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Theorists of the Poison Pill

For the conservative theorists of the poison pill, everything becomes about ideas. According to them, Ockham, Scotus, Bacon, Descartes, Locke—they are the important bad guys who determined the decadence of our time and the problems we should be talking about. But ideas don’t work this way; reality does not proceed with perfect logic like it so conveniently does in the textbooks.

In the early 2000s I attended a conference in Chicago at which one presenter began his talk with something like the following: “I brought my daughter on the trip with me, thinking she’d be interested in the Art Institute and the Field Museum. Instead, she asked if I would drop her off at the shopping mall. Damn that Duns Scotus!”

Perhaps the joke seems unfunny, or incomprehensible. But the conference was largely populated by students and readers of Stanley Hauerwas and the Radical Orthodoxy project, which I was then studying. For the leading lights of Radical Orthodoxy, Duns Scotus, the thirteenth century theologian, was peculiarly responsible for modernity’s ills. Their “Scotus Story,” as some termed it, blamed Scotus for an immanentized metaphysics in which God became just another entity in the world, an error which cannot but lead to deism, atheism, secularism, fideism, voluntarism, nominalism, liberalism, capitalism, neoliberalism, and all the other nasty -isms we now suffer. I exaggerate only slightly with my list, and the speaker’s joke was a wry targeting of the excesses of the “Scotus Story.” My daughter wants to go to the mall and consume sugary drinks and purchase cheaply made clothes? Duns Scotus is responsible for all that is wrong: blame him!

The Intellectual Historian’s Temptation

As it turns out, there is some truth to the story; Scotism is discernible in certain aspects of modernity. Still, and here’s the warning implicit in the joke, it’s a stretch to think that real history, the way things actually happen, follows a clear linear and logical path as might appear on paper. Intellectual historians are sometimes tempted to assume that the influence of an idea flows like a logical deduction—x necessitates y, and y entails z—such that the way we think in 2022 was all but pre-ordained by a medieval treatise. The temptation conflates influence with causation, as if Thomas Jefferson’s having read Francis Bacon means the Declaration of Independence might as well be ascribed to Bacon. And since Bacon writes about Scotus the Declaration is really Scotism, as all educated people should know. The line from Scotus to Planned Parenthood v. Casey is a direct line (apparently), with Casey implicit in Scotus like a the germ of seed that will inevitably sprout with time.

A certain type of conservative seems inclined to do intellectual history in this way, perhaps motivated by that nostalgic sense that things used to be better but went wrong somehow. Thinking thus, it’s all but natural to look for causes and find a villain who is the cause. Scotus, Ockham, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, or Rousseau, one of them must be the linchpin, some nefarious idea of theirs is the poison pill inadvertently swallowed by the Founders, dooming us all.

 

A one-time classic in American conservative circles, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, succumbs to the temptation. It begins: “This is another book about the dissolution of the West. . . . I present an account of that decline based not on analogy but on deduction.” While Weaver notes that “man is free” and the current situation is thus not of “necessity but of unintelligent choice,” he nonetheless favors deduction. Deduction deals with necessity: if the premises are true and the logic valid, a deduction follows necessarily. Indeed, Weaver instantly turns choice itself into something more like a premise than an act of volition:

Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. . . . It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. . . . from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence. . . . the conscious policies of men and governments are . . . deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.

According to Weaver, it wasn’t Scotus but William of Ockham who “propounded the fateful doctrine” leading to “the train of circumstances which have with perfect logic proceeded” to our current malaise. The key to note, I suggest, is the centrality given to “ideas,” “beliefs,” “world view,” and “doctrines.” It’s all ideas that have consequence, and ideas that proceed with deductive necessity, leading inexorably to the final cause implicit in the origin.

This is history on paper; history as logic. It’s a bad way to do history, but has become pervasive among conservative intellectuals.

Some years ago, Richard Rorty, certainly a man of the left, distinguished four genres of “the historiography of philosophy.” I’m interested in one of the genres, “geistesgeschichte,” the history of mind or history of spirit, which tells the big stories of culture, particularly how important philosophers are identified and the canon of philosophy created. Some intellectual history attempts to understand the ins and outs of a philosopher’s arguments; rather than working through the minutiae of the inner workings of, say, Plato on the immortality of the soul, geistesgeschichte provides a sweeping account of Plato’s “image of philosophy.” It accounts for who and what shapes the discipline, and what matters within it. While a scientist needn’t justify his work by linking his experiments to those of Galileo, a philosopher of this sort will link her arguments to Aristotle or Spinoza, thereby justifying that her work occurs within the space of the canon and is thus genuine philosophy. Geistesgeschichte, claims Rorty, grants some thinkers the status of deciding “what is worth thinking about,” what questions “tie us together with our ancestors.”

