Thursday


In my Addendum on Naturalism Purged of Metaphysical Fallacies I proposed an analogy between the role of Scholasticism in the medieval work with the role of naturalism in the modern world:

“Naturalism stands in relationship to 21st century philosophical thought as scholasticism stood in relation to 13th century philosophical thought: it is the background conceptual framework (usually itself imperfectly and incompletely articulated, but nevertheless pervasively present) that underlies most explicit philosophical formulations. In the same way that it would be difficult to identify the exact content of scholasticism in the 13th century, it would be difficult to identify the exact content of naturalism today, and this is to be expected from a fundamental philosophical orientation in its ascendancy.”

One could argue that we are already seeing the beginnings of the breakdown of naturalism. In 2012, when Thomas Nagel published Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, the book came in for surprisingly harsh criticism, simply for Nagel being a philosopher of his stature questioning the now received presumption of physicalism. This controversy over Nagel’s book, however, is a conflict internal to naturalism — specifically, a conflict between a narrowly conceived physicalism (but still conceived within the framework of naturalism) and any alternative (but still naturalistic) explanatory framework. There are any number of naturalistic interpretations of mind (or consciousness, if you prefer), so that insisting upon an eliminationist account seems unnecessarily extreme, as though there were something more going on here than the mere formulation of a philosophical position. The eliminationists protest too much.

Just as logical positivism was a particularly narrow form of naturalism in the early twentieth century (similar in many respects to contemporary physicalism), physicalism is the particularly narrow form of naturalism prevalent today. Perhaps it is the character of naturalism to be repeatedly expressed in minimalist forms like this until their manifest inadequacy has been demonstrated to the current generation of philosophers. Minimalist forms of naturalism have the virtues of parsimony, both ontological and theoretical, and the kind of elegant argumentation often associated with parsimony, but there are limits beyond which minimalism passes from being merely austere to being downright perverse and no longer being parsimonious in terms of what it requires that one believe.

A conceptual framework as robust as naturalism can be expected to endure for many centuries, as indeed the Scholastic conceptual framework endured for many centuries. The efflorescence of the Scholastic synthesis (as it is sometimes called) is usually associated with the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, with the work of William of Ockham marking the unraveling of the Scholastic synthesis. But while the Scholastic synthesis may have declined in the late middle ages, with its replacement with the rising scientific synthesis (part of the rise of naturalism) in the early modern period, the better part of the European conceptual framework remained essentially Scholastic for hundreds of years yet to come.

E. M. W. Tillyard’s classic study The Elizabethan World Picture emphasized the essentially medieval character of the Elizabethan world picture (“…it was still solidly theocentric, and that it was a simplified version of a much more complicated medieval picture…”), and Carl Becker’s equally famous lectures The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, extends the influence of the Scholastic conceptual framework into the Enlightenment: “…the underlying preconceptions of eighteenth-century thought are still, allowance made for certain important alterations in the bias, essentially the same as those of the thirteenth century.” (From the final paragraph of lecture 1.) If we are permissive in the range of dates we give for Scholasticism, this was a conceptual framework that endured for well over a thousand years, and fifteen hundred years by some measures.

The replacement of Scholasticism by naturalism begs the question as to what conceptual framework eventually will follow naturalism, when naturalism itself follows Scholasticism into the dustbin of history. Suppose after another several hundred years, when the naturalistic conceptual framework has run its course and has been exhausted, that some other conceptual framework begins to replace naturalism, a process as gradual and as piecemeal as the replacement of Scholasticism by naturalism. What might this post-naturalism conceptual framework look like? Can we even imagine such a thing, or are we too much the products of naturalism ourselves that we cannot free ourselves from it even if we try to do so?

Merely to ask the question is to build certain assumptions into our conception of history. There is, most obviously, the presupposition of the possibility of a sequence of co-equal conceptual frameworks, the later frameworks supplanting the earlier, but not being an improvement over the earlier (or a decline compared to the earlier framework). This is somewhat like the Thomas Kuhn idea of a paradigm, which has prompted an enormous commentary. There is also the related presupposition that there will be a sequence of conceptual frameworks like this, rather than a linear development in which the human conceptual framework comes to maturity, and, having come to maturity, can only decay and then disappear—but this decline and disappearance is part of an organic life-cycle of conceptual frameworks, and not an arbitrary sequence of conceptual frameworks in which the historical process of succession is essentially irrational.

If we make these presuppositions about one conceptual framework following another without rhyme or reason, why not go even further? Why not posit a cyclical development of conceptual frameworks, such that framework A is followed by framework B, framework B is followed by framework C, but human beings have run out of new ideas at this point, so that framework C is followed once again by framework A (or its functional equivalent), and so on, ad infinitum. One could even argue that the conceptual framework of classical antiquity was more-or-less naturalistic, so that the rise of naturalism with the scientific revolution was actually the recrudescence of naturalism. Thus when this current age of naturalism has exhausted itself, we are likely to see the recrudescence of non-naturalism, mysticism, and mythology. In fact, the sharp criticism of Nagel might be credited to a concern on the part of his critics that any non-reductive, non-physicalist theory of mind was the opening of a Pandora’s box of mystification, which lid needs to be kept firmly shut so as to avoid the return of a non-naturalistic conceptual framework (a slippery slope fallacy).

N.B. — Nagel’s critics may well be right: those who hope for a future of rationalist and Enlightenment values may have a legitimate reason to be concerned about the influence of such a book from a prominent philosopher. In the same way that A. J. Ayer was said to have had a deathbed conversion (the circumstances of which are insufficiently known to the public to make sense of the contradictory accounts that have been published—cf. “An Atheist Meets the Masters of the Universe” by Peter Foges and An Analysis of the Near-Death Experiences of Atheists), and in the same way that Bertrand Russell’s casual mention of “Christian love” was immediately taken as a sign that Russell himself now had a more charitable view of traditional systems of belief (what Russell said was, “The thing I mean — please forgive me for mentioning it — is love, Christian love or compassion. If you feel like this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessary for intellectual honesty”; Russell briefly addressed the response to this passage in his essay, “What is an Agnostic?”), Nagel’s book is viewed by some as a means to worm their way into otherwise reasonable discussions in order to strike a blow for unreconstructed supernaturalism.

By definition, any conceptual framework that follows naturalism but which is not itself naturalism would be non-naturalistic, though it would not necessarily be non-naturalistic in the sense of being supernaturalistic. A post-naturalistic conceptual framework would be, by definition, non-naturalistic, but we are only limited to non-naturalistic supernaturalism if we believe that there are no further conceptual possibilities for human beings, i.e., if we are unable to conceive of any non-naturalism that is not supernaturalistic, which I will here assume posits the existence of a realm of reality inaccessible to empirical investigation. Whether or not we can conceive of a non-supernatural non-naturalism remains an open question at this time—not surprisingly, as comparatively little effort (to my knowledge) has been invested in the possibility.

I have myself benefited greatly from making the attempt, over many years, and going over the same ground time and again, to imagine forms of emergent complexity not realized on Earth, as well as forms of civilization not yet realized. At first, one is simply lost when questioning fundamental presuppositions, but, if persistent, one can begin to make very small changes in one’s presuppositions, like a hole in the dike of pervasive matters of fact with no countervailing experiences, and, once imagination begins flowing ever so slowly through these holes in the dike, the dike itself becomes unstable and one can begin to picture scenarios in which the dike is washed away and the landscape appears transformed.

Thus would it be in any attempt we could make today, with naturalism at the fullness of its power, waxing in its influence, to conceive of a non-naturalistic conceptual framework. This is not a project to be taken up lightly, but a kind of meditation to which one might return repeatedly over many years as a longitudinal thought experiment on the emergence of a radically new conceptual framework. However, the fact that a naturalistic conceptual framework likely would be gradually replaced by a future non-naturalistic conceptual framework, in a piecemeal fashion, could be our point of entry into another way of thinking about the world. If we could identify isolated non-naturalistic concepts with some future promise (I can offer no instances at this time, so my positing of such concepts must remain non-constructive for the time being), we could take these promising concepts and attempt to construct with them and around them a conceptual framework that extends, elaborates, and applies this promising non-naturalistic concept. Eventually, a conceptual framework begins to form, and, when sufficiently elaborated, some other concepts within that framework present themselves as those concepts whose initial adoption would form the basis of gradual adoption of the framework entire.

This thought experiment implies another thought experiment, to which it is related, but with which it is not identical, that that is the thought experiment of a radically novel form of emergent complexity appearing within the emergent complexities familiar to us on Earth. This is a distinct but overlapping thought experiment with that which seeks to project a future non-naturalistic conceptual framework because a conceptual framework could be a novel emergent, but it not necessarily a novel emergent complexity. And the most radical forms of novel emergent complexity would not be anything as predictable and projectable as a novel conceptual framework. Thus in attempting to imagine a new form of emergent complexity coming into being we might consider radically new conceptual frameworks, but we would also want to go beyond this and try to conceive of emergent complexities that would have nothing whatsoever to do with conceptual frameworks, that are already familiar to us in several distinct forms.

The obvious kinds of emergent complexity (i.e., those that are predictable and projectable) that may arise on Earth would be those that develop from the already elaborated emergent complexities of consciousness, intelligence, technology, and social organization. For example, a new and unprecedented form of civilization. Possible instances are not difficult to formulate. A human civilization off the surface of Earth, whether on another planet (or on a moon), or in an artificial environment maintained in outer space, would be absolutely unprecedented: there has never before been a human civilization in outer space. Nevertheless, the existence of human civilizations on Earth gives us a clear template for constructing human civilizations in outer space, no matter how unprecedented such a development may be. This would constitute a predictable and obvious form of emergent complexity not yet realized but potentially looming large in the human future, and so it is with many of the more imaginative futurist scenarios, such as the emergence of machine consciousness, and all that implies, or our contact with another civilization from elsewhere in the universe, and so on.

Now let us try to set aside these obvious extrapolations of emergent complexity as we know it on Earth today and attempt to conceive a novel emergent complexity that is not only unprecedented, but which would be completely unexpected and as close to being incomprehensible as human cognition will allow us to conceptualize—a thought experiment on a radical new emergent, as different from mind as mind is different from the organisms upon which mind supervenes.

