Furthest Right

The Metaphysics of Conservatism

by Edward Feser (original)

Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948, was among the founding documents of contemporary conservatism. The title phrase has become something of a cliché, and overuse has stripped it of the interesting meaning it once had. Nowadays most people assume that what Weaver was saying was that how we think is bound to affect how we act, and that the intellectual trends that prevail in a society will determine its moral and political character. To be sure, that was part of his meaning, but if that were all he had in mind his message would have been a pretty banal one, since no one denies that in this sense “ideas have consequences.” What is largely forgotten is that Weaver was making a play on words, and that his primary reference was to Plato’s famous Theory of Ideas, a metaphysical thesis that has cast a long shadow over the history of Western civilization. Indeed, Weaver’s view was that this metaphysical vision is what made Western civilization possible, that its abandonment was the primary source of the pathologies of the modern world so decried by conservatives, and that its recovery is essential if those pathologies are to be overcome.

It hardly needs saying that not all conservatives today would express their creed in precisely these terms. Many religious conservatives, or at least those of an evangelical bent, would find them excessively high-falutin’. Many secular conservatives, fancying themselves too hard-headed and worldly-wise even for philosophy, let alone religion, would eschew Weaver’s formulation in favor of economics, or perhaps to take up the current fad for evolutionary psychology.

Nevertheless, a consideration of metaphysical issues of the sort Weaver addressed would, I maintain, do much to clarify the nature of conservatism, and of the disputes that constantly break out among conservatives of different stripes. For there is no one as dogmatically beholden to a metaphysic as the man who denies that he has one; and it is rare that a disagreement gets as fierce as the intramural fights among conservatives have sometimes been, if it doesn’t ultimately trace back to some difference in metaphysical first principles. It will be useful, then, to have a survey of the kinds of metaphysical assumptions that underlie the thinking of various people classified as “conservative.” I will argue that there are, metaphysically speaking, three basic types of conservative — conservatives of the Weaver sort, of course, and two others.

And lest this all appear far from topical, let me note that, as we will see by the end, what I have to say might shed some light on the controversy stoked by Prof. Jeffrey Hart’s recent piece on the state of American conservatism in The Wall Street Journal.

A brief history of Western thought

Obviously we cannot understand the metaphysics of conservatism without knowing something about metaphysics, and in particular something about the issue with which Plato, and Weaver following him, was most concerned. So let us begin by summarizing the relevant ideas. Is it possible to do so in a way that will make them comprehensible to those unfamiliar with philosophy, yet without oversimplification? The answer, of course, is no, but I will try anyway.

The first thing to say is that the label “Theory of Ideas” is misleading, because (given the way we now use the term “ideas”) it seems to imply that Plato was concerned with something that exists only in the human mind. In fact the opposite is true. Plato’s view is also sometimes called the “Theory of Forms,” and “form” rather than “idea” better conveys what he meant.

Take the example of a triangle, which has a form that distinguishes it from a square or a circle. In Plato’s usage, this “form” includes not only its shape, but all the properties that make it the thing it is: the length of its sides, its area, the fact that its angles add up to 180 degrees, and so forth. Now any particular material triangle (such as the ones drawn in geometry textbooks) is going to have certain properties that are not part of “triangularity” as such, and will also lack certain properties that are part of triangularity as such.

For example, it will have a specific color — green, say — and lack perfectly straight sides, even though greenness is not part of triangularity and having straight sides is part of it. So in Plato’s view, when the intellect grasps the form of triangularity, it is not grasping something material, since nothing material manifests triangularity in the strictest sense. But neither is it grasping something mental. For there are certain facts about triangles — the Pythagorean theorem, for example — that are entirely objective, and discovered by the human mind rather than invented by it. Moreover, these facts are necessary and unchanging rather than contingent and alterable: the Pythagorean theorem is true eternally, whether or not any human mind thinks otherwise or would like it to be otherwise. “Triangularity” is therefore something that exists apart from either mind or matter, in a third realm of its own: the realm of Forms. And the same thing is true, according to Plato, of the Forms of everything else — squares and circles, plants and animals, human beings, beauty, truth, and goodness.

