Criticizing the current liberal order is a popular activity. Authors such as Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, D.C. Schindler, Mark Lilla, Johnathan Haidt, and Jordan Peterson have generated significant conversation through their provocative salvos. While many others could be added to this list, we would be remiss if we did not include Mark Mitchell’s recent book, The Limits of Liberalism: Tradition, Individualism, and the Crisis of Freedom.
According to Mitchell, our present social and political predicaments are linked to a larger philosophical condition. The thesis of Mitchell’s book is that liberal thought and practice undermine the central relationship between authority and knowledge. As a result, sounding a similar note as Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Mitchell contends that liberalism’s trajectory “consumes itself” (9).
Modernity is understood by Mitchell as taking “a wrong turn” (198), encapsulated in three distinct, although interconnected, distortions: rationalism, the Enlightenment project, and objectivism. For Mitchell, each of these “turns” are wrong because they give an inadequate account of both the activity of knowing and the nature of the one who knows. The mythical liberal self is the destination to which these three turns have led us. These “wrong turns” certainly relate to their socio-historical incarnation. The distortion stems from a failed mythology, a narrative that is told to citizens about who they really are. In this respect, Mitchell persuasively demonstrates that a philosophical account of knowing should not be relegated to the sphere of academia. The realm of ideas and the practice of philosophy are profoundly existential, something that made Leo Strauss such a formidable figure in the 20th century. Like Strauss, Mitchell illuminates the relationship between first principles and their social and political effects. This relationship is certainly not simple, and Mitchell is prudent in making this point clear. Nobody can doubt that we can act and live contrary to our own first principles, be they good or bad.
One of the most astute critics of modernity was the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and it is to Oakeshott that Mitchell first turns. Mitchell’s contends that Oakeshott’s primary concern is the “epistemic function” of tradition. Tradition is not merely reducible to a set of “timeless truths” (59). Rather, tradition has to be seen in its connection to “practice:”
Tradition is those assumptions, habits, customs, and procedures that provide us with the conceptual framework by which we engage the world. We see the world through the tradition into which we have been inculcated. We can do nothing else. Therefore, the resources afforded us by our tradition are the only tools available to us. (91)
There are two insights from Oakeshott that are central for Mitchell’s thesis. First, it is impossible for all knowledge to be univocal with technical knowledge. In this framework, the rationalist aims for the kind of precision in knowledge that is more akin to the methodology of natural science and mathematics. “The rationalist denies the existence of practical knowledge” (66), and cannot but affirm that political and moral life is essentially concerned with technique. In their concern, Mitchell and Oakeshott certainly channel Aristotle’s critique in Politics II of those who would attempt to elevate political science to the level of theory and thereby neglect its practical nature.
Along with this emphasis upon technique, Mitchell calls attention to Oakeshott’s view that the epistemic function of tradition has its locus in a given set of particularities, customs, habits, and presuppositions. The actual development of the moral life of citizens necessitates a practical knowledge that derives “from inculcation into a coherent tradition of behavior” (74). In the rationalist worldview, “rational preference” abounds and is coupled with attempts at actualizing an ideal political order. The human mind is imagined as a neutral agent, which stands “on its own” before the real world. The stress upon a “universal reason” and a set of bias-free rules neglects the fact that moral ideals can only be embedded in religious and social traditions. Thus, rationalists aspire to “delink” themselves from all the particulars of the tradition through which they see the world (94). In Oakeshott’s judgment, the rationalist worldview tends to see the human predicament as a problem to be solved; some technique or method can make citizens more “democratic” and “rational.” For many, this ideal is what the term “justice” means.
The Enlightenment Project
Following Oakeshott, Mitchell then focuses his analysis upon the virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre, specifically MacIntyre’s notion of tradition-dependent rationality. For MacIntyre, knowing is intimately connected to an order of existing things that is prior to my thinking and acting upon them. In his critique of Oakeshott via MacIntrye, Mitchell lays out the superiority of the latter because tradition is not something self-contained, but is fundamentally moral. The substantive goods of the human person are ultimately understood to be internal moral goods. Moral goods are intertwined with virtue, which is understood as the various forms of excellences (arete) that achieve the ends of a human person. For MacIntyre, the evaluative judgment of a good human being resides here. Contra the myth of liberal neutrality, all traditions, no matter how different, stem from an articulation of what it means to be good. Human goodness, for Mitchell, is understood by reference to a paradigm or standard that transcends our traditions.