Say, for example, that the ocean begins to turn poison, and ocean food webs begin to collapse. Imagine that an enormous red tide algal bloom, of a slightly different chemical composition than familiar algal blooms, is the culprit, but the poison, while deadly to life as we know it, is some other kind of emergent complexity, another kind of chemical complexity, which is arising on the basis of existing chemical complexity in the oceans, and by establishing itself as the new chemical regime on Earth, becomes the basis of further kinds of emergent complexity that supervene upon it. Human beings might stand helplessly by, or we might frantically but ineffectually attempt to intervene, even as the chemistry of the world’s oceans changed and rendered our biology archaic, as though we belonged to a bygone era of Earth’s history. The nature we know today would be replaced by the nature that will represent the Earth in future ages, and this, too, would be a kind of post-natural world, and understanding it might require a post-naturalistic conceptual framework, if any human beings remained to possess a conceptual framework.

A scenario not unlike this unfolded on Earth billions of years ago. The Great Oxygen Catastrophe was a kind of poisoning of the environment on a planetary scale, though it was the poisoning of the atmosphere for the anaerobic organisms that had dominated the biosphere up to this time. Later, with the atmosphere enriched with oxygen, other kinds of life evolved that employed oxygen in metabolic processes, turning this poison to their advantage. Now imagine an oceanic parallel to the Great Oxygen Catastrophe — the Great Oceanic Catastrophe — that would leave our Earth as unrecognizable as our reconstructions of the earliest stages of Earth’s history are unrecognizable to us today. I attach no particular importance to the scenario I have just briefly sketched; it is intended only as an example, since examples of counterintuitive counterfactuals are difficult to come by, and I wanted to offer something concrete, and not merely leave the reader hanging.

I am not expecting the foundations of a new conceptual framework to begin to take shape tomorrow, nor do I expect to wake up tomorrow and hear news of a mysterious and ominous new oceanic anomaly. Indeed, I do not expect these events, or events of a similar magnitude, to begin to unfold in hundreds or perhaps even in thousands of years. So in discussing “the coming age of post-naturalism” I mean only that post-naturalism is “coming” on geological and cosmological scales of time, and to think of phenomena on this scale in terms of a human scale of time is not merely misleading, but actually fallacious.

The Age of Post-Naturalism will not arrive for several centuries at earliest, even if the conceptual framework of our civilization is such as can be replaced at regular intervals. And if naturalism is the mature conceptual framework for beings such as ourselves, then naturalism will endure as long as a civilization endures that can maintain the level of development that allows for the mature expression of the human intellect to remain. If we maintain our developmental accomplishments at the current stage of civilization that we enjoy today, or better, then naturalism would be our final conceptual framework, and this would be true also if our civilization were abruptly cut short by some terrible catastrophe. If, on the contrary, our level of civilization declines, our conceptual framework would almost certainly decline along with civilization. However, it is possible that this decline could be found in parallel with another traditional of thought gaining historical momentum. E. M. W. Tillyard, as quoted above, characterized the Elizabethan world picture as constituting a simplified iteration of the medieval world picture, but we also know that, at the same time, the scientific and naturalistic world picture was just then coming into being, parallel with the declining medieval world picture.

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Sunday


One of the most annoying constructions of contemporary sociology is Richard Florida’s conception of the “creative class.” Florida isn’t necessarily wrong in his claims, and indeed I am sympathetic to some of his arguments, though much of his analysis turns upon taking a naïve conception of creativity and moving the goal posts so that this intuitive conception of creativity comes to be bestowed upon patently uncreative individuals who pad the ranks of the corporate hierarchy. By marginalizing a “Bohemian” creative class and putting at the center of his analysis the suits who congratulate themselves on being creative, he has arguably misconstrued the sources of creativity in society, but that is not what I want to focus on today.

Here is how Florida defines his “creative class”:

“I define the core of the Creative Class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. Around this core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care, and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital. In addition, all members of the Creative Class — whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs — share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit.”

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, second edition, pp. 8-9

Florida’s use of the phrase “high human capital individuals” (employed throughout his book) begs the question as to who exactly are the low human capital individuals. Needless to say, formulations like this are self-congratulatory to the point of delusion, because no one who uses the phrase “high human capital individuals” believes themselves to be anything other than a high human capital individual. Here Nietzsche is relevant, though what he said of philosophers must now be applied to sociology: It has gradually become clear to me what every great social science up till now has consisted of — namely, the personal confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious memoir.

We need not employ Florida’s annoying formulations. Let’s consider another approach to essentially the same idea. Take, for example, Marx’s version of the “creative class”:

“Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who produces books, such as compendia on political economy, at the behest of a publisher is pretty nearly a productive worker since his production is taken over by capital and only occurs in order to increase it.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, London et al.: Penguin, 1976, p. 1044

Clearly, Marx here evinces no romantic notions of the creative genius in isolation, praising the Leipzig hack over the genius of Milton. And this is Florida’s conception of “creativity” in a nutshell, nearly indistinguishable from “productivity” as used in contemporary economics. One can imagine in one’s mind’s eye Richard Florida reading this passage from Marx and nodding his head with an odd grin on his face.

Suit-and-tie guys who are “knowledge workers” in their own imaginations, but in who are in reality time-servers in a corporate hierarchy, are the members of the “creative class” who are fulfilling the function that Marx assigned to the Leipzig hack. In other words, the same kind of people who, fifty years ago would have been reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, are the same people who still today are reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, but now they fancy themselves to be part of the “creative class” and they take micro-doses of LSD when they go to Burning Man each year to “unleash” their creativity.

But this is exactly the kind of “creative class” that the global economy wants and needs; Marx had put his finger on something important when he raised the Leipzig hack over Milton. The less creative you are, and the more you have adapted yourself to be a creature of the institutions you are serving, the more successful you will be (according to conventional measures of success) and the more money you will make.

The pedestrian fact of the matter is that industry — whether something as flashy as the film industry or something as prosaic as the energy industry — advances mediocrities to its top positions. Usually the top people are mediocrities with some redeeming qualities, or a hint of limited talent, but still mediocrities. The truly creative types know that mediocrities are being advanced beyond them and taking the top positions in the industry, and that there is nothing that they can do about this. These truly creative types aren’t living the life of the one percent; indeed, they aren’t living the life the ten percent. Most of them make less than six figures, and there are probably many plumbers, sheet rockers, electricians, and truck drivers who make a lot more than them, and who have no massive college debt hanging over their heads.

The Bohemian creatives, the ones actually creating things, find themselves in the position of performing alienated labor at the behest of their corporate masters, who neither understand nor appreciate them. Having failed to learn one of the simplest lessons in life — that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar — the lowest strata of the creative class spew their resentment at every opportunity. (The dirtbag left today might be thought of as part of a Bohemian fringe of creative types, though at the political end of the creative spectrum.) They are so convinced of their own virtue that they are unable to see or to comprehend that they themselves have become the bitter, punitive gatekeepers that as “creatives” they presume to despise.

Resentment, it seems, flows uphill. By creating a permanently resentful underclass, which is the basis of the entirety of society (because the underclass have the jobs that keep industrialized civilization functioning), the resentful underclass creates a popular culture derived from this pervasive resentment, and this pervasive popular culture resentment eventually finds its way into the routines of comedians, into television, into films, and ultimately into élite cultural institutions, which imagine themselves setting the cultural and aesthetic agenda, but which in fact respond like reactionaries to the authentic energies of the lower classes.

The phenomenon of resentment flowing uphill manifests itself powerfully among the “creative class.” As we have seen, the most creative members of the creative class experience the appearance of fame but the financial reality of entry-level positions, so that they belong to the permanent underclass and its bitterly resentful view of the world, which is a view of the world from the bottom up. They are well aware of their low financial status, and that they do not share in the rewards of the uncreative members of the “creative class.”

Ultimately, the resentment of the creative class and the bourgeoisie becomes, over time, the resentment of the élites, and this is when we know that society is rotten from top to bottom. When those who have been given every advantage and every preferment in life are bitter and angry about their world, clearly something has gone off the rails. Of course, the resentment of the élites is expressed in a distinctive way, filtered through their thinly-veiled dog whistles and symbols, but not only is it there to be seen, as clear as day, but also pervasively present throughout the institutions that they superintend.

Apparently, it isn’t enough to rule the world and to enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of the masses; more than this, one must have the acquiescence of those masses in their subjection to the rule of élites. Mere compliance and conformity is not enough; there is also to be some formal recognition that the élites deserve their status and are making the best choices for the rest of us. (We live in a meritocracy, right?) When this recognition is not forthcoming, we glimpse the resentment of the élites for those they fancy the low human capital individuals.

It is a fascinating commentary on the resentment of the élites who grow out of a “creative class” that Nietzsche’s analysis of ressentiment crucially turns upon creativity:

“The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’; and this No is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye — this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself — is of the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all — its action is fundamentally reaction.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, section 10

This is a dialectic of creativity, in which creativity has nothing to work on, so it works on nothing — ressentiment is the creation of new values from nothing. It is an ex nihilo morality par excellence. Nietzsche once wrote of the finest flower of ressentiment, as related by Walter Kaufmann:

“Among the exceedingly few discoveries made in recent times concerning the origin of moral value judgments, Friedrich Nietzsche’s discovery of ressentiment as the source of such value judgments is the most profound, even if his more specific claim that Christian morality and in particular Christian love are the finest ‘flower of resssentiment’ should turn out to be false.”

From Walter Kaufmann’s introduction to his translation of On the Genealogy of Morals

Today our finest flower of ressentiment is the resentful élite who rule over us with a bad conscience — the creative class, the powerful, the educated, the well connected, the wealthy — and who never tire of reminding us of how deeply we have disappointed them. This is the kind of contempt that is exhibited when urbanites speak of “white trash” or some such similar social construct that expresses the bitter hatred of the privileged for the downtrodden. Both in the US and the UK, the political parties that formerly represented the interests of the working classes have been transformed in the past half century into parties that represent urbanized professionals, and they do not even bother to veil their contempt for the working class, who now appear to them as a distasteful embarrassment at best, a contemptible mass at worse, fit only to be ridiculed and despised.

