Liberalism as simply a tradition?

A friend wrote to ask what I thought of various academic attempts to try to avoid objections to liberalism that are based on the liberal tendency, now out of fashion, to claim that liberalism should rule because it’s based on universally valid rational principles of some sort. My response:

The attempts you mention basically claim that liberalism is simply a tradition like any other, so it has a perfect right to rule where it’s the dominant tradition (as in the West). It’s hard for me to take that view seriously, for reasons that include the following:

  1. I think the outlook is only believable in a setting in which everybody is convinced that liberalism is the only view that can possibly be taken seriously. That makes it a kind of academic hothouse flower. “We all believe this, anything else is unthinkable, so why not just go with what we all believe and forget about justifying it because we’ll all just keep believing the same things anyway.”
  2. Traditions accumulate all sorts of ideas from all sorts of places. What’s to keep liberalism on track if you give up the idea it’s a simple logical structure based on perspicuous universal principles like the desirability of satisfying desire, means/ends rationality, and Occam’s razor? It’s like talking about a Christianity without God, which has been another academic fad. How do you keep the results of a basic way of understanding the world if you do away with the basic way of understanding the world?
  3. In fact lots of people even in the West aren’t really liberal. Certainly there are lots of nonliberal impulses and habits that in the absence of some overriding principle will develop and go places. In fact, society couldn’t exist unless there were lots of nonliberal habits and attitudes to keep things going. On the other hand liberalism claims to be a system of free cooperation rather than force. So it has to be able to tell people to shut up and do what they’re told while claiming to be simply protective and therapeutic. It has to use force and suppression while denying using force and suppression. It can only claim to do that if it claims a rationality that precedes any possible legitimate thought and action.
  4. Postmodern doubts about universal rationality only strengthen and radicalize universal content-free rationality. Postmodernism creates no institutions and answers no questions but something has to be done anyway so the result is a yet more dogmatic scientism and economism. There are zillions of incommensurable diverse goals and understandings of reason so the only way to reconcile them is a yet more content-free formal logic and yet more absolute claims of expertise that nobody can criticize because after all ordinary discourse of ordinary people has no cognitive value.

4 thoughts on “Liberalism as simply a tradition?”

  1. Jim:
    Here’s some of my


    Here’s some of my thoughts on the academic, pragmatic liberalism of people like Jeffrey Stout and Gary Gutting:

    Argument against pragmatic liberalism

    1) Since liberalism is a tradition, then it must have its own exclusive conceptual and interpretative scheme with which to understand the meaning and explanation of its admittedly publicly authoritative norms like freedom and personal autonomy, and this scheme must be embodied in the norms internal to liberal practice themselves, and must be the intellectual product of these practices as well. The pragmatic liberal accepts all this.

    2) Therefore, participation in these practices would shape one’s mind into understanding the norms according to the conceptual and interpretative scheme of the liberal tradition.

    3) Since politics is the practice of practices, participation in liberal politics would be especially formative of one’s soul into the tradition of liberalism.

    4) Now, the fundamental teaching of the tradition of pragmatic liberalism is the inevitable failure of philosophical and theological explanations as being possibly socially authoritative; they are publicly inappropriate, for they serve an essentially private purpose and function. One can see them as privately authoritative, but that’s it. Therefore, one can and should recognize certain moral values and norms as publicly authoritative without needing any public teleological or transcendent explanation or meaning for these, for these norms are only products of men’s desires as informed by and informing community. One can impute transcendent and teleological meanings and explanations to them, but only privately, knowing that these can never be authoritative for anyone but those who choose to see them as authoritative.

    5) QUESTION: Are norms, values, or moral judgments bereft of teleological explanations and transcendent groundings publicly authoritative just because they prescind from controversial explanations and groundings? Because we can’t all agree on the why of our agreed-upon practical norms, they say, any particular “why” cannot be publicly authoritative; but what is publicly authoritative is the norms themselves, because they are “true” all by themselves, with the explanation and meaning of this truth, of course, filled in by one’s “private” traditions, or left unfilled, as is the preference of the pragmatic liberal.

    6) HERE IS THE CONTRADICTION: But norms bereft of publicly authoritative meaning and explanation are NOT UNCONTROVERSIAL! Only the pragmatic liberal, and those who have permitted pragmatic liberalism to distort their otherwise non-pragmatically liberal tradition, accept these kinds of norms. Therefore, what we have in pragmatic liberalism is simply another foundationalist “meta-idea” that masks itself as “the way things are” but is really a particularist tradition that imposes itself on every other one and absorbs all of them into itself.

    7) Once I, a non-pragmatic liberal, realize that active and voluntary and happy participation in pragmatic liberalism would be to betray my own tradition, I would indeed see such participation as sinful, and only participate in it insofar as I had to, to preserve my ability to participate in my own tradition. Since I want to live in a society where explanative and meaningful norms are authoritative, ultimately one where the meaning and authority derives from my tradition, I would reject the practices of the reigning pragmatic liberal order as authoritative for me and everybody else, for fear that participation in such would be harmful (sinful) to the integrity of my own position, and for fear that my recognition of such norms would influence others badly. In short, I would see the pragmatic liberal society as a structure of sin.

