Conservatism in Political Philosophy


“On the surface it is deeply puzzling that conservatism has disappeared from professional philosophy.” So writes Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam) in a post at Digressions & Impressions. He explains his puzzlement, but the main aim of his post is to provide an explanation for conservatism’s absence from contemporary political philosophy.

What do we mean by “conservatism”? Let’s not confuse political philosophy with political parties. “Conservatism” in political philosophy is no more accurately described by reference to the views of the typical self-identifying conservative voter than “liberalism” in political philosophy is accurately described by reference to the views of the typical self-identifying liberal voter. Rather, conservatism here is the conservatism of Burke, Oakeshott, and others. Schliesser elaborates:

Conservative political philosophy has an originating thought that goes something like this: political life is centered on groups or collectives that need to use violence to constitute and maintain themselves and, thereby, establish order…. [An] important consequence of the originating thought is that the order established can allow one to pursue the common good. That is to say, the conservative rejects the idea that the state must be neutral. Of course, the content of the common good is deeply contested even among conservatives (including among ones where one may, say, expect agreement, say Catholics)—some of the fiercest debates involve the role of religion and the status of the church or rites in this common good…. [T]he interest in the common good explains the conservatives’ special interest in institutions that help secure shared morality: education, family, religion, civic culture, etc. Or in institutions that help secure a certain commons sensibility: aesthetics, the arts, literature, etc.

He then offers two explanations for the relative lack of conservatism in political philosophy today. It’s worth noting he explicitly acknowledges  externalist explanations, such as: the absence of conservatism may be owed to the lack of conservatives, which may be owed at least in part to conservatives not feeling sufficiently welcome in academia to pursue a career in it, or to political discrimination and bias in philosophy. But his focus in the post is on whether there are explanations that stem from conservative political philosophy itself. His two explanations are:

  1. Conservatives reject the terms of the debate among liberals vs Marxists and liberals vs libertarians. They are suspicious of what we may call ‘rights first’ accounts without accompanying obligations, and (more important) they reject the idea that the point of political life is to secure rights.
  2. Conservatism has an an instinctive mistrust of systematicity…. [T]hat raises an important problem…: working out what, say, Thomism or Right Hegelianism might mean today generally involves (i) a hermeneutic aspect, (ii) a reconstructive aspect, and (iii) a constructive (forward-looking) aspect. But the norms of the discipline in analytic philosophy today treat (i-ii) as ‘history.’ And while many normative theorists are interested in some historical figures, they have little appetite for engagement with (i) and (ii). And so taken as self-standing (iii) looks entirely ungrounded or unprincipled, that is, ‘bad philosophy,’ compared to the systematic rigor of utilitarianism and the method of reflective equilibrium of the Rawlsian.

See his post for the details.

I think Schliesser is on to something, particularly with #2, but there are at least two other explanations, which we can label “political speciation” and “pragmatic traditionalism”.

“Political speciation” is the idea that various parts of conservatism have been split off from it and developed into alternative views. For example, libertarianism can be seen as picking up on conservative elitism, subsidiarity, and appreciation of the dangers of political power. Marxism shares with conservatism its emphasis on the importance of history, the influence of institutions on human life, a normative conception of human nature, a discounting of the importance of justice, and a focus on the common good.

Speaking of the common good, remember communitarianism? Schliesser’s description above of conservativism’s focus on the common good could have been written about communitarianism. And I would venture that among contemporary political philosophers, the one who has gotten the most people to take seriously conservative political ideas is not the one proud conservative actually playing the political philosophy game (John Kekes) but “communitarian” Michael Sandel (Harvard). He will deny he is a conservative—fine—but look at how much overlap there is between conservatism and ideas he has put forward: the priority of the common good in political philosophy, the immorality of market commodification, a caution to appreciate what nature hands us rather than mess with it, a romanticization of the past.*

So if you’re looking for conservatism in contemporary political philosophy, you may not find it intact, but you will see elements of it in a variety of other views.