In a Nietzschean analysis, one would expect that it would be the creative few who would be de facto Übermenschen, and so possessed of the virtues of the Übermensch — or, if you prefer, the virtù of the Übermensch — therefore these few would be among the least resentful elements in society, because the Übermensch expends his energies. If we were a society dominated by a truly creative class, we should be a society and an economy of supermen, creating new values and spontaneously releasing any pent up energies, but it is ressentiment that rules the present. Why?

The artificiality of our institutions, which demands that the ruling élites must bend the knee to democratic forms and make a pretense to upholding the rule of law that, in theory, binds their actions no less than ours, constitutes the hostile external world against which the ruling élites react, the Other that is Outside and Different. The creative deed of the élites of the creative class is its emphatic “No!” directed against the world from which it seeks to distinguish itself. Robbed of triumphant affirmation, they must rule without appearing to rule, and the reality of power coupled with its seeming denial is creating new values even now, though these are values that only can be savored in submerged and secret places — that is to say, in the hearts of the members of the creative class.

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Monday


In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls presented several highly influential doctrines that have come to be widely discussed. Rawls says that justice is fairness, and his method for arriving at fairness in social structures is that these structures should be formulated from behind a “veil of ignorance,” with that ignorance being the ignorance of the individual as to their place in the society in which they would live. The method that Rawls formulated is a thought experiment called the “original position.” Here’s how he stated it:

“In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract. This original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice. Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 11

As noted in the above quote, this stands in the tradition of “state of nature” thought experiments familiar from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Pufendorf. State of nature or original position thought experiments posit a time before human societies existed — a blank slate upon which human beings were free to write as they pleased — so as to try to imagine how the existing societies with which we are familiar came into existence.

Many formulations of visions of the human future (including spacefaring futures) implicitly incorporate something like Rawls’ thought experiment without even realizing that this is what they are doing. Outer space as a place for human activity and achievement gives us the same opportunity as state of nature thought experiments to reflect on counterfactual human societies against a backdrop that has been putatively purged of contemporary social presuppositions, though, with outer space, applied symmetrically to the future instead of the past. In so far as we perceive outer space as a blank slate, and in so far as we attempt to project a future upon outer space as though it were a blank slate for future human spacefaring societies, then outer space takes on the properties (or, rather, the lack of properties) of a blank slate.

In the case of outer space, we try to imagine how existing societies with which we are now familiar will pass out of existence and be replaced by some future society. Since the advent of spacefaring futurism (probably traceable to the Golden Age of Science Fiction) outer space became a place where human beings could project what was best in themselves in order to cultivate a hopeful future. Early science fiction such as Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells was markedly dystopian, but the genre rapidly transformed into an optimistic and expansive vision of the future. With this minimal framework of sapcefaring and optimism and progress toward a better future, outer space became a blank slate for human hopes and dreams. For a time, utopianism reigned, but when the simple utopianism faded, it was replaced sometimes by dystopianism, but, more interestingly to me, by the idea of outer space as the kind of blank slate for a better tomorrow in spite of the problems we have today.

This latter conception is something I have personally encountered many times. The idea seems to be that human beings have made many mistakes on Earth so that outer space is a “second chance” for humanity and we consequently have a moral obligation to only establish human societies away from Earth when we are fully prepared to do a better job than we have done on Earth — hence the waiting gambit. Sometimes this position is presented such that humanity does not deserve to establish a presence beyond Earth, because we have made such a mess of things here.

Here the “original position” has been transposed with a “final position” for human society — the ultimate form that human society is to take, projected onto a spacefaring future in which outer space is the setting for a perfect society that has not been realized on Earth, and which cannot be realized on Earth because of our history. Thus the “final position” takes the form that it does because the “original position” was corrupt. This is very much in the spirit of Rousseau, who saw the original foundations of human society to be corrupt, and this inherited corruption (not of the individual, who, according to Rousseau, is naturally good, but of social institutions) has been passed down to all subsequent human societies. Thus outer space presents itself as a domain free from this inherited corruption where a “final position” can be brought into being, and humanity can, for the first time in its history, realize a righteous society.

It is interesting to note that this is in no sense a revolutionary view, as it imagines human beings confined to the purgatory that is Earth for an indefinite period of time until the sins of the youth of our species have been burned and purged away. Only when we have fully completed our penance — a gradual and excruciatingly incremental process — and become perfect, do we deserve to take the next step and inhabit the blank slate of outer space as newly innocent beings, a humanity that has made itself innocent, and thus worthy of the final position, through great moral effort.

A revolutionary view, in contradistinction to this moral incrementalism, would be that the final position is there before us, suspended in the air like Macbeth’s dagger, which we can reach out and grasp at any time. We can, in this view, attain the final position simply by taking a sequence of revolutionary steps that will transform us and our world because we have the boldness to take these steps. This revolutionary moralism vis-à-vis the final position would fit well with what I have called an early spacefaring breakout in The Spacefaring Inflection Point (and further elaborated in Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift).

An early and sudden inflection point in the development of spacefaring civilization could be both the revolutionary step required to put in place the final position as well as the advent of a new kind of civilization. This view seems more historiographically justified that the more prevalent incrementalist view, but I have only ever heard the incrementalist view — though, I ought to say, I know of no one who has formulated the incrementalist view in the full sweep of the vision. One usually gets only bits and pieces of the vision, which leaves its advocates with a certain plausible deniability in regard to the future final position implicit in their conception of human destiny in outer space.

It may sound like I am here advocating one conception of the final position over another, but I find both to be as profoundly mistaken as original position or state of nature thought experiments. While I think there is something to be learned from both thought experiments — the original position and the final position — I regard them as being as Rawls has characterized them, “…a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice.” Hypotheticals have a value, but that value is not absolute. Moreover, we know that hypotheticals, whether past or future, are not actual depictions of the past or accurate predictions of the future; they are scenarios that allow us to rehearse certain ideas as they might play out in practice.

In practice, there are no blank slates. Human societies don’t arise from nothing; they arise from prior societies, and these societies can be traced backward in time to long before human beings existed. The same is true of our brain and our intelligence, that we use to shape our social order: both have a deep history in the biosphere, but both bear the lowly imprint of their origins. We can’t even say, as Nietzsche said, that all this is human, all-too-human, because it all precedes humanity. It is terrestrial, all-too-terrestrial.

There was no paradisaical state of nature to which we might dream that we can return (if only we could deconstruct the injustices of human social institutions, which seems to have been Rousseau’s position), and there will be no final position of a perfectly just human society in the future, whether on Earth or in space. Both ideas are painfully naïve, and if we are ever to make real progress, and not the imaginary progress of utopias safely compartmentalized in the distant past or the distant future, we must disabuse ourselves of the idea that humanity is ever going to be anything other than human, all-too-human. Justice and morality did not reign in the past, and they are not going to reign in the future, whether on Earth or in space, world without end. Amen.

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Note added Friday 28 February 2020: A perfect example of the blank slate of outer space can be found in the recently announced contest for a design for a city of a million persons on Mars, Mars City State Design Competition Announced. The text of the announcement includes this: “How, given a fresh start, can life on Mars be made better than life on Earth?”

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I have previously written a number of blog posts on the idea of the blank slate, including:

The Metaphysical Blank Slate: Positivism and Metaphysical Neutrality

Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Further Addendum on the Metaphysical Blank Slate

Blank Slate Cosmology

Of Vacuity and Blankness

Two (or Three) Metaphysical Themes

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Fifty Years of Civilisation

31 December 2019

Tuesday


Kenneth Clark, 1903-1983

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Fifty years ago, in 1969, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View was first broadcast on television, and the book based on the series was published in the same year. In my Centauri Dreams post of last Friday, Bound In Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift, I pointed out that the same year in which Clark’s documentary first aired, the Space Race reached its culmination in the Apollo moon landing: “In his Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clarke noted that, ‘Great movements in the arts, like revolutions, don’t last for more than about fifteen years.’ In so saying, he might well have been speaking of the Founding Era of space exploration, a revolution through which he had just lived as he spoke these lines.”

Clark’s Civilisation was never intended to be a scholarly study or to break new ground, theoretically speaking. In the first few minutes of the first episode Clark says he doesn’t know what civilization is or how to define it — but he does apparently know it when it sees it, and Exhibit A is Notre Dame de Paris. And Clark’s background as an art historian meant that his focus was on the masterpieces of the art of western civilization, which is a more narrow focus than civilization itself. Nevertheless, as readers of my blog are likely to know, Clark’s television series and book have had an outsized influence on my thought concerning civilization, and I find myself returning time and again to Clark’s deceptively simple formulations, which conceal a great deal of wisdom often lacking in more academic treatments.

Clark’s art historical conception of western civilization unsurprisingly entailed his dismissing scientific historiography with a wave of the hand (so to speak), but I can’t fault him for this. It’s not my approach, but Clark’s perspective is still worth listening to despite this. Sometimes a narrowly focused perspective reveals to us aspects of a phenomenon that we would not have noticed otherwise. So it is with Clark and civilization: the focus on art as the manifestation of civilization makes us aware of historical processes we might otherwise have neglected or even rejected.

My own thought over the past year in particular has re-focused my interest on art, as I have come to see aesthetics as playing a central role in western civilization. I made this argument in Science and the Hero’s Journey, in which I wrote:

“The philosophical presuppositions about beauty have given art a distinctive role in western civilization. Art is about appearances, which made art profoundly problematic for Plato (and others), but western civilization converged upon a compromise solution such that the beautiful is a revelation of the truth by way of appearance. It is not the case that any appearance whatsoever is revelatory of the truth, but specifically it is the beautiful that is the revelation of a deeper truth. If we make the effort to transcend appearances and to gaze on reality in itself — to look upon beauty bare, as Edna St. Vincent Millay said of Euclid — this is the highest form of beauty. This is also the beauty that Plato ascribed to seeing the Forms in and of themselves, not through an imitation of an imitation.”

I have planned to expand upon this at some point in an exposition of the central project of western civilization — the kind of inquiry that Clark made possible for me. I suspect that Clark will remain important to me, however far afield I take the ideas that began to develop in me as a consequence of Clark’s work. Not everyone today shares my view of Clark’s Civilisation.

