Friday, January 13, 2006

Edward Feser, in an excellent piece at Tech Central, describes the philosophical varieties of conservatism:

If you are still with me ... you have no doubt already begun to see the relevance of metaphysics to conservatism, and in particular the relevance of the classical realist tradition to Weaver’s brand of conservatism. “Realist Conservatism,” as we might call it, affirms the existence of an objective order of forms or universals that define the natures of things, including human nature, and what it seeks to conserve are just those institutions reflecting a recognition and respect for this objective order. Since human nature is, on this view, objective and universal, long-standing moral and cultural traditions are bound to reflect it and thus have a presumption in their favor.

But this does not necessarily entail a deference to the status quo, for since human beings are by their nature free and fallible, it is possible for societies to deviate, even radically, from the natural law. When this happens, it is the duty of the conservative to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” (as the editors of National Review so eloquently put it many years ago). Such yelling ought of course to be done with tact and wisdom, but if the cause of the Realist Conservative should end up a lost one, unlikely to win elections, that is irrelevant. What matters is fidelity to the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

What then are the other two varieties of conservatism I promised to identify? Here another, and much briefer, excursion into the history of philosophy is in order. I noted that realism had as its great rival nominalism, but there is also a third position on the nature of universals -- “conceptualism,” which might be thought of as a kind of middle ground between realism and nominalism. The conceptualist does not quite deny that universals exist (as the nominalist does) but he does insist, contrary to the realist, that they exist only subjectively, in the human mind. If they are real, then, they are something other than what the realist takes them to be; though their existence isn’t exactly denied, they are nevertheless “reduced” to something less grand, and certainly to something less than eternal and unchanging.

I think I land in the realist camp...on my better days.

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