The Pragmatism of Russell Kirk

August 23, 2007

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Russell Kirk is in the news again, and it does my heart good. If I were to attempt to write of what I owe this great man’s writings and example I would be indulging my ego at the reader’s expense, something I am sure Kirk would gently deprecate. Let me tell you rather of how he fits into the big picture of American intellectual history, my big picture at any rate. He is an oracle to many who call themselves conservatives and a bugbear to many who do not, and to the neocons as well. But many of us for whom ideology is not a matter of ultimate concern, as it was not for Kirk himself, don’t know quite what to make of the man.


  

I am an historian of American pragmatism—I admit it—so I will discuss Kirk in terms of our native school of philosophy, even though John Dewey was the poster child for all Kirk rightly detested, and the late Richard Rorty was even worse. If all you have is a hammer all the world is one great nail, but the case of my own move from Kirkian conservatism to Peircean pragmatism (and back?—but I never went away!) may be of interest to students of American philosophy who find the conservative movement beneath notice, and to conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.


  

Kirk was the philosopher of the moral imagination. Not only did he identify and explicate those thinkers of the past who worked in the moral imagination; moral imagination was the method with which he himself confronted the world. Some will say that the word method is too definite a term, but I cannot agree. Moral imagination, as Kirk exemplified it, and recognized and elucidated it in earlier writers, is precisely what his beloved, now Venerable, and soon (Deo volente) Blessed Cardinal Newman analyzed in the Grammar of Assent, which had guided Newman into the Catholic Church (as it would guide Kirk) during the writing of his Development of Doctrine.


  

The story goes back to Sam Coleridge—you know, who stoppeth one of three, that fellow. Sam didn’t like the Britannica: too enlightened, too alphabetical, too Scottish. So he started his own project, the Encyclopedia Metropolitana: systematic in organization, orthodox Christian in tone, and representing the best minds of London, Cambridge, and Oxford. One of the latter was Richard Whately, who was assigned to cover two thirds of the Scholastic trivium, the Elements of Logic and Rhetoric; Whately in turn farmed out part of the Logic to a former student, the Rev. John H. Newman, then of the Established church. The Encyclopedia as a whole didn’t sell, but these two volumes did, like hotcakes. In America. As textbooks. And so the Elements of Logic found their way into the home of Professor Benjamin Peirce of Cambridge Mass. and into the hands of his precocious son Charles, who was never the same.


  

Charles Sanders Peirce went on to become the father of American philosophy. (There are days I acknowledge Emerson; this isn’t one of them.) In 1867 and 1868 he began to give out the broad picture of his way of thinking, which, he argues, is pretty much the way we all think when we really think. For him the art of discovering reality isn’t a matter of empirical observation or rational deduction, though these are of course indispensable, but more the weighing of converging independent probabilities. This is something he had picked up from Whately’s (and Newman’s) Elements of Logic, but was now able to show is the way real work is done in the hard sciences, in which he made his living. He also argued that what passes for philosophy has been on the wrong track since the end of the Middle Ages, and that if philosophers wanted to be modern in the sense of being scientific, they needed to go back to the methods of scholasticism.


  

By the 1870s Peirce was calling his philosophy pragmatism, and explaining it as the theory that the meaning of an idea is the sum of its consequences, the infinite total of what the world would be like if it were true. Of course people got this wrong. First of all Peirce’s student John Dewey and an Englishman named Schiller, who would go on to write an amusing history of philosophy in limericks. Then (stab in the back!) his old friend Willy James, who began by distinguishing Peirce’s theory of meaning from the Schiller-Dewey theory of truth, but then proceeded to confuse them again. James got rich and famous, or at least richer and more famous, with his book on Pragmatism, which held that truth is nothing more than what happens to work for you. Mussolini loved it. (Dewey’s admirers tended more toward Stalinism.) Of course, dressed up in European jargon, this is the line of blather that too many college kids have to master, or at least parrot, to pass freshman English these days.


  

Of course one Peircean pragmatist did get extensive coverage in The Conservative Mind: Jorge Ruiz de Santayana. And any number of conservatives have followed in the footsteps of Caleb Wetherbee, the most engaging character in Santayana’s masterpiece The Last Puritan, who finds his New England destiny in the medieval remnants of the Roman Catholic Church. While I am glad Kirk was steeped in Santayana, I do wish that he had been able to pay more attention to Josiah Royce. When I first studied American philosophy some four decades ago Royce was consigned to the first volume of the source book, as an Idealist, which was almost as bad as a Transcendentalist; it is the second volume, with Peirce, James, and Dewey, that we were required to buy. You wouldn’t have guessed that Royce had studied at the Hopkins when Peirce was teaching there, that The Religious Aspect of Philosophy was in part an intelligent critique of Peirce’s theory of knowledge, or that by the end of his life Peirce considered Royce to be the only real pragmatist besides himself.