If you simply do a search on “Kenneth Clark Civilisation” you will find online any number of opinions about Clark’s series and book — some of them in praise of, some of them critical, some of them downright petty, little more than individuals who want to demonstrate their confidence in their own cleverness by irony, sarcasm, and iconoclasm — from all the major newspapers and magazines of our time. None these can match Clark’s own self-criticisms in the Forward to the book. After acknowledging the many limitations of his presentation, he asked himself if he should have dropped “Civilisation” as the title, given that his was no comprehensive survey of civilization:

“Should I then have dropped the title Civilisation? I didn’t want to, because the word had triggered me off, and remained a kind of stimulus; and I didn’t suppose that anyone would be so obtuse as to think that I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the East. However, I confess that the title has worried me. It would have been easy in the eighteenth century: Speculations on the Nature of Civilization as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day. Unfortunately, this is no longer practicable.”

Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, Forward

Clark’s Enlightenment era title — Speculations on the Nature of Civilization as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day — would have been the perfect title for the unwritten seminal work on a science of civilization that I suggested as a thought experiment in Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization.

Given the tenor of contemporary opinion on Clark’s Civilisation, this is a series that could not and would not be made today. Similarly, intimations of a spacefaring future implicit in the Apollo program as it landed human beings on the moon in 1969 could not and would not be realized today. But at this moment in time fifty years ago, we could look back in gratitude and look forward in hope and anticipation. As we all know, 1969 was also a turbulent time politically and militarily. No doubt fifty years ago it felt like the world was in chaos, that modern times had little in the way of gratitude or hope, and that the lucky ones were those safely in the past when the certainties of life went unchallenged. It can only be seen as I have portrayed it in hindsight.

There is a sense in which 1969 is a pivot point of recent history. Clark was able to look behind us at where western civilization has been, and the Apollo moon landings seemed to look ahead toward the direction that western civilization seemed to be taking. During what I have called the Founding Era of space exploration — Sputnik to Apollo — the future seemed as open to us as history opens the past to us. Space exploration gave us a clear direction and populated a future history for humanity in a way that was eminently comprehensible despite its utter novelty in comparison to all that we have known on Earth. Poised at that crucial year, the whole of history opened up all around, as past and future were simultaneously manifested themselves to us.

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Wednesday


Storage has always been a problem for electricity, as batteries are large and heavy, expensive to manufacture, and limited in the quantity of electricity they can store and for how long they can store it. As a result of the limits of batteries, electricity production, distribution, and supply on an industrial scale has not involved any storage mechanism at all. The vast bulk of electricity is produced and simultaneously consumed, so that the electrical generation infrastructure has been constructed around the awkward requirements of having the start up and shut down entire generating facilities as demand waxes and wanes. This is an unhappy compromise, but it has been made to work for more than a century as the industrialized economy has expanded both quantitatively and qualitatively, and the use of electricity has expanded into sectors previously entirely reliant upon fossil fuels.

Electrical motors were already being developed in the 1820s, and before the first workable prototype diesel engine was operational in 1897, electrical motors had progressed to the level of sophistication of Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky’s three phase current and asynchronous motor with squirrel-cage rotor. But the twentieth century was to belong to fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine, and it was with these technologies that industrialized civilization grew to the planetary scale we know today.

The father of all diesel engines.

The early and rapid convergence of industrialized civilization on the use of fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — was, at least in part, a function of the ease of storage of fossil fuels. The ease of storage also meant ease of transportation, which made fossil fuels ideal for the transportation industry, and they still are. Coal and oil in particular are easily stored for significant periods of time without loss of energy value and without elaborate technological methods. Natural gas isn’t much more difficult to store, but when liquefied the technology becomes a bit more complex and safety becomes more of an issue.

Fossil fuel storage also meant the possibility of continuous operation. Here we see the origin of the 24/7 always-on world that we know today. This is historically very recent, and the exception rather than the rule. As long as the machinery could be built to tolerances that allowed for continuous operation, a sufficient supply of fuel could power an engine non-stop. Ships and trains could operate for days or weeks if necessary. Nothing needed to be turned off. Industries could operate without regard to the any of the natural circadian and seasonal rhythms that had ruled human life since before we were human. And they did so. Shift work was born, and the dark Satanic mills that offended William Blake and Robert Southey ran night and day.

One of Blake’s dark Satanic mills?

Prior to the industrial revolution, energy infrastructure intermittancy was a fact of life, and the industrial processes of pre-industrial society (paradoxical, yes, but not a contradiction) were constructed around the fact of intermittancy. Everyone accepted (because they had to accept) that the stream that turned the waterwheel at the mill was reduced to a trickle in the summer. The solution was to build a mill pond that would store an amount of water, so that the mill could be put into service, at least on a “surge” basis, even when water flow was at a minimum. Even with a mill pond, the use of a water mill was limited in the summer months in comparison to other seasons. Hence mill production was often seasonal. This has been the case for thousands of years. Recent research into the ruins of the Roman water mill at Barbegal has suggested that this mill operated seasonally (cf. The second century CE Roman watermills of Barbegal: Unraveling the enigma of one of the oldest industrial complexes by Gül Sürmelihindi, Philippe Leveau, Christoph Spötl, Vincent Bernard, and Cees W. Passchier).

Everyone accepted, and accepted with equanimity, that windmills worked only when the wind blew. As a consequence, windmills were constructed at locations with the steadiest winds, but even then there would be becalmed days when the windmill wouldn’t be grinding any grain or pumping any water, and there would be days when the wind was dangerously strong and the vanes of the windmill had to be secured so that it wouldn’t be destroyed.

La Bretagne at Brest harbor, 19th century.

Everyone also accepted that international commerce was dependent upon the wind. The intermittancy of the wind did not prevent a planetary-scale economy emerging after the Columbian Exchange. Much shipping in the Age of Sail was seasonal, but when it absolutely, positively had to be there at the earliest possible time, sailors could beat to windward and make progress whatever the season. On the other hand, when sailing conditions were poor and no particular urgency was felt, sea voyages that usually took weeks could drag on for months at a time. Commerce had to accept a certain flexibility in delivery times, as some shipments would come in a few days earlier than expected, and some would be delayed for days, weeks, or months.

With a planetary-scale communications network, we no longer rely upon shipping for news and information; shipping, like railroads, is about freight, and freight can wait. Just as the electrical grid will incrementally transform from fossil fuels to renewable fuels, our transportation infrastructure could be transitioned from fossil fueled container ships to a larger number of smaller sailing ships, perhaps robotically piloted, that take longer to get to their destination, but which would take more efficient routes around the globe, reserving powered movement for specific circumstances like getting stuck in the doldrums or getting into port. Our planetary-scale communications network also allows for communication with ships at sea, so that production schedules can be continuously updated on the basis of the known location of materials in transport. We don’t have to wait at the harbor’s edge with a spyglass and then rush to make a deal after a sail has been spotted on the horizon, as was once the case.

The Cousteau Society’s Alcyon employed turbosails — a sailing technology that could be employed in shipping.

It is lazy thinking to raise the problem of intermittancy to a major barrier to the adoption of renewable resources. Energy infrastructure is tightly-coupled with social structures, and social structures are tightly-coupled to energy infrastructures. This coupling of social and energy structures throughout the history of civilization has not been as tight as the coupling between agriculture and civilization. However, if we rightly understand agriculture as a form of energy (food literally being fuel for human beings and for their beasts of burden), then we can see that tightly-coupled energy and social infrastructures have been definitive of civilization since its inception. And both structures admit of flexibility when flexibility is necessary to continue the ordinary business of life; there is some “give” in both society and energy use.

These two structures — energy infrastructure and social structure — roughly coincide with the institutional structure I have used to define civilization: namely, an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project (cf. my previous post, Five Ways to Think about Civilization, for more on this). In the foregoing, what I called “energy infrastructure” roughly corresponds to economic infrastructure, as it also roughly corresponds to what Robert Redfield called the “technical order,” while what I called the “social structure” roughly corresponds to intellectual superstructure, as it also roughly corresponds to what Robert Redfield called the “moral order” (more on this in a future post). While all of these orders and structures can be distinguished in a fine-grained account, our account is undertaken at the scale of civilization, and so we are looking at the big picture, at which scale these different concepts coincide sufficiently closely that we can disregard their differences.

In the same way that individuals who live in very large cities like Tokyo or New York or Paris understand that it is impracticable for all but the wealthiest to drive a car, so that most individuals must use mass transit, on a planet with more than seven billion individuals using the energy infrastructure, individuals will need to adjust their expectations for instantaneous gratification. Industries, too, will need to adjust their expectations in the convergence of the global economy on sustainable practices. And, make no mistake, these adjustments will happen in the fullness of time. How it happens will be a matter of historical process, and many distinct scenarios for the transition of the terrestrial electrical grid to sustainable and renewable fuels are still possible; we are not yet locked in to any particular compromise.

Germany has come in for much criticism for its de-nuclearization program, which has meant that they have had to re-start some coal-fired power plants in order to maintain contemporaneous energy supply expectations. A number of energy experts regard the Germans as deluded, and believe that renewable resources can never meet the demands of an industrialized economy. I cannot wave away the problems of scaling and intermittency with a magic wand, but with adjustments to the industrial infrastructure and improved renewable technologies coming online, the two will eventually meet in the middle. However, those who ridicule renewables as impractical also cannot wave away the problems with their solutions with a magic wand. The most common answer to carbon-free electric generation is to ramp up nuclear power production. This comes with problems of its own. While I strongly support the development of advanced nuclear technologies, I do not delude myself that the public is going to suddenly embrace nuclear power and forget about the dangers. The Germans proved to be overly-optimistic over what can be done today with renewables, but this does not call the transition to renewables into question in the long term.

It is not at all clear that the public would prefer the dangers of nuclear power to the dangers of climate change, and both issues are so emotionally charged that it would be nearly impossible to take an honest poll on the question.

A continental-scale energy grid could greatly mitigate intermittency. If it’s not sunny somewhere on a continent, it is likely to be windy somewhere. However, even at a continental scale there will be becalmed nights when there is neither sunshine nor wind. The larger the surface area of the planet that is covered by an interconnected electricity grid, the more that these low points of intermittency can be minimized, but they cannot be entirely eliminated. For these minimized intermittancy low points, existing hydropower infrastructure could be used with a minimum of modification to store power. During peak periods of intermittent electricity supply, water could be pumped from lower elevations to fill a dam, which can then later be used to generate hydropower during times of peak demand.

