The First Conservative: David Hume Uncovered the Roots of Revolution in False Philosophy

By Livingston, Donald W. | The American Conservative, August 2011 | Go to article overview

The First Conservative: David Hume Uncovered the Roots of Revolution in False Philosophy


Livingston, Donald W., The American Conservative


The conservative political tradition is usually thought to begin with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke observed that the revolution did not aim at reforming society but at overturning the entire social and political order and replacing it with one grounded in man's natural "reason." He offered this quote from a leader in the National Assembly: "All the establishments in France crown the unhappiness of the people: to make them happy they must be renewed, their ideas, their laws, their customs, words changed ... destroy everything; yes destroy everything; then everything is to be renewed."

Burke saw that total criticism demands total transformation, which demands total control. All the horrors of the "totalitarian" regimes of the 20th century were intimated in Burke's insight into the French Revolution. If conservatism is to have any intellectual content--if it is to be something other than a disposition to look with suspicion on serious change to the status quo (which would mean that any regime in power is "conservative")--it must be resistance to the spiritual and intellectual pathology Burke put his finger on.

Later thinkers would deepen Burke's critique, notably Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, Albert Camus, Gerhart Niemeyer, and especially Eric Voegelin. But it was the Scottish philosopher David Hume, writing some 50 years before Burke's Reflections, who first identified the pathology. And unlike Burke, whose criticism was mainly rhetorical, Hume worked out a systematic philosophical critique that explained the roots of the pathology, its origin in human nature, its psychology, and its destructive exemplifications in modern culture.

Voegelin viewed modern secular ideologies such as Marxism as latter day forms of the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism. Hume identified them not as deformations of religion but as corruptions of philosophy itself.

Hume forged a distinction in his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), between "true" and "false" philosophy. The philosophical act of thought has three constituents. First, it is inquiry that seeks an unconditioned grasp of the nature of reality. The philosophical question takes the form: "What ultimately is X?" Second, in answering such questions the philosopher is only guided by his autonomous reason. He cannot begin by assuming the truth of what the poets, priests, or founders of states have said. To do so would be to make philosophy the handmaiden of religion, politics, or tradition. Third, philosophical inquiry, aiming to grasp the ultimate nature of things and guided by autonomous reason, has a title to dominion. As Plato famously said, philosophers should be kings.

Yet Hume discovered that the principles of ultimacy, autonomy, and dominion, though essential to the philosophical act, are incoherent with human nature and cannot constitute an inquiry of any kind. If consistently pursued, they entail total skepticism and nihilism. Philosophers do not end in total skepticism, but only because they unknowingly smuggle in their favorite beliefs from the prejudices of custom, passing them off as the work of a pure, neutral reason. Hume calls this "false philosophy" because the end of philosophy is self-knowledge, not self-deception.

The "true philosopher" is one who consistently follows the traditional conception of philosophy to the bitter end and experiences the dark night of utter nihilism. In this condition all argument and theory is reduced to silence. Through this existential silence and despair the philosopher can notice for the first time that radiant world of pre-reflectively received common life which he had known all along through participation, but which was willfully ignored by the hubris of philosophical reflection.

It is to this formerly disowned part of experience that he now seeks to return. Yet he also recognizes that it was the philosophic act that brought him to this awareness, so he cannot abandon inquiry into ultimate reality, as the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics and their postmodern progeny try to do. …

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