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What is Conservatism?

  • John Kekes (a1)

The voice of conservatism is not much heard in contemporary political philosophy. There is no shortage of conservatives, but there is a shortage of systematic, articulate, and reasonable attempts to defend conservatism. The aim of this paper is to provide the outlines of such a defence. It is not possible, in a paper, to provide more than an outline. The argument proceeds by identifying several features of what is taken to be thestrongest version of conservatism. These features jointly define it and distinguish it from other versions of conservatism, as well as from other political outlooks.

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* It is odd but necessary to begin with a note about the Notes. In several of the notes conservative views will be attributed tovarious people. This is not meant to imply that the people who hold these views are conservatives. They are conservative in respect to these views, but they also hold other views, and they may or may not be conservative. It is often very difficult to say whether or not a person is conservative, especially since few of the people referred to were concerned with formulating an explicit political morality.

1 This discussion is provided in the author's Conservatism: A Moral Basis for a Good Society, work-in-progress.

2 This conception of good lives is described and defended in John Kekes, Moral Wisdom and Good Lives, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), see especially chapter 2.

3 Reliable accounts of some of these disagreements may be found in Noel O'Sullivan, Conservatism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976) and Anthony Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection (London: Faber & Faber, 1978). For general surveys and bibliographies of conservative ideas, see Kenneth Minogue, ‘Conservatism,’ Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, (New York: Macmillan, 1967),Anthony O'Hear, ‘Conservatism,’ The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, (Oxford University Press, 1995),Anthony Quinton, ’ A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, edited by Gooden Robert E. & Philip Pettit (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), andRudolf Vierhaus, ‘Conservatism,’ Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Wiener Philip P., (New York: Scribner's, 1968). Two useful anthologies of conservatives writings are Russell Kirk, Conservative Reader, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982) and Roger Scruton, Conservative Texts, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991). Some of the classic works that have influenced the development of conservatism are Plato's Republic,Aristotle's Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, and Rhetoric,Machiavelli's The Prince and Discourses,Montaigne's Essays,Hobbes's Leviathan,Hume's Treatise, Enquiries, Essays, and History of England,Burke's Reflections on the Revolutionin France,Tocqueville's Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution,Hegel's Philosophy of Right,Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,Bradley's Ethical Studies,Santayana's Dominations and Powers,Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty, and Oakeshott's Rationalism in Politics and On Human Conduct.

4 This is the view of many religious conservatives mainly, but not exclusively, in the Catholic tradition. Perhaps the most uncompromising representative of this view is Joseph de Maistre, Works, selected, translated, and introduced by Lively J., (London: Allen & Unwin, 1965). For surveys and bibliographies divided along national lines, see O'Sullivan , Conservatism, chapter 2 for France and chapter 3 for Germany;Klemens von Klemperer, Germany's NewConservatism (Princeton University Press, 1957) for Germany; Quinton , The Politics for Imperfection for England;Kirk , The Conservative Mind, for England and America;Dunn Charles W. & Woodward J. David, The Conservative Tradition in America (Lanham, Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield, 1996),East John P., The American Conservative Movement (Chicago: Regnery, 1986),Nash George H., The Conservative Intellectual Movementin America (New York: Basic Books, 1976), and Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), second revised edition for America.

5 The roots of sceptical conservatism are to be foundscattered in Montaigne's Essays,Hobbes's Leviathan,Hume's Treatise, Enquiries, Essays, and History of England,Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France,Tocqueville's Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution,Santayana's Dominations and Powers, and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty. On Montaigne's conservatism, see John Kekes, The Examined Life (University Park: Penn State Press, 1992), chapter 4; on Hobbes's conservatism, see Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974); on Hume's conservatism, see Shirley Robin Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty, (Cambridge University Press,1965), part I, Livingston Donald.W, Hume's Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), chapter 12, and Wolin Sheldon S., ‘Hume and Conservatism,’ American Political Science Review, vol. 98 (12 1954), pp. 9991016; on Tocqueville's conservatism, see Roger Boesche, The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987,Frohnen , Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism, and Kahan Alan S., Aristocratic Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); on Santayana's conservatism, see John Gray, ‘George Santayana and the Critique of Liberalism,’ The World and I(02 1989), pp. 593607; on Wittgenstein's conservatism, see Charles Covell, The Redefinition of Conservatism, chapter 1 and Nyiri J. C., ‘Wittgenstein's Later Work in Relation to Conservatism’ in Wittgenstein and His Times, edited by Brian McGuinness, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982). Some contemporary sceptical conservative works are Lincoln Allison, Right Principles (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984),John Gray, Liberalisms (London: Routledge, 1989),Post-liberalism, (New York: Routledge, 1993), and Beyond the New Right (London: Routledge, 1993),Shirley Robin Letwin, The Gentleman in Trollope (Cambridge: Harvard, 1982);Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and On Human Conduct.

6 For historical surveys of absolutist conservatism, see Note 4 above. Some contemporary absolutist conservative works are John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980) and Fundamentals of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983),Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Morality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988),Veatch Henry B., Human Rights (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), and Eric Voegelin, Order in History, 5 vols, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1954-1987).

7 The historical origins of relativistic conservatism are to be found in Giambattista Vico, New Science,Johann Gottfried von Herder, Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind,Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, 18 vols, (Stuttgart: B. G. Teubner and Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1914-1977), and, a step removed, in Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. This tradition is most illuminatingly treated by Karl Mannheim, ‘Conservative Thought,’ in Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology, edited by Paul Kecskemeti, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), and by Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’ in Against the Current, edited by Henry Hardy, (New York: Viking, 1980) and Vico and Herder, (London: Hogarth, 1976).See also Michae Earmarth, Wilhelm Dilthey: The Critique of Historical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

8 Contemporary works of pluralistic conservatism by and large coincide with those of sceptical conservatism, see Note 5 above. For an account of pluralism in general, see John Kekes, The Morality of Pluralism (Princeton University Press, 1993) and Nicholas Rescher, Pluralism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

9 For a general account of the political significance of human nature for politics, see Berry Christopher J., Human Nature (London: Macmillan, 1986). For the specific connection between human nature and conservatism, see Berry Christopher J., “Conservatism and Human Nature” in Politics and Human Nature, edited by Ian Forbes and Steve Smith, (London: Frances Pinter, 1983).

10 Traditionalism is an expression that does not appear in any of the works listed below, but the position defended in them is very close to traditionalism so it is perhaps justified to claim affinity with them. See Francis Herbert Bradley, Ethical Studies, second edition, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), essays 5–6;John Kekes, Moral Tradition and Individuality (Princeton University Press, 1989);Alastair Maclntyre, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988);Oakeshott , On Human Conduct, and Scruton , The Meaning of Conservatism.

11 For an account of tradition in general, see Edward Shils, Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1981).See also John Casey, ‘Tradition and Authority,’ in Conservative Essays, edited by Maurice Cowling, (London: Cassell, 1978),Thomas Steams Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975) and Maclntyre , After Virtue, chapter 15.

12 By O'Sullivan , Conservatism, chapter 1 and Quinton, The Politics of Imperfection.

13 This sort of pessimism may be found in the tragedies of Sophocles, especially in Antigone,Thucydides , The Peloponnesian War,Machiavelli , The Prince and The Discourses,Montaigne , Essays,Stephen , Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,Bradley , Ethical Studies, essay VII, and Santayana , Dominations and Powers.A recent statement of it is John Kekes, Facing Evil, (Princeton University Press, 1990).

14 The author gratefully acknowledges the Editor's comments that helped to strengthen the argument.

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