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.