Western Civilization in a Nutshell

Norman Berdichevsky

Review of the book El hombre razonable y otros ensayos by Joaquina Pires-O’Brien. Beccles, UK, KDP, 2016. Available at Amazon.com.

The announcement of the adoption of the new word ‘post-truth’ by the writers of the Oxford dictionary on 16 November 2016 came out days after the publication of an e-book in Portuguese called O homem razoável e outros ensaios, already translated into Spanish (El hombre razonable y otros ensayos) – a collection of 23 essays on some of the most defining, as well as, controversial aspects of Western Civilization. The timing of the two events shows that the author is indeed well attuned with Western Civilization and its hurdles. This is due to the fact that one of the essays of this book deals specifically with Post-Modernism, the doctrine or mind-set from where the word ‘post-truth’ originated. Besides Post-Modernism, this book covers other contemporary themes such as liberal education, the two cultures (the chasm between science and the arts and humanities) and 9/11 as well as some timeless themes such as utopia, love and man’s attachment to myth. The author, Jo Pires-O’Brien, a Brazilian resident in the U.K., is the editor in chief of PortVitoria, the on-line biannual magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora, whose articles appear in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

The essay with the most difficult subject – in any language – is precisely the one that talks about post-modernism, described through its fascination with the concept of ‘narratives’; i.e. the plaything of many in the media – an attitude of scepticism or distrust towards ideologies, and various tenets of rational thought, including the existence of objective reality, truth, and the existing notions of progress. Instead, it asserts that knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, and political interpretation. The author’s preoccupation with the threat of post-modernism is not unwarranted. The term ‘post-truth’ adopted by the authors of the Oxford dictionary in 2016 captures the post-modernist idea that ‘there are no truths, only interpretations’. If there is no truth, science and other major elements of modern Western Civilization like its literary cannon are irrelevant.

The title of the book is taken from the first essay, which deals with a hypothetical ‘reasonable man’ that is enshrined in civil and contract law in Britain and the United States, although lacking a precise definition. Such ‘a reasonable man’ – without the definite article as in Spanish and Portuguese or ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ in British folklore, represents a person with common sense whose opinion is taken as the public opinion, and is valued in a number of particular instances such as how a person should behave in situations that might pose a threat (through action or inaction) to others. There is no need to establish a malicious intent and that this composite fictional character also is likely to commit ‘reasonable errors’ according to the circumstances and as such, is a matter of ethics. There is indeed much food for thought on how much our legal systems in the West, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries, are a function of a distinct tradition. One learns from the essay that the concept of the reasonable man goes back to antiquity, to the concept of phronesis or ‘practical wisdom’ of the ancient Greeks. To Socrates phronesis was the ability to discern how and why one should act virtuously, while Aristotle, and in the eve of the Modern Age, Spinoza, defined it as the capacity to think logically. The quality of a society depends on its human wealth, measured by the proportion of ‘reasonable citizens’. The theme of law reappears in another essay which deals with the crime of ‘affray’ – using or threatening to use unlawful violence towards another such that would cause a person of ‘reasonable firmness’ present at the scene to fear for their own personal safety. The etymology of the word ‘affray’ is explained showing that it goes back to a word in Proto-Germanic that has a Proto-Indo-European root.

Several essays are about influential thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Jacques Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Elias Canetti, Stefan Zweig and George Orwell. The essay entitled ‘The philosopher of liberty’ is about Hayek, notoriously out of favour among left-wing critics of the affluent modern societies and their economic policies. Hayek was one of the few who did not loose faith in capitalism in the aftermath of the Black Friday of November 1929. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), which turned out to be a best-seller, Hayek explained the misconceptions around the economic system of capitalism and highlighted the value of the freedom to use one’s enterprise and abilities to further oneself; most of all, he clarified that democracy is not an end value but only a means to achieve liberty. The Constitution of Liberty is another great book of Hayek, even though it was not a best-seller. Hayek was greatly admired by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once took the book The Constitution of Liberty to a session in Parliament and banged on the dispatch box saying at the same time: “This is what we believe”. Another personality I single out is George Orwell (Eric Blair), author of 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London, who is covered in two essays, one being a critical summary of Orwell`s life and the other describing the powerful metaphors of his book 1984.

The author’s past career in Brazil, as a research botanist with a PhD in forest ecology, is revealed in an essay about the ill-fated ‘Floram Project’, a reforestation programme. She based her account on the archives of the Institute for advanced studies of the University of Sao Paulo (IEA/USP) as well as on her personal memory. In this essay she shows how the Floram Project was conceived and the undeserved public maligning that caused the private sector investors to withdraw their support. The derailment of Project Floram is symptomatic of one of the major issues of our time – global warming. As Pires-O’Brien correctly concludes…’The project is an example of the constant debate between the reality and the ideal.’

One essay that is short and sharp deals with culture and cultural relativism, tracing the new meaning given to the word culture by some anthropologists and sociologists, and showing its connection to cultural relativism. The remainder essays deal with the great ideas that flourished in the West and helped to shape Western civilization – the Bible, paradise, utopia, life-long learning, love, a healthy mind in a healthy body and liberal education, as well as its current greatest challenges and threat: post-modernism and Islamic extremism. Although it is an eclectic collection of essays, there is a common denominator in the struggle of reason versus unreason.

