Ideas & culture

Here’s a question prompted from some conversations with Mike:

To what extent do ideas influence the formation of culture?

This is a big one, of course. At one extreme we have Hegel, who thought culture, civilization, history, and politics were nothing but the evolution of ideas, like a great big collective consciousness making up its mind. At another extreme we would have someone who sees the changes in culture and history as entirely whimsical – maybe each change can be explained given enough information about the prior state, but there really aren’t any general laws governing the changes, let alone any sort of “end” culture is approximating toward. (Can anyone name a thinker to credit with this?) Somewhere in the middle is Marx, who thought economics (and not ideas) does the driving.

Clearly there is sometimes some of what Mike calls “trickle-down philosonomics.” Meaning, sometimes a great idea of a philosopher gets passed along eventually to the producers of culture and ends up being a significant mover. Anyone have some good examples? Right now the best I can come up with is the idea of “political correctness,” which started in the academy and then filtered down through society in all sorts of regrettable ways. More often, it seems, media mavens appropriate some austere idea in order to pin a snazzy label on some change that is happening anyway. I’m thinking here of literary and film criticism, which is always trying to see the hand of the great thinkers in the most inane cultural products. And it also frequently happens that some change occurs in a society, and the philosophers pick up on it and theorize about it – so culture influences the formation of ideas, not the other way around.

Maybe ideas influence the formation of culture only in retrospect. When you look back on a historical period, and want to understand what happened, sometimes you want to trace economic changes, or political changes, and sometimes you want to track philosophical/literary evolution. You may want to see how the tensions within Hegel’s philosophy led to Marx on the one hand, and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on the other. And, if you are knowledgeable and creative enough, you might see parallels between these ideological evolutions and changes that took place within the culture. This sounds like a bunch of make-believe, but damned if it doesn’t make for edifying results. Read Schorske’s Fin-de-Siecle Vienna.

I think the practitioners of this art do think they are tracing some kind of causal history. There, I suppose, I’m skeptical. I think what they are really doing is exploring abstract ideas(like freedom, absurdity, and responsibility), and the role they play in our views of history and culture. So if I am for whatever reason interested in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and read up on the history and literature of the time, I might turn to Schorske’s work to help me integrate some elements of the causal history with ideological elements. What I end up with is a fusion of history and network of ideas – historio-philosophy, I guess. It may be bad or distorted history, but that doesn’t mean its valueless.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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12 Responses to Ideas & culture

  1. Mike says:

    Like you’ve said, I imagine some studies like this reveal quite a bit.

    At a certain level I definitely think ideas are formative, which is probably why I tend to harp on the idea that needs, want, and safety in particular have been poorly defined by whatever it is that does the defining in our culture (contemporary marketing?). And I want to say a claim like that is fairly obvious. But on the other hand I often see the disconnect.

    I read somewhere that if a person hears something repeated 10 times, they tend to believe it but in that case I think they’re best described by this bit of Orwell.

    A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

    Politics and the English Language – George Orwell

    Sorta different than if they had appropriated knowledge. They’ve definitely got something they can pass but it may only be formative in the passing, not in the person.

    That’s one particular “disconnect” problem but I think there are others as well, especially when it’s fairly difficult or abstract philosophical concepts.

    There’s a somewhat well known fear of postmodernism undermining everything, that’s another one I just have a hard time believing. First off, it’s a word with a ton of definitions. Then there is the problem of how exactly does one appropriate postmodernism. It seems to end up being an ambiguous claim. I think at best it represents a feeling, maybe angst.

    Anyhow, I would like to work it out a bit at least just to keep my eye on the ball, orient myself and others in effective ways.

    btw, “trickle down philosonomics” was something i picked up randomly online. i’m just spreading the meme.


  2. Huenemann says:

    Maybe writing about ideas and culture as determinants of history is a bit like having a strategy for getting across a crowded room. If you and I want to get over to where the bar is, we might adopt a keep-your-head-down-and-keep-moving strategy, or a glide-along-the-wall strategy, or a go-out-the-window-and-break-back-in strategy. Each plan ignores all the complicated motions taking place within the crowd. The plan is simply a template for getting where we want to go, and hopefully one that will work regardless of what the crowd ends up doing. A really ambitious strategy would be to predict the movements of the crowd and plot a course that will take us to the bar.

    Okay, now I’ll try to cash that out. The motions in society are like those of the crowd — unpredictable in detail, but basically remaining the same for our purposes. But you and I and let’s say 22 others want to have a direction in our life that will get us what we think we want — meaning, balance, good works, enlightenment, heaven, whatever. To get that we employ a strategy. Some strategies may be very introverted (keep your head down and keep moving). Some may be Thoreau-ish (go out the window), or Nietzschean (stick to the outer walls). Others — and here is the ambitious one — might require us to create something of a fiction regarding where the crowd has been and where it is going. Such a fiction allows us to plan our movements accordingly.

