Monday, November 16, 2009

An ambiguous conservative

It appears The American Conservative is making some of their archived content freely available online. For those who might be interested, here is a review I wrote for them some years back of An Imaginative Whig: Reassessing the Life and Thought of Edmund Burke, edited by Ian Crowe. As the review indicates, Burke’s sometimes ambiguously conservative thought raises questions about precisely what conservatism is and exactly how it relates to tradition – questions that are especially pressing today, when some conservatives are advising their fellows to abandon the cause of upholding certain aspects of traditional morality in the interests of preserving electoral viability. These are questions I have addressed elsewhere – for example, in this post about conservatism and tradition and this article about the metaphysical foundations of conservatism.


  1. W.B. Yeats, the Seven Sages:

    The Fifth. Whence came our thought?

    The Sixth. From four great minds that hated Whiggery.

    The Fifth. Burke was a Whig.
    The Sixth. Whether they knew or not,
    Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
    All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
    A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
    That never looked out of the eye of a saint
    Or out of drunkard's eye.

    The Seventh. All's Whiggery now,
    But we old men are massed against the world.

    There you go.

  2. Ed, your TCS article is great! Mucho Kudos. I am especially keen on the more philosophical first half.

    I believe it was Whitehead who said 'western philosophy is but footnotes to Plato,' and submit that he could agree with the article down to where you bring in Aquinas (in particular, when giving special treatment to human souls over other animal souls).

    As I noted in a previous post comment, I have become interested in hylomorphism due to James Felt's concern that it is not scientifically adequate, something Whitehead was keen on in his process Philosophy of Organism.

    It seems you are a bit ambiguous in your treatment of hylomorphism here

    “And the soul, on Aristotle's view, is simply the form of a living body. A human person, therefore, is on his view a composite of soul (or form) and body (or living matter).”

    Shouldn't you have simply said “...(or matter).” As I see it, human form is what contains the actuality of aliveness, and when joined with the potential of un-characterized matter becomes substantial.

    Much the same argument, I think, for this mis-statement

    “Moreover, since the soul is just the form of a living human body, for a living human body to exist at all is for it to have a soul...”

    Again, it seems more precise to state that the soul is the form of “a living human” not “a living human body.” Not a trivial nit-pic, especially if you are going to allow the following sleight-of-hand that pretty much seems an add-on to Aristotle to gain agreement with Revelation

    “Aquinas extended Aristotle's view in several ways, including an emphasis on the idea that the human soul, the form of the living human body, is "subsistent" in the sense that uniquely among the forms of material things, it operates in part independently of matter (in particular, its intellectual powers do) and can survive as a particular thing beyond the death of the body it is the form of.”


    You could say that in a sense, Whitehead is somewhat hylomorphic in his theory of notion of 'prehension' – perception, taking-in, feeling of experience – which has two aspects: an objective datum, which is what is felt, and a subjective form, which is how that datum is felt.

    It is quite interesting that his theory of consciousness is that it is the subjective form of an intellectual perception. The physical datum of this intellectual perception/feeling a proposition concerning being – whether something that now is might not be, or what now is not could be.

    Whiteheadian metaphysics can be quite explanatory of things in themselves, but Chesterton may see it as scrambling his poached egg! In any case, it sure explains more than the reductionism of the New Athiests and like-minded philosophers who seem to have parasitically taken up with the neuroscientists ever since Quine told them to get a real job.

  3. How a lifelong Whig, and thus a believer in the fundamental values of consent, liberty and the correctness of the Glorious Revolution, gets to be counted as a hero of Western conservatism tells us something of the difficulties in being conservative in the most dynamic of human civilisations, Western civilisation, since Burke was famously concerned with anchoring change in continuing social realities.

    Burke and Adam Smith also famously agreed on just about everything, and people rarely count Smith as a conservative thinker.

    Burke was a cautious liberal (in the old-fashioned 'classical' sense of the term, not in the bastardised politically cross-dressing social democrat modern US sense of the term). That he saw early and clearly that the French Revolution was a disaster had much to do with why Burke gets labelled a conservative (it certainly made George III think well of him for the first time), but that strikes me as a weak reason, since the French Revolution (and all the Revolutions it spawned) became highly illiberal very quickly.

    Burke was a child of the sceptical Enlightenment (and a bitter enemy of the radical Enlightenment, using those terms in Gress' sense) and I can see how American conservatism, which sees itself very much as defending the American Revolutionary Settlement, that very sceptical Enlightenment creation, warms so much to Burke. But that tells us more how classically liberal American conservatism is, and the tensions in being a conservative in such a dynamic society, than about Burke.

  4. Joseph Magee, Ph.D. a graduate of the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Houston
    criticizes the First Way IN HIS "ASSESSMENT OF THE FIRST WAY".

  5. I always feel a little bit bothered when I read a rational or philosophical defence of tradition. It's a bit like a utilitarian defence of art, or of romantic love. I can't help but feel that such a case is missing the point; it's like trying to explain a joke to someone with no sense of humour. Of course, your articles and posts are a defence of traditional morality, which is not quite the same thing, but I think the point is relevant to Burke's general philosophy.