May 31, 2017


Fusionism Once and Future (Samuel Goldman, Spring 2017, Modern Age)

What was fusionism?

Fusionism was once among the most familiar concepts in the conservative lexicon. Although its character as a political theory has been almost forgotten, it is still widely recognized as a reference to Meyer's efforts to find common ground in the struggles between libertarians and traditionalists that characterized conservative thought in the 1950s. Libertarians argued that individual freedom was the supreme value. Traditionalists, on the other hand, argued for deference to inherited norms and institutions.

Meyer answered that both sides were partly right. Freedom was "an essential aspect of man's being" and therefore the condition of all truly human ends. But this did not mean all ends were equally good: man's choices were subject to distinctions between good and evil, just and unjust. It was not always easy, however, for the individual person to identify the difference. Therefore, the guidance of tradition was essential. As Meyer put it, "A good society is possible only . . . when social and political order guarantees a state of affairs in which men can freely choose and when the intellectual and moral leaders, the 'creative minority,' have the understanding and imagination to maintain the prestige of tradition and reason, and thus to sustain the intellectual and moral order through society."[2]

This vision of a good society implied a sharp distinction between politics and morality. The legitimate purposes of government, Meyer argued, were securing physical safety from enemies foreign and domestic, and providing for the peaceful resolution of disputes. In his topical writings, Meyer criticized most forms of social provision. In later years this uncompromising attitude led Murray Rothbard to characterize Meyer as a libertarian manqué.[3]

But a commitment to limited government did not mean abandoning traditional conceptions of virtue. Rather, it was only under conditions of freedom that the choice of virtue was morally significant. Indeed, Meyer's argument for limited government implied an enhanced role for philosophical educators and pedagogical institutions. In this respect, fusionism stood in tension with populism.

On one level, then, fusionism was a way of articulating the relationship between two different kinds of action: political action subject to coercion and moral action subject to choice. In another sense, however, it was an epistemology. Beyond the dispute about the purposes of government, libertarians and traditionalist arguments were characterized by appeals to different authorities. Libertarians appealed to reason, often arguing deductively from first principles. Traditionalists justified their claims by reference to precedent and the lessons of experience.

Again, Meyer argued that both sides were possessed of part of the truth. Libertarians were right to assert that only reason could ultimately justify claims about the right way to live. In making this assertion, they were following the examples of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

But libertarians were mistaken to think--or argue as if they thought--that reasoning about human affairs could be conducted a priori, without reference to historical or personal experience. That way led to the kind of "arid and distorting ideology" that justified the French Revolution and its successors.[4] It was not only simple folk who needed the guidance of tradition. Because of their inclination toward abstraction, intellectuals had even greater need of restraint.

On the other hand, habit and precedent were insufficient guides to human conduct. While a useful check on dangerous experiments, resistance to change could also lead to unreflective acceptance of whatever exists. "Natural conservatism" had to be supplemented with rational criticism, Meyer insisted, because so many recent changes had been destructive of inherited wisdom and prudential norms. In order to respond to those errors, "Today's conservatism cannot simply affirm. It must select and adjudge. It is conservative because in its selection and in its judgment it bases itself upon the accumulated wisdom of mankind over millennia, because it accepts the limits upon the irresponsible play of untrammeled reason which the unchanging values exhibited by that wisdom dictate."[5]

Because "conscious conservatism" required distinctions between desirable and undesirable changes, the opposition between reason and tradition was a false dichotomy. Instead of rivals, the two sources of knowledge were intertwined in a productive tension that Meyer characterized as "reason operating within tradition: neither ideological hubris creating Utopian blueprints, ignoring the accumulated wisdom of mankind, nor blind dependence on that wisdom to answer automatically the questions posed to our generation and demanding our own expenditure of mind and spirit."[6]

Meyer's conviction that his theory echoed the "underlying ethos of the West" was the reason he disliked the term fusionism. Instead of forging an eclectic synthesis of disparate elements, Meyer sought to uncover a coherent and "truly Western philosophy of freedom."[7] As philosophy, fusionism was founded on argument and rational critique rather than derived from unreflective habit or an act of faith. As Western, it was already latent in our practices, judgments, and institutions, no matter how threatened these might be. [...]

Despite his frequent tributes to the genius of the American Founding, Meyer contended that the greatest achievement of Western civilization was not a particular regime but the vision of the unique person poised between a transcendent God and impersonal nature. In a little-read 1968 essay, "Western Civilization: The Problem of Freedom," Meyer wrote:

The simultaneous understanding that there exists transcendent perfection and that human beings are free and responsible to move towards perfection, although incapable of perfection, no longer puts men in an intolerable dilemma: the dilemma either, on the one hand, of denying their freedom and their personhood and sinking back in cosmological annihilation within a pantheistic All, or, on the other hand, of trying by sheer force of will to rival God and, as Utopians, to impose a limited human design of perfection upon a world by its nature imperfect. The Incarnation, understood as "the flash of eternity into time," the existential unity of the perfect and the imperfect, has enabled men of the West to live both in the world of nature and in the transcendent world without confusing them. It has made it possible to live, albeit in a state of tension, accepting both transcendence and the human condition with its freedom and imperfection.[10]

In its essentials, Meyer's view was theological. As the reference to the Incarnation indicates, he understood the human condition as a kind of unity in division. Kirk had charged that individualism was an attack on Christianity. Meyer answered that "the freedom of the person" to rise above nature while remaining subject to transcendent standards was Christianity's most distinctive product.[11]

So fusionism was more traditionalist than it appeared.

Fusionism serves some worthwhile purposes provided we maintain a healthy hostility to the claim that Reason can justify anything, starting with itself.

Posted by at May 31, 2017 5:17 AM