It is important to understand that talk about the Forms existing “in” a “realm,” and so forth, is purely metaphorical. Literally they don’t exist “in” anything, since “in” is a spatial term and the Forms, being immaterial, are outside time and space. For the same reason, the “realm” of Forms isn’t literally a place, since that too would imply spatial location. The concepts we apply to material things simply don’t apply to the Forms at all, and the way we learn about material things — through the senses — is not how we know the Forms. They are grasped through pure intellect.

Indeed, in Plato’s view the senses don’t strictly speaking give us true knowledge at all, but merely opinion, for what they reveal to us — material objects — are merely more or less imperfect copies of the Forms, and are continually coming to be and passing away, whereas the Forms are eternal. The Forms are what most fully and truly exist, and genuine knowledge is knowledge of them.

Aristotle took a view that was similar to Plato’s in many ways, though he thought that forms in some sense existed “in” the material world rather than in a “realm” of their own (even though they were not in his view any more than in Plato’s reducible to matter): triangularity, for example, exists “in” all particular triangles rather than as a thing in its own right. Aristotle also emphasized the idea that a substance — a statue, a tree, a human being — is a composite of matter and form.

On this view, known as “hylomorphism,” a tree, for example, is not merely a hunk of matter, but a hunk of matter with a particular form, the form of “treeness,” where this form is (again) not merely a physical property alongside other physical properties of the tree. 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). By virtue of their forms, things exhibit certain natural functions, ends, or purposes, and it is the fulfillment of these natural functions, ends, or purposes that defines what is good for a thing. This is as true of human beings and their various capacities as it is of anything else.

Now the philosophers of the Middle Ages inherited these concepts from the Greeks, some of them more or less following (and sometimes amending) Plato, others, particularly later in the medieval period, following (and amending) Aristotle. St. Augustine combined Plato’s view that the Forms are eternal and independent of the human mind with the intuition that it is hard to see how they could exist apart from just any mind at all, and concluded that they exist eternally in God’s mind. St. Thomas 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.

In general, in debating the famous “problem of universals,” the medieval thinkers carried forward the debate between Plato and Aristotle over the nature of the forms. “Universals” are really just the things we’ve been calling “forms” — triangularity, “treeness,” humanness, goodness, and so forth — and are to be distinguished from “particulars,” i.e. specific things (like this or that individual triangle or tree) which might instantiate or exhibit the universal or form. The term “form,” though, tends to be used by those who take the view that, in their different ways, both Plato and Aristotle (and Augustine and Aquinas and many others) took: that universals are real and not reducible to either mind or matter. This is the view about universals that came to be known therefore as “classical realism,” or just “realism” full stop.

This was by no means a mere intellectual curiosity. A great deal rode on it — and, as we will see, still rides on it today. To take one example, the traditional understanding of the idea that there is a “natural law” that determines what is objectively right and wrong is inextricably tied to classical realism. For “human nature,” as understood by the traditional natural law theorist, is defined in terms of the form that every human being participates in simply by virtue of being a human being. And that means it is something known ultimately and most fully only through the intellect and via philosophical reasoning, not (or at least not entirely or most deeply) through the senses and empirical biology. Moreover, this nature defines certain natural ends and purposes for human beings and their capacities, the realization of which constitutes what is good for them: good objectively, simply by virtue of their participation in the form, and regardless of whether this or that particular human being realizes or (because of intellectual error, habitual vice, psychological or genetic anomaly or whatever) fails to realize it.

To take another, and related, example, a person, being on the view in question a composite of soul (or form) and body (or matter), cannot be identified with either his psychological characteristics alone or his bodily characteristics alone. 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, so that there can be no such thing as a living human body — whether that of a fetus, an infant, a normal human adult or a severely brain damaged adult — which does not have a soul, and which does not count as a person. For while even a human being who is damaged or not fully formed might not perfectly exhibit the form of the human body (any more than a hastily drawn triangle perfectly manifests the form of triangularity), he nevertheless does exhibit it, otherwise his body wouldn’t count as a living human body at all (just as a hastily drawn triangle is still a triangle, however imperfect). One corollary of this is that every single living human body, within the womb or without, severely damaged or not, counts as the body of a person and as a being having all the rights of a person, including the right to life.