    The thing is (and here is where the analogy breaks down), we’re not exactly getting to a “place” like the bar. We’re chasing a mind-set, which is in principle available to us even if we don’t accurately predict the crowd’s movements. Maybe our prediction has to be accurate enough and loose enough to fit a broad range of crowd movements; our fiction only has to be successful enough so as to sustain our vision.

    Did that make sense? I felt like I was losing my point at the end there.


  3. Mike says:

    I think you’re saying, it’s more important that the interpretation of culture is believable (than true) so that it can support a mindset.

    A nice Huenemannian turn, pull these things away from ‘truth’ and we get a model for personal or in this case a particular audience formation. They might be wrong as far as their intent is to “trace causal history” accurately but their stories still have value.

    As we proceed then, the trick is to hold a more modest posture. And this sort of modest posture is also more than sufficient for the 22 or so.

    am I understanding you?


  4. shaunmiller says:

    Perhaps I’m missing the whole discussion here, but when I was teaching pragmatism to my students, a student posed the question: since pragmatism is an American idea and pragmatism has influenced American culture, couldn’t we say that Rationalism influenced French culture, Empiricism has influenced British culture, and Transcendental Idealism influenced German culture? An interesting question, but I didn’t know how to respond to it.

    I went with the idea and said that the English are probably sticklers for facts and science and being analytical, the Germans have had some great psychologists and others that wanted to study the mind, I’m not sure about the French, maybe they just like to have discussions in cafes. It was an interesting discussion but that could be one example that my class and I explored.

    As for the example of no general law developing toward some result or “end” culture, couldn’t Schopenhauer’s Will be a good example of this?


  5. Huenemann says:

    Yes, Mike, that’s what I’m thinking: modest posturing only!

    Shaun, I don’t know whether pragmatism/empiricism/rationalism/idealism made the Americans/Brits/French/Germans that way, or if it worked the other way around. And maybe Schopenhauer is a good representative of the “pointless” view of historical change. Still, I was fishing for someone less metaphysicsy than old Art.


  6. Kleiner says:

    Time for my occasional visit to Huenemanniac. I won’t stay long as I’m busy with a new baby.

    Since Huenemann is ready to ‘pull away from truth’ (to paraphrase Mike’s paraphrase of Huenemann), does that mean I will be seeing less of him since he’ll be transferring over to the English department? You know, the home of ‘philosophy lite’ where they tell fun stories that we know to be fictions without an eye toward truth? (Sorry English people, couldn’t resist).

    More seriously: There is a move in the postmodern tradition away from the category of truth (thought to be too ‘metaphysical’). Levinas in particular is worth reading on this, he emphasizes ‘witness’ (which is personal, experiential, concrete, ethical, practical, …).

    A more accessible book to read is one by my former mentor, Calvin Schrag: ‘The Self After Postmodernity’ explores the way in which narratives shape our experience of self and community (he trades heavily on Kierkegaard and Levinas). I suppose the notable difference is that, while Levinas/Kierkegaard/Schrag do not trade much in ‘truth-talk’, they does not consider the ‘witness/narrative’ a ‘fiction’.

    I think Huenemann has a decision to make here on how strong of a position he wants to take here. I find the use of Huenemann’s use of the word ‘fiction’ worrisome. He might be using it in a way rather similar to how I have used the term ‘myth’ on this and the usu blog. But he might not. So what does he mean? Here are two options, choose one or suggest another:

    a) Stronger position (more skeptical/cynical): The use of the word ‘fiction’ suggests that all we can have our fictions, that everything is just a story. This is the more radical deconstructive position that Derrida flirts with (and perhaps out and out embraces). We tell stories, there is no reason (truth) that would suggest that one story is better than another. It is fiction wall to wall, so to speak, with no hope of actually coming up with a way of sorting out the true stories from the false ones. Traveling this route leads you, I think, quickly to questions of power (see Nz and Foucault). Or if you don’t want to focus on power, you go the route I think Huenemann might be suggesting above, something like: ‘Every story is a fiction and there is no way for us to have anything other than fictional stories. But we can still make judgments about stories, but instead of basing our judgments on truth, we will base them on ‘usefulness’ (do they get me personally or my community to ‘move’?)’.

    b) Weaker position (less skeptical/cynical): This is something that ‘moderate pomos’ (people like Schrag, Kearney, and people like me) are interested in. We move away from excessive (technological) reliance on ‘meta-narratives’ that claim to have one absolute master story that absolutely masters absolute truth (Platonism and Hegelianism are, I think, the best examples of meta-narratives). But in focusing on the role of [local] narrative and concrete lived experience we ‘moderate pomos’ do not thereby necessarily abolish all truth-talk. Granted, I find myself walking a fine line (such is the life of a ‘Heideggerized Thomist’).

    By the way, I might be totally missing the point of this stream. If so, ignore me (I am pretty well sleep deprived right now).


