January 14, 2012


Britishness and anti-intellectualism (Ed Rooksby, 14 January 2012, Open Democracy)

It is often remarked that Anglo-Saxon culture is marked by a relative pragmatism and empiricism in comparison with continental European cultures which are much more inclined towards high theory, abstraction and so on. It is bound up with differences in the cultural status of the figure of the 'intellectual'. It is frequently pointed out, for example, that the French admire and take pride in their 'intellectuals' while the British are, at best, indifferent about theirs. This is reflected in Anglo-Saxon impatience in relation to conceptual complexity and in its veneration of what is called 'common sense' and 'plain speaking'. How can we explain this Anglo-Saxon anti-intellectualism - this hostility towards theory? As I hope to show here, anti-intellectualism is deeply rooted in the political history of Britain and has long performed a strategic conservative ideological function - which is to shield the status quo from systematic criticism.

We must start with Edmund Burke. As we shall see, Burke did not construct a British ideology of anti-intellectualism from scratch, but he was the first thinker to produce a worked-out justification of it, just as he was the first thinker to formulate an account of conservatism as a coherent political doctrine. Indeed the two are intimately connected - anti-intellectualism becomes, in Burke's schema, a key organising component of conservatism as a cohesive doctrine. In order to understand the culturally ingrained British hostility to 'theory', then, we need to understand the wider political philosophy of which it is a component as it was formulated by Burke.

As Alan Haworth suggests Burke's conservatism comprises three core (intertwining) ideas. First, Burke is suspicious of political change driven by 'pure reason' and abstract principles. Reality is much more messy and complex than can be grasped in theory. For Burke it is foolish to enact sweeping reform of political and social institutions along 'rational' lines inspired through abstract reasoning. Existing institutions work well because they have evolved and adapted over many years in a gradual process of trial and error. The second strand of Burke's approach is the idea that principles like liberty are always embodied in concrete historical and national circumstances. The liberty a nation enjoys is always a specific set of particular freedoms and rights. There are only ever these liberties. There is never liberty as such. Further, the specific set of liberties embodied in the constitutional order is the outcome of adaptation and long experience that has taken place over many generations within a particular national tradition. One cannot simply step outside of these inherited customs, conventions and established practices and appeal to liberty as some trans-historical, universal entity. If there is to be change it must take place within the tradition our current way of doing things has grown up in. Experience and history will always be a better guide to action than abstract principles.

Thank God, literally, Rationalism never took hold in the Anglosphere.
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Posted by at January 14, 2012 3:18 PM

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