The First Conservative
David Hume uncovered the roots of revolution in false philosophy.
The conservative political tradition is usually thought to begin with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke observed that the Revolution did not aim at reforming society but at overturning the entire social and political order and replacing it with one grounded in man’s natural “reason.” He offered this quote from a leader in the National Assembly: “All the establishments in France crown the unhappiness of the people: to make them happy they must be renewed, their ideas, their laws, their customs, words changed … destroy everything; yes destroy everything; then everything is to be renewed.”
Burke saw that total criticism demands total transformation, which demands total control. All the horrors of the “totalitarian” regimes of the 20th century were intimated in Burke’s insight into the French Revolution. If conservatism is to have any intellectual content—if it is to be something other than a disposition to look with suspicion on serious change to the status quo (which would mean that any regime in power is “conservative”)—it must be resistance to the spiritual and intellectual pathology Burke put his finger on.
Later thinkers would deepen Burke’s critique, notably Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, Albert Camus, Gerhart Niemeyer, and especially Eric Voegelin. But it was the Scottish philosopher David Hume, writing some 50 years before Burke’s Reflections, who first identified the pathology. And unlike Burke, whose criticism was mainly rhetorical, Hume worked out a systematic philosophical critique that explained the roots of the pathology, its origin in human nature, its psychology, and its destructive exemplifications in modern culture.
Voegelin viewed modern secular ideologies such as Marxism as latter day forms of the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism. Hume identified them not as deformations of religion but as corruptions of philosophy itself.
Hume forged a distinction in his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), between “true” and “false” philosophy. The philosophical act of thought has three constituents. First, it is inquiry that seeks an unconditioned grasp of the nature of reality. The philosophical question takes the form: “What ultimately is X?” Second, in answering such questions the philosopher is only guided by his autonomous reason. He cannot begin by assuming the truth of what the poets, priests, or founders of states have said. To do so would be to make philosophy the handmaiden of religion, politics, or tradition. Third, philosophical inquiry, aiming to grasp the ultimate nature of things and guided by autonomous reason, has a title to dominion. As Plato famously said, philosophers should be kings.
Yet Hume discovered that the principles of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion, though essential to the philosophical act, are incoherent with human nature and cannot constitute an inquiry of any kind. If consistently pursued, they entail total skepticism and nihilism. Philosophers do not end in total skepticism, but only because they unknowingly smuggle in their favorite beliefs from the prejudices of custom, passing them off as the work of a pure, neutral reason. Hume calls this “false philosophy” because the end of philosophy is self-knowledge, not self-deception.
The “true philosopher” is one who consistently follows the traditional conception of philosophy to the bitter end and experiences the dark night of utter nihilism. In this condition all argument and theory is reduced to silence. Through this existential silence and despair the philosopher can notice for the first time that radiant world of pre-reflectively received common life which he had known all along through participation, but which was willfully ignored by the hubris of philosophical reflection.
It is to this formerly disowned part of experience that he now seeks to return. Yet he also recognizes that it was the philosophic act that brought him to this awareness, so he cannot abandon inquiry into ultimate reality, as the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics and their postmodern progeny try to do. Rather he reforms it in the light of this painfully acquired new knowledge.
What must be given up is the autonomy principle. Whereas the false philosopher had considered the totality of pre-reflectively received common life to be false unless certified by the philosopher’s autonomous reason, the true philosopher now presumes the totality of common life to be true. Inquiry thus takes on a different task. Any belief within the inherited order of common life can be criticized in the light of other more deeply established beliefs. These in turn can be criticized in the same way. And so Hume defines “true philosophy” as “reflections on common life methodized and corrected.”
By common life Hume does not mean what Thomas Paine or Thomas Reid meant by “common sense,” namely a privileged access to knowledge independent of critical reflection; this would be just another form of “false philosophy.” “Common life” refers to the totality of beliefs and practices acquired not by self-conscious reflection, propositions, argument, or theories but through pre-reflective participation in custom and tradition. We learn to speak English by simply speaking it under the guidance of social authorities. After acquiring sufficient skill, we can abstract and reflect on the rules of syntax, semantics, and grammar that are internal to it and form judgments as to excellence in spoken and written English. But we do not first learn these rules and then apply them as a condition of speaking the language. Knowledge by participation, custom, tradition, habit, and prejudice is primordial and is presupposed by knowledge gained from reflection.
The error of philosophy, as traditionally conceived—and especially modern philosophy—is to think that abstract rules or ideals gained from reflection are by themselves sufficient to guide conduct and belief. This is not to say abstract rules and ideals are not needed in critical thinking—they are—but only that they cannot stand on their own. They are abstractions or stylizations from common life; and, as abstractions, are indeterminate unless interpreted by the background prejudices of custom and tradition. Hume follows Cicero in saying that “custom is the great guide of life.” But custom understood as “methodized and corrected” by loyal and skillful participants.
