Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - words, the nature of progress & the Enlightenment

in Is Enlightenment humanism a coherent world view?, Winton Bates has continued his discussion on streams in Western thought. He concludes:

Over time, it seems to me that the values espoused by Enlightenment humanism have developed the status of a coherent world view in the democracies that is often, but not always, supported by public opinion. The process seems to be one in which disparate political philosophies, often going back centuries, act as tributaries to the broad streams of thought that flow into the rivers of public opinion. Enlightenment humanism is one of those broad streams of thought. The colour of the water in the streams and the rivers changes over time, depending on relative contributions from the different tributaries.

Winton's piece is worth reading.

In comment on A note on the idea of progress, Ramana wrote:

Surely, words like civilisation and progress themselves need acceptable definitions before we can arrive at a consensus?

These two words have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them. That other parts of the world could have different ideas need to be recognised and accommodated.

Ramana's comment bears upon both Winton's discussion and my own musings around concepts like civilisation and progress. I agree with Ramana's point about the importance of definitions, I have argued this myself, although I* am not sanguine about the second point, the arrival at a consensus.

Ramana's second paragraph raises some complicated issues. At least I find them complicated!

The loose cross-blog discussion going on at present is in part about the history of certain ideas, their evolution and diffusion.

Winton's post refers to in part to the difference the British and continental especially French views linked to the Enlightenment. I have always thought of the Enlightenment with its focus on the importance of reason in advancing knowledge as being very French or, to a lesser degree German, and not always rational.

I say the last because I found the theoretical structures erected by the rational application of thought based on certain premises both opaque and increasingly divergent from reality. The great secular religions of socialism and communism can be traced back to European thought associated with the Enlightenment.  

The English and, to a lesser extent, British tradition was different. The industrial and agrarian revolutions that formed the base of the current global economy began in Britain. The loss of the American colonies, the Napoleonic Wars, the demands of managing a global mercantile Empire acquired almost by accident, all tempered English thought. The practical rather than theoretical was in demand.

Earlier I said the difference between the British and continental view. I used the word British rather than English because of the importance of the Scottish contribution. There is a remarkable but little known story here that skepticlawyer (Helen Dale) has traced through in some of her posts.

I first visited Edinburgh straight after Paris and was struck by it's French feel. The "auld alliance"  between Scotland and France exercises influence to this day. In her writing, Helen traced the way in which concepts from Rome and more broadly Europe influenced Scottish thought. The Scottish Enlightenment was one result. Wikipedia describes it in this way. 

Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason. They held to an optimistic belief in the ability of humanity to effect changes for the better in society and nature, guided only by reason. It was this latter feature which gave the Scottish Enlightenment its special flavour, distinguishing it from its continental European counterpart. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement, virtue and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole.

Scotland's population was relatively small, but it was highly educated by then standards, with an estimated 75% of the population literate by 1750. Local opportunities were small, so the Scots were forced to seek opportunities elsewhere. The result was a pragmatic, outward looking, approach. It is no coincidence that Adam Smith was a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

I said that the loose cross-blog discussion going on at present is in part about the history of certain ideas, their evolution and diffusion. Inevitably, that discussion extends to the impact of those ideas. Adam Smith is an example, for non-one could deny his continuing influence even among those who have not read a word written by him! However, the discussion extends further into the continuing validity of the ideas in question. Here I want to reintroduce Ramana's point.

Ramana noted that these two words- progress and civilisation - have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them. He also said that other parts of the world could have different ideas that need to be recognised and accommodated.

The ideas of civilisation and progress are deeply embedded in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. They do have a particular impact today because they manifest themselves in the activities of Governments. The constitution of, and approach adopted by, the US is still linked to its Enlightenment foundation.

You can see this if you watch West Wing, a show my family is addicted too. The Democratic Party President and especially staffers express Enlightenment views. But then, so do their opponents, for the Enlightenment was  actually a broad church. Both sides display another Enlightenment position, a certainty that their position is right!

I don't actually know to what extent ideas such as progress and civilisation manifest manifest themselves in different cultures. When Ramana says that they have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them, I can understand the political context. I am just not sure what the alternative is.