By “pragmatic traditionalism” I mean to emphasize the aspect of conservatism that is about valuing and preserving existing practices. This is tied to skepticism not just of, as Schliesser says, “systematicity,” but of abstract reasoning about practical matters. I take an important element of conservatism to be the view that knowledge about good lives, good communities, and good societies is not mainly, if at all, the product of a priori and hypothetical reasoning, but of observation of the practices which enable us to survive and flourish. Such practices embed knowledge that is not necessarily articulable by those engaged in and benefitting from them. If the knowledge is not articulable, how do we know it’s there? Because, despite our corruptible natures and limited understanding and agonistic inclinations, we are still here. Hence the importance of keeping things largely as they are, and being very slow and cautious about change. As Oakeshott famously says in “On Being Conservative”:

[W]henever there is innovation there is the certainty that the change will be greater than was intended, that there will be loss as well as gain and that the loss and the gain will not be equally distributed among the people affected; there is the chance that the benefits derived will be greater than those which were designed; and there is the risk that they will be off-set by changes for the worse.

From all of this the man of conservative temperament draws some appropriate conclusions. First, innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator. Secondly, he believes that the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss. Thirdly, he thinks that the innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection. Consequently, he prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. Fourthly, he favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments. And lastly, he believes the occasion to be important; and, other things being equal, he considers the most favorable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences. 

So it’s not just that conservatives “reject the terms of the debate.” They reject the methods. An intellectual environment dominated by a priori claims and intuitions, in which empirical questions are “merely technical” matters to be dealt with later and by others, and in which something’s being traditional is not itself a reason in its favor—that is not, from the conservative point of view, conducive to wisdom about the political. And in turn, the inherently empirical and historical and cautious aspects of conservative political philosophy comprise a methodology that is alien to a community that believes it can conjure human flourishing from mere ideas and sees the past mainly as a museum of injustice.

But political philosophy is changing. We’ve had two decades of people arguing in favor of various forms of “non-ideal theory.” Efforts at demographic inclusiveness and canon expansion raise awareness of the geographic and historical situatedness of ideas. There seems to be more and more work on political epistemology and intellectual humility. The discipline is more open to critical race theory, which could be described as focusing on the interplay between social roles and institutional power. And philosophy seems to be becoming more religious.** So, from a high enough altitude, it looks like the landscape is changing in ways that, perhaps surprisingly, creates openings for conservatism—or at least for parts of it, here and there.


* Note that even when disguised as a kind of soft-left-anti-liberalism, these conservative ideas failed to gain much lasting support among political and moral philosophers.

** One piece of evidence for this, pace warnings about comparing the results, is the increase from 2009 to 2020 in PhilPapers survey respondents supporting theism. “Accept/Lean to Theism” went up from 14.6% to 18.93%, while “Accept/Lean to Atheism” went down from 72.8% to 66.95%. [Update: See the comment from David Wallace on this data. Also, in the sentence to which this note is attached, I changed “is” to “seems to be”.]

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David Wallace
7 months ago

“One piece of evidence for [philosophers becoming more religious], pace warnings about comparing the results, is the increase from 2009 to 2020 in PhilPapers survey respondents supporting theism. “Accept/Lean to Theism” went up from 14.6% to 18.93%, while “Accept/Lean to Atheism” went down from 72.8% to 66.95%.”

Not only does PhilPapers itself explicitly say that direct comparisons of the 2009 and 2020 data are not statistically valid given that they use different sampling methodologies, they actually provide multiple alternative ways to do longitudinal comparison that are statistically valid. Two of those (comparing same departments, and comparing ‘comparable’ departments) actually show a decrease in theism and an increase in atheism.(The third, comparing replies by the same philosophers, shows an increase in theism, though it’s very small; of course that tells us whether individuals over time are more likely to shift one way or another, not how the overall demographic shifts.)

Maybe philosophy is becoming more religious, but the PhilPapers survey provides less than zero evidence for that. Justin says that it’s ‘one piece of evidence’; I’d be interested to hear what the others are.

David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

To be fair, I share that anecdotal sense to at least some degree. My guess, though, is that in large part this represents the social rise and fall of New Atheism!

Eric Steinhart
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

Speaking as a philosopher of religion here. If “religion” is just a code word for Christianity, then I’d say, no, philosophy is not becoming more religious, that is, it’s not becoming more Christian. It’s becoming far less Christian. But if “religious” and “theism” are interpreted more broadly, then yes, there’s a slight increase in religiosity and theism. There have been many new non-Christian forms of religiosity and theism that have been appearing in the journals and books. This is in line with data from Pew etc. that indicates that non-Christian in the larger culture does not entail atheism or naturalism (which is itself a horribly vague concept). As Christianity declines, lots of new options appear. There is much new and valuable work on pantheism and panentheism, positions which need not be Christian at all. I take it that panpsychism is ultimately a religious (but probably not Christian) position. Likewise there’s been an upsurge in philosophical work on Neopaganism.

