Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Charles Sanders Peirce: Are Conservatives Stupid?

From Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, eds. Hartshorne and Weiss, vol. I, The Principles of Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1974), pp. 357-358:

661. Conservatism, true conservatism, which is sentimental conservatism, and by those who have no power of observation to see what sort of men conservatives are, is often called stupid conservatism, an epithet far more applicable to the false conservatism that looks to see on which side bread is buttered – true conservatism, I say, means not trusting to reasonings about questions of vital importance but rather to hereditary instincts and traditional sentiments. Place before the conservative arguments to which he can find no adequate reply and which go, let us say, to demonstrate that wisdom and virtue call upon him to offer to marry his own sister, and though he be unable to answer the arguments, he will not act upon their conclusion, because he believes that tradition and the feelings that tradition and custom have developed in him are safer guides than his own feeble ratiocination. Thus, true conservatism is sentimentalism. Of course, sentiment lays no claim to infallibility, in the sense of theoretical infallibility, a phrase that logical analysis proves to be a mere jingle of words with a jangle of contradictory meanings. The conservative need not forget that he might have been born a Brahmin with a traditional sentiment in favor of suttee – a reflection that tempts him to become a radical. But still, on the whole, he thinks his wisest plan is to reverence his deepest sentiments as his highest and ultimate authority, which is regarding them as for him practically infallible – that is, to say infallible in the only sense of the word in which infallible has any consistent meaning.

662. The opinion prevalent among radicals that conservatives, and sentimentalists generally, are fools is only a cropping out of the tendency of men to conceited exaggeration of their reasoning powers. Uncompromising radical though I be upon some questions, inhabiting all my life an atmosphere of science, and not reckoned as particularly credulous, I must confess that the conservative sentimentalism I have defined recommends itself to my mind as eminently sane and wholesome. Commendable as it undoubtedly is to reason out matters of detail, yet to allow mere reasonings and reason’s self-conceit to overslaw [over-slaugh? over-awe?] the normal and manly sentimentalism which ought to lie at the cornerstone of all our conduct seems to me to be foolish and despicable.

BV’s Summary: On matters of vital importance, the true conservative relies on "hereditary instincts and traditional sentiments" rather than on reason, taking the former to be a "safer guide" than the latter. Where the two conflict, the true conservative puts his trust in instinct and sentiment rather than in reason. The radicals’ belief that conservatives are fools is nothing more than a symptom of the radicals’ overestimation of their powers of ratiocination.

BV’s Comments: Peirce died in 1914. Events after that fateful year surely support Peirce’s contention that an exaggerated trust in reason leads to trouble. Think of the Russian Revolution and the attempt to implement that apotheosis of "reason’s self-conceit," namley, Marxism. Perice here limns the attitude of the paleo-conservative. One may wonder whether a viable conservatism for the present day must not also incorporate elements of neo-conservatism, where the latter is essentially just classical liberalism.