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Modernism in politics

Submitted by Simon on Fri, 05/06/2011 - 1:45pm

David Cameron says: "Politics shouldn’t be some mind-bending exercise. It’s about what you feel in your gut—about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong." He is wrong to a certain extent; politics naturally includes a rational, logical, empirical element. Nevertheless, he is also right to a great extent—indeed, he is expressing a venerable Burkeian principle—and because he will be pilloried for the remark, I will say a few words in defense of recognizing the limits of pure reason.

To set the stage, I must first paint a metaphor. The best way to envision tradition, it seems to me, is as a mighty river, the aggregation of countless individual drops contributed over time. The thing about tradition is that it's always apparent when someone (or one generation) meddles too much; tradition certainly doesn't preclude development and decision, but legitimate development is always organic and incremental, and when one person or generation takes it upon themselves to change too much, there are telltale signs. The river starts to look like a canal. The novus ordo Mass, for example, has the feeling of an anabrach: same water, but somehow more restricted, somehow out of the mainstream, somehow artificial.

This metaphor also suggests the great threat of liberalism, by which we really mean modernism-rationalism: They don't like the river; they don't like being on the water, they don't like where the water came from, they don't like where the water's been, and they don't accept the notion that the river ought to exist (still less carry anyone, least of all them)—so they try to divert it here and there, but ultimately their goal is to dam it up completely and walk. As Oakshott observed in Rationalism in Politics,"[t]o the Rationalist"—which is really no more than another name for the modernist—"nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny." Thus, such men spend much of their lives assuming that it is for them to judge tradition, and accordingly seek to hale "the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, 'reason' exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case." (Edmund Burke would similarly lament "the total contempt which prevails [in jacobin France] ... and may come to prevail with us, of all ancient institutions when set in opposition to a present sense of convenience or to the bent of a present inclination.")

With these observations in mind, let us now turn back to Mr. Cameron's remark. Cameron is effectively warning that pure reason will not suffice to decide every question. In fact, it's often the case that we hesitate or leap forward based on what, if we are honest, are instinctive or emotional concerns that we can't quite articulate on an intellectual level; "what we call rational grounds for our beliefs[] are often extremely irrational attempts to justify our instincts." 3 Thomas Huxley, Life & Letters 94 (2007). The conceit of the modernist-rationalist complex is to dismiss all such concerns, but the well-formed conservative mind jumps immediately to Burke, who addressed precisely this point in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

"[I]n this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree…; and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature."

Burke urges—and Cameron appears to accept—that our trust must be in the river, not in the innate capacity of individual drops of water. We are not accustomed to hearing a rousing defense of "prejudice" because the word has taken on a pejorative cast, but Burke situates it in the instinctive hesitation to get out of the river of tradition. It is in this context that we should understand John Gall's (I think) deeply conservative warnings about systems. It is in this context that we should understand Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" test. And it is in this context that we should understand G.K. Chesterton's often misunderstood proposal that tradition be seen as “democracy extended through time.” Orthodoxy 84-85 (1909). We may not always be able to articulate why something is wrong, because of the limitations of individual wisdom or learning, but, soaked through with the traditions of Christendom generally and Anglo-American civilization particularly, we intuitively know a problem when we see it. When we get out of the river, we know it from the wind chill.

Of course, such concerns are dismissed by the modernists and rationalists (who, like the so-called "legal realists," cleverly sought to adopt names as barricades: Who could be against rationality?), so brilliantly skewered by Pius X in Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Oakshott in Rationalism in Politics. As the latter observes, the modernist-rationalist "is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his 'reason'; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his 'reason (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action." These conceits have become so widespread today that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that they are just that, and that they must be resisted.

So Mr. Cameron is right to accept—and to be honest—about the limits of pure reason. It is not an invalid answer to say that we instinctively feel, in ways and for reasons that we cannot quite articulate, that something is outside of our tradition and for that reason should be rejected.

Post facto:
MP: Altar bells and keeping faith with tradition (Nov. 10, 2011)

You're focusing on modernism

You're focusing on modernism as a rationalist enterprise, but modern thinkers have done more than anyone in history to critique reason as limited and venerate emotion in its place. Thats where you see an abandonment of a priori argument (what was traditionally called rationalism) in favor of empiricism and the shift in focus in proof to falsification. And in art, you see a elevation of the subjective over the objective.

I always saw the current focus in religion on emotion as a sort of reactionary answer to modernism. At some time religion was seen as a very rational, logic oriented thing, and the big shift towards the other point of view only came around the same time modernism started gaining force.

But its very much trapped in the modern definition of reason and objectivity as something anti-subjective, it bears with it the implication that if you took reason to its fullest logical consequences you would end up being a nihilist... since to be fully objective, in that point of view, would support no account of truth or meaning. In contrast, I'd argue that all reason is pragmatic. There is no such thing as "pure reason". I'd also argue that reason is intuitive; just as intuitive as emotion. It's not some arcane enterprise that academics participate in, we participate in it in every day life.

The problem you're talking about is more that average people can't always articulate what they understand. Reason isn't always verbal, its a sense of things. Translating that sense of things into verbal form is a skill. Philosophy requires as much talent as poetry.

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