Last but not least, the author tackles the Islamist extremism responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the use of jihad as the means to political power. This comes in the form of a series of Questions and Answers dealing not only with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks but also with a number of relevant topics about the Islamic religion: fundamentalism, the history of the conspirators and their motivation, the nature of the Koran, the inter-Arab and inter-Muslim Sunni-Shi’ite rivalries, jihad, Wahhabism, Salafism, the Muslim brotherhood, the aspiration for a caliphate and the beliefs of the majority of ordinary Muslims who are not Islamists, as well as the failure, lack of cooperation and naïve assumptions of American intelligence agencies. All these things are explained with clarity and without exaggeration.

This is a book to read and reread to help put diverse but crucial ideas in order and perspective. As a reviewer whose first language is English and has a good reading knowledge of Spanish, I found the Spanish text eminently readable, clear, precise, light and both entertaining and informative. The style is of the kind that engages the reader’s attention and does not ‘wander’ or ‘plod’ as is frequently the case with similar narratives embracing two dozen diverse provocative themes that are nevertheless well connected.

To date, the book has appeared in Portuguese and in Spanish and there is a hint in the Preface that an English translation is not in the frame: “The repertory of the themes covered is already well known in the countries situated at the core of Western Civilization, but not in the countries of its fringe. The objective of the present collection is to contribute to correct this distortion”. Although this is probably true, I believe that even in the English language there is a gap in the literature for such a concise analysis showing the ideas that shaped Western Civilization and those which are a threat to it. It is my fervent hope that an English edition will soon fill this gap. This is a valuable book that should be required reading for entering university students in all the fields of history, philosophy, the social sciences and international relations


Dr Norman Berdichevsky is an American specialist in human geography with a strong interest in Hispanic and Portuguese cultures. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and essays. He is on the Board of Editors of PortVitoria.





No Mincing, No Newspeak

Review of the book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Thinkers of the New Left, by Roger Scruton. London, Bloomsbury, 2015.

What is Left? What is Right? What is the New Left? These are some of the questions that Roger Scruton explores in his 2015 book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. This abrasive title undoubtedly relates to the author’s lifetime defiance of the New Left. In it, Scruton describes how New Left academics and other intellectuals empowered themselves by uniting against the common enemy of capitalism and its bourgeoisie, as well as by adopting an idiosyncratic language of its own, akin to the Newspeak in Orwell’s fictitious totalitarian society. Contrary to what the provocative title may suggest, Scruton’s treatment of the New Left is kinder than the treatment he received from its partisans, who cavorted to pin on him the slanderous label of ‘right-wing’. In his straight-forward style, with no mincing or Newspeak, Scruton dissects the irrationalism behind the New Left’s assault on all the things that makes society possible – property, custom, hierarchy, family, negotiation, government and institutions, showing that such assault has been carried out under the belief that it would lead to a society of perfect equality. He also highlights the unfairness of the New Left in comparing its imagined perfect society with real society.

Any outsider who happened to be familiar with British liberalism would be appalled to find out that Scruton’s 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left, his first attempt to pursue the subject, was withdrawn from the bookstores by the publisher due to the pressure received from the academic establishment. If this smacked of the heretic trials of the Ancien Regime, it is because New Left ideology then enjoyed a similar dogmatic status. However, New Left dogmatism ended three years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which triggered the process of disintegration of the old Soviet Union. Scruton links the two events when he states that he decided to rewrite his book in 1989, ‘when people began to realize that not everything said, thought or done in the name of socialism had been intellectually respectable or morally right’.

In a special chapter, Scruton examines how the New Left developed its ‘revolutionary consciousness’ that caused the culture wars of the 1980s. The process goes back to the 1960s, when disappearance of the real working class in Britain and in other parts of the Western world, created the perfect conditions for the New Left to emerge. First the intellectuals sought to be recognised as honorary members of the working class and then they started a revolution in their name, to be fought in the world of books. Here is how Scruton describes it:

“For the first time it was possible to observe the ‘revolutionary consciousness’ from close to, while running no risk of violence other than the violence of words. It was possible, in particular, to observe how quickly and adroitly the left-wing message was encased in dogma, how energetically the new revolutionaries went about the business of inventing spurious questions, barren controversies and arcane pedantries, with which to divert all intellectual inquiry away from the fundamental questions that had – from emotional necessity – been begged in their favour, including the question of revolution itself: what, exactly, is a revolution, and what good does it do?”

In describing the birth of the New Left in Britain, Scruton dwells in the idiosyncrasies of British society that facilitated the process, such as the British tradition of treating historians as leaders in the world of ideas and its unique tradition of social and literary criticism. He recalls changes in the British institutions of higher education as early as 1964, which, in his opinion, marked the transition from the Old Left to New Left. Scruton also describes the views of the most influential British socialists at that time, such as the Welsh writer and critic, Raymond Williams (1921-88), and the socialist historians who provided socialist accounts of the Industrial Revolution. Those changes marked the start of the intellectual revolution to take control of culture. In Great Britain, they were concentrated in the humanities departments, where the old set curriculum based on the objective standards of the Enlightenment was gradually replaced by a consensus-driven post-modern curriculum.

