Conservatism and the Modern Academy
There is a persistent lament among conservative academics that they are discriminated against in the modern academy. This lament has become so strong that they argue for hiring more conservatives through
an affirmative action progam, that is, ‘viewpoint diversity’ in the academy.
As it happens, I know some conservative academics who have experienced persistent discrimination in the academy or felt silenced in the context of group conformism. So what follows is not to make light of their experiences. Nor do I wish to deny the plausibility of models that show that even modest inequality in group resources and relatively neutral hiring patterns can entrench local hierarchies all other things being equal.
But while teaching a course on high minded twentieth century conservatism (so its theories not its politics or culture wars), I noticed that conservatism’s relationship to modern science is complex. By this I do not mean to be discussing (the ‘young earth’ or not) creationists or populist/new-age antivaxxers. Nor do I intend to revisit the Galileo affair. In my view, most enduring, broad religions make their peace with modern science or have rather isolatable disagreements.* So, this piece is not intended to contribute to existing culture wars.
What I have in mind, then, is conservatism’s relationship to bread and butter social science. This is not as narrow as it sounds. In many universities the social sciences are the largest departments as measured by enrollments. (Sometimes, when there are huge nursing schools, health sciences are larger.) The social sciences have incredibly diversity of methods; they are often quite competitive even dismissive toward each other (listen to what economists have to say about sociologists, etc.). But they do all rest on the advanced cognitive division of labor and commitment to empirical enquiry or modeling in various was. There are, of course, taxonomic problems lurking here: is history a social science? Are the postmodern strains in geography? I leave the classifications aside.
Now, despite the huge diversity of conservative viewpoints during the twentieth century, as a whole they are remarkably hostile to normal social science. The important exception — certain brands of libertarianism within economics — are not fundamentally conservative (Oakeshott calls them ‘rationalist’ for a reason) —; and nearly all leaders of libertarianism understand themselves as (classical) liberals (including writing helpful essays with titles like “Why I am not a Conservative”).
The conservative criticism of social science is not merely directed at collectivism (e.g., Marxism or Keynesianism), but also at positivism, value-free science, nihilism, paternalism, relativism, social engineering, technocracy, meritocracy, and so on; many of these ills are claimed to be immanent in whole range of policy sciences. A spectacular example of such a conservative program of critique is visible in Herbert Storing’s (1962) collection Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics.
Often the most profound conservative critics are quite perceptive about the epistemological or methodological or evidential limitations of (then) state of the art social science. As a philosopher of social science, I always learn from the best among them. I would argue that all social sciences should have in-house critics be they conservative, Marxist, statistical, or simply heterodox social scientists (see here for the argument co-written with Lefevere).
But there are two fundamental converging problems lurking here. The first one is related to the implied consideration of the previous paragraph. That is, conservative critics of social science fundamentally reject the advanced cognitive division of labor and the practices of mutual deference or restraint that these rely on. This is why, incidentally, in culture war contexts, ‘authority loathing bros with a PhD’ make such good common cause with authority admiring, soft-spoken and polite conservative critics of scientific elites.
But in virtue of rejecting the cognitive division of labor, conservatives become (if unable to maintain disciplined self-command) widely despised pests within a social science program. For their criticism is never ‘constructive’—to facilitate better practices; it is rejectionist in character. It is always about ‘fundamentals’ or ‘epistemology.’ But one need not be a neo-Kantian or Kuhnian to recognize that most bread and butter social science is only possible if quite a bit of such fundamentals are simply taken for granted most of the time.
Second, the most powerful class of conservative criticisms of social sciences is not that they facilitate unintended consequences or a cycle of ever worse policy failures (in which new policy intensifies and renews the old failures). Rather, the most powerful critiques by conservatives go back to Nietzsche’s observation that science itself expresses an unhealthy mind and, then, for good measure the conservative adds that science(s) makes us (qua individuals or societies) worse off along (ahh) the variables (that was a joke!) that truly matter. Lurking in here is the thought that science produces self-undermining states of affairs.
Gertrude Himmelfarb (herself a very fine historian) puts the underlying point I am trying to gesture at as follows, the “modern sensibility” shaped by social science “can” when it is not corporate newspeak “only register failure, not success, as if modernity has bequeathed to us a social conscience that is unappeasable and inconsolable.” ("The idea of poverty." History Today 34.4 (1984): 30.) Intellectual conservatives may well add that this restlessness just is Hobbes’s recipe for life in even the most rule governed state. That is to say, underlying authentic conservativism is some variant on the thought that social science is a disease of and contributes to the diseased or corrupted nature of modernity.
I close with two observations: if I am right about the foregoing it is, first, really no surprise that conservatism went dormant in contemporary social science. The ethos or worldview is simply incompatible with the practice. Of course, some isolated individuals are quite capable of bracketing such things.
But, second, it also helps explain the intensity of the culture wars over the humanities. For while conservatism, on the view presented here, has existential tensions with the ordinary practice of bread and butter social science, it is actually quite compatible with the Humanities and has a natural home in quite a few of these (including history, the arts, literature, and some branches of philosophy). (Some of my Marxist and/or underemployed readers will hasten to add that they indeed, the Humanities are highly conservative bastions of false consciousness.)
Because conservatives feel in clear retreat from the Humanities, their home turf, this is why it’s natural to assume that it is politics that is driving them out. (I am neither endorsing or rejecting this view.) The consequence of this diagnosis is, when not despair and resignation or relentless almost hysterical criticism of the existing humanities, too often (‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend') common cause made with authoritarian anti-intellectuals with a destructive contempt for true learning and the independence of mind it facilitates.
*Some smaller religious communities may be persistently hostile to modern medicine or technologies or some such, but I view those (Christian science, the Amish) as outliers.