Nisbet, Robert Alexander

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Nisbet, Robert Alexander

(b. 30 September 1913 in Los Angeles, California; d. 9 September 1996 in Washington, D.C.), influential neoconservative social philosopher, historian, and author, who wrote extensively on the history of political philosophy, social development, and current events.

Nisbet was the son of Henry S. Nisbet, a lumberyard worker, and Cynthia Jenifer Nisbet. Raising their family in southern California and Macon, Georgia, in modest circumstances, the Nisbets relied on New Deal relief measures during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nevertheless, influenced by the conservative values of these regions, Nisbet later credited some of his anti-statism to his youthful experience. His interest in learning, he said, was a reaction to the bleakness of growing up in the San Joaquin Valley.

Nisbet took his B.A. (1936), M.A. (1937), and Ph.D. (1939) degrees in sociology, all from the University of California at Berkeley. There he found the ordered, meritocratic, and hierarchical community that he loved, increasing his nostalgia for medieval social organizations so lacking in 1930s society. Though a supporter of the New Deal as a youth, he became, under the influence of his adviser, Frederick J. Teggart, a historical sociologist. His dissertation analyzed the traditionalist French sociologists Louis de Bonald and Robert de Lamennais.

Nisbet served two years in the Pacific theater of World War II, again finding comfort in the shared values and identity of a structured military community. Returning to Berkeley, he taught sociology until 1953. He served as dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Riverside from 1953 to 1963 and as vice chancellor from 1960 to 1963. He was a professor of sociology there from 1953 to 1972. He then moved to the University of Arizona, where he served as a professor of history and sociology from 1972 to 1974. He taught at Columbia University from 1974 to 1978, ending as the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities. (Nisbet always affirmed the humanistic roots of sociology in contrast to the quantitative emphasis that dominated the field.) He also served as a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., from 1978 to 1980, continuing as an adjunct scholar until 1986. In 1988 he was Jefferson Lecturer for the National Endowment for the Humanities. During the 1980s, he was viewed as a conservative sympathetic to the Ronald Reagan administration. He received numerous awards, such as a Guggenheim Fellowship (1963–1964) and the Berkeley Citation (1970) and was a frequent speaker nationally and internationally.

Among more than a dozen books, Nisbet published several that were particularly influential in the formation of neoconservatism: The Quest for Community (1953); Twilight of Authority (1975); History of the Idea of Progress (1980); Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (1982); Conservatism: Dream and Reality (1986); The Making of Modern Society (1986); and Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (1989).

Under the influence of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Nisbet saw the rise of the centralized, territorial state as the defining development in modern history. Since the medieval era, the West had suffered from a steady decline of institutions that mediate between the individual and the state. The gradual dissolving of traditional voluntary ties to neighborhood, family, church, and guild had the effect of liberating people from institutional authority. However, the actual consequence of modernization was atomized, alienated, isolated, and spiritually deprived humans—the twentieth century’s “mass men.” This isolation generated a longing for community, that was too often satisfied in the false, externally imposed order of the modern totalitarian state.

Three themes define Nisbet’s essential thought. First, he analyzed social and political processes and institutions in societies past and present. For him, a healthy society, such as pre-Revolutionary Europe, possesses strong communal and familial structures. Morals and other fundamentals of life were regulated by clan, guild, church, and village, and in time were expressed in custom and ritual. However, philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau undermined the raison d’etre of these natural, plural communities and their internal structures of legitimate power.

In his pivotal The Social Philosophers (1973), Nisbet analyzed the gradual decline of voluntary communities and the rise of the omnipresent state. Hobbes, in the seventeenth century, had argued that individuals were constantly in a state of competitive war with others, and that they needed an artificial external government to protect themselves. Individuals thus consigned rights to the state in return for protection. Rousseau, in the following century, posited a virtuous, pre-social man who had become twisted and vile only after society imposed on him such artificial restraints as private property. Rousseau proposed a “social contract” as the way out of the uncomfortable social conditioning that had ruined our natural harmony. The centralized government, an omnicompetent and unitary state, was thus designed to secure the liberties of each citizen and to resolve individual conflicts by subordinating associations to its general will. Hobbes and Rousseau, according to Nisbet, had tied radical atomistic individualism to the concentration of state power. For Nisbet, however, the modern centralized state complements and feeds on the anomie of alienated modern man, who lacks bearings, identity, and meaning. In this, he is in league with other modern critics of “mass man” such as Eric Hoffer and José Ortega y Gasset.

