Twilight of Authority

Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary

by Robert Nisbet
Harvard University Press, 318 pp., $17.50

A “philosophical dictionary” is not a dictionary of philosophy that you use to look up obscure thinkers or recondite terms. It is a collection of brief and pithy essays on diverse topics, informed by one vision, and usually arranged in alphabetical order. Nisbet has written just such a book. Voltaire set the model by extracting mostly anticlerical pieces from the great Encyclopédie, and publishing them in 1764 as a Portable Philosophical Dictionary. Francis Bacon’s Essays—and those of many other, lesser writers—are of the same form, although without alphabetical arrangement. Bacon, Voltaire, and Nisbet each have a short piece under the heading “Atheism.” Nisbet overlaps Voltaire on “Enthusiasm,” “Fanaticism,” “War,” etc., and has more recent headings such as “Futurology,” and “Judicial Activism.” (He is against both.)

The subtitle “A Philosophical Dictionary” is fine. It is the main title, Prejudices, that is wrong. Nisbet’s essays are not prejudices but considered judgments, and that is why I find them scary. Voltaire’s dictionary defines a prejudice as an opinion without judgment. He wrote that prejudices may be needed to get a start on life; they are springs to action and many of them are perfectly sound. Reasonable people remain, however, under the obligation to subject them to scrutiny, analysis, and judgment. Nisbet has honored this obligation to reflect and judge.

When we start at the top of the alphabet we find that “Anomie” was discussed by him in similar ways in, for example, his Sociology as an Art Form1 The repetition befits a retired professor of sociology who edited work by the original student of anomie (Emile Durkheim). In “Authoritarianism” Nisbet defends the doctrine of Jeane Kirkpatrick that we are to distinguish authoritarian from totalitarian regimes, accepting that the former may be our allies but the latter must in the end be our foes. This view was worked out in a chapter on the total state in a book Nisbet published in 1953, The Quest for Community,2 where Stalin was already seen as a little worse than Hitler. When we come to “Boredom” we find Nisbet repeating a secondhand judgment stated in his History of the Idea of Progress3—boredom is one of the greatest dangers to our civilization, right up there with nuclear war and famine.

When a man has been writing professorial books about these ideas all his working life, how then can he call them prejudices? Nisbet begins his new book by quoting one of his heroes, Edmund Burke, who recalls that some thinkers try not to explode “general prejudices” but instead seek out the “latent wisdom” that they contain. They do not try to “cast away the coat of prejudice” in favor of “naked reason,” for “prejudice, with its reason,” is of “ready application in the emergency” and “does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled and unresolved.” I suppose this fine epigraph stands for Nisbet’s view of his own essays, but if that is the case it suggests he has a…

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