Clockwise: Anthony Quinton, Maurice Cowling, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton

Few heirs to spare

Is philosophy even within reach of conservatives?

Artillery Row Roger Scruton

The death of Sir Roger Scruton has led many British conservatives to wonder who, if anyone, will come after him. This reflects a fear that with his passing, conservatism will lack the broad intellectual and philosophical defence that Scruton had sought to provide throughout his career and which he has left behind in his many writings. What’s more, that without this, the prospects of conservatism are much diminished. Names do not rush to mind and so, does conservatism has a philosopher problem?

One common reason offered for this is that conservatism is non-intellectual at its roots. This means that not only does it lack motivation to offer an account of itself but also that it is a work of translation. In a conversation with Douglas Murray last June, Scruton reiterated a point he has made many times before, that conservatism has not fared well in the world of philosophers because it, ultimately, is an instinct and instincts are hard to defend. Repudiation fares much better because it is easier to express and move around and the left, it is said, is in the business of repudiation. The attempt to offer an account of conservatism is crowded out and outpolled.

Another reason is that conservatism is not only non-intellectual, it is anti-intellectual. It tends to be against things called ‘abstract ideas’. Abstract ideas, Western philosophy advises me, are stuff of intellect. They can be found to be in use everywhere but nowhere in vaster quantity than in the minds of philosophers. This is because abstract ideas are what philosophers are interested in. One can hardly expect conservative philosophers to abound when conservatives are inclined against the very thing philosophers are for.

For Oakeshott, conservatism as a disposition is a way of attending to an activity that recognises his wider account of human and social rationality.

Whilst together these may not be sufficient reason, both speak to Scruton’s talent as a writer and communicator; his loneliness a reminder of the difficult task of the conservative philosopher today. Yet if Conservatism is defined as non-intellectual and anti-intellectual, just how can it have a flourishing philosophy if it continues in this way?

An immediate response may recommend that it can’t, and therefore, shouldn’t. Conservatism should seek to ground itself in the canons of philosophy; in ideas, in principles, in arguments. One problem with this is that it accepts too readily the characterisation of conservatism I have outlined above. Conservatives may have come to tell themselves this story, it is not without its attractions, but, if it has echoes of truth, it is largely false. Whatever else we may think of conservatism, it is and always has been concerned with ideas, abstract or otherwise.

Here we come to Michael Oakeshott, the other ‘great conservative philosopher of our time’ lay folk can conjure with. It is in his work that the characterisation of conservatism as non-intellectual and anti-intellectual finds a 20th Century precedent. In his two most famous essay, ‘On being conservative’ (1956) and in Rationalism in politics (1962), he is said to argue that conservatism is a disposition that people have and, relatedly, is against the use of abstract ideas in politics. Whilst both these claims are broadly true it is important to think about them in the wider context of Oakeshott’s thought to put them in their proper relation.

Both claims find their grounding in Oakeshott’s account of rationality as such. His target being the idea that ‘the “rationality of conduct”…springs from something we do before we act; and activity is ‘”rational” on account of its being generated in a certain manner.’ That this view assumes that humans have a mind with a power we refer to as ‘reason’, which precedes, and is constitutive of, rational conduct and is independent of experience. This mind in exercising its power of reason operates on beliefs, ideas, knowledge and action.

Not only does Oakeshott, no doubt along with many others, think this is a bad account of rationality, he also thinks it is in fact impossible. He claims that there is ‘no way of determining an end for activity in advance of the activity itself.’ His many references to common life, (carpentry, painting, cooking, science &c.) he uses to underline that doing the activity, at least logically, comes first. That the activity has its inherent ordering and patterns which in the human subject, as a practitioner, are known in a non-discursive way.

Theories, general principles, rules, ideas are created in the practice of an activity as a verbal or written expression of it. Here we come to Oakeshott’s way of describing this process as an ‘abridgement’, or ‘abbreviation’, of practice. Implicit in this is that something is lost in the process, that theories and so forth cannot adequately contain or represent what is known in practice. Not implicit is that the abridgement is also a transformation. More like converting a book into a painting than five volumes into one. So not only does loss occur, it is unavoidable. That we do this is also unavoidable. Language characterises human life and the expression and communication of our experiences involves theories, principles and even abstract ideas.

Practice and theory stand in intimate relation but not equally so. Practice comes first and circumscribes theory. Theory cannot replace practice and should not seek to stand over it. There are different references in his work to what purpose theory serves but perhaps the most significant in this context is that it is pedagogical. It provides a way of entering into practices that can be communicated with varying degrees of complexity and sophistication. Finally, that tradition, distinct from traditionalism, is a form of communication that holds these in their proper relation in the continuing of a community through its customs, practices and common behaviours.

Thus for Oakeshott conservatism as a disposition is a way of attending to an activity that recognises his wider account of human and social rationality. Additionally, conservatism is not against abstract ideas as such but it is against the prioritising of abstract ideas over practice in human rationality. His reasoning for this is clear: if theory is given a predatory relation to practice we both suffer the loss knowledge and the damage done by the application of abstract ideas. As he writes in ‘The New Bentham’, after the rationalist has their way the world of knowledge ‘somewhat resembles a September orchard after a plague of wasps’.

What of the world of politics in particular? Whilst the conduct of politics may not be pre-eminent in respect of this disposition it is at least one of great significance – politics is a concern for us all in some way or other. One may have a conservative disposition in respect of politics if in nothing else. As Oakeshott writes in ‘On being conservative’:

“It is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity. And, in my opinion, there is more to be learnt about this disposition from Montaigne, Pascal, Hobbes and Hume than from Burke or Bentham”

Oakeshott does not intend ‘disposition’ to be understood as something equivalent to someone’s personality. It is a disposition that can be the result of thinking, deliberating and arguing. It should not escape our notice that Oakeshott is doing philosophy in writing on politics and in a way that can shape our political conduct. But it should also be noticed it often comes in the form of the critique of rationalist and ideological modes of thinking. It is reactionary. Not in the sense of restoring the status quo ante, but in seeking to exterminate the plague of wasps in the political orchard.

This focus on criticism is not to stay that conservatism cannot have principles of its own in politics or anything else. Oakeshott himself accepts as much in the opening paragraph of On being conservative even if he prefers to speak of his positive account in terms of disposition. Much of Scruton’s writing was an attempt to do this.

Returning to the causes of conservatism’s philosophical ills above, the mistake is to consider it as a disposition and against abstract ideas in a fairly blunt way. When we return to Oakeshott as one of the sources of these characterisations we find a much richer, more nuanced account than many conservatives have told themselves.

Yet whether these are actually the, or even a, cause of conservatism’s philosophical ills is an entirely different issue. More importantly, so too is whether conservatism’s ills are connected to having few philosophers. It’s certainly true that the left has more. Which has had for them all the consequences, or none, that that success brings with it.

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