices the hope that the massive tension between liberalism and progressivism can be fully resolved. Liberal politics and progressive science, egalitarianism and instrumentalism, will be shown in this fantasy to complete and reaffirm one another, satisfying both humanity’s most animal needs and its most godlike dreams. In Rorty’s estimation, not science but our political imagination will drive the quest for a future of ever-greater flourishing. Though unbound, science will play only a supporting role in extending to ever more human beings the full experience of individuality needful for us to flourish. Levin takes our bourgeois bohemians to be far more captivated by the primacy of scientific possibility—especially that of biotechnology—than does Rorty. But in insisting that we have “been very well served” by the scientific enterprise in its “fearful and downward-looking view of nature and man” (12), Levin downplays the important ways in which science, however banally, has become most popular as part of the positive, aspirational project of democratizing the full experience of individuality. As Alasdair MacIntyre, a fierce critic of the Enlightenment project, has observed, ours is a culture dominated by confections and cosmetics; as Tocqueville recognized, in a democratic age technology becomes the means by which the many may possess the image of what once only the privileged few possessed in reality. If it is true that biotechnology threatens to extend the principle of fake designer watches to all-too-real “designer babies,” Levin’s conclusion, if not his case, is strengthened by a recognition that science today is often at its most alluring as the helpmeet of our optimistic, hopeful eros, not the vanguard of our disenchanted, calculating logos.

That said, there is much in Levin’s brief against the “party of science” that hits the mark. His discussion of the Left’s reliance upon the rhetoric of constant crisis is of great value—especially in the wake of recent charges, like those of liberal scholar Alan Wolfe, that the Right has the corner on scheming for a Schmittian state of permanent exception. And Levin’s cautionary account of the Right’s predicament in confronting the relation of science and politics is particularly sobering. Conservatives are vulnerable to retreating, in the face of science, to the sort of foundationless sentimentalism in which liberals have been reduced to self-parody. Just as a “sense of self-esteem” will do where the attainment of real self-esteem proves difficult, so do conservatives worry that “the knowledge of having been designed by another [person] for a particular purpose,” for instance, will “diminish a child’s sense of freedom and possibility” (74). Conservatives cannot fight a logocentric, scientific ethic of infinite choices and no boundaries with an erotocentric, romantic ethic of the same. But, as Levin painfully reveals, since Burke the Right has relied on our vaguest and gauziest sentiments to shelter the sacred from the glare of open markets and open minds. In resisting the party of science, conservatives are pulled into the very pattern of argumentation that dispels those sentiments (121). “Uprooting moral intuitions in the cause of moral living will not be easy,” Levin warns, “and the dangers for the right along the way are great” (131). To articulate afresh the meaning of human dignity and flourishing, conservatives must discover a way to speak authoritatively as defenders of the individual—a task made all the more difficult by the rise of an abstract ideal of individuality that undermines the very concreteness of individual being. Increasingly, for conservatives struggling to reassert a vision of the future anchored in political liberty and self-government, not inflating our sense of individuality but retaining our individual character will become the decisive issue.


[1] Richard Rorty, “Philosophy and the Future,” in Rorty and Pragmatism, Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr., ed. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995), 197.

James Poulos is a doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11.

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