There is an interesting, albeit three-year old, post at Front Porch Republic titled “Is Burke Our Intellectual Father?” that bears upon our present subject, the value and meaning of traditional conservatism. The author, James Matthew Wilson, answers in the affirmative and takes some pains to make it clear why he thinks that Burke spawned that peculiar intellectual movement called traditional conservatism. Along the way he touches upon several issues of importance to our readers (especially those who have read about conservatism and positivism, questions for historicists, or rationalism).
First, is Burkean traditionalism “consummately anti-intellectual” and his “antithesis of ideology to be a renunciation of ideas”? Wilson answers in the negative. Burke’s target was intellectual reductionism and abstract rationalism that it so often becomes. His interest was in the concrete results of such abstractionism and reductionism in terms of the human cost of such philosophical mistakes in human affairs.
The real cause of Burke’s ire, however, was the supposedly intellectual disdain with which his contemporaries greeted the conditions of actual human life-of what we may redundantly call lived experience. Rejecting the claims of natural rights variously articulated in the months after the French Revolution, Burke contended that, as rights, liberties, and restrictions “vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.” Human experience is not only the source of human wisdom, but its permanent condition and also its end. Those who would either transcend the concrete conditions of history or ignore the legitimate concerns for the preservation of human happiness in order to take flight into utopian realms of abstraction succumb to a double weakness; their minds blithely reduce reality to theory and, in pursuing a theory, may brutally cause real suffering.
Second, Burke stands closest to his intellectual opponents among the Jacobins and English Whigs in holding that society is an artifice, the construction of human hands to provide for human wants. Society is a social contract, Burke writes,
It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
Third, such a partnership demonstrates each man’s dependence upon his fellow men, not only those living at the same time as himself, but all those who came before him and bequeathed his current circumstances. By the same token, every person alive will pass on those circumstances, either in improved or dilapidated form to future generations. There is no escape from this existential situation. This is the meaning of traditionalist’s insistence on looking to historical circumstance; it is the precondition of man’s social, political, and intellectual existence. Wilson writes,
We are not our own, and we are not therefore sovereign rulers of ourselves or our society, at least to the extent that we compose a small part of an ‘eternal society’ comprising past, present, and future generations. As such, the work of artifice is founded in a Constitutional theory; the English constitution, as the exemplary form of government, works ‘after the pattern of nature,’”
There is much else in the post that is interesting and it provides a good introduction to Burke’s thought. I encourage our readers to read it.