Scruton also describes the early days of the New Left in other countries. In Germany, the main drivers of the New Left were the professors and thinkers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt am Main. The Frankfurt School, as it is better known, pioneered the idea of ‘Marxist humanism’. Although it was closed in 1933 by the Nazis, just three years after it was founded by Max Horkeheimer (1895-1973), it survived through cooperation with universities in the United States, and resumed its operation in Frankfurt in 1951. In addition to Horkeheimer, the Frankfurt School included many big names of the New Left such as Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Erich Fromm (1900-80) and Theodor Adorno (1903-69). Scruton criticises the fact that the members of the Frankfurt School who were given the opportunity to continue their teaching careers in the United States did not pay back in kind. Horkeheimer and Adorno launched a relentless attack on the Enlightenment, claiming it was a product of bourgeois reasoning, while Marcuse denounced America’s ‘repressive tolerance’ and the ‘the totalitarian universe of technological rationality’. Jürgen Habermas (1929-), the surviving representative of the Frankfurt School, is let off the hook for having overcome its ‘stultifying agenda’.

Scruton’s appraisal of the New Left in the United States highlights the pragmatism of Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and Edward Said (1935-2003), encapsulated by a set of relativist ideas according to which ‘there is no point to the old ideas of objectivity and universal truth for all that matters is what is agreed.’ According to Scruton, both Rorty and Said inculcated doubt in the American mind and attempted to deprive the American cultural inheritance of the belief of its own legitimacy. Rorty came up with the idea of a new curriculum, a post-modern one, to replace the old curriculum, based on the Enlightenment. As for Said, Scruton states that he scorned and poisoned the way which the West portrayed the East but never considered the way which the East portrayed the West. Said’s attacks included not just the living scholars of the West but the entire Western scholarship, which Scruton presents as evidence of Said’s short sightedness. As it turned out, Said’s seminal book Orientalism was later shown to be the outcome of pseudo-scholarship, when Robert Irwing exposed its mistakes, oversights and downright lies. Scruton completes his criticism of Rorty and Said by showing some great examples of Orient Studies that came out of the Enlightenment, from Galland’s 1717 translation of the Thousand and One Nights, Goethe’s translation of the collection West-Östlicher Diwan (into German), and FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayan’s Rubaiyat. Scruton complements these with Sir William Jones dedication to preserving Persian and Arabic poetry and his pioneering study of Indian languages.

Scruton’s account of the New Left includes the building of its own brand, as distinct from that of the Old Left. He also points out two important things that the New Left preserved from the Old Left: the practice of creating cults around figureheads and the lingo. After recognizing the need for a figurehead that was exclusive to them, the theoreticians of the New Left chose Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian communist revolutionary who was imprisoned by the fascist government from 1926 until his death at age 46. There were two things that drove them to choose Gramsci over any other. The first was Gramsci’s idea of ‘revolutionary praxis’ with which he hoped to create a new and objective cultural hegemony which would replace the bourgeois culture. In a nutshell, Gramsci’s idea consisted of prioritizing ‘practice’ over ‘theory’ and it fitted well with the message the New Left wanted to convey. The second was the circumstances of Gramsci’s death in a fascist prison, a fact that gives credence to the political spectrum conceived by the New Left, where communism is located in one end and fascism the other. All the New Left had to do to make the cult around Gramsci stick was to exaggerate his credentials.

The existence of a political spectrum where the ‘Left’ end is the presumed realm of everything ‘intellectually respectable or morally right’ while the ‘Right’ end is presumed to be the realm of the opposite is a total nonsense, according to Scruton. In an attempt to throw some light on the topic, Scruton points out how the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ originated, in the early days of post-revolutionary France. When the prospect of changing France into a Constitutional Monarchy was being considered, the ‘Estates-General’, a body representing the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate), which had not met since 1614, was reconvened. In the Assembly of 1789, the representatives of the common people sat on the left of King Louis XVI while others sat on his right. This event marked the start of the association of the Left with the people and the Right with the elite. Since then, many gimmicks have been used to stretch the meaning of the Left to include anarchists, Marxists dogmatists, nihilists and American-style liberals, and to lump fascists, Nazis and economic liberals in the Right. Scruton closes his case by highlighting the common ground that unites communism and fascism:

“Communism, like fascism, involved the attempt to create a mass popular movement and a state bound together under the rule of a single party, in which there will be total cohesion around a common goal. It involved the elimination of opposition, by whatever means, and the replacement of ordered dispute between parties by clandestine ‘discussion’ within the single ruling elite. It involved taking control – ‘in the name of the people’ – of the means of communication and education, and instilling a principle of command throughout the economy.”

A special idiosyncratic language is the other thing that the New Left preserved from the Old Left. Scruton describes it as a “contemptuous Marxist lingo created to denounce, exhort and condemn”. He also tries to show the similarities between the New Left’s lingo and ‘Newspeak’, the official language of Oceania, in Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four. Scruton describes Newspeak as “a new fortified language created for the purpose of creating a ‘politics of truth’ to be used in the place of truth itself.” This lingo, according to Scruton, includes the Manichaean spin on words in order to mislead people to think that there are only two alternatives, as well as the manipulation of the meaning of certain words such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘bourgeoisie’. By presenting the word ‘capitalism’ as synonym of exploitation, the New Left gain an excuse to condemn free economies. By presenting the word ‘bourgeoisie’ as ‘a hegemonic propertied class that controls the means of production and therefore exploits the working class or proletariat’ the New Left justifies its call for class warfare. Scruton admits that many of the wrongs in British society identified by the New Left are true but he objects to the way that the New Left describes such wrongs, framing accusations in such a way that do not leave any room for defence either of the people described or of the system that contained them.

