The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke

The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke

The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke

The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke


The most recent commentators on Edmund Burke have renewed the charge that his political thought lacks the consistency and coherency necessary to even claim the status of a political philosophy and that he is indeed a "utilitarian." They mark him off as an "ideologist," a "rhetorician," and a "deliberate propagandist." Even Burke¿s Reflections on the Revolution in France, his most profound statement of a political philosophy, is regarded by some as a work of mere "persuasion," not "philosophy." All this occurs in spite of the seminal work of Stanlis, Canavan, and Wilkins, who in the 1950s and ¿60s, demonstrated the natural law foundations of Burke¿s politics. Burke revisionists, forced to acknowledge his use of the "natural law," label such use as a rhetorical means for utilitarian ends. Directly opposed to this renewed "utilitarian" interpretation of Burke is Joseph Pappin¿s work The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke. Not only does this work challenge the "utilitarian" view of Burke, it sets out, as not other work on Burke has attempted to do, "to make explicit the implicit metaphysical core of Burke¿s political thought." Pappin does this by examining both Burke¿s critics and Burke¿s own attack on a rationalist, ideologically inspired metaphysics. Drawing from Burke¿s vast writings, Pappin establishes as his goal "to demonstrate that Burke¿s political philosophy is grounded in a realist metaphysic, one that is basically consonant with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition." Does the author succeed? According to Francis Canavan, in his Foreword to this work, the "explanatory key" of a realist metaphysics grounding Burke¿s politics "is a key that fits the lock better than any other that scholars have offered." Canavan further holds that the author offers "us a more thorough analysis of Burke¿s understanding of God, the creation, nature, man, and society than has previously appeared."


This is a book that has long needed to be written. In the period since the Second World War, a number of writers, myself among them, have drawn attention to the strong role played by a classical and medieval theory of natural law in Edmund Burke's political thought and have pointed to its foundation in a realist doctrine of metaphysics. But no one, so far as I am aware, has until now undertaken a book-length study of the metaphysical suppositions of Burke's political philosophy. In the present book Joseph Pappin III supplies that need.

He is at odds with many, if not most, writers on Burke among the statesman's latter-day British compatriots. Steeped in an empiricist tradition, they find it difficult to see in Burke's thought anything more than an elevated utilitarianism, embellished with theological and natural law trimmings, to be sure, but antirationalist and antimetaphysical in its substance. As Pappin points out, Burke was indeed vehemently opposed to the rationalism of his day, which derived a political ideology by logical deduction from abstract ideas. But to conclude from this that Burke rejected metaphysics is to misunderstand him badly.

The question is not whether Burke's political philosophy rests on a metaphysic, but rather on what metaphysic it is based. Pappin's aim in this work, as he says in his Conclusion, is "to make explicit the implicit metaphysical core of Burke's political thought." Such explicitation is admittedly a risky undertaking because of the danger that one will end up fitting Burke into a framework of one's own choosing rather than explaining what is really implicit in his writings. The risk, however, is one that must be run.

It cannot be avoided, in fact, for it is a risk incurred by any interpreter of Burke, whether one makes him out to be a pragmatist, a utilitarian, a historicist, or a metaphysical realist. Burke was not a systematic writer on philosophy, or even on political theory, but a practicing politician--albeit one of unusual depth of mind--whose almost every writing was addressed . . .

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