Conservatives and History: Does it Matter, I Mean Really?

A popular understanding of conservatism, exemplified perhaps by the likes of Russell Kirk or Peter Viereck, claims a privileged place for history. It is popularly understood that while liberals and followers of other left-wing ideologies reject, dismiss or otherwise hold history in a distant contempt, the conservatives and conservatism recognize the importance of history as a delimiting and constitutive factor that is essential to an effective and real understanding human experience and the politics that would follow from that essential and immediate experience. I will argue briefly, and to the contrary, that that is, to be diplomatic, a debatable point. Furthermore, it will be claimed that the historicity of human experience (as such an idea is sometimes labeled) is overrated and that conservatives should emancipate themselves from their slavish devotion to it .

The argument can be described and explained in these ways: conservative’s claim to a privilege of history is not a claim to being a worldview that is historical, but rather it is at best a claim of the pre-emenince of a particular interpretation of a particular historical narrative whose purpose is instrumental, in so far as the legitimacy of conservatism rests on the implied assumption of the authority of history as a predominant measure of what constitutes the truth that comprises the conservative claim of political relevance and authority. It is not a claim as such about At the end of the day, the the relationship between human experience (in any essential or contingent form) and history.

The claim of the historicity of human existence that some conservatives (and their allies) assert is problematic for the conservative and should be abandoned for the following reason(s): there exists a fundamental tension between the conservative claim of upholding and promoting any type of transcendent temporal-spatial values and the claim of the historicity of human experience that is often simultaneously asserted. This could pose problems. Because, when conservatives do this, we are trying to successfully perform a juggling act: on the one hand, claim that history matters (a lot, to the point where we concede that there are particular expressions of truths and values that can be best known in the particular time and place they are experienced); on the other hand, claim that those same values we can point to throughout history, which would seem to suggest that whose very existence throughout history would mean that they exist outside of history and can be known without recourse to the history and culture we hold near and dear to our hearts. This leads me to think that the essential conservative claim of the primacy and necessity of tradition and the values which are supposedly deposited and transported through this concept of tradition are the very abstractions that the conservative claims to abhor. That one may be able to make concrete a concept, does not mean that the concept is concrete; it just means that the conservative is good at giving examples when asked for them. In essence, then, conservatism is as abstract as any of the other political worldviews with which it competes.

Conservatives should just give it up already. Abandon the pretensions. History doesn’t matter as much as we want to believe that it does. And that’s ok.

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4 thoughts on “Conservatives and History: Does it Matter, I Mean Really?

  1. AJ

    Joe,

    You seem to be equivocating between tradition and history. And I’m not exactly sure what your critique is. To what extent are “conservatives” placing history on too high a pedestal? What role should it have? As a general rule, with regards to human nature, politics, and society, I believe history is a very good teacher of what does and what does not work. Human experience is, at the end of the day, a basic means by which we come to know truth. Following upon the two premises of 1) the old saying, (something like) those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, and 2) a mark of insanity is to repeatedly use the same failed means to reach an end (or expect a different result), we can see that those who disregard history altogether (which I don’t think is what you are saying) are analogous to the insane. So (I assume) you agree that there is a place for history, but again I ask, what is your proposed level of its import? What level do “conservatives” unreasonably hold it to?

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