Now as the Middle Ages wore on, a rival view to that of classical realism developed: the theory called “nominalism,” which held that universals do not, strictly speaking, exist at all. Only particular things — this or that particular triangle, this or that particular tree, this or that particular human being, and so forth — are real, and “triangularity,” “treeness,” “humanness” and the like are nothing more than names we happen to apply to groups of things. Moreover, that the things so named are grouped the way they are is merely a function of our interests and needs, and does not reflect any objective or natural order.

As the medieval world gave way to the modern one, and medieval to modern philosophy, nominalism won the day, and modern thinkers like Descartes and Locke abandoned the old conceptual apparatus of hylomorphism, with its appeal to forms and natural ends or purposes as fundamental to the understanding of things, and to the idea of the soul as the form of the living human body. “Mechanism” — the view that physical things operate on purely mechanical principles, without natural ends or purposes and without instantiating anything like Plato’s or Aristotle’s Forms — entailed a redefinition of the human body as nothing more than a complex machine, and “human nature” as nothing more than a specification of the principles by which the machine operates, like clockwork.

Now if a living human body does not have a form — any more than anything else does on the modern view — then it does not have a soul either, at least as classically defined. Descartes thus re-defined the soul as a kind of non-physical object which is only contingently or accidentally attached to its body, rather than as a form which the body necessarily has to have in order to be a living body at all. One result of this is that the soul came to seem to modern Western thinkers an ever more elusive and mysterious entity, and therefore a dispensable one. Another is that it became harder to see what made a living human body the body of a person, since there is nothing about its being alive that entails (on the modern view anyway) that it has a soul. This problem was only exacerbated by Locke’s own re-definition of a person as a stream of connected conscious experiences, rather than a union of soul (form) and body (matter).

Thus were sown the seeds — inadvertently, to be sure — that would eventually develop into the view that neither a fetus nor a Terri Schiavo counts as a person having a right to life. And in the other trends alluded to — nominalism and mechanism — we see the origins of the idea that “human nature” is either a purely human construct, or something that exists objectively only as a collection of behavioral tendencies, of no more inherent moral significance than the workings of a clock. We might, as a matter of prudence, want to keep them in mind as a possible barrier to the realization of our desires, but if we could find a way to alter them there would be no objective reason not to do so.

Certainly these behavioral tendencies — being ultimately nothing more than mechanical regularities — do not, on the modern view, reflect anything like Aristotle’s natural ends or purposes or Plato’s Form of a human being, defining what is objectively good for us. And thus there is no absolute moral barrier to the radical revision of institutions that have traditionally been understood to reflect human nature — hence socialism, the sexual revolution, and a thousand other things.

The varieties of conservatism

If you are still with me after all that, you have no doubt already begun to see the relevance of metaphysics to conservatism, and in particular the relevance of the classical realist tradition to Weaver’s brand of conservatism. “Realist Conservatism,” as we might call it, affirms the existence of an objective order of forms or universals that define the natures of things, including human nature, and what it seeks to conserve are just those institutions reflecting a recognition and respect for this objective order. Since human nature is, on this view, objective and universal, long-standing moral and cultural traditions are bound to reflect it and thus have a presumption in their favor.

But this does not necessarily entail a deference to the status quo, for since human beings are by their nature free and fallible, it is possible for societies to deviate, even radically, from the natural law. When this happens, it is the duty of the conservative to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” (as the editors of National Review so eloquently put it many years ago). Such yelling ought of course to be done with tact and wisdom, but if the cause of the Realist Conservative should end up a lost one, unlikely to win elections, that is irrelevant. What matters is fidelity to the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

What then are the other two varieties of conservatism I promised to identify? Here another, and much briefer, excursion into the history of philosophy is in order. I noted that realism had as its great rival nominalism, but there is also a third position on the nature of universals — “conceptualism,” which might be thought of as a kind of middle ground between realism and nominalism. The conceptualist does not quite deny that universals exist (as the nominalist does) but he does insist, contrary to the realist, that they exist only subjectively, in the human mind. If they are real, then, they are something other than what the realist takes them to be; though their existence isn’t exactly denied, they are nevertheless “reduced” to something less grand, and certainly to something less than eternal and unchanging.