The distinction between true and false philosophy is like the distinction between valid and invalid inferences in logic or between scientific and unscientific thinking. A piece of thinking can be “scientific”—i.e., arrived at in the right way—but contain a false conclusion. Likewise, an argument can be valid, in that the conclusion logically follows from the premises on pain of contradiction, even if all propositions in the argument are false. Neither logically valid nor scientific thinking can guarantee truth; nor can “true philosophy.” It cannot tell us whether God exists, or whether morals are objective or what time is. These must be settled, if at all, by arguments within common life.
True philosophy is merely the right way for the philosophical impulse to operate when exploring these questions. The alternative is either utter nihilism (and the end of philosophical inquiry) or the corruptions of false philosophy. True philosophy merely guarantees that we will be free from those corruptions.
Only a sketch of these corruptions can be mentioned here. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, compared the prejudices of common life to an old house and recommended that philosophy “raze it to the ground, in order to raise a new one in its stead.” Fourier wrote, “the vice of our so-called reformers is to indict this or that defect, instead of indicting civilization as a whole.” And Marx was not against “wrong in particular” but “wrong in general.” “We are not interested,” he said, “in a change in private property but only in its annihilation, not in conciliation of class antagonisms but in the abolition of classes, not in reforms of present society but in the foundation of a new one.”
The corrupt philosophical act is one of world inversion. A part of common life is seized upon by the philosopher who transmutes it—through the principles of ultimacy and autonomy—into the whole. In doing so, he instantiates the error of King Midas, who transformed all he touched into gold. Two instances of the Midas touch of false philosophy that especially exercised Hume were “the selfish system”—the teaching of Hobbes, Locke, and others that all purported acts of benevolence are really motivated by self-interest—and the theory that all legitimate government springs from an original contract.
In each case, part of experience (self-love and the making of contracts) is transmuted into the whole of experience. Hume describes this act of transmutation as “philosophical chymistry” (alchemy) and compares it to black magic: “Do you come to a philosopher … to learn something by magic or witchcraft beyond what can be known by common prudence and discretion?”
The world inversions of false philosophy seem to be profound criticisms, but they are not criticisms at all. For if all experience is transmuted into one of its parts by the Midas touch, the ordinary standards of judgment are absorbed also, and the new philosophically certified standards, being abstract and indeterminate, can only be the arbitrary dictates of the philosopher.
If the whole of culture is transmuted into the will to power—as in the philosophies of Nietzsche and Foucault—then it would be impossible to distinguish between good and bad power or just and unjust power. The critique of the false philosophers, Hume says, operates in a “vacuum,” and no one in common life can tell what “will please or displease them.”
Another baneful effect of false philosophy is that it distracts attention away from cultivating the arts needed for genuine criticism. If true criticism is to “methodize and correct” judgments within the traditions of common life, then one must have a connoisseur’s knowledge of what those traditions are so that comparative judgments can be made. And this requires knowledge of the history of a practice. Traditionally, philosophy has viewed its inquiry as timeless. Hume was one of the first to argue that reason as such, whether in science or any other inquiry, has a historical dimension.
Consider briefly the difference between Hume’s and Locke’s approach to understanding liberty. Locke explains individual liberty in terms of timeless abstract natural rights possessed by all individuals in an ahistoric state of nature. And public liberty (government) is explained as an institution made by a contract between these individuals to protect their natural rights. In the philosopher’s “vacuum,” Locke has taken a part of common life (making contracts) and transmuted it into the whole of political experience. To this Hume replied that government cannot originate from a contract because the concept of a contract presupposes government for its enforcement.
Further, the notion of “consent” framed in the “vacuum” of the state of nature is abstract and indeterminate, and so there is no non-arbitrary way to apply it. If consent is taken in its ordinary sense, then no government in history has been based on consent, but it would be nihilistic to say that no government in history has been legitimate. On the other hand, if consent is relaxed to include “tacit consent,” as Hobbes does, then any government that is obeyed, however tyrannical it might be, is based on consent. The famous contact theory, from Hobbes to Rawls, is not a searching insight into our political condition but a philosophic superstition that hides that condition from us and perverts critical judgments about it.
In contrast to Locke, Hume does not seek to understand liberty as an instantiation of abstract principles. Indeed, Hume offers no theory of liberty at all. Rather, he thinks of liberty as a historic practice, like a natural language or like the convention of money, that has evolved over time—the practical work of many hands, acting in ignorance of each other and planned by no one. So Hume could speak of “the wisdom of the British constitution, or rather the concurrence of accidents.” This notion of an objective social order created by individual intentions but intended by no one was developed by the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, who acknowledged Hume’s influence.