Weaver provides a geistesgeschichte, albeit the hall of shame rather than of honor. Ockham, Scotus, Bacon, Descartes, Locke—these are the bad guys, but they are the important bad guys who determined the decadence of our time and the problems we should be talking about. Weaver is hardly alone among conservatives in using this genre, and the current debates on liberalism and post-liberalism reveal an overwhelmingly strong tendency in this direction. There was, it is claimed, some sort of poison pill in the Founding, or in Locke, or Adam Smith. The contagion of transgenderism was built into the logic, as inevitable as the resting place of the pool balls at the moment of the break. If we wish to correct our moment, we must understand the villains of the canon.

Paper Politics

On the one hand, there is something genuinely conservative about all this. (I refer to the shape or form of the thought, not the content of the claims.) It assumes a kind of tradition-constituted rationality, it tells a narrative that places arguments within a whole rather than atomistically. It is normative, and is thus far thicker than the watery stuff of instrumental rationality and logic-chopping.

On the other hand, there is something non-conservative at play. As someone who thinks Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics should be required reading, I believe the deductive necessity implied by these conservative narratives of decline smacks of inverted progressivism, the flip side of “right side of history” thinking. If progressivism in its most unsophisticated moments thinks history without a providential God dialectically marches toward progress, and that being on the “wrong side of history” is meaningful, then this kind of traditionalism also views history as determined by choices and policies made in the fourteenth or eighteenth century. These choices, as Weaver put it, “with perfect logic proceeded” to whatever moral horrors we now experience.

The poison-pill story of America, so prevalent in some circles just now, deserves a sarcastic “damn that Duns Scotus” response. It’s paper politics; the politics of the seminar room where a chalkboard draws straight and unveering lines from Locke to Obergefell and betrays a subterranean rationalism. This politics uses what Oakeshott termed “well trained” rather than “educated” minds, a sort of machine-like understanding of the mind—a geistesgeschichte of history determined by what is logically entailed, on paper, by ideas and beliefs.

For the conservative theorists of the poison pill, everything becomes about ideas. It is ideas that have consequences, for good or ill, and as their diagnosis is about voluntarism, nominalism, secularism—ideas and systems—so their prescription is also about ideas. If only we had the right understanding of the common good, if only we had a political vision that included God, if only we had a summum bonum expressly articulated, then we could chart a path to recovery with the same logical necessity as the causes of our decline.

 

This mania for ideas also misconstrues the plausibility of rebuilding society. Conservatism, as Oakeshott notes, is disinclined to base “the proper organization of a society and the conduct of its affairs . . . upon abstract principles” instead of concrete practices “to be rummaged for,” muddled through long experience. But when the theorists’ proposed solutions are met with skepticism, some insist upon the possibility of rapid improvements based upon their imagined abstractions. Even though the concrete political situation, things as they really are, appears poorly disposed to their ideas’ gaining traction, they ask us to not succumb to the current reality. Big changes do sometimes happen, after all, and we can get busy working on our concrete plans, if only we have the summum bonum in our mind’s-eye. Oakeshott and Burke, who insist on prudence and scorn paper politics, are deemed quaint and defeatist; their followers, it is claimed, will complicitly drift along the currents of history until the illiberal left’s total victory. Burke’s little platoons are replaced by administrators with proper ideas, politicians-as-engineers, who, like all rationalists, impatiently demand perfection instead of the long work of prudence and the politics of reality.

That is, these conservatives construct paper cities, at times scorning their more cautious friends and allies for their insistence on civil society, the concrete, and prudential politics. Sure, it works in practice, they seem to say, but does it work in theory? Still, ideas don’t work this way; reality does not proceed with perfect logic like it so conveniently does in the textbooks. It has been the genius of conservatives to insist on this point whenever it is obscured: because they are untried and unexperienced, the presumption is against textbook theories, however elegant or intellectually exciting. As Socrates noted after building his perfect city in speech, since “the nature of acting” attains “less truth than speaking,” it is best to make the smallest changes, the most cautious changes, in our attempt to approximate the truth into the actual city. Speech is fine, but it remains just that—speech.

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