9.10.08

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, DAVID HUME: I have my issues with postmodern conservatism, about which more at some point in the future (whenever I'm done with this chapter). It's worth commenting on two features of this criticism of the pomocons. A sample:

This acknowledgment of the missing foundation for the foundational (or the inability to deny the same-- no difference) is, I think, at the heart of postmodern conservatism. No one likes an outsider to try and define their beliefs, and I won't do the pomocons the violence of saying I know what they think. But it seems to me that this frank admission that one believes in the old ways because one chooses to is near the heart of their mission. The first problem is that, as she comes close to saying, Karras's way requires (in that studied way!) the rejection of the studied approach to political philosophy. And if the pomocons are anything, they are studied...

How can you have the foundational without the foundation? Where can the bedrock come from, if you acknowledge that you've chosen your preference for it? How can traditionalism survive, when you know that mere human subjectivity is the source of tradition? Conservatism has tradtionally been suspicious, even hateful, of postmodern skepticism towards meta-narratives. I think many of the pomocons believe that they can have the destabilizing nature of postmodernism and yet still knowingly choose the stability of classical forms, traditional mores. But the old school conservatives abhor the postmodern for a reason. They know the limits of willed obediance to the past, they recognize the fragility of any conservatism of choice.


1. To speak as though they were a unified group, the pomocons (and this criticism) often appear to stumble over what I'd call the ontology/epistemology distinction. Pomocons recognize that foundationalism as an epistemological project is difficult, if not impossible (can anyone offer an account of their beliefs all the way down?). This becomes, so far as I can tell, the reason to turn first to postmodernity, and sometimes also to irony--one recognizes that all positions have this feature, and abandons the hope of foundations, or accepts a coherence theory of truth, or emphasizes the importance of deliberation and rhetoric.

The alternative is to see the problems of foundationalism as an epistemological issue only. I can't justify my beliefs all the way down. I do not believe anything about the truth of my beliefs follows from that. As a historical matter, this is first articulated by Locke (well, in the modern era--Augustine covers this in several of his works), who recognizes the limitations of reason but still encourages individuals to reach whatever level of certainty they can. Its most persuasive version is Hume's (and here I follow David Miller): I can construct no argument from properly basic principles to demonstrate the sun will rise in the morning, but that is a different question than a. whether the sun actually will rise tomorrow (the difference between what's true and what I can know, when knowledge means something like 'justified true belief') and b. whether 'the sun will rise tomorrow' is a belief I am justified using in practical reasoning. In the face of postmodern discourse, one can assert its basic correctness, or one can argue nevertheless for truth. Freddie is right to say a conservative ought to act on the basis of truth.

2. However, there is a distinction of which conservatism is particularly aware--that some things are permanent and unchanging, and others are local and particular. As a moral realist and a Christian, I think that certain facts about the world are true quite apart from whether anyone believes them to be so. Then again, much of the world just is socially constructed: this is what it means to have traditions, and communities, and institutions that are greater than any particular member. One has loyalty to tradition and community because they function as better guardians of what is true and good than the judgments of an individual, and because if there is a real moral order to the world, what endures does so because it reflects that moral order. Conservatives also, however, remember what is true about human nature, and the ability of great injustices to persist for much longer than they should--and so must first have a loyalty to the permanent things of which the the traditions and communities are a reflection. Thus we can recognize that our choices are choices--see our world as it actually is--without thereby undermining the strength of our commitments.

There is perhaps (always) more to say, but that'll do for now.

2 comments:

bourkereport said...

I have some quibbles with your treatment of foundationalism. I think the claim that we have to "go all the way down" kind of misses what a (good) foundationalist would urge, and stacks the deck against the position. To say that there are satisfying starting points is not to say that fulfilling the Principle of Sufficient Reason is what makes them satisfying. I would further argue that it's anti-foundationalists (and even postmoderns) who remain unable to move past the PSR, and that foundationalists are actually more sober about the adequacy of the standard. To fully spell this out I'd have to say more than I'm willing to type here, but we can talk about it sometime if you like.

Nicholas said...

I think we actually agree on this; I'd consider myself a foundationalist. I'm considering the idea that you can't go all the way down for the sake of argument: even if it's true you can't, I still think foundationalism is better than the alternative. But I'm also trying to argue that this is, in part, beside the point: if you have a commitment to certain things being universal and true, whether you can make the proof matters much less than the substance of the belief.