Category Archive 'Rene Descartes'

30 May 2010

Pomposity Harpooned

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David Brooks, who effectively embodies the New York Times idea of what a conservative ought to be, draws upon that firm foundation of learning elite schools (in his case, University of Chicago) provide members of the establishment commentariat like himself, clears his throat and begins the chin stroking, contrasting the French Enlightenment (radical people Brooks disapproves of) with “the British Enlightenment and Edmund Burke” (read: David Books himself).

When I was in college I took a course in the Enlightenment. In those days, when people spoke of the Enlightenment, they usually meant the French Enlightenment — thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and Condorcet. …

But there wasn’t just one Enlightenment, headquartered in France. There was another, headquartered in Scotland and Britain and led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. …

Paine saw the American and French Revolutions as models for his sort of radical change. In each country, he felt, the revolutionaries deduced certain universal truths about the rights of man and then designed a new society to fit them.

Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have.

Burke was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform, but reform is not novelty. You don’t try to change the fundamental substance of an institution. You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working.

If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.

Then along comes Kathy Kattenburg, who cruelly demonstrates just how superficial is Brooks’ intellectual veneer, how weak his grasp of actual facts, and (as Burke would have said) how muddled his understanding and has fun delivering this well-deserved comeuppance.

Hat tip to Bird Dog.

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