Alasdair MacIntyre, conservatism, Front Porch Republic, Japan, Ken Wilber, modernism, modernity, postmodernism, Randall Collins, Romanticism, Śaṅkara, Thomas P. Kasulis, Upaniṣads
I noted two weeks ago how Ken Wilber’s recent post/modern turn (“Wilber-5”) is right in important respects, but suggested important problems with it. Last week I noted empirical problems: sociological data on Christianity show a very different picture from his. This week I want to turn to a deeper philosophical problem, which I suspect underlies last week’s sociological picture.
We cannot go back to premodernity. This much is true and important. Our options going forward must take account of the post/modern world, be developed within it. On all of this I agree with Wilber. But what I don’t think Wilber makes room for is this: one can take account of the post/modern world, understand it, know it, and still reject it.
Alasdair MacIntyre, whom I have already contrasted to Wilber on a related subject, is one example. For MacIntyre, modernity is a story of slow decline, one which makes the idea of ethical action increasingly meaningless. He is not a naïve Romantic; he knows we can’t go back. But he nevertheless rejects the modern secular liberal world and most of its presuppositions, and hopes to build a world more like the ones that preceded it. He works from a long background of studying post/modern figures like Marx and Nietzsche, who are strong influences in his own analysis. But his study of them leads to an embrace of tradition in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular – and to take that Catholicism not as a source of mystical experience (which he never mentions and really doesn’t care about) nor primarily as a community centre, but as his source of ethical teaching.
MacIntyre is scarcely alone in this. Writers at Front Porch Republic, like Patrick Deneen and James Matthew Wilson, have a sharply articulate grasp of the Western philosophical tradition from ancient times to the present, often holding PhDs in it (and their grasp of it usually strikes me as deeper than Wilber’s). But they express a Romantic rejection of much of the modern worldview, seeking to return us to a world of conservative traditional communities. Their anti-modernism and anti-postmodernism (the two are of a piece) is not naïve but sophisticated.
What MacIntyre and the Front Porchers are doing is described very well by Randall Collins in The Sociology of Philosophies: it is innovation through conservatism. Their approach has a venerable pedigree in philosophy throughout the world, and it is one that I don’t think Wilber adequately recognizes. To be fair, in many cases the practitioners of innovation through conservatism also do not themselves recognize what they are doing (although I don’t think this is true of MacIntyre). But doing it they are.
As his key example of innovation through conservatism, Collins highlights Japanese philosophy in the Tokugawa era (17th and 18th centuries), a rich period of thoughtful reflection. The ideas of the time were significantly backward-looking, urging a revival of Confucianism and of “Shinto”, the indigenous Japanese traditions connected to kami spirits. But as Collins notes,
This was not simple traditionalism. The progression was initiated by continual sharpening in the standards of scholarship, and energized by contemporary conflicts among rival intellectuals. These conflicts built up an accumulation of technical tools and conceptual innovations. (367)
Indeed, in some respects these new thinkers could even be said to have created the tradition of “Shinto” by reflecting on the idea of Shinto as a single unit, in a way that had not been done before – parallel to the founding of “Hinduism” in the modern age. Thomas Kasulis notes in his book on Shinto that while the term “Shinto” had long existed to refer to those Japanese traditions that predated Buddhism, it nevertheless “had no popular use in Japan until the development of state ideology in the middle of the nineteenth century.” (102) That sort of invention of tradition is a common feature of, and reaction to, modernity. But innovation through conservatism goes back much further than the modern age.
When one reads the works of Śaṅkara, one finds a constant refrain that he is merely explaining the teachings of the Upaniṣads and Brahma Sūtra. Most of his works are written in the form of commentaries on these texts – or even commentaries on commentaries on these texts. He claims to be just telling you what’s already in there. But of course it’s not already in there, or he wouldn’t need to write the commentary. His commentary refutes the ideas of Buddhist schools that didn’t exist at the time of the Upaniṣads, ideas that the Upaniṣadic writers were not thinking about. That refutation is something new. What Śaṅkara is doing is giving Upaniṣadic (or Vedāntic) tradition a new self-consciousness, articulating what it means to be a Vedāntin now, in his age, after a millennium of Buddhist thought. That is different from what it was to be a Vedāntin when the Upaniṣads were first composed. Yet at the same time there is a real continuity – Śaṅkara’s effort to still be a Vedāntin, to think as the ancient seers thought, is sincere.