The debate between realists, conceptualists, and nominalists manifests a pattern that one finds repeated frequently in other areas of philosophy: where X is some object of philosophical interest, some philosophers (the Realists) say that X is real and just what it appears to be, others (the Reductionists) say that X is real but not what it appears to be, and a third group (the Anti-Realists) says that X is not real at all, but at best merely a convenient fiction (and maybe not even that). In the debate over universals, the conceptualists are the Reductionists and the nominalists are the Anti-Realists (the realists, of course, being the Realists).

Another example of this pattern in the history of philosophy would be the debate over the relationship between mind (or soul) and body. The Realist view in this case would be “dualism,” which holds that mind and body (and mind and brain, for that matter) are completely distinct, and in particular that the mind is something non-physical or immaterial, just as it seems to be to common sense. A Reductionist view would be “identity theory,” which says that the mind is real but that it is really identical to the brain — in other words, that the mind is, contrary to common sense, just one physical object among others. An Anti-Realist view would be “eliminative materialism,” which says that the mind does not really exist at all: strictly speaking, there are no such things as thoughts, experiences, beliefs, desires, and the like, but only neural firing patterns, hormonal secretions, behavioral dispositions, and so on and so forth.

Now it seems to me that the distinction between Realist, Reductionist, and Anti-Realist positions in philosophy might usefully be applied to a demarcation of various brands of conservatism.

I have already described Realist Conservatism as committed to the existence of timeless and unchanging essences from which derives a natural law that applies to all human beings in all circumstances. Reductionist Conservatism, then, might be defined as a variety of conservatism that agrees with Realist Conservatism in affirming that there is such a thing as human nature and that it is more or less fixed, but which would ground this affirmation, not in anything like an eternal realm of Forms, but rather in, say, certain contingent facts about human biology, or perhaps in the laws of economics or in a theory of cultural evolution. The Reductionist Conservative is, accordingly, more likely to look to empirical science for inspiration than to philosophy or theology. He is also bound to see grey in at least some areas where the Realist Conservative sees black and white, since facts about economics, human biology, and the like, while very stable, are not quite as fixed or implacable as the Forms. But he is less likely to see grey than is the Anti-Realist Conservative, who might be characterized as someone doubtful that any relatively fixed moral or political principles can be read off even from scientific or economic facts about the human condition. Whereas Realist and Reductionist Conservatives value tradition because there is at least a presumption that it reflects human nature, the Anti-Realist Conservative values it merely because it provides for stability and order. The closest thing we have to an objective moral order, in the view of the Anti-Realist Conservative, are whatever principles happen to be embodied in the history and practice of a particular society. Since those principles can change, though, the conservative ought, in the view of the Anti-Realist, to be willing to change with them.

Realist Conservatives respect religion because it shores up obedience to the natural law, but especially because its teachings are either explicit or implicit affirmations of the very same metaphysical truths knowable through philosophical inquiry. The Realist Conservative also respects science, but sees it as less fundamental in the order of knowledge than is philosophy (and, for some Realists, theology), and insists that its results be interpreted in the light of more basic metaphysical truths. Reductionist and Anti-Realist Conservatives also respect religion, but only because it serves as a bulwark of social and moral order; and the Anti-Realist Conservative is just as likely to see it as a potential danger when its adherents threaten to upset social order in the name of purportedly timeless truths. Reductionist and Anti-Realist Conservatives also tend to regard science (including, for some of them, social sciences like economics) as the paradigm of knowledge, indeed perhaps as the only thing that even deserves the name of knowledge. But the Anti-Realist Conservative is less likely to see in it a source of moral and political insights that might replace the insights traditionally promised by philosophy and theology. For the Anti-Realist, it is ultimately the values that have (for whatever reason) come to prevail in a culture, rather than any objective philosophical or scientific truths, that determine what we should do. Pragmatism is his only unchanging principle.

