This is a follow-up to the discussion that followed on this post, and to a lesser extent on this one, about the definition of neo-conservatism and of conservatism in general. In a comment on the first one, Grumpy suggested that everyone read George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. As it happens, I own a copy of that book, but have not yet read it. So I decided to start. I haven't gotten very far, but in the introduction Nash discusses the question of defining conservatism in a way that I think is useful, so I'm going to post a somewhat lengthy excerpt from it. In the paragraph below, the emphasis is mine, and is my own view.
Because this is an examination of what I have labeled "conservatism" in the postwar period, readers may perhaps expect a definition: what is conservatism? For those who have examined the subject, this is a perennial question; many are the writers who have searched for the elusive answer. Such an a priori effort, I have concluded is misdirected. I doubt that there is any single, satisfactory, all-encompassing defintion of the complex phenomenon called conservatism, the content of which varies enormously with time and place. It may even be true that conservatism is inherently resistant to precise definition. Many right-wingers, in fact, have argued that conservatism by its very nature is not an elaborate ideology at all.
One of the few Internet conversations in which I've ever lost my temper occurred in this context: a Thomist insisted that if conservatives could not supply a rigorously specific definition, acceptable to the Thomist mind, of the word "conservatism," then the term must be devoid of meaning altogether, with the clear implication that those who used it were hopelessly irrational. (This was on the Caelum et Terra blog a few years ago; I don't remember the topic of the post that led to the discussion.) But there are many things in the world that do not have precise definitions, yet which undeniably exist, although if they attract the attention of intellectuals they may be the occasion of many arguments: What is jazz?, for instance, is a question that can only have a rough answer. Of these things, one can usually assert without too much fear of contradiction that a specific example is of the class being discussed, and another is not, but there are always debatable instances. It's not so much that no definition is possible, as that its boundaries will always be vague. Few would argue that Coltrane's Giant Steps is not jazz--but is Interstellar Space classifiable as jazz only because Coltrane performs it? Certainly there are many who have declared, on hearing the latter, "That's not jazz."
Debates about this sort of thing are fine and useful up to a point, but for my part I find extended terminological arguments tiresome, especially as they're inevitably inconclusive. It's important to remember that the terms involved are descriptive, not prescriptive.
Attempts to define conservatism abstractly and universally or in terms of one particular set of historical circumstances have led many writers into a terminological thicket.
How shall we extricate ourselves? Great as is the temptation to construct a pattern of my own, I have deliberately refrained from what I believe to be a dubious enterprise. The subject of this book is conservatism as an intellectual movement in America, in a particular period. Not all conservatism; not conservatism as an illustration of an archetype derived, perhaps from a study of feudalism or the Middle Ages. Rather, conservatism at it existed, in a certain time and in a certain place. Conservatism identifiable as resistance to certain forces perceived to be leftist, revolutionary, and profoundly subversive of what conservatives at the time deemed worth cherishing, defending, and perhaps dying for.
That's good enough for me.
At some point, however, an insistent reader may still object to my use of the word "conservative." How, it may be asked, can you label someone a conservative when he was "actually" a nineteenth-century liberal?.... To these questions one answer, I hope, will suffice: I have designated various people as conservatives either because they called themselves conservatives or because others (who did call themselves conservatives) regarded them as part of their conservative intellectual movement. I have counted diverse people within the conservative fold because study shows that, existentially, they belonged to the American conservative ranks in the postwar period. Whatever our sense (or their sense) of the propriety of these alignments may be, that was the way it was.
A nicely pragmatic and empirical approach, which is appropriate, because to me those are characteristics of conservatism. Which is not to say that pragmatism and empiricism are its metaphysical principles: conservatism in itself does not necessarily contain a metaphysical principle, but assumes that the ultimate questions belong to another realm. That's one of the things that distinguishes it from progressivism which frequently, if only unconsciously, is a metaphysical principle.
(I wrote all the above last weekend, intending to add a note about neo-conservatism and then post it. But before I could do that, Monday morning arrived with the news of the pope's resignation.)
Neo-conservatism presents an example of the definitional problem. Twenty or thirty years ago there was a reasonable amount of agreement about what it meant, although I am not going to attempt to formulate a definition. At minimum, it was known to refer mainly to specific people--Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz among Jewish intellectuals, Michael Novak and George Weigel among Catholic, et.al. I have never been able to see that it was fundamentally different from any already-existing form of conservatism: it only mixed those existing strains in somewhat different proportions. But for various reasons, including hostility from both the left and the right, it became in many circles a pejorative used so indiscriminately that it became almost meaningless, and sometimes a veiled expression of anti-Semitism. And it's harder than ever to distinguish it from conservatism in general. As Rob G maintained when this was last discussed, this can be taken to mean that neoconservatism has mostly replaced conservatism proper. I don't really agree with this, but either way the case for holding on to the term is weakened, precisely because of the original definitional problem. It's hard to complain that a definition has been tampered with if it was never clear in the first place.
So if I were Supreme Arbiter of Nomenclature, I would forbid its use except in reference to the original group.
For millions of adherents to Actually Existing Conservatism (Rob's term), conservatism consists of three ideas: limited government, free markets, and a strong national defense. Is that neo or paleo or what? They don't care. There's a reason why Nash's book is about the conservative intellectual movement. AEC is not my idea of conservatism, but they don't care about that, either, and I just have to shrug and remind myself that it's a label to be worn lightly.