Posted by: captainfalcon | January 6, 2013

Skepticism and Conservatism: A View from 1956

I was browsing JSTOR for articles on the connection between skepticism and conservatism and I came across “The Conservative Implications of Skepticism,” a prescient (if flawed) piece in the 1956 edition of The Journal of Politics written by Norman R. Phillips (byline: “Mr. Norman R. Phillips has lectured on political problems in the Chicago area, where he has been active in the Republican Party organization.”).

His thesis is that the prevailing skepticism of the day — engendered by “the military catastrophes and social dislocations of the recent past . . . psychological irrationalism, the Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy, the linguistic subjectivism of the general semanticists [and] the ethical relativism implicit in the work of many cultural anthropologists and social historians” — would result in “a revival of traditional conservatism with a force comparable to that which led to the spread of intellectual radicalism under the stimulation of the Great Depression.”  Interestingly, he believed that this position was in need of defense because “most conservative writers today profess to see in skepticism the arch-opponent of conservatism.  Thus Peter Viereck . . . treated the ‘nihilists’ who denied that we could obtain absolute truth as the arch-enemies of conservatism.  To cite another case, Russell Kirk . . . refused to classify Bolingbroke as a conservative because of his skepticism in religious matters and mentioned David Hume’s philosophy as constituting one of the five major schools of radical thought.”

Phillips’s defense of the conservative implications of skepticism is similar to Khan’s, but crisper in its distinction of conservatism from skepticism (no blurring of the doctrines into the neologistic “epistemic conservatism”) and purged of the patina of modern-sounding empiricism.  Phillips defines skepticism as “the spirit of doubt, caution, and intellectual humility . . . the doctrine of the uncertainty of knowledge due both to the subjective nature of human mental processes and the imperfections in the conditions of knowing.”  Conservativism, meanwhile, is “the attitude which stresses the value of authority and tradition.  By authority is meant that something which the individual respects as being superior to his own private judgment . . . By tradition we mean the beliefs, customs and accumulated knowledge which are transmitted from generation to generation . . . The conservative emphasis upon authority and tradition is due to the act that these are super-personal forces, above the whims characteristic of a capricious human nature.”

Hence the connection between conservatism and skepticism.  They are:

[B]ased upon a common basic assumption concerning human nature.  Initially, of course, skepticism signifies a repudiation of the myths, dogmas, and illusions which the conservatives so zealously defend.*  But skepticism is such an extreme negation of human standards that it places man with his whole vast repertoire of passions and motives in the same cynical light in which the Tories customarily view human nature . . . From this common foundation, skeptics and conservatives are led to a common emphasis upon custom and tradition as the means whereby human nature may be ennobled . . . One of the clearest contemporary examples of the traditionalist nature of skepticism is the philosophy of Oswald Spengler, who maintained that skepticism points up sharply the meaninglessness and ineffectiveness of theoretical reflection and rational planning . . . [T]he meaning is clear.  The liberal and the socialist believe in a planned economy, whereas the conservatives tend to emphasize slow cautious changes in accordance with the organic character of society and the rate of social change characteristic of that society in the past.  In other words, the liberal is rationalist and scientific in his approach; the conservative, traditionalist and historical-minded.  Obviously, the skeptic, if he is to be logically consistent, should be a conservative.

Three aspects of this are interesting.  First, the fact that Phillips thought the connection between skepticism and conservatism needed to be defended to conservatives shows how far we have come toward realizing Phillips’s view that skepticism and conservatism are joined at the hip.  Second, Phillips underscores that the connection between skepticism (and scientism) and conservatism is cynical; skepticism harshly rejects the verities that conservatism seeks to conserve, but accepts their conservation because we can do no better.  Finally, Phillips demonstrates that, rhetorically powerful though it may be, Khan-style conservatives can do away with the science-talk in which they couch their conservatism; it’s old wine in new bottles.

*  This underscores how interesting it is that Phillips was active in the Republican Party.



  1. Very interesting find. The only comment I would make is that rationalist =! scientific. It may seem a picayune distinction, but I think it gets at why Khan et al. feel the need to bring up “the science-talk” when explicating their conservatism. Science as a method is empirical and inductive, rather than logical and deductive, and as such inculcates an epistemological modesty (and an appreciation for the value of authority and tradition) beyond that which skepticism alone provides.

  2. Fair point. I was being uncharitable / expressing (though without defending) my suspicion that Khan-style science-talk is just the latest language in which some of the same people who would’ve been conservatives anyway are currently expressing themselves. Maybe their experiences with the scientific method do bolster their conservatism, as you say, but (as I indicated in my criticism of Khan) I don’t buy that the epistemic humility engendered by the scientific method alone can motivate conservatism. Other dispositions must already be in place in the would-be conservative, and I think Phillips has done a decent job identifying what those are (skepticism of human capabilities and a sanguine picture of the way the world is expressing itself in respect for tradition and authority).

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