    8) Of course, Stout and Gutting admit that one who thinks this way cannot participate in pragmatic liberalism, and should not even be talked to. Good, that’s honest. Now we have what really is the case, two irreconcilable traditions competing for public authority. The next question is which one should receive this authority, since neither is uncontroversial and could not get a majority consent. Well, can it possibly be pragmatic liberalism? It cannot even offer a REASON for embracing it other than ASSERTIONS of its superiority, and its ostensible reconcilability with other non-pragmatically-liberal traditions. But we have shown that it is not so reconcilable. So all we have left is the naked assertion that a political order based upon nothing transcendent and having no inherent explanation for its authority is better than one that does, because all explanations and groundings have failed, and must fail, and can never garner a consensus without violent coercion. But failure to whom? Only to the pragmatic liberal. And, by the way, this itself is an explanation and a meaning! A denial of the public authority of God because his authority is “not clear” or not “embodied in our norms” is itself a reason for rejecting such authority, and so is either defensible or not. The pragmatic liberal contradicts himself, because he tries to put himself in a position not to have to defend his theory philosophically, yet he fails.

    9) On the other hand, EVERY OTHER TRADITION other than pragmatic liberalism has internal explanations and meanings for its authority (and even pragmatic liberalism does, as we see), so what is non-controversial and hence a candidate for public authority is any tradition that seeks such meanings and explanations honestly. Therefore, pragmatic liberalism cannot be publicly authoritative, but something else can.

    10) In short, pragmatic liberalism is only authoritative for pragmatic liberals, because no explanation of its authority can ever convince anyone, because it gives no explanation other than the failure of anything else, but this failure judgment is internal to pragmatic liberalism. One who shuts his eyes can’t see, but others can. But all this is is genealogy, Nietzscheanism. And there can be no rational discussion with someone who doesn’t recognize the authority of truth. They don’t seek rational discussion, only conversion through dishonest seduction. This is quite undemocratic. Pragmatic liberals must sin against their own norms.

    11) The next step then is simply to present one’s tradition to oneself and others by incarnating it in communities and living it, purged of all pragmatic liberal dishonesty. But this requires evangelization, something that mere philosophers, like MacIntyre, cannot do qua philosophers. So the next step is revealed political theology. Only this can defeat pragmatic liberalism. If one tries to use academic philosophy to defeat it, one will always lose. We are dealing here with principalities and powers, not mere philosophical error.

    Pragmatic liberalism is the greatest possible antithesis to the Gospel and the philosophia perennis possible, I think.

    • Partial restatement?
      It seems part of what you’re saying is this:

      1. Assuming it really is a functional tradition, pragmatic liberalism would consist of understandings, practices, and whatnot that are largely internally consistent and mutually supporting, and are sufficient to order public life and the exercise of public authority.

      2. Those things collectively are satisfying to the adherents of pragmatic liberalism. Pragmatic liberals also claim they should be acceptable to those who do not already accept them, because they rely on no publicly authoritative teleological explanation or transcendent grounding, and therefore do not conflict with such things when held by others.

      3. Why should the absence of a particular type of justification likely to be controversial mean that nothing else about the doctrine will be controversial? Can’t there be another stumbling block, for example the content of the doctrine, which may conflict with someone else’s favorite doctrine?

      4. Assuming there are conflicts, and in fact not everyone agrees with pragmatic liberals on all points, the very fact pragmatic liberalism doesn’t have a publicly authoritative teleological explanation or transcendent grounding on the face of it means that its superiority can be only a matter of bare assertion. It seems to follow that that in concept it can achieve dominance against opposition only by violence, fraud or bullying. What’s so great about that? What’s the argument in its favor?

      You’re saying other things too, but I have trouble restating them.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. A Disturbing Apostate
    Dear Mr. Kalb,

    A disturbing article appears at VDARE, wherein the smart Steve Sailer rejects racial consciousness and, at the same time, lauds a racialist, Sam Francis.

    I am surprised Mr. Sailer would conclude White means a pale phenotype. Whites are a spectrum of phenotypes. Spectrums are rational, definable things and do not imply equality; this perhaps is Mr. Sailer’s error, a liberal ideal: equality.

    He has finally surrendered (which I knew he would eventually do) to the liberal premise that race should not matter. He ignores Whites comprise Western Civilization. Western Civilization includes Jewish People, Europeans, Australians, and North Americans to such an extent that a counterargument would be stupid. If he cannot grasp the compelling phenotypic similarities, he might be the victim of liberal brainwashing.

    The builders of Western Civilization were not Nubians, Aborigines, Asians, or Mestizos. There is not one single non-Caucasian group of people who have been decisive contributions to Western Civilization. Mesopotamia and Egypt no doubt passed on their accomplishments to the West; civilizations borrow but do not thereby become equal.

    By rejecting race as valid, he rejects identity, which is based on race, ethnicity, personality, family, nation, college, favorite football team, friends, job, etc. The rejection is a total capitulation to liberalisms’ principles of liberty and nondiscrimination.


  3. Liberalism as a Tradition
    Mr. Kalb hits the nail on the head by asserting liberalism claims to be a system of free cooperation rather than force, and since it has been around for some time, it is as valid as any tradition. “As Senator Sam Irvin once pointed out, murder and larceny have been practiced in all nations in all ages, but this fact does not make either murder or larceny meritorious.”

    So how is traditionalism different?


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