The central point that Scruton makes in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is that when the New Left juxtaposes its project against Western Civilization, it is not comparing like with like. Great Britain may have many faults but is a real society. Such is not the case of the ‘Kingdom of Ends’, a term Scruton uses to describe the society of perfect equality imagined by the New Left. He ends his book defending his position that Great Britain should remain as it is and pointing out that any improvements to it must come from within. They should be done through the improvement of civil societies, institutions and personality. By civil societies Scruton means the little platoons that exist across the land such as brass bands, study groups, choirs, cricket clubs, dances, holiday clubs, etc. As examples of institutions Scruton names professional organizations such as the Inns of Court, although these are also civil societies. By personality Scruton means the agency and the accountability of individuals as well as the institutions that include them. In spite of his dislike for the political spectrum terminology, Scruton describes what the so-called Right stands for:

‘The right rests its case in representation and law. It advocates autonomous institutions that mediate between the state and the citizen, and a civil society that grows from below without asking permission of its rulers. It sees government as in every matter accountable: not a thing but a person. Such a government is answerable to other persons: to the individual citizen, to the corporations, and to other governments. It is also answerable to the law. It has rights against individual citizens and also duties towards them: it is tutor and companion to civil society, the butt of our jokes and the occasional recipient of our anger. It stands to us in a human relation, and this relation is upheld and vindicated by the law, before which it comes as one person among others, on equal footing with those who are also subject to its sovereignty.’

‘Such a state can accommodate and bargain. It recognizes that it must respect persons not as means only, but as end in themselves. It tries not to liquidate the opposition but to accommodate it, and socialists too have a part to play in this process, provided they recognize that no change, not even change in their favoured direction, is or ought to be ‘irreversible’.’

Many of the ideas in Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands will be carefully considered by his admirers in Eastern Europe and in Latin America even though he wrote it thinking about Great Britain. Scruton wants to preserve Britain because he loves it and believes that it deserves to be preserved. He also thinks that should the New Left ideology ever become a reality, the result would be slavery. Scruton’s call to preserve society does not exclude micro-adjustments. However, before deciding which adjustments are needed people need to understand society’s two basic components, the state itself and civil society. Scruton’s view is that civil society should apply changes to the state and not the other way around. Therefore, all such changes should be from the bottom up, from changes within people. It is us who need to make a change of life that leads to self-knowledge, which in turn, would allow us to recognize that our happiness depends on wanting the right things, rather than the things that captures our attention or inspire our lust. These suggestions resonate with ideas often associated with the Left and also illustrate the nonsense of the political spectrum.

Scruton does not think that everything that the New Left thinkers wrote is wrong. In his appraisal of Gramsci, for instance, although he rated his work as ‘common sense sociology’ rather than a cutting edge philosophy, he recognised in him ‘a frankness that the more orthodox Marxists lacked’. To Scruton, Gramsci ‘was thwarted by the repudiation of the very idea of objectivity, and by the purely negative work of the comfortable professoriate in America’. Such view suggests that Scruton understood Gramsci better than those who pandered to him.

Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is the outcome of the author’s defiance against the New Left and the new order of things that the New Left sought to introduce in Britain. Scruton got a lot of grief as a result of this defiance and this could explain the streak of pessimism he reveals at the very end of this book, in the form of the questions left unanswered. If the professorship of the West’s top universities can be so mistaken, what hope can be for the rest of humanity? If the human species has a religious need that no amount of rational thought can overcome, would not that make all argument meaningless? If people are more prone to the abstract than to the concrete, is there a point is defending that which is merely real? These questions serves as food for thought for everyone who loves their country and wants to preserve it. Perhaps that was what Scruton had in mind when he asked them.


Jo Pires-O’Brien edits a digital magazine called PortVitoria, about the Iberian culture and its diaspora in the world.


Helen Kirby, reviser


The Enlightenment: a Summary

The Enlightenment is a way of thinking that is free from dogmas and based on reason and experience. The Age of Enlightenment marks the period when this way of thinking came about in the second half of the eighteenth century, although its roots go back much further, to the transition between the Middle Ages and Modernity. Some of the main transition thinkers at this time were: Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), René Descartes (1596-1650), Benedictus Spinoza (1632-1677) and John Locke (1632-1704). The end of the Age of Enlightenment has been demarcated to coincide with the end of the 18th century, although this did not mean the end of the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Part of the Enlightened mindset was to keep the secular separate from the religious and this was the norm among the practitioners of the objective sciences of Physics and Mathematics that dominated the era. Of all the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the most prominent was Immanuel Kant, a Prussian from near Königsberg (now Kalingrad, a Russian village), an epistemologist and political philosopher who understood and accepted the separation between the secular and the religious even though he believed in God.

