Postliberal Dogmatism and Determinism

For some time now, many “liberal conservatives” (Russell Kirk’s approving term for Alexis de Tocqueville in The Conservative Mind) have repeatedly objected that conservative postliberal critics of America simply ignore the facts of American history. (My own contributions to this discussion date back to my Public Discourse exchange with Patrick Deneen in 2014.) The repeated postliberal claim that America was founded upon an anthropology of expressive individualism finds no support in the public speeches, writing, events, laws, and institutions that constitute American political identity.

To the contrary, those speeches, writings, events, and laws explicitly and repeatedly affirm, and provide for, the belief in a Providential God, the public good of religion, the natural law, the common good, moral limits on the market, the prohibition of obscenity, and the exclusive recognition and support for heterosexual monogamous marriage. It is not until late into the twentieth century that these beliefs and their political expression begin to erode. In nearly every case this is not done from the ground-up by democratic deliberation and decision-making, but is imposed from top-down by the Supreme Court relying upon scandalously bad evidence and arguments and in the face of strong democratic opposition.

Conservative postliberals simply have not responded to this objection. But this has not prevented them from gaining the attention of elite public institutions and publications, as well as the adulation of a growing segment of American conservatives who are encouraged, alongside their woke opponents, to indulge a sense of alienation from their regime.

Michael Hanby is therefore to be commended for finally responding to the liberal conservative objections in his book review essay for New Polity, “The Birth of Liberal Order and the Death of God: A Reply to Robert Reily’s America on Trial.” Headquartered at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, New Polity has become the voice for Catholic postliberals who are hostile to America but can’t quite stomach the more radical political remedy of Catholic integralists like Adrian Vermeule and Edmund Waldstein. Nevertheless, the very name “New Polity” exemplifies the deficiency of pietas and tacit radicalism of postliberal Catholics which Hanby largely seems to share.

To be fair, Hanby hedges his argument at several points in ways that preempt some of the usual criticisms of conservative postliberals. For example, he writes that “It would be absurd to reduce a complex historical event like the American Founding to a simple incarnation of Lockean or Hobbesian philosophy.” Yet an impartial reader of his essay can be forgiven for concluding that he does just that.

Similarly, in his penultimate paragraph he calls America his “home,” and he correctly asserts that there is no reason “why acknowledging the cracks in American’s foundations should prevent any of us from loving our home.” But he also calls the principles of the American Founding a “false idea” and describes “the American world” as “a secular order that systematically excludes God from its conception of reality, beset from within by a pious atheism that does not know itself.” He acknowledges the value of “working in every sphere to make our country the least nihilistic version of itself,” but he concludes that he can “discern no path forward but to undergo whatever fate is set in motion by the death of God within the prison of this order’s immanent horizons.” If there is pietas here, it is of a most peculiar sort.

Hanby’s Argument: Tacit Metaphysics

Hanby appears to concede, as I think he must, the surface historical argument to the liberal conservatives. There is little to nothing in the explicit language, institutions, or practices of the American founding to suggest an anthropology of expressive individualism, and there is much which suggests the contrary. Instead, Hanby moves the goalposts down the field in a way that I think is plausible, but ultimately not convincing.

Hanby’s argument is that expressive individualism, although not explicitly affirmed in the American founding, is the tacit anthropology underlying it. Thus, whereas the language of the founding (the natural law, virtue, etc.) appears to be consistent with much if not all of the preliberal tradition, the meaning of that language is drastically different.

He makes his case by taking his readers through a dense but compendious review of the profound changes in philosophy (in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics) that were initiated by Francis Bacon, and modified (though not discarded) by the leading empiricist (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, etc.) and rationalist (Rene Descartes, etc.) philosophers who came after Bacon. Despite their differences, what these deeply influential thinkers share in common is the repudiation of the Aristotelian-essentialist cum Christian-sacramental conception of nature (including human nature). What they provide in its place is a reductive, mechanistic account tailored to promote so far as possible the complete technological mastery of nature. According to Hanby, whatever these thinkers might have thought about the moral limits to this project, their conception of nature in principle undermines any substantive support for those limits.

Hanby’s basic historical narrative is not new. One can find variations of it in the writings of a wide range of thinkers, including C.S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and others. The novelty of Hanby’s argument is to highlight the way that tacit philosophical assumptions can dramatically change the meaning of explicit terms like “God,” “virtue,” and “the natural law” in ways that may go largely unnoticed, but which may have unexpected and undesirable consequences. And Hanby is likely correct that the traditional terms of the Founding were in some sense tacitly animated by a non-traditional, nominalist/anti-essentialist mechanistic understanding of nature that was in some tension with their explicit moral and theological commitments.

