Is Philosophy Conservative or Progressive?

In their book What is Philosophy?, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argue that it is advisable to wait until the end of your career to ruminate on the nature of philosophy itself. I’m going to ignore this sensible advice and analyze whether philosophy inclines individuals towards conservative or progressive political positions. One might get the sense right now that many conservatives regard philosophy, at least in its academic variants, with a high degree of suspicion. Some conservatives condemn abstract speculation, emphasizing instead the virtues of tradition and faith. Others denigrate philosophy—and other liberal arts—as a waste of time and resources which could be committed to more practical matters.

One might infer that progressives would therefore flock to philosophy, as a tool for opposing conservative positions and advancing their agenda. But that has not always been the case. Many leftists complain that philosophy is a neoliberal academic discipline, concerned with pumping out content rather than challenging conventions. Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs recently offered a sarcastic commentary on the theoretical pretensions of the Peterson/Žižek debate, rolling his eyes at technical disputes about Lacan, Hegel and so on. This tradition of mockery can be traced to at least as far back as Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” a classic takedown of the philosopher as a speculative personality not engaged in the activism needed to establish a just society.

In this piece, I’ll examine why both conservatives and progressives might regard philosophy with disdain and outline what both might take from the discipline. Then I will examine why philosophy will probably always appeal slightly more to progressives than to conservatives.

Conservatives and Philosophy

Some of the men of this age seem to me to raise themselves at moments to a hatred for Divinity, but this frightful act is not needed to make useless to most strenuous creative efforts: the neglect of, let alone scorn for, the great Being brings an irrevocable curse on the human works stained by it. Every conceivable institution either rests on a religious idea or is ephemeral. Institutions are strong and durable to the degree that they partake of the Divinity. Not only is human reason, or what is ignorantly called philosophy, unable to replace those foundations ignorantly called superstitions, but philosophy is, on the contrary, an essentially destructive force.—Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France           

Since at least the French Revolution, many conservatives have had a problem with philosophy. The father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, frequently denounces the idle speculations of the French philosophes, preferring the honesty and experience of the tradesman over the sophistication of the professor. The reactionary De Maistre calls philosophy “an essentially destructive force,” which undermines reverence for authority and religion. Its skeptical inquiries, according to De Maistre, undermine people’s faith in both the transcendent and in earthly powers, which leads to uncertainty and ultimately to disorder. Russell Kirk is somewhat more charitable to philosophical speculation that confirms his own political convictions. But he never misses an opportunity to heap scorn on “coffee house philosophers” and their radical “abstract” systems. As he puts it in his seminal article “Ten Conservative Principles,”

The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed. In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.”) A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers.

From the scholastic attacks against Thomas Hobbes’ blasphemous modernism to Socrates’ execution for “corrupting the youth of the city” by undermining their patriotism and religious beliefs, there have always been those who have seen philosophy as a disruptive and radical force—beliefs echoed in many conservative critiques of philosophy, including those that insist that the discipline as a whole is a waste of time.

The main reason many conservatives find philosophy problematic is that it can be a highly destabilizing force in society. Some insist that the pantheon of western philosophy demonstrates the enduring value of that civilization and the need to preserve it largely unchanged. This is one of the theses of Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History (which I review here). An understanding of the history of any philosophical tradition is often crucial to understanding and valuing what is best in the community that gave rise to it. But when many of the ideas now asserted to be part of the western tradition emerged they were regarded as dangerous and destabilizing. Socrates was condemned to death for questioning the moral character and religion of Athenian society. Deeply religious scholastics were regarded with suspicion by the Catholic Church when their ideas differed from established dogma. And the ideas of the Enlightenment remain controversial to this day amongst many conservatives, who regard them as undermining faith and respect for tradition by deeming each individual a rational arbiter of her community’s practices. Philosophers often ask problematic questions, which challenge the ideological conceits of a traditional and powerful social order. This leads increasing numbers of people to ask whether the social order they inhabit is truly just or natural, which in turn leads to deeper questions about what kind of society would actually embody true justice or best reflect human nature. If the traditional social order does not meet these expectations, agitation for broad social change and even revolution can ensue.

This is obviously a problem for many conservative critics. The more reactionary, such as Joseph de Maistre, have sometimes insisted that philosophy so disturbs the irrational reverence for authority foundational to a stable social order that it should be condemned wholesale. Many others are less draconian, and even dedicate themselves to showing how proper philosophical reasoning actually supports conservative positions. But the philosophical outlook can always lead to disquieting conclusions—as when the philosopher’s impartial search for truth leads her to recognize that many of the social traditions and beliefs she cherishes rest upon unsubstantiated intellectual foundations. Ruminations on how to resolve this dilemma have been at the heart of much conservative philosophy. Figures like Michael Oakeshott have even argued that rationalism must give way when confronted by the affective attachments offered by traditional practice.

Progressives and Philosophy

The Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.—Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

The problems progressives have with philosophy are quite different and perhaps less acute than those facing conservatives. For many progressives, the problem is less what philosophy does than what it has been fundamentally unable to do. For some practically minded activists, philosophy is a distraction for the elite and privileged, which detracts from the vital task of engendering social change. For some pessimistic postmodern theorists, philosophy has failed to provide an adequate vision of how to change the world and bring about a more just social order. For Jean Baudrillard, philosophy’s aspirations to connect us to the real world have become increasingly meaningless in an era in which hyper-real media and symbolism have taken on greater significance than old fashioned conceits like truth. Finally, some have argued that philosophy should give way to theory. Philosophy insists that there is one single truth, and attempts to find that truth. Theory insists that there are many different kinds of truth, and seeks to demonstrate that each has a kind of internal plausibility, within the confines of its individual logic. For Baudrillard and others, this is a superior approach, which better reflects the plurality of views and social identities in the world, without trying to suggest that one approach is philosophically superior to the rest. Postcolonial figures like Gayatri Spivak occasionally gesture in this direction: see her analysis of the exclusionary qualities of western colonial reason. And pretty much every progressive has a problem with the fact that the academic discipline of philosophy is dominated by affluent white males.

