by Mark English
It’s easier to see – and say – what’s not the case than to say what is the case; to see – and say – what’s wrong with other people’s views than to outline one’s own in a coherent and convincing way.
In fact, I have doubts that it is possible to achieve the latter at all except within very narrow and constrained areas. And even then… Have you noticed how academic teachers (in fields I am familiar with anyway) can never stick with a text book? (Unless, of course, they wrote it themselves. And even then…)
Some people don’t mind this situation, even positively relish it. Certainly, it gives those so inclined limitless opportunities to show off their dialectical skills. Others (like myself) become rapidly tired of this sort of game: what’s the point, we ask, if there is no at least hypothetical end-point, no safe harbor of truth in the general direction of which we are ultimately heading (even if we know we will never actually arrive)?
You could think of this in terms of a mathematical series tending to a limit. But perhaps a better metaphor is one promulgated by the 19th-century French philologist and intellectual historian Ernest Renan.
Not long before Renan’s death, a very young Romain Rolland wrote him a fan letter and was invited to visit the great man who talked to him about la route en lacets, the zig-zag path up the mountain.  It may not always feel like we are going onward and upward but, according to Renan, taking a wider view, we are. Renan saw this progress as applying not only to scientific knowledge and understanding but also more broadly, to human progress in a deeper and more general sense. Though he had renounced his early belief in the doctrines of Christianity, he remained in his heart a religious man. He told the young Rolland that life was fundamentally good and the universe was the work of a beneficent demiurge. (He was, in effect, a Stoic or a neo-Platonist.)
Of course, for all sorts of reasons, intellectuals no longer command the sort of widespread respect that they did in the past. But there is still a demand for general and explanatory ideas, and no shortage of intellectuals who are confident enough in their views to actively promote them.
Unfortunately this wide selection of competing (and usually incompatible) views does not inspire confidence. A certain amount of rule-of-thumb winnowing must be done by all of us; and generally we will gravitate towards thinkers whose views on general ideological and/or religious questions are closest to our own.
I have a particular problem here which may merely indicate some flaw in my own thinking which I am blind to; or, on the other hand, it may indicate something of more general interest.
At least since about the age of 20, I have been looking for intellectual guides or mentors – without much success, I have to say. Sure, there are experts whom I trust in various scientific fields. But I have seldom come across anybody who shares, even in a general sense, my apparently peculiar mix of beliefs and attitudes.
For a start, I have a natural tendency to favor classical liberal or conservative approaches to social and political questions. I know such views are out of favor in academic and media circles, but just bear with me on this. I am not pushing or promoting (or even endorsing, really) some kind of set ideology. 
Secondly, I can’t accept either religious or natural law-based ideas. Again, bear with me on this: such views are at least intellectually respectable and I think defensible.
Of course, there was a time when strongly anti-religious views were the norm in left-wing circles and they still find a place there. My problem is that conservatives and classical liberals are – and pretty much always have been – sympathetic to religious traditions or at least to notions of natural law, free will and human liberty.
I have already mentioned Renan (whose social and political views were generally conservative). And I could give many more examples.
Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia  is an intellectual tour de force. But the whole argument is predicated on the existence of individual rights, as the first two sentences of the first chapter make abundantly clear: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do.”
So not only is Nozick assuming that an individual has natural rights which he can specify; he is insisting that these putative rights are “strong and far-reaching” enough to form the basis of a complete political philosophy.
As it happens I share some of Nozick’s political intuitions, but I don’t share many of his philosophical intuitions, and certainly not his philosophical orientation (the focus on Locke, for example, on whose ultimately theologically-based notions of natural law Nozick draws). And I certainly don’t share the more explicitly religious intuitions which manifest themselves in Nozick’s later works.
Over the years I have examined the ideas and (particularly the metaphysical or religious) assumptions of countless classical liberal and/or conservative thinkers, from the famous to the totally unknown and forgotten and – take my word for it – the overwhelming majority are fatally (from my perspective) committed to what I see as religious or rights-based approaches.
Ludwig von Mises, saw an essential truth behind religious traditions. F.A. Hayek was committed to elements of Kantian thought. Michael Oakeshott was a fully-fledged Idealist. Both Wilhelm Röpke and Alexander Rüstow were strong Christians.
Karl Popper had (as I see it) some very sound political intuitions, but metaphysically he was a Cartesian dualist and, though he distanced himself from organized religion, was certainly not an atheist. Like Mises, he saw a kernel of truth in religious myths.
Maybe my intuitions about religion are wrong. I am genuinely open to this possibility. In fact there is nothing I would like more than to find some way to embrace a view of the world in which human values draw on some greater-than-human reality. Mystical elements in Western and Eastern thought appealed to me once and could do so again.
Likewise, maybe my views on political and social questions are somehow mean-spirited, or just confused. 
But I am not (here) seeking to convince anyone of anything. I am just expressing puzzlement – and dismay, actually – at the apparent unusualness of my personal position. The vast majority of people with conservative tendencies in social, political and economic matters have (or have had) religious or metaphysical commitments which are just not live options for me.
Many progressives and leftists, of course, also have religious and religio-metaphysical commitments, especially these days when ‘rights’ talk is so dominant and the mainstream churches have become quite closely aligned with progressive causes and the political left. But, historically at any rate, the left always had a lot of space for people who energetically rejected religious commitments.
So what am I missing here? Why is it that all the thinkers I feel closest to socially and politically have such diametrically opposed views to mine on religion, etc.?
One last example: Leszek Kołakowski was a Polish communist intellectual who gradually came to see Stalinism not as some kind of aberration but as a natural outgrowth of Marxist thinking. His encyclopedic Main Currents of Marxism  is informed but not obsessed by this idea. It is a lucid and remarkably generous work: masterful, perceptive and profoundly human. I came to love its author.
But – you guessed it – Kołakowski had religious commitments (which are not evident in Main Currents of Marxism, by the way) and, rightly or wrongly, this fact casts a cloud of doubt over my love for his work. He had powerful motivations which I do not have. Perhaps we are not in the same ideological place after all…
- Rolland, Romain. Compagnons de voyage. Albin Michel, 1961, pp. 175-6.
- I do think that there is a lot that can be said in favor of conservative and/or classical liberal or neoliberal approaches to political and economic questions and a lot that can be said against various flavors of socialism. But, as I suggested in the opening paragraphs of this essay, I have serious doubts that one can deal with ideological questions in a purely rational way or, from a ‘standing start’ as it were, elaborate an ideology which is objectively grounded. Inevitably we are at least to some extent engaged in the world, and the cross currents of facts and values manifest themselves to different people in different ways.
- Basic Books, 1974.
- Some may see them as confused because I am not clearly distinguishing between conservatism and classical liberalism; I realize the scope for confusion here, but the European neoliberal tradition (of which I have some knowledge and which influenced my thinking quite deeply) is shot through with conservative elements.