Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thoughts on the Conservatism of Jim Kalb.

I have great respect for commentator Thursday and he has recommended that I have read of Jim Kalb's works. I'm pressed for time and have other reading to catch up with, but I've had a browse of Mr Kalb's web presence and thought I would jot down a few of my thoughts.

If I had to distill Mr Kalb's thoughts into a phrase it would have to be the "authority of tradition". Whilst Mr Kalb does seem to acknowledge that reason and "truth" have some authority, tradition should be given the greatest weighting. The reason for this (as far as I can see) is that tradition contains the accumulated wisdom of a working society, and since societies are complex, veering far from the accumulated wisdom will cause societal dysfunction. This of course assumes that the society you already have is the society you want to keep.

The other factor present in Kalb's thought(similar to Oakeshott's)is that change should be incremental. Oakeshott justifies this on the basis of the Conservative temperament, Kalb on what essentially appears to be prudential criteria.

The other idea I sense in his thoughts is that individual insights into the nature of "truth" have less a claim that of a society's pre-existing opinions: The groupthink of tradition has a greater claim that the insight of one.

Finally, while Kalb acknowledges the existence of a truth, and recognises that its universal accessibility is difficult, its claims--as a practical measure--are subordinated to the authority of tradition. In the end, an unjust working society has greater claim to legitimacy and hence obedience than a potentially just one. (which is likely to end up dysfunctional) This appears to be a pragmatic measure.

It would appear that Kalb views society almost as an organism undergoing evolution. The organism itself an evolving product of its interaction with the environment and culture in which it finds itself. Societal stability is ensured by the insistence of gradual change, the assumption being that gradual change--as opposed to rapid--ensures the survival of the societal organism. Societies which are the result of such a process can be considered traditional. Islamic, Chinese and pre-Englightment Christian could certainly be considered as such.

Kalb's rationale for his support of traditional societies seems to be explained in the following reply to a commentator over at 2Blowhards(Reply to Mr. Kinahan) :

I suppose what I'm trying to work toward, to speak very grandly, is an inclusive understanding of human reason -- the constellation of things by which we understand the world and make sensible decisions -- that takes our limitations seriously and so recognizes that there are basic truths we need but can't fully grasp and must therefore be approached from the standpoint of tradition. So my argument is not with reason in all its aspects but with the modernist project of hyperrationality. Since I reject that project I view tradition as authoritative -- as something that knows more than I do, especially about things like the nature of the good life -- and not as an interesting array of possibilities that I can choose from as I please or experts advise. That makes me a conservative.

I don't deny that one aspect of tradition can come in conflict with others and force us to choose or that there are important aspects of human reason that have considerable autonomy with respect to tradition and can lead us to modify or break with some aspects of it. The ultimate concern after all is with the good, beautiful and true rather than tradition itself. There's no formula for recognizing and dealing with such cases though and they shouldn't be taken as the models on which we form our idea of how we normally should act.

(My bolding)

Executive summary:

The traditionalist man viewed the world differently than the modern man and was able to produce stable functioning societies. Stable societies are in themselves a good and complex things in themsevles reflecting a positive intermeshing between man and the environment. Because the principles that they are run on are proven to work, they have more authority than innovations.

Tradition "works" and therefore is good, innovation is liable to be bad. Tradition therefore takes precedence. Old is most probably right, new is most probably wrong. Conservatism is then in essence a pragmatic bias for the old, tried and tested.

OK, now an intellectual experiment. Suppose liberalism is able to produce a functional society. For example, there appears to be no let up of the North Korean regime and its quite possible that that with time, Communism could become the "traditional" culture of North Korea. Would Kalb's successors in the future be arguing that North Korean society should not be changed by virtue of the argument of tradition?

Indeed conflating the old with the good is profoundly anti-Christian. The Bible is full of stories of men who attempted to change society (prophets) even in the presence of long established custom. Jesus himself came to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days: Hardly the attitude of a man who reverenced the old.

Indeed the Christian tradition has a quite simple method of societal change. When society is wrong, it is meant to change. That of course assumes a right and wrong and Christianity has handled that as well. It is true that the truth's of Christianity have sometimes been obscure, slavery for instance was seen as acceptable for quite a long time. But the emphasis on rationality bought on by the Enlightenment, the recognition of human rights, etc lead to a cultural re-examination of the question and the traditional understanding of society was found to be wrong. Slavery was banned.