  7. Kleiner says:

    By the way, if Huenemann does mean something similar to ‘myth’ (as I have used that term) by ‘fiction’ here, then I think he has added something quite interesting to that discussion. My past discussions of ‘myths’ have tended to focus on ‘meta-myths’. What Huenemann suggests above is that ‘localized myths’ drive the bus as much as the big ones. Perhaps the highly localized fictions/myths (like the historio-philosophy that I might undertake thanks to my highly localized interests) can be the most ‘edifying’.

    (Huenemann used the word ‘edifying’ in his first post, though as my last post suggests I am not sure how much he means by that word. He might just mean ‘useful’ in the sense of ‘moving me’ [somewhere]. Of course the word really entails that there is an ‘up’ toward which I might intellectually/morally/spiritually strive. This is, again, the difference between position (a) and (b) above.)


  8. Huenemann says:

    Welcome back, Kleiner, and congratulations again on daughter #2! I’m looking forward to meeting her.

    I know I don’t accept (a). It seems self-contradictory to me to give a long story about how every story anyone gives is necessarily fictional. I think I accept the spirit behind (b), but I like reading ambitious meta-narratives, so I don’t want to move away from them. I just regard them as “truthish” at best — meaning they grab hold of some real elements, and give me things to think about (my definition of “edifying”), though they also get a lot plainly wrong. And I do think that some works are “truthier” than others: careful historians can frame plausible hypotheses about what causal forces were at play in this or that episode. (Here I’m only thinking of the truth as historical facts; sometimes when we talk about “truth” it’s distinguished from facts, as when we talk about the meaning of life, etc.) Historio-philosophical works are less “truthy” in that sense, with regard to the facts of history, but they provoke my thinking.

    I see I’m not saying anything deep. Just this: “If you want to learn why the events in history happened, go over to THAT section of the bookstore, where you’ll find a bunch of (to my mind) boring, data-filled books. If you’re like me, and want the philosophical part of your mind provoked, and you want your thoughts to be linked up in loose ways to events in history, then go to THIS part of the bookstore.”

    I’m a little worried I pulled in some teleology where I didn’t want any. I’m not sure the books I was talking about necessarily lead us anywhere. They might; Mike, for example, have a distinct vision of the world he wants to have (Mikeragua?), and use his reading to help make that happen. But I tend to drift fairly aimlessly, a sort of anti-Hegel, I guess.


  9. Kleiner says:

    We are probably closer here than we sometimes appear. I also love a good meta-narrative, but with you think we need to be careful. I think Heidegger’s aletheia-ology (truth as disclosure) is a big help here. It helps to think of truth not as a ‘thing’ but as an ‘event’. ‘Truthing’ is something we do (this is all tied to the importance of language and thinking in Heidegger), for man is the being for whom Being is a question. Furthermore, there are many ‘modes’ of thinking (poetic, technological, ethical, metaphysical, … …). Each of these modes of thinking discloses, but can also cover over. So there is no one way of looking at things, though admitting this does not lead us to excessive deconstruction. Rather we are, I think, called back (as was Heidegger) to Aristotle and Nicomachean Ethics VI – many ways of thinking about the world, each uncovers but can also cover over. After all, ‘being is said in many ways’. The best lived life will be a life where we think excellently in all of these modes, each ‘at the right time and in the right way’ (as Aristotle would say).

    Aside on a meta-narrative that I think is ‘truthier’ than any other: I have been trying to explain to Amy that Olivia has ‘first order actuality’ (she has an actual human form) but is in ‘second-order potentiality’ (she is radically potent with respect to her teleological development).


  10. Mike says:

    Kleiner, congrats! I hope both Amy, daughter #1, and Olivia are doing well.

    Kleiner’s discussion of Heidegger/Aristotle reminded me of this Nietzsche quote–

    Being philosophically minded. — We usually endeavour to acquire a single deportment of feeling, a single attitude of mind towards all the events and situations of life – that above all is what is called being philosophically minded. But for the enrichment of knowledge it may be of more value not to reduce oneself to uniformity in this way, but to listen instead to the gentle voice of each of life’s different situations; these will suggest the attitude of mind appropriate to them. Through thus ceasing to treat oneself as a single rigid and unchanging individuum one takes an intelligent interest in the life and being of many others. (HAH, I, 618 )

    I guess the Mikearaguan vision is distinct and attempts to provide some positive impetus but it hopes to do that with the help of a number of broader metaphysical structures, it doesn’t want to displace them. That would be a really distracting side project.


  11. Matthew says:

    In War and Peace Tolstoy argues that ideas do not shape history.


  12. Kleiner says:

    Here is a brief article on culture and ideas that might be interesting to you, and perhaps relevant to the discussion here. It is called ‘The Mass Man’ by Joseph Bottum and it reviews the relevance of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s work to our contemporary global situation.


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