A distant relative of mine, older than I am by a decade perhaps, claims he is a rationalist and conservative at the same time. I have a problem with that. Check that. I have problems with that.
The first one is the implicit assumption in the statement that both “conservative” and “rationalist” are sharply defined categories for eternity that do not give room for ambiguity, ever.
Most of the arguments over conservatism and liberalism (for convenience, I will take liberalism as watered down rationalism; this interpretation is open to question, of course, because the differentiation is one of merely scaling up or down) spring out of the varying understanding of the terms that are prevalent in societies. Indeed, even in any particular society, the meanings undergo changes down the generations. Further, even in one’s own life term, the individual ascribes different meanings to the words depending on the stage of life one is in.
I will try to explain this with a generic situation, which must be universal. When one is young, discussions with one’s parents have the following undercurrent – the youngster telling his/her parents, “you are so old fashioned, so conservative”.
As one gets old she tends to switch roles seamlessly. Now the parent telling the youngster, “Stop being so radical”, with the implication that the elder is still not old fashioned enough to be compared to his parents. To make things clear, your parents were conservative and your children are rebellious while you are liberal, as you have always been. The problem is being neither being conservative nor being liberal has ever been defined through these generations.
So, when my relative makes his claim, it carries no meaning for me. It is a wasted effort at meaningful conversation. Problem number one.
The second problem is much more severe, going to the root of how these terms can be defined, to stand scrutiny at all times, if they can be at all.
I will keep it short because I am not trained in philosophy to write a long thesis on the topic. Further, what I will be espousing in the next few sentences are at best inchoate thoughts.
In my opinion, conservatism and liberalism must be defined in time independent manner, just as the laws of physics are. Conservatism appears to me to be rooted in the thinking that we do not know as much as what our forefathers knew. That is, it discounts time variance. If something was right then, it cannot be wrong now. This must be understood in the sense of being an extreme take on the issue. Minor deviations may be allowed.
Liberalism, on the other hand, allows one to question thoughts on a current platform and knowledge and belief. Radicalism is going one step further and demands, rather than merely allowing, to question thoughts, be they old or current. It says, no one has monopoly over truth. It is for us to make truth as best as we can, without ideological, sociological, economic or political motivation.
Conservatism appears to be afraid of the future whereas liberalism is resigned, and being radical implies spreading out the welcome mat for the future, without fear.
It is in this understanding, right or wrong, I have the second problem with my relative’s assertion.