A planetary-scale energy grid could eliminate intermittency, since the sun is always shining somewhere in the world. I made this point previously in a blog post from a few years back, A Thought Experiment on Collective Energy Security. As I said in that post, we do not have the technology and the engineering expertise for a planetary-scale electricity grid, and with a planetary electrical grid, the political challenges would probably be greater than the technological problems. However, we also do not have, at present, the technology and engineering expertise for advanced nuclear, and we don’t have the technology and engineering expertise to run an industrial economy on renewables. All of these technologies, however, are on the cusp of fulfilling their intended function, and significant capital investments in any one energy future could accelerate its practical availability.

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Sunday


Twelve months down on the farm. An illustration from Liber ruralium commodorum, by Pietro de’ Crescenzi; for a description of the tasks illustrated cf. http://www.medievalists.net/2014/06/03/year-medieval-farm/

Twelve months down on the farm. An illustration from Liber ruralium commodorum, by Pietro de’ Crescenzi; for a description of the tasks illustrated cf. http://www.medievalists.net/2014/06/03/year-medieval-farm/

On the Reflexive Self-Awareness of Civilizations (or the Lack Thereof)

For all the faults and failings of agrarian civilizations, there is a sense in which the self-awareness of agrarian civilizations exceeded the self-awareness of industrialized civilizations. Almost all agrarian civilizations were rigidly hierarchical and stratified, but from the bottom to the top of the feudal hierarchy of agrarian civilizations everyone understood that agriculture was the source of the wealth and productivity of their society. Wealth was measured in land and in the number of peasants working the land. Income was formulated in terms of the annual produce of the land, which, over time, became more formalized as part of a commercial economy. It is due to this background that we read in nineteenth century novels that so-and-so had an income of so many pounds per year: this is the survival of the accounting of agricultural civilization into the early developmental stages of industrialized civilization.

This reflexive self-awareness on the part of agrarian civilizations of the economy that sustained that civilization is not shared by industrialized civilization. Very few today seem to understand that the source of our wealth and productivity is science. This is a failure of collective self-knowledge, and a failure that may have consequences for our very young industrialized civilization. Even the putative “leaders” of contemporary society seem to have little awareness of the centrality of science to the economy, but if the scientific method had not been systematically applied to industry, we would not have progressed more than incrementally beyond the technology and engineering of earlier civilizations. That we have outstripped these earlier civilizations many times over in terms of wealth and productivity is a measure by which the scientific method and the cultivation of scientific knowledge can transform an economy.

How should we define scientific civilization?

How should we define scientific civilization?

Five Ways of Conceptualizing Scientific Civilization

This reflection on the lack of self-knowledge on the part of our would-be scientific civilization suggests a way in which scientific civilization might be defined, specifically, that a scientific civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be a scientific civilization, and in which all sectors of society know that the wealth and productivity of their society is derived from science, and from technology and engineering made possible by science. In previous posts I have suggested several other ways in which scientific civilization might be defined. For example:

In Scientific Civilization: The Economic Perspective I suggested that a scientific civilization could be defined as, “a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in science.”

In Scientific Civilization: The Central Project I implied that a scientific civilization is a civilization that has science, or the pursuit of scientific knowledge, as its central project. (A view that I later elaborated in more detail in Properly Scientific Civilization and The Central Project of Properly Scientific Civilizations.)

In Sciences Hard and Soft I suggested that a scientific civilization is a civilization in which science has come to full maturity, by analogy with Nick Bostrom’s use of the term “technological maturity” — but how scientific maturity can be defined may be more difficult to say.

In The Conditions of Scientific Progress I said that we could define a mature scientific civilization as one in which science could be conducted in complete openness, both in the technical terminology of the discipline in question as well as in the intuitive terms according to which idea flow functions in a social context. This is the kind of intellectual context in which it would be possible for everyone to imbibe the spirit of science, and, rather than accepting any results as a new orthodoxy, press forward with extending scientific inquiry so that we not only have idea flow but the acceleration of idea flow and even idea proliferation.

In my notebooks I have several additional ways in which scientific civilization might be defined, though I have not yet given an exposition of these other ideas for defining scientific civilization. For example, skimming a notebook from few years ago I find this entry on 11 June 2016:

Science communication is only a problem in a non-scientific civilization in which there is a disconnect between science and the non-scientific public. One way to define a scientific civilization is as a civilization in which there is no disconnect between scientific research and popular knowledge, as scientific knowledge is pervasively present in the general public. (There would still be disagreements, and different scientific research programs would find differing degrees of support in different sectors of society, but it would be understood that these disagreements will be resolved by further research even as new scientific problems appear on the horizon.)

This idea could be assimilated to the last of the four ideas above, as both are concerned with science communication and scientific literacy, which presumably would be greatly facilitated in a truly scientific civilization, but which suffer in a suboptimal scientific civilization, or in a non-scientific civilization (as in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization).

The four itemized ideas above from previous posts (with the last of these four ideas assimilated to the idea from my old notebook), plus the idea above incorporating reflexive self-knowledge, gives us five ways to think about scientific civilization:

1. A scientific civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be a scientific civilization.

2. A scientific civilization is a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in science.

3. A scientific civilization is a civilization that has science, or the pursuit of scientific knowledge, as its central project.

4. A scientific civilization is a civilization in which science, or scientific knowledge, has come to full maturity.

5. A scientific civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between scientific research and popular knowledge.

None of these ideas are as yet definitively formulated. I could easily point out ambiguities in any of these formulations. For example, in No. 3, concerned with the economic definition of scientific civilization, there is considerable ambiguity involved in what it would mean for a civilization to invest a significant portion of its economic activity in science. Does this mean that, as a matter of fact, that science constitutes a major economic sector, like agriculture or transportation? Or does this means that a highly productive industrialized civilization chooses to plow a significant portion of its surplus value into scientific research? There are other ways to interpret this beyond these two alternatives. I beg the reader’s indulgence to take these imperfect formulations charitably, extracting whatever value there is in them, and setting aside what is incoherent or poorly expressed.

Different definitions of scientific civilization would yield different civilizations identified as a scientific civilization, though some of the above definitions may overlap or coincide. For example, it is entirely possible that, in a civilization that has the pursuit of science as its central project, all sectors of the populace would understand the centrality of science to that civilization, so these two definitions of scientific civilization may coincide. However, I think that the idea of scientific maturity is much further off even than the possibility of a civilization with science as its central project, if scientific maturity is attainable at all, so that these definitions do not coincide, but they might coincide at some point in the distant future. Indeed, it may require a civilization that takes science as its central project to drive the development of science to scientific maturity.

Ideally, given a multitude of possible definitions of scientific civilization, it would be possible to reduce all the definitions to one, or to single out one definition that is, in principle, preferable to all others, or to have the various non-coinciding definitions of scientific civilization systematically related in some essential way, as in the degrees of continuum, or as stages in the development of scientific civilization.

It may be that only a fully scientific civilization could understand what definition of scientific civilization is adequate, and, if the Hegelian principle holds good, that the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun, it would not be possible to adequately define scientific civilization until a scientific civilization was already senescent.

Defining Agrarian Civilizations in Hindsight

Defining Agrarian Civilizations in Hindsight

Generalizing a Definition of Civilization Derived from one Class of Civilizations

Can we, then, apply these conceptions retroactively, mutatis mutandis, to some civilization, or, better, to some kind of civilization, that has already passed out of history? Do these characterizations of scientific civilization admit of formulations of sufficient generality that they can be applied to other civilizations, non-scientific civilizations? Let us take these five ways of characterizing scientific civilization and apply them to agrarian civilizations, and see how they fare in this context.

Consider these reformulations of the above five conceptualizations of scientific civilization, here stated in terms of agricultural civilization:

1. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be An agrarian civilization, and in which all sectors of society know that the wealth and productivity of their society is derived from agriculture, and activities related to agriculture.

2. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in agriculture.

3. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that has agriculture, or the pursuit of agricultural production, as its central project.

4. An agrarian civilization is a civilization in which agriculture has come to full maturity.

5. An agrarian civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between agronomy and popular knowledge, as agronomy is pervasively present in the general public.

All of these formulations are highly suggestive, but the parallelism is not always perfect between agrarian and scientific civilizations, and, viewed from the perspective of agrarian civilization, we can see how these conceptualizations are beholden to our ideas of the relationship of science to society today. Let us consider each in turn:

1. Here the parallelism is at its strongest, because I began with this reflection on agricultural civilizations being aware that their wealth flowed from working the land, and applied it to scientific civilization to see how well it worked in that context. But what is reflexive self-awareness at a civilizational scale? Must this awareness be represented throughout society, or is it sufficient that some sector of society, or some sector of the economy, knows what kind of civilization they have and subsequently act efficaciously upon this knowledge? Above I have specified all sectors of society, and arguably this was the case for agrarian civilizations, in which even the mythology of the central project reflected the crops and the agricultural calendar of the civilization in question. However, it is also arguable that the awareness of the agricultural basis of agricultural civilization was sufficiently distant from the mythological central projects of agrarian civilizations that many individuals in the society were so invested in the mythology that they were unaware of agriculture as the driving economic force of their society. Indeed, religious rituals intended to ensure good harvests might be said to invert any valuation placing agriculture at the central of agricultural civilization, as it implies that the agriculture engine of the civilization is fueled by supernaturalistic processes, which are the true drivers of civilization.