What I object to in Hanby’s treatment is twofold. First, Hanby’s account of metaphysics is excessively dogmatic. Second, Hanby’s account of metaphysics is excessively deterministic. And this combination of dogmatism and determinism undermines the ultimate soundness of his argument.

First Objection: A Dogmatic Metaphysics

Hanby writes as though there are only two competing philosophies of nature facing off against each other, one that is simply true and one that is simply false, and that our task is to embrace the true one and repudiate the false one. But this seems to involve a weaponization of metaphysics through a gross oversimplification of metaphysical inquiry.

For example, from Hanby’s account one would never know that there are large, unresolved problems and fierce debates within the Thomistic tradition he himself commends on a wide range of issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and anthropology. In the wake of the Thomistic revival ushered in by Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterna patris, one finds a fragmentation of Thomists into traditional Thomists (Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange), transcendental Thomists (Pierre Rouselot), neo-Thomists (Jaques Maritain), historicist Thomists (Alasdair MacIntyre), analytic Thomists (John Haldane), New Natural Law Thomists (John Finnis), and what might be called “eclectic Thomists” (John Paul II).

Moreover, the difference between these competing “Thomisms” has much to do with competing ways of engaging elements in modern philosophy. If there is anything Hanby should have learned from his reading of Alasdair MacIntyre, whom Hanby as well as most other postliberal conservatives view favorably, it should have been that knowledge is always difficult and provisional. It is achieved through fits and starts within a living “tradition of inquiry” in which premises and arguments are offered, defended, and (yes) revised in light of new problems, objections, and arguments that emerge not only from within that tradition, but from without.

And just as St. Thomas himself, through his encounter with the newly discovered works of Aristotle fundamentally (and controversially) revises elements within the tradition, so MacIntyre (in the spirit of St. Thomas) revises certain assumptions within Thomism through an encounter with modern philosophy. MacIntyre’s “narrative epistemology” as well as his endorsement of Karl Popper’s “fallibilism” and “verificationism,” are clear departures from traditional Thomism and yet they are (in my view) genuinely “Thomistic” responses to challenges within modern philosophy. (For MacIntye’s treatment of these issues, see here). How can this be?

Only if we think of Thomism as a tradition of inquiry (as MacIntyre does) rather than a commitment to a set of propositions. Although St. Thomas, following Aristotle, offers a powerful metaphysical framework,  he also observes in his prologue to his commentary on the Apostle’s Creed that “our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.” The sources of this epistemic weakness are pervasive. They are rooted in the mediating structures of language, sensibility, passion, and conceptual thought, and are manifold and evident to anyone with basic self-knowledge and a willingness to confront the obstacles to knowledge.

Indeed, for all its flaws, modern philosophy can be understood as a “critical project” to identify and come to terms with these epistemic weaknesses. Perhaps no thinker has engaged that project as insightfully as Michael Polanyi, another person Hanby cites approvingly while failing to bring attention to the full implications of Polanyi’s thesis. For what Polanyi concludes is that although the critical project ends in a corrosive skepticism, “post-critical” realism cannot be a simple return to pre-modern metaphysics. The critical project brings to light the deeply personal (biological, passionate, volitional, etc.) and ultimately ineffable conditions (or “coefficients) that necessarily accompany human knowledge (thus the title of Polanyi’s magnum opus Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy).

These conditions include the “tacit dimension” of knowledge, a concept invented by Polanyi that is central to Hanby’s own thesis, but which is in some tension with his narrative. Polanyi’s notion of “tacit knowledge” is anticipated in striking ways by St. John Henry Newman’s “illative sense” in his underappreciated Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Unlike Hanby, Newman sees modern philosophers like Bacon and Locke contributing something important to our understanding of nature. Before criticizing Locke, he feels compelled to write:

I have so high a respect both for the character and the ability of Locke, for his manly simplicity of mind and his outspoken candour, and there is so much in his remarks upon reasoning and proof in which I fully concur, that I feel no pleasure in considering him in the light of an opponent to views, which I myself have ever cherished as true with an obstinate devotion.

As for Bacon, he writes: “Let us follow Bacon more closely than to distort [the] faculties [of the mind] according to the demands of an ideal optimism, instead of looking out for modes of thought proper to our nature, and faithfully observing them in our intellectual exercises.”

