The Philosophy of Conservatism 

(Course for Philosophy and Politics Graduates at Princeton University)
Fall 2006

These notes summarize the material presented in a series of 12 three-hour classes for Philosophy and Politics graduates at Princeton University. They are not scholarly, but are intended as guides only, to be read in conjunction with the texts mentioned, and to be refined and corrected through argument. The course was put together with a view to exploring the philosophical foundations, rather than the practical effect, of modern conservatism. The specific interests of students attending the classes influenced the topics discussed, so that not all those topics mentioned in the first class are covered. An inventory of relevant topics that remain untreated appears at the end of Lecture 12.

I refer at one point to an article of mine on Hayek and Conservatism. This will be published soon in the Blackwell Companion to Hayek, ed. Edward Feser. Meanwhile I attach the article as an appendix at the end of the course.

  • Overview There are several distinct traditions of thought that have shaped modern conservatism, and you can be sympathetic to some of them but not to others, and can legitimately wonder what ...
  • Freedom Reading:J.S. Mill, On Liberty. Sir James Fitzj. Stephen, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Mill and Stephen. This dispute was famous in its day, and was to some extent re-fought in the dispute between Devlin and ...
  • Law Reading: Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 1, pp 1-99. Two Approaches: Top Down and Bottom Up. Great emphasis is laid by Rousseau and others in the social contract tradition on the role of legislation. ...
  • Justice Reading: Rawls and Nozick. Some of the questions here are familiar from the dispute between Rawls and Nozick. However, the issue is much wider, and of course much more ancient, and ...
  • Culture Reading: T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.  This is a really difficult topic, but one that has been very important among conservatives, for fairly involved reasons. Major conservative thinkers have tended ...
  • Hegel and Pre-Political Order Reading: Hegel, Philosophy of Right.One of the enduring questions of political philosophy concerns the foundation of political obligation. We have obligations that hold the body politic in place: for instance, we are ...
  • Burke and Political Epistemology Reading:  Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution. Burke is of special importance for two reasons: he is the first political thinker to have had an inkling of the link between utopian thinking and ...
  • Scepticism and Political Order Reading:  Hume, ‘Of the Original Contract’ and other essays. Hume’s political vision has three sources: his scepticism concerning the ambitions of philosophy; his empiricism concerning the foundations of knowledge and practical wisdom; ...
  • Sex Reading:  R. Scruton, ‘Phryne’s Symposium’, in Xanthippic Dialogues. At the start of the sexual revolution the American humorist James Thurber wrote a book entitled Is Sex Necessary? , in which he satirised the growing obsession ...
  • Ends, Means and Oakeshott Reading:  Oakeshott, ‘Rationalism in Politics and other Essays’.   Oakeshott’s criticism of rationalism in politics is marked by a characteristic disregard for academic discussions. The long-established division of philosophical thinkers into rationalists and ...
  • Constitutions Reading: de Maistre, The Generative Principle of Constitutions. The United States Constitution is a document, assumed to have a precise, if disputed, meaning, which lays down the fundamental procedures and offices under which ...
  • Some Conclusions If we look back to the first class, where I outlined some of the currents in conservative thinking, and gave a preliminary list of the important topics – the points ...
  • Topics That Should Also be Discussed Philosophical anthropology: the conservative view of the nature of the person, of responsibility, inter-personal attitudes, freedom, shame, pride, sin and redemption. Democracy: the conservative view of the democratic process, its limits and preconditions. ...
  • Hayek and Conservatism In the well known postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, entitled ‘Why I am not a Conservative’, Hayek states what he calls ‘the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to ...