Prof L
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
7 months ago

I agree — I don’t know that organized religion is on the rise, but it does seem like a kind of hard-nosed, aggressive naturalism has declined.

This does make the philosophical world more friendly to (say) Christians and Catholics, but I don’t think there are more of them around than there were 10-15 years ago.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Eric Steinhart
6 months ago

It’s interesting that you think of panpsychism as ultimately religious. Could you say more about what you mean by this? Coming from the philosophy of mind, I don’t immediately have the same impression, but I am open to it and curious to hear more.

Louis F. Cooper
7 months ago

from the OP:

Marxism shares with conservatism its emphasis on the importance of history, the influence of institutions on human life, a normative conception of human nature, a discounting of the importance of justice, and a focus on the common good.

This a blog post, not a scholarly essay, so one should be charitable and cut the author a lot of slack. That said, I’m not a big fan of the quoted sentence.

I think a better cut — though not specifically geared to developments in academic philosophy — would be: Marxism shares with conservatism (despite their very significant differences) an emphasis on the importance of power and narrowly conceived self-interest as forces in human life and history; a skepticism about appeals to universalism or dispassionate and disinterested “reason”; and a tendency to think that even unjust or stratified social orders are not irredeemably bad, because for conservatives they’re often better than any alternative while for Marxists they may in various ways help create the preconditions for revolutionary transformation.

Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
7 months ago

On the surface, this seems like a fair analysis. But, in my view, we tend to overemphasize the intellectual reasons for the marginalization of conservatism in political philosophy and downplay the much simpler sociological reasons.

Schliesser notes in the beginning of his piece that he “know[s] some conservative academics who have experienced persistent discrimination in the academy or felt silenced in the context of group conformism.” What is this group conformism about?

We get some suggestive evidence further down: “analytic political philosophy has space for vigorous debates among liberals, libertarians, classical liberals, feminists, social democrats, and Marxists. So, it is not self-evident why conservatism couldn’t be a position in the mix.”

While it may not be self-evident, what these diverse political views share is a broad commitment to social liberalism and an opposition to traditional morality. That, I would contend, is the basis for the aforementioned group conformism in the field. Social conservatism is the third rail of analytic political philosophy.

Patrick Lin
7 months ago

I remember reading Ted Honderich’s 1990 book Conservatism in graduate school, which was an interesting take-down of conservatism (and maybe even a rant). Here’s a wiki-summary:

“What is the rationale or underlying principle of conservatism? The answer he gives is not just that the conservative tradition is selfish. Its self-interest, he argues, does not distinguish it from other political traditions. What does distinguish it, Honderich concludes, is that it lacks a moral principle to defend its self-interest. It is unique in its amorality.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Honderich#Conservatism

Rob Hughes
7 months ago

There aren’t many Oakeshott-style conservatives in academic philosophy. There also aren’t many Oakeshott-style conservatives in American political life. I think the reasons are related.

Capitalism has an inherent tendency to produce social change and upheaval. As capital seeks new investments and opportunities for growth, businesses, occupations, communities, and ways of life are constantly created and destroyed. Little-c conservatives living under capitalism have always faced a difficult choice about how to respond to this upheaval. Do they try to conserve the communities and norms threatened by the latest economic developments, or do they try to conserve the economic system itself?

In 1956, when Oakeshott wrote “On Being Conservative,” wanting to conserve the overall economic system was a reasonable want. Today, it is clear that big changes in our economic system are inevitable. We are coming up against limits on the number of people the planet can sustain. The global economy can’t keep growing by adding more workers and consumers. We can still have economic growth from technological development. Capitalism may still be around in a hundred years. If it does, it will look very, very different. Our economic system will change more in the next hundred years than it did in the last hundred years.

What does it mean to be conservative when deep changes both in local communities and in the overall economic system seem to be inevitable?

Kyle Hodge
Kyle Hodge
Reply to  Rob Hughes
7 months ago

There is a nice paper in a special issue of the Monist on conservative political philosophy by Vanessa Rampton which says, “[The Russian Revolution of 1905] illustrates the impossibility of defending a conservative theory of change in a polarized
political environment,” (2016, pp. 382-383) and I think much of the paper suggests the idea that conservatism is impossible in circumstances when norms and institutions are upended or are in the process of being upended.