Kant on Free Will and Perpetual Peace
Immanuel Kant was a firm believer in man’s free will as opposed to the counter idea of determinism. In order to explain his views, Kant used the word ‘phenomenon’ as a translation of the German word ‘Erscheinung’, which literally means ‘appearance’, to describe the immediate object of sensory intuition, meaning the bare information about an object interpreted through substance and cause. He called the ‘thing-in-itself’ the ‘noumenon’, the last reality. As a being of ‘phenomenon’ or the senses, man’s volition and action are under the control of natural necessity; as a being of ‘noumenon’ or the ‘thing-in-itself’, man is free.

The only significant flaw in Kant’s work is that he was overly optimistic regarding scientific progress, namely that it could lead to a progressive and peaceful world culture. Kant’s optimism was based on a brief period of peace which followed the Treaty of Basilea between Prussia and France. He had seen a lot of war in his time and this interval of peace inebriated him to create a utopia of perpetual peace for humanity. Kant revealed his ideas of political philosophy in a 1785 essay called Perpetual Peace, where he described the world progressing towards an ideal society in which reason would ‘bind every lawgiver to make his laws in such a way that they could have sprung from the united will of an entire people, and to regard every subject, in so far as he wishes to be a citizen, on the basis of whether he has conformed to that will’. Along with the idea of perpetual peace, Kant recognised the unity of the human race and introduced the idea of a world federation of republican states and global citizenship. This is why Kant’s utopia became known as Universalism.

There was another optimism in the Age of Enlightenment which was even more overstretched than Kant’s universalism. This optimism was the expectation that there were laws of society to be discovered, just as the natural laws of the movement of the planets. This belief was widespread among scholars who were not mathematicians and physicists such as the young Napolitan historical philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). Kant’s Critique of Judgement, providing guidance on how to give objectivity to the study of the natural world and the humanities, delivered an implicit message to such scholars that there is no such thing as ‘natural laws of society’.

Disagreement About God and Other Things
Although the set of ideas associated with the Enlightenment shared common ground this does not mean that the philosophers of this period all thought alike. The main thing that separated enlightened thinkers was their belief or lack of belief in God. The majority appear to have been deists or agnostics and only a few were declared atheists. Immanuel Kant affirmed that he never doubted the existence of God and yet he rejected the idea of intelligent design and stressed that there is no rational justification to ascertain dogmatically that God exists. Kant’s ambivalence1 regarding God was not uncommon among the enlightened thinkers. The most notorious enlightened atheist was Baron d’ Holbach (Paul-Henri Diedrich, 1723-89), a French encyclopaedist and philosopher, whose atheism is proclaimed in his major work The System of Nature (Système de la nature) of 1770.

The New Isms
Apart from God, the other main disagreement among the enlightened thinkers are all described by ‘ism’ words such as materialism, mechanism, naturalism, determinism and idealism. Materialism refers to the view that all facts are caused by physical processes alone and can be reduced to them. The main contentions of materialism are denial of free will, God and the inclusion of mental processes. Mechanism is a form of Materialism that holds that natural phenomena can only be explained by reference to matter and motion and their laws. Naturalism states that everything is natural and fall under the ‘laws of Nature’, which can be uncovered through scientific investigation. Determinism is the belief that man does not have free will because all of his moral choices are determined by previously existing causes. Idealism was understood by Kant as ‘the ideal of pure reason’ but a more radical form of idealism was introduced later by the Irish-born philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) who stated that only thought or ideas form the fundamental reality (see below).
The above mentioned D’Holbach, upheld an atheism that was accompanied by ‘materialism’ of the ‘mechanistic’ kind which also happened to be deterministic. In d’Holbach’s interpretation, thought is something that comes from hidden motions inside the body and morality results from the physical tendency of self-preservation. Thus, d’Holbach turned man into a ‘machine’ devoid of free will, where the forces of the soul are no other than those of the body. D’Holbach’s combination of atheism with materialism triggered the dismissal of both, putting on hold any serious discussion of atheism per se.

Nature and the Laws of Nature
The word ‘nature’ was used in the eighteenth century to refer to all that exists, that is, both the universe as a whole and the earth and the species on it. This led to the assumption that there were ‘laws of Nature’ about everything including society, and that the object of science was to discover them. However, laws of Nature such as gravitation and the laws about the movement of the heavenly bodies are commonly restricted to the science of Physics. Kant’s categorization of Nature into ‘phenomenon’ and ‘noumenon’ also served to explain why certain things within Nature have natural laws and others don’t. Thus, according to Kant, those parts of nature that are perceived as ‘phenomenon’ are mechanistic and ruled by natural laws; the remaining parts are complex systems which need to be studied differently. From the nineteenth century onwards, the word ‘cosmos’ started to be used to refer to all that exists, while the word ‘nature’ acquired its present connotation of the earth and living organisms. The old expression ‘laws of nature’ was changed to ‘laws of the universe’ or ‘laws of cosmology’.

The Enlightened Political Science
A new political science emerged in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, being less functional and more theoretical than classical political philosophy. Its main concern was method, utilising the technique of contrasting one thing against one or more alternatives such as ‘the civil state’ versus ‘the state of nature’, ‘facts’ versus ‘values’, ‘realities’ versus ‘ideologies’, ‘the world’ versus ‘the world of different societies’ and even the contrasts between the ‘I, me, thou, and we’. The aim of the new political science was to develop the capacity to form a political structure of some kind, such as a legislator seeking compromise between what is desirable and what the circumstances permit. It also aimed to deal with the internal as well as external issues of a political unit such as a city or a nation. While classical political philosophy attached importance to debating the merits of different types of political orders (forms of government), the main concern of the new political science was to define the various political orders that existed,without passing value judgement.
One of the greatest political philosophers of the Enlightenment was Baron Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755), who analysed the ideas underlying the various laws throughout history. His proposed form of government, based on the separation of powers – legislative, executive and judicial, became the model for all constitutional democracies of the West.

