Warning: this is a bit all over the place heavy on the links. My apologies.
In his response to my critique of the conservative overworship of history, Edmund Babbitt puts the hammer to my position, so to speak, by providing a passionate explanation of the conservative embrace of a historicist conception of human knowledge. Yet, it remains unconvincing and, I think, produces more questions than answers in its defense of traditionalist-historicist conservatism.
First, I would disagree with Edmund’s description of the main claim for which I argue: while I concede that my position presupposes an abstract (ahistorical?) “standard of judgement” in order to determine what is good and bad (within history), that is not, I don’t think, the emphasis I want to make in my argument. It is not an argument for one philosophical position in opposition to another. Rather, and this may be a distinction without a difference, my argument is that the conservative historicist is in some way fundamentally flawed and needs to reconsider its philosophical (non)foundations.
The does not demonstrate that the “standard for discerning universality is found in history.” The essay makes the assumption that it is, and assumes that the standard exists, but it makes transparent neither the argument, nor provides much empirical-historical (or abstract-rational) support for the claim. To put it simply: it merely asserts, it does not argue, that the relationship(s) between history, human experience and human existence are inter-related in an inseparable (constitutive?) way. Until such evidence is provided and an argument is made for the traditionalist-historicist conservative position, then the traditionalist-historicist conservative is stuck drawing circles for arguments.
If it is the case that there is no object of existence outside of reality that can provide conservatives with any philosophical guidance, then what does that mean for the conservative believer in any type of religion? What does that mean for the Christian conservative (Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant) who recognizes the central event that is the incarnation? It would seem that such an event presupposes the existence of something outside of history; and if we are to grant that, then surely it would follow that other lesser standards (which may or may not be perceivable by us humans) of judgment, knowledge or existence would potentially exist outside of history as well. And we should entertain the possibility of transhistorical entities (or facts, whatever terminology one would like to use to describe what exists out there).
What if it is a problem of perception, not existence as such – conservatives of the traditionalist-historicist type just get the order wrong? Our existence is not historical, but it is our truncated experience that results in an incorrect perception that our human experience itself is historical; rather our existence is individual and nonhistorical. Could it be that a more accurate descriptive understanding of what we call the historicity of human experience and human knowledge is that we perceive experience in a way that is formed by our time and place but which is not reducable to temporal-spatial conditions? if we recognize that it is at the level of perception that our “historical” experience is to be found, but our existence itself is not historical? Even though we are bound by time and space (history), our knowledge of that which is good, true and beautiful is not necessarily dependent upon a cognizance of the historicity of our individual consciouscness or the historicity of human experience in general. It is still something that can be referenced to as existing independent of the historical experience in which we find ourselves.
How do we understand “civilized society” and how does it follow from our interactions with the society that our knowledge of what is right and wrong comes from it? And what are we to make of those who reject the society (such as abolitionists, to toss out that tired reference) in favor of an order that we in our day would presumably not be opposed to (the whole slavery thing, that is)? Is it the encounter with other societies and the broadening of the parameters of their historical consciousness that are contributory causes to the existence of such examples in history? Or can we attribute the existence of such individuals and such ideas to modes of knowledge that potentialy operate beyond the strictures of historical experience? Or is it that they learn from the society in which they exist about the good the true and the beautiful? In which case, there are still problems for the traditionalist-historicist conservative, who must then explain why it is not only that the wrong tradition exists and persists to dominate and define the society, but also how it is the minority in the culture (as opposed to the majority in the culture) who discover this correct expression of the tradition in contrast with the majority who ignore it or otherwise is not aware of it; it would seem that given the variety of interpretations that could occur, then there is some other standard (empirical or rational) that is not historicist that better explains the riddle of tradition than historicism explains it. Just beause it is the case that people encounter the good, the true and the beautiful as people bound by time, space and plcae, does not mean that historical experience is how we know such forms of knowledge or that such forms of knowledge are inherently historicist. It only means that we are finite. But we already knew that.
If the reformers have only history to look to in order to find reasons and inspirations for their reform, then it would seem that traditionalist-historicist conservatism and conservatives have no way within the tradition itself to “carefully mitigate the worst of their past and creatively rearticulate and enhance the best of their traditions.” It requires some other standard (empirical or rational) in order to mitigate the worst and discover and promote the good. Unless one wants to claim that historicity does provide that standard, but then it would at best seem to be merely myth, not anything concrete borne out of the experiences of those steeped in the culture. What is reform but an alteration of this historical and contingent reality? (somewhere in all of this discussion about historicity and historicism and all this other fun stuff is a commensurability problem, i just know it)
Historicism, in so far as it is open to the possibility of human development of that which is imperfectable, seems dangerously open to the potential of being an inspiration to the utopian scheming and ideological nightmares that have hampered our history.
I think that if conservatives want to make an insighftul and convincing argument for their position, they are going to need to make reference to a body of knowledge or school of thought besides and beyond historicism and the broader interpretivist viewpoint of which it is a subtype.
I think conservatism should look to alternative – more sophisticated? – ways of self-understanding than the repetitive, circular and evidently not evident historicism. Perhaps in the case of historicism, Leo Strauss is right.