Matt L
Reply to  Rob Hughes
7 months ago

To pick up on Rob’s point, John Gray once said that the reason why he moved from being a supporter of Hayek’s brand of “classical liberalism” to something much more like an actual conservative is that he came to think that the “creative destruction” of capitalism was more destruction than creation, at least of anything he’d like. That’s going to be true of at least the large majority of types of capitalism, whatever else their virtues may be, so there’s an inherent tension between conservativism and the market.

But another big problem, touched on by Schliesser but not developed at length, is that most arguments by conservatives tend to be negative – “Against Liberalism”, to use the title of one of John Keke’s books – but not very positive in developing their own view. One straight-forward reason for this is that the views are not going to be attractive to a very larger percentage of people, probably a majority, so it’s hard to put them in a way that doesn’t make them seem self-refuting or at least deeply unattractive.

David Wallace
Reply to  Matt L
7 months ago

Is that a plausible reason? Plenty of views that are widespread in academia are unpopular with the general public. (If the point is that conservative views are not going to be popular with a large percentage of *academics*, then there’s a danger of circularity.)

Matt L
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

Yes, that’s a bit unclear. But what I have in mind is that arguments for, say, the importance of heirarchy (not just bosses and the like, but of social, and often gender heirarchy), for the importance of “traditional” family roles, for positions that are not just non-egalitarian but anti-egalitarian, and so on, for “traditional” views on sex (including closting of homosexuals, shaming of single parents, accepting non-married sexual activity by men if it’s discrete but imposing serious sanctions on it when it’s done by women, etc.) are very hard to get many people to take seriously, perhaps especially academics, but also most students. And, because these views are not “merely academic”, when you meet someone who pushes them, it’s hard to just smile and laught, like you might with panpsychism (or the odd view of your choice.) So, because these views are (rightly!) pretty unpopular, there’s a strong tendency for conservative thinkers to not come right out and say them. But not coming out and saying them makes for a weaker position as far as building a movement, too. I think this tends to undermine the whole thing – a view people are not willing to come right out and argue for isn’t likely to get much uptake in intellectual circles, even though it seems to be a popular approach in normal politics (see, for example, the idea that it was extremely unfair to accurately state Robert Bork’s views, often in his own words, at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.)

Prof L
Reply to  Matt L
6 months ago

holy straw man re: the gloss on traditional views on sex! Indeed, I’ve never heard anyone espouse those views among academics, but I think that this is because no one holds those views, even if they are socially conservative (not because they hold these views in secret).

Also, “discrete” sexual activity is certainly preferable! I think we can all agree that continuous sexual activity would be a bit excessive for both men and women.

Kyle Hodge
Kyle Hodge
7 months ago

Some remarks I’ve found useful on this issue, from two seminal pieces on conservative political theory:

Huntington, “Conservatism as an Ideology,” 1957:

“The usefulness of the conservative ideology in justifying any existing order is manifest from the above summary of Burkean principles. Nowhere in that summary is there any indication of the character of the institutions which these ideas might be used to defend. In this respect conservatism differs from all other ideologies except radicalism: it lacks what might be termed a substantive ideal. Most ideologies posit some vision as to how political society should be organized. The words “liberalism,” “democracy,” “communism,” “fascism,” all convey an intimation as to what should be the distribution of power and other values in society, the relative importance of the state and other social institutions, the relations among economic, political, and military structures, the general system of government and representation, the forms of executive and legislative institutions. But what is the political vision of conservatism? Is it possible to describe a conservative society? On the contrary, the essence of conservatism is that it is literally, in Muhlenfeld’s phrase, “Politik ohne Wunschbilder” [“politics without ideals”]” (p. 457).

“Its lack of both an intellectual tradition and a substantive ideal account for another peculiar aspect of conservatism: the extent to which it has been ignored by political scientists writing on political theory. In the political theory textbooks conservatism rarely, if ever, appears, and when it does it is treated, on the whole, in a very skimpy manner. Similarly, there are no decent histories of conservative thought. The reason for this lies partly in the nature of conservatism and partly in the training of political scientists. The latter learn to analyze historical schools of thoughts, to trace the development of ideas, to identify the influence of one man on another, and to search out the ideological schisms and doctrinal divergences in a school of thought. They are also taught to dissect the substantive ideals of ideologies in terms of their inherent logic and consistency, the theories of man and nature which they reflect, and the group interests which they rationalize and project. Lacking an intellectual tradition and a substantive ideal, conservatism does not lend itself to fruitful analysis along these lines. Not knowing what questions to ask about conservatism or how to evaluate its significance, political scientists have tended to ignore it” (pp. 470-471, fn. 30).

Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory, 1996:

“The above analysis may now be further refined. It opens up the possibility of combining aspects of the fixed-core-list approach to conservative ideology with the positional one. This is the central challenge, facing the student of conservative ideology as distinct from the conservative ideologue. So far it has not been taken up because analysts of ideology have been accustomed, when turning their attention to conservatism, to look for the central features, in universal garb, located in progressive ideologies—e.g., a rational conception of human nature, a stated relationship between individual and community, a recommended method of social and economic distribution. They have then attempted to uncover parallel key conservative attitudes to those nodal points of political theory, assuming that some version of them must be central to conservatism too. The problem is insoluble on these lines, because the internal morphology of conservatism does not directly reflect the structure of progressive ideologies. The latter deliberately concentrate on providing solutions to well-known main substantive problems of political theory. Liberal and socialist ideologies emphasize a coherent set of ideas that orders human political experience in a purpose of manner, and is designed to optimize the realization of certain desirable values. In contrast, conservatives intentionally—though not always successfully—avoid the search for fundamentally new rational solutions to social issues. They have no intellectual or emotional need to ditch those present or past solutions, which appear to conform to their prized notion of organic change” (p. 335)

“[T]he third core feature of conservatism [is] its mirror image characteristic. But the mirror image phenomenon operates in a more subtle and distinctive manner than allowed for by current scholarship. It ensures that conservative thinking converts the typical core, value-articulating, political concepts of its progressive assailants into merely secondary, adjacent concepts. More precisely, conservatives develop substantive antiheses to progressive core concepts, such as reason, equality, or individuality, but then (often unconsciously) assign them only adjacent status within the conservative morphology” (p. 336, emphasis original).

“A comparison between conservative and progressive ideologies establishes that what conservatism sacrifices in terms of substantive complexity, it makes up in terms of a greater morphological complexity. The fundamental asymmetry between the morphology of conservatism and that of its rivals lies in the fact that, whereas concepts concerning human nature, social structure, and the distribution of goods are core components of progressive ideologies, conservatism displays another type of substantive, core: social and political activity, and its articulated defense, should be geared to preventing nonorganic, disruptive change by invoking an extra-human order” (p. 340).

This idea that conservatism lacks substantive ideals or values seems to me to be on the right foot. The Pyrrhonian skeptics, who lacked substantive ideals in virtue of their skepticism, were also naturally inclined to conservatism (as Sextus Empiricus and Michel de Montaigne attest). I think that this naturally makes conservatism, as Huntington says, much more difficult to understand and analyze. There was an issue of the Monist in 2016 which wanted to reinvigorate this part of political theory, but after almost 8 years I don’t know if it is having the intended effect.

(apologies if this gets double-posted; I think the last version got marked as spam because I edited my post a few times for typos)

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
Reply to  Kyle Hodge
7 months ago

I wrote about the Huntington piece earlier in the year. I think it’s more Schmittian than the passage you rightly pick up:
https://digressionsimpressions.substack.com/p/on-the-functional-role-of-woke-huntington

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
7 months ago

I don’t think that there is much in the way of philosophically substantive reasons for philosophers to be less likely to be conservative, although I think there is something in Schliesser’s second reason about conservative suspicion of systemacity. It’s mostly just sociology.

My word of wisdom on this subject is that anyone who hasn’t should read Leszek Kolokowski’s ‘How to be a Conservative Liberal Socialist’, with effortless mastery he nails this in two and a half pages.

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Rollo Burgess
6 months ago

I absolutely need to read this. Kolokowski is just delightfully weird, or at least he seems that way to me, but also brilliant in his insights. He has another wonderful essay, whose title I can’t seem to remember or find, where he takes Jesus seriously as a philosopher and gives him the academic great thinker treatment. (The gist of it if I remember correctly is: Yes his ethical views are radical and impractical to the point of being unlivable and he had some seemingly crazy views in metaphysics. But aren’t both these claims true of most great philosophers?)