I suppose, and this is a bit of a challenge to Ramana, I need to understand the concepts embedded in alternative views. My feeling is, and I stand to be corrected, that it's actually the way of application rather than the concepts that are the problem. 


Winton Bates said...

I think Ramana makes a good point about definitions. I just had a look at the Wikipedia definition of civilization and decided that doesn't have a lot to do with the concept of civilization I have been using in recent posts. It seems to me that the civilizing process is about widespread adoption of an attitude that violence is unacceptable, accompanied by a reduction in violence within societies.

It seems to me that that view of the civilizing process should have appeal all over the world. The societies in which rates of internal violence have fallen over the last couple of centuries are certainly not all in the West and the process doesn't have much, if anything, to do with the 'westernization' of culture.

Legal Eagle said...

This reminded me a little of Pinker's book on the decline of violence - basically he sees the civilizing process as precisely what Winton has outlined.

In order for the civilizing process to operate, Pinker theorises that a number of things are necessary:
1. A move away from a tribal society and towards a society with a centralized mechanism of control.
2. Democratic processes (because democratically elected leaders are less likely to be able to unilaterally declare war).
3. Commerce (because then it's not in your interests to kill your neighbour because he's a potential customer).
4. Some kind of notion of human rights - if you believe that *everyone* (regardless of creed, colour etc) has a right to be respected and treated fairly, then you are less likely to be violent.

He has some really interesting observations about the importance of manners. Apparently in medieval times Europeans were absolute pigs (I'd already had some notion of this when I studied Crusades history and read a Saracen account of the Franks). A medieval book of manners had to outline to people that they were not allowed to urinate in the corridor, that they were not allowed to blow their nose on the tablecloth, etc. Part of the civilizing process is realising that we have to be considerate of the interests of others, and not just blow our noses on the tablecloth.

Jim Belshaw said...

The wikipedia article is interesting, Winton, and does support Ramana's point. We actually have multiple definitions. I tend to use the word in the same way as you as distinct from, say Roman or Chinese civilisation. I should say something about definitions at some point just to further clarify my own views.

LE's comment on the importance of manners is also interesting.To my mind, manners provide the oil that keeps any society operating.On Pinker himself, LE had a more detailed discussion in the Hunger Games -

Evan said...

When people blew their nose on the tablecloth most people didn't mind. Thr reform of manners had other motivations.

Civilisation as description means development of our perception and symbolic life or something like that I guess. As a should for me it represents support for individual whole ness and decline of violence.

Even the secular appeals to past authority. Progress seems to inhabit the materialist side of the West. The cultural and religious sides can still have reverence for precedent (as can the law strangely).

One aspect of the West is its self critique as being philistine compared to the East or tribal cultures and so on. This goes as far back as the Greeks looking to Egypt.

Winton Bates said...

LE: I am currently reading Pinker's book. I particularly liked his chapter on the civilizing process.

Evan: You wrote: 'Progress seems to inhabit the materialist side of the West'. I accept the point that there has been over-emphasis on growth in GDP as a measure of progress. However, it seems to me that there is widespread support in the West (and elsewhere in the world) for further progress towards more peaceful societies, offering more widespread opportunities for individual flourishing and greater security against misfortune.

Legal Eagle said...

Evan, well I would darn well mind if someone blew their nose on my tablecloth!

Personally I distinguish between manners which are about respect and manners which are just a matter of form. More extended post here:

Evan said...

Hi Winton, the Futurists were quite future oriented and quite open to violence. Longing for and valuing peace ca be due to a reverence for a superior previous age.

I am not questioning the value of peace, just suggesting that it is not the same as progress. Unless your view is that any meaningful progress is in the direction of a more just world and thriving individuals - which I'd find it hard to disagree with.

There is a blog Quodlibeta which had a strong critique of Pinker on it a few weeks ago.

Winton Bates said...

Evan: That is my view of progress. I argue that if social progress means anything it must mean movement to a better society i.e. more peaceful, more opportunity, more security.

I accept that Pinker's account of violence in the past has overlooked examples of communities in which people lived peaceful and happy lives. He probably went looking for examples of violence in the Bible. But he certainly found plenty of it - often being presented as justice.

Evan said...