What MacIntyre sees is that the Enlightenment project of a universal reason that is reduced to a method or technique results in an emotivist moral view. As Plato’s feverish city suggests, when a paradigmatic moral and metaphysical order is denied, the primacy of desire will tend to fill that vacuum. Additionally, Mitchell rightly contends that the Nietzschean “will to power” falls flat in an attempt to overcome the exhaustion and depletion of what MacIntrye calls the Enlightenment project. Creating subjective “values” is an explicit rejection of Mitchell’s and McIntyre’s defense of metaphysical realism.
The third and final distortion in modern liberalism is objectivism, and here Mitchell looks to Michael Polanyi as his guide. For the objectivist, doubtmust be the ground of all knowing. Imitating the methodological technique of Descartes, the objectivist claims that all knowledge must be scientific and thus demonstrable. In Mitchell’s account, Polyani’s insightful critique of objectivism is that it renders the naturalist fallacy conceivable, whereby facts are severed from values. According to Polyani, this has led to “a false and ultimately harmful understanding of truth that manifests itself morally and politically” (135). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has given a good summation of this worldview in her most recent interview with Anderson Cooper: “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” Moral truth is concerned with private values, and facts are objective, without bias, and accessible to all. Moreover, there is no intrinsic link between facts and moral truth. Mitchell is correct to point out that this severing of moral truth from facts has become the lens that pervades many on the political left and right.
For Polanyian epistemology, belief in and contact with an external moral order are foundational for knowing. The purpose of a particular practice of inquiry is to have a deeper understanding of the created order. According to Polanyi, discoveries in a particular field come from a tradition of inquiry, but are ordered to grasping the nature of real things. Mitchell illuminates the central role that belief plays in knowing through his frequent reference to the apprenticeship image: “knowledge embodied in practice cannot be acquired except through a personal relationship consisting of a master and an apprentice in which the apprentice submits himself to the authority of the master and in so doing acquires the skills necessary to master the particular field of inquiry” (175). The irony of Cartesian doubt is that, if the atavism of tradition were in fact thrown off, the development of knowledge (practical or theoretical) would no longer be possible. As Mitchell shows, the objectivist both begins and ends in doubt. (The further implications of employing the master-apprentice relationship and its connection to knowing is further drawn out in Mitchell’s excellent review of Matthew Crawford’s Shopclass as Soulcraft).
Liberalism as an Anti-Tradition
In light of Mitchell’s thesis, perhaps we can raise an objection to his overarching narrative concerning liberalism. In order to do this, we can bring Mitchell into conversation with another contemporary political philosopher: David Walsh. In his essay, “Truth and the Problem of a Liberal Tradition,” Walsh argues that liberalism is a tradition. The reason why we can reference a liberal tradition is because the tradition “is sustained principally through its capacity to evoke existential order within its adherents” (254). This is perhaps the strongest rebuke of Mitchell’s overall position. For Walsh, our current problem resides in our amnesia towards the liberal tradition. Like Mitchell, Walsh contends that something must be restored.
Speaking to contemporary critics of liberalism, Walsh notes the primary thrust of their discontent with the liberal order; such critics believe that “only the traditions with more substantive presuppositions of truth possess the requisite durability to withstand the corrosive relativism of egalitarianism” (255). While Walsh acknowledges the substance to this critique, he also wonders if a creeping utopianism is not lingering in the background. In a real way, Walsh would certainly have Mitchell’s thesis in mind when he utters the following:
It is almost as if the critics have given up entirely on the effort to remediate liberalism from within and are now confined to recording its inexorable descent into the maelstrom…one comes away with a very strong sense of the power of the Platonic or Thomist viewpoint on the world, and how paltry the confused gropings of modern liberal philosophy really are by comparison. There is little encouragement to consider the substantive achievements of liberalism or to think through the way it might be internally redirected to overcome its manifest defects. (255-6)
At this juncture, we could propose the following question to Mitchell: can we draw from pre-modern sources, and bring them, as Walsh says, into the present as a “source of order?”
One of the fundamental struggles at the heart of the liberal tradition is what Mitchell calls “immoral moralism.” The West’s Christian heritage in the early modern period carried with it a moral perfectionism that became “detached from its roots and free to roam unconstrained by its theological antecedents.” This, for Mitchell, has left modern man in a strange position of “immoral moralism:” a mix of moral perfectionism with rationalism that rejects the status of moral ideals (180). For Mitchell, nihilism is not an escape from objectivism. Rather, nihilism is its “logical end” (196).