At the basis of these critiques is a belief that philosophy is disconnected from the concerns and needs of vulnerable people. Progressive critics of philosophy from Marx onwards emphasize that one cannot simply be content to interpret the world as it is, since the world is riddled with injustices and exploitation. To be useful, philosophy needs to keep one eye on the concrete world people inhabit, and demonstrate its value to the welfare of humanity as a whole. More often than not, philosophy is just a talking shop for the affluent and powerful, who debate highly technical epistemological matters, or analyze five different readings of Hegel in order determine whether he was a true idealist or a secret materialist. These are topics of esoteric interest, but they contribute little to, say, the provision of healthcare for all or the cause of women in patriarchal societies. Much progressive philosophy is centrally concerned with attempting to solve this dilemma. Many progressive philosophers suggest that there must be an immanent relationship between philosophical theory and the praxis of agitating for social change.

Is Philosophy Conservative or Progressive?

Well, it depends on the philosophy. As Ben Burgis and I have observed elsewhere, political traditions draw on a variety of philosophical perspectives to support their viewpoints. There is no single philosophical perspective underpinning either conservatism or progressivism. For example, many progressives feel that it is crucial to respect particularity, history and difference, without trying to assimilate them into a universal philosophy. The Reaganite judge Robert Bork, however, felt much the same way. In his book Coercing Virtue, Bork argues that—whereas progressives want the whole world to conform to a pattern of social justice—conservatives admire “particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies.” Even contemporary authors who appeal to the same philosopher often draw very different conclusions. Roger Scruton and Slavoj Žižek both consider themselves disciples of Hegel, but reach very different political conclusions from that starting point.

Conservatives will always be slightly more inclined to skepticism about philosophy that progressives. There is, of course, some very interesting conservative philosophy and there are progressives who regard the discipline with hostility. However, conservatives generally value order and stability over novelty and criticism. As Russell Kirk puts it in The Conservative Mind, progressives ask what is?—while conservatives tend to be less interested in what is than in the meaning a given set of beliefs—whether true or false—hold for their adherents. The same is true of practices. Whether a given practice is based on an accurate conception of the world—for instance, whether the propositions of religion are valuable, or capitalism truly rewards the meritorious—is less important than whether or not acting on such a belief helps the world function better. Philosophy, however, will always disrupt such beliefs by pointing out the various suppositions and unearned conclusions latent within them.

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5 comments

  1. A very entertaining piece. There is a new theory in philosophy called Dual Morality that suggests our liberal and conservative impulses are internal “moral senses” that evolved to help us deal with the social world of a gregarious creature. Just as our senses of taste, smell and sight evolved to assist us in making through our physical world. “Liberal” and “conservative” are merely the names given to the political manifestations of these two forms of moral expression. Just as socialist or capitalist describe their economic expression or personality or character their psychological manifestation. Contrary to popular belief, our liberal and conservative political battles are not signs of weakness and division, but are the guideposts of a healthy and vibrant social dynamic guiding us to success. The idea is addressed in a book titled Our Human Herds.

  2. This was an engaging read, thank you! I think philosophy does not lean towards either side of the political or social dichotomy that is perceived and perpetuated more intensely than ever before. Instead philosophy’s overarching effect on people’s mind is a tendency towards moderation and balance (leaning a bit more to the center).

    Conservatives not only value order and stability but – more importantly – value the act of preservation due to either a well recognized or subconscious awareness of the inevitability of change and chaos that life brings. This would explain their more frequent negation towards the act of philosophizing as both the harbinger and bringer of change and chaos. Their moderation comes in the form of openness: not all orders, rituals and traditions are good, some need change.

    Progressives (myself included) value justice and fairness and recognize the world often times lacks either and therefor embrace change as paramount. This would explain our slight openness to philosophy as a bank of new and existing ideas to search, proliferate, develop and deepen. But embracing these values too much leads to impatience, a depreciation of inherent complexities (leading to counter-productivity) and searching for injustice and unfairness to ‘correct’ when it is either too soon to do so or aren’t even their. So moderation here manifests itself in the form of self-questioning, temperance and understanding that progress does not automatically justify progress.

  3. One of the great things about growing up in mid-20th Century America was Woody Allen’s continuous lampooning of jejune undergraduates pompously invoking Aristotle and Plato at the local bar and jejune graduate students pompously invoking of Kant, Heidegger and Nietzsche everywhere.

    But, like zombies, these juvenile ultimate truth seekers have returned with a vengeance. The most flagrant example I can think of at the moment is the ridiculous Larry Arne flogging Aristotle and Locke at a Baptist College that takes no Federal money.

  4. I think that before we consider whether philosophy is conservative or progressive, we should first consider what we mean by “philosophy.” What, what indeed, is this mysterious “philosophy” of which we speak and write with such facility?

    Grasp, grasp with both hands, excuse me madam, the opportunities as they present themselves, and only then will one be able to reach a holistic understanding of the profound meaning of this noble word. The meaning of “meaning,” however, must occupy us first. What, indeed, *is* meaning?

    1. What is a dog? A dog is that animal we call a dog. A two year old learns what a dog is without effort. What is meaning? Meaning is when you understand the meaning of something, it can’t be reduced to anything simpler but you’ll know it when it happens. What is green really like? It’s like looking at a forest and noting the color.

      Nice essay.

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