Paul Gottfried is said to have coined the term “paleoconservatism.”  A self-sworn enemy of all things neoconservative, this long-time student of the political right in both its European and American varieties has unequivocally asserted that in spite of the frequency with which it continues to find employment, the term “conservatism” lost its intelligibility quite some time ago.

Burke, for instance, though widely regarded as “the Father of ‘modern conservatism’,” argued for positions such as monarchy and an established church that are at once representative of the conservatism of yesteryear and simply anathema to the American temperament.  Furthermore, the ideas encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence owe their inspiration, not to anything that is recognizably “conservative,” but to a classical liberal vision of which John Locke was among the most notable exponents. 

With Gottfried’s conception of history, I have no quarrel.  It is his conception of philosophy, however, to which I take exception.

The declaration that “conservatism” is meaningless is nothing more or less than the declaration that it is without identity.  In the political philosophical context within which the term “conservatism” is here used, its referent is nothing other than an intellectual tradition, a tradition of ideas.  So, to determine whether Gottfried’s verdict is correct, we must first determine the character shared by all such entities, the conditions of which the identity of any intellectual tradition consist. 

Brief consideration of any number of intellectual traditions—Christianity, Utilitarianism, natural law theory, deontological ethics, liberalism, etc.—readily discloses that not unlike that of any other entity, including persons, their identity as an intellectual tradition is not to be found in a principle of exact likeness; as a matter of fact, it would appear to resolutely defy any such demand for homogeneity of thought. 

Rather, the identity of an intellectual tradition derives from the continuity of its “parts”; its unity is not to be confused with a monolith, but is located within its differences, differences engendered by both the distinctive voices of the thinkers that draw upon and develop it, as well as the (relatively) unique circumstances upon which they bring the resources of their tradition to bear.

As is abundantly clear from reflection on our own identities as persons, identity precludes neither change nor even dramatic change. It is, however, incompatible with radical change, for radical change resists assimilation and portends the destruction of the being upon which it visits.  While its name has undeniably been conscripted in the service of a movement and orientation bearing few if any similarities to the original article, can the conservative intellectual tradition of which Burke was among the progenitors be said to have been irreparably impaired, destroyed, essentially, so that the term “conservatism” can now be said to be “meaningless?”

Such a judgment is warranted only if we insist on conceiving conservatism solely in terms of the substance of the positions that its adherents have endorsed on those issues that fall within what is usually (but erroneously) called “applied ethics:” abortion, capital punishment, war, terrorism, animal rights, affirmative action, free speech, and the like.  Yet since we don’t so much as remotely think to characterize the identity of any other intellectual tradition along these lines, the decision to adopt this approach toward conservatism can’t but smack of arbitrariness and unfairness.

It is the formal ideas underlying the substantive views of its proponents that define an intellectual tradition.  Take, for example, utilitarianism.  That the reforms of England’s legal system for which Jeremy Bentham strenuously argued in the eighteenth century have long since been accepted doesn’t in the least render “utilitarianism” a “meaningless” term today, for what unites Bentham with contemporary utilitarian theorists isn’t some position on the proper aims of England’s or any country’s penal institutions; what unites them is a formal idea or set of ideas, namely, “the Principle of Utility”: always maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number of people (or sentient beings).  Utilitarian thinkers can and do differ amongst themselves on a host of issues, but it is nevertheless clear that their disagreements over “applied” matters not only don’t impair the identity of their tradition, they enrich it. 

Similarly, “conservatism” is not a program, doctrine, or platform of policy prescriptions on select ethical issues.  Their many differences in emphasis, tone, style, idiom, and concern notwithstanding, there exists a heterogeneous assortment of thinkers from various parts of Europe and America spanning centuries that can legitimately claim the conservative intellectual tradition as their own.  Pervading each of these works is a constellation of themes and suppositions that constitute the thread by which each is tied to the others.

Rejection of the cosmopolitanism, rationalism, and utopianism of their opponents, no less than affirmation of cultural particularity, tradition, and humility in politics, are in varying degrees present in all conservative thought.  And it is these themes (as well as some others) from which the conservative intellectual tradition derives its meaning.

Much more on this matter can be said, of course. But for the time being, suffice it to conclude that while “conservatism” as a tradition of ideas may have fewer adherents than its competitors and fewer than it has ever had in the past, contra Gottfried, it is a meaningful concept (even if a woefully misunderstood and abused one).   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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