Yes Winton, lots of violence in previous ages. Our recent centuries seem to have managed to increase domestic peace. Internation I'm not so sure about - or how to make comparisons (coming up with stats for previous generations is difficult). And then there is the problem of raw numbers vs percentates.

But with the purges of Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, the bombings of civilians during WW2 and so on; we are have a long way to go before we can call ourselves civilised I think.

Rummuser said...

Okay, let me throw my hat in the ring with some provocative comments from the other side of the fence as it were.

Multiculturalism is currently the fad, or at least pretends to be and one word that is used indiscriminately is "tolerance". Particularly, tolerance to other cultures and religions.

To me, this implies arrogance. I would rather that the word was replaced by "respect". Now this is likely to be treated with a howl of protest because, then it would accept that the other culture/religion is not inferior to my own, but this is not, I repeat not an acceptable proposition in the Judeo Christian culture/civilisation, particularly in the context of modern obsession with democracy, progress and women's rights.

While I certainly would not blow my nose on the table cloth, and am quite capable of using a fork and knife, I would prefer to eat my tandoori chicken with my hands, but I would respect someone else wanting to eat it with a fork and knife, though I would find it extremely comic.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting comment on "tolerance", Ramana. I would agree that there is a degree of arrogance, of blindness, in attempts to impose certain values. However, I would also argue that this is not unique to any single culture.

Your comment is interesting, too, because you say "culture/religion" and then a little later "Judeo Christian culture/civilisation." I don't equate religion and culture, although each religion has a culture or often cultures, while religion may be an integral element of particular cultures.

While I had heard the term "Judeo Christian", I had to look it up because I didn't actually know what it meant. In its current meaning, it appears to be a recent invention coming out of the US. I don't think that it can be applied in the broad way that you are using it because it distorts history.

There is an interesting side issue here in the influence of the US on what we might call the modern expression of western civilisation, using that word to describe a particular civilisation as compared to the broader use that began this discussion.

Ramana Rajgopaul said...

There is yet another issue that I have not touched on here, but here it is to expand on my thinking on this. And that issue is the confusing of being modern with being western. Before proceeding further let me also clarify that I am what is known as a WOG - Westernised Oriental Gentleman, before it became derogatory.

Let us go back to John Stewart Mill; “The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power.”

This says more eloquently what I am trying to convey, that the powerful, read the wealthy, nations have made themselves accepted as the majority and appear to be thrusting their value systems and social norms on the rest of the world.

He further states: “Reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

The latter is the perception that is popular among the have nots as it were and allowance for such distrust and feeling of helplessness must be provided when we suggest progress, democracy, modernisation etc without addressing the core problems of convenient dictatorships and commercial interests.

Coming to Winton's comment on peaceful societies, one could ask where the arms industry, which one presumes to be a major influencing factor in Western politics, will go, if there is peace everywhere? This is another part of a global problem that has not been receiving the attention that it deserves. All insurgencies are armed. How do they get those arms if a determined effort is made by the Western governments to stop such outflow? How do drug money flows influence policy, say like in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the South Americas?

One of the good definitions that I have for maturity is to live with courage tempered with concern. Sadly, the so called mature nations do not seem to show concern!

I am afraid that we have a lot to undo before we can consider utopian lives for all on earth.

Legal Eagle said...

Ramana, I've got a funny story about eating with my hands. So, since I was 11 years old, I've had a close friend of Indian heritage. One time I ate dinner at her house, and her family showed me how to eat with one hand.

The next time I had curry at my own house (I must have been about 12 or 13 at the time) I ate with my right hand. My mum screamed, "What do you think that you're doing?!" I said, "I'm eating in the Indian way!" She said, "What nonsense, stop it right now!" Of course, she now knows that I was right, and it was the real Indian way to eat, but she thought I was making it up.

When I'm with someone from a different culture I try to work out what manners demand in that culture: eg, Japanese people think slurping noodles is polite, Indian people eat food with their right hand (but NOT the left!), some South East Asian cultures take off the shoes and never touch people on the head. This is all about respect. I prefer respect to tolerance too, Ramana, for what it's worth. I see something like how one eats as a matter of form (so it doesn't particularly matter how you actually eat, as long as you respect others).

Legal Eagle said...