  

I understand that many Conservatives have little time and even less patience for philosophy as such, but I would still urge anyone with a serious interest in the roots of Conservative thought in America to pay close attention at least to Royce’s three greatest classics of moral imagination, The Philosophy of Loyalty, Sources of Religious Insight, and The Problem of Christianity—especially the latter, in view of the way M. L. King misused the central idea of the Beloved Community. (Santayana, like the other great Harvard philosophers of his generation, studied with both James and Royce. But the best known Roycean is no doubt the Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel, whose dissertation on the American pragmatic idealist is generally neglected.)


  

Granted, Russell Kirk is not the sole fons et origo of recent American Conservatism; there is also Richard Weaver, who deserves a chapter of his own. But I can’t resist anticipating that here by noting that Weaver’s eloquent and indeed notorious denunciation of William of Occam might have been written by Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce thought (quite rightly) that pragmatism simply couldn’t work without the kind of metaphysical realism most of us were taught to believe Occam had destroyed forever, for example the realism of John Duns Scotus, which Peirce championed. (In some ways Peirce was himself closer to St. Thomas Aquinas, but we don’t need to go into that here.)


  

But where was Charlie Peirce getting this stuff? Not from the Vatican, for sure—even the popes weren’t there yet. Of course there was his experience as a working scientist, and the daily realization that the realities that forced themselves on his attention, the periodic table of the chemical elements, for example, were anything but figments of human imagination. But long before he set foot in the laboratory, at least as a professional, there was one great influence that would have tickled Kirk no end, an old tome called The True Intellectual System of the UniverseRalph Cudworth‘s refutation of Thomas Hobbes. The same Harvard library copy, I would like to think, that had similarly inspired the young Waldo Emerson a generation before. In any case, the great monument of Anglican Neo-Platonism, the tradition in which Richard Weaver would take his stand, like Kirk’s beloved Paul Elmer More.


  

In so far as it is an ideology, conservatism belongs to the modern age, as well as to Modern Age. But, as Gerald Russello’s recent insightful study shows, Russell Kirk’s moral imagination is distinctly postmodern. To see what this means, we need to go back to Charles Peirce’s attempt to identify and remedy the characteristic errors of modern philosophy, which render it unfit company for modern science. (Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into that now.) Kirk’s work was, after all, contemporary with that of such figures as Herbert Marshall McLuhan, Father Walter Ong, Theodore Roszak, E. F. Schumacher, and Gregory Bateson, who represent the first stirrings of an explicitly postmodern consciousness, and he was himself a kind of protege of Canon Bernard Bell, as was the Reverend Alan Watts before the latter swallowed and was hooked on the lure of guruism. In retrospect we can see much of the not so new New Age Movement as a half-assed attempt to leave modernity behind in flights of moral imagination separated if not divorced from much of what most folks have always recognized as morality—though it must be admitted that traditional moral principles regarding war and peace and race relations were honored more consistently by many New Agers than by some of the “silent majority.” In this connection, recall, if you will, that the politician who represented the best of the generation of ‘68 was Eugene McCarthy, a friend of Kirk’s.


  

The American of conservative disposition and sentiment finds himself at a bit of a loss these days. Words that once meant something to him have become slogans of profoundly alien import. He needs Russell Kirk, among others, to recover the true resonance of conservative thought. He also needs to find ways to relate himself and the tradition in which he stands to the postmodern culture of the day, and, indeed, to the broad sweep of American life and thought over the last century and a half. I have argued here that Kirk can help us do this, once we see him as an embodiment of what is best in the mainstream of the American philosophical tradition, a school of thought rightly called pragmatism however the Rortys may misappropriate the term. When we have claimed the pragmatic movement for Kirkian conservatism, we have rich resources at our disposal, not only Peirce, Royce, and Santayana, but such lesser known (alas) figures as Ernest Hocking, Clarence Lewis, and Brand Blanshard, and the Quaker philosopher, educator, and mystic Rufus Jones. When we freely embrace an American intellectual past of all but unbelievable richness, the future will be ours. If we can do this we must thank Russell Kirk, and we owe it to him to make a start.

Frank Purcell is a philosophy teacher in New York City. Photo courtesy of the Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

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