Edmund Burke’s Conception of the Role of Reason in Politics

Francis J. Canavan, "Edmund Burke's Conception of the Role of Reason in Politics," The Journal of Politics, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Feb., 1959), pp. 60-79.


British and American scholars have generally taken Edmund Burke for a utilitarian and an empiricist with a keen sense of historical development, qualified by certain religious prepossessions which inclined him to conservatism. …

All of these students of Burke, it is evident, agree in situating him in the tradition of British empiricism. The present writer finds
this interpretation not wholly false but seriously defective, and in some respects flatly contrary to Burke’s expressed convictions.
Burke’s denunciations of “metaphysics” and “theory,” and his exhortations to reliance on “experience” and “expediency” are too
well known to need documentation. But certain questions must be asked: what did he mean by theory and metaphysics, what did he think was to be learned from experience, and what was the relation of expediency to the moral principles which he also undoubtedly held? The answer to these questions lies in Burke’s conception of the role of reason in politics. The purpose of this paper therefore is to analyze what Burke himself said about the way in which human reason properly functions when dealing with political matters, and then to relate this conception of political reason to the moral theory that lay behind it.