The Counter-Enlightenment
The Enlightenment and all the optimism that it brought began to attract bad publicity when the peace that Kant had envisaged did not materialise. First came the wars of the French and the American republics and then the Napoleonic wars. These wars provided an opportunity for terms such as mechanism, materialism and atheism to be used as scapegoats, as the sweeping changes brought by the Enlightenment proved too much for the many who would have preferred to leave things as they were. A Counter-Enlightenment soon emerged, doubting the outcome of a secularised science, independent from religion.
The Counter-Enlightenment refers to all the movements against the rationalism, universalism and empiricism associated with the Enlightenment, which appeared from the late eighteenth century. The best known counter-Enlightenment movement was the Romantic Movement, characterised by a mindset, present mostly in the arts, which sought to restore the age innocence taken away by the ‘mechanistic science’ of the Enlightenment. The term ‘Idealism’ is sometimes used to describe a mindset centred on imagination, nature, symbolism and Divine Providence, and this can equate Idealism with the Romantic Movement. However, in philosophy, the Romantic Movement and Idealism are two different things.

The Romantic Movement
The Romantic Movement in philosophy started with Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), who wrote in the areas of society and education. With regards to society, Rousseau was highly critical of modern science and modern society and promoted a return to a distant past when things were more genuine and uncorrupted. Rousseau’s perfect society was founded on liberty, equality and fraternity and was based only on the general will, ignoring the views of minorities. Thus, his proposition that every issue could be solved by a vote of the citizenry led to the absolute rule by the majority, something that the French revolutionaries later introduced. With regards to education, Rousseau wanted a return to the state of nature, when man supposedly lived without the corrupting influences of society. However, he contradicted himself when he stated that ‘man’s nature is not fully mature until it becomes social’ as well as in proposing an egalitarian society from which women were excluded. In his La nouvelle Héloise, Rousseau tried to show that women need to develop instinct and feeling in order to be effective companions to their husbands.

The philosophy of Idealism stemmed from the Enlightenment in the 1770s when Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716) introduced his theory of Monads, the building blocks of every object, which God created to give sense to the world. Although the theory of Monads is considered a wacky idea by today’s standards, Leibnitz can be viewed as an enlightened philosopher who defended rationalism and shared the optimism of Kant. As already mentioned, Berkeley took this idea forward and stated that the only reality is ‘thought’ while all that exists – the things and objects perceived by our senses – are not real. Several great philosophers became associated with Idealism, the main ones being Georg Hegel (1770-1831), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1820) and Johann Fichte (1762-1814).

Science in the 19th century
The separation of the secular and the religious that characterised the Enlightened mindset appeared to have vanished by the 19th century. There is plenty of evidence for that in the countless wrong conclusions that the natural historians took due to their belief in creationism. Had the Enlightened mindset vanished or was it simply hidden behind the Romantic ideas? The answer to this question can be found in a hindsight analysis of the kinds of science practised in the second part of the 18th and the first three quarters of the 19th centuries. While the former was dominated by the exact sciences, the latter was dominated by non-exact ones such as psychology, geology, botany, zoology and biology.

The separation of the secular and the religious was easy for the exact scientists working with the cosmos but proved difficult for the non-exact scientists whose objects of study were closer to home. This is not to say, however, that all non-exact sciences were characterized by a lack of objectivity. Statistics began to develop at that time as a tool to add objectivity to the subjective nature of the various new sciences that appeared. In spite of that, it is fair to say that many non-exact scientists and the scholars working in the humanities were dilettantes who lacked the disposition to question everything, as did the 18th century physicists. It is also fair to say that most of them did not practise their science with an unprejudiced mind.

When the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) set himself the task of classifying the flora of the world, with the help of an army of plant collectors around the globe, he thought he was completing the job of the biblical Adam. Therefore, when he inspected his garden, planted according to perceived kinship relations, and saw gradations instead of clear cut separations between species, the idea of evolution still did not occur to him. Something similar happened when the French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) compared the analogous parts of the anatomy of various animals both living and extinct and still insisted in creationism. Cuvier’s theory of catastrophes to explain the extinct fauna shows that he was not studying nature with an unbiased mind but with a mind committed to religion. The doctrine of creationism was finally disproved by the British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82) in his 1859 book The Origin of the Species, describing how life on earth evolved over millions of years through a process of adaptation and natural selection.

Although the subject of chemistry started with Robert Boyle’s discovery of phosphorous in 1649, thus at the start of the Age of Enlightenment , it was during the 19th century that it came of age, with the publication of the periodic table by Dmitri Mendelev in 1869. The fact is that the exact sciences did not disappear during the 19th century. They just weren’t that noticeable amid the many other subjects that were developing at the time. In physics, a crisis was created after the recently discovered electromagnetic force appeared to conflict with gravity. This crisis was resolved only in the twentieth century by Albert Einstein’s two theories of relativity.

