Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Postmodern Conservatism and the Question of “Foundations”


I am happy to march under Peter Lawler’s “Postmodern Conservative” moniker — or perhaps rather to gather and meander, to meet as in a marketplace or public square. I don’t think anyone can contest Peter Lawler’s authorship of this genial label. I could, I suppose, cite certain of my early, unpublished onto-political manuscripts that as I recall already propose this formula — though no doubt in French, which probably should not count anyway.

So yes, Peter Lawler is the inventor or discoverer of Postmodern Conservatism. To be sure, some of the bloom has come off the rose of “postmodernism” as an edgy and sophisticated intellectual movement, but that gives a bit of an ironically “retro” flavor to the name — which is itself at once sort of “conservative” in a sort of “postmodern” way. In any case I find the name just substantive enough to define some philosophical territory, at least vaguely, while leaving plenty of room for different interpretations and inflections. Herewith a stab at my inflection — or the beginning of a stab.

“Conservativism” implies something to conserve – in fact something good to conserve. It conveys opposition to revolutionary “rationalism,” which equates “reason” with a transformative or revolutionary political project that is fundamentally unreasonable because it eschews responsibility for the actual human content of the new world it proposes to create. For the same reason “conservatism” implies resistance to the charms of progressivism, which is just revolutionary radicalism in its more patient and deceptively mainstream mode. Progressivism can name what it wants to leave behind, but it cannot really give an account of the better world toward which it promises to lead us, if only we would abandon the ways and principles that have seemed necessary and good to us and our forebears. But just what is the good, or what are the goods, that Postmodern Conservatism proposes to conserve?

One paradoxical but plausible answer (as given by Harvey Mansfield and others) is this: American conservatism must conserve liberalism. Freedom, equal freedom, has been the core of America, and this is what is to be conserved. To be sure. But just what is freedom: What is its content, what are its limits? And what makes it good? These are questions, especially this latter, that lead the conserver of liberalism beyond the sources of liberalism itself — such questions lead us (in the words of a title friendly, at least, to postmodern conservatism) to “The Conservative Foundations of Liberal Order” (Daniel Mahoney). Postmodern conservatives wish to conserve liberalism, or certain features of liberalism (constitutionalism, a certain religious diversity, economic freedom to maximize the availability of a decent standard of living), but we believe that liberalism is not self-sufficient, that its integrity and therefore its maintenance depend on non-liberal elements, on virtues and beliefs for which liberalism cannot provide a foundation. But what kind of foundation, if any, can “conservatism” provide? Now here is a question that leads us straight into deep waters: Can reason discover or articulate moral and political foundations?

This is where I see Pomocon-ism steering a path between absolutism and relativism, between dogmatism and skepticism. And it is from the standpoint of this question of “foundations” that I see the “postmodern” bearing of our conservatism come to light, as well as our debt to Tocqueville, whom I regard (perhaps even more than Peter Lawler) as the seminal master-thinker of Pomocon-ism. Coming next: Postmodern Conservatism — Between Absolutism and Skepticism

Tags: Liberalism , Conservatism , Reason , Tocqueville , Peter Lawler , Harvey Mansfield


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