October 2, 2009


David Hume and the Conservative Tradition (Donald W. Livingston, 10/02/09, First Principles)

Russell Kirk defined the conservative tradition as essentially a critique of ideology in politics, first exemplified in the French Revolution and first exposed and criticized in 1790 by Edmund Burke’s eloquent Reflections on the Revolution in France. In Burke’s view (and Kirk’s) a normal or healthy political society reposes in the enjoyment of inherited traditions and practices. The art of politics is to preserve these general arrangements and, when necessary, to correct them by recourse to principles already intimated in them. An ideological style of politics, however, imagines an alternative order of politicsknown by reason, entirely independent of tradition and expressed in a set of abstract principles. For the ideologue, the task of politics is to instantiate that alternative (and philosophically “correct”) social order.

If we take conservatism to be essentially a critique of ideology, then Hume must be counted as a founding figure in the conservative tradition because he was the first to launch a systematic critique of modern ideologies. The critique is grounded in a distinction Hume makes between “true philosophy” and “false philosophy” that was forged in his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature(1739–40), and that runs throughout all his writings, including his historical writings. What Hume calls “false philosophy” is what we would describe today as “ideology,” a term unavailable to either Hume or Burke. HUME USES “philosophy” and “reason” to mean the same thing; so a critique of philosophy is also a critique of reason. But how can one distinguish between true and corrupt forms of philosophy (or of reason)? Such a critique would itself be another philosophical theory, and how could one know that the critique was not itself of the corrupt sort? This apparent inability of philosophy or reason to throw itself seriously into question led some to think that reason is a self-certifying guide to truth. Descartes, for instance, taught that the cause of error lies in the will,not the intellect. Philosophic reason, rightly conducted, is infallible. Hume, however, taught that philosophic reason contains within itself the seeds of its own corruption. How is this possible?2

According to Hume, the philosophical act of thought is structured by three principles: ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion. First, philosophical claims purport to provide an unconditioned understanding of what is thought to be ultimately real. Second, philosophy is autonomous, i.e., self-determining. The philosopher cannot (without ceasing to be a philosopher) defer to the pre-reflective authorityof custom, tradition, or to the dogmas of priests and poets. Third, philosophical claims about the real, grounded in the philosopher’s autonomous reason, have a title to rule over the domain of the pre-reflective. As Plato said, philosophers should be kings.

What Hume discovered is that these principles of philosophic reason are incompatible with human nature. When cut loose from the authority of the pre-reflective, they are indeterminate and can establish no judgment whatsoever. But philosophers typically do not recognize this; instead, they secretly smuggle in their favorite prejudices from pre-reflective custom and pass them off as universal principles entirely free from the authority of custom. In doing so they deceive themselves and others. And since the aim of philosophical truth is self-knowledge,this form of philosophic reason is falsein the sense of being self-deceptive.

What Hume did for the Anglosphere in particular can not be overstated. He killed Reason and he did so by applying reason to it. Thanks to him, we were largely insulated from the utopian schemes and intellectual certitudes that ravaged continental Europe.

Unsurprisingly, given his achievement, we aren't know for our philosophers. And, revealingly, such as we have are notable for their skepticism and sense of humor about the enterprise.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2009 6:25 PM
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