January 31, 2010

"Life is full of things which don't lend themselves to precise definition"

Macklin Horton has a very good piece on what conservatism is, Catholic and Conservative (1):

...My opponents in the disagreement documented above seem to believe that it [conservatism] is, or at least intends to be, a systematic philosophy, which makes it a rival to the Church, which in turn makes a Catholic who is also a conservative less than fully faithful to the Church because, as we all know, a man cannot serve two masters. They also insist that it fails as a system, because it is full of contradictions and inconsistencies; it is not only a rival to the Church, but an incoherent one.

I have to say that the attempt to respond to this complaint reminded me of arguing with objectivists, in that in both cases there is an insistence that certain terms must be defined with absolute precision or be dismissed as meaningless. The statement that the word "conservative" does not have a very precise meaning is taken as an admission that it has no meaning at all.

But life is full of things which don't lend themselves to precise definition, but yet exist, thereby making meaningful the words by which they are named. There are many such terms in the arts. Terms like "romantic" and "classical" cannot be defined in such a way that as to remove all doubt about whether or not any given work belongs to one of those categories, and there are others that are even more slippery—post-romantic, neo-classical, jazz. There are very few, if any, artists or individual works of art which fit perfectly into any of these categories, or which does not contain elements of both. Yet we continue to use these words because they serve a purpose in describing broad tendencies. If a critic describes one pianist's playing as more romantic than another's, everyone knows what he means; no one shouts Define your terms! And if he did, he would be laughed at, and deserve to be.

In answering the question "what sort of thing is conservatism?" these aesthetic terms provide the most useful analogy I've been able to come up with. Like them, the word "conservative" is more descriptive than prescriptive (as conservatives often note). Like them, it does not begin with a set of abstract principles. Like them, it is more understandable as a product of temperament and attitudes than as a book of rules. As Russell Kirk insisted, it is not an ideology, but rather the negation of ideology. It is a concrete human phenomenon, not an invented system. It has no necessary metaphysic, and one may be a conservative and an atheist, or a conservative and a Catholic. It is a loose alliance of people with broadly similar views about the management of worldly affairs....
Posted by John Weidner at January 31, 2010 8:42 PM
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