The Enlightenment’s New Enemies
In the 20th century the Counter-Enlightenment came not just from religious dogmatism but also from Post-Modernism. By Post-Modernism I do not mean the kind defined by The New Oxford Dictionary as “a late 20th century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, which represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of ‘art’.” but to the relativist ideology which stemmed out of literary criticism during the last quarter of the 20th century, centred on the idea that the universal realities of the world are social constructs based on language and communication, and for that reason can be fixed simply by a change of meaning. There is a sweeping assumption in this idea, namely that one type of opinion is as good as another, and that there is no such thing as ‘best knowledge’ or ‘scientific knowledge’.

The inter-related concepts of social construction and linguistic idealism were at the centre of the American culture wars, according to Ian Hacking, a Canadian professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and winner of the Holberg Prize in 2009. According with K J Gergen, social construction is a perspective which believes that a great deal of human life exists as it does due to social or interpersonal influences. According to Hacking, linguistic idealism refers to the doctrine that only that which is talked about exists. In Hacking’s view, sorting out the culture wars required some kind of mediation from individuals who had the cognitive skills to understand the problem and were willing to get involved.
Although it can be argued that for a large part of the twenty century the Enlightenment appeared to remain eclipsed, it also can be argued that the Enlightenment’s ideas were there all the time. They persisted, not just in the minds of the people who accepted that there is a ‘best knowledge’ in the kind of knowledge derived from reason and from science, but also on the expectations of the general public who looked to science and technology to improve their lives.
Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a cultural internet magazine dedicated to the Spanish and Portuguese speaking communities worldwide: http://www.portvitoria.com/

1. Kant’s ambivalence regarding the existence of God was my interpretation based on what I read from Kant himself. However, Will Durant in his book The Story of Philosophy (1953) states that Kant did not press his conclusion regarding God for he realised that the world was not ready for it. Durant also pointed out that Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason not to put down science but to show its limitations, something that he had to do in order to demonstrate that religion cannot be proved by theoretical reason. ‘Transcendental dialectic must remind theology that substance and cause and necessity are finite categories, modes of arrangement and classification which the mind applies to sense-experience, and reliably valid only for the phenomena that appear to such experience; we cannot apply these conceptions to the noumenal (or merely inferred and conjectural) world. Thus, Kant concluded his Critique, stating that the objects of faith – a free and immortal soul and a benevolent creator, could never be proved by reason. According with Durrant, those who understood the message at the end of the Critique of Pure Reason realised straight way that Kant had undermined the most precious argument of theology and thus killed God.

Gergen, K J (1985). The social constructionist movement in modern psychology. American Psychologist, 40(3), 266-275. In: Ian Rory Owen’s Social constructionism and the theory, practice and research of psychotherapy: A phenomenological psychology manifesto. 28 p. (http://www.intentionalitymodel.info/pdf/SOCCONST.pdf)
Hacking, Ian (1999). The Social Construction of What? Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 261 p.
Kant, Immanuel (2005). Critique of Judgement. Translator: J H Bernard. Dover Publications Inc, Mineola, New York.
Montesquieu, Charles de (1986). The Spirit of Laws. In: Maynard Hutchins, Robert, Editor in Chief, Great Books of the Western World 38. William Benton, Publisher, Chicago.
Vico, Giambattista (2008). A Ciência Nova. In:Gardiner, Patrick, editor, Teorias da História; Interpretação do Processo Histórico. 6ª edição.Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. Lisbon.

Acknowledgement: Helen Kirby, revisor

The War on Cultures: Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton

On Thursday evening, 13th of September, at the Royal Institution, in London, I had the chance to attend the debate The War of Cultures, between the literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton and the philosopher Roger Scruton, promoted by the organization Intelligence Squared. Sixty-nine year old Eagleton is a distinguished professor at the University of Lancaster, having taught at Oxford from 1992 to 2001, as well as at various other universities around the world. He has written over forty books, most notably: Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), and The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996). Scruton is a 68 year old who is known for his conservatism, is presently a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, and a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Saint Andrews. He has also taught at Birbeck College – known as a university for mature students because it offers evening classes, and also known by for its left-leaning student culture – from 1971 to 1992. He has written over thirty books such as Art and Imagination (1974), Sexual Desire (1986), The West and the Rest (2002), A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006), and as well as novels and two operas. The choice of Eagleton and Scruton for this event is obvious: the first is the darling  and the second, the scourge of leftwing activism worldwide.

 Having arrived exactly on time, as soon as I settled into the only seat available, the mediator took the microphone. Each speaker would have six minutes to advocate his point of view. That was followed by a debate and a Q&A session with the audience. Eagleton was the first to speak. He started with a brief summary of the evolution of culture during the last century and the kernel of his a\argument was as follows: The transformation of culture started towards the middle of last century and eventually it became a substitute for religion, when it began to be seen as a saviour of humanity. This trend continued up to the point when culture was accused of having caused the death of God. Then culture began to get closer to politics, making it lose its moral high ground.  And when culture capitulated to capitalism [presumably in the universities], it ceased to be a solution and started to be a problem, becoming unfeasible. Finally, culture blended itself with other social practices and stopped being critical. Following all these changes, culture today has become something for which people are willing to kill.