Newman is fully aware of Bacon’s ambition “to extend our power over nature” by eliminating from view formal and final causes, but unlike Hanby, Newman regards this at least partly as an advance in knowledge, not simply a loss. “[Bacon] saw what others before him might have seen in what they saw, but who did not see as he saw it. In this achievement of intellect, which has been so fruitful in its result, lie his genius and his fame.”

I fear that a kind of metaphysical rationalism tacitly infects many postliberal conservatives who are explicitly opposed to rationalism

Newman is not endorsing this limited view of nature as the most complete or comprehensive one. But he sees that there is a truth in it, that modern physics works, and that modern technology, including modern medicine, for all their problems, are a blessing. And something similar might be said about liberal institutions, which, to say the least, are not simply the fruit of medieval metaphysics.

In sum, metaphysics is not a canon or a creed. Rather, it is a difficult and dynamic “tradition of inquiry.” And although metaphysical inquiry always informs ethical and political life, it simply cannot provide the neat answers or harmonious social and political order Hanby and other conservative postliberals dream of.

Second Objection: A Deterministic Metaphysics

Not only does Hanby misrepresent the complex and conditional way in which metaphysical inquiry works, he also misunderstands the way metaphysical assumptions operate upon and inform social and political life. His mistake is twofold. First, Hanby wrongly assumes that tacit metaphysical beliefs determine explicit belief and action. Why assume this is a one-way street from the tacit to the explicit? Human experience suggests otherwise. 

Tacit beliefs are not ordinarily static and coherent, but dynamic and confused. They often include contradictory premises that are not manifest until some conflict or dissonance brings them to the surface. These are moments of what MacIntyre calls “epistemic crisis,” and they are often occasions in which the tacit beliefs are corrected by explicit beliefs. For example, a firm conviction about the wrongfulness of abortion might cause one to examine and revise tacit metaphysical beliefs that do not support those convictions, as apparently occurred with Bernard Nathanson and Hadley Arkes.

So, although Hanby makes a good case that the underlying tacit metaphysical beliefs of the American founders were in “tragic” conflict with their expressed moral language, why should we assume that tacit beliefs, even if they are metaphysically unsound, are the true ones? Why not allow for what seems not only possible but even commonplace, that when a conflict appears between one’s tacit and explicit beliefs, one might resolve the conflict by bringing to the surface and revising one’s tacit beliefs?

And if this is possible, then when one is faced with a culture in which true explicit beliefs rest on false tacit metaphysical beliefs, isn’t the best strategy to seek to revise the tacit beliefs in order to shore up the true ones, rather than to abandon the entire structure of belief? This seems especially important in a case where the structure of belief contains so many positive elements from the premodern tradition, as America surely does, and especially when the costs of abandoning that structure for a vague and untried “New Polity” are so high.

This would be a real achievement. But it is important to see that even if Americans could arrive at a consensus on an essentialist-Christian metaphysical/sacramental structure of belief, there is a second problem: This would not solve many of the practical problems we face. For although human action is always informed by metaphysical premises, it is not (in most cases) uniquely determined by metaphysical premises. The reasons for this truth, affirmed by both Aristotle and St. Thomas, are related to the plurality of human goods, the almost infinitely diverse ways and degrees in which those goods can be participated, and the irreducible particularity of circumstances that condition the pursuit of those goods.

Moreover, even where the immorality of an action is clear, this does not entail that the law should forbid it. In the Summa Theologiae St. Thomas quotes Proverbs as a memorable and prophetic warning against those who wrongly believe that the law should prohibit all vice: “He that violently blows his nose, brings out blood.” The denial of this truth reflects a strain of modern rationalism that has had bloody and destructive consequences, beginning with the French Revolution and extending through the twentieth century to the present day. Nevertheless, as I have argued elsewhere, I fear that a kind of metaphysical rationalism tacitly infects many postliberal conservatives who are explicitly opposed to rationalism.

James Madison observes in Federalist 10 that as long as human beings are free to use their reason, they will form different opinions about what is good and just. Madison is correct, even if his reasons are incomplete. This fact is not only a function of disordered “self-love” —although it is indeed that—it is also a function of the indeterminate nature of practical reason, and would exist even in a world where human beings are untainted by sin or metaphysical error. It is this fact that determines the unique nature of political life, which subsists on deliberation and, yes, compromise. In politics, dogmatism, whether of the Left or the Right, has no place.

Michael Hanby has a formidable mind and a gift for eloquence. He has much to teach us about the problems in the Founders’ metaphysical beliefs. But Hanby could learn much from the Founders’ politics. A deeper study, appreciation, and defense of his own fragile and precious political tradition would be most welcome.