November 27, 2006

Andrew Sullivan and the meaning of doubt: A review of Andrew Sullivan The Conservative Soul How we lost it and how we can get it back

Andrew Sullivan's recent book on the conservative soul is more interesting than its rather self helpy title might suggest. The book is a serious investigation of why Sullivan has found himself adrift from the main conservative movement in the United States and in that sense much of it takes the form of a personal statement ranging over many things from the importance of Christianity to the role of the American constitution.

Central to the book though is a recurrant theme- that of doubt- Sullivan is keen to and manages to distinguish this from relativism or subjectivism, the notion that there is no truth, rather his argument is that there are central truths- its just that they are difficult to perceive and understand. As a convinced Catholic one feels throughout Sullivan's writing the influence of Augustine's notion about the imperfectability of the human soul and consequently of human understanding. This is a perspective that stresses not the goodness of God, but the fallibility of man in understanding that goodness- to that effect Sullivan quotes from Hobbes the argument that God is a word that we give to that which we do not understand.

If Sullivan's thinking seems rooted in an Augustinian uncertainty about the capacity of humankind to comprehend the almighty and therefore the truth, his target is those who fail to comprehend such incapacity. This is a book directed against an entity which Sullivan calls "Fundamentalism" but which at one point in the book embraces everyone from Osama Bin Laden to John Rawls. Sullivan's perception of politics rests upon the kind of scepticism about humanity found in Hobbes- he delineates the shape of uncertainty about other minds as a way of conceptualising the guarentees that the state offers to its citizen. The state, Sullivan argues, is a guarentor of the truth that the man or woman walking next to you on the street will not turn to murder or rape or assault you. Such a conception and the idea that we give our allegiance not to an idea of government, but rather to an umpire who administers the clash between ideas of government, has an emmense power- a power that does disable those that argue that the state rests upon divinely endorsed models of governance and rules of nature.

The last key claim of Sullivan's book is one based upon the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott- Sullivan claims that life as we live it is something done unselfconsciously- it is something done in practice rather than in theory. That the flaw with systems like socialism and fundamentalism is not merely that they unsettle the Hobbesian state but that they don't recognise that life is a dialogue not a monologue- a dialogue between principle on the one hand and practice on the other. As Heisenberg puts it in the play Copenhagen, we have moral ideas and moral purposes but we cannot know which is the most important before they conflict, all we can do is look afterwards and see what happened. These three strands of thinking, Augustinian, Hobbesian and Oakeshottian come together to synthesize in a peculiar entity for a modern thinker- a set of thoughts that are inquisitive, revel in imperfections and attempt to reinforce process and doubt rather than conclusion and certainty.

Sullivan's book is vulnerable though to assault on different grounds. The first is the nature of the distinction that he draws between conservatism and fundamentalism. Reading his book, as a historian, I grew irritated by the way that Sullivan distinguished between these two entities. Fundamentalism is not a helpful term if by that you bind together Michael Moore and Osama Bin Laden. It is not a useful term either in a more narrow theological sense: there is a profound distinction between someone who abandons their conscience and says that they take their rule from a book which is not subject to interpretation and someone who like Oliver Cromwell says that their conscience is the way that they interpret a divine tablet of commandments into their life. Cromwell's understanding of conscience allowed him to argue that it was possible to make conscionable mistakes- whereas the first argument does not allow that option. Cromwell ends up with a philosophy of toleration- others don't. Sullivan's history is tarred by the brush of Straussian attempts to read into texts meanings that are ahistorical- instead of adopting an approach that reads a text through the assumptions of its time.

The second big problem with Sullivan's approach is that it fails to speak to liberals. This book represents two things- firstly an attempt to speak to conservatives and secondly an attempt to outline a major philosophical enquiry. As the second though it doesn't attack either the doubts about whether a system devised to stimulate a free market works psychologically in terms of the acceptance of inequality amongst the poor that it neccessitates, or whether it fulfills the ideals of equality as drawn up by John Rawls for example. Sullivan might argue those ideals are one of his idealistic fundamentalist projects- but Rawls's theory is merely an attempt to create a moderate and quite sceptical liberalism that doesn't have an optimum end, but just seeks a minimum justice. Sullivan's book looks rightward not leftward to find its critics and so fails to appeal as much against leftwing political ideas as much as against rightwing ones. Furthermore the most modern political thinker Sullivan cites here is Oakeshott- there is no delving into the thinking of Nozick or Rawls let alone say Searle. The other systematic problem in the discussion is that Sullivan never mentions Isaiah Berlin and his idea of the conflict between human truths- at points Sullivan does in his discussion of Oakeshott segue towards Berlin's idea, he talks of monomaniacal thinkers who believe in one principle and try and run their lives through it to disaster, but he doesn't ever invoke Berlin or the notion of pluralism. I wonder too about the relevance of a thinker like John Gray to Sullivan's notion of values and how they work- but maybe Gray is too relativistic.

This is therefore an imperfect book- given how much Sullivan himself lauds imperfection I'm sure he would admit to his own study being imperfect. One gets the sense of a lifelong project to understand politics and the way we proceed politically- of which this is one of many drafts of a political philosophy. Definitely worth reading and grappling with, the book has the feel of a blog- something that may well be revised, rethought and restruggled with in the future. There is the occasional swing of a left fist against an ideological adversary- the anti-Israeli left gets it in the cheek, Rick Santorum is punched about the ropes and James Dobson ends bloodied on the floor. Sullivan's effort in that sense is laudably academic- he is willing to listen as well as hear critics and have these views exposed by experience. In many ways what he has written here is a longer, more theoretical blog article- its engaging, well-written, personal and displays many of the virtues of his blog. If it doesn't answer all the questions, maybe as he might argue they are impossible to answer or maybe just impossible to fit into a book. This is worth reading- even if you find yourself as I did wondering about the dichotomy between fundamentalist and conservative and flinching at the generalisations.


Dave Hill said...

Very interest review, G. I intend linking to it later in the week - maybe Sunday. And I must read the book (as well as all those other books I should have read...)

Gracchi said...

Cheers Dave, pleased you liked it. I'll be interested in your reaction to the book