Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., The Question of Conservatism

"Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., The Question of Conservatism," interview in Harvard Review of Philosophy, Spring 1993, pp. 30-47.


HRP: What, in your view, is political philosophy and why should students and others care about it?

Mansfield: Let me answer from the standpoint of philosophy. I would saythat political philosophy is about self-knowledge. You cannot think comprehensively without thinking about the conditions of thought, without thinking about what makes it possible to live the life of a thinker. The answer to that question is political because politics determines the conditions under which thinkers can think. Simply from the standpoint of a thinker or philosopher, I think political philosophy is a necessary pursuit, nat accidental. It isn’t an option for him to be or not to be interested in politics. Political philosophy tells of the connection between philosophers or thinkers and non-philosophers, between what is intelligible in thought and what is not, or what is specific or highest in the human and what is shared more generally with the lowest in the human and even with other creatures, the rest of nature, that is, the need to stay alive. If you reflect on this, political philosophy appears as the crucial field of philosophy – not the highest, but the crucial. It is at the crux, where thinking meets non-thinking.

HRP: What does it mean to be a conservative? Are you comfortable with that label?

Mansfield: I’m not comfortable with that label because it’s merely political in the sense of temporary. In other circumstances I can well imagine being a liberal and anyway there are difficulties with being a conservative. I think of two especially. One is that if conservative means holding to tradition, tradition often contains contradictory elements so that one has to be selective and no longer simply conservative. Another difficulty is a question of tactics. Should you go slow or go back? Going slow means keeping what has been done and slowing down the rate at which it is being done. It means maintaining a connection between the past and the present. Going back means making a break between the present and the past and so no longer keeping that connection. You see this on the Supreme Court today. Scalia wants to go back and this moderate group of Kennedy, Souter and O’Connor in the middle wants to go slow. I think there is no way of saying which of those two is always the better conservative position. Reagan was more of a go back. Bush was more of a go slow. Although Bush was obviously much less successful, I think you can make an argument for each way.

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