Now this classification is an idealization, and many real world conservatives probably exhibit elements of more than one of these tendencies of thought. It seems pretty obvious, though, that religious conservatives, whether they are simple believers or intellectuals of the sort associated with journals like First Things, are paradigm Realist Conservatives. It is either realist metaphysical principles of the sort I’ve described, or the will of God, or some combination of these, that define their conservatism, and this gives it an unmistakably Realist character.

Reductionist Conservatism predominates among secular conservative intellectuals who find in social science or evolutionary psychology the ingredients for a reconstruction of the older conservative conception of human nature in more purportedly “scientific” and “up to date” terms.

Who would be exemplars of Anti-Realist Conservatism?

Hart trouble

This brings us to Prof. Hart’s recent essay. Hart is himself a prominent conservative. He tells us that “what the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy.” This might seem to mark his conservatism as of the Realist variety, but as every good Platonist knows, appearances can be deceiving.

The part of his essay that has provoked the most controversy concerns abortion, for Hart calls on conservatives to abandon the pro-life cause. This position itself seems to have been less controversial, though, than the reasons he gives for it. For Hart appeals in his defense to the “powerful social forces” favoring abortion, such as “the women’s revolution.” He tells us that the pro-choice consensus ought not to be challenged, because it is “the result of many accumulating social facts, and its results already have been largely assimilated.” Roe v. Wade must be accepted, in his view, because it reflected “a relentlessly changing social actuality” and “the reality of the American social process.” Indeed, the conservative mind itself, Hart tells us, is “a work in progress,” and ought to be guided by “skepticism” and “the results of experience.”

Here Prof. Hart’s jargon is clearly not that of Plato or Aristotle, Augustine or Aquinas. If anything, it is that of the pragmatist (and decidedly anti-realist and unconservative) philosopher John Dewey. And lest this seem an odd thing to say about a conservative, let it be noted that Hart almost admits as much himself when he proposes Dewey’s fellow pragmatist William James, of all people, as a model for conservatives to emulate. For the Realist, abortion is either wicked or it is not, and finding out which is all that matters. But for Hart (as for Dewey) such questions are trumped by “social forces,” “social processes,” “social actuality,” “revolution,” and “progress.” God and the philosophers, tradition and reason can have their say, but it is only when The People Have Spoken that every conservative must bend the knee. If this is conservatism, it is certainly not Realist Conservatism, or even Reductionist Conservatism, but it might be Anti-Realist Conservatism.

Anti-Realist Conservatism also seems to be the working ideology of many conservative politicians and activists, for whom assimilating principle to political expediency is always a temptation. It also appears common among populists who oppose liberalism only where it happens to offend the current sensibilities of “the folks,” but who are more than happy to give up their opposition when said “folks” decide to bring formerly avant-garde attitudes and practices home with them to the suburbs.

But a drift into Anti-Realist Conservatism must also be a constant temptation even to Reductionist Conservatives. How so? For one thing, such a drift has well-known parallels in the philosophical disputes mentioned above. Conceptualism is often regarded as merely a disguised version of nominalism, preserving the language of realism while abandoning the substance. Reductionist theories of the human mind are constantly in danger of denying the very existence of the phenomena they purport to explain, and thus of collapsing into disguised versions of eliminative materialism. A similar tendency seems inevitable in Reductionist Conservatism, given that it more or less endorses the nominalism, mechanism, and other theses that, as I noted above, have together defined modern philosophy. If you agree that there are no objective, universal, and eternal Forms or essences that things partake of, and no inherent ends or purposes in nature either, then it is hard to avoid taking on board the modern view of human beings as merely complicated machines, and of human nature as something the study of which is of prudential rather than inherently moral interest. But in that case, you are committed to the very philosophical premises that have made possible the modern trends mentioned above, and so lamented by conservatives — the sexual revolution, abortion, and all the rest. Your objection to these trends cannot be that they are inherently evil, but only that you personally find them rather nasty, or perhaps that if they are allowed to play out too swiftly they might tend to undermine social order. Moreover, insofar as these judgments are based on your understanding of human nature, they can only be provisional and relative to current circumstances, since you can have no objection in principle to trying to transform human nature (through genetic engineering, say), which would of course be possible if it reflects nothing timeless and unchanging. In short, it is hard to see how your view differs in substance from that of the Anti-Realist Conservative.