P.S. I don't think utopian lives are possible, and in fact I think they're downright dangerous. All we can have is a life which attempts to minimise the harm to others, and to respect others, and if we can manage that then we're doing okay.

Anonymous said...

Ramana I find nothing in what you've said with which I could disagree. I very much agree with your preference for 'respect' as opposed to 'tolerance'.

I think you possibly only need to recognise (I did not say accept) that whenever one is using such a vague term as 'civilisation' it is probably natural that both the speaker and the listener bring to the conversation their own misconceptions, their past history, and their willingness to 'think past' any preconceptions.

On a much smaller scale than your own populous, successful, and vived culture being lectured about 'civilisation', we here in Australia continue to grapple with just how to 'fit in' our indigenous population with the majority's idea of what society should look like.

We haven't quite figured that out yet. Maybe we should, before thinking on wider issues?

Said with respect.


Evan said...

I'm finding this conversation very interesting.

I do take Ramana's point about modern being equated with Western - and so this being the notion of progress that is often smuggled in to the term.

I'm for utopia. I don't see any technical impediments to its establishment. We can easily provide enough food, shelter, health and very good education for all people.

This would involve the Western nations giving up some aspects of their lifestyle (and the developing nations not mimicking these aspects). However, the aspects that need giving up aren't terribly desirable.

There is a downshifting phenomenon in the West - not widely reported - so people are voluntarily giving up these aspects of their lifestyle anyway.

Anonymous said...

Evan, well I certainly agree that a reliable supply of potable water for all people would be good. Is this what you mean by 'utopia'?

It's a big task you're setting.


Evan said...

That would certainly be a good step on the way.

Most of these things aren't high tech.

Water can filtered using pottery and earth and gravel and so on.

It would of course take great change. But mostly in political will, we have the technology.

I think what will help is if people can see their actions making a difference. Thus child sponsorship is popular. Helena Norberg-Hodge was doing exchange visits with Ladakh. I think it helps enormously for people to have personal contact.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting quotes from Mill, Ramana. The regional political tradition that I come from called this the oppression of the majority. Same point.

In a number of past posts on this blog, I have tried to attack the complacency held by some in this country and elsewhere about the automatic and self-evident rightness of their views. I may actually agree with those views, but you have to recognise that others don't.

Those in power in any place anywhere tend to believe that their position is right and must be enforced. Because of my background, I have spent a fair bit of time arguing in an Australian context against this divine certainty.

I don't think that those in western countries who seek to democratise the world sufficiently recognise the logical result, the likely defeat of their own position.

Don't get me wrong, I support democracy as the best worst position, but unless we recognise and discuss the need to accommodate a variety of views, we may end in a Millian world.

Jim Belshaw said...

Evan, like LE I am not a great believer in utopia. Among other things, I read too many science fiction novels as a kid!

But I would agree with you that there are many things that could be done to improve at least certain aspects of the human condition.

Now here I want to pick up another element in Ramana's comment, the question of concern. I do not accept that the western nations have not shown concern. To my mind, one of the remarkable things about the first decades after the ending of the Second World War was just that, concern. Even though the Cold War twisted and distorted, even though pragmatism was there, there was something remarkably altruistic about many of the actions of individuals and Governments.

I should pick this up sometime and try to explain it properly. As a primary school kid, we gathered in Assembly to listen to speakers talking about world development. We created penny chains to raise money for aid programs. My own family was directly involved through agencies like the FAO in trying to address global poverty.

I would argue that that concern has declined, but it certainly existed.

Rummuser said...

Jim, I whole heartedly agree that there was concern and would go further and say that it still exists. Unfortunately, the concern is at the individual level and when it is institutionalised, it is a sham that transfers wealth to the ruling classes of the developing world, with possible cuts all along the line from the donor countries built in.

We are still not teaching people to fish and just giving the bosses plenty of fish.

Conern from the grass-root level of the donor countries, if could be translated into affirmative action through direct grass-root level initiatives at the recipient end, can work wonders and I can give stories from my personal experience in such initiatives.

Jim Belshaw said...

We talked about this one before in a different context. I agree that what you describe can and does happen, although I can also think of positive examples such as the Australian school program in Indonesia.

I absolutely agree with you re grass roots.