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Monday, August 05, 2002
Philosophy in the Academy

If Plato licenses a visionary side of philosophy through his shadows in the cave parable, another Greek tradition gives us the tools with which to deflate it. This is the skeptical tradition of the cautious and ironical David Hume. His philosophical practice culminates in critical and reflective modes of thought. There is a well known story about a trainload of academics en route to a conference. The train crosses a frontier, and passes a sheep. 'Oh look,' says the sociologist, 'the sheep in this country are black'. 'No', says the physicist, 'one sheep in this country is black'. 'Too risky', replies the mathematician, 'one sheep in this country is currently black.'. 'Humph' says the philosopher, 'one sheep in this country currently seems black on one side' .

Certainly such a habit of thought arms its followers against believing the first thing they think, or the first thing they are told. This will prevent the philosopher from falling into the arms of Weber's 'charismatic leader.' It shows them the frailty of the methods with which all kinds of ideologies and theories seek to gain acceptance. Their creed is care and caution, casting a quizzical, potentially skeptical, light over the domain of human thought and action.

Here is where conservative philosophy comes in after the tradition of Hume to formulate beliefs and practices about the real world, which may when we are careful enough, prove reliable. Philosophical conservatism should not be equated with American conservatism, which is a blend of nationalism, free markets and religion. Rather, it suggests that individuals act within a given historical and ideological framework and should never presume to think that they can escape it, that although humans are free agents, once a road is taken the further one travels that road the harder it is to leave it and start anew,and finally that all change is not progress and thus should be engineered with caution.