The puzzle here brings us back to David Walsh. In one respect, it is quite clear that Mitchell understands liberalism as incoherent and unstable. Oakeshott is adamant that incoherency and instability are the obvious hallmarks indicative of a lack of tradition. However, I think this is where we are witnesses to the merits of Mitchell’s book. If the liberal tradition is an actual tradition, then examining the practices that stem from its principles or lead up to those principles, must be one of our social and cultural fundamental tasks.
According to Mitchell, the practices of the liberal tradition are rooted in a tradition that is deeply skeptical of tradition. The liberal tradition draws from moral resources to bolster its way of life, while simultaneously reducing moral claims to external rules and mere “values.” The liberal tradition articulates an account of religion as something necessary for human and political freedom, and yet increasingly sees religion as an oppressive, archaic force to be overcome. More and more does political science, and the phenomena it analyzes, reveal its inability to comprehend Tocqueville’s judgment that “religion is the natural state of mankind.”
This liberal tradition, upon closer examination, seems more like a tradition that may ultimately undermine its own claims as a tradition. “A tradition-less tradition.” Even before we could arrive at a standard that transcends various traditions, liberalism’s self-contradictions prevent it from functioning as a coherent tradition. The irony of this, for Mitchell, is that incoherency does actually have a logic. The nihilism of Nietzsche cannot exist without the exhaustion of the Enlightenment. Mitchell’s conclusion puts the pieces together regarding the difficulty of a “liberal tradition:”
To remove the incoherence and admit the necessary role of tradition would threaten to undermine the entire enterprise, for admitting the role of tradition implies submission and authority, both of which serve as impediments to the infinitely expansive will. Thus, it would seem that the logic of liberalism cannot accommodate tradition, and therefore liberalism is necessarily trapped in its own incoherence. (212)
Mitchell argues that a humane localism is a needed alternative to the defects of liberal cosmopolitanism and identity politics. As embodied human beings, we long to found, cultivate, and pass on a real home and heritage in this world. Our received inheritance and home is never perfect, nor will it be when we pass it to our descendants. However, it is this passing on that connects us generationally to the past and future. We come to understand and experience the reality of time when we can learn to settle and “make our places.”
With this being said, there is a hidden temptation to the activity of “place-making” that must never be neglected. For Mitchell, tradition is “the transmission of a belief or conviction about reality from one generation to the next… In Polanyian terms, tradition serves subsidiarily in a from-to structure by which we grasp the meaning of the world” (200). The key here for Mitchell is his notion of the icon as an analog for tradition. An icon embodies a particular truth. Likewise, culture is meant to serve as a kind of icon, wherein it embodies a set of universal truths via its habits and practices. Yet, this cannot become idolized. The danger in any attempt to recover a tradition is that it may be done so as to focus upon the tradition itself as an “object of veneration” (201). Yet a tradition is not an object; it is a mediating context that gives one access to the real order of things.
Mitchell’s Augustinian lens is a necessary antidote to a love of home and place that could eventually eclipse the transcendent. No matter how lovely our places can be, properly scaled for real human beings, we will always be tempted to the idolatry of making a home in this world. Mitchell is doubly right to emphasize the limits given by the ontological order of nature, as well as the fact that no earthly place fully realizes the City of God.
Mitchell is acutely aware of the nuance necessary to rightly recover the past. Recovery is not nostalgia, a disordered attempt to restore a particular social and political order that once was. In one respect, the recovery of, say, Aristotelian political philosophy or Thomistic natural law is, at some real level, impossible. Why? According to Mitchell, MacIntrye’s notion of tradition-constituted rationality means that we understand reality through the particular tradition-historical lens in which we live. This does not mean we are forever condemned to historicism. Rather, a genuine recovery is certainly possible, but it is achieved through an assimilation that ultimately becomes colored by the very lens of our own particular time.
The great achievement of Mitchell’s book is to show his readers what engaging in a tradition actually looks like. His vision is one grounded in health. Mitchell sees the human person as a whole within a whole. The human person can only understand himself in this world by being in relation, with nature, neighbor, enemy, and ultimately the ontological source of all that is, namely, God. Perhaps, at some small scale, we can hope to recover the practice and theoretical understanding of tradition that is a truthful account of being human in this world. To do this, at the very least, entails a thorough reading and engagement with Mitchell’s timely book.