Kalb's fundamental intellectual error is in conflating the old with the good. Just because the old was better does not mean that the old is good. It would appear that Kalb spends a lot of time explaining why the old is good. I will concede to Kalb however, that the older society seemed better at producing human happiness than the modern, still there were many people in traditional society that lived miserable and diseased lives simply by virtue of the way that the society was traditionally ordered.

Modernism, like Socialism, did not arise ex niliho, it was a faulty solution to the real problems of the times. Indeed, Tradition can be rightly considered the midwife of these intellectual beasts. The traditional fixation of pre-enlightenment society gave no means for the dissipation of rapidly building societal pressures. Indeed Kalb's "gradual change" became a like a sticky pressure cooker valve, unable to dissipate the forces building within it, the pressure building up faster than it could be relived until the structure was destroyed.

As any evolutionary biologist will tell you, a creature in order to survive needs to adapt to change, if that change is rapid, a creature has to change quickly to survive. Unable to do so, it is dead.

The printing press, Protestantism, increasing wealth, the beginnings of scientific knowledge and population expansion made a relatively rapid appearance(from a cultural perspective) and unleashed forces which required societal reorganization. The Traditionalist response: That's not the way we do things, we'll get back to you. Society moved on.

Kalb however is fundamentally right in that the difference between Moderns and Conservatives is in their epistemology. Kalb likes to call the moderns hyper-rational, where as I prefer to call them "empirically limited". The conservatives felt that valid knowledge could be garnered from faith and intuition;stuff that couldn't be empirically verified. The Moderns rejected this and thus the discontinuity with the old. The Moderns adopted a different epistemology and in many instances a different metaphysic.

In my opinion Kalb is not a Conservative he is a Traditionalist. Though I think he is a better man than his reasoning( a lot of his reasoning is good). The Conservative values the Good and True above all else, the Traditionalist the old. I've endeavored not to deliberately misstate his arguments. If I have I have my apologies and am quite willing to modify my views. Thursday is right, Kalb is the modern Burke, warts and all.






12 comments:

Thursday said...

I think you're badly misreading Kalb. The criteria for him is not simply that something is old, but that it grew up organically. Did North Korea grow up organically? Are its political system and social practices the result of long experience. The questions answer themselves.

Anyway, in his book, he goes into why simply conserving the past doesn't work, and what a conservative response to entrenched liberal regime should be. There's a taste of his analysis here:
http://turnabout.ath.cx:8000/node/2775

Jim Kalb said...

The issue isn't tradition vs truth, it's how we know what's true. The passage you quote should make that clear. We look back because that's how we understand where we are, how things work, and what they are.

You seem to think of tradition as something blind and self-contained. It's not about itself, though, it's about something else. Religious tradition is about ultimate reality, political tradition is about protecting or facilitating the human good, and so on.

You also seem to think that "tradition has authority" means "no existing practice should ever be changed." Why should that be? What's the point of talking about authority if everything people actually do is always presumed correct?

For me the most helpful writers on how we know what's true when we're dealing with basic things that are hard to formulate (God, the Good, the nature of man, whatever) are Pascal, especially his (brief) discussion in the Pensees on the esprit de géométrie and the esprit de finesse, and Newman on the illative sense (in the Grammar of Assent).

Basically, they say that confusing situations clarify over time because things come into focus as we become more competent in dealing with them in various settings. From a social standpoint, that process is the development of tradition.

You seem to have some other account of how we come to build up systems of reliable understandings. I'm not sure what that account is though.

The point of talking about tradition is not that every possible tradition should be treated as absolutely compulsory but to counter the current view that only modern natural science and scientistic reasoning are authoritative so if those things don't support something then there's no support for it and it should give way to freedom and equality. Traditionalists say that's wrong and point out how systems of conduct and understanding actually arise and become reliable.

I don't like Oakeshott because he seems to want to do without the idea of truth and we can't live that way. That's Pascal's point, or at least one of Pascal's points. And Burke's got a problem because the Anglican tradition doesn't recognize an authority that can resolve disputes that don't go away. That's why it's fallen apart. No tradition can be purely traditional, some traditions work better than others, if you maim your tradition like the Anglicans did you're likely to have problems, and as a Catholic it seems clear to me that all roads lead to Rome.

