As the Right broadly defined argues about its direction, let’s hope for an increasingly large place in that public sphere for Postmodern Conservatism. But what is it? My attempts to define can be found here in various parts. To continue, the embrace of uncertainty is an intersection of two large and confusing terms, postmodernism and conservatism. The “postmodern conservative” is skeptical of new models and standards of “efficiency,” and distrustful of an elevated rationality. The hegemonic pretenses of Enlightenment, the philosophical earthquake that birthed the limitations – and the persistent inhumanity – of modernity’s individualism and rights are a cold and flimsy moral architectural structure. The question: is tradition and revelation (such as Thomism, a Christian tradition of reason) mixed with the reflexive critique of modernity a means of return to discipline instead of a mastery of means? How, in other words, to maintain a standard of quality of life, informed by the accumulated wisdom of generations, when the standards of efficiency and rights – truly, a hurrying to nowhere – are so deeply embedded in our culture and the conduct of existence?
Policraticus considers postmodernism to be a critique of the over-ambitious nature of Enlightenment rationalism, the over-inflated projections of the achievement of the human mind, and the over-confidence in so-called rational political models (such as the conception of the modern nation state). It is suspicious of attempts to describe in narrative fashion the history of ideas as it were a linear path perfectly described and analyzed by a sort of idea-determinism; it is a way back up to “pre-modern” ideas. Jean-Francois Lyotard offers us a memorable definition (“simplifying to the extreme”): incredulity toward meta-narrative. Knowledge, he writes, can never be reduced to science or learning. How can knowledge, he asks, even “concrete,” scientific knowledge, possibly find its legitimacy without recourse to a totalizing, narrative method? Instead, all discourses of learning are taken not from their “immediate truth-value,” but by reference to the value acquired by virtue of “occupying a certain place in the itinerary of Spirit or Life.” Knowledge finds its validity in the practical subject of humanity.
For conservatives, especially “traditionalist,” non-utopian (libertarianism being the chief Right utopianism) ones such as Russell Kirk, the “negation” of ideology and the grounding of valid truth in persons created in the reflection of a perfect Good means that earthly totality is futile and dangerous, its supposed truth prone to the many weapons of violence wielded by the rhetorically attractive. Contempt for those who would reconstruct society upon their abstract designs should be accompanied by the valuation of custom, convention, and “old prescription” – checks upon man’s anarchic impulse and the innovator’s lust for power.
Peter Lawler finds postmodernism properly understood to be a return to “realism” – an understanding of our limitations, an embrace of the mysteries of life, and a rejection of the view that language, for example, is a historical construct with no natural foundation. And yet the human self is elusive – thus a rejection of totality that we may know absent death and of the temptations of ideology. If conservatism may be defined as the negation of ideology, the political secularization of the doctrine of original sin, the cautious sentiment tempered by prudence, the product of organic, local human organization observing and reforming its customs, the distaste for a priori principle disassociated from historical experience, the partaking of the mysteries of free will, divine guidance, and human agency by existing in but not of the confusions of modern society, no framework of action, no tenet, no theory, and no article of faith, then there is much to discuss at these intersections – a distrust of the systems and processes of the idols of ourselves and of our lusts of power and status, a distrust of ideology and metanarratives.
There is a problem with the rationalist desire to transform traditional institutions and human nature on the basis of an intellectual plan. Mediating institutions – the seedbeds of virtue such as family, neighborhood, church, guild, union, hobby group – should demonstrate that human motivation cannot be reduced to ideology of any manner, especially economic ones. We humans are creatures of mystery and love, as evidenced by the many grand mysteries our rationality can never unlock, such as language and music, and to revolt against this “real world” is to scorn the fulfilling accomplishments we can actually achieve (raising children first among them) so as to chase false, empty ones.