In other words, innovation through conservatism – like MacIntyre, like the Tokugawa reformers, like the creators of modern Hinduism, like Śaṅkara – is a synthesis of past and present. It is doing something both new and old. It is old because it wants to be, and new because it has to be. It “comes to terms” with the present, not by accepting the ideas taken for granted in the day, but by finding the conceptual tools with which to reject it. That activity certainly transforms the past to which it reaches; MacIntyre’s idea that truth must be discovered within a tradition (rather than within this tradition) is not found in traditions before him. But at the same time, it presents arguments for embracing that past over the present. Pierre Hadot, in describing his own project, approvingly quoted the Marquis de Vauvenargues: “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.”
It is not that I necessarily agree with innovation through conservatism, at least not always. Sometimes one must move forward and do so deliberately. But any philosophy which aspires to be integral, as Wilber’s rightly does – to put together the best of the various intellectual and practical options on offer into a wider coherent theory – must give the ideas of innovation through conservatism a major role. And this is what I think Wilber has not yet done, especially in his recent post/modern work. (His work has become progressively less Romantic as time has passed, and in the process it has given progressively less time to innovation through conservatism.)
I should add that innovation through conservatism in this sense is significantly different from the literal conservatism I have referred to before. Both oppose the idea of progress, of moving into a new future that is considered better than the past. But a literal conservatism is concerned primarily to avoid drastic change from the present, preserving the past’s continuity with the present. Innovation through conservatism, on the other hand, typically innovates because it is seeking to restore a past that already seems lost. In that sense it is more accurately reactionary rather than conservative – but in being reactionary, it creates its own kind of progress.
Matt W said:
>>It “comes to terms” with the present, not by accepting the ideas taken for granted in the day, but by finding the conceptual tools with which to reject it.<<
It seems to me that it is on the latter point that the current-day American right has simply failed——almost laughably so, if the consequences weren't so serious. This probably has something to do with the fact that it's not actually very conservative (I just read your "literal conservatism" post); particularly with regard to the right's rejection of climate science, they're actually rejecting the very tools which would allow the "disaster of modernity" to be mitigated!
Picking fights over climate science, evolution, sex education, birth control, gay rights, etc., are all deeply flawed tools for rejecting the modern world.
Here I have to give credit to my peeps, the Jews, despite my own rejection of religious practice. In America, the Modern Orthodox and Conservative movements have, to a large degree, found ways to live in the modern world while lessening the impact of the parts of it they don't like. Voluntarily self-imposed disciplines like observing the Sabbath seem to be genuinely helpful in taking breaks from things like Internet arguments. :-)
And, while I still disagree with the approach, they handle issues of human sexuality with much more nuance and realism than the Christian Right or the Catholics.
But, most importantly, they understand that their rejection of certain parts of the modern world comes at a cost, and as a non-proselytizing religion, we generally don't see them pushing their views on others, assholes like Lieberman notwithstanding.
Amod Lele said:
Matt, your first point is one of the reasons why I like the literal conservatives (in places like Front Porch Republic) so much: they are acutely aware of the ways in which environmental catastrophe is a threat to traditional ways of life. They are often skeptical of government’s effectivenee in combatting that catastrophe, but that is a dispute over means, not ends.
As for the second point… well, it’s a relatively rare tradition that rejects politics entirely (which is one of the things I find attractive about classical Indian Buddhism). In the case of the peeps you speak of, a lot comes out of having an identity as a nation separate from the rest of the world – and that conception can have its own very strong political consequences, if geographically limited ones. I rather doubt that the people of Gaza would accept your characterization of Jews as not being inclined to push their views on others – even American Jews, among whom a significant number do give money to Israeli hard-liners.
Matt W said:
Fair enough, Amod. The rightward swing of many American Jews is deeply troubling to me (but so is the left’s kneejerk anti-Israel stance). The fact remains, though, that Jews aren’t supposed to proselytize (and generally don’t).
Advocating a conservative approach to community is all very nice in terms of generating stronger ties and ethical boundaries that are easier for people to understand and live within, but there are some fundamental (ha) problems with this approach in the modern world that are linked to technological advances that cannot be unwound.