Miscellaneous points: socialism didn't follow on traditional society, it followed on capitalist society and the modern state (which had overturned traditional society). I don't see North Korea as a problem because I don't think Juche deals that well with the various issues people run into. Crazed totalitarian regimes usually don't last that long. My book The Tyranny of Liberalism basically says the same thing about liberalism. (Islam is a more interesting example since it's lasted a long time and Muslims don't seem to convert much. That would be an interesting discussion for another occasion.)

Jim Kalb said...

The issue isn't tradition vs truth, it's how we know what's true. The passage you quote should make that clear. We look back because that's how we understand where we are, how things work, and what they are.

You seem to think of tradition as something blind and self-contained. It's not about itself, though, it's about something else. Religious tradition is about ultimate reality, political tradition is about protecting or facilitating the human good, and so on.

You also seem to think that "tradition has authority" means "no existing practice should ever be changed." Why should that be? What's the point of talking about authority if everything people actually do is always presumed correct?

For me the most helpful writers on how we know what's true when we're dealing with basic things that are hard to formulate (God, the Good, the nature of man, whatever) are Pascal, especially his (brief) discussion in the Pensees on the esprit de géométrie and the esprit de finesse, and Newman on the illative sense (in the Grammar of Assent).

Basically, they say that confusing situations clarify over time because things come into focus as we become more competent in dealing with them in various settings. From a social standpoint, that process is the development of tradition.

You seem to have some other account of how we come to build up systems of reliable understandings. I'm not sure what that account is though.

The point of talking about tradition is not that every possible tradition should be treated as absolutely compulsory but to counter the current view that only modern natural science and scientistic reasoning are authoritative so if those things don't support something then there's no support for it and it should give way to freedom and equality. Traditionalists say that's wrong and point out how systems of conduct and understanding actually arise and become reliable.

I don't like Oakeshott because he seems to want to do without the idea of truth and we can't live that way. That's Pascal's point, or at least one of Pascal's points. And Burke's got a problem because the Anglican tradition doesn't recognize an authority that can resolve disputes that don't go away. That's why it's fallen apart. No tradition can be purely traditional, some traditions work better than others, if you maim your tradition like the Anglicans did you're likely to have problems, and as a Catholic it seems clear to me that all roads lead to Rome.

Miscellaneous points: socialism didn't follow on traditional society, it followed on capitalist society and the modern state (which had overturned traditional society). I don't see North Korea as a problem because I don't think Juche deals that well with the various issues people run into. Crazed totalitarian regimes usually don't last that long. My book The Tyranny of Liberalism basically says the same thing about liberalism. (Islam is a more interesting example since it's lasted a long time and Muslims don't seem to convert much. That would be an interesting discussion for another occasion.)

Thursday said...

Obviously lurking in the background of conservatism is the idea that there is an objective reality out there. I think though that the main problem that conservatism responds to is how to act when you have limited access to knowledge about that reality. I guess my main problem with saying that conservatism is about truth is that it seems to imply that we have direct access to a lot of it.

If you were to make the more limited point that because of the rapid rate of social and technological change, tradition is a somewhat less reliable guide to the good and the useful than it used to be, I don't think that would be all that controversial. In a sense, we are all rationalists, or policy wonks, now, forced to use our feeble reasoning powers to figure out how best to apply the insights of tradition to a rapidly changing world.

The Social Pathologist said...

I've had a big day today and have to head out yet again. I'll hopefully reply to your comments in the next day or two.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Thursday:

.....I don't think that would be all that controversial.

Phew, I didn't think I was making any traction.

Part of the problem of a Traditionalist point of view is that you do become hidebound to the past a bit.

I guess my main problem with saying that conservatism is about truth is that it seems to imply that we have direct access to a lot of it.

Conservatism is essentially about living the Truth, the problem though is, that the apprehension of certain truths are difficult and hence we must be flexible to a certain degree with others who disagree with our apprehension of it. But there should be a limit to our tolerance of those who disagree, and these limits are something I plan to flesh out in the future.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Jim Kalb.

Firstly, thanks for your comments.
I've read a bit more of your online work and and think that Thursday's high recommendation of you is quite warranted.

Still, I disagree with what I would call your concept of Tradition as an epistemological method of determining reality. My objections are twofold both practical and theoretical.

Theoretically, if tradition embodies the truth then any variance from it must be towards falsehood and hence any change is evil. If tradition on the other hand "points" to the truth, this means that to a degree, the tradition is a falsehood masquerading as a truth and it falsifies the underlying premise of tradition being aid to understanding truth. (Indeed a most dangerous falsehood since it appears true). This isn't my opinion. It's logic.