2. We have seen above that there are obvious ambiguities with any claim of a society’s investment in some given sector. Moreover, any such “investment” in pre-modern civilization takes a radically different form than what we think of today as investment in some sector of the economy of some sector of society. From our industrialized point of view, investment in a sector means taking surplus value generated by economic activity on the whole and literally using this capital to further some sector by investment in capital equipment or better working conditions in the sector, etc. Most of all, we would conceive of investing in a sector of the economy as funding major research and development projects that would expand and improve the sector, hopefully resulting in major innovations that contribute to increases in productivity and efficiency. This sort of investment in agriculture began to appear during the British Agricultural Revolution, but this was already after the scientific revolution (it was the scientific revolution applied to agriculture) so after western civilization was already beginning the developments that would lead it to industrialization. Even then, investment into basic research didn’t appear until the 19th century, and didn’t become consequential until the 20th century. Nevertheless, agrarian civilizations prior to the scientific revolution of necessity poured resources into agriculture, because if it failed to do so, starvation would result. The elite culture of the period that we now value, and visit museums in order to see, was the result of a small fraction of the wealth of the agricultural economy skimmed off by elites and employed for their own purposes (e.g., prestige projects). In this sense, 2. seems to hold for agrarian as for scientific civilization, but the sense in which it holds is not exactly in the spirit in which it holds for scientific civilization.

3. I have elsewhere used the binomial nomenclature “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations” to describe most agrarian civilizations, because these civilizations almost without exception (I can’t think of a counterexample) do not have agriculture as the central project, but rather religion as the central project, or some close religious surrogate as a central project. The economic infrastructure is almost entirely agricultural, but the intellectual superstructure is almost always derived from a religion, and this intellectual superstructure tells us that the central project of the civilization in question is the fulfillment of the requirements of religious doctrine. This fulfillment might take a popular form, as in the demand that all souls be saved, which entailed both the salvation of the agricultural laborer as well as expansionist warfare to enable the salvation of peoples outside the civilization, or this fulfillment might take on an elite form, as when Mesoamerican elites engaged in ritualized bloodletting. Of course, it would be possible to imagine, as a thought experiment, an agrarian civilization in which agriculture was the central project; perhaps such civilizations have existed, perhaps they could still exist, but this has not been the paradigmatic form of agrarian civilization. It may be this disconnect between central project and economic infrastructure in agrarian civilizations that inspired Marx to make the distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure, as this distinction is less in evidence in contemporary industrialized civilization.

4. It is a very interesting question whether agricultural civilization came to full maturity before it yielded its place as the central form of civilization to industrialized civilizations. It is entirely possible that a civilization might endure for a significant period of time and then go extinct, without ever achieving full maturity. This is the case with what Nick Bostrom calls permanent stagnation: a civilization that never comes to maturity. Agricultural civilizations tend to stagnation, so it may be in the nature of agricultural civilizations to converge on permanent stagnation, and, when they do transcend this stagnation, they do it at the cost of being transformed into another kind of civilization, in which case the consequence is no longer an agrarian civilization. It could be argued that agricultural civilization has not yet reached full maturity at the present time, because the techniques of scientific agriculture that began to transform agriculture during the British Agricultural Revolution continue to be revolutionized by scientific discovery. The latest techniques of gene-editing can be used to create new crops, so that agricultural technology is as open-ended as any industrial technology. Does it follow that agricultural civilization as agricultural civilization can never achieve maturity, and that it can only achieve maturity by the means of industrialized civilization?

5. This formulation doesn’t work at all when a straight-forward substitution of agriculture for science is made. One of the reasons for the failure of this substitution is that agriculture was the dominant activity under agrarian civilizations, and so agricultural knowledge was “popular” (but, of course, it is misleading to call anything “popular” at a time before popular sovereignty). However, a slightly altered formulation would give essentially the same idea: an agricultural civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between agricultural producers and consumers. While this formulation makes sense, judging its validity is another matter. Certainly the various sectors of society in agrarian civilization knew that agricultural productivity was the source of their wealth, but the rigidly hierarchical structures of feudal society meant that there was a profound disconnect between consumers and producers, who almost belonged to different worlds. So, what we learn from this is that the idea of a “disconnect” between members of the same society needs to be clarified. Individuals and classes within agrarian civilizations can be at once both tightly coupled and yet more distant from each other than any two individuals or classes in industrialized civilization; this needs to be understood in greater detail. When the elite sectors of society did begin to concern themselves with agricultural knowledge, not merely leaving this to farm laborers, the British agricultural revolution was the result. Many eminent country gentlemen became enthusiasts of agriculture and threw themselves into the betterment of their estates. While this behavior does not strike us as odd today, in a social context in which working with one’s hands was believed to be demeaning, demonstrating an enthusiasm for agriculture was to place one’s social status at risk. This development progressed so far that it eventually found its way into the fine arts, with the result being paintings like Benjamin Marshall’s “Portraits of Cattle of the Improved Short-Horned Breed, the Property of J. Wilkinson Esq. of Lenton, near Nottingham” (see below), which is, essentially, a portrait of a head of livestock.

The above disconnects are of particular interest to me because of what I wrote about disconnects in A Philosophical Disconnect and Another Disconnect and A Metaphysical Disconnect, inter alia. That contemporary industrialized civilization is marked by a disconnect between political philosophy and philosophy of law is especially significant in this connection: different kinds of civilization may be subject to different internal structural disconnects. Different structural disconnects within one and the same civilization imply different areas of reflexive self-knowledge as well as different areas where self-knowledge fails, which brings us back to where we began this post.

Portraits of Cattle of the Improved Short-Horned Breed, the Property of J. Wilkinson Esq. of Lenton, near Nottingham 1816, Benjamin Marshall 1768-1835, Bequeathed by Mrs F. Ambrose Clark through the British Sporting Art Trust 1982

From Generalization to Formalization

Now that we have applied these five ways of thinking about civilization to scientific civilization and to agricultural civilization, can we formalize these ideas so that they are applicable to any civilization whatever? Consider the following:

F(civ) knows itself to be F(civ).

The economic infrastructure of F(civ) is disproportionately invested in F.

F(civ) has F as its central project.

F(civ) such that F is mature.

In F(civ) there is no disconnect between individuals directly involved in F and individuals not directly involved in F.

In the above, F(civ) means “a civilization with the property F” which, in the particular case of scientific civilization might be expressed: “there is a civilization civ such that civ has the property of being scientific.” If we attempt to formulate this in terms of quantification theory we get something like, “There exists an x such that x is a civilization and x is scientific” or ∃x.C(x)F(x), and then any other property annexed to that civilization is simply another predicated G(x), thus 1. above becomes ∃x.C(x)F(x)G(x). Where the property of being scientific is modified by the definition we face quantifying over properties and thus shifting from first order logic to second order logic.

I’m not satisfied with any of these formulations, but that is why I titled this post “Five Ways of Thinking about Civilization.” Nothing here is definitive. These are ways of thinking about civilization, and we can employ these ways of thinking about civilization if they prove fruitful, in which case we would attempt to extend, expand, and further formalize the approach, and if they prove to be unfruitful we would not be likely to invest any more time in the approach, unless we have some nagging intuitive sense that there is something important here that has not yet been made explicit.

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Monday


Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) worshipping Aten.

In The Elizabethan Conception of Civilization I examined some of the nomothetic elements of the otherwise idiosyncratic character of Elizabethan civilization. In that post I emphasized that the large-scale political structure of European civilization in the medieval and modern periods entails an ideology of kingship in which the monarch himself or herself becomes the reproducible pattern for his or her subjects to follow.

There is another source of nomothetic stability in the case of idiographic Elizabethan civilization, and that is the long medieval inheritance that was still a living presence in early modern society. The classic exposition of the Elizabethan epistēmē (as perhaps Foucault would have called it) is E. M. W. Tillyard’s book The Elizabethan World Picture, which emphasizes the medieval heritage of Elizabethan society. The elements of the medieval world view that Tillyard rightly finds surviving into the conceptual framework of Elizabethan England could be understood as the invariant and continuous elements that constitute the nomothetic basis of Elizabathan civilization.

Peter Saccio in his lectures Comedy, Tragedy, History: The Live Drama and Vital Truth of William Shakespeare (this was the first set of lectures that I acquired from The Teaching Company, which has since changed their name to The Great Courses, but it was as The Teaching Company that these lectures were first made available) briefly discussed Tillyard’s book and its influence, which he characterized as primarily conservative. Saccio noted that recent Shakespeare scholarship has focused to a much greater extent on the radical interpretations of Shakespeare. As goes for Shakespearean theater, so it goes for Elizabethan society. We could give a conservative Tillyardian exposition of Elizabethan society that portrays that society primarily in terms of its medieval inheritance, or we can give a more radical exposition of Elizabethan society that portrays that society in terms of the rapid changes and innovations in society at this time.

While Elizabethan civilization retained many deeply conservative elements drawn from the medieval past, the underlying theme of Elizabethan civilization — the consolidation of the Anglican Church as a state institution — was in fact among the most radical changes possible to a social structure within the early modern context of civilization, and may be compared to Akhenaten’s attempt to replace traditional Egyptian mythology with a quasi-monotheistic solar cult. But whereas Akhenaten’s religious innovations did not endure, with the kingdom reverting to traditional religious practices after Akhenaten’s death (i.e., the central project of Egyptian civilization survived Akhenaten), the religious innovations of Elizabeth I did endure.

Up until the Enlightenment, almost all civilizations had, as their central project, or integral with their central project, a religion (or, more generally, a spiritual tradition). If we regard the Enlightenment as a secularized ersatz religion (or, if you prefer, a surrogate religion), then this has not changed to the present day. Regardless, changing the religion that is identical with, or is integral to, the central project of one’s civilization, is akin to making changes to the center of the web of belief (to employ a Quinean motif) rather than merely making changes at the outer edges of the web.

The Protestant Reformation in England, then, can be understood as the opening of Pandora’s Box. While retaining the forms of tradition to the extent possible, the establishment of the Anglican Church demonstrated that even the central project of a civilization can be changed out at the whim of a monarch, and this was as much as to demonstrate that everything hereafter was up for grabs. Subsequent history was to bear this out. One might even say that regicide was implicit in the fungibility of early modern England’s central project, but it took a hundred years for that to play out (on civilizational time scales, a hundred years is a reasonable lead time for causality). If you can change your church, why not cashier your king?

Many years ago in the early history of his blog, I wrote some posts about Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (in The Agricultural Paradigm and The World Turned Right-Side Up; cf. also the links embedded in these posts), which book is a somewhat sympathetic history of the radical movements in early modern England represented by groups like the Ranters, the Diggers, the Levelers, and the True Levelers. Hill imagined that a much more radical revolution might have emerged from Elizabethan England and the revolutionary movements that followed. Now, in the spirit of what I wrote above, I can ask whether, if you can change the central project of your civilization, cannot you also go down the path of the kind of radical revolution that Hill imagined, toward communal property, disestablishing the state church, and rejecting the Protestant Ethic?

