Conservatism, tradition, and ‘the canon’

Increasingly in these disorienting times labels of left and right, liberal and conservative, don’t seem to mean what they used to.  I see myself as fairly tradition social democrat, supporting liberal democracy from a ‘left’ vantage point, and believing in a need for a balance between public and private power in society.  But when encountering polarised criticisms from the left and the right I find myself more ‘centrist’ than I once would have thought.  And I find myself rethinking the basis on which I stand where I do.

Originally trained as an anthropologist, it has always struck me as ironic that ‘left’ anthropology fails to recognise the Burkean conservatism that is often implied by its views.  A typical and justifiable argument has often been made that attempts to impose ‘western’ models of production, e.g. in farming, have disrupted well-established ways of doing things that have maintained ecological and economic balances.  The deleterious and disruptive effects of alien ways of doing things on all kinds of traditional practices and has been criticised.  On the one hand this is an objection to the presumption that ‘the West knows best’.  But at the same time it is an affirmation of situated traditional knowledge that has been built up over time, and been tested by long and hard experience.  This is the idea that provided the basis of Edmund Burke’s famous critique of the French Revolution, and his warning against the presumptions of rationalist revolutionaries convinced they had the knowledge to redesign society in a fell swoop.  It is a general principle, articulated by Burke as an internal critique in regard to the western tradition of thought, and not one that only applies to encounters between the ‘West and the rest’.

This has bearing on the idea of ‘decolonisation’, and particularly ‘decolonising the curriculum’.  What critics of the ‘western’ liberal canon of ideas seem to fail to appreciate is that it too is a tradition, built up out of a strenuous history of experience, the product of centuries of dispute and debate.  It is not some contraption dreamed up for the purpose of dominating non-western peoples.  Moreover, for every idea and text that persists in getting attention and focussing minds, hundreds more have been abandoned and forgotten.  It is a tradition of ideas that have stood the test of repeated scrutiny by powerful minds, and been winnowed and refined.  To assess this tradition on the basis of how well it represents a crude demographic of selected traits, such as race, ethnicity, sex, gender and sexuality, makes no sense.  Those are not the relevant criteria.  What matters to the tradition is what survives intellectual criticism.

If one were to seek some form of proportionality in terms of these demographics among authors one confronts two issues.  First, what is the relevant population from which one draws a baseline of proportionality.   A profession, a class strata, a nation-state, a continent, the world?  How do we know what the proportions ‘ought’ to be?  Secondly, if the tradition as it currently stands is largely the result of winnowing the work of white men, who have had privileged access to contribute to that tradition over the centuries, then even now as the demographic of contributors has diversified and access to contribute has opened up, as witnessed by the incorporation into this tradition of fields such as women’s studies, black studies, and critical race theory, those more recent contributions must still undergo the same winnowing process.  In each generation, most of the intellectual product is mediocre and soon to be forgotten, or at least located on the far back shelf of the intellectual warehouse.  Logically, it will take time for the increasing diversity of the cast of authors to work its way through ‘the canon’ because much of the canon has already been been established.  The value of enduring contributions to a long and complex tradition of thought cannot be measured directly in relation to any current demographic.  They are two different things.

These are implications of taking the ‘canon’ (whatever that is) seriously as a tradition, with its own internal integrity, worthy of respect.  I know that some critics of that tradition will argue that it is no such thing.  That it is, as adverted to above, a malignant ideology of domination, designed to distort and exclude, through its rationalism, patriarchy, racism, etc..  But if that is the case, improving it through better representation of author demographics, and ideas supposedly from outside that tradition, is pointless.  Surely the only solution is to start an altogether new and separate tradition of thought?  And in one sense this is what has happened.  A great deal of work in the social sciences and humanities has tended to diverge onto two different paths, one more ‘realist’, ‘western’ and, well, ‘traditional’, and the other more postmodern, poststructuralist, postcolonial, social/de-constructionist, and so on.  But on the other hand, as I’ve already suggested, this second strand does not really come from outside the tradition.  As much as key progenitors of ideas such as Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, Michele Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Edward Said, were critiquing aspects of that tradition, they didn’t come from outside of it, but from deep within it.  And this is one of the distinctive (which is not to say unique) aspects of this tradition, that it is characterised by great intellectual counter-movements from within, as in the response of romanticism to enlightenment thought, or philosophical materialism to idealism.  It is difficult not to see current critiques of the ‘colonialism’ of the western canon as one of these internal movements, rather than an ‘external’ response of the colonised. 

However we understand this current dynamic of critique and its origins, the point still stands that the body of ‘western’ ideas associated with the history of Europe and its influence, is a tradition, with its own intrinsic value that deserves to be respected like any other.  Any complex tradition of thought—religious, philosophical, scientific—will contain some dark and troubling ideas, and if it is not dead, will generate intellectual resistance.  But the test of that resistance is its capacity to become an enduring part of that tradition itself.  The only alternative is to break away and establish a separate and possibly rival tradition.  

Finally, and perhaps uncomfortably for some, there is the complication that this tradition, or at least aspects of it, has spilled past the usual cultural and territorial boundaries of such traditions.  As modern ‘science’ it has become highly universalised and cross-cultural, and so have institutions it has developed in dialogue with, such as capitalism and democracy.  It is not only that its fiercest critics do not recognise their own embedding within that same tradition, but they fail to grasp the degree to which it has spread, been widely adopted, and become part of the collective human legacy, not just a localised tradition.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

One thought on “Conservatism, tradition, and ‘the canon’

  1. Very interesting article! Thank you for sharing.

    I share your belief in a need for a balance – for me perhaps between public, private, as well as the vast diversity of ‘third sector’ powers seeking to influence reform & for significant changes to current society?

    I find your argument against a purely statistical-demographic rationale for ‘equal representation of ideas’ persuasive. But note also that this rationale seems to have interesting links to the very idea of ‘democratic representation’ as worked out/conventionally in current public life?

    As a fellow academic, I stand with you in the argument for ‘intellectual criticism’ (of many kinds including but not limited to statistics based ones).

    I was particularly struck by your point that:
    “The value of enduring contributions to a long and complex tradition of thought cannot be measured directly in relation to any current demographic.”

    I wonder how things might lie here… if we were to (re)situate this point in context of the various funding-for-performance demographic-groups, and their measures and consequences in academic life… as actioned in the REF, TEF, etc?


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