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Ideas Have Consequences, Revisited

“Ideas have consequences” is a favorite conservative slogan.  It comes from, or is embodied best in, Richard Weaver’s book by that title, where he launches a spirited attack on the nominalism that pervades modern science and social science alike, at the expense of humane learning and judgment.  In my experience very few conservatives have actually read Weaver’s book—I’ll be interested in hearing from Power Line readers who have to see how many will prove me wrong.

There’s a good reason few people today have read Ideas Have Consequences: it is a densely written book, not easy to get through.  And the title alone contains a sound and useable teaching in three short words: “Ideas have consequences” directly confronts the modern reductive ideologies that attribute or explain all human thought as epiphenomena of material or sub-rational forces.  The late sociologist Robert Nisbet was right to call Ideas Have Consequences “one of the few authentic classics in the American political tradition.”

Richard Weaver

I have to confess to never having made it very far through Ideas until very recently, when I picked it up again and found it utterly compelling.  Partly this has to do with my current concentration over my upcoming sojourn to full-time university life, and figuring out a way of explaining in an early lecture why conservatives tend to disdain the social sciences.  And here, in Weaver’s book published way back in 1948, is a perfect takedown of the problem of the narrow specialization of modern, value-free social sciences.  A few samples:

By far the most significant phase of the theory of the gentleman is its distrust of specialization.  It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman.  A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of a ruler. . .

To regard these as exhibitions of priggishness is to miss the point entirely; they are expressions of contempt for the degradation of specialization and pedantry.  Specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed; and one deformed is the last person to be thought of as a ruler; so runs the irresistible logic of the position.

[Social] science is therefore not a pursuit for such a one.  Because it demands an ever more minute inspection of the physical world, it makes an ideal of specialism, and one may recall Nietzsche’s figure of the scientist who spends his life studying the brain of a leech.  Is it necessary to press further the point that, when such matters come to be pursued as knowledge, the task of synthesis approaches impossibility? . . .

It should be plain from the foregoing that modern man is suffering from a severe fragmentation of his world picture.  This fragmentation leads directly to an obsession with isolated parts. . .

The theory of empiricism is plausible because it assumes that accuracy about small matters prepares the way for valid judgment about larger ones.  What happens, however, is that the judgments are never made.  The pedantic empiricist, buried in his little province of phenomena, imagines that fidelity to it exempts him from concern with larger aspects of reality—in the case of science, from consideration of whether there is reality other than matter.

There’s lots more terrific stuff like this in Ideas.  I may well make this a new Power Line serial like my long-ago sequence on Hayek.

For more thoughts on Weaver, see Bradley Green’s recent essay over at The Imaginative Conservative.

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