Practically, the veneration of tradition produces a society that is inflexible to the degree it venerates it. Very traditional societies do not change; and sometimes change is necessary

Basically when we venerate tradition what we are venerating the reasoning and experiences of dead men. All good and well if the reasoning is good and the experience valid. But what if reasoning is bad and the experience is invalid?

Basically, they say that confusing situations clarify over time because things come into focus as we become more competent in dealing with them in various settings.

In other words, when we understand things better we ditch the tradition. (not necessarily the whole of tradition but the applicable one)Or, in more explicit terms, we only venerate a tradition as long as it is reasonable. Reason assumes a primacy over tradition. This is the position I hold,with caveats on the limits of reason.

The issue isn't tradition vs truth, it's how we know what's true.

I agree that that is the ultimate issue and it separates the sheep from the wolves, but the discussion that it warrants will take up more space than in a combox. I plan to put up some posts in the next few days on the subject and you're welcome to tear them apart.

Jim Kalb said...

A couple comments:

1. We see through a glass darkly. That doesn't mean we know nothing whatever, it means our knowledge is imperfect and we go with what we have.

2. The issue today isn't whether tradition exactly as it stands is an absolute. (Was that ever the issue? Who said so? Isn't that a caricature?) It's whether following tradition is a rational procedure, as rational perhaps as following the recommendations of a panel of experts. The judge in California dealt with the point explicitly. He said "no," even in the case of a universal tradition governing a basic institution.

3. The veneration of personal insight, academic expertise, and everything else also cause lots of problems. What are you looking for exactly? What is your standard of acceptable reliability?

Jim Kalb said...

Another thought: you might add Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine to your reading list. It goes into how traditions develop in response to needs by bringing out what's implicit in the tradition.

The Social Pathologist said...

@ Jim Kalb:

We see through a glass darkly. That doesn't mean we know nothing whatever, it means our knowledge is imperfect and we go with what we have.

Agree.

2. The issue today isn't whether tradition ........... recommendations of a panel of experts

The rationality of following tradition is not really the issue, the issue is how to determine when it becomes irrational to follow tradition? The problem with venerating tradition is that practically you end up discounting reason.

For instance female emancipation has been only a relatively recent phenomena, with attempts to stymie it by the traditionalists. Traditional society had both its pros and cons with regard tothe status of women. There were however some legitimate grievances with their role, when these were aired many conservatives could not offer anything except "this is how has been done traditionally". No conservatively acceptable solution was found and it meant that all the thinking(nearly all of it bad)was done by the feminists, they took control of the agenda.

Thursday has written a very good piece illustrating this phenomena in modern times. Traditionalists like Auster refuse to countenance the facts.

One of the core issues that conservatives need to think about is how did it all go wrong. What was the mechanism of modernism's success? A study into the genesis of modernism would be of immense benefit towards understanding the failure of modern conservatism. The practical preference of tradition over thought may be partially responsible.

What are you looking for exactly? What is your standard of acceptable reliability?

My standard of reliability is, does it contradict the faith or does it contradict empirical data and logic? Because if it does its not true. If further data or religious insight modify events then I change. Faith and empirical data mark the "limits" of reason.

The core principles of the faith are infallible, sense data and logic provide the "boundaries of thought". I think it was St Thomas who once said that if faith and data contradict, then our understanding of one or the other is wrong. The aim is to understand reality. To know the truth.

We do have a capacity to know at least some truths, though we may not understand them, particularly matters of faith.

I don't want to venerate the old ideas for being old, or the product of experience, I want to venerate them for being right. The human capacity to understand and pursue the truth is what I want Conservatives to stand for. Any ideology which denies this, or any ideology that reject some aspect of reality is an ideology I'm against.

As the Master said:

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set ye free.

It's pretty much the foundation of conservatism.

Jim Kalb said...

We don't seem to have a common understanding of what it is to live within a tradition. You seem to view it as extraneous to our understanding of things and their significance, as if there's reason and there's data and there's faith and there's tradition, and they're all separate things rather than aspects of an overall way of understanding and dealing with our situation. I'm not sure how to make progress on the point in a combox discussion so maybe I'll drop out. Thanks for your remarks though!

The Social Pathologist said...

Yes a combox discussion really doesn't do the topic justice, I do hope that you will cast an eye on my posts every now and then as I plan to elaborate more on my thinking over the next few weeks.

Best wishes.