Now why aren’t all conservatives Realist Conservatives? Hart indicates one possible answer when he derides “abstract theory” as incompatible with Burkean scruples. Yet it isn’t “abstract theory” per se that is the problem from the conservative point of view — Burke hardly intended to condemn Thomas Aquinas alongside the French philosophes — but only abstract theory that seeks to overthrow common sense rather than build upon it, as the classical realist tradition has always understood itself to be doing.

Another reason implied by Hart, of course, is that Realist Conservatism isn’t politically feasible. The bottom line for the pro-life agenda, in Hart’s view, is that its realization “is not going to happen” and so shouldn’t be pursued. Presumably he would extend this judgment to Realist Conservative ambitions generally. But this is frivolous, at least if one believes that politics ought to be guided by moral principle. It is also unfounded. Presumably Hart would not have recommended to conservatives in the 50s, 60s, and 70s that they abandon their goal of rolling back socialism at home and Soviet expansionism abroad because it “is not going to happen.” Such a pessimistic judgment would have been understandable at the time, but also utterly mistaken.

Finally, many conservatives no doubt think that Realist Conservatism just isn’t intellectually defensible today. If so, they ought to try reading philosophical books other than the kind that get reviewed in The New Republic or The New York Review of Books, because they are wrong. Realism about universals has a great many capable and respected defenders in the academy even today, and so too do such other components of the traditional metaphysical worldview as philosophical theism and mind-body dualism. (For those who are interested, I have written on the second of these topics here, and devoted part of a book to the third.) It is true that these are minority views among contemporary intellectuals, but then again so too is conservatism. And no conservative would have taken the hostility with which free market economics was once treated in the academy (and still is, in some quarters) as a sign of anything other than the faddishness and dogmatism that are as common among intellectuals as in other walks of life.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that Realist Conservatism is true, and that this is the main reason to support it. But establishing that thesis is something that would require a book, and not just an (already overlong) essay. So let me end by citing another, and more practical, reason someone with truly conservative instincts ought to favor the Realist brand of conservatism over its rivals — namely, that it isn’t clear that the other versions are really versions of conservatism at all, any more than nominalism or conceptualism are versions of realism. For the Anti-Realist Conservative, as I’ve said, does not really oppose liberal measures per se, but only their overhasty and excessively disruptive implementation. Historically, the pragmatists, politicians, and others who exemplify Anti-Realist Conservatism have merely served to consolidate the gains of liberalism — hence Newt Gingrich’s famous dismissal of Bob Dole as the “tax collector for the welfare state”; hence Prof. Hart’s desire to put a Burkean imprimatur on Roe v. Wade. And Reductionist Conservatism, to the extent that it risks collapse into Anti-Realist Conservatism, seems threatened with the same unhappy fate. Moreover, even the best writing done by Reductionist Conservatives — and some of it is very good indeed, and important — seems too beholden to purely social-scientific categories, and light on serious engagement with fundamental philosophical or moral issues. The farther a conservative gets from the Realist inheritance, the more he talks in terms of “costs and benefits,” “trade offs” and the like — and the more he thereby approximates the liberal technocrat and the “sophisters, economists, and calculators” so despised by Burke. Communists, it used to be said, are liberals in a hurry. Conservatives need to be wary lest their creed degenerate into something indistinguishable from a leisurely liberalism.

Edward Feser’s most recent book is Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction. He is a regular contributor to the blogs Right Reason and The Conservative Philosopher.

Tags: , , ,

Share on FacebookShare on RedditTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn