- Series: Concepts in Social Thought
- Paperback: 118 pages
- Publisher: Univ of Minnesota Pr; 2nd Printing edition (May 1, 1986)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0816615268
- ISBN-13: 978-0816615261
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,582,694 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Conservatism: Dream and Reality (Concepts in Social Thought) 2nd Printing Edition
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About the Author
Robert Nisbet was Albert Schweitzer Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, and adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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As hard as this task is, renowned conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet attempts to give us a history and explanation of conservatism and what it is (recognizing, of course, that the task is made difficult by the fact that conservatism is more an attitude than a system).
The book is written in four sections: "Sources of Conservatism" gives us an attempt at the ideological origin of conservatism, which Nisbet suggests was first really articulated by Edmund Burke and later, Alexis de Tocqueville (giving a few mentions to Aristotle). The second, and longest, section is "Dogmatics of Conservatism" (as oxymoronic as that title may be). Here, Nisbet tries to identify the themes appearing in the various conservative philosophies from Burke's to Tocqueville's to Oakeshott's. Resistance to the Englightenment's rationalism (utilitarianism, natural rights derivable solely by reason, etc), emphasis on history's importance in the studies of social arrangement, antipathy toward the idea of "laws of progress" etc. Third is a chapter on the "Consequences of Conservatism" which include a somewhat pessimistic view of the human condition, antipathy toward the armchair intellectual (philosophes, utilitarians) etc. Nisbet concludes with "The Prospects for Conservatism" where he surveys the state of the conservative intellectual climate in the 1980's and beyond.
While I found this book a very astute and concise elaboration on conservatism, I have two criticisms. First, anyone looking for any type or argument about conservatism's problematics will not find it here. While this likely was not Nisbet's goal, he does stumble on some aspects of conservatism that those not already sympathetic with conservatism might want clarified. Nisbet writes much about conservative emphasis on group rights, as opposed to individual rights. But try as I might, I cannot think of any right that a group could have that is not reducible to individual rights; I wanted Nisbet to explain how a group - which is not a thing greater than its constituent parts - can have rights in any meaningful way. (And if I am wrong in my assumption that groups are reducible to individuals, that might have been addressed.) Secondly, Nisbet recognizes a paradox in conservatives' tendency to champion the market presumptively, and its simultaneous lamentation of the industrial revolution. But once Nisbet recognizes the conflict in holding both of these, he doesn't try to reconcile them or suggest how any conservatives he mentions tried to reconcile them. There are several more areas where I think Nisbet's book could have benefited from more elucidation and defense.
I am also concerned that Nisbet suggests that several thinkers are conservatives who would themselves dispute such categorization. (Yes, I realize that since conservatism is hardly a systemic ideology, this may be unavoidable, but some of the categorizations seem widely off the mark.) First is Friedrich Nietzsche, who WAS a critic of rationalism and intellectualism, but certainly did not venerate tradition or custom in a way that conservatives might. Next, Joseph Schumpeter, who most suggest did not tip his hat at endorsing any normative position at all as anyone who reads his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (Second Edition) can see. Next, Friedrich Hayek, who wrote the famed essay "Why I am Not a Conservative" (if I am not mistaken, before Nisbet's book came out). Another is James Buchanan, who wrote, several years after Nisbet's death, the book Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism). Yes, conservatism has fuzzy borders and whether some thinkers were conservatives may reduce to a judgment call, but some of these calls really undermine Nisbet's credibility (at least to this reviewer).
Overall, though, this book is a very good concise introduction to conservatism as a serious philosophical force. Too often, conservatism is dismissed out of hand by intellectuals as simply "reactionary" and "pessimistic" without really understanding the philosophy. Books like this serve as needed introductions to conservatism and its rich history.
Nisbet's approach to conservatism will be familiar to those who have read his other works. Chapter 1 concerns the birth of modern conservatism. It begins with Burke and his reaction to the French Revolution. (Burke, like Nisbet, saw Rousseau as the chief architect of the French Revolution.) It is further developed in its interaction with (and often reaction to) the Industrial Revolution. Chapter 2 (which takes up almost half of the book) is the most important chapter. It is entitled "the dogmatics of conservatism" and explains the various conservative essentials - property, religion, anti-egalitarianism, diffused authority. Chapter 3 - "consequences of conservatism" - treats some of the broader sociological and historical aspects of conservatism. Nisbet returns to some familiar territory, such as the birth of sociology in the 1800s by conservatives such as Le Play, historical writings on the Middle Ages, and the idea of progress. The final chapter - "prospects of conservatism" offers some shrewd comments on the state of contemporary conservatism (up to the date of the book's publication, 1986).
As another review said, this books will be an eye-opener to many people. Those who see conservatism as an ill-defined mixture of free enterprise, conservative religion, and libertarian-style individualism will be surprised by some of what Nisbet says.
This book covers a lot of territory in a few pages. Readers who want to examine some more recent works on conservatism (and which emphasize different strands of conservatism) should examine the works of Justin Raimundo (Reclaiming the American Right, in particular), Paul Gottfried (The Conservative Movement) and Samuel Francis (Beautiful Losers).