To understand the practice of liberty requires a connoisseur’s knowledge of its history, its current condition, and—since it is still evolving—a critical exploration of its potentialities. And that is what Hume undertook in his History of England and in many of the Essays Moral, Literary and Political. Hume hoped that a concrete understanding of the practice of liberty and its potentialities would free political discourse from Lockean and other Whiggish superstitions. These had distorted understanding of the past and present and created a paranoid style of politics.
There is a melancholy paradox in Hume’s dialectic of “true” and “false” philosophy. Since no one can be a true philosopher unless he has experienced the incoherence of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion, false philosophy can never be eliminated but only sublimated. And since the primordial disposition of philosophy is always to its corrupt forms, the eruption of false philosophy, even in the true philosopher, is always a possibility. So philosophy as such is an unstable experience—an ever-present threat to the well-being of the philosopher and society—and in need of constant moderation.
Philosophy was not a problem for ancient Greek and Roman society because few were literate and could take an interest in it and because the pagan authorities confined it to private sects. By the 18th century, however, philosophy had become a mass phenomenon shaping all aspects of culture. As Diderot said, “Let us hasten to make philosophy popular … let us approach the people where the philosophers are.” Contrast this with Hume, who contemptuously described his own time as “this philosophic age.” It was and is an age in which the world inversions of false philosophy would generate mass enthusiasms, especially in politics. King Midas would become a political leader transmuting everything he touched into a favorite philosophic superstition.
How did this happen? Hume’s answer is unexpected and turns on his understanding of the relation of philosophy to religion. Both have distinct origins in human nature. Religion springs from fear and humility, philosophy from curiosity and pride. False philosophy, said Hume, is “the Voice of Pride not Nature,” and he observes that the countless sects of philosophy in the classical world were more fanatical than ancient religious cults. The reason was that ancient religion was polytheistic and rooted in sacred traditions; as such it moved easily within the sphere of common life. Each religion could be different without being contrary.
Christianity was also rooted in sacred tradition, but unlike paganism it is universalist and cannot tolerate other religions. In this it resembles philosophy, which is also universalist and cannot tolerate the world inversions of other philosophies. When Christianity appeared, philosophy was widespread in the learned world, and so Christian sacred tradition had to defend itself with philosophical arguments. The result was theology, a merger of sacred tradition with Greek philosophy.
This was a dangerous compound because it combined the hubris of philosophy with a jealous theistic religion motivated by fear. What caused Christendom to become the scene of implacable conflict and persecution was not its content as sacred tradition but its false philosophical content sublimated in theology.
So in Christendom philosophy became the handmaiden of theology. In time it grew weary of this secondary role and by the late 17th century had freed itself from sacred tradition and appeared on the scene as the pure unmoderated philosophic act, just as it had first appeared in the ancient world. But modern social circumstances were different. In the ancient world philosophy never reached the masses. But in Christendom everyone was a theologian of sorts, and a theologian is a philosopher constrained only by sacred tradition. Unlike the ancient Greeks, all in Christendom had an ear for the philosophic idiom.
As the authority of sacred tradition waned, secular philosophical movements would take their place and battle each other for control of the state—an instrument of centralized control that was itself a creation of modern philosophy. Hume wrote: “no party, in the present age, can well support itself without a philosophical or speculative system of principles annexed to its political or practical one.”
Hume distinguished between parties of interest (for example, agricultural versus commercial), affection (loyalty to one’s people or a ruling family), and those of philosophical theory. The last were a uniquely modern phenomenon: “Parties from principle, especially abstract speculative principle, are known only to modern times, and are, perhaps, the most extraordinary and unaccountable phenomenon, that has appeared in human affairs.” Here was the first identification of that cacophony of ideologies and “isms” that would disorder modern political discourse.
Hume viewed the English Civil War as the event where the philosophic act began to break free from sacred tradition. This was possible because the authority of sacred tradition had eroded to the point that modern religion had become “nothing more than a species of philosophy.” Of Puritanism he said, “being chiefly spiritual [it] resembles more a system of metaphsyics” than a religion. Puritanism was false philosophy in a religious idiom. The Puritans, and the even more radical sects in orbit around them, did not seek reform but total transformation. And “every successive revolution became a precedent for that which followed it.”
Hume’s account of the Puritan revolution was a textbook case of false philosophy in politics—what Oakeshott would later call “rationalism in politics,” Voegelin “Gnosticism,” and Camus “metaphysical rebellion.” His History of England was popular in France and had been read for some 30 years before the Revolution. When the storm broke, both left and right viewed what was happening in France as a reenactment of the English Civil War and took Hume as a prophetic guide. The Jacobins were the Puritans, Louis XVI was Charles I, Napoleon would be Cromwell. The Catholic right held up Hume as the “Scottish Bousset.” Louis XVI, who as a boy met Hume at court, became obsessed with parallels between himself and Charles I. Upon receiving the death sentence, he asked for Hume’s volume on Charles I to read in the last days of his life.