Nick
Nick
Reply to  Rollo Burgess
6 months ago

While I understand that his purpose is complex, the opening line of the Kolokowski piece provides a sentiment that I’ve recently heard a fair bit; many people seem to think it is partly or wholly constitutive of Conservatism as a distinctive political theory:

A Conservative Believes that in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed.

I confess that I am baffled by such claims. Is the idea that the Polio vaccine was necessarily accompanied by “evils”? What evils? Of course, the Conservative may mean something like “costs” here, because the vaccine involved material production and distribution. But then who, I ask, is not a conservative? Are progressives really to be described as people who think that social improvements are magic and thus require no effort, labor or material cost? Moreover, who thinks we should engage in social improvement projects without considering any potential costs? Just think, for a second, about what paradigmatic non-conservative JS Mill would have said about this.

I remain unclear on the nature of the thing that is missing from political philosophy. Certainly there is a dearth of people who identify as conservatives, and this might be bad, but the orientation itself? I’ve never seen it properly defined.

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Nick
6 months ago

It’s pretty common for non-conservatives to wonder about the things you’re wondering about. The form of bewilderment looks something like this: “Who in their right mind could find ‘deteriorations and evils’ originating in such an obviously good thing as X?”

The answer to any such denigrating question fitting that form will be: “More thinkers than you know.” The question itself proves the ignorance of the asker. But this is not the asker’s fault. It’s a problem of a lack of exposure to a variety of perspectives.

More particularly, if you’re authentically interested in what “deteriorations and evils” could possibly attend “obviously good” medical interventions, you might enjoy reading Ivan Illich’s book, Medical Nemesis, sometimes titled The Limits of Medicine. He was the first to identify several forms of iatrogenesis.

Animal Symbolicum
7 months ago

(1) It wouldn’t be unreasonable to see Ludwig Wittgenstein as being deeply socially conservative, in his life and in his philosophy. There was his aversion to systematizing, his warnings about discounting the local or traditional or ordinary, his religious concern about purity of soul, his wariness toward upending or unsettling established forms of life (especially by philosophical speculation), and so forth.

(Indeed, “analytic” used to name an approach that was, arguably, fairly conservative, in that it “established no new facts” and “left things as they are,” even if it did increase our understanding of them. See Tom Raysmith’s and Michael Beany’s Introduction to the special issue of the journal Analysis that Justin linked to earlier this week.)

That he who figures so heavily in the story of analytic philosophy’s development should be conservative in this way is interesting.

(2) Re: religiosity:

Christopher Beha penned a recent essay in the NYT in which he says this:

“The modern world’s true cultural divide is not between believers and unbelievers but between those who think life is a puzzle that is capable of being solved and those who believe it’s a mystery that ought to be approached by way of silence and humility [. . .]. The most sincere believers I’ve known have also been the most humble [. . .]. It may be that those who feel most powerfully the presence of God in their lives likewise feel most powerfully the impossibility of adequately capturing that presence in words. And it may be that those for whom God is not a symbol or a cudgel but a lived reality find this reality most mysterious.”

Arguably, part of the conservative temperament is a sense of mystery and a consequent sense of humility. This doesn’t sit well with the “there’s-nothing-we-can’t-figure-out-with-theory” spirit of academia (and thus of academic philosophy and of academic political philosophy).

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
7 months ago

I’m surprised nobody else has commented on this yet:

Conservative political philosophy has an originating thought that goes something like this: political life is centered on groups or collectives that need to use violence to constitute and maintain themselves and, thereby, establish order…. [An] important consequence of the originating thought is that the order established can allow one to pursue the common good. That is to say, the conservative rejects the idea that the state must be neutral.

So: Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Guevara, Pol Pot, etc. are all paradigm cases of conservative political philosophy?

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Justin Kalef
7 months ago

Thank you for commenting on this. I was wondering — I assumed I was just misunderstanding the history of conservative thought.

Matt L
Reply to  Justin Kalef
7 months ago

I (and I suppose Schliesser, though I’ll let him speak for himself) would say two things in response to this. 1) This is a trait shared by many forms of anti-liberalism, on both the left and the right, and that, 2) in this response, you’re mistaking a[n arguably] necessary condition for a sufficient one.