Technology has advanced to the point where warfare is immensely destructive – so much so that it is a virtually untenable concept for two modern countries to go toe-to-toe any more. Even in relatively backwards countries, easy access to firearms and powerful explosives has created a cauldron of threat and fear.
Conservatism by definition generates a strong concept of ‘US’ – which is by itself beneficial.
Unfortunately it is never ‘by itsef’. A sense of self and community must likewise be inextricably linked to a strong concept of ‘THEM’, and therein lies the rub. We no longer live in a world where we can afford to differ so greatly.
Just a glance at the Muslim dominated sections of the world give us an swift rebuttal to the idea that highly conservative communities can coexist with their neighbors peacefully. If they are allowed to persist with access to machine guns and high-explosives, those societies have to tools to tear themselves to pieces in less time than it takes to tell.
Modern liberalism for all its flaws was the world’s answer to the World Wars. Discard it at your own risk. World War three will be far worse when we finally allow it to happen.
Amod Lele said:
Just a glance at the Muslim dominated sections of the world give us an swift rebuttal to the idea that highly conservative communities can coexist with their neighbors peacefully.
In a word, no. The idea that highly conservative communities cannot coexist peacefully with neighbours is much stronger than the idea that they can. For if some do coexist peacefully, then the idea that they can coexist peacefully is true and the idea that they can’t is false. (As an advocate of scientific method, you should know that.) It is much more accurate to say:
Just a glance at the Amish dominated sections of the United States gives us a swift rebuttal to the idea that highly conservative communities cannot coexist with their neighbors peacefully.
As a thought experiment, imagine a set of circles, each with a set of likes and dislikes listed in it, and then Venn diagram them out in a limited space that forces them to overlap significantly.
Any place where you are forced to put a like over an opposing dislike, you’ll have the potential for social friction and its attendant problems – depending on the number and size of the circles, the total amount of space, and the variety of traits, the problem gets harder and harder.
Now replace the words ‘likes’ and ‘dislike’ with ‘requires’ and ‘disallows’, and try to do it again, but you can no longer overlap any circles with opposing values without triggering direct political or military conflict.
Now it doesn’t take much for the problem to become completely intractable. As they inevitably grow, some circles are going to be forced into direct contact and they are going to attempt to destroy each other.
michael reidy said:
From my reading of Front Porch their conservatism has a decidedly localist flavour. There are probably subsidiarist elements too. Their utopia and everyone has one or two has a distributist organisation of land and resources i.e. 3 acres and a cow. Wendell Berry is gurudev. In general like most sensible folk what they are in favour of has an ‘ist’ rather than an ‘ism’ to it.
The American political system is inherently conservative in the worst way and is relevant to an earlier simpler time. The chances of it changing are realistically close to zero given that it was handed down by the Founders who take the part of the Septa Rishi. I do not expect that the inbuilt symmetrical conflict of that system will ever be transcended. For the world at large it is just unfortunate that the lunatics are in control of the asylum.
Amod Lele said:
It’s true, the American system is conservative in many ways – the difficulty of effectiing governmental change, and the odd political scripturalism – and the effects are generally not good.
I naturally read MacIntyre and others of his ilk with some sympathy, because for me, philosophy itself is motivated by a sort of cultural “conservativism”, or better, conservationism. This has nothing to do with reactionary politics, though of course Plato was a harsh critic of democracy as it was practiced in Athens. Still, if one reads the Phaedrus for instance, one gets that Plato was concerned about memory, in a manner which lasts right down through the whole tradition — most recently I am reading Adorno, and it is clear there as well. And of course, Adorno is famously “conservative” culturally — e.g., his notorious and (to me) not too persuasive critique of jazz — in a way he manages to put together with an unstinting critique of capitalism. My point here though is that I read philosophy qua philosophy as a kind of innovation through conservativism. Plato knew well that the experiences which were vulnerable to sophistic critique were not defensible on the ground the sophists occupied. Euthyphro cannot defend himself– he cannot even offer an articulate account of what it is he is about when he speaks of “piety” — but for his part, Socrates staunchly denies any charge of impiety or atheism. He has pressed the very rational forces which are conspiring against the instinct to piety into service of a new kind of piety. Whether this move is possible today in some analogous way is one of the questions it behooves philosophy to ask. Whatever the move is, it won’t look like what Spong is suggesting.