Hume’s account of the English Civil War as an act of false philosophy in politics was a foundational text for conservatism in France. So close was the identity of Hume’s account of the Puritan revolution with the French that Joseph de Maistre, a founder of French conservatism, could title the last chapter of his popular Considerations sur la France (1796), “Fragments of a History of the French Revolution by David Hume.” Burke’s Reflections were written just as the Revolution was getting underway. The account was prophetic in part because when Burke looked at what was happening in France he saw what Hume had prepared him to see in his history of the Puritan revolution.
What does Hume’s dialectic of true and false philosophy have to do with conservatism? The term “conservatism” itself provides a clue. Other ideologies wear something of their meaning on their face. The term “liberalism” is somehow about liberty; “feminism” about the rights of women; “communism” about community; and so forth. But “conservatism” provides no indication of what is to be conserved. This vacuity, I suggest, is due to its philosophic character.
The term first appears in Chateaubriand’s counterrevolutionary Le Conservateur (1818). As a self-conscious movement, “conservatism” begins as resistance to the world-inverting ideologies of the French Revolution. It has no particular content because, as a philosophical position, what the conservative is trying to conserve is not this or that particular policy or institution but the pre-reflectively established world of common life itself against the world inversions of false philosophy.
We might call this “ontological conservatism.” The conservative tradition is true to itself only insofar as it has this ontological character. Whether this or that policy or institution should be preserved, eliminated, or reformed, is a question to be settled by Hume’s “true philosophy” within the world of common life.
Within that landscape, many particular “conservatisms” can be formed, each seeking to preserve this or that particular policy or institution. Sometimes these conservatisms are mistakenly identified with conservatism properly so called. And since false philosophy is merely a sublimated corrupt form of the philosophical act, it is always possible that any particular conservatism could be transformed into yet another philosophic superstition.
This temptation is especially strong in the United States with its doctrine of “American exceptionalism,” which holds that America is not a culture like other countries but an ideology. An American is one who subscribes to a set of abstract principles about human rights. As Lincoln said, America is “dedicated” to a “proposition.”
This is false philosophy on stilts. No country is or could be an ideology. Human rights, as abstractions formed in the philosopher’s “vacuum,” are indeterminate. No one can know what “rights” mean unless they are interpreted by an authoritative tradition. America is not and cannot be an exception to this.
Thomas Paine was a retainer of false philosophy in politics. His Common Sense was enormously successful in peddling Hobbesianism for the people in America. Even a “conservative” like Reagan was fond of quoting Paine’s claim that “we have it within our power to begin the world anew.” We have no such power. Perhaps Reagan did not mean this seriously, but he used the language of false philosophy, which should never be done, especially in a country all too readily disposed to it. That language inclines one to invert the meanings of things, occlude our true political condition, and set thought off on a false path.
So it was that Reagan accomplished very little of what he said he would do. His tax cuts did grow the economy, but he did not reduce the size of government. Indeed, it grew so large as to make resistance to the profligate spending of the two Bushes and Obama politically impossible, and this has led to a revolution in centralized power. He did not eliminate the Department of Education; did not appoint non-activist Supreme Court justices; and did not advance a conservative social agenda.
It is true the Soviet Union collapsed, but not because of Reagan’s military buildup. It collapsed under its own unwieldy and corrupt bulk. And the collapse occurred under the bewildered eyes of American “Soviet experts” who did not have a clue that the fall was coming. Looking back, it is clear that the economic and political strength of the USSR was vastly overestimated. It is not unreasonable to suggest that this spectacular failure to grasp reality was due to the Cold War ideological narrative of a global struggle between two philosophically incommensurable political systems. To believe there was such a struggle was to presume a rough parity of power, even if the facts pointed in a different direction.
Those who nostalgically extol Reagan as the paradigm of a lost conservatism ignore his failures to “methodize and correct” the actual political practices that he aimed to reform. What they recall instead is the spirited language of philosophic superstition: the upbeat and hubristic language of beginning the world anew, of American exceptionalism, of the first universalist nation, of the city on a hill with a mission to spread American-style democracy around the globe. And it is these symbols that have encouraged and nourished the bellicose politics of neoconservatism.
Although conservatism originated in a critique of false philosophy in politics, it is as much disposed to that pathology as other political systems. And use of the word “conservative” makes the pathology more difficult to detect. De Maistre went to Russia after the French Revolution hoping, he said, to find a country not “scribbled on by philosophy.” What he found instead was a Russian intelligentsia eagerly embracing the philosophic superstitions of the French Enlightenment. Hume recognized—much earlier than de Maistre—that we live in the first “philosophic age.” There is no longer a country not scribbled on by philosophy. The only question is whether it will be written on by a true or corrupt form of the philosophical act.
Donald W. Livingston is professor of philosophy at Emory University and the author of Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy.