A Better Guide than Reason—Or Not?

Mark Mitchell’s effort to reclaim traditionalism in the defense of freedom is admirable.

His emphasis aligns him with such estimable writers as Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, and, in our own day, with Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, and others who have both unsettled conservatives yet revived probing conversations. Though the second half of The Limits of Liberalism, which could be said to be another book in itself, is about freedom, the first half aims to show the epistemic role of tradition—that one comes to know reality through the inherited order, the particular legacy into which all are born. “Our situation today,” writes Mitchell, “is best conceived as a conflict between those who advocate some version of liberal cosmopolitanism (along with its reactionary offspring, identity politics) and those who instead uphold the idea of tradition along with the inherent limits—social, natural, and metaphysical—that such a position entails.”

Professor Mitchell has given himself a formidable assignment—perhaps too formidable. Not only does he faithfully work through the thoughts of three tough thinkers—Oakeshott, MacIntyre, and Polanyi—but he also contrasts their teachings with dominant strains of classical liberalism. In addition, toward the end of his book, he meditates upon Augustine’s Confessions and De Magistro and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, correctives to liberalism in a different key. He concludes that “Liberalism is both incoherent and unstable. The liberal cosmopolitan dream is an illusion.” Like Deneen, he finds his enemy in individualism, which militates against the very freedom it would secure. Without Tocquevillian associations and corporate relationships, liberalism shrinks and isolates the human person. Yet, at the end of the book, the question still persists: is everything wrong due to liberalism?

No doubt Mitchell’s concerns are shared by true lovers of liberty. His worries echo those of the Southern Agrarians in the 1930’s (I’ll Take My Stand), who offered compelling images of and arguments for the small, the known, and the particular versus the large, the mass-minded, and the abstract. Unlike them, however, he writes from outside any distinct tradition himself, at times making tradition as abstract as a principle. Despite the weight Professor Mitchell places on “the particular” as the way to knowledge and right behavior, his assertions remain skeletal, deficient in convincing examples from history or from human experience to embody them. This is a book that is too often deprived of context, one lacking in images laden with “rich and contingent materiality” (the Agrarian John Crowe Ransom’s phrase).

As I see it, the fundamental weakness of the book lies in Mitchell’s point of departure: the claim that one can only know through received opinion, through the ancestors, or through what political philosophers call convention. In his emphasis on how one knows, he neglects the possibility of knowing a thing in itself without cultural mediation. In emphasizing that man is born into a defining prescriptive order, Mitchell sidelines man as the creature who questions and wonders. Professor Mitchell’s work is most detailed in explaining why he appreciates the contributions of Michael Oakeshott, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Polanyi, who, in their respective ways, show that one can know reality through tradition and culture. The claims made, however, downplay the force of human reason to probe the assumptions into which one is born. Their emphasis on one’s native language, for instance, sets boundaries on perception to an inordinate extent. In focusing on how human beings come to know, what is known is compromised.

A second major problem that the book inadequately addresses is the feasibility of individual solutions to a general cultural problem. Convention, as he often shows, might account for the journey of a person throughout his lived experience; however, finding a cure for the dissociated lives of Americans these days is hard to achieve. How can the presuppositions of a believing culture apply to one bereft of belief? If we are at the stage “where the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity,” to borrow Yeats’ line, then perhaps dispassionate, rational, and universal claims about human nature would be more convincing than emphasizing the abandoned inheritance from those much abused dead white males. Unless people have lost their reason entirely, perhaps sound arguments founded on universal principles could actually arouse assent to them and thereby ground ethical choices.

Pitting tradition against classical liberalism’s reductive rationalism, Mitchell tends to synchronize the claims of Oakeshott, MacIntyre, and Polanyi with the thoughts of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Plato. In his eagerness to combat Enlightenment thinking, he mistakenly seeks to show consistency throughout the philosophic tradition, hence distorting what his arsenal of “good” thinkers actually held. Mitchell seems not to notice that he falls into the default position of the modern thinkers he criticizes (Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, to name a few). To eschew the question of “what is” in favor of the question “how one knows”—the Enlightenment perspective—is to undermine the connection between the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object, the mind and the body. In Mitchell’s account, the view that man lives “connaturally” is secondary to the view that man lives conventionally. But must one so distrust the mind and so tether it to the world as given traditionally and not naturally? Mitchell reports, for instance, that Polanyi calls the “virgin mind” the “state of imbecility.” One can readily appreciate, with Mitchell, Polanyi’s criticism that “Modern critical philosophy (of which liberalism is a part) is characterized by a desire to destroy the influence that tradition exercises on each knower.” In criticizing this inclination, must we also agree with Mitchell that Plato endorsed tradition as the way we know things? The Cave (convention) is that from which one must be freed in order to see things as they are rather than as they seem to be. Should we simply concur with Mitchell that MacIntyre’s emphasis on our being “historical beings” is an improvement over Aristotle, who, in his view, depreciated historical man? Aristotle’s Politics shows how strategically important the knowledge of the nature of a particular people is to a lasting founding; Book II offers numerous examples of kinds of actual regimes, as well as imagined. Indeed, MacIntyre’s respect for history resembles Machiavelli’s disregard for “imagined republics” and preference for real and effectual truths found in reading history.

Along with his paradigmatic thinkers, Mitchell aims to critique liberalism’s lowering of the aims of the human enterprise. In the process of recapturing truth, however, he seems to adapt the language of the reductionists he combats; for example, he echoes the fact/value distinction employed by Max Weber in his own rhetoric. Mitchell’s use of the terms “product” and “facts,” in place of “legacy” or “inheritance” or “truths” or “insights,” tips his hat to the triumph of Enlightenment thought while resisting all its implications with vigor. In reading Mitchell’s ambitious book, one wonders exactly why he levels the criticisms he does and why he fails to level others more consistent with the philosophic tradition he would, at any rate, defend against Enlightenment derailments. Here is one of Mitchell’s numerous syllogisms in which latent Enlightenment assumptions surface in his word choice:

Since we are, in part, the products of a particular historical and social context, there is no way of throwing off these limitations, for to throw them off is to cause the disintegration of our very identities. Thus, all inquiry is tied to the particularities of time and cultural milieu. If so, then the goal of attaining universal, objective facts completely untainted by the particularities of one’s situation is impossible. The particular situation in which each individual finds himself provides the conceptual framework by which facts are interpreted and inquiry is conducted. But if the human mind is constituted, at least in part, by the particularities of history and society, then the facts that are presented to the inquirer are themselves interpreted by a mind that is oriented and shaped by forces particular to time and social context. Thus, all inquirers begin their respective inquiries with resources that are the products of a particular history and culture.

While leaving a little window for truth perceptions unmediated by tradition, Mitchell and company have been tainted more than they know by that which they reject.

At any rate, these problematic word choices might lead one to conclude that Mitchell and his heroes keep company with historicists more than with philosophers; they are themselves the product of a shift in the understanding of human knowledge since the Enlightenment. While there is no doubt that Mitchell holds, with MacIntyre, that there are “universals” and that “‘the concept of truth is timeless,’” the “proper goal of philosophical inquiry,” what good is this teleological position if “there are no general standards” by which rival claims are to be judged (106-7)? A “traditional” reader attached to the philosophia perennis might suspect that the perceptions of the paradigmatic trio are tainted by the very modern philosophy they would reject. Mitchell, like Polanyi, wants to claim that culturally determined epistemic paths are the only ones possible—and yet to also assert that they are objective.

Indeed, if it is true that, as Darius said long ago, “Custom is King,” and knowing emerges principally from one’s milieu, one is hard-pressed to say how our fellow citizens can emerge into the light outside of the cave we all occupy. Here it is worth noting that Mitchell criticizes Oakeshott because he, unlike Polanyi and MacIntyre, eschews permanent meaning: “For Oakeshott, neutrally evaluating traditions implies the possibility of getting outside of one’s tradition and judging it against a standard that is independent of the tradition. This, for Oakeshott, is simply impossible.” Mitchell’s demur seems disingenuous given that he seems to share the same view. Mitchell reluctantly joins others who critique Oakeshott’s moral relativism, yet he applauds Oakeshott’s demonstration that tradition is “epistemologically necessary condition for knowledge.” One ends up unclear which is of more value—knowing the natures of good and evil because of the logos within us or trusting one’s own inherited frame of reference.

Finally, Mitchell’s account of the American Revolution and founding is disappointing. Despite the influence of the Bible, “by the time of the American Revolution, the Lockean influence had made its way across the Atlantic and insinuated itself into the consciousness of the American colonists. The image of the isolated and free individual in a state of nature—a mythic depiction of a human who never existed—found a suitable complement in the stories of liberation rooted in the biblical tradition.” Indeed. But then, Mitchell concludes, America “was ready and waiting to take up the banner of liberation.” Individualism untethered to ordered liberty became the new American religion. His teacher, George Carey, along with Willmoore Kendall (in Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition), had a more subtle reading of the American derailment. They charge Lincoln with substituting a new myth, one that centered the American regime in equality, and they charge social scientists with contributing to the re-telling. It would seem that someone so intent on conserving and restoring tradition could give us more a detailed account of how ours got derailed. To know the sources of the symptoms—perhaps including a re-founding on Progressive assumptions—might be to find their cure.