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Matt L
7 months ago

That’s an interesting attempt at a rescue, but Schleisser leads up to this passage by saying that many people don’t use the term ‘conservative’ to mean what he means by it. He doesn’t say that this is just a necessary condition: he says that what he presents is the ‘originating thought’ of conservatism. Maybe he meant something else, but that doesn’t seem to be what he said.

Also, on this view, any political movement that does not use violence to preserve itself is not conservative. So, a pacifist religious movement like the Amish is not conservative?

Whatever Schleisser is talking about here, it seems odd to call it ‘conservative’.

I’m not a conservative myself, but unaffiliated. Still, it doesn’t seem to me to help settle matters when a major position is for some reason necessarily associated with having norms that are to be enforced with violence, when this is neither necessary nor sufficient for what the term is generally understood to mean.

Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
Reply to  Justin Kalef
7 months ago

I believe the original point against Schleisser’s interpretation is based on a misunderstanding.

If you take collectivism vs. individualism as a simple dichotomy, then what Schleisser says is the “originating thought” of conservatism puts conservatives in the same camp as the 20th century totalitarians, that is, as collectivists. But the conservatism you find in thinkers like Burke and Hegel rejects both extreme collectivism, wherein the group is prior to the individual (and thus may be totalitarian), and extreme individualism, wherein the individual is prior to the group (and thus potential anarchic).

Rejecting the false dichotomy of individualism vs. collectivism, the neglected alternative is a holistic view, wherein neither the individual nor the group is prior, and where individuals must be understand first as members of social groups (and vice versa).

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
Reply to  Justin Kalef
7 months ago

Maybe read my piece first?

Screenshot_20231217_080047_Chrome.jpg
Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Eric Schliesser
7 months ago

No doubt, making a convincing case is quite easy when one can just stipulate that the other side is essentially devoted to violence while one’s own side is essentially devoted to peace even when its key thinkers openly endorse violence as a means of creating and maintaining its utopia — in theory and in practice.

Surely, the fact that one can count on getting away with such a thing is a good indication of the scarcity of conservatives in philosophy today.

All sorts of communist philosophers, including by some interpretations Marx and Engels themselves, have posited the need for a long and perhaps infinite chain of violent revolutions, each one correcting the (supposedly diminishing) errors of the last, with the end condition of a stateless society a sort of vanishing point on the horizon.

On the other hand, many conservatives (including those who do not call for violence) aim at an outcome where peaceful coexistence is assured.

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
Reply to  Justin Kalef
6 months ago

Justin,
The originating thought is in and embraced by Hume, Burke, Kirk, Burnham, Anscombe, Strauss, Brague, Hazony, Vermeule, and a host of others. It’s not something I criticize. I just state it as a fact. I would be curious what thinkers you consider conservative that deny it. The originating thought is not a call for violence; it’s a diagnosis of the nature of political life.

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Eric Schliesser
6 months ago

All right, Eric. You say, “Conservative political philosophy has an originating thought that goes something like this: political life is centered on groups or collectives that need to use violence to constitute and maintain themselves and, thereby, establish order…. 

You say now that Hume, Burke, and even Anscombe endorse this originating thought. Could you please provide the passages from those three thinkers that endorse this ‘constitutional violence’ view in a way that prominent communists, socialists, etc. do not?

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 months ago

Thanks — it seems to me that every political theory aims to help deal one way or another with the tensions giving rise to such conflicts, and that the solution nearly always relies on the potential of forcible resolution (at least as a last resort).

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Eric Schliesser
6 months ago

According to Simon Schama, violence was not accidental but essential to the French Revolution, a liberal revolution if there ever was one. More broadly, isn’t “consent of force” always a part of any non-anarchist political philosophy?

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Justin Kalef
6 months ago

To make a gumbo, you start by making a roux. That doesn’t mean macaroni and cheese is a gumbo. It also depends on how you proceed from that originating step. Not everything is a list of necessary and sufficient conditions.

That said, I remain sympathetic to the view that the various views labeled ‘conservative’ are unified only by their reactionary opposition to liberalism, and thus lack any coherent, shared ideology.

Leslie Glazer PhD
7 months ago

I am wondering if this shouldnt be surprising giving the history and spirit of the times. How could there be conservative philosophers if there is nothing left to argue about conserving? The center doesn’t hold. Who today could argue for the value and significance of respecting the past and traditions, traditional institutions and norms, nevermind any notions of natural law? Over the past fifty or a hundred years these concepts have been emptied out. I dont think they were actually defeated, but just replaced by a different paradigm and set of concepts.