This question points to something important, I think, but I will not attempt at this time to give an exposition of what all is involved, because it has only just now occurred to me while writing this. While I have come to see the Protestant Reformation as opening Pandora’s Box in England, I think there is also a limit to the amount of revolution that a population can stomach. As wrenching as it is to replace the central project of your civilization, or to execute your king, it would be even more wrenching to attempt to uproot the whole of the ordinary business of life. Certainly you wouldn’t want to attempt to do both at the same time. If I am right about this, how then would be draw a line between the ordinary business of life, that is to remain largely undisturbed, and the extraordinary business of life, in which a population can tolerate violent punctuations and periods of instability?

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Saturday


Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
The Armada Portrait, c.1588. Attributed to George Gower (c.1546-1596).

In his book and television series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark cast doubt whether there was anything that could be legitimately called an Elizabethan civilization, hence, I assume also, any possibility of an Elizabethan conception of civilization:

“I suppose it is debatable how far Elizabethan England can be called civilised. Certainly it does not provide a reproducible pattern of civilisation as does, for example, eighteenth-century France. It was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly. But if the first requisites of civilisation are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality, then the age of Marlowe and Spenser, of Dowland and Byrd, was a kind of civilisation.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 6, “Protest and Communication”

This might seem like a rather trivial passage to pluck out of a larger work and to use as a lens to focus on the concept of civilization, but there is much of interest here, so hear me out.

Firstly, let’s start with the implicit distinction with which I began between a civilization and a concept of civilization. It is entirely possible that the Elizabethans had a concept of civilization, even if they themselves did not measure up to this concept, but it is highly unlikely that this is the case despite the possibility. The term “civilization” was not explicitly introduced until much later — significantly for Clark’s observation, by a French writer, Victor de Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, in 1757 — and we will assume that the terminology was introduced to meet a need that was felt to express an idea for which there was, as yet, no terminology. Again, it is possible that the concept of civilization existed in Elizabethan England before the term was introduced, but, if so, that would be a separate inquiry, though what we will have to say here would be relevant to that inquiry.

Setting aside the concept of civilization for the Elizabethans, there is the simpler question of whether the Elizabethans themselves were civilized, and Clark allows that Elizabethan England was a kind of civilization (a kind of civilization perhaps, but not, it is implied, civilization proper). This remark in passing is worth noting. Clark himself seems to prefer his characterization of civilization as a reproducible pattern, but he also allows for the possibility that intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality may characterize a civilization even in the absence of a reproducible pattern. In other words, there may be several distinct kinds of civilization, such that Enlightenment France exemplifies one such kind, while Elizabethan England exemplifies another kind. This seems pretty sensible, and, moreover, I agree with it. But if there are several kinds of civilization, what are these kinds? In other words, what is, or what ought to be, the scheme of taxonomy for civilizations?

At this time I am not prepared to offer a taxonomy of civilizations (although this is implicit in my other writings on civilization — more on that another time), but I can make some observations relevant to a taxonomy of civilizations. Since Clark focuses on civilization as a reproducible pattern, let’s also focus on that for the moment. Here I am reminded of a passage that I quoted in Civilization and Uniformity from Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s classic work, The Indus Civilization:

“…the Harappans were, first and last, lowlanders, as befits a civilized folk. The diversity of the hill-divided village groups is in standing contrast to the widespread uniformity of the riverine civilization.”

Sir Mortimer Wheeler, The Indus Civilization, third edition, p. 2

For Wheeler, mountain peoples remained idiosyncratic in their isolation, while lowland agricultural peoples mingled and lost much of their uniqueness. The emergence of uniformity, hence a reproducible pattern, is a product of the evolution of certain societies, and once a society evolves in this direction the process reinforces itself. Uniformity lends itself to iteration, and iteration renders any idiosyncratic tradition uniform over time; uniformity is the chicken and reproducible pattern is the egg.

Other examples of reproducible patterns would be the Hellenistic civilization that dominated the Mediterranean Basin during classical antiquity and the industrialized civilization that has emerged since the industrial revolution. Later iterations of Hellenistic civilization were highly uniform, but this pattern had its origins in the earliest societies of classical antiquity, which were likely highly idiosyncratic the closer we approach to their origins. E. R. Dodd’s classic study, The Greeks and the Irrational, highlighted the idiosyncratic nature of ancient Greek society as against the prevalent perception of Greek rationalism. Probably, like most peoples, the Greeks began with highly idiosyncratic institutions and evolved toward reproducible patterns. That others also took up the Greek pattern of civilization and reproduced it themselves probably contributed to wearing away of what remained that was peculiarly Greek in Hellenistic civilization.

I have previously discussed this contrast between iterable models and the idiosyncratic in terms of The Iterative Conception of Civilization and The Heroic Conception of Civilization. In my post on The Iterative Conception of Civilization I also implicitly reference Kenneth Clark in relation to the civilization of classical antiquity in the Mediterranean Basin. My implicit reference to Clark was to this passage:

“The same architectural language, the same imagery, the same theatres, the same temples — at any time for five hundred years you could have found them all round the Mediterranean, in Greece, Italy, France, Asia Minor or North Africa. If you had gone into the square of any Mediterranean town in the first century you would hardly have known where you were, any more than you would in an airport today. The so-called Maison Carree at Nimes is a little Greek temple that might have been anywhere in the Graeco-Roman world.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 1, “By the Skin of Our Teeth”

That Clark mentions the comparison with an airport today shows the relevance of a reproducible pattern not only to Hellenistic civilization but also to our contemporary industrialized civilization.

It has only occurred to me now, after all these years, that the distinction between the iterative conception of civilization and the heroic conception of civilization can be assimilated to the familiar historiographical distinction between the nomothetic and the idiographic formulated by Wilhelm Windelband:

“…the empirical sciences either seek the general in the form of the law of nature or the particular in the form of the historically defined structure. On the one hand, they are concerned with the form which invariably remains constant. On the other hand, they are concerned with the unique, immanently defined content of the real event. The former disciplines are nomological sciences. The latter disciplines are sciences of process or sciences of the event. The nomological sciences are concerned with what is invariably the case. The sciences of process are concerned with what was once the case. If I may be permitted to introduce some new technical terms, scientific thought is nomothetic in the former case and idiographic in the latter case.”

Rectorial Address, Strasbourg 1894, Wilhelm Windelband, History and Theory, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Feb., 1980), p. 175

Following Windelband, when a civilization is constituted by a form which invariably remains constant, it is a nomothetic civilization; on the other hand, when a civilization is constituted by the particular in the form of an historically defined structure, it is an idiographic civilization. Given this distinction, Clark’s implicit distinction between French civilization of the Enlightenment, which is characterized by a reproducible pattern of civilization, and Elizabethan English civilization, which was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly, corresponds to the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic civilization.

But I would not go so far as to assert that there was nothing idiosyncratic about French civilization during the Enlightenment, and nothing nomothetic about Elizabethan civilization; it is a matter of degree, and degree of separation, between the nomothetic and the idiographic. Other civilizations that tended toward the idiographic would include, by my reckoning, Viking, Polynesian, Mongol, and Turkic civilizations (I mentioned all of these in a recent newsletter as instances of semi-nomadic societies); we have already seen other examples of highly nomothetic civilizations, viz. Hellenistic and industrialized civilization.

There are certainly nomothetic features of Elizabethan England… so what are they? Let us take a passage from The Life of King Henry the Eighth as an indicator of nomothetic structures of Elizabethan civilization, when Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, says the following in regard to the infant Elizabeth:

She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.

William Shakespeare, The Life of King Henry the Eighth, Act V, Scene v, lines 31-38

To reduce this passage to the skeleton of implied properties of a successful society, we get security, including food security, peace, religious truth, and moral edification. Just below this passage, in line 48, the above is reduced to the litany, “Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror…”

“Neighbours” in the above Shakespeare passage must be taken literally to mean neighbors in one’s immediate geographical vicinity, as the passage has already drawn a clear distinction between “her own” and “her foes.” It is only among her own that the happy picture of peace and plenty obtains; while no sketch is given of the condition of her foes, we can make an imaginative extrapolation that this was a life of conflict and hardship, in some measure imposed by the benevolent Elizabeth no less than the peace and prosperity of her subjects was bestowed as a kind of royal gift upon the people of England.

Even though England at the time was a monarchy (it is still a monarchy today, but a constitutional monarchy in which the queen reigns but does not rule), it is fascinating that there is in this passage an explicit renunciation of virtue claimed by inheritance, and, presumably, also by social position or condition. The passage opens with “her own” blessing their queen, so that the people of England have offered up blessings to their queen, and she, in turn, provides the model of virtue for her subjects to adopt and practice (in other words, the moral model provided by the Elizabeth I as a pattern reproducible by her subjects). This places the queen not only as the political and military leader of England and the English people, but also the moral leader of her people. Arguably, the moral unity of Elizabethan civilization being explicitly disconnected from inheritance (i.e., blood) is a device that allows for the iteration of the model beyond any narrow biological definition of civilization.

The moral unity of a civilization, as with religious truth and moral edification in the foregoing list of properties, is certainly among the most important reproducible patterns that transforms an undifferentiated mass into a coherent whole capable of carrying out great works in the realization on a civilization’s central project, as, for example, the defense of the realm against the Spanish Armada and the consolidation of the Anglican Church as a specifically English religious institution that has ever since defined the spiritual life of England.

Wherever or whenever an exemplar is raised to prominence and presented as an example for others to follow (as with the queen and the queen’s behavior) we know we are in the presence of an explicit model intended as reproducible pattern. Since the form that European civilization took after the collapse of the western Roman Empire was that of a multiplicity of small kingdoms, each idiosyncratic to some significant degree, the ideology of kingship (and queenship) played a crucial role in the iterative elements of medieval European civilization, of which Elizabethan England was one example. It is to be noted in this context that France was always the largest of the medieval European kingdoms, and therefore that kingdom that most nearly approximated the geographical extent and population size that could result in a more nomothetic civilization, as arose in France with the Enlightenment.

The Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to George Gower (reproduced above; there are several contemporaneous copies of this image — one might even say iterations of this image), presents the monarch as an idealized archetype in conformity with the ideology of kingship. Elizabeth I is shown in regal splendor, with paintings of the defeat of the Spanish Armada behind her, and her right hand on a globe of the world, covering North America as though protecting the personal property of the crown. Any number of allegorical elements of this painting could be characterized as exemplars for her subjects not merely to reproduce, but to extrapolate to the end of an imperial destiny for the English crown. This is no small invitation to the nomothetic elaboration of the Elizabethan English model.

The European model of geographically bound kingship was a personal appeal to the people of a given kingdom at a time when literacy was rare and the primary forms of conveying an ideology were through sermons and images. In so far as the subjects of the English crown could look to Elizabeth (or, rather, to images of Elizabeth) as an exemplar, the connection between monarch and subject was personal. This personal relationship to civilization might be considered a distinctive trait of idiographic civilizations, but we should not think of civilizations of this kind as somehow deviating from an ideal model, or as constituting a lesser form of civilization, but rather as an adaptation to particular conditions. Whereas the Hellenistic model was iterated throughout the Mediterranean Basin at a time when this geographical region had already been civilized for thousands of years, and the exemplars of this civilization therefore grew in fertile social soil, the civilizations of Europe were extending their conception of civilization into a wilderness where no previous knowledge of civilization could be assumed.

With this in mind, we should not wonder at the success of the early modern European powers in colonial expansion, since the conditions of European civilization entailed a model iterable under hostile conditions.

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Saturday


The 50th anniversary of what exactly?

On 20 July 1969 the Apollo 11 mission landed two men on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another astronomical body in the solar system. I was alive for the moon landings, and remember watching them on a black and white television. It was a triumph of science and technology and human aspiration all rolled into one.

What does the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 mean? We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Lunar Voyages,” because fifty years of lunar voyages did not follow the Apollo program. Except for the handful of human beings who have been to the moon because of the Apollo program, no one else has been beyond low Earth orbit. We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Human Space Exploration Records,” because the achievement of reaching the moon was not followed by further achievements of human space exploration (except for long-duration stays on space stations — periods of time sufficient for exploration of the solar system, if only we had undertaken such missions). The human mission to the moon was not followed by a human mission to Mars and then further human missions to the farther reaches of the solar system.

I have heard it argued that there needed to be a pause in space exploration and development after Apollo, whether because the cost of the program was unsustainable (when people say this I remind them that the Apollo program didn’t tank the US economy; on the contrary, it stimulated the US economy) or because life on Earth simply had to “catch up” with the Space Age. Either we weren’t ready or (worse yet) weren’t worthy of following up on the Apollo Program with further and more ambitious programs. When I hear this I am reminded of Pascal’s following pensée:

“‘Why does God not show Himself?’ — ‘Are you worthy?’ — ‘Yes.’ — ‘You are very presumptuous, and thus unworthy.’ — ‘No.’ — ‘Then you are just unworthy.'”

This appears as no. 13 in the Penguin edition of the Pensées in the appendix, “Additional Pensées,” and attributed to Blaise Pascal, Textes inédits, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1962 (i.e., you won’t find this in most editions of the Pensées.)

Regardless of your response, you’re going to be unworthy. There is always some reason that can be found that human beings don’t deserve any better than they have. This may sound like an eccentric point to make, but I believe it to be deeply rooted in human psychology, and we neglect this aspect of human psychology at our peril.

So if I ask, “Why do we not have a spacefaring civilization today?” Someone may respond, “Is humanity worthy of a spacefaring civilization?” I answer “Yes,” and I am told, “Humanity is very presumptuous, and therefore unworthy of it.” And if I answer “No,” I am told, “Then humanity is just unworthy.” Put in this context, we see that this is not really an observation about religion, as it appears in Pascal, but an observation about human self-perception. We have, if anything, seen this attitude grow significantly since 20 July 1969, so that there is a significant contingent of persons today who openly argue that humanity should not expand into the universe, but should remain, ought to remain, confined to its homeworld, and entertain no presumptions of greater things for itself.

It is easy to see how a long history of high-handed moral condemnations of the human condition, only just below the surface even today, even in the busy midst of our technological civilization, can be mobilized to shame us into inaction. In other words, this is about original sin, expiation, atonement, sacrifice, and purification — a litany that sounds strikingly similar to what Hume called the “monkish virtues”: celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude. Is this to be our future? Do we aspire to medieval ideals in the midst of modernity? Should we aspire to medieval ideals?

It is worth noting that this spacefaring inaction represents one particular implementation of what I have called the waiting gambit: things will be better eventually, so it is better to wait until conditions improve before undertaking some action. If we act now, we act precipitously, and this will mean acting suboptimally, and perhaps it will mean our ruin. Better to wait. That is to say, better to consign ourselves to silent meditation upon our sins than to exert ourselves with bold adventures. And this reminds me of one of Pascal’s most famous pensées:

Diversion. — When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

No. 136 in the Brunschvicg edition and no. 139 in the Lafuma edition

While there are some among us who are suited for this Pascalian quietude, for most of us, we are at our best when exposing ourselves to pain and peril, engaging in what William James called the “strenuous life.” As Hegel once said, nothing great in the world is accomplished without passion, and pain and peril are the inevitable companions of passionate engagement with the world.

The most charitable thing that can be said about the past fifty years of non-achievement in spacefaring development is that it constitutes a “strategic pause” in the development of spacefaring civilization. But fifty years could easily stretch into a hundred years, and after a hundred years a strategic pause in the development of spacefaring civilization takes on a different character, and we would have to ask ourselves if a century spent waiting to be worthy was a century well spent. Could we call a century of inaction a “pause”? I don’t think so. A century has a particular historical resonance for human beings; it represents a period of historical significance, and cannot be readily dismissed or waved away.

Though I am concerned about the human future and the eventual development of a spacefaring civilization, I also have reason to hope: recent years have seen the development of reusable rocket technology — by private industry, and not by the government run space programs that participated in the Space Race — and this may become a major player in space development. Moreover, my own study of civilization has made it clear to me that civilization today, despite pervasive declensionism in the western world, is more robust than ever before, and the ongoing prospect of civilization is hopeful in and of itself, because as long as technological civilization endures, and new technologies are developed, eventually the technology for a spacefaring breakout will be available at a sufficiently low cost that a small community interested in space exploration will eventually be able to engage in this exploration, even if the greater part of humanity prefers to remain quietly on our homeworld.

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Thursday


This cartoon from 1754 is attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed on 04 July 1776, it was a manifesto to explain, defend, and justify the action of the Founders in breaking from Great Britain and founding an independent political entity. The boldness of this gambit is difficult to appreciate today. Benjamin Franklin said after signing the document, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” It was a very real possibility that the Founders would be rounded up and hanged on the gallows. They had signed their names to a treasonous document, which was published for all to read.

Any Royalist with a grudge could have taken down the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and used it as a checklist for revenge and retaliation, even if the Founders were successful. And, had the British put down the rebellion, execution would have been certain. Less than a hundred years previously, following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, the Bloody Assizes executed hundreds and transported hundreds more to the West Indies under the auspices of Judge Jeffreys, made Lord Chancellor by King James for his services to the crown in the wake of the rebellion. The spirit of the assizes had not subsided, as less fifty years later, the Bloody Assize of 1814 in Canada saw eight executed during the War of 1812 for aiding the Americans. If the revolution had failed, the bloody assizes of 1776 would have been legendary.

To rebel against what the world could only consider a “rightful sovereign” demanded that some explanation be given the world, hence the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” was a necessary diplomatic move, perhaps the first diplomatic initiative undertaken by what would become the United States of America. But at the same time that a world ruled by monarchs and autocrats, Tsars and Popes, kings and princes, emperors and aristocrats, Caliphs and satraps, would not look kindly upon the rebellion of subject peoples, the Founders could also expect that, in the Great Power competition, other powers would come forward to help the nascent nation simply in order to counter the presumed interests of Britain. The Declaration of Independence provides plausible deniability for any who came to the assistance of the rebels that the cause of the rebels was not mere lèse-majesté that other sovereigns should want to see punished.

The litany of abuses (eighteen items are explicitly noted in the Declaration; item thirteen is followed by nine sub-headings detailing “pretended legislation”) attributed to George III were intended to definitively establish the tyranny of the then-present King of England. I doubt anyone was convinced by the charges made against the British crown. If someone supported the crown or supported the colonies, they probably did so for pretty transparent motives of self-interest, and not because of any abstract belief in the divine right of kings on the one hand, or, on the other hand, any desire to engage in humanitarian intervention given the suffering the colonists experienced as a consequence of the injuries, usurpations, and oppressions of King George III.

King George III made an official statement later the same year, before the Revolutionary War had been won or lost by either side, and the crown’s North American colonies south of Canada might rightly have been said be “in play”: His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to Both Houses of Parliament on Thursday, October 31, 1776. A number of newspaper responses to the Declaration of Independence can be found in British reaction to America’s Declaration of Independence by Mary McKee. I don’t know of any point-by-point response to the grievances detailed in the Declaration of Independence, but I would be surprised if there weren’t any such from contemporary sources.

Subsequent history has not had much to say about these specific appeals to a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. The Declaration of Independence has had an ongoing influence, and might even be said to be one of the great manifestos of the Enlightenment, but the emphasis has always fallen on the ringing claims of the first few sentences. These sentences include a number of phrases that have become some of the most famous political rhetoric of western civilization. The litany of grievances, however, have not been among these famous phrases. The idea of taxation without representation occurs in the form of “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” but the more familiar form does not occur in the Declaration.

If the Declaration has intended as plausible deniability for any power that assisted the rebellious colonies, that is not the message that has been transmitted by history. The message that got through was the forceful statement of Enlightenment ideals for political society. In this, the colonies, later the United States, was eventually successful in their appeal to the opinion of mankind. Few today dispute these ideals, even if they act counter to them, whereas other statements of ideals of political society — say, The Communist Manifesto, for instance — have both their defenders and their detractors. It is no small accomplishment to have formulated ideals with this degree of currency.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Pulling Down the Statue Of King George III, New York City, Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, 1852-1853

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