Monday, February 10, 2003
I've got to read Jacob Levy over at The Volokh Conspiracy more often. But then, when would I get any work done?
I have no opinion on whether conservative views are under-represented in philosophy departments, 'cause I ain't a philosophy professor. (As an aside: are we only talking about political philosophy here? Is there a conservative/liberal divide on epistemology? I know there are some religious conservatives who like fairly radically deconstructive epistemological theories because they appear to allow them to continue to believe in creationism and the like even though these beliefs are non- or anti-scientific. Just asking.) But I do think, at least out here in the non-professoriat, that liberal/conservative is a pretty oversimplified way of slicing political philosophy. And I'll take myself as a case study.
If I had to put a political label on myself, I would call myself a National Liberal. As you would expect, that means I dig Hegel, not necessarily on all of the specifics but in the sense that I think the challenge in political philosophy is to harmonize the liberty of the ancients with the liberty of the moderns and that history has, in a sense, the structure of a political argument. But I'm not a Romantic. I'm not under any delusion that oft-reified concepts like "the nation" are real in the same sense as a chair is real. By the same token, I'm not a liberal fundamentalist either, because I don't think that concepts like "rights" are any more real. Most days I'm an epistemological Pragmatist; I think that knowing something is more about being able to sort that thing from other things than about being able to define that thing precisely. And I'm a Pragmatist about my Liberalism. I think Liberalism is a "good idea;" it's Pragmatically, not Platonically, true.
I prefer the company of Aristotle, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Burke, Adam Smith, James Madison, Hegel, George Eliot, Lincoln, Arnold, Ruskin, Disraeli, William James, Hayek and Arendt to the company of Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Jefferson, Marx, Bentham, Bakunin, Dewey, T.S. Eliot, Strauss, and Heidegger. I'm an optimist. I don't like declinism. But I put a positive value on tradition and a negative value on revolution. I don't like systems, but I do like principles. I think history is an argument, and that solutions that "work" evolve in real time. But I don't think history has a "destination" except in an eschatological sense that does not belong in any discussion of mundane reality and decisionmaking. (I agree with Kafka that the Messiah will come not on the last day, but on the very last, but I agree with the Chofetz Chayyim that it's wise to keep your bag packed, just in case he comes tomorrow, if that makes any sense.) I prefer both Jabotinsky and Ahad Ha'am to Herzl and mainstream Zionism. I call myself a Pragmatist, but I am deeply suspicious of Richard Posner's work. I think Peter Berkowitz's criticism of Rawls is more telling than Robert Nozick's; I also think Nozick's critique of Rawls is a decline from Hayek's critique of Socialism and Social Democracy precisely because Nozick's argument is so much more philosophical. I am most deeply mistrustful of Platonic thinkers - thinkers who have found the truth "out there" whether that truth is a scientific explanation of history or a set of religious dogmas. But I'm also very mistrustful of positivists who don't know what they don't know and somehow, thereby, wind up knowing a great deal about how our politics should be re-ordered.
So what does that make me? I think my own political thinking is both liberal and conservative, depending on what you mean by those words. I think political thinkers that I admire can be similarly characterized; it's an anachronism to use the terms for pre-moderns, but Burke, Madison, Hegel: these folks are all plausibly described as both liberal and conservative. Perhaps we need to slice things a little differently.