Jonathan Kendrick
6 months ago

Here’s what I find most interesting: while explicitly conservative thought is completely absent from contemporary analytic political philosophy, right libertarianism is one of its two dominant schools. This is why I find a sociological explanation implausible. The only explicitly conservative philosopher I’ve ever read is Oakeshott (who is a very interesting thinker) and his writings on rationalism seem like an argument against doing political philosophy altogether, and it’s not hard to see how if you were a conservative would come to this conclusion.

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 months ago

I think that any explanation for the lack of conservative political philosophy needs to take into account the lack of conservatives in philosophy in general. If we don’t have conservative philosophers, we aren’t likely to get decent conservative political philosophy, even if that’s possible in principle.

Louis F. Cooper
6 months ago

Re:
Conservative political philosophy has an originating thought that goes something like this: political life is centered on groups or collectives that need to use violence to constitute and maintain themselves and, thereby, establish order.

The word “order” here might need some specification. In the opening pages of The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (1977), Hedley Bull (citing H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law) identifies a few goals (his word) that he suggests that “all societies” recognize:

First, all societies seek to ensure that life will be in some measure secure against violence resulting in death or bodily harm. Second, all societies seek to ensure that promises, once made, will be kept, or that agreements, once undertaken, will be carried out. Third, all societies pursue the goal of ensuring that the possession of things will remain stable to some degree, and will not be subject to challenges that are constant and without limit.

There are some squishy phrases here (“some measure,” “some degree”), but if one takes this as a reasonable definition of “order,” then it may be the case that violence is necessary, at least in some cases, to establish it, but once established it often tends to maintain itself without much use of violence. (I’m putting aside for the moment the argument that, e.g., capitalism in any form is inherently violent.)

In other words, quite a few societies that have order in this sense, even if they’re characterized by sharp political divisions, manage to exist and run on a daily basis without much resort to overt violence, at least in their domestic affairs, and violence very much recedes into the background. (I wouldn’t necessarily cite the U.S. as an exemplar here, given e.g. the level of incarceration among other things, but there are other, better examples of such societies that come to mind.) So how does “the originating thought,” as E. Schliesser defines it, of conservative political philosophy deal with or account for this pretty obvious “social fact” (to borrow an old phrase)?

Preston Stovall
6 months ago

This is late, but I keep coming back to Schliesser’s characterization of the “originating thought” of conservatism, which he glosses as the idea that “political life is centered on groups or collectives that need to use violence to constitute and maintain themselves and, thereby, establish order…“.

I understand he’s writing a book on topics in this vicinity, and I’m sure it will be interesting. But I don’t see the basis for this characterization. In the essay at his blog, Schliesser appeals to a passage by Edmund Burke referring to obedience that can be generated “by consent or force”, and he (Schliesser) parenthetically asserts that this reinforces his claim about the originating thought of conservatism as a need for violence to establish order. But in context, Burke’s talk of being “forced” to do something refers back to a contrast, in that same sentence and throughout the paragraph, between moral and physical necessity, the former obeyed by consent and the latter by force. See p.93-4 here: https://www.google.nl/books/edition/Reflections_on_the_Revolution_in_France/46nmMXN8FucC?hl=en&gbpv=0.

Both of my parents and three of my grandparents were born in Montana, and I suspect over half of my friends and family back home think of themselves as some kind of conservative. When I put myself into the perspective of a conservative, to think about what motivates the view, I think of things like the first paragraph of Roger Scruton’s “Stand Up for the Real Meaning of Conservatism”:

Conservatives believe that our identities and values are formed through our relations with other people, and not through our relation with the state. The state is not an end but a means. Civil society is the end, and the state is the means to protect it. The social world emerges through free association, rooted in friendship and community life. And the customs and institutions that we cherish have grown from below, by the ‘invisible hand’ of co-operation. They have rarely been imposed from above by the work of politics, the role of which, for a conservative, is to reconcile our many aims, and not to dictate or control them.

or Thomas Sowell’s gloss here (from 3:27):

https://youtu.be/5KHdhrNhh88?si=RRbeyW6PIPNTiYYR&t=207

What Schliesser characterizes as an originating thought of conservatism sounds more like fascism. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says about “why conservative political philosophy is so marginal in the discipline”, as Schliesser titles his post.