 In his turn, Scruton stated that he was going to shift the focus of the debate to how to teach culture, adding that in order to talk about how to teach culture one needs to talk about the reason to teach culture. And there are two contrasting visions about the reason to teach culture in universities. The first vision is that culture must be taught because it is a form of wisdom that has many elements of knowledge. The other is Eagleton’s vision, a negative one, based on the importance of deconstructing or undermining the distilled culture of the Western canon. This second vision of culture began in the period between the two World Wars and culminated in 1968. However, Scruton stated that he did not agree that universities had surrendered to capitalism, something he infers from his observation that the number of leftwing groups in  universities appear to have increased, not diminished. He then went on to state that the reason to teach culture is that culture has practical knowledge. He showed that apart from science, culture is the factor that mostly contributed to practical knowledge, which he defined as that which guides us about what we should do and feel and how to increase our emotional competence. One of the best examples of this is music. And music is a good example because it has nothing to which Marxism can attach.

 Scruton stood down and returned to his chair, which was about one meter from Eagleton. From then on the debate continued with the two protagonists sitting side by side. The descriptionof the discussion I provide here is not necessarily in chronological order. Eagleton stated that although he admitted that the seventies and eighties were overly negative, he disagrees that the deconstruction of culture has been purely negative.  “Culture exists within a historical context that needs to be recognised’’, said Eagleton. Carrying on, he said that perhaps what Scruton dislikes is the theory of culture and its leftwingmembership function. But science also has some kind of affiliation. Scientists tend to work closely with one another, as opposed to people like himself, who work alone.

 But the leftwing community [of the universities] shouldn’t even exist, Scruton argued. Group belonging may be important, he stated, but the existence of a leftwing club [in universities] doesn’t necessarily demand the existence of an equivalent rightwing club; nobody in their sane senses would admit such a thing; and there is no equivalent membership among scientists.

 At some point Scruton said that he was against business undergraduate degree courses and Eagleton used the opportunity to state that, in this case, Scruton would agree with him regarding the problem of the universities. Eagleton insisted on a point already made, that the devaluation of culture was caused by the universities, when they started to be dominated by the type of administration that mixed politics with economics. And in the end, Eagleton concluded that when capitalism took over the universities, culture became vulgarized.

 Scruton contested, asserting that culture lost its critical role because it was not prioritized by the universities. In order to regain its critical role it is necessary to return to basic things such as human nature. Eagleton rebuffed, stating that Marx had also preoccupied himself with human nature, which he called species being, adding that –Marx must have been a closet Aristotelian–, a reference to the idea that all thinkers are intrinsically either Aristotelians or Platonists, where the Platonist group describes the tendency to collectivism and socialism.  After a few more assertions and counter assertions, Eagleton and Scruton agreed to end the debate in order to allow the public the opportunity to ask questions.

 About six people from the audience took the microphone to ask questions, although these were more like statements than questions. For example, a question about the ivory towers of academia inferring that these were a bad thing. Eagleton took the opportunity to criticize the ivory towers. Scruton argued that universities cannot deal with everything that is considered “culture” and that their job is to prioritize the type of culture that they should teach, and that the role of the ivory towers is to make this separation. Eagleton criticised the Western canon as an imposition from the universities’ ivory towers. Scruton replied that the canon imposes itself because it is made up of works which have passed the test of time.

 A young woman of Indian appearance asked how come the high culture of the West tended to clash with other high cultures. Assuming that the inquirer was referring to Indian culture, Scruton replied that when the culture of the West first met Indian culture, during the time of the West Indian Company, William Jones, a specialist in the Persian language, recognised straight away the importance of Sanskrit and its links with Western languages, and acted to ensure that the important documents of Indian culture in Sanskrit were rescued and preserved. The young woman did not seem convinced and carried on attacking the arrogance of the British culture during the period of colonialism. Scruton countered that the British government interfered in some cases, such as when it prohibited the burning of witches. Scruton also tried to show that Western culture had a readiness to accept worthy cultural contributions from outside, as exemplified by the success of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, about Indian culture.

 Another question was about the lack of recognition [without clarifying by whom] granted to certain forms of popular culture such as hip hop music. Scruton reminded us that until the first half of the last century even the great musicals and the culture of jazz were accused of undermining music culture; Scruton also lamented the loss of  genuine folk music, which at some time in the past served as inspiration for the great classical composers such as Mozart.

 Although Scruton had made efforts to maintain the central theme of the Culture Wars, which has to do with the role of universities in the teaching of culture, Eagleton wasted time joking around, such as when he stated that he belonged to the left because otherwise he would have to work and also because he knows that this annoys people. Because of this, the event was far from a strict debate. This situation could have been avoided had the facilitator been firmer in maintaining the discussion within the theme of Culture Wars and insisting that questions from the audience were genuine questions and not pre-prepared statements. Unfortunately this debate was a missed opportunity to show clearly the vision of these two important drivers of modern thought.

 Jo Pires-O’Brien

Bergen, Monday, 17 September 2012.

Acknowledgement: Helen Kirby revised and greatly improved this text.

 Free to reproduce provided that the correct source is cited.

 Jo Pires-O’Brien is the Editor of PortVitoria, a trilingual cultural e-magazine dedicated to the Hispanic and Lusophone communities worldwide: http://www.portvitoria.com/