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.