Nisbet’s second general theme was his suspicion of abstract ideas and intellectual fashions. He particularly distrusted intellectual systems that make large claims and have substantial popular appeal—especially the modern totalitarian systems of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao. In Nisbet’s view such systems excused a host of sins in exchange for millennial perfection. Ever the independent, however, he also attacked the hubris and simplifications of more conservative thinkers as well. Nisbet found the inarticulate rhythms of human existence more trustworthy than large ideologies or systems. He was particularly hostile to psychohistory, sociobiology, futurology, and environmental-ism, which he considered to be disguised millennial religions which often “bully by metaphor” those who fail to agree with their pretensions. Environmentalism, for example, he saw as on its way to becoming a “redemptive” successor to Nazism, socialism, and Marxism—secularized religions that had justified mass slaughter in service to a sanctified end. By contrast, in Social Change and History (1969) and History of the Idea and Progress (1980), Nisbet argued that social problems could be alleviated only by incremental, pragmatic steps. Although a respected conservative friendly to many of Reagan’s positions, Nisbet was always an independent libertarian thinker and found fault with the efforts of some conservatives to regulate morals and thus enhance the power of the state.

His last set of common ideas was his underlying assumption that man’s nature was flawed beyond total repair. Consistent with his conservative forebears, Nisbet saw ample empirical evidence for human sloth, ambition, vanity, tyranny, stupidity, cupidity, aggression, and fanaticism. He particularly found fault with the vanities and banalities of academic life after World War II. In The Degradation of Academic Dogma (1971), he excoriated the modern decline of learning, authority, reason, and the quest for truth. He deplored the lowering of academic standards and the proliferation of training rather than education. For the conservative and skeptical Nisbet, man’s capacity for tyranny gave great importance to pluralistic society where natural and voluntary communities would minimize the power of the state.

Critics such as Herbert Marcuse, Richard Rorty, Herbert Gutman, and Marvin Harris faulted his ignoring the socio-economic context of ideas in his focus on political philosophers as agents of change. Others found fault with his romanticization of traditional community life, pointing out that the state has no monopoly over coercion, which may also be exercised by some of the very institutions Nisbet praised.

Nevertheless, Nisbet’s influence is undeniable. His early work on the importance of communities and his analyses of their decline anticipated such “civil society” theorists and communitarians as Garry Wills, Charles Taylor, Amitai Etzioni, and Robert Bellah. The Quest for Community appealed to counterculture radicals where participatory democracy would challenge impersonal, government bureaucracies.

Aside from his considerable scholarly legacy, Nisbet is remembered as a brilliant teacher who lectured with original insight and without notes. Despite his aristocratic bearing, enormous vocabulary, and erudition, students recall him as modest, unassuming, and fair-minded to his intellectual opponents. Nonetheless, Nisbet fretted over what he saw as the decline of authority and standards in higher education and was pleased to give up teaching in 1978. He married Emily P. Heron and the couple had two daughters before they divorced. His second wife, Caroline Burks Kirkpatrick, survived him. They had one child. Nisbet died in his sleep at the age of eighty-two after a long struggle with prostate cancer. He is buried in Washington D.C.

The Robert Nisbet papers (1949–1994) are at the Library of Congress (MMC-3681). They contain 1,500 manuscripts, letters, documents, book reviews, and speeches. For a view of Nisbet’s personality, see Robert Perrin, “Robert Alexander Nisbet,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (Dec. 1999). For a revealing memoir of his academic career, see Robert Nisbet, Teachers and Scholars: A Memoir of Berkeley in Depression and War (1992). An excellent overview and assessment of Nisbet’s thought from the perspective of conservatives is found in Brad Lowell Stone, “A True Sociologist: Robert Nisbet,” in The Intercollegiate Review 33 (spring 1999). For a full-length discussion of Nisbet’s place in modern conservative thought see George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1996). For a comparison of Nisbet’s evaluation of community and the new communitarians, see Bruce Frohnen, “The Misdirected Quest for Community: Why Neighborhood Ties Remain Elusive,” Family Policy (May—June 1999). For a discussion of Nisbet’s ideas on social progress, see Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals (1987). A obituary is in the New